High-Speed Rail: Where…and When?

By Greg Rienzi

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Four months into his term, President Obama outlined his plans for a high-speed rail system across the United States. His administration identified 10 corridors that showed the “greatest promise” for an advanced transportation system intended to reduce traffic congestion, cut dependence on foreign oil, improve the environment, and spur job growth.

Lester Kao ’11 set out to analyze Obama’s plan and do his own assessment of where new high-speed rail systems possibly could succeed, if anywhere. He began by researching the economic and cultural impact of such systems around the world—in part by riding the rails himself, in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and throughout Europe.

Kao also conducted interviews with officials at leading rail companies, including Deutsche Bahn in Germany, Eurostar, and Central Japan Railways. And he spoke with pro-rail lobbies in the United States, government officials on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, railway suppliers in Japan, and a host of business owners and developers. To see things from a user perspective, he conducted a passenger satisfaction survey through interviews conducted aboard trains.

Once all the data was in, the economics major identified America’s Northeast corridor—roughly from Washington, D.C. to Boston—as the area where a high-speed rail system could deliver the most impact. He believes the population density of the region, its multiple economic centers, and positive cultural attitudes toward public transportation make this corridor the best suited for success.

Kao’s next question was: Can we afford it? The costs of constructing a new system are staggering at $50 million per mile, making the price tag for the D.C.-to-Boston line an estimated $18 billion. Associated costs, such as tunnel projects, could push that number many billions of dollars higher, he says.

To help mitigate costs and make the project more palatable to the federal government and taxpayers, Kao recommended utilizing existing right-of-ways and double tracking (using existing rail lines) when necessary. He also considered alterations to current train systems, such as improving overhead electricity systems that power the trains, which in concert with other technologies could increase the average train speed from 85 to 140 mph.

Before he started his research, Kao thought a nationwide high-speed rail system was doable and represented a sound investment in the future.

“That wasn’t necessarily the case, I found,” he says. “It really depends on the region: demographic/population statistics, public inclination toward public transportation, and other factors. We’ve got a lot of pressing transportation issues to take care of in this nation: maintaining our national highway system, our commitment to serve cities too small to receive high-speed rail service. We also have budgetary constraints.”

But he still sees merit in high-speed rail. Around the world, he says, such systems generate on average 1.8 to 2.4 times the investment in terms of economic/development benefits. And they serve as catalysts for regeneration of communities.

“Upgrading our rail systems to make our train systems go faster is a necessary expense if we are to tap into the economic advantages of [connecting] several large metropolitan areas,” he says.

Explore Further:

The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program awards grants of up to $10,000 to incoming freshmen and up to $7,500 to rising sophomores for original, independent research projects in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Students use the grant throughout their undergraduate careers to pay for equipment, travel, or other research expenses. Here’s what some of the fellows have been doing.