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Questioning the virtues of high-speed rail


Back in 2012, I wrote this post about low-speed rail, espousing the virtues of simply having a complete passenger rail network even at lower speeds. I love high-speed rail, and have been envious of European systems for years, but let's be honest: we're nowhere close to matching what other countries are doing. In fact, we're nowhere close to what we used to have 100 years ago in this country. In my opinion, it starts first and foremost with a flawed funding model, that puts rail at a tremendous disadvantage to other modes of transportation. One idea I think has merit I wrote about here.

Late last year Kris de Decker wrote this fascinating piece about how high-speed rail has actually been bad for the European rail network. It's one of those rare blog posts that has a compelling argument and depth to back it up. I highly suggest reading the whole thing. Here are a couple of bits:

High speed rail is marketed as a sustainable alternative to air traffic. According to the International Union of Railways, the high speed train "plays a key role in a stage of sustainable development and combating climate change". As a regular long-distance train traveller in Europe, I have to say that the opposite is true. High speed rail is destroying the most valuable alternative to the airplane; the "low speed" rail network that has been in service for decades.

The introduction of a high speed train connection invariably accompanies the elimination of a slightly slower, but much more affordable, alternative route, forcing passengers to use the new and more expensive product, or abandon the train altogether. As a result, business people switch from full-service planes to high speed trains, while the majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes.

A look at European railway history shows that the choice for the elite high speed train is far from necessary. Earlier efforts to organize speedy international rail services in Europe accompanied affordable prices and different ways to increase the speed and comfort of a rail trip. Quite a few of these services were even faster than today's high speed trains.

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