Industry Market Trends

24 Countries on Track for High-Speed Rail

Jul 10, 2012

High-speed rail systems will be operational in 24 countries by 2014, new research indicates. As popularity for this advanced form of transportation grows worldwide, will the U.S. get on board?

While 14 countries operate high-speed rail (HSR) systems today, in just two years that number will rise to 24, including China, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and the United States, independent research organization Worldwatch Institute reveals. Worldwatch, which works on energy, resource and environmental issues, explores the key reasons why the system is a success around the globe.

HSR systems have proven to be effective at bridging the gap between vast geographic distances and isolated regions in a relatively short time span, and they are also an alternative to conventional but less eco-efficient plane and auto transportation. Worldwatch cites the Center for Neighborhood Technologies' analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, which reveals that HSR lines produce 30-70 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer, compared to 170 for airplanes and 150 for automobiles.

The benefits of HSR systems go beyond travel and eco-friendliness. Jobs created for such networks could boost the economy. A high-speed network that operates electric trains could also reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Discovery provides a list of the additional benefits of high-speed rail.

With such extensive advantages, high-speed rail has spread fast- but mostly across Europe. France's HSR systems account for 62 percent of European high-speed rail travel, while Worldwatch reports that Spain has the largest high-speed rail network in Europe, at approximately 2,000 kilometers in length. In 2004, the Spanish government implemented its Strategic Plan for Infrastructure and Transport, which calls for 44 percent of transportation investment to be directed toward rail development.

China, which set a goal of building nearly 12,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines by 2020, has also been recognized as a global rail leader.

Based on track length, China, Spain, France, Germany and Japan are leading the way on high-speed rail development. Other countries that plan to expand track lengths to exceed 1,000 kilometers include Turkey, Portugal, the U.S. and Italy.

In April, "Italo" was introduced in Italy, the country's newest high-speed rail locomotive. Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, Italo's creator and Europe's first private operator of high-speed domestic trains, announced that it will run 25 trains to connect nine of the country's cities, with a 20-25 percent market share expected by 2014, the New York Times reports.

With speeds reaching 186 miles per hour and passenger amenities that include Wi-Fi and special cinema coaches, such domestic rail lines may become a trademark for European transportation, a travel goal that has been heavily advocated for, but difficult to achieve, in the U.S.

Efforts to develop America's high-speed rail infrastructure have wavered over the past several years as political opposition to funding has prevented growth. Initially, the future of high-speed rail lines looked hopeful, with the Obama administration dedicating $8 billion to high-speed and intercity passenger rail service as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. That plan was followed by an additional allocation of $5 billion in federal funds for infrastructure development in several states across the country.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for a high-speed rail network that would serve 80 percent of the U.S. population by 2025.

However, in 2010, the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio shut down high-speed rail construction and the funding was shifted to projects in 14 other states, including California, Washington and Florida. That same year, Florida governor Rick Scott rejected an HSR project for his state worth millions.

Last year, Vice President Joe Biden presented a comprehensive six year-plan to build a national high-speed rail network with an estimated cost of $53 billion. The plan called for funding 10 high-speed corridors, segmented into three types of development.

Yet HSR goals were derailed again last November, when Republicans from the House of Representatives voted to eliminate most funding for high-speed rail programs, calling Obama's plan misguided.

"The Obama administration bungled its high-speed rail program from the start, losing an important opportunity to build true high-speed rail in areas where it makes sense, like the Northeast Corridor," Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told The Hill. "Instead, billions of dollars were spread too thin around the country and spent on incremental improvements to existing Amtrak services that weren't high-speed at all."

The GOP supports railway proposals for rail lines that will produce the most benefit for the least cost.

Despite such setbacks, President Obama recently reiterated his long-term mission to bring HSR to the U.S. "We can afford to rebuild our roads and our bridges and our airports and our broadband lines and high-speed rail, and put people back to work," he said last month.

The president also emphasized that the country cannot afford to miss out on investment opportunities that will keep the U.S. on the cutting-edge of infrastructure development.