Are You High On Speed…Rail?

February 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm 32 comments

 Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search, Inc
Managing Partner,

View Matt’s profile & connect with him on LinkedIn

It’s been quite some time since I have touched on this subject, so at the risk of “beating a dead horse,” here I go again!

Have you ever known anyone who has traveled via high-speed rail?  Have you actually experienced High Speed Rail yourself?  At the very least you have recently read about it or heard about it on the news.  I have never personally experienced it myself, but I’ve read enough about it  and viewed enough videos to know that I am very excited about what the future holds.  I have also spoken to folks who have actually traveled on High Speed Rail and the reviews were glowing!

Imagine blowing up a balloon; you’ve populated the balloon with enough air that is appears to be at full capacity, but maybe you want it a little bit bigger, so you put two more breaths into it.  It’s good.  It hasn’t popped, so you put two more breaths in.  It’s now stretched pretty thin, but maybe the kids are chanting, “Bigger! Bigger! Bigger!”   You push your luck one more time and in the middle of your next breath….POP!  As I write, our highways and airspace are pretty much maxed out when it comes to capacity, and as our population grows and our economy inches its way back into growth mode the constraints will be even heavier.  In fact,  on Monday CNN reported the following from the FAA:

Air travel in the United States is expected to more than double in the next 20 years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual forecast released on Tuesday.

It also predicts U.S. airlines will carry 1 billion passengers a year by 2021, a milestone that will come two years earlier than previously thought. (To put that number into perspective, about 712 million passengers flew on domestic carriers in 2010.)


If we fail to truly embrace High Speed Rail our infrastructure will share the same results as the balloon.

Last week Joe Biden announced a comprehensive plan that would allow for 80% of our hard-working population to have access to High Speed Rail by 2035 and has committed to $53 billion over six years.   Check out what the US High Speed Rail Association’s vision of what a national High Speed Rail system would look like:

The build out of High Speed Rail lines is a lengthy process; the environmental planning and reports, the public meetings, more reports, more meetings,  and one of the most, if not THE most sophisticated engineering and construction processes in the world requires much patience.  Of course the longer the discussion gets hung up in DC the even longer this will take.  As the United States continues to talk about High Speed Rail, the other countries on our globe continue to stay one step ahead of us.  I personally am not concerned about competing with other countries because at the end of the day I think the US rocks!    But all this talk over the years surrounding High Speed Rail, and the limited action is getting old – the advantages of High Speed Rail, as you and I both know, are enormous:

*Job creation

*Increased opportunities for employment due to easy access between cities

*A reduction in carbon emissions

*A national HSR system could reduce oil consumption by 125 bbl / year (according to Environment America)

*Reduce the stress already on existing, over-capacity infrastructure

*Ability to text message and check Facebook on phone without having to lookup for oncoming traffic 🙂

Look, the list goes on and on as to the advantages, no doubt.  A couple of years ago I wondered if people would really be able to give up their connections to their cars  on a daily basis.  The convenience they provide; the status they may show, etc.  But I think with all the studies that have been compiled, and the horrible recession that we have recently passed through, that particular mentality has passed its prime.   The development of true High Speed Rail has begun in FL and CA and significant investments have already been made in those regions.  May the rest of our country follow in their footsteps…let’s get this show on the road, or  shall I say, on the rail!

So, are you high on speed…rail?  I know I am and I would love to hear your thoughts – especially from anyone who may be against this type of innovation in our country…

Thanks for reading!

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Entry filed under: Civil Engineering, civil engineering blog, Civil Engineering Issues, Energy, Environmental Issues, Failing US Infrastructure, High Speed Rail, Politics and the Environmenta, The U.S. Economy & Civil Engineering, Transit, Uncategorized, US Infrastructure. Tags: , , .

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32 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sasha Harpe  |  April 5, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    A couple of comments/questions,
    1) How dependent is the success of high speed rail on the local mass transit systems at the train stops, this might be a bit of a chicken and egg conversation and I tend to believe that HSR is actually part of a truly successful mass transit system.

    2) I think the discussion as to why the private sector hasn’t taken a lead in this sector is a little mislead for a number of reasons. First this is a classic public good, with a social benefit beyond what could be recouped by ticket sales. Second the start up capital required to establish high speed railways in a populated region is enormous, and the benefits would only occur in the long run, the vast majority of businesses are simply not equipped to undertake this type of upfront capital investment. Third, once established, railways lend themselves to monopolistic behavior, their is only one set of tracks, so even if a company was able to overcome the upfront capital costs, we probably wouldn’t want them to operate it anyhow. And finally there is a significant group of companies who are heavily invested in other transportation modes and who have an interest in protecting their positions in the transportation industry which would be threatened by the establishment of HSR.

