Over the past 10 years, high-speed rail has emerged as an increasingly important mode of transportation worldwide, with the notable exception of the United States. With President Obama’s recently announced program to fund select high-speed rail initiatives across the country, it seems timely to ask what role high-speed rail will, or will not, play in the future of American transportation.
In 2010, the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance, a group of Metropolitan Planning Organizations from Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona, contracted with the Utah Foundation to undertake a background study of high-speed rail (HSR) systems worldwide to assist the Alliance as it begins to assess the feasibility of implementing a high-speed rail system in the region.
The report reveals a number of features and characteristics common of high-speed rail systems and the environments they exist in. First, most countries with high-speed rail systems are economically well-developed, geographically small and densely populated. This is likely because high-speed rail requires significant capital investment and works best when connecting major population centers less than 600 miles apart. Second, most countries with high-speed rail systems have governments that are relatively centralized and cultures that are less individualistic compared to the United States. This could be due to the fact that implementing high-speed rail requires the coordination of finance, policy and regulation across regional and local governments, as well as unified national policy directives and often national funding.
The federal system of government in the United States would likely require one of two arrangements to implement high-speed rail across the country, due to the inability of most states to finance high-speed rail on their own: 1) a federally funded, owned and operated high-speed rail network, or 2) regional coalitions of state governments that collectively fund, own and operate high-speed rail on a regional basis, possibly, and perhaps requisitely, with some federal funding.
Political and cultural differences between the U.S. and other HSR countries show that development of HSR in the U.S. may be more difficult than in other countries.