Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wi-fi at 200 mph in Europe - the future of American travel

I'm on the Thalys high speed rail from Brussels to Paris, rocketing past cars on the highway at 200 mph, connected to wi-fi. I came to the station without a ticket just before noon and walked into the RailTeam office where all the different private operators share a ticket-selling service to keep costs down. For 95 Euros (about $125), I had a one-way to Paris departing in 15 minutes. I didn't need any identification and I didn't need to take off my clothes in order to get on the train.

This trip is a 3 hour, 15 minute drive without any traffic. It's about 200 miles.

Imagine every set of cities that are about 200 miles apart. Chicago-Springfield comes to mind since I travel it often. Imagine how dificult it is to make a day trip -- and really, how few day trips are actually made, because it takes so long to drive.

This train takes one hour and 22 minutes. And there are up to 27 departures a day.

Imagine that!

I'm also on wi-fi, so I and the many other people on this rather crowded train on a Sunday afternoon are productive. That improves the productivity of the whole region, which is why investing in assets like high speed rail makes countries more valuable.

Just like companies, countries need to get more efficient by reducing their costs. American transportation costs are very high, especially as they are primarily fueled by oil. That commodity's price is going to rise in the future, perhaps dramatically, as demand increases and supply shrinks.

This high speed rail has two major differences from American rail (but it runs on the same steel tracks with the same regular steel wheels). One: it is powered by electricity with overhead wires. Two: there are no places where the road and the rail meet so no cars or people can ever walk across the tracks.

To build up our American network for high speed rail, we need our tracks to become electrified by running overhead wires over the tracks and converting the locomotives from running on oil to running on electricity. We also need to build lots of bridges or tunnels between the road and the rail so that the track becomes completely grade-separated.

And we need to build new passenger-only tracks, owned by the government and leased to a private company, so we can run the trains at 200 mph.

As one Frenchman put it on the TGV, American put a man on the moon, and you don't have high speed rail?

The way we get it is with more government money. Much more. We don't spend enough taxpayer money on our infrastructure in the first place (our gas tax is 19 cents a gallon, while Europe's gas tax is on the average about $5 a gallon), and of the money we do spend, we spend far too much of it on roads and not nearly enough on rail.

We need to start separating our road network from our rail network with the money we spend now and we need to spend much more money on building up a passenger rail network running on electricity -- if we want the economic growth that comes from becoming more efficient and using less foreign oil.

Much of the rest of the wealthy world are building high speed rail to make their countries wealthier and efficient. If they can do it, so can we.