Vision: Start Slow on the Path to Making America Bullet Train-Friendly

Will investing in speed and electrification create the "sparks effect" needed to convince Americans to ride high-speed rail?

The prospect of building new rail corridors in the U.S. must seem expensive and daunting, as it did to Europeans 20 or 30 years ago. Old American track, in many cases, is too rickety or crowded for modern electric trains to vault between major cities at speeds that compete with short-haul passenger flights. To upgrade the U.S. rail system in any significant way, there will have to be at least a few dedicated high-speed lines, on whole new rights-of-way. The cost will be staggering.

And what if the people don’t come? “No one will ride this train,” was a refrain on message boards in Florida early this year from people who backed Gov. Rick Scott’s eyebrow-raising decision to reject federal funding for a high-speed link between Orlando and Tampa.

Americans don’t ride trains; they like their cars. Right? The fact is, nobody knows. In California, where an L.A.-to-San Francisco project is further ahead than most others in the U.S., a group of Palo Alto homeowners has pressed for (probably nonexistent) details on just how many people will use this train. “Ultimately,” Governing magazine reported last year, “Palo Altans worry that their homes will be razed to build capacity the system won’t end up needing.”

The sight of expensive rail systems gathering dust like abandoned theme parks around the American countryside would, of course, be a waking nightmare. But the history of steadily speedier trains in Europe suggests something different. When Britain started to shift its rail service in the 1950s and ’60s from steam to (much faster, if not “bullet”-speed) electrified trains, researchers noticed what came to be known as the sparks effect: Electrify the line, and people will ride.

“A 26 percent reduction in the London-Manchester journey time produced a 27 percent increase in demand,” writes Dr. Terry Gourvish, at the London School of Economics, in a recent report called, “The High-Speed Rail Revolution: Its History and Prospects.”

“Sparks effect” is an antiquated term, but Gourvish uses it in a report on the feasibility of a second British high-speed line called HS2. “The effect is there, whatever you want to call it,” he told me, “that if you invest in speed, and invest in electrification, you get extra revenue.” It was consistent in Britain regardless of the decade.

British bullet trains lag behind the continent’s. The U.K.’s single modern high-speed line, the EuroStar, rushes off the island and over to Paris as quickly as possible. But even the most sophisticated European systems, like France’s TGV or Spain’s AVE, had modest, experimental beginnings. The German ICE or Inter-City trains linked a number of West German hubs in the 1980s but came into their own in the ’90s after reunification opened more logical routes between east and west.

“It does matter, the distance between your major centers of industry and commerce,” Gourvish said. “In Spain, Barcelona is far enough from Madrid to make high-speed rail work because it can kill off air competition, and it’s too far for motor vehicles to pose a threat. This is why high-speed rail is not really going to be successful in the Netherlands, though they’ve built lines between Amsterdam and Rotterdam and so on. The distances between these places [are] just too small.”

Germany’s system works because it’s fully mixed — ICE trains run on the same track as slower, more regional trains. Germany isn’t linear enough to benefit from a single dedicated trunk line like Japan’s (between Tokyo and Kyoto). American planners have to face the same considerations. Except on the two most obvious routes — in California and the Northeast Corridor — dedicated lines might be too expensive. And in Germany, a mixed system has required years of route and schedule adjustments.

So the main lesson from Europe might be: Start slow. “The example of the Spanish case should not serve precisely to animate U.S. politicians” but warn them off, wrote El Mundo soberly after Gov. Scott’s decision in Florida. “The governments [here in Spain] spent a fortune on the AVE while the economy flourished thanks to the real estate bubble.” And the era of Spanish rail enthusiasm in the early 2000s contributed to Spanish debt — which has made at least as many headlines over the past year as American high-speed trains.

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