New York City thrives on the cutting edge of innovation. It’s a hotspot for creative engineering; a perpetual testing ground for the technologies that will advance us into a new era of achievement. It maintains an all but permanent place at the forefront of global advancement, racing alongside cities like London, Beijing, Tokyo, and Paris to a brighter, more tech-forward future. It’s a developmental sprint that New York seems well-primed to win — provided, that is, that judges don’t strike points for the city’s lamentably outdated rail network.
It might not be entirely fair to say that the United States’ transportation infrastructure stacks up like a Shetland pony at the Kentucky Derby, but the comparison isn’t necessarily incorrect, either. Both France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) and China’s national high-speed rail can top speeds of 350 miles per hour; in Germany, rail lines can speed travelers along at over 300 kilometers per hour. The United States’ Acela Express, in contrast, can scrape by at top speeds of just 155 miles per hour. Compared to its peers, America is several decades out of date and, I would argue, missing out on the benefits that urban transit provides.
The United States is sorely in need of an update — and given its reputation for being a prominent hub for innovation, it makes sense that New York should be at the forefront of transportation development.
In January 2019, state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens) submitted a bill that would create a commission to study the potential for high-speed rail transit. The bill is currently scheduled to be reviewed during the 2019-2020 session, so the state legislature has yet to come to any firm conclusions regarding the idea — however, Kim’s commission seems to be a step in the right direction. As Kim himself commented in a recent article for Politico, “We need to rethink our overall economic development vision for the entire state, and that starts with some version of high-speed rail.”
To follow Kim’s point, let’s consider a few reasons why New Yorkers would benefit from a high-speed rail.
Facilitate Regional Travel
High speed rail naturally makes regional travel faster, easier, and less expensive. Consider the experience of Business Insider writer Harrison Jacobs, who recently documented his time traveling across China via train for the publication. According to Jacobs, high-speed rail empowered him to travel the 746 miles between Beijing and Xi’an in about four and a half hours. In comparison, he notes, America’s tracks are painfully slow. “If I wanted to travel a comparable distance in the US by train — at 712 miles, New York to Chicago is the closest — it would take 22 hours with a transfer in Washington, DC,” he writes, “And that’s with traveling on Amtrak’s Acela Express, currently the fastest train in the US.”
In the States, frequent business or recreational trips between the two hubs would be inconvenient to the point of impossibility. However, if travelers had the option to make the same trip in a quarter of the time, who is to say that they wouldn’t take advantage of it? The ease of transport could improve commercial trade between regional hubs, improve the creative flow of ideas between states, and give people more agency to travel for work and pleasure.
Add Short- and Long-Term Jobs
Faster public transit has the potential to bring more jobs to New York. Shortly after taking office in 2010, then-governor Andrew Cuomo asserted as much in an open letter: “High-speed rail could be transformative for New York — with the potential to revitalize Upstate New York’s economy with construction jobs now and permanent jobs created by the new high-speed rail links to New York City, Toronto, and Montreal in the future.”
He has a point. A high-speed rail network would create a host of immediate construction and train management jobs, as well as facilitate a significant number of long-term commuter positions. With the high-speed infrastructure in place, conducting inter-state — or even international — travel and commerce would be easier than ever, allowing for greater economic growth, intellectual exchanges, and business development.
Improve Quality of Life
It’s well-established that high-speed trains can significantly improve life in urban hubs. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently found that “bullet trains fuel real-estate booms, improve quality of life, reduce air pollution and traffic congestion, and provide a “safety valve” for crowded cities.”
Take China as a case study for the public benefits of this phenomenon; within a few years of rail construction, new “exoburbs” began to emerge within 400 miles of urban hubs such as Beijing and Shanghai. These rail-adjacent communities enabled those who might not have been able to afford city living a chance to commute from more affordable — and previously impractically distant — towns. The greater urban spread limited the day-to-day drain that a too-high population might otherwise place on a city’s resources and made living within a commutable distance more financially feasible for its workforce. In New York, having a high-speed regional commuter rail could alleviate the pressure of overpopulation, cut down on traffic congestion, and even cut down on the pollution caused by vehicular commuters.
The benefits of building a network of high-speed rail lines are both clear and pressing. As matters stand, New York’s sorely outdated transportation system holds the city back from being the global innovation leader that it should be. It’s a stumbling block that needs to be remedied — otherwise, we may find ourselves trailing behind even as our international peers race full speed ahead.