    3) Despite the above comments I think there is a strong case to be made for HSR, I think beyond any cost comparison we should realize that the economics of every other system is based on the public subsidization they have received through the public construction of roads and ports. If this subsidy were fully accounted for, I would argue the benefits of HSR would be significantly greater than what they are currently seen as being.

  • 2. Yvonne DeBellotte  |  April 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Honestly all the viewpoints here have merit. I would have love to have high speed available when I was zipping between Brandon, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater by car a couple months ago. I spent more money on gas in Florida than the travel to and from Tampa to Atlanta. We really have to do better quickly even if we rely on social media and skype to wave hi!

  • 3. Josie Summa  |  April 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Jean – As a former resident of Tampa: Amen! Amen! Amen!

    And, will you marry me?

    Oh, wait, I am already married.

  • 4. Jean  |  April 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    I live outside of Tampa, FL and High Speed Rail would have been a huge benefit for our economy and welcome relief from our daily gridlock. Have any of you ever been stuck in the massive gridlock along I-4 around Orlando and Tampa as well as the gridlock surrounding Miami? The first leg of High Speed Rail would have connected Orlando to Tampa and the next leg would have connected Miami to Orlando.
    We have tourists from all over the world who fly to Orlando daily to visit Disney World, Universal Studios and various other local attractions. Some of these tourists come from countries with High Speed Rail systems in place as well as other forms of mass transportation. With High Speed Rail, they can easily commute between two major cities and two international airports without having to rent a car. Light rail systems would have been built to connect High Speed Rail to connect various stops.
    Not only would High Speed Rail be a boom for tourism, it would be a massive boom for job growth in our area. As of February 2011, unemployment in Orange County (Orlando) was 10.7% and in Hillsborough County (Tampa) was 11.1%. Those figures do not include people who have dropped off the rolls like me. Those figures jump up to around 20% when you include the underemployed and people who have dropped off the rolls. I am a mid-level civil engineer who competes with hundreds of other civil engineers for what few jobs openings exist in this area. High Speed Rail would have provided over 23,600 direct jobs such as construction and design 26,300 indirect jobs such as suppliers. I, along with the other unemployed engineers in this area, would have benefited from high speed rail.
    I, too, have ridden High Speed Rail in Japan and thought it was amazing. It takes at least half the time to travel long distances. Our current Amtrak rail takes the same amount of time as driving a car. I have also ridden Amtrak and rate High Speed Rail over Amtrak anytime.
    BTW, our Orlando-Tampa High Speed Rail project was ‘shovel ready’. Florida was much further along in planning than any other state. The rail would have placed along current Amtrak rail and the I-4 corridor. There would have been no additional land purchases and the environmental surveys had all been performed. The two legs of High Speed Rail in Florida would have been completed by 2015. Unfortunately our new governor nixed the project to appeal to his financial supporters.
    High Speed Rail would have provided an effective system for commuters especially as the cost of crude oil increases. And let’s be realistic, fuel prices will never go down. We have reached peak oil long ago and all the ‘easy’ oil reserves have been tapped. No matter how much we continue to drill, the costs of drilling continue to rise. And for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast, we do not like oil spills especially massive ones.
    As an engineer, I am a bit appalled at short-sighted viewpoints. As in any major construction project, there’s always a huge investment of money that does not necessarily end with financial rewards but with a huge benefit to our standard of living. If we worry about costs, we would not have built our interstate system nor funded NASA. High Speed Rail is an investment in the future. That being said, why is our country continually lagging behind the world as far as mass transportation goes? Our love of cars is killing us…

  • 5. Yvonne DeBellotte  |  April 3, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    An optimistic undertaking (high speed rail) if the funds are there to do it. As an advocate of mass transit and a former rider of high speed lines, I find that no matter what it will only help a minority of those who could really benefit. Not all staions will be where a large majority of any population live and work.

    But maybe as cities are converting some of their empty real estate to multi live-work use communities maybe we can see alleviation in the congested highways that we currently experience.

  • 6. Robert Gately  |  March 7, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Ti, “When gas hits $5 a gallon, maybe the adminstration will start supporting drilling in the US instead of status quo.”

    BHO said that with his cap and trade strategy electric rates would necessarily skyrocket. Higher energy costs seem to be a goal not a trip wire for drilling.

  • 7. Ti  |  March 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Why isn’t the private market jumping on this? No money to be made is the short answer, only money to be lost.

