Monday, July 09, 2012

Coffee mug HSR optimism (finally?) prevails

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Coffee mugs are collectibles, for me in part because I can employ them early and often. Rail-related coffee mugs are well represented in my cabinet, including fallen flags, short lines, and early intermodal alliances.

As fate would have it, on Saturday, July 7, 2012, as I exulted over California's current (re)commitment the day before to true U.S. high speed rail, two coffee mugs were at the ready for me, front and center on the shelf: An Amtrak/ICE North America tour (1993), complete with tour map, and an elegant ABB X-2000 alternative.

CHSRA HSR w palm treesThe ABB mug proved its prescience at last: "High Speed Rail for America," a blue script intones. Yes, indeed, finally, 19 or 20 years after the mug was produced, but it appears to be really nearing reality. In California, as it happens, a place sometimes offered by the brash as an oxymoron to the very concept of reality.

Of course, plenty could still go wrong, I said as I scolded the coffee mug (but not too severely; I don't want it to quit on me as I sample my French Roast). Cost overruns. A new anti-rail governor. Continued ridicule from anti-rail partisans. An endangered species discovered smack dab in the middle of any new right-of-way. Who knows?

Still, the value, the worth, of the coffee mug messages have proven dear to me, in good rail times and bad, as HSR, and even higher-speed rail (HrSR), has floundered, and all too often foundered, on the figurative shoals of U.S. transportation planning wisdom.

The subliminal message has stayed constant, even as the world of HSR moved past the primary players of Japan, France, and Germany and began including Turkey, Brazil, and of course China. "We're No. 1" still works in the U.S. for wheat, and waste, and maybe coffee mugs for all I know. There's no danger of the U.S. becoming No. 1 in HSR any time soon, if ever.

But even if we're almost 50 years late, even if our first steps into true HSR are tiny ones, even if HrSR is more likely (if that) in the days ahead—even if all that, at least the world's high speed rail players come to Philadelphia this week knowing the U.S. finally has skin in the game, however modest.

The Americans, me among them, attending UIC's 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail thus will have something other than my much beloved Northeast Corridor to point to (and/or defend) in terms of HSR potential. They—we—will have future possibilities to promote, and more than that real-time business opportunities to explore, that suddenly are far less distant, far less ephemeral, than 19 or 20 years ago.

I have enough coffee mugs, but I can always make room for a new one, documenting some day and place that the U.S. finally joined the HSR big leagues. Here’s hoping that day comes before another two decades go by. 

Addendum, July 13, 2012: My colleague David Briginshaw at International Railway Journal has a worthwhile take on this matter from a perspective outside the U.S.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.