All aboard!

In January of this year, President Obama committed eight billion dollars to high-speed train systems across the country in his State of the Union address. The proposed projects would span a total of 31 states and create a network of high-speed “rail corridors” between large population centers on both coasts and the Midwest. CNN reports that the trains — some of which are expected to hit speeds of 200 mph — will connect cities that are close to each other and hence have a high volume of daily traffic (which would translate to passenger usage numbers).

Though no city in Arizona was on the original list of proposed corridors, a recent development could change that. The Arizona Republic reported in June that a new high-speed corridor connecting Las Vegas to Southern California via Phoenix is being proposed. The route, christened “Desert Lightning,” would sport a T-shaped topology through the Southwestern desert. However, this project is still in its initial stages, with funds being raised currently for a feasibility study.

The only high-speed rail system currently in service in the United States is the Acela Express that serves the Eastern Seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston. Unlike parts of Western Europe and East Asia, where high-speed trains are a common mode of transportation, commuting by train has been relegated to a distinct third behind road and air transport in the U.S.

The reasons for this are varied. For one, distances between large cities (especially on opposite coasts) are much larger here than they are in Japan and South Korea, or even Europe. This gives a fillip to the airline industry and has seared the culture of flying into the consciousness of the nation.

However, the biggest reason for the downturn in rail travel is presumably the network of highways and roads constructed in the period after World War II, and the subsequent growth of the automobile industry. No other country could boast the same numbers America produced, and the phrase “two-car family” took firm root in the nation’s collective reflex.

Rail transit, especially over short distances, boasts of many advantages over the traditional individual transport model. For starters, it is much more efficient in terms of fuel spent per person transported, and, because there are certainly fewer trains than cars, the potential for accidents is significantly reduced. Train travel also brings with it the boon of multi-tasking: commuters can get more done with their time without any increase in risk (unlike America’s current obsession, texting while driving). Not having to keep one’s eye on traffic all of the time takes much of the stress out of commuting – if you think of running to make a train as exercise, not stress.

Trains headlined the progress and creation of much of the United States in the 1800s, especially those parts that we currently inhabit. As our cities creak under the burden of burgeoning populations and sprawl across varied landscapes, it would seem that the solution and the future lies in those majestic machines that heralded the arrival of modernity – trains.

Kartik has been in love with trains all his life. Mail  him a Eurail pass at kartikt@asu.edu


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