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High Speed Rail ~ Its History and Implications in North America

Although the first high speed rail was invented in Europe, the Japanese were the first to create a system out of it.

The Japanese High Speed Train (Current Model)


The Era of the High Speed Rail

At no other time in history has the High Speed Rail received so much attention. Many countries are choosing this mode of transportation because we have come to realize that relying on cars is creating a big problem. We also need to be concerned with protecting our environment and choose the means of transportation that is more environment friendly. The high speed rail (hereafter, HSR) is known to emit less green house gas than an airplane or an automobile. Around the world, especially in Europe and China, the high speed rail system is being expanded and/or built at an alarming rate. In Japan, the current high speed rail system was just recently extended to Aomori, the northern most prefecture on the island of Honshu.

In North America, there is no real HSR system similar to that of Japan or France. The only system that resembles the HSR is the Acela Express connecting Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. North Americans have chosen the automobile as their mode of transportation around the beginning of the 20th century and car ownership spread widely in North America while the existing train system, which was not competitive, deteriorated in the years that followed. Air travel became available to the general public in the latter part of the 20th century and along with the building of huge interstate highways, airports were created and expanded. The car and the airplane became the primary modes of transportation in North America and the system has served the public well until recently.

The Problems Created by the Automobile

Within North America, cars are creating a nightmarish traffic congestion, accidents and fatalities occur frequently, and it is becoming more expensive to drive with the rising fuel costs. Particularly in urban centers, the population increase has given rise to these problems. In order to deal with these problems, various rail and/or high speed rail projects are sprouting up. The first of these projects would be the California High Speed Rail, connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles and eventual extension to Sacramento and San Diego. Construction is due to begin in 2012.

The HSR typically connects two or more major urban centers and can carry more passengers than a car or an airplane. (The HSR in Japan has a seating capacity of 1,300, whereas the airline's capacity is around half). The HSR also creates jobs, not just those involving the construction of the rail system, but after the HSR station is built, it becomes a hub that attracts people as a point of transit and various businesses are lured around the station, for example, restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, etc.


Railways were the first form of mass transportation on land and until the development of the motorcar in the early 20th century, it had an effective monopoly on land transport. According to wikipedia the free encyclopedia, the high speed train was tested on a military track on October 6, 1903 between Marrenfeld and Zossen in Germany. It recorded a speed of 203 km/h. It showed that high speed rail was possible, and that the future was electric. Before that, the steam locomotive had been dominant, in Japan as well. Even before the electrical era in Japan, people had always relied on trains as a means of transport and for carrying goods. As land is very expensive in Japan, it was not possible to build a road system as in North America, so developing a rail system was mostly out of necessity. The need for a more efficient rail system became apparent during World War II. After WWII in Europe and Japan, emphasis was given to building and expanding the rail system whereas in North America in the decades after WWII, emphasis was given to building huge interstate highways and airports.

How HSR Started in Japan

The first HSR system in the world, called the Shinkansen (meaning "new trunk line" in Japanese), came into effect in 1964 in time for the Tokyo Olympics. This system was called the Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokaido meaning Eastern Sea Corridor Line) and connected the two major cities in Japan, Tokyo and Osaka, which are about 500 km apart.

In the 1950s, the Tokaido Line, a limited express service connecting these two cities was running out of capacity as more and more people were taking this line. It was decided that a new line was needed. Shinji Sogo, then president of the Japan National Railways managed to persuade the politicians to back the plan for the HSR as a new line between Tokyo and Osaka. Construction on the first segment began in April 1959 and the Tokaido Shinkansen service began in October 1, 1964.

The funding for the construction of the Shinkansen was made possible by railway bonds and low interest loan of US $80 million from the World Bank.

The Tokaido Shinkansen was an immediate success, reaching the 100 million passenger mark in less than three years and the one billion passenger mark in 1976. With an average of 23,000 passengers per hour per direction in 1992, the Tokaido Shinkansen is the world's busiest high speed rail line.

