Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bullet Trains in America: United States Transportation Enters the 20th Century (It's About Time)

America's "bullet trains" are in the news this week. Don't rush out to buy tickets, though: that $8,000,000,000 initial investment will only go so far - and there's a lot of work to do.

This post is a bit off-format, so please bear with me.

"Bullet Trains?" That's So Sixties

Japan got the first seriously high-speed rail passenger service up and running in the sixties, with the Shinkansen. Other countries followed. Not America: but at least we made the transition from coal to diesel-electric locomotives.

China's Shanghai Maglev went into service around 2003. Indonesia's considering upgrading their rail system:

"Indonesia's Big Rail Plans"
Asia Sentinel (January 13, 2010)

The article has some interesting technical and economic details, using China's Shanghai Maglev as a real-world example.

I'd like to see America use magnetic levitation technology for rail service: but I'll settle for my country catching up with where Japan was around 1965.

What's the Big Deal With "Bullet Trains?"

It's not just that I like technology. The Interstate highway system was more than just a new bigger set of roads: it was a new kind of road system.

President Obama claimed that a new high-speed rail system would increase productivity in America. I'm inclined to believe it. I remember the "good old days," before the Interstates.

I haven't been able to verify this, but someone on the FOX News network asserted that the Interstate highway system increased America's productivity by 25 percent. I think that's plausible. I've driven on the old surface roads, and on the Interstate system. If you want to get somewhere, faster, with fewer stops and - if you drive sensibly - better mileage, you use the Interstates.

"Bullet trains" could make the same sort of difference.

High-Speed Trains in America: Finally

"Superfast Bullet Trains Are Finally Coming to the U.S."
Wired Magazine (January 25, 2010)

"Believe it: Bullet trains are coming. After decades of false starts, planners are finally beginning to make headway on what could become the largest, most complicated infrastructure project ever attempted in the US. The Obama administration got on board with an $8 billion infusion, and more cash is likely en route from Congress. It's enough for Florida and Texas to dust off some previously abandoned plans and for urban clusters in the Northeast and Midwest to pursue some long-overdue upgrades. The nation's test bed will almost certainly be California, which already has voter-approved funding and planning under way. But getting up to speed requires more than just seed money. For trains to beat planes and automobiles, the hardware needs to really fly. Officials are pushing to deploy state-of-the-art rail rockets. Next stop: the future...."

The basic assertion of the Wired article, that America is, quite late in the game, starting to look seriously at developing high-speed rail passenger service, is in the news. And, in my opinion, it's a pretty big deal.

The article also has a handy timeline, "Fast Trains: A Brief History," showing what they say are milestones in high-speed rail transportation since the 19th century.

One of them is this remarkable item:

"1897 90 mph

"Midland Railway, England
"It took almost a decade for England to regain its dominance with a record-breaking run aboard an 8-foot-long, eight-wheeled locomotive from Melton Mowbray to Nottingham."

If you're not familiar with English measurements, a foot is very roughly 1/3 of a meter.

A locomotive eight feet long would be, well, small. Let's put it this way. I'm five feet, seven inches tall (1.7 meters). I can, without stretching, reach up and touch something seven feet from the ground. Then there are the wheels. If that eight-foot-long locomotive had four pairs of wheels, they'd be an average of two feet in diameter, max - assuming that the length of the locomotive included the wheels.

That's a small locomotive.

I didn't find any reference to that little 1897 locomotive, or its speed record, except in the wired article. Which, as a researcher, makes me a little cautious about accepting the rest of the article on faith alone.

Happily, there's quite a bit about high-speed trains online: from reasonably believable sources. I'm leaning on news services here, since the American and Indonesian transportation systems' moving into the 20th century with high-speed trains is - news.

America Catching Up to the 20th Century

"President Announces Billions for High-Speed Rail"
MyFOX Phoenix (January 28, 2010)

"Promising jobs and cash, President Barack Obama came to Tampa on Thursday to unveil his plan for a series of high-speed rail projects in Florida and around the country.

"Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made the unusual joint trip to announce the awarding of stimulus funds for creation of a 'bullet train' between Tampa, Orlando, and eventually Miami.

" 'We're not only going to be providing a better way to transport people, we're going to be taking cars off congested highways, reducing carbon emissions, and saving billions of dollars in human productivity just sitting in traffic jams,' Vice President Biden explained, moments before introducing the president. 'Most important, we're creating jobs.'..."

I'm not on the same page as the current American president: but what he said about high-speed rail transport makes sense. And has, for decades.


