What Real Rail Systems Look Like: HSR Connections

July 6, 2012 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Since the decline and almost total destruction of the American Passenger Rail Network in the 70s and the demolition and dismemberment of the interurbans and streetcars in almost every city across the continent during the 40's and 50's the memory and easy familiarity with an interlinked network of passenger rail systems has almost completely faded. In fact, for most Americans, the only images they have of passenger rail systems, and subways in particular, are Amtrak, the New York Metro, the San Francisco BART, and Chicago. Not a very inspiring bunch. However, most of the rest of the developed countries have quite wonderful passenger rail networks. They are clean, efficient, cheap, run on time, have as many as 20 or even 25 trains an hour (one every three minutes) during peak periods, and everybody from all income levels uses them. Join Nate Lewis, economist and urban theorist as we have a look at High Speed Rail around the world.

This is the second in a series of articles from Nate Lewis on Transit Systems.  The first one "How a Real Transit Rail System Looks" can be found here:  http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2010-aug-what-a-real-transit-rail-system-looks-like-the-station

It is a wonderful photo essay on some of the stunningly beautiful transit stations from around the world.

Now, let's add some high-speed rail. This is the way to get from one subway/city train system to another, within about a 500 mile radius.

The original 1960s "bullet train" (the Japanese name is the "New Trunk Line" or shinkansen).

Things have moved on a bit since then.

Pretty much all the major cities outside of Hokkaido are covered.

There is of course a regular normal-speed train system as well, which covers the smaller cities and towns.

The French TGVs are not quite so sexy, but still do the trick.

This is the map of France's TGV system. You can get about anywhere you want to go at 200+ kph.

This train map of France includes the regular-speed trains as well.

Since this map was made, a few more train lines have been added. Also, this is a "schematic" map. Where there are a bunch of train stations that are "close together," that doesn't mean they are physically close together. It was something they did to fit it all in one map.

As you can see, you can get to and from about anywhere via the train. One reason for this is that -- naturally -- all the important stuff is near the train station. If you are a business or store, you want to be where it is easy for your workers and customers to get to. Residences too are better off when they are within a 15 minute walk of the station.

Sometimes you run into discussions on the Internet and elsewhere about how wonderful the Washington DC subway is, and how this should be a model for the future. These people also like to talk about Portland, Oregon a lot. This is so pathetic I don't know what to say. It is like watching people bang on pots with spoons and talk about what great music they are making. If you run into these people, please ignore them completely. Not only are they utterly lost, they also seem to have no capacity for learning. If you have read this far, you already know more than they do.

This is the train map for Washington DC. As you can see, it is an irrelevant little fart of a train system.

It is much better than nothing at all. But, it is hardly a good representation of what is possible. Getting excited about this is like getting excited about someone who stops pooping in their own pants and learns how to use a toilet. Which is fine for a three-year-old, but not so much for someone with a graduate degree in Urban Studies, which most of these people have.

I should mention also the normal-speed, above-ground train lines that are the bread and butter of a real train system, once you get out of the central urban area which is served by a subway.

The familiar orange cars of the Chuo Line, Tokyo. One of Japan's oldest train lines, along with the Tokaido Line.

Not very sexy, but it is clean, on time, runs a zillion trains a day, and works great. Like your plumbing system. It does exactly what it is supposed to with no problems whatsoever.

Nice train with nice people.

Platform of a typical station.

So, now we have all the elements of a proper train system -- the kind of system that you can ride all over the country, and never once wish you had a car instead. Once you have a system like this, cars become completely unnecessary.

If the Gakugei Daigaku area looks like too much of a hugger-mugger for you, maybe a more sedate European example is more your thing. Hey, it's up to you to design the pedestrian Traditional City of your dreams. You be the big boss! This street from Vienna certainly looks more dignified, but the Gakugei Daigaku area is more fun (trust me). Actually, when you get out of the commercial area near the train station, there are lots of stately houses and apartments on quiet streets in the Gakugei Daigaku area too. So you can have it both ways; you can live on a quiet little street, and then walk three minutes to the hubbub around the station.

If you go to a Japanese automobile exurb, you will also find that there are some parking lots around the train station, and it is not so easy to walk. The result is much the same as Westport, though typically not nearly so bad. This serves merely as another example of how not to do it. There are Japanese automobile suburbs too, and they stink in pretty much the same way as automobile suburbs anywhere else. However, in the Japanese case, there is an alternative: you could live in a place like the Gakugei Daigaku area. That's why vehicle sales have plummeted over the past few years: from a peak of 7.1 million units in 1996, they have declined steadily to 4.25 million estimated for 2009. That's a hefty 40% drop in only twelve years.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if they continued to fall, to perhaps 2.0 million or less? Giving up cars voluntarily!

That's about all you need to know about trains and Traditional Cities. As you can see, it is really quite easy to solve the problem of car dependency, and all of the other catastrophes of Suburban Hell, if you know what you are doing.

Plus, we also solved our oil dependency, and reduced our energy and resource use by probably 80%, without even thinking about it. It costs less -- because we aren't supporting an enormous amount of automobile infrastructure -- and we're having way more fun too. This stuff is a cinch.

Nathan Lewis is the principal of Kiku Capital Management LLC, which manages a private investment partnership.

He was formerly the Chief International Economist and Global Strategist for firms providing investment research to institutions.

This article was originally published on http://www.newworldeconomics.com

Intro Text by Stephen Dare
Photos by Nathan Lewis