Seattle to LA via HSR In Less Than 8 Hours?
OK, OK, the headline for this post is something of a tease. Today China began service on the world’s longest HSR line, running nearly 2,300 kilometers from Beijing to Guangzhou:
Two trains departed from stations in Beijing and Guangzhou at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., respectively, to mark the opening of the 2,298-km line.
Running at an average speed of 300 km per hour, the new route cuts travel time between Beijing and Guangzhou from over 20 hours to about eight.
A total of 155 pairs of trains will run on the new line daily and alternative schedules have been made for weekends and peak travel times, according to the Ministry of Railways (MOR).
There will still be 183 pairs of trains running daily on the old Beijing-Guangzhou line that runs parallel to the high-speed line, allaying concerns that the new line will increase passengers’ travel costs.
A second-class seat on the new high-speed line costs 865 yuan (138 U.S. dollars), while a sleeper on the old line sells for around 430 yuan.
China is continuing to invest in high speed rail, and over time it will become clear that they made the right choice. Some may complain that most of China’s HSR lines aren’t turning a profit, but that’s not the point of good transportation infrastructure. By providing reliable, low-cost transportation, you are supporting the creation of other economic activity. As oil production peaks and as the price continues to rise in the years to come, China’s high speed rail network will prove to be a major competitive advantage.
This new route is particularly notable for its long distance. The usual rule of thumb has been that HSR makes the most sense for city pairs under 800 kilometers (or, 500 miles). China is throwing that out the window, and expects that there will be demand for an eight hour ride between those cities. I expect they’ll see that demand materialize.
What would that route look like in North America? Going by driving distance along the Interstate 5 corridor, it’s 1825 kilometers from Seattle to Los Angeles, and 2222 kilometers from Vancouver BC to Tijuana BC – almost exactly the distance from Beijing to Guangzhou. One could travel border-to-border here on the West Coast in eight hours. Currently, a trip from Seattle to LA on the Coast Starlight is 36 hours. True, those are 36 very enjoyable hours, especially in a sleeper car, but an eight hour trip would be amazing.
As oil begins to fade as the primary fuel for transportation in North America, long-distance high speed rail will have to become an important part of this continent’s infrastructure plans. Once California HSR is built from LA to Sacramento, and Pacific Northwest HSR is built along the Amtrak Cascades route from Vancouver BC to Eugene, there would be a conspicuous yet closable gap. There are certainly a few engineering challenges between Eugene and Redding. But once the regional systems are built, connecting them should be a priority.
Or, like China, we can just do it all at once. The United States remains the richest country on the globe by far with a GDP of about $15 trillion and growing. Surely a small percentage of that each year can be dedicated to building a sustainable transportation network powered by renewable energy, carrying people between cities, states, and regions on high speed trains.
It’s going to happen eventually, and within many of our lifetimes. And I look forward to traveling the West Coast via bullet train.