American Exceptionalism and High-Speed Rail

17-Jul-2013 By Al Engel, Principal, Al Engel Consulting

French historian and author Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional” more than 170 years ago, because it was founded on a set of ideals, including liberty and equality, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or religion.

President Abraham Lincoln enshrined these core ideals in his Gettysburg Address when he described the nation as “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

But our cultural heritage also is that of a nation of revolutionaries who believe in rugged individualism, populism, and laissez-faire government policies. It is this aspect of American exceptionalism that causes the nation to be the only major developed economy in the world that has not deployed true high-speed rail as a transportation tool to link major city pairs, as have Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Korea, Taiwan, China, and others.

Amid great fanfare, France launched its high-speed rail service, dubbed the TGV, in 1981 and promoted it as a new mode of transport. The casual observer might have come to the conclusion that it was a French innovation, given the way it was being marketed. The fact that Japan had introduced high-speed rail in the Tokyo-Osaka corridor almost two decades earlier didn't seem to undermine the notion that it was a French innovation. To be sure, the French improved the technology substantially and introduced the articulated trainset where coaches shared a truck at the coupler. Beyond the dramatic time reduction for a trip between Paris and Lyon (300 miles in two hours), the environment was upscale and the service chic.

The TGV’s tremendous success, coupled with the long-term excellent performance of the Japanese Shinkansen services, inspired a few Americans in 1983 to form the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. But here we are 30 years later, and we haven’t built one mile of high-speed rail in the United States.

It’s true that Amtrak launched the Acela, with the unwavering support of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, former DOT Secretary Federico Peña, and former FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris, under the leadership of David Carol, then Amtrak’s vice president for high-speed rail, and others at Amtrak in the early 1990s. The program was undercapitalized and delayed in delivering revenue service, but finally in late 2000 the service was inaugurated.

While there are those who might challenge the Acela’s technical success, no one can argue its commercial success. Peak periods are routinely sold out and even during the shoulder the load factor is quite respectable. It is also a business success for Amtrak as it generates a sizable cash surplus over operating expenses above the rail. In Amtrak lingo, it is described as a profitable business line. Certainly the recovery ratio far exceeds any other public rail transportation service in the country.

You would think that the Acela experience would have Americans clamoring for more of this service in other major intercity corridors or “mega-regions.” I am well aware of the progress being made on higher-performance passenger rail in California and the other intercity corridors in the Midwest, Southeast, Northwest, and Texas. But many of these projects still face stiff opposition. 

For example, in California one of the project’s founders is supporting a lawsuit to stop it because it does not meet the intent of the state law authorizing the $9 billion general obligation bond (GO bond) sale for the project. Now it’s true that there have been numerous threats to this project, which have been overcome, but this trial is especially troubling considering key witnesses. The judge, who heard the complaint on May 31, has until the end of August to render a decision.

You will not find a more committed transportation and business professional than this author, advocating for use of the high-speed rail mode to build a balanced transportation network for this country. I am just concerned that we have not yet ignited the public imagination about the need for this mode in our society. Or is it that we have not set their voices free? Perhaps there is a lack of appreciation by most of the public of the opportunity high-speed rail represents in addressing our mobility, economic, and environmental challenges.

We have well over 300 million people in the U.S. Thirty million riders a year experience Amtrak and about 3.2 million ride Acela annually. And many of these are repeat riders. While there are many folks who travel to Europe and, recently, more extensively to Asia, many of these travelers do their travel on package tours, which make extensive use of motor coaches and even riverboats. Hence, the exposure level of Americans to intercity passenger rail, let alone high-speed rail, may still be limited.

So how do we fix that? It’s leadership, plain and simple. Leadership requires vision and strategic thinking. Leadership also requires communication skills and the ability to execute. Einstein said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

As early as January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had the vision in his State of the Union Address to proclaim, “I will ask for funds to study high-speed rail transportation between urban ¬centers. We will begin with test projects between Washington and Boston. On high-speed trains, passengers could travel this distance in less than four hours.” That goal is still a dream and could still be more than 25 years off.

The general public did not storm the nation’s capital in the middle of the 20th century demanding the construction of an Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. In fact, when our state and federal leaders proposed the project, there were many doubters and strong opponents.

But today, the Oracle of Omaha ¬(Warren Buffett), in a recent interview with Becky Quick of CNBC, hails this public investment as “brilliant” when asked his opinion on increasing public investment in transportation infrastructure. (He was not asked directly about high-speed rail.) But in a recent Wall Street Journal interview by Andy Pasztor with the CEO of Bombardier, the large aircraft, recreational vehicle, and rail equipment manufacturer, Pierre Beaudoin replied, “These things you have to look at in the long-term. Americans are traveling all over the world, and they are getting on high-speed trains in China and throughout Europe . . . and they are seeing the benefits. So I think the trend is there.”

Let’s say there is a favorable trend; the challenge to us on APTA’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Committee and those of like mind is to find a way to accelerate the execution of the steps necessary to have a sustainable program. When the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan was presented with the idea of high-speed rail in the early 1990s, he reacted favorably but wanted to outdo our global competitors by advancing the technology and making it an American innovation. This attempt