"High-Speed Rail Approaches Station"
The Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2010)

"The iconic needle-nosed Japanese "bullet train" could speed through the swampy marshlands of central Florida if Yoshiyuki Kasai, the chairman of Central Japan Railway Co., gets his way.

"Mr. Kasai on Monday announced efforts to bring the shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, to the U.S. JR Central's push to enter the U.S. comes as Washington prepares to announce how $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed passenger-train service is carved up.

"JR Central is up against some tough competition, however. Dozens of international companies, including Germany's Siemens AG, Canada's Bombardier Inc., France's Alstom SA and General Electric Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. of the U.S. all are clamoring for a piece of the pie, which is meant in part to create U.S. jobs. The Obama administration is expected to announce as early as this week what projects will receive stimulus funds.

"The $8 billion "is oversubscribed by a factor of eight to one," said Richard Lawless, chief executive of U.S.-Japan High Speed Rail, a consulting company JR Central created to market the bullet train. 'Of all the corridors we looked at, the one that looks the most promising and immediate is Florida.'

"The proposed Florida high-speed rail would cost a total of $3.5 billion to construct, including rolling stock, JR Central said.

"Congress attached 'Buy America' provisions to the stimulus spending aimed at favoring U.S. firms. But JR Central has structured its package in the hopes of meeting those provisions. Officials from U.S.-Japan Maglev, another JR Central consulting company, said they would ask Florida companies to construct the infrastructure for the train, including the signals and track. Part of the rolling stock, or cars, would be built in the U.S. by U.S. companies.

"JR Central is marketing two types of high-speed technology: the shinkansen, which travels as fast as 330 kilometers per hour; and the magnetic-levitation, or maglev, train, which can run up to 581 kph , but is more expensive and in only limited use so far...."

That "buy American" thing is probably sensible, in the short run. But even if the whole high-speed rail service in America was built by outside contractors, let's remember: the trains would be running here in America.

That excerpt is longer than what I usually use: but I wanted some of the details in this post.

High-Speed Passenger Rail Service in the 20th Century

Here's what the rest of the world has been doing, in terms of passenger rail service, for the last four decades.
Shinkansen, Japan
"UPDATE 2-JR Tokai targets Florida bullet train deal"
Reuters (January 25, 2010)

"Central Japan Railway Co (JR Tokai) (9022.T) will join rivals in competing to develop a high-speed railway line in the U.S. state of Florida, as the former state-owned firm looks to sell its super-fast train systems overseas.

"A consulting firm hired by the company said a railway line connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami in Florida was one of the most promising targets for its Shinkansen bullet trains as the route would be exclusively used by high-speed trains.

" 'I expect competition for the contract to be fierce in Florida. We will be the last to join the bidding,' JR Tokai's Chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai told a news conference. 'But I believe our Japanese system will be the most suitable for the line.'

"Kasai did not say which other firms were competing for deal, although JR Tokai's global rivals include Canada's Bombardier (BBDb.TO), Germany's Siemens (SIEGn.DE) and France's Alstom (ALSO.PA).

"U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, the consulting firm working for JR Tokai, also said that lines between Las Vegas and Los Angeles could be candidates for the company's products...."

More about the Shinkansen, the world's first "bullet train:"

"Shinkansen History"
Japanese Lifestyle
TGV, France
"Early TGV History"

Here comes the 21st Century: Shanghai Maglev, China

Shanghai Maglev Official Website - 上海磁浮官方网站

This website - the part I linked to is in English - is geared more for people who plan to travel on the Shanghai Maglev, than for a student. Cool graphics.

"maglev train shanghai complete video presentation"

wowiejunior, YouTube (June 8, 2006)
video, 5:35

Cruising speed? 267 miles an hour. Distinctly subsonic, but for a land vehicle ("flying at zero altitude"): impressive. Particularly for a walk-around-inside passenger service.

Part of the narration: "...a city with a proud tradition, but always open to the new...." presents an idea I think Americans could seriously consider.

The video reminds me of America, before the sixties. But that's another topic.


Brigid said...

That's a lot of post. And you'd think that a country obsessed with the newest and shiniest would have gotten on the ball with bullet trains sooner.

Oh, and a little typo: "but at lease we made the transition from coal to diesel-electric locomotives."

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...


Thanks! The typo? Fixed it.

I think it's interesting - and significant - that another country that's "obsessed with the newest and shiniest", Japan, went ahead and built the first "bullet train."

Note the decade, by the way: ever since somewhere between Woodstock and the death of Disco, quite a few Americans have been - my opinion - too busy cringing and apologizing for being Americans, to do very much else.

America isn't perfect, but we're not all that bad, either.

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