Choosing High Speed Rail

July 25, 2011

by John Parisella

Two separate rail journeys on two separate continents have provided very different learning experiences. Last year, I decided to take Amtrak's Adirondack train from New York to Montréal to observe firsthand the state of passenger rail travel in North America. U.S. President Barack Obama had outlined his vision for high speed rail (HSR), and the Province of Québec had expressed its interest in joining the international connection for the Northeast corridor. I blogged about my experience and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the prospect of HSR was attracting an enthusiastic following. 

This year on a visit to Europe, I traveled France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (High Speed Train—TGV) from Paris to Marseille and Paris to London.

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I knew the New York to Montréal trip would be long, but 11½ hours was more than I bargained for. The scenery was surely stunning, the price was affordable, but it is ridiculous that in an era of alternative travel the trip was nearly double the time of a car ride and quadruple the time of a commercial flight to the same destination. Crossing the U.S.-Canada border was particularly disconcerting as the train, which was filled to capacity with passengers, stayed immobile for over an hour for individual inspections. And I was told this was a good day.

Earlier this month, it took me just under 2½ hours to travel from Paris to London. The ride is smooth, the respect for on-time scheduling nothing short of spectacular and the comfort clearly surpassing any other form of travel.

We are all familiar with the advantages of HSR: efficient and comfortable transportation; the ability to work on the train using all the latest technologies; and traveling along an infrastructure that substantially reduces the carbon footprint. These realities and more make HSR a convincing case to become the transportation of the future. China has understood this. 

It is amazing that North America is still debating the merits of HSR when Europe and Asia have bypassed us completely.

Slow economic growth, the U.S. debt crisis, and ideological divisions in the U.S. Congress about the size and the role of government have stalled the momentum for Obama’s HSR vision. But it should not be the case if developed Western economies are serious about pushing forward with cutting-edge innovation. Investing in HSR is not a short term fiscal expense; rather, it is a wealth-creating sustainable development project for decades to come. HSR is a win-win proposition that has positive environmental and economic benefits for future generations.

The debate is not yet over. It has its proponents in all political parties but also some detractors as well. Some worry about costs; others wish for an economic model with more private-sector involvement.  It is fair to have this discourse in a democracy—but at the end of the day, public policy leaders must act not just for the next election but also for future generations.

Comparing my two different rail experiences has convinced me about the better choice.

John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec's delegate general in New York, the province's top ranking position in the United States.

Tags: Canada, Quebec

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