Part 2

Waiting on a Train

Contemporary Physical Implications of High Speed Rail

Beginning with Japan in the 1960s, carried on by France and Germany throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and implemented more recently by Spain, China, and South Korea, high-speed rail (HSR) has had profound physical implications on the contemporary city. This section unveils how high-speed rail has contributed to the physical form of cities at multiple scales, starting with that of the nation and ending with that of the human.


Conclusions from the Present, Approaches to the Future

As we turn our attention from the present to the future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the research presented in Part 2, and in turn establish an approach for speculations on high-speed rail in the American context in Part 3.

With over fifty years of operation, there are many international models that the US can use to guide its own adoption of HSR technology. The case studies in Part 2 range from large scale to small scale, through various urban/non-urban contexts and geographical/topographical conditions, and a variety of historical development scenarios. But it’s not as simple as selecting a TGV or a Shinkansen and expecting the same ridership, enthusiasm, or relative levels of success as France or Japan. That’s because transportation is not just technology—transportation is culture. It is influenced by tangible forces, like geography, topography, settlement patterns and population density, as well as intangible forces. The cultural character of rail travel includes tendencies towards the production, use, and ownership of the built environment, existing and emerging technologies and communication methods, attitudes towards collectivism or individualism, as well as private and public organizations.

For a high-speed rail system to be effective in the American context, the network and operations should consider both the tangible and intangible forces at work in a given location while foreseeing future shifts in patterns of living, working, learning, and playing. To complicate the equation further, because the US is so vast and differentiated (geographically and culturally) this approach must be tailored to each region of HSR implementation. What works in New England might not work in Texas or California.

Still, there are important take-aways from my observations that can be applied to a variety of locations in the US.

In nearly all cases studied high-speed rail is the backbone of a much larger transit network, including commuter or regional rail, local metros, bicycle and pedestrian networks, light rail and streetcars, buses, and even regional airports. With HSR it is possible to travel great distances quickly and conveniently, all without a car. In fact, most HSR stations prioritize pedestrian, cycling, and transit connectivity over parking garages. In the US we should use the development of HSR to consider mass transit comprehensively, in large and small cities. Where transit already exists, it should be enhanced and expanded. Where it does not, HSR presents an opportunity to envision it.

Due to cultural and historical development patterns, medium to large cities in Europe and Asia tend to be denser and more walkable than those in the US. As the backbone of a larger transit vision, HSR can encourage the adoption of this type of urban development. Although much of the population growth in the US is forecasted to occur in urban centers, there are still large portions of the population that prefer living outside the city, in suburbs or peri-urban neighborhoods where car ownership is still a necessity. HSR trips should be easy and convenient for these residents. It will rarely make sense for suburbanites to fight traffic into a city station, park at a garage, only to board a train back out of the city. The psychological hurdle alone will keep many suburbanites from trying HSR as a replacement for air or car travel.

Although suburban HSR stations are rarer than city center stations, they do exist. In order to attract ridership from suburban residents, HSR networks in the US will need to incorporate “station pairs” in large cities: a complimentary peri-urban station along with a city-center station. The city center station privileges pedestrian, cyclist, and mass transit connectivity and surrounding land use densifies the city with commercial towers, hotels, apartments, convention centers, etc. The peri-urban station hosts more structured parking, potentially with dedicated interstate exits and easy circulation to surrounding suburbs. The station may also be connected to regional rail networks for added convenience. Additional station stops add time to overall trip durations, but high-speed trains already operate at slower speeds on the approach into the city. An additional stop at a peri-urban station will not add a great amount of time to an overall trip, but is of critical importance to attracting ridershipAs we turn our attention from the present to the future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the research presented in Part 2, and in turn establish an approach for speculations on high speed rail in the American context in Part 3.

The US is a unique scenario for many reasons. One of the most important is geography: of all the countries with high-speed rail development, the US is third in land area only to Russia and China. Given the HSR “sweet spot” (distances between about 100–500 miles in which it is the quickest travel option), HSR will not be a viable solution for national travel in the US. Instead, it makes more sense to focus HSR development around what RPA calls “mega-regions,” which are territories greater than individual city boundaries with Interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and common transportation systems. This suggests a planning and governing entity at the scale of the region: larger than a single state, but smaller than the national government. With few exceptions, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and circuit courts, this scale of government is largely unprecedented in the US.

In the mid-twentieth century, encouraged by the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and growing interest in suburban living, many cities in the US leveled large swaths of urban fabric to make room for highway development. Traffic congestion, noise, and pollution increased, neighborhoods were divided, and the pedestrian realm suffered in favor of the automobile. The development of HSR routes into these cities may take advantage of existing rail routes or chart new routes. In either case, route development shouldn’t recreate the planning mistakes of the past. Instead, HSR should be an opportunity to reconnect neighborhoods and improve the pedestrian realm. Examples such as Cordoba and Torino are precedents for tunneling existing rail routes and creating new urban boulevards and greenways. Roma Tiburtina station acts as a bridge reconnecting neighborhoods across a rail corridor. Berlin populates the space under an elevated rail with shops and cafes. HSR is a tool for connectivity—at the scale of the region and the scale of the human.

Mobility in the US is rarely easy or convenient. Highways are congested and transit systems (where they exist) are overcrowded. Airports are distant from city centers and require early arrivals of 90 to 120 minutes, invasive security protocols, and lengthy delays. Moreover, airline ticket prices are unpredictable, relating more to supply and demand than distance traveled, and prohibitively expensive when purchased on the day of travel.

HSR can improve upon US mobility, but only if it is easier, quicker, and more convenient than other mobility options. Stations must be located inside and outside of large cities. Train fares should be reliable, based on distance traveled and consistently priced right up until the moment of departure. When possible, tickets should integrate with local metro systems and cycle rental facilities. On-board Wi-Fi should be quick, free, and easy to access. Cafe cars should provide healthy, tasty food and drink options. Ticketing should be mobile technology friendly for convenience. Train platforms should be easy to access from the street, and tickets should be checked on board to avoid circulation bottlenecks and circuitous routes. Quiet cars should be marked and enforced for business travel. Each train should have ample conductors to check tickets and provide service. Security scans should be kept as minimal as required for safety.

In the US there are currently several ongoing HSR projects. Some are still in the planning stages, such as the Houston to Dallas link in Texas. The HSR project in California is currently the furthest along, breaking ground in January of 2015. All of these projects, either public or privately developed, are benefiting from federal dollars and cooperation from the FRA, if not for construction then for environmental review studies and financing. But in each case decisions about technology for train sets, signaling, and ticketing are being made at the state level, not by the federal government. While this allows each state to individually negotiate technology packages from a variety of vendors, it does not guarantee that these systems will be inter-operable. It is only reasonable to predict that future systems within mega-regions will be fragmented and inconvenient.

Europe, by nature of its composition of smaller but industrialized countries, has overcome this hurdle by ensuring certain inter-operability features, such as a standard track gauge and a European signaling system. High-speed trains such as the Thalys and Eurostar travel internationally throughout Europe because of these inter-operability standards, and a variety of companies such as Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, Talgo, BREL, Hitachi and more all manufacture trains to these specifications. By contrast, the Shinkansen is a closed system: only Shinkansen trains can operate on its rails.

Although the federal government doesn’t need to dictate a manufacturer for each project, it should set standards of inter-operability for HSR in the US. [Only this will assure that the US regions benefiting from HSR connectivity will be open to expansion, interconnectivity, and financial benefits, such as economy of scale.]