Reader dissents on high-speed rail
Csaba Hanyi of Towson sent along a well-written, reasoned critique of my Oct. 26 column on high-speed rail -- or the lack of it -- in the United States. I though it was worth posting in its entirety, though I disagree with its conclusions.
I read your column about high speed trains with great interest, since I
have been interested in rail travel most of my life. However,
considering some of the facts, I must disagree with some of your
You probably know that all European governments subsidize their rail
systems by handicapping truck traffic on their highways in order to
force more freight to rail, since the rail needs the revenue to enable
inexpensive commuter traffic.
Similarly, Maryland subsidizes MARC to remove some motor vehicles from
the road between Baltimore, Montgomery county and Washington.
Therefore, MARC is much cheaper to use than Amtrak on the same line.
MARC trains on the Penn Line do exceed 100 mph om some stretches.
The Camden line has obsolete track which prohibits high speed.
High speed rail requires ridership which is willing to pay premium
rates for the comfort, speed and convenience of traveling between
main city centers. This is only possible between major cities with
moderate distances between them. You get that in Europe, Japan, and
China by having high population densities.
In the US you can get the same thing along the Boston - Washington -
Richmond corridor, and we have a reasonably fast train service on
this corridor. When you travel further south or west the cities
get smaller and the distances much greater.
Population density is 598 person/sq mile in Germany, 286 in France,
499 in Italy, 1018 in the Netherlands, and 207 in Spain. The density
is 79 in the US and only 8 in Canada, Mexico is better at 138.
Japan is 873, China is 351. (Source: Time Almanac)
To take some of the hype out of the high speed train numbers, please
consider the following: In May 2009 I traveled in Germany using some of
the ICE trains. Specifically, I was on an ICE between Cologne and
Munich, a distance of about 310 miles. The train left Cologne-Deutz at
17.44 and arrived in Munich at 22.04. That is 4h, 20 min averaging 72
mph. The train made 5 stops: Frankfurt airport, Frankfurt city,
Aschaffenburg, Wurzburg, and Nurnberg. Between Cologne and Fft airport
it averaged 104 mph, and between Nurnberg and Munich 92 mph. The
distances between the other stops yield much lower speeds. The conductor
told me that sometimes we hit over 200 km/hr (125 mph).
By contrast the east coast Acela avarages 57 mph between Boston and New
York (201 miles), and 73 mph between New York and Washington (210
miles). On the northern stretch there are 4 stops, on the southern 5
stops. Clearly the trackage on the southern stretch permits higher
Finally, a few remarks about cost: The Acela between Baltimore and NY
cost $212, while for the privilege of riding the German rails for 5 days
(unlimited) I paid $275 (Eu 202).
I believe the US rail system can be speeded up on a few select stretches
(but probably at great expense). At the same time the European high
speed trains run faster but with stops the average speed is not higher.
I have no personal experience with Japan, but believe the numbers would
Regards - Csaba Hanyi
Where Mr. Hanyi's argument goes off the rails, I believe, is in his emphasis on population density at the national level. Only the density in the proposed rail corridor is relevant. The vast stretches of Canada's West and North, for instance, have nothing to do with the question of whether a line between Toronto and Montreal would be viable.
I also don't consider subsidy a bad word when the subsidy serves a national interest. I submit there is a national interest in lowering imported fuel usage and vehicle emissions while improving mobility and safety. High-speed rail does all of the above. Staying out of the game only perpetuates the stranglehold that foreign companies have on the train manufacturing business at a time when it is a booming business in China and soon India.