High-Speed Rail and Globalization: On the Right Track?

Like any good student of British Imperial History, I adore trains, which is why I’m particularly excited about the current trend toward building high-speed rail (HSR) capability in the developed world. For the past 50 years, Japan and France have been at the forefront of high-speed rail innovation – today Japan has trains that run at almost 200mph and carry over 300 million riders annually, which is impressive given that their population is 128 million – but now the US, UK and China are getting in on the act as well. I spent some time reading government policy proposals (scintillating reading!) to understand the reasons behind the plans, and whether this trend marks a new era in the history of transportation. But my conclusions were more about people’s fears for the past and hopes for the future, played out in changing feelings about trains.

The history of train travel is a rocky one. Initially heralded as one of the major breakthroughs in transportation technology (and indeed, technology in general), travel by railroad was, in the nineteenth century, the quickest and often most cost-effective means of getting places. The effects of train travel on language, culture, and industry were profound (far too much so to get into here), not least for creating the sense of, as Marx once said it, “the annihilation of space by time.” Intercity rail travel precipitated one of the first major waves of thinking about global interconnectivity and “globalization.”

However, after a century of dominance, train travel went out of fashion. Almost as soon as cars became affordable enough to be widely accessible, in the very first part of the twentieth century, they became the primary means of transportation. By 1916, automobiles – albeit rather dangerous, primitive ones – were being used for recreational purposes, and as the Ford Model T decreased in price to $360 (a bargain for the middle classes even then), the number of automobile owners rapidly increased.   

Suddenly trains were inconvenient, expensive, and restrictive. (Just think about how you feel now about the TTC, but worse.) And as national funding for interstate highways and air travel steadily increased, the number of riders on inter-city railroads decreased.  Today there are few private corporations in an industry that was once dominated by Vanderbilts, and both funding and riders are scarce.

So why the return to train, in the form of high-speed rail networks, and is this a case of history repeating itself?

One of the key benefits cited by the government proposals is energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. The charmingly-titled Command Paper issued by the UK Department for Transport cites three key “green”-themed benefits (out of four total): “building a robust, green economy, gaining energy independence, reversing global climate change, and fostering more livable, connected communities.” I find this ironic considering that the popular mindset toward railroads a century ago was that they took people away from nature.

In my previous life as a grad student I studied travel and tourism in the American West in trains and automobiles (no planes, though I do know a fair bit about flight attendants ).  I discovered that for many travellers, cars were a means to get a sense of closeness to nature that was not possible through a train window, on a set schedule, from a rail line. (I suppose ‘off-roading’ was more of a thing back then.) Early car travellers referred to themselves as “gypsies” who could wander at will, on their own “natural” schedule.  Of course, the way “nature” was understood then is not the same as the how the “environment” and “environmental sustainability” is understood now – and, accordingly, cars are seen much differently too, but I find the complete role-reversal of cars and trains very interesting. It indicates that environmentalism now is less feeling a part of nature than helping to preserve it, a much more active, and less passive idea. 

The new HSR kick is also evidence that our attitudes toward technology and industrialization have changed in a big way in the last century. In the early days, cars were seen as the “rugged” and adventurous way to travel, more natural and democratic than taking the train. (The irony, of course, is that cars were equally cutting-edge technologically, if not more so.) While technological advancement certainly always had its advocates, there were many who felt as though humans’ dependence upon it had made them weak. Nothing exemplified this idea better than the comfort and luxury of rail travel.

Today, this idea that relying on technology is bad has all but disappeared. Reliance upon technology in the developed world now is ubiquitous and barely raises a concern — until it stops working. Certainly, the concerns over the increased efficiency of personal transportation vehicles, or improvements in air transport have been addressed by all of these documents, and high-speed raid still comes out on top for moderate-to-high-density intercity travel between 100 and 600 miles. But will there be a perceived “lesser-technology option” (as the automobile was understood in its early days) that arrives in the next few years that will siphon riders away from high-speed rail just as it did a century ago?

It seems unlikely, given that many of the positives first associated with automobiles – freedom from set schedules and monopolistic train companies, not having to deal with third party service providers, the appeal of the “open road” – are now mitigated for many by the drawbacks, such as high fuel prices, congestion, or guilt over carbon emissions.

 Perhaps the most interesting benefit of HSR that all of the proposals identified was what one termed “Interconnected livable communities.” It was also (to me) the most surprising. It seems that we are again talking about collapsing the gap between space and time with railroads, but now, instead of the physical distance between two points, it is the “time-space” between high-density regions that matters. These cities might actually be quite close together but still it is difficult to travel between them because of, as the report puts it, the lack of an “efficient local access and egress system” [in English, that means fewer entry and exit points].

Consider this map from the 2009 High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan, written by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most of the rail corridors connect places that aren’t actually that far apart. And most are in places where there is already very high population density (also note: it is no fun to live in Wyoming if you like fast trains…or people).

All of this indicates to me that already-large cities connected with strategic links are going to be the drivers of prosperity in the future – a much more specific (and in my mind accurate) picture of “globalization” than this idea of everyone being connected to everyone else. It also indicates that direct, interpersonal contact is still critical for the future. Technological improvements in communications have a limit. The British government report, for example, does not anticipate that videoconferencing will reduce the need for intercity travel. It would initially reduce by 30%, they estimate, but the total amount of business conducted would increase as a result and (with follow-up meetings, etc) the net effect would be no reduction in actual travel.

My sense is that high-speed rail has the potential to be a long-term, sustainably popular alternative to cars – especially if they can seem to collapse space and time again. The one constant of popular transportation technology is that it increases time-efficiency, and this factor will always win out. Time is the one hurdle we haven’t managed to conquer yet, and humans will get behind anything that helps us maximize the little time we have.

What do you think of the future of HSR? Would you use it? Do you use it now? Do you think trains or cars have the edge on a romantic, “closer-to-nature” image? And what do you think about the idea of direct interpersonal connections as the basis for globalization?

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One Response to High-Speed Rail and Globalization: On the Right Track?

  1. dme says:

    I think that high speed rail travel is the way to go for travel between metropolitan centres that are about 4 hours away (beyond that the speed of a plane becomes the overriding factor).
    Nevertheless, the UK government is once again resorting to double-speak when it comes to justifying high speed rail and, incidentally, not acknowledging its role through policies such as the Beeching Report and rail privatization in the degradation of the UK rail network. By comparison the french and japanese have steadfastly supported their rail network and should be justifiably proud of it.
    Coming back to the 4 hours away, take a look at maglev trains such as the transrapid currently operational in Shanghai. Half as fast again and lower operating and maintenance costs – that is where the future of high speed rail should be going.

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