Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Courtesy Great Ecology

By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.”– Shakespeare, King Lear

View of the train from my seat. Courtesy Lauren Herber
View of the train from my seat. Courtesy Lauren Herber

Buenos días, Das Tor readers! This article is coming to you from Spain, where I’m currently traveling on a high-speed train from Madrid to Sevilla. I’m sitting in a large, comfortable space with plenty of leg room and a clean pull-down table that actually fits more than a tepid cup of water and tiny bag of peanuts. There’s a charging port for my laptop, and overhead space for luggage is plentiful. Plus, I’ve got the Spanish countryside outside my window to inspire me. I’m feeling like a regular Hemingway.

As I sit here, working away and sipping my café con leche, unbidden flashbacks of the various modes of transportation that I’ve experienced through the years pop into my head and distract me from my reading of the tantalizing Blackwell Handbook of Global Management. I recall, for example, my flight earlier this week from Phoenix to Dallas. A relatively short, and simple, flight, right? Wrong. Why do they tell everyone they can bring a carryon if there is only room in the plane for half? And what all-powerful gods decide which passengers are assigned to the various boarding groups? Where do they reside, and what do they want? I’ve never in my life been higher than a Group 3 or 4. What pilgrimage, sacrifice, or ritual must I perform in order to enter the coveted Group 1 boarding zone? Perhaps I shall never know.

Courtesy TrainWeb.org
Courtesy TrainWeb.org

Another example: as a child, I frequently traveled to Chicago because it was the closest big city to my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The journey by car isn’t too bad—only about 3.5 hours. Usually, that is. But should you by chance happen to encounter some sort of inexplicable traffic or construction (side note: there’s about an 87% chance of this)? Poor, unfortunate soul. You could make it to Chicago in 4 hours, 5 hours, 6 hours, or you may remain in the purgatory that is the barren wasteland between cities in the Midwest for all eternity. It’s a toss up. Most fortunately, there is an alternative route. You could take the Amtrak out of Waterloo, IN to Chicago. Most unfortunately, this route will cost you twice as much and will likely take you twice as long (don’t ask me how—this mystery is as unsolvable as the Bermuda Triangle or the two lost boys of the Tower of London).

This got me thinking: why don’t we have a high-speed train system in the U.S.? (For the record, I’m not counting Amtrak’s Acela line, although some would.) It would make so much sense and would make crossing these amber waves of grain so much easier and more affordable. So what the hell are we waiting for?

Before I actually did any research on this topic, I made the assumption that the reason we don’t have a high-speed rail (HSR) system is due to the power wielded over us by the enormously wealthy automobile, airline, and energy industries (hence the macabre introductory Shakespeare quote). Couple this with the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of Upton Sinclair lately and I found myself transformed into quite the activist, ranting and raving and shaking my fist at The Man. I was ready to write a fiery piece about how we’re all just pawns in a game we can’t win and demand a strike (did I mention I’ve been reading a lot of Sinclair lately?).

As I moved further into my research, I found my tirade coming to a halt. Yes, the lobbying efforts of powerful industries constitute some of the resistance to HSR. But that isn’t the only reason, and it wouldn’t be accurate to cast the airline/auto/energy companies as the immoral villain motivated by senseless greed.

The Urban sprawl of Phoenix. Courtesy www.historyadventuring.com
The Urban sprawl of Phoenix. Courtesy www.historyadventuring.com

It turns out one of the main reasons for the United States’ lack of an HSR system is population density. Unlike many European and Asian countries, which are known for their highly effective and widely used HSR systems, the U.S. is geographically very large. This is what gives airlines their biggest value proposition: times savings. More than that, the people that live here are very spread out. This is true even of large cities, such as Phoenix and Dallas, that have very large populations but still require a car for mobility due to sprawl. Furthermore, many large U.S. cities don’t have very robust mass transit systems. Take Phoenix, for example. If you live in downtown or central Phoenix, you might be able to use the light rail to get around. But if you live in Glendale or Scottsdale, you’re pretty much stranded unless you have a car. Regarding HSR, this means that train stations would likely require a large amount of parking.

Another factor that would make the implementation of an HSR system difficult is property rights. The U.S. has very strong property rights, making it difficult (and expensive) to acquire property. And implementing HSR would require securing consecutive tracts of land along a relatively straight path. Plus, you run into the issue of crossing state lines, which means state governments have the power to reject HSR lines that cross their state. In 2009, for example, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rejected a nearly 1 billion-dollar award of stimulus money from the federal government to plan and upgrade a high-speed train system connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.

Combine these factors with the lobbying of powerful airline, auto, and energy industries, and a general lack of political will towards the subject and the future looks pretty bleak. All hope is not lost, however. There are some states, such as California, that are finding new ways to raise money to put towards HSR systems. And there are some privately funded projects currently underway in Texas and Florida. What does all this mean? That HSR is possible. But it’s be incredibly expensive and difficult to implement, so we need to strategically choose routes that make the most sense (i.e., shorter routes that connect densely populated cities that already have public transportation infrastructure in place). And we must be willing to invest in long-term planning and examine the economic, environmental, and other costs/benefits of these projects. Otherwise, we’ll be doomed to a future of fighting over shared armrests.

The Hyperloop One under construction
The Hyperloop One under construction

But to end the article on a positive note: never fear, for Elon Musk is here. And with Elon Musk on our side, anything is possible. The billionaire entrepreneur is leading the initiative on a project called The Hyperloop One, which promises to use levitating magnetic pods propelled through giant vacuum tubes to whoosh passengers and cargo for hundreds of miles at speeds close to 700 mph. That means you could reasonably expect to board a train in Los Angeles and make it to San Fransisco in a mere 30 minutes. It could be a while before we see the $6 billion+ project come to fruition, though, and it’s not a dearth of technological advancement that stands in the way. Moving at velocities that approach the speed of sound, the frailty of the human body gets called into question. To reduce the intense g-forces produced by the frequent braking and turning, the HSR system will need to be built in as straight a line as possible. This means that to get anywhere efficiently, it will have to cut across a lot of different people’s land, ultimately creating a regulatory and legal obstacle course nearly as daunting as the construction project itself. Nevertheless, Musk hopes to have a fully operational system in place by the year 2020, and with hundreds of millions of dollars flooding in from investors like GE, we just might live to see the next “Kitty Hawk Moment.”

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