High-Speed Rail Around the World Provides Lessons for the U.S. (Part Three)

As the United States continues to take baby steps towards a national high-speed rail system, countries in Europe and Asia are forging ahead with ambitious modernization of infrastructure that could give them a palpable edge in this new age of global competition.

This is the third in a three-part series on high-speed rail development in the United States. For part one, click here. And for part two, click here.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the United States continues to take baby steps towards a national high-speed rail system, countries in Europe and Asia are forging ahead with ambitious modernization of infrastructure that could give them a palpable edge in this new age of global competition.

At the recent U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) summit in Washington, D.C., insiders from around the world offered their insight on the best practices for implementation in North America and how such can substantially improve the lives of everyday people and provide a considerable degree of economic development.

Felix Leinemann, first secretary of transport policy for the European Union, addressed the summit on February 11 and emphasized the importance this mode of transportation has had on his continent and why many nations are continuing to expand their capacity and operations.

“It is essential to bring people together,” declared Leinemann. “[With] high-speed rail, we developed a couple of specific targets in this transport strategy. One of them is to triple the length of the existing high speed rail network by 2050 in order to ensure that the majority of medium-distance passenger transport will go by rail.”

Thus far, Leinemann and his colleagues have identified 10 existing rail corridors candidates for further expansion, and while he notes that it is always difficult to bring together the policies of 27 member states, a “core network and single methodology” is still the best approach for maintaining a strong system and smooth, uniform operations.

This, in essence, is a lesson for the United States—though not one that has been heeded to date. While President Obama made strong pronouncements for an integrated national high-speed rail system at the onset of his first term, Congress has been reluctant to authorize necessary funds, shifting the burden to individual states and regional authorities.

At the same time, China is pursuing a complete national system of its own—with train speeds of up to 220 mph and most major lines set to be operational by 2020. In comparison, California’s high-speed rail system will not be fully completed until 2033.

Yet while many bemoan the slow pace at which the U.S. joins the rest of the world in this 21st century mode of transportation, others note that there may actually be benefits to “going last.” Armin Kick, director of high-speed rail development at Siemens Mobility, also spoke at the summit and detailed the early challenges of high-speed rail adoption in Europe and how the U.S. can avoid these challenges by heeding the lessons learned there.

“Currently we have five existing platform heights in Germany,” notes Kick. “When we start looking at cross-border, it gets even more difficult, because the platforms in other countries are at totally different levels.”

Photo by Philip Shea

Given this reality, Kick emphasizes a system of standards to be agreed upon at the national, even continental, level before construction begins on a high-speed rail system in North America. Furthermore, in order to make the biggest return on such a large investment, Kick notes another lesson learned in Europe and Asia with respect to implementation of high-speed lines.

“The high-speed line itself doesn’t need to be limited to high-speed trains utilizing it. Joint use [is] possible,” says Kick. “The goal should really be to keep the infrastructure busy, utilize it to its capacity, and by doing that, justify the investment. If you invest into a high-speed line and you spend a lot of money to do that, you should use it.”

At one of the other sessions at the recent USHSR summit, Mike Bello, senior planner and landscape architect at Gensler, detailed how effective transit-oriented development could complement such blended operations on high-speed rail lines. Indeed, having the ideal blend of mixed-use development can go a long way toward maximizing the potential and capacity of stations.

“Being the right size and addressing their context, TODs can really increase value of not just the identity in the community, but also address a blending into the surrounding community,” says Bello. “Some quick design principles [include] community stakeholder collaboration, [a] mix of efficient land uses, affordable housing choices, distinct and attractive communities, direct development towards existing communities… and [a] variety of transportation choices.”

Bello added that the value of public-private partnerships in this endeavor cannot be overstated, and that when approaching TOD, developers should stick to the maxim: “Build a place, not a project.”

Yet in terms of moving people in an efficient and convenient manner—which is ultimately the core function of these transportation hubs—Kick emphasizes that such a large investment requires being smart about operations and knowing which trains (high-speed, regional or commuter) should run at what times, thus minimizing congestion.

“The goal should always be to achieve short dwell times in the stations,” says Kick. “One thing that we have to recognize also is that we can spend a lot of money out there building high-speed lines for millions of dollars to shave off minutes from the schedule, [but] if we then get into the station and lose that time because the dwell time is very long… then that is not really money spent very well.”