The "0" Series Shinkansen, the original model used when the HSR service in Japan started in 1964


Introduction in Europe

Japan's success contributed to the revival of the HSR idea in Europe. UK introduced the first above 200 km/h service without building new lines. In the 1970s, several countries started building new high speed rail lines: Italy's Rome to Florence, Germany's Hannover to Wurzberg, Stuttgart to Mannheim and France's Paris to Lyon.

The Paris to Lyon line officially opened in 1981 and became immensely successful. Journey time shrunk from 3.5 hours to 2 hours and France became Europe's leading HSR nation.

The French High Speed Train was called the TGV ("Train a Grande Vitesse", meaning "high speed train").

The French TGV


With the construction of the Channel Tunnel, the TGV was extended to London.

Spain's first HSR line opened in 1992 between Madrid and Seville in time for the EXPO in Seville. In 2005, a huge plan of infrastructures, aimed at providing high speed connection to 90% of the population by 2020 went into effect. Since then, Spain is leading the construction of HSR in Europe. 2219 km are currently under construction to be finished between 2010 and 2012.

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Japan and Europe's success were dependent on already successful and heavily used mass transit passenger trains, as well as urban density.The rationale for the introduction of HSR in Japan and France was the need for additional capacity to meet increasing demand for passenger rail travel. High Speed Trains run on a dedicated track, meaning that it does not share the track with freight and/or other trains. However, the majority of the HSR stations use existing major train stations which are already used heavily, making it easier for passengers to transfer on to the HSR.

If a new HSR station is built from scratch, that station is made easily accessible by connecting it to a major station by train. Shin Yokohama(meaning "new Yokohama") station, an HSR station built when the Tokaido Shinkansen went into service, is now a major transit station with hotels, concert halls, and shopping centers surrounding it.

The station was built amidst rice fields in time for the inauguration of the Tokaido Shinkansen. When it was connected to Yokohama station, a major transit hub, by two separate train lines, more people began taking the HSR. This is what the station looks like today.



Fuel Efficiency and Other Advantages

There are several advantages of the HSR:

* Very few high speed trains consume fossil fuels but the power stations that provide electric trains with power can consume fossil fuels. Considering the number of people in a car vs. the number of people on the HSR, the HSR is more fuel efficient.

* On the Eurostar travelling between London and Paris, emissions from travelling by train are 90% lower than by flying.

CO2 Emissions by Modes by Transportation


As seen, travelling by large car only with one occupant emits the most Co2 and travelling by train only emits the least CO2.

*No passenger fatalities in the history of the Shinkansen in Japan due to derailments or collisions despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons.

*There was only one derailment during the earthquake in 2004, and a new anti-derailment device was installed. Also, the earthquake detection system can bring the train to a stop quickly.

*Less weather dependency than air travel: severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, fog and storms do not affect the journey whereas flights are generally cancelled or delayed. Still, snow and falling trees due to winds often delay trains.

High Speed Rail in North America ~ California High Speed Rail

With the success of the HSR in Japan and Europe, North Americans have become eager about bringing the HSR here. The various problems associated with the automobile will finally be addressed through a different mode of transportation. Well, finally the HSR is coming to North America!

The California High Speed Rail is a planned future high speed rail plan headed by the California High Speed Rail Authority. It will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles through various cities in between: Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Anaheim, Irvine, Riverside, and San Diego. Construction is due to start in 2012.

To finance the HSR, US$9.95 billion in general obligation bonds was issued. The total estimated cost by the CHSRA is projected to be $42.6 to $45 billion.

I travelled to San Diego and Los Angeles in Christmas 2009 and found the traffic congestion there to be an absolute nightmare. The trip from Costa Mesa in Orange County to Hollywood took two hours via the interstate highway. Once the congestion began, every car was literally inching forward. With the population of California increasing, their need for a mass transit is indeed urgent.

California is actually experiencing a budget crisis. So how can they finance such an expensive project? One thing to keep in mind is that HSR actually creates jobs. So with more jobs, there will be more tax revenue. This combined with a high ridership will eventually make the HSR pay for itself. This will only happen over a period of time.


