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The Nuts And Bolts Of High-Speed Rail


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. High-speed trains zip around regions in Europe and - in Asia, and they've been doing it for some time. The Shanghai maglev train in China, for example, has a top speed of 268 miles per hour and can travel nearly 20 miles in less than eight minutes. On the other hand, America has been on the slow track when it comes to these bullet trains. But recent developments may give some momentum to high-speed rail in this country.

Last week, California lawmakers gave the go-ahead to start laying down high-speed track between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And Amtrak recently unveiled a proposal to upgrade its Northeast Corridor to true high-speed rail. And if that plan materializes, by 2040 the trains will be capable of cruising at speeds of 220 miles per hour. And you would get passengers from New York to Washington in a little over 90 minutes. Boy, we'd certainly like to see that happen. But you know, is that really going to happen? Is it possible? Will these developments usher in an era of super-fast trains or is this just another yeah, I've heard that before, not in my lifetime?

Dr. Christopher Barkan is a professor and executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's also director of the National University Rail Center, and he joins us from Urbana. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. CHRISTOPHER BARKAN: Hello, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. How do we define high-speed rail in this country? Because I think people think, if a train goes over 60 miles an hour, it's high-speed in this country.

BARKAN: Well, it's a little bit more than that. But basically, there are some definitions that have been adopted by the U.S. government as well as the International Union of Railways. And typically, we would say - the International Union of Railways would say that a - trains traveling at more than about 150 to 155 miles per hour are high-speed trains. And in the U.S., of course, we have a lot of what we could call shared lines or shared corridors, and there we would define high-speed operation as up to about 125 miles per hour.

FLATOW: And the Acela, which we take here in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, how fast does that get up to?

BARKAN: Its maximum speed on most parts of the railroad are 135 miles per hour, but they do have two stretches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island where it gets up to 150 miles per hour. And in fact, they could go faster. The infrastructure and the train could actually get up to 160 miles per hour or so, but they've chosen to operate at a maximum of 150 there.

FLATOW: Well, the track, from my experience riding these rails for many years, is not that great a shape. So I'd wonder how they do that. (Chuckling)

Well, let's talk about the California idea between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Is that going to happen?

BARKAN: I believe so. Certainly, the vote last week in California was very encouraging. It was encouraging, I think, from the standpoint of both the Californians and the nation. And, indeed, it's being watched by the rest of the world. Actually, this week, I was attending an international high-speed rail congress in Philadelphia that was sponsored by the International Union of Railways, which we call the UIC, and the American Public Transportation Association, or APTA. And this was a very well-attended conference. We had over a thousand people there from all over the world, and certainly prominent in our discussions were the various developments in the U.S. as well as elsewhere in the world. And I can tell you that the news from California was very exciting to that audience.

FLATOW: But is it exciting to the Californians?

BARKAN: Well, I can't say. I live Illinois.


BARKAN: But, you know, they've voted for this several times. I know there's been a lot of sort of controversy stirred up over the last couple of years, partly - well, for a variety of reasons that I won't pretend to fully understand. But I think there are some people that talk a lot about the negatives associated with high-speed rail. But there's a lot of positives as well, and I think it's important to take a balanced perspective on this. And certainly the high-speed rail, the transportation community in general in the United States has looked to California as a leader for many years. They've been doing a lot of good work planning for this system, and that was why they were given the amount of awards, the grants from the Federal Railroad Administration a couple of years ago. And, of course, the vote last week was critical to their fulfilling their commitment to the Federal Railroad Administration as far as moving forward with this project.

FLATOW: Does any new technology have to be invented or designed for this California project or could you use current technology? Would it be magnetic levitated trains?

BARKAN: No. I don't think it's going to be maglev. I think what California is planning on using and that really is the state of the art in terms of steel wheel on rail that's been adopted now by at least 20 countries around the world.

