The romance of riding the rails may be returning to America thanks to new federal funding and a public hungry for ways to save time, money, the environment, and add a measure of convenience in their hectic lives.
According to a new study commissioned by HNTB Corporation, more than half of Americans (54%) would choose modern high-speed trains over automobile (33%) and air travel (13%) if fares and travel time were about the same.
High-speed rail is receiving renewed attention in the U.S. due to a variety of factors, including last year's spike in fuel prices, the passage of a $10 billion bond measure in California last November to support the development of a high-speed rail system there, and $8 billion this year for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Prominent supporters from both political parties include President Barack Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. John Mica, ranking Republican member of the committee; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who recently toured high-speed rail systems in Spain.
The survey showed Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71%), less expensive fares (69%) and faster trains (55%) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region.
Peter Gertler, chair of HNTB's rail practice, said educating people who haven't ridden high-speed trains remains a priority. There were clear differences between experienced and nonexperienced riders, including a much lower preference for traveling to large cities nearby via car (41% versus 69%) and a higher expectation of productivity when traveling high-speed rail on business (51% versus 38%).
He added the fact that less than three in ten (29%) Americans understand the environmental impact high-speed trains can have versus traditional train travel--and high-speed rail's overall positive impact versus other forms of transportation--emphasizes the need for a more informed public.
"High-speed rail will benefit the country in a variety of ways, including improved mobility, job creation, reduced usage of fossil fuel and fewer annual greenhouse gas emissions," Gertler said. "High-speed trains use one-third as much energy as comparable air travel and consume less than one-fifth as much energy as driving. This is proven technology that America can adopt and protect its status as a mobility super power."
Transforming transportation in America
High-speed trains operate significantly faster than traditional trains, traveling from 110 mph to more than 200 mph. The highest-speed trains are powered by electricity, but others run on diesel fuel. Currently, the only operational high-speed rail system in the U.S. is the Acela Express, which travels between Boston and Washington, DC, and achieves speeds up to 150 mph.
HNTB's research, the second in a series of "America THINKS" surveys, found even greater acceptance of high-speed rail among the 18% of Americans who have experienced such travel here or abroad. An overwhelming majority of high-speed train travelers (82%) found it more enjoyable than plane travel and slightly more than half (51%) said they would be most productive on high-speed trains when traveling for business.
"For more than 40 years, with the exception of the Acela, the United States has not been able to implement high-speed rail while other countries developed, ran, and are retiring their first high-speed trains to museums," Gertler said.
Even among those who haven't traveled by high-speed rail, more respondents said they would prefer traveling on such trains (22%) rather than by plane (6%) or bus (3%) to the closest large city. Only Americans' love affair with their cars provided a stronger pull (69%).
In fact, nearly half of respondents (49%) said the best benefit of high-speed rail in their region would be the ability to travel more easily to cities up to 400 miles away. Experts agree high-speed rail is best-suited for journeys of 100-500 miles or 1 to 3 hours. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration has identified 10 such corridors as potential centers of high-speed rail activity.
HNTB's America THINKS survey polled a random nationwide sample of 1,007 Americans March 18-23, 2009. It was conducted by Kelton Research, which used an e-mail invitation and online survey. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over. The margin of error is +/- 3.1%.