The search is on for big public projects that combine immediate macro-economic benefits (jobs, boosting spending) with long-term public returns. Fast rail links offer one benefit.
France did it already decades ago, and few foreign observers do not come away unimpressed. These trains are fast, comfortable and compete with air travel and cars. In fact, on middle distances (around 500 km), one could argue they hold a competitive advantage over both.
Rail travel has been neglected in the US, were car and air plane reign supreme, but this could very well change. There is presently a plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with a high-speed rail link that could cut yourney times to two hours and 38 minutes. At present, it’s a six-hour road trip, and over existing rail it takes all day.
The top speed of this train will be 220 miles an hour, that’s quite impressive, and on a par with the fastest trains in Europe (France, Spain). In Japan, even faster trains are already on the drawing board (as are in Germany), they make use of a new technology that lifts the train by a magnetic field as to reduce resistance.
These so called Maglev trains literally float on their (mono)rails. It’s a technology that is already in use in China, connecting Shanghai’s airport with the city.
In Japan, the most serious candidate for the Maglev train is the Tokyo-Nagoya traject, not withstanding the fact that these cities are already linked by high-speed rail. But the new Maglev will cut the one hour and 40 minutes travel time to under an hour.
It is noteworthy that finance will be all private, and perhaps even more noteworthy that the time gain is not the main motive to build the Maglev traject, it is the fact that the existing high-speed train is used to capacity. Every five minutes (!) a train with 1600 people start it’s journey, indicating that customer demand for these services might be less of a problem that many people fear.
However, there is something in the argument that by the time the whole of the US would be linked via high-speed rail, car technology would have been progressed so much as to make cars impact on the environment on a par with trains.
However, it’s difficult to read a newspaper while driving and it’s hard to imagine cars going at 220 miles an hour, let alone the higher speeds that the Japanese Maglev trains will be travelling on. Congestion is another serious problem with car use, but it point out why trains are better suited to the more densely populated Japan (and Western Europe), compared to the US, were space is less in short supply.
Distances are also much larger in the US, however, clean plains are still nowhere in sight..