High Speed Rail Regaining Steam
Recently, a Japanese company debuted a prototype of a maglev train that floats above the tracks and glides along at speeds exceeding 300 m.p.h., leading some to ask “why not here?”
Despite repeated proposals over the past few years, high speed rail has failed to gain traction in Minnesota despite both enticing federal dollars and real economic incentives for investment. While some of this failure is attributable to partisan politics and narrow interests, it is also important to consider the challenges that face high speed rail.
Minnesota has a below average population density compared to the nation. Minnesota simply does not offer the same ridership base that is comparable to those found in the successful rail programs of Europe and Asia.
It is also necessary to consider the route of a potential rail line. Does one choose a more cost-effective rail line that connects the Midwest’s major metropolitan areas or does one instead seek to connect as many cities as possible to the line at the expense of more money and more time? Both approaches have their merits, but have a degree of mutual-exclusivity that is likely to leave some dissatisfied.
Despite these challenges, however, there is still a strong argument to be made in favor of renewed and continued investment in high speed rail for Minnesota and the U.S. The comparatively large distances that make travel difficult for automobiles in the Midwest can be facilitated by rail lines that don’t need to compete with interstate or highway traffic. A train, even with the relatively slow speed of 110 m.p.h., as was considered during a previous proposal, would still allow for faster travel than an automobile, given the right route. Furthermore, rail services are more self-sufficient compared to their highway counterparts. As of 2011, Amtrak was able to pay for 68% of its operating costs through revenue, with federal funds covering the remainder. While this may seem like a prime example of a wasteful government program, it is important to consider that only about 51% of highway costs are covered by similar user fees, with the remainder of the costs picked up by state and local governments.
While it is important to recognize the challenges that come along with proposed high speed rail projects, it is also necessary to appreciate the benefits that an investment in infrastructure offers the state and the country.