    When gas hits $5 a gallon, maybe the adminstration will start supporting drilling in the US instead of status quo.

  • 8. Manuel Morales  |  March 2, 2011 at 2:38 am

    Wait until gas prices hit $5 a gallon. Then all of a sudden every state will be begging for high speed rail funds.

  • 9. Dave Nord  |  February 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Mr. Gates,

    I am a firm believer in investing in infrastructure as a form of economic recovery and as a currently out of work Transportation Engineer I would love to have work. Although, I think the question should be WHAT projects do the most good for our money. That is not to say that I wouldn’t love working on a HSR project (especially if someone is willing to hire me for one), or that this is the “wrong” direction to go in, but that we should think of the grater good, and bang for the buck. From where I was standing (and maybe it was just my little part of the US) a lot of the stimulus money, that went to transportation, was spent on pavement overlays. If you are not familiar with that process, it costs a lot of money, but really doesn’t put too many people back to work. To me it is the same as people buying eyeglasses just because their flex spending account will be lost if they don’t.

  • 10. Robert Gately  |  February 24, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    As professional engineers shouldn’t we be more concerned with making work for ourselves than who and how the work will be paid?

  • 11. yashaswi kotagiri  |  February 24, 2011 at 2:08 am

    I have nothing against HSR but I strongly feel the timing of this venture is absolutely out of context. My major concern is where are the funds for such an ambitious project going to come in these economic times. Take the case of California, it’s bond rating has depreciated from AAA to A- with about $36B deficit already this year. The United States is running a debt to GDP ratio of 84% already. This is a highly risky use of tax payers money because very few systems in the world have proven to be profitable. I strongly believe the existing public transit infrastructure needs more funding. Here is a link I thought would support my argument.

  • 12. Tim  |  February 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Truly appreciate your response and the time you took going through most of my points.

    I’m still left with three thoughts that appose the HSR; our inept government, lack of infrastructure at origins and destinations & the growing E-conference services.

    1st What has our government accomplished that is efficient, well managed, and not a drain on our society? Outside of protection and safety, nothing.
    2nd Very few cities cater to foot traffic like the major players. A city like Cincinnati has a large downtown base, but an even larger and faster growing suburb base of business. The idea that Downtown of many cities is the hub of business is a joke. Catering to all of the surrounding businesses is the challenge. Many sales guys that swing through my office have a next stop 30 miles away because average cities have been based on cars, parking lots, and the only reason for public transportation is for those with DUIs or low income.
    3rd Every day we are going on fewer face to face businesses meetings due to the enhanced abilities of web conferencing. Will the social norm change eventually to not requiring a hand shake, just a wave to one another on Skype?

  • 13. Tim  |  February 18, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Why does it have to be the typical HSR we all know? I would prefer to drive my car onto a train much like how a boat takes us across water. That way you can maintain the comforts of your car at origin and destination. As long as the fare would be equal or less than the price of gas for your travels the speed becomes less of an issue. Also, our liberal government would never let the HSR hit the speeds we see in Japan because of some idiotic EPA rule that would pop up for no logical reason. Let’s utilize what we have and start thinking out of the box rather than trying to stay in the box. Talk to a train engineer, only reason our trains aren’t going 90mph on average is because the government stepped in and thought it would be better for the community if they didn’t.

    Finally – have you paid for an Amtrak ticket? Air fair is much cheaper and faster. Nothing worse than multiple stops on a train, subsidized by the government with unionized work force, with no real demand from the public, and worst of all its technology and intuition that we didn’t develop.

    • 14. Luke  |  February 22, 2011 at 3:45 am

      The solution you described when you drive your car onto a train is already in use since many years in Euro Tunnel between Calis and Dover (France – England). And honestly – it takes forever to get on the train and get of the train, but still this is the safest solution to be used in sub-sea tunnel.

      Airfare is cheap in US because kerosene is still cheap. Just wait until oil will go up to let’s say 200$ per barrel (probably sooner than later). Generating power form alternative sources – like solar will make rail much more cost effective.
      In other countries who use HSR – it is much cheaper to take comfortable train than to buy a ticket, or at least everywhere where I used HSR.

      Also for the environmental reasons HSR should be promoted – it runs on electricity (can be generated from solar, wind etc), and is quiet ( surprisingly) – much more quiet than Amtrack trains. (Amtrack trains I have seen were diesel powered and not very aerodynamic)

      The only thing that can hold US back from HSR is the cost. Only the best managed countries can afford it these days: China, Japan, Germany, France (there is couple other players like Italy). Unfortunately others are left in dust. Of course you can think that business should take care of it, but wouldn’t you rather invest your money in gold and silver ?

