July 5, 2012

Peer-reviewed high-speed rail study released

The Mineta Transportation Institute released its newest peer-reviewed research report, "Advancing High-Speed Rail Policy in the U.S." This report builds on a review of international experience with high-speed rail projects to develop recommendations for a high-speed rail (HSR) policy framework for the U.S. It concludes that the potential to reduce travel times coupled with improved travel time reliability and safety will be the most compelling points and that the project funding mix be should be skewed heavily toward federally-guaranteed state bonds.

"We conducted an international review and looked at the experiences of Korea, Taiwan, China and several nations in Europe," said one of the principal investigators Dr. Senanu Ashiabor. "These countries have pursued HSR to achieve various goals, which include relieving congestion on highway networks, freeing up capacity on rail networks for freight train operations, and reducing travel time for travelers. Some of the key rationales do not work well in the U.S. context, while others do. For example, though congestion levels on U.S. intercity highways are not at unbearable levels, most legislators know that additional capacity will be needed to support the increased demand generated by population growth in the future. HSR will be one of the key options for addressing this need."

The researchers believe one of the reasons the U.S. continues to lack a firm HSR policy framework is that advocates have not developed a few key, compelling arguments that politicians can coalesce behind to push for HSR development. In the researchers' view, on-time reliability, improved speeds (shorter travel times) and relatively greater safety of HSR compared to other modes of travel are the most compelling arguments for HSR in the U.S.

The report notes that HSR lines work best in high-density, economically active corridors. Given the limited number of such corridors in the U.S., the study recommends that state bonds guaranteed by the federal government should be the primary funding source. This will ensure that the states benefiting directly from the projects pay most of the costs, making it more palatable to states that may not have HSR projects.

For projects that span multiple states, the report says, member states may have to negotiate the level of financial responsibility that each will bear. This would require detailed negotiations and financial setups not addressed in the report.

The report recommends other measures, as well. For example:

  • The federal government must develop measures to designate a key agency and dedicated funding source, and to develop regulations and specifications for HSR design and construction.
  • States that embark on HSR projects should start with formal legislation and put in place structures to ensure sustained political support throughout the project's planning and construction.
  • The federal government also must move quickly to foster educational and training centers to develop the U.S. HSR workforce.

For the full report, click here.

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