Certainly, European rail mass transit lost market share as compared to highway and air traffic during the past few decades. But there has been a railway renaissance in recent years among the Western European industrial nations and rail is now positioned to meet a certain niche of the growing mobility requirements of modern societies. This niche includes factors related to population density, economics, oil prices and growing congestion on automotive roadways.
Similar factors are now coming into play in the U.S., as well. Traffic planners calculate that compared to the plane, the train is an especially good alternative for journey times between two and four hours. Taking into account airport check-in times, even a one-hour-flight can easily take three hours overall. Also, increasing highway congestion in metropolitan areas, could change consumer behavior for such trips of intermediate duration.
Challenges and Incentives For Change
Challenges to higher acceptance of passenger rail systems in the United States, and a corresponding investment in them, are much the same as they have been for the past 50 years or more — speed, cost and convenience vs. airline or private automobile. And as always, those comparisons include personal perspectives as well as objective judgments.
Optimism for an American railway renaissance comes from several sources, however. On one hand, there is pressure to respond to the potential of traffic gridlock in the United States. According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the population will have grown by 100 million people in 40 years, with 80 percent of that growth in metropolitan areas. In a statement to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, he said, “If we settle for the status quo, our next generation of entrepreneurs will find America’s arteries of commerce impassably clogged and our families and neighbors will fight paralyzing congestion.”
From another perspective, railway technology and the public’s awareness of it continues to evolve. More Americans are being exposed to how fast and comfortable modern trains are for intermediate distances in Europe and Japan.
And finally, elevated gas prices and parking fees in congested metropolitan areas have already helped to expose some new customers to rail travel as commuters on regional rail transit systems.
One of the greatest hurdles to increased passenger rail development, however, is the sheer magnitude of the necessary investment in infrastructure. While past funding has been encouraging for programs like the California high-speed rail system, ongoing state and national budget pressures could delay the massive commitments needed to bring such systems to completion.
From an infrastructure planning perspective, however, the United States can benefit from the lessons of a European environment that has had a dense railway network for decades and where high-speed rail has been in place for as much as 30 years in some areas. There, congested highways, overloaded airports, long waiting periods and a growing ecological awareness are all driving forces behind the comeback of passenger rail travel. Countries such as Spain and Italy are planning new high-speed lines, and Germany is planning to extend freight lines, mainly to the ports.
In fact, infrastructure density is one of the factors in favor of rail vs. highway development. In metropolitan areas, trains can move more people more efficiently than a highway, while using a much narrower right-of-way. This proportionally reduced need for real estate and its attendant costs for private property acquisition or condemnation can be a positive influence in favor of rail investment.
Customer service infrastructure support can play a role as well. In Europe, passengers have come to expect access to Internet, mobile phone networks, information about the journey, entertainment or services like seat reservation and ticketing even during the trip. Content servers and routers with mobile connections to the Internet can provide all of these services. If the time spent travelling by rail can be more productive, as well as more cost efficient, in comparison to alternate forms of transportation, that could help swing the pendulum toward greater acceptance and use of passenger rail travel in the United States.