  • 15. Sachin Oak  |  February 18, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Great discussion going on here…I might be an outsider, being from India, but have stayed in US for 4 years till 2007. One issue I wish to bring up is the “global warming” one. Fuel price is an ever increasing value and car travel one of the causes for pollution all over the world. The habit of one person, one car has brought us in a phase where we would not be sparing much fuel for our future generations. They will be left with just black smoke and hot weather.

    HSR will be a electricity powered (hopefully) mode of transport and the electricity will be coming more and more from renewable sources in the near future. It will be much cheaper than airfare and much more relaxing as well. As Matt has asked, I am a regular traveller of railways in India, though not high speed. But believe me, I prefer it more than a flight because you get to sleep comfortably for long journeys, unlike in flights where only business class people get the privilege. And that too at a much cheaper rate. Plus it has less of security and all that hassle. I do agree that it cannot be a good option if you want to travel from east coast to the west, but for someone who wants to travel from Saint Louis to Chicago, I feel HSR is the best option. It will take approx the same time but half the cost (I am sure).

    So, I personally feel the benefits outweigh, maybe not for an individual but surely for the country as a whole.

    • 16. Alvin Sarmiento  |  February 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. The US as a whole rely too heavily on personal vehicles. I live in California and the HSR concepts seems to take forever. There are some opposition that causes more delay in getting a final design. Hopefully California will do the right thing move the HSR concept into reality. We are a state that brings innovation and starters of many inventions. Hopefully we can continue the trend with HSR.

  • 17. Luke  |  February 17, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Hi All,

    I have just read the article and I have decided to share some thoughts with you guys.
    I’m currently living in Shanghai and I use HSR quite frequently. For the travels below 500km it is WAY faster than flying. You have to be on the station 15 prior departure, all your baggage is “carry on”, 500km takes sub 2hrs and typically you end up much closer to the city center. Moreover alt least here in China but also in Japan – trains are ALWAYS on time – so you don’t wait on the airport when the weather is bad. Also I have never seen train to be canceled. The amount of money and time I have saved makes me love HSR.
    Another thing is the experience of being on the train when it cuts the air @ 350km/h. And if you’re a fan of really high speed you can try Shanghai Maglev – 431km/h – every 15 minutes 😉

  • 18. Dave Nord  |  February 17, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    That is not to say that “improvements” that have been made weren’t for public usage.

    I will have to tell my wife that I’m one of those “…transportation geeks.” 🙂

    As for my 2 cents as a “…transportation geek” my issue with HSR is the possible projects that could be missing out on these funds. That is not to say that I am against HSR [especially if someone in the HSR industry wants to give me a job. 😉 ], but that other transportation trips could benefit from those same funds.

  • 19. Josie Summa  |  February 17, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I hope I am not speaking out of turn here, but is population density the chicken or the egg?

    The interstate highway system was justified without any need for population density or benchmarks on automobile ridership/ownership. It was an investment in the future. I am glad the-powers-that-be were so forward thinking!

    Rail corridors attract development, and once travel habits are changed, demand for living and working in space around those corridors grows. This spurs a lot of economic activity, in a denser pattern of an apple, not orange variety (Apple – dense, mixed use, Orange – big-box commercial development + subdivisions). Suddenly, even suburban development is radiating around the train stop! Then, more riders, right?

    Does anyone really expect opening day numbers to be peak capacity? Is that what they expected when they built the highway system? And when it comes to comparing NE Corridor to TGV-SNCF ridership, are those numbers corrected for number of trips/seats/stops? This is a sincere question. Does anyone know?

    As for my home state of FL, we’ve been kicking this can for far too long. I still remember Jeb Bush KO’ing the Florida Overland Express in the mid-90s. We – the ridership – were just as excited then as we are today. How many times can you have your hopes dashed?

    Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this here. I have repulsed many a cocktail-party goer with these topics. Maybe I should be hanging out with more transportation geeks.

    • 20. aepcentral  |  February 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

      Good points Josie…not only do we need to meet the demand NOW due to over capacity on the roads and in the air, we need to plan for FUTURE growth and understand how to accomodate it! This all makes for great conversation and debate – I’d still invite you to cocktail party!

      • 21. Alvin Sarmiento  |  February 18, 2011 at 7:01 pm

        I agree with aepcentral. We need to be planning for the future. We can’t be fixing our transportation problems as they come. To provide a sustainable transportation system for many years to come, we need to start acting now. I believe HSR will bring the US towards that goal. We can’t continue to rely or expand our highways and need to turn to other alternatives.

