Syracuse University Magazine




Topic: High-speed passenger rail corridors would provide Americans a clean, fuel efficient, affordable transportation alternative  vs. Americans can't afford to throw good money after bad by investing tax dollars in an obsolete form of transportation

In 2009, nonstop train service from Wuhan to Guangzhou in China achieved an average speed of 194 miles per hour, eclipsing the record of 174 mph set by French TGV service between Lorraine and Champagne. By contrast, no American passenger train runs at an average speed above 85 mph. Amtrak's Acela expresses, the nation's fastest trains, make the 220-mile journey from New York City to Washington, D.C., in about three hours. After a half century of decay, should the United States bring its passenger rail services up to world standards?

Let usand Orange alumni around the worldknow your thoughts on the topic in 300 words. 

We'll post our favorite responses from all sides of the issue on the Syracuse University Magazine web site. 

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Readers respond:

High-speed rail corridors aren’t an obsolete form of transportation; they’re the embodiment of 21st-century ideals and shouldn’t be stopped due to dollars-and-cents arguments. They would provide prompt, expedient, clean-and-green service and are a prudent investment. Not only is mass transit environmentally friendly in this day and age, but it is our only option in light of population growth, suburban sprawl, and uncertain energy resources. Highways can only be expanded so far to increase capacity and many are far past their original design limits. Simply adding more “cost effective” highway lanes will not work anymore; we have seen a wavering in our air networks and highway networks that cannot be solved by old strategies.

High-speed rail travel is the silver bullet that the American population has been looking for. It will provide short and intermediate distance trips that highway commuting and air travel cannot compete with. There is no better way to transport a group of people along specified regional corridors more efficiently, environmentally responsibly, and conveniently than by high-speed rail. This re-investment (the U.S. used to have much better rail infrastructure that has been frittered away) in high-speed rail would yield immediate and long-term gains. Once a rail corridor is in place, it becomes a national asset and is virtually invaluable. It removes passenger trains from freight lines, resulting in greater national efficiency and productivity. High-speed rail will move people quickly and efficiently in a timely manner, strengthening our nation’s social and economic health. This viewpoint holds true even if gas prices do not rise; they most certainly will. Americans need to face the tough reality that our archaic transportation system has been stretched to the breaking point and high-speed rail is a tool that will help resuscitate a stagnating nation.

—David M. Hines ’07

L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science

Structural engineer, railroad bridge inspector, high-speed rail advocate

 Master’s degree student, structural engineering, University of Hartford




High-speed trains are certainly not obsolete, but they should be subjected to cost-benefit analyses like other public projects. The trains are sleek and fun to ride, but they are also wildly expensive. The California project approved by voters there will cost at least $45 billion to construct. And ridership estimates are very optimistic.

The 2009 federal stimulus package included startup funds for passenger rail projects across the country. These projects would not be the bullet trains of Japan or the magnetic levitation trains of France, but rather trains more like the Acela that travels at no more than 150 mph (and usually slower) between Washington and Boston. Since the trains would use existing railroad right-of-ways, they would compete with freight trains for track space. This could slow down what is currently the world’s most efficient freight rail network.

All of this is to say that policy makers and voters should balance the lure of shiny new trains with the expense and trade-offs of investing in high-speed rail projects.

 —Kevin Johnson G’06 (MPA)

Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Washington, D.C.




I’ve spent half of my 40-year career with rail. I would love to see the return of the passenger train. But I can’t see it happening as currently proposed. High-speed rail might work on the Northeast Corridor (and similar city pairs) because of density and destinations.

Google Maps says I can get from downtown Cleveland to the State Capitol in Columbus in a little under 2½ hours, average speed of 59 mph. Yet, according to a September 1, 2010, Columbus Dispatch article the maximum speed for Ohio high-speed rail will be no higher than 79 mph. Add in four five-minute stops along the way and average speed drops to 67 mph. Add in the time to get to the Cleveland station and from the Columbus station and suddenly driving is quicker and more efficient.

But wait, the high-speed rail backers say in the same article that eventually speeds will reach 110 mph. At that speed, gates with supplemental devices are required at all at-grade highway crossings. Not to mention the upgrades to track alignment for 110 mph and the additional track maintenance required to share trackage with freight trains. Even so, the idea of 110 mph is news to the railroads whose tracks will be used.

In short, the costs will exceed the benefits and the time frame longer than expected. More than a quarter century ago, the local transit authority thought about building a downtown rail subway with a price of about $600 million. It morphed into dedicated bus lanes and opened 23 years later.

Will anyone take the trains being proposed? Maybe we should test it first, with limited service.  Some routes may have merit. Most will not. We need to re-think this.

—Gus Ubaldi ’70, PE

L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science

North Olmsted, Ohio