High-Speed Rail (HSR) attracts a lot of positive attention because of its speed, of course. But is this speed only about saving time and having fun? No.
It is about expanding economic competitiveness and improving social cohesion as well.
Research from Europe shows that we can praise HSR for doing just these things,.. there, at least. But how does this research transfer to the US situation.
In the unveiling of the recent HSR budget allocation, Obama stated, “In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.” This statement is backed up by a report from the European Union’s ESPON 2013 program. But the report found much more than that.
The report, titled “Trends in Accessibility“, found that “Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita was strongly linked to the potential accessibility in 7 out of 10 European regions” — meaning that “regions with high accessibility are most often more economically and competitively successful than remote and isolated regions” — and that the development of new HSR infrastructure in recent years has greatly benefited the potential accessibility of numerous European regions and cities.
Basically, you need good transportation connections to be economically competitive. With trains, automobiles and planes each having their own advantages and disadvantages, creating a good multi-modal network (a network that includes good road, rail and air options) is the most effective tool for creating a more economically competitive nation, region or city. And with rail not getting the attention it deserved for awhile (neglected for roads and air transport), investment in it now is bringing high rewards.
Europe as an Example
For Europe, the EU comes to this simple but important conclusion: “Low level of accessibility remains for many regions due to disparities in multimodal accessibility (as combined working of air, rail and road transport) that continue to exist in Europe. This affects the competitiveness of these places.”
Investment in HSR in Europe has increased accessibility and improved economic competitive in regions beyond its traditional core area (e.g. Tours, Lyon and Marseilles in France and Berlin in Germany), but those regions it has not yet reached remain at a disadvantage.
And as I wrote about yesterday, countries across Asia and the Middle East (and led by China) are looking to improve their economic situation through a massive cross-continental HSR project (potentially the largest infrastructure project in history). They see the clear advantage in having better HSR connections. Connecting to Europe via fast rail is an important goal for them.
In addition to connecting and improving economies, improved accessibility (spurred on by HSR investments) has also helped to connect people, to create more social cohesion, and to stimulate social capital in Europe. This is a less tangible benefit but one that is, nonetheless, very important.
Now, Transferring this Knowledge to the US
Of course, I can hear the cries now — “the US has a totally different transportation history and transportation structure than Europe!” Yes, this is exactly the point.
The US has a history of heavily favoring road and air transport. That has resulted in some major benefits, but also in some major cons or costs.
I think it’s time for the US to realize that it needs to develop better rail networks, and better multi-modal transportation networks overall, to improve its economic competitiveness and social cohesion. Luckily, I’m not the only one and the federal government has dished out billions of dollars to stimulate exactly this.
Nonetheless, cities and regions taking the lead on this themselves could benefit considerably from it. Mixed with other factors, of course, it could help them to be leaders within the US economy and I think it could help the US economy as a whole to be more competitive in the global marketplace. Some stimulus money from the federal government is not going to be enough to get the US rail network up to a high standard. Local and regional government as well as the private sector need to invest in it as well.
On top of that, making sure investments transfer into truly better accessibility and really improve the places they serve is a complicated matter. The details of good HSR investments and practices is something I hope to come back to in numerous future articles over the coming months.
For now, I think it is important to realize that HSR can definitely translate into a better economy and a more connected society.
Image Credit: caribb via flickr under a CC license