by Jay Walljasper - February 20, 2008
High-speed rail is finally coming to the Western Hemisphere now that Argentina recently signed a deal with the French company Alstom to build a 21st century train line between Buenos Aires and Cordoba, the country's second biggest city. Nine trains a day will whoosh passengers at speeds reaching almost 200 miles per hour. Modeled on France's famed TGV service, the 441-mile ride will take 3 hours compared to the present 14.
It may come as a surprise that Argentina, not the U.S. or Canada, is premiering fast train technology in the New World. (The top speed on Amtrak's highly touted Acela service between Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington is just 150 miles per hour.) Especially since high-speed rail is transforming life in Japan and Europe, where many passengers are shifting from plane to train not just for environmental reasons but also because it is easier, cheaper, more convenient, more comfortable and faster. Korea, Taiwan and China are also developing ambitious networks of speedy trains.
The reasons why North America lags behind are hard to explain, especially now that we understand air and car travel contribute so heavily to global climate disruption. Anti-rail forces have long contended that U.S. and Canadian cities are spread too far apart to be efficiently served by trains. Yet both countries have numerous highly populated corridors that are perfect for high-speed service. Besides Boston-to-Washington, other prime routes include:
- Windsor-Toronto-Montreal-Quebec City
- San Diego-Los Angeles-San Jose-San Francisco-Sacramento
- Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis-St. Paul
Fast trains are good for the environment in many ways beyond just reducing global climate change. Because they arrive and depart in the center of town rather than at a distant airport, they discourage sprawl and auto use. They use far less energy per passenger mile, produce less noise, and don't eat up nearly as much land as airports or highways.
I hope the Obama administration will make good on its promises of reducing global warming, declaring energy independence, and protecting the environment by laying out plans for a 21st century network of high speed trains. If Argentina, a country much poorer than either the U.S. or Canada, can enjoy the benefits of modern trains, so should we.