There are, however, criticisms of the California HSR. The Reason Foundation, a non-profit think-tank have come up with these criticisms:

*Final Cost of the project would be $65 to $81 billion, significantly higher than estimated. (Estimate was $42.6 to $45 billion)

*Fewer riders by 2030, 23 to 31 million a year instead of 65 to 96 million forecast by rail authority

*Part of the route high speed trains will travel on will be on freight train tracks rather than upgraded high speed rail tracks, therefore, proposed speed will be difficult between the majority of stops.

Problems in North America

Because the primary mode of transportation in North America has been the automobile and the airplane, mass transit is often inadequate and inconvenient save for metropolitan areas such as New York City. So taking mass transit is not a fact of life for a majority of North Americans.

In order for the HSR to be successful, it has to be conveniently accessible by another form of mass transit. Therefore, building such a mass transit system is indispensable. Right now, Los Angeles is undergoing a mass rail extension/construction project. Under the current mayor, the goal is to restructure the rail system in Los Angeles in the next decade. This is called the 30/10 plan. If it is easy and convenient to get to a HSR station by bus or train, then more people will take the HSR. It helps to remember that those countries that have successful HSR systems already had a convenient mass transit system.

Another factor that is needed for the success of the HSR is urban density. Japan's population is centered in dense urban areas such as Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. The same could be said for Europe. London, Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona are all large metropolitan areas. So getting ridership on the HSR is not difficult. North America is extensive and urban density is present in limited areas such as California, Florida, the Mid West (Chicago-Milwaukee), and the North East Corridor (Boston-Washington D.C.). So in these areas, HSR can be successful but it may be very difficult to create an extensive, nation-wide HSR network.

Curtailing "Urban Sprawl"

Quite often in North America outside metropolitan areas, we see what is called the "urban sprawl". This is basically residences and businesses sprouting up in outlying areas, along newly constructed roads. If something is not done to curtail this sprawl, the city will grow outward and it will be difficult (and probably too expensive) to build mass transit to those outlying areas, discouraging residents living in those areas to travel to a HSR station located in the center of the city. Here in Waterloo, a certain point outside the city has been designated beyond which the city can not grow. A new transit system will be constructed soon so the city decided that in order for the transit to work properly, urban sprawl must be curtailed.

Major Life Style Change

Whether or not the HSR will succeed in North America is dependent upon the life style change of North Americans. They have been so used to the automobile as their mode of transportation that it seems difficult that they will choose HSR overnight. It may be that people would want to drive to the HSR stations at first. Mass transit is for the most part a foreign concept here in North America even while many have travelled to Europe and taken the transit system there. It is still not a fact of life for North Americans. Will North Americans embrace a foreign concept? I believe that if HSR, or any rail system is proven to be much more convenient and faster than other modes of transportation, then yes, they will choose it. If the California HSR is successful, this is what it may look like when it goes into effect. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Construction Is Now Underway!

Fastforward to 2018.The project has more than doubled in cost and is now over 11 years behind schedule. The agency, however, is currently working on the route between Bakersfield and Madera, due to completion by 2022.

Crews work on a section of the San Joaquin River Viaduct & Pegola in Fresno which will allow the rail line to fly above existing highways and city streets. Courtesy California HIgh Speed Rail Authority)

Crews work on a section of the San Joaquin River Viaduct & Pegola in Fresno which will allow the rail line to fly above existing highways and city streets. Courtesy California HIgh Speed Rail Authority)

The Bakersfield-Madera Route is the first phase of the California High Speed Rail project. When the full route is completed in 2033, as shown in the business plan below, it is expected to carry 30 million passengers each year on the high speed train traveling between 110 and 220 miles per hour.



High-speed rail-wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shinkansen-wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thanks to Mitsuo Fujimori, my late father, former professor at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, who gave me advice on writing this hub.


Brad on March 07, 2016:


The landowners in the central valley are suing because they don't want the HSR to come through their property. CA is run by the democrats state government, and CA hasn't even kept up with maintaining its highways.

The HSR delays boost up the proj cost estimates and that becomes a political obstruction to building the HSR. In my opinion, starting in the Central Valley doesn't make sense.

HSR dai mondai.

Takako Komori (author) from Yokohama, Japan on March 07, 2016:

Thanks for your comments. I`m wondering if the next president is a Republican, the HSR project will be prevented from making much progress? I did, however, read somewhere that construction has actually started in the Central Valley!

Brad on March 06, 2016:

Thanks Credence

Overtime, what you are saying has become true, I wonder, if we didn't already have the National Highway System today, could we get it built.

Probably not.

Credence2 from Florida (Space Coast) on March 06, 2016:

Thanks Brad, as for the lack of feedback, my sentiments exactly. America is always too much for expediency and short term profitability instead of making an investment with the long term in view.

Brad on March 05, 2016:

There hasn't been much progress at all since this hub. And the higher cost of doing this project in CA is the result of the constant stalling based on the usual CA politics.

The plan itself doesn't make much sense starting in the middle of the route. A better plan would be to start the project with multiple construction companies. This shouldn't be a major retirement project, it should be handled to get it done in the shortest amount of time, because more delays just increase the final cost of the project.

Develop the high rider routes first, and that would be San Diego to Los Angeles, and in the north San Francisco to San Jose. These two routes would have the highest ridership, and could be operational and bringing in revenue while the rest of the route, the lower ridership would be under construction.

The current route should follow the I5 freeway rather than the old highway 99, and provide shuttle trains to the towns off highway 99.

There is no real reason why this project shouldn't be worked on in parallel rather than sequentially.

The lack of progress in the US on a high speed rail show the world how much of a decline that politics have caused on the once powerful and mightiest country.

It is also a shame that this well thought out hub never got the feedback that it deserves.

Credence2 from Florida (Space Coast) on March 05, 2016:

The video of the proposed HSR really brought the concept home and to life. I will have to check and see how much progress toward getting it built has occurred since you wrote this article. It makes a nice compromise for speed allowing for comfort not always available flying. I wonder how much the ticket prices are?

Nice article, thanks

Brad on February 05, 2015:


I know nothing of the politics in Japan, or much about those in Canada, but California politics prevent anything useful for happening. Now in 2015, people here are against the HSR because they feel that it will end up being a new tax drain. Even though it was started with the Federal Government the HSR will have to be run by the state. That just means more taxes.

California nor the US have a good track record in recent times of creating and finishing large project like these. I expect this HSR project will take ten years, and never finish without going way over their budget.

Then when and if the train runs, it cannot be run efficiently or without losing money. That menas that the California taxpayers will have to bail it out.

And you were right about the car commutes in Southern Ca, it averages less than twenty miles an hour during rush hours.

It won't be any cheaper to build than it is today, but the politics will delay it along the way so that the price they budget today will not survive the length of the project.

I personally would like to see the HSR finished, but politics killed it. The price of gas is lower, but that won't make the car commute any faster.

I think that commuting is gridlock in most of the urban areas around the world, which is why anytime that you can find another way to avoid it makes for a better time.

De wa mata

Takako Komori (author) from Yokohama, Japan on February 05, 2015:

Hi, thanks for your comment! This hub was written in 2010, while I was living in Canada so some of the info is out of date. I haven`t been following the California HSR project since returning to Japan in 2012 so I thank you for the up date! Since the oil price is low right now, there may be less incentive to follow through with the HSR...

Brad on February 05, 2015:

This was a great hub and I am sorry that one commented on it.

I don't know how old it is but at least two years old.

Today, the informaiton about the California HSR is still in the talking stage, and reasons why not to do it, even though it is supposed to be in development.

China is the most accomplished HSR country.

The LA to SF HSR in California is going to take forever, California politics and implementation are pathetic. Too date they haven't even acquired all the right away they need for it.

They are going to start in the middle of the state, and as your trip from Costa Mesa indicates that is where it needs to start. San Diego should come before Sacramento.


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