    • 22. Dave Nord  |  February 17, 2011 at 4:03 pm


      I completely understand what you are saying and asking but I have one correction/comment for you. The Interstate System was NOT started for the “normal” public but was a form of national defense. Back then it took WAY too long for the military to travel from the east coast to the west, or vice versa.

      As for the HSR issue, for me it is all about funding, where it is coming from and what project that could be built that wouldn’t and a cost to benefit analysis.

      • 23. Josie Summa  |  February 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

        OK, I hear ya. But really, National Defense? Never heard that. So I looked it up and indeed it was at the root of Eisenhower’s motivations.

        I tell ya, nothing gets it done like a good dose of fear. 🙂

      • 24. Josie Summa  |  February 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm

        And, yes, Dave — you do get what I am trying to say. I guess if I had to paraphrase it: Does the rail come after the density, or does the density happen because of the rail?

        And then if you take it a step further, if you wait for the density, the project gets exponentially more expensive, due to complex ($$) issues with alignment. (Just ask the folks working on the Toronto light rail lines!)

        I understand the cost-benefit argument, but I feel our need for another mode outstrips the immediate red ink. Oh man, I could talk about this For-ever! Must.resist.posting!

    • 25. Robert Gately  |  February 18, 2011 at 2:58 pm

      If I am not mistaken, when President Eisenhower was a young Army officer he timed how long it took an Army truck convoy to drive across the US. It took so long he was fearful that the US Army could not move men and material fast enough across the continent in time of war. I’m pretty sure population density was irrelevant. Do we need HSR to move men and material across the continent?

      • 26. Dave Nord  |  February 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm

        You are correct. A convoy was sent cross country and although I can not remember the length of time it took (which was substantial), a realistic fear of being overrun on either coast before reserves could be deployed resulted. You are also correct that population density really didn’t play a roll in it but rather the pure distance and poor quality local roads that the military would have to travel.

  • 27. Dave Nord  |  February 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm


    Please take a look at the link below. The Governor of Florida has rejected the federal funding and has sited some of his reasons. I actually read another article yesterday about this but can not seem to find it, but it is essentially saying the same thing.

    As for my personal beliefs, I would love to ride on one, but it more of the feeling of wanting to try something new and not that I would look forward to riding it to/from work every day at whatever rate they would have to charge to recoup some of the money spent on it. I do see cause for it in high density locations cutting between major cities in the Northeast for instance. In less densely populated areas I don’t se the cost effectiveness of it.

  • 28. William Merunka  |  February 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    The idea of planning studies being optimistic on ridership levels is always a possibility. I have not had any formal education in HSR, but I think it’s safe to assume the planners would have looked at existing HSR systems to find some kind of ridership trends or percentage numbers to determine estimated users.

    I am deffinately going to try to find more information on the study done for the new HSR in the US, to see if they explain how they came to the amount of riders that they did. Unless US Government starts pushing people to work long distances away from home, I don’t see how it would get large number of riders.

    It is also interesting to see that Florida, who was considered one of the two most likely to succeed locations (the other is California) has decided to reject the funding because they dont believe it would be beneficial economically.

  • 29. William Merunka  |  February 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    While I believe the technology is cool and I would enjoy taking a trip in one, I don’t believe that the US has the right density to justify the high cost that Obama is looking to spend on the system. The popoulation density in foreign countries that use HSR is around 4 times that of the population density in Florida. When doing research on this topic yesterday, I found a few journal articles who did a study and found that the total number of riders in one month on the France HSR system was the about the same number of riders that the entire North East Corridor rail system had in 1 year.

    While there is alot of potential for the system, I don’t there is enough of a demand for it in the US for it to be valuable. If they were to drastically cutback on the number of existing airports, and existing rail systems, then it would be a positive project. With all the current travel methods for long distance travelling, I can’t envision HSR getting the constant ridership needed to have it making money.

    • 30. aepcentral  |  February 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm

      Hi Bill…thanks for the insight. That study of density is pretty interesting and seems to make sense. Is it possible that the planning studies that have been done are a bit optimistic in regards to what the actual ridership would be?

    • 31. aepcentral  |  February 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm

      Regarding FL ~ Ben just posted a discussion on that very topic and the news that came out yesterday of the Governor turning away the funding. It’s a pretty good discussion thus far on the Civil Engineering Central Group on LinkedIn…

    • 32. Nick Fotis  |  February 20, 2011 at 5:18 am

      That comment about population density is plainly wrong, as you can check easily.

      See the entries in Wikipedia:


      If you check the facts, Florida has exactly the same population density as France, the country of the TGV.



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