U.S. high-speed rail is a running joke. Europe’s rail, on the other hand, is actually a system that will get you somewhere fast.
In an insightful article for Grist, author Ben Adler explains how that came to be.
The reasons for the big differences rest on two main factors, according to Adler. One is space. The U.S. has a ton of it, whereas European countries are compact. The continent’s dense cities, which sit like islands in the precious countryside, are ideal for fast rail links. “Despite, or perhaps ironically because of, Europe’s greater density, you are far closer to the countryside when in a major city,” writes Adler. “There is no equivalent to the U.S.’s unending hellscape of highways, strip malls, fast food drive-thrus, and auto-body shops.”
That might not sound like it matters, but where would you put your high-speed rail station in, say, Los Angeles? The city is so sprawling, it’s hard to say where the logical center might be. Even when you do decide, almost everyone will have to travel a long way (by car) to get there. “When leaving Berlin, on the other hand,” Adler says, “in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields and cow pastures.”
The other reason is the car. Adler again: “Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as Americans did.” This has led to other problems in Europe, like cars careening through streets built for foot traffic, but it does mean the entire continent’s infrastructure supports the central-hub system that’s ideal for fast rail links.
Given those two problems, it’s no surprise that we’ve created a vicious cycle: nobody uses the railways, and because nobody uses them, they’re not really economically viable. Contrast Adler’s description of the German InterCity Express with your most recent Amtrak nightmare.
Germany’s InterCity Express (ICE) ride is as smooth as a Mercedes on the Autobahn. The conductor comes around politely offering to bring you coffee. The bathroom doors open electronically with the push of a button for disability access. There’s no perennial stopping and starting of the train, no grumpy barking conductor, no herky-jerky rolling of the bathroom doors, none of Amtrak’s chronically late arrivals. And on German trains, the wi-fi actually works.
A report from the German Marshall Fund of the United States details the lessons that California should take from the German HSR systems, investing not just in the railways lines and cars, but putting stations in the centers of cities, and tying them together with urban transport systems, like San Francisco’s Muni, tram and bus networks. This holistic approach is key to edging the car out of our cities. The benefits are huge:
Making trips by high-speed rail results in much lower carbon emissions than driving a car or flying. But another great thing about rail is that it works together with local transit systems to eliminate car trips once you’ve reached your destination city.
That means being denser, with walkable and bikeable streets, public-transit systems, and regional commuter-rail lines to the suburbs. That would allow people to arrive in town on the train and hop on a bus or subway, or hail an affordable taxi, to get to their final destination and then get around while they are in town.
It’s not only possible but easy to live car-free in a European city. In fact, for many, it’s the normal thing to do, with cheap car rental filling in any cracks in your travel plans. It won’t be easy or cheap to rebuild a countrywide rail network in the U.S, but the benefits of doing so are pretty obvious. Just take a look at this map, which shows how things could be.