What Are the Benefits of High-Speed Rail?

A lineup of JR East Shinkansen trains. (Image: Rsa  via  wikimedia  CC BY-SA 3.0)
A lineup of JR East Shinkansen trains. (Image: Rsa via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

In many countries around the world, public transportation systems and infrastructure include a variety of opportunities. In addition to planes and automobiles, there are high-speed trains that cover long distances in a relatively short time.

High-speed rail offers a plethora of benefits, in addition to providing another travel opportunity to local citizens. Unfortunately, the United States has no real high-speed railways, at least not any that cover long stretches. Amtrak has a high-speed Acela line that runs through the Northeast region. It can reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only for 34 miles, which is a small fraction of the total 457-mile journey it covers. Throughout most of its trip, the Acela line travels an average of 65 mph.

In comparison, Japan’s bullet trains reach speeds up to 200 mph and have been around in some capacity since the 1960s. Outside of Japan, more than 20 other nations have high-speed railways. China has the most extensive network, and then there’s Spain, France, Germany, Europe, Saudi Arabia, and more.

California has been working on something like Japan’s high-speed network for some time. However, recent sustainability audits have shown why it’s taking so long and what additional challenges the project faces.

Amtrak has a high-speed Acela line that runs through the Northeast region. It can reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only for 34 miles, which is a small fraction of the total 457-mile journey it covers. (Image: Shreder_9100 via wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

Amtrak has a high-speed Acela line that runs through the Northeast region. It can reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only for 34 miles, which is a small fraction of the total 457-mile journey it covers. (Image: Shreder_9100 via wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

It’s not a popular idea back in the United States for many reasons, but the most relevant is that we love our cars. While there are public options for transportation such as buses, taxis, trams, and the like, personal vehicles remain popular. The problem is that as the population grows and more cars are used on American roadways, we’re running out of room.

Cars also contribute to higher levels of pollution, especially smog, in heavily populated areas like Los Angeles. Furthermore, no one likes to deal with extreme congestion, which is getting worse on some roadways.

It makes a lot of sense, then, to offset some of that congestion with a high-speed rail that weaves throughout the country, perhaps even from one coast to another. How would that work, exactly? What’s the science behind high-speed trains?

How does high-speed rail work?

High-speed rail is the same as conventional systems. They run on tracks like the trains of old and rely on engines, albeit sometimes structured differently from traditional models.

The track is made of stronger and more reliable material. The train engines — also called power cars — sit at either the front, back or both ends. Primarily, high-speed trains run on a dedicated track, though sometimes they are used on conventional ones and run at a reduced speed.

 TGVs at the Gare de l'Est in Paris. Operated by the state-owned SNCF, it holds the world record for the fastest wheeled train, reaching 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph) during tests in 2007. (Image: Ermell via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

TGVs at the Gare de l’Est in Paris. Operated by the state-owned SNCF, it holds the world record for the fastest wheeled train, reaching 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph) during tests in 2007. (Image: Ermell via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Generally, a train is considered high-speed when it reaches 155 mph or more. Most high-speed trains travel at those speeds throughout the length of a journey, with the exception of a few low-speed sections, often meant for safety.

Tracks are kept as straight as possible to accommodate the higher speeds. They’re often powered using overhead lines or roof-based pantographs.

One type of train that’s different from any others is called a Maglev. Magnetic levitation — via electromagnets — suspends the train above the track and propels it great distances. Because Maglev trains are not bound to a conventional track, they can reach incredible speeds. Shanghai’s Maglev, for example, can reach speeds up to 268 mph, which allows it to travel a distance of 19 miles in just over seven minutes.

L0 Series on SCMaglev test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. (Image: Saruno Hirobano via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

L0 Series on SCMaglev test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. (Image: Saruno Hirobano via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

The many benefits of a high-speed railway

One of the apparent benefits of a high-speed rail network is the option to travel and connect with other areas of a country in a remarkably short period. Depending on the speed of the train, a trip takes about the same amount of time as flying, if not less.

While that does sound promising, and it’s now more evident how these high-speed rail lines work, the question is, why build them? What are some of the other benefits of doing so?

Economic growth for cities and urban areas

A high-speed rail that goes right to the heart of a city will bring more people in, ultimately contributing more money to the local economy.

Fewer cars on the road

With more people taking rail, there are fewer cars on the road. It helps by decreasing congestion, reducing pollution, and providing yet another opportunity to travel, including many who might not have been able to before.

More free time for passengers

Anyone taking a train is freeing up a lot of time they would otherwise spend driving. That means they can get some work done, read a book, reach out to friends and family, and much more.

Reduced dependence on fuel and oil

Fewer cars on the road means there’s a lower dependence on fuel and oil, particularly any foreign supplies. That can help drive down total costs, save additional resource funds, and significantly reduce environmental impact.

Safer than driving

Statistically, trains are much safer than driving. That means more people can travel to and from their destinations safely, but it also increases safety for those who are commuting locally, as there are fewer people on the road.

Cost savings for everyone

Besides fuel costs, taking care of a vehicle is not cheap. While traveling by a high-speed train, that’s no longer an issue because you’re not using a personal car. The wear and tear on your vehicle is much less. Furthermore, you’re not spending as much money to maintain it, such as new tires, oil, and other component changes. You save a lot of time, too — and for some, time is money.

The only cost is for the ticket or subscription that allows you to take the train, and that’s it.

In the future, let’s hope we see more support for high-speed rail open up. It will help us move faster across the United States, ease congestion, and save money.

Megan Ray NicholsThis article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her website Schooled by Science.

 

 

 

 

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