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September 2019

Feature Article

Development of High-speed Rail in the United States

by Shuntaro Okimoto

Since coming to Washington, D.C. last summer, I have been investigating various subjects in the transportation sector. In Japan, in recent years a hot topic is the development of high-speed rail in the United States.

Currently, the only high-speed rail in the United States that is universally acknowledged is the Acela Express. Those who advocate for high speed railway development in the United States voice that by having this advancement, people will gain more transportation choices and will be able to live more conveniently.

In Japan, high-speed railways are set up around the country, and the network continues to expand to this day. If you have been to Japan and have been on the Japanese bullet train, Shinkansen, you know that you can travel far, fast and comfortably. From Tokyo, it takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes to Sendai (4 hours and a half by car), about 1 hour and 40 minutes to Nagoya (4 hours and a half by car), about 2 hours and 20 minutes to Osaka (6 hours by car), and about 4 hours for Hiroshima (10 hours by car) or Hakodate in Hokkaido (about 18 hours by car). Because it is a very convenient transportation system, Japanese people (especially those who live in Tokyo, the center of the network) use the Shinkansen for business and family trips. Furthermore, because of their experience and knowledge of its usefulness, many Japanese want to recommend high speed rail to foreign countries, and especially to the US, which they feel a familiarity with. They are also ready to offer their technical skills.

Therefore, there are both people in the United States who wish for the development of high speed rail, and those in Japan who are prepared to offer their expertise to make this happen. This then begs the question, “Why is there no progress for the developments of high-speed rail in the US?”

Various hypotheses have been proposed as to why. Some of these include: Japanese people like railroads, but that most Americans don't as much, preferring cars and airplanes; it costs too much money for construction in the US; and that the US and Japan are too different in terms of country size, population density, and population concentration in cities to make high speed rail construction possible. In order to find the answer to this conundrum, I compared various data of both countries, such as preferences in modes of transportation, population, history, geography, and the government’s financial situation.

An Acela Express high-speed train

( Amtrak Acela Express power car no. 2000, Boston South Station, MA by Michael Day   is licensed under  CC BY-NC 2.0 )

My answer to the question at the moment is that the lack of development is due to the fact that construction of high-speed rail is occurring after those of other traffic modes. In the United States, other modes of transportation developed significantly beforehand, as represented by the introduction of jet aircraft starting in the 1950s and the completion of about 65,000 km of highway in 1991 with a construction period of 35 years. For that reason, railways have been excluded from discussions for how to build comprehensive traffic modes or how to make them more convenient. The development of high-speed rail in the United States has only been considered as a means to recover the declined intercity passenger rail system. The situation is very different from Japan's high-speed railway, which has been developed to compete with highway construction.

Of the specific issues deterring the development of high-speed rail in US, the biggest obstacle is finance. In particular, two major risks that occur with railway construction projects are increases in construction costs and the procurement of fare revenue. These problems are universal, and in addition the public often shares in some of the risk as well. Thus, a history of creating and maintaining rail after other modes of transportation is completed is an obstacle itself. How does one attain support for a high-speed railway when construction of said railway is continually postponed? I think that is very difficult.

We cannot change the past. However, does this mean that high-speed rail development in the United States will remain a dream? I do not think so. I’ve observed that people in this country, whether consciously or subconsciously, like for travel to be convenient and comfortable. There are many services here that are not available or are not as prevalent in Japan that prove my point. For example, since coming to the United States, I've been addicted to ride-sharing services. I’ve also wanted to try riding the electric scooters in Washington, D.C. which are popular too. The Washington, D.C. subway SmarTrip Card is simple and easy to use. The buses here may be cleaner and more comfortable than Japan. The airport has many signs and is spacious. The highway has many lanes and it is easier to drive on them. I think high-speed rail will be definitely appreciated by people in this country who prefer comfortable travel. As people in the United States become more aware of high-speed railways, the solution to the difficult problem of gaining support mentioned above will be attained.

I presented my research in Tokyo this summer, and introduced high-speed rail projects in the United States to a Japanese audience. It seemed interesting to them that the projects were being promoted in California, Florida, Texas, etc., despite difficulties. From the audience, I received the following comments. “It is the same as in Japan that high-speed rail projects include working with other modes of transportation and developing surrounding areas.” “ The disclosure of information, such as cost estimates related to the project, is more advanced than in Japan.” “I realized that Japan can also learn more by knowing about high-speed rail projects developing in the United States.”

I want to continue to challenge myself to connect the consciousnesses of the people in both our countries through research activities.

Pictured here is the Shinkansen in Japan, which has transported over 5 billion passengers

( Tokyo 4338  by tokyoform  is licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

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