International aid for North American HSR

Written by Anthony Perl

North America's marathon journey to renewing its passenger trains could gain a measure of inspiration this summer, when the world's expertise in deploying and operating high speed rail will be concentrated on this continent for the first time in at least 75 years. For a week in July, the world's best and brightest high speed train designers, developers, and operators will gather in Philadelphia for the 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail. Branded as "Highspeed 2012," this meeting of minds will be a co-production of the International Union of Railways (known by its French acronym, UIC), the industry association based in Paris, and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Both UIC and APTA have never wavered from advocating the advantages that arise when people move by rail, at multiple scales and speeds. They have supported railroads at times when the mode appeared to be in terminal decline to many who held the power over North American transportation policy.

One of UIC’s most visionary leaders, the French railroad president Louis Armand, offered a prediction in 1956 that “Railways can become the transport mode of the 21st century, if they can survive the 20th century.” He would have been thrilled to see rail industry executives from Asia and Europe coming to Philadelphia to bear witness to his prediction. It remains to be seen how their testimony will be received in the United States. When UIC and APTA agreed to co-organize the first international congress on high speed rail that would be held in North America, the United States appeared quite receptive to launching a high speed train network after decades of watching other nations and continents deploy this technology.

President Obama’s national high speed train development initiative was freshly launched when the Highspeed 2012 congress venue was selected. And America’s high speed train skeptics had not yet unleashed their political counterattack, with fully funded projects being cancelled by newly elected governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, while California’s effort was challenged in court. Yet, depending on how the 2012 election campaign unfolds, Highspeed 2012 could offer an opportunity for the U.S. President, or a senior member of his administration, to renew the federal commitment to making passenger trains part of the mainstream in a resilient and sustainable transportation system. If gas prices continue their march toward $5 a gallon, the idea of fast-tracking oil-free surface transportation that is ready to deploy today, rather than waiting for some breakthrough in battery or fuel cell technology, might even win votes out in the heartland.

As a member of the Scientific Committee for Highspeed 2012, I can attest that the knowledge and creativity displayed in the student papers have been arriving for review from around the world has been most impressive. It’s apparent that Generations X and Y understand the potential of rail better than many Baby Boomers who only have experience with driving and flying. It’s also clear that when and where high speed rail gets launched, the transportation policy debate becomes liberated from the hypothetical ‘what-if’ arguments, both pro and con, that have paralyzed so many efforts on this continent. Instead of the opinions and political ideology which fuel much argument over what high speed rail could do in the United States, international researchers can draw upon evidence of the actual achievements and problems that have arisen in real world operations.

I’ll be looking forward to America’s first encounter with the community of experts who have delivered high speed trains across Asia and Europe, some of whom who are working to bring it to a station much closer to many millions of people on this continent soon. Highspeed 2012 may only provide a few Americans with a firsthand opportunity to appreciate what they have been missing out on since 1964, but it could also yield a chance for the President to signal that his transportation priorities will continue to include faster passenger trains that can help meet America’s growing energy and climate challenges.

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