You mentioned the Shanghai maglev system in your opening remarks there, and I've actually ridden that line and, you know, it's a great thing to ride from the Shanghai airport to a suburb of downtown Shanghai, Pudong, in eight minutes. But what the Chinese did after they made that decision to build that line is they decided to build the rest of their nation - national high speed rail system with, quote/unquote, "conventional" steel wheel on rail. And they are one of the many countries in the world that's building a state of the art system, and we would typically define that these days as capable of 220 miles per hour operation as a maximum speed.

FLATOW: Well, just a - wow, that's pretty fast for wheels, steel on rail as you say.

BARKAN: Yes, although it's not - it's nowhere near the record. The French set the record - and I apologize, I'm going to forget the exact speed right now - but the French set the world high-speed rail record several years ago with an experimental run. And it was, I think, over 300 miles per hour.

FLATOW: Hmm. Where does it - where - what is the parameter for deciding whether it's right to build a railroad connection or leave it to an airplane? How far apart and...

BARKAN: Yeah, that's a good question. It's been pretty well studied. In fact, at the congress I attended this past week, one of the prominent professors in the field, Professor Vukan Vuchic from the University of Pennsylvania, who's talked about this for quite some time, gave a nice presentation explaining this, which is that there's kind of sweet spot, if you will, in terms of the transportation distance that makes sense for high-speed rail. And it's generally considered somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 miles, up to about 600 miles. If it's less than that, it probably makes sense to either use automobile or conventional rail or some other form of public transportation. If it's more than, say, six or 700 miles, then it starts to make sense to use airplanes.

And there's a very well, sort of, considered set of parameters that go into calculating that related to the time it takes to begin your journey to get that station or the airport, to get through security in the case of air transit travel and then, of course, speed of the vehicle itself. And then kind of the opposite set of processes at the other end as you continue on to your final destination.

FLATOW: But as air traffic, in my experience, certainly gets worse, and you get a half-hour delay on each end of a trip, let's say, you know, that puts another hour of rail time at - I - and according to your calculation of, let's say, 200 miles an hour, it could stretch it another 200 miles. That would be the break-even point, you know?

BARKAN: I think you've been taking Professor Vuchic's class because he talked about that...


BARKAN: He made that exact point. That, in fact, as you - as, you know, the original calculations that were made, you know, some time ago, as both airport delays have increased and the speed of trains has also increased, it's actually moved that sweet spot up to a higher sort of threshold or tradeoff point where it makes sense to travel by - it would make sense for you to travel by plane instead of train. So that's exactly the direction we're moving...

FLATOW: Listen, you...

BARKAN: ...worldwide.

FLATOW: You give me three hours on a tarmac versus three hours on a moving train with my Wi-Fi connection and my - the bar car or whatever you have there, and I know what I'm going to take anytime...


BARKAN: Right.

FLATOW: ...it gets down to it. 1-800-989-8255. Lots of people are interested in talking about this. Let's go to the phones, to Jim in Clarksboro, New Jersey. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi. How are you, Ira?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JIM: I - OK. I have a question about the route that they're proposing for this. Right now, a train from San Diego going to Bakersfield has to stop in Los Angeles, offload to a bus, and the bus goes over the Grapevine on the interstate. I understand, looking at The New York Times map, this looks like it's going around, more like through the Tehachapi Pass, which is only slightly less steep than over the Grapevine. And I'm wondering how they're going to do this with a high-speed rail.

BARKAN: I'm afraid I'm not intimately familiar with the engineering details of that. I mean, I certainly know the Tehachapi route in general. You know, one of the challenges they face in California - and I think this has been one of the reasons why there's been some controversy about that project - is that because of the mountainous nature of the terrain there, they're going to require a lot of tunneling, which is, of course, more expensive than building, you know, out over the flat plains.

But again, as I mentioned earlier, the Californians and the various people working with them have been studying the route alternatives for some time, doing engineering alternative analyses to figure out what's going to be the best compromise in terms of cost and performance and all the factors that go into deciding the route.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Of course, if you're going to build a high-speed rail that gets you to the outskirts of a city, then take as much time to get from the outskirts to the train station, you'd rather have a spur, would you not, that takes you right down to the midtown or wherever you're going to be left off?

BARKAN: Yeah. I mean, that's - I would say from a worldwide perspective, that's certainly what has happened, is that routes are designed to go downtown. But actually, when you bring up the idea of a spur, I'm reminded of the French system, which, of course, is one of the early and the most well-developed systems in the world. And they have a really beautiful system that's been developed where pretty much all of their lines go through the Charles de Gaulle Airport on the north side of the city. But they also have a couple of spurs that go into downtown terminals.

So you can board a train in downtown Paris and go to various points in the country. But you can also fly into Charles de Gaulle Airport, and it's amazingly convenient. You walk - you get off the plane, you walk down the hallway in the terminal, and you literally go down two sets of escalators, and you're on the platform waiting for your train.

And in general, there's no place in France that you can't get to from there in three hours. There's a, you know, few exceptions, but in general, that's the situation. And not only that, you can go on to Belgium and Germany and the Netherlands, as well as, obviously, to London.

FLATOW: I'm ready to jump on. Bill in Denver, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BILL: Yes. Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking me. I was out in Los Angeles just this last weekend and saw in the newspaper that the French had asked to - well, they volunteered their expertise for building this, and they were turned down. And I was wondering, is this hubris on our part, particularly after all the talk we've heard about the French just in the last five minutes?

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Christopher Barkan. Dr. Barkan, what do you say?

BARKAN: Well, I'm not familiar with that report. I wonder if there's not more to the story. What's happening, I think, in a number of systems around the country is that the French and various other international companies and consortia that have developed expertise in high-speed rail technology over the last half century are very interested in the markets that are potentially developing in the United States, and California kind of being the leader in this regard, there's a lot of interest in that. And I, yeah, you know, I'm not familiar with that particular point that this listener is - this caller is raising, but I can envision possibly that there was a series of proposals requested and, perhaps, somebody else - somebody else's proposal looked better than the French. Maybe the Japanese looked better than the French proposal. That's the way the marketplace works.

FLATOW: How did America lose its way in the railroad business? I mean, we were in the forefront, right, in the 1960s with everybody else, and then poof.

BARKAN: Let me respond to - first of all, to the premise that we've lost our way in terms of railroads. This country has - this continent has the best freight railroad system in the world. You know, we look enviously across the various oceans to high-speed rail systems in Asia and Europe and think, you know, we would like to have that here in the United States. But they turn around and look back at us and say, we wish we had the U.S. freight railroad system, which is the most efficient and economical system in the world. So it's important to understand that when we say we lost our way, we lost our way with regard to our passenger rail system, but not our freight rail system. In fact, that's gone, you know, in exactly the right direction for the last 40 years.

Regarding what happened with our passenger rail system, it's a complicated question. And, you know, I've talked about this with my friends and colleagues here. And there's a variety of things that I think conspired to lead to that situation. As you say, in the 1960s, we were among the leaders. We had our Metroliner program. The Japanese were, of course, developing their Shinkansen. The French were developing their high-speed TGV. But the financial condition of the railroad industry, especially in the northeast corridor, was in rather dire straits in that period of time.

And so - and I think the understanding of the potential role of high-speed trains as part of a larger transportation picture kind of got lost because of so many other crises related to the rail industry at that time. And so we had to kind of put our high-speed rail plans on hold to sort out the whole freight railroad situation, which, among other things, resulted in deregulation of the freight railroad industry and their regaining the health that they're exhibiting today.

I think also - I think we still didn't understand in this country that highway transport and air transport weren't going to be able to fulfill our transportation needs in the future. Obviously, the price of petroleum was far less then, and our roads were less congested, and our airways were less congested. But all that - those things have changed in the ensuing 40 years.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Barkan, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. And we're going to - we'll watch what happens out there in California because, you know, they do innovate for the rest of the country. Christopher Barkan, professor and executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thanks again.

BARKAN: All right. Well, thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. He's also director of the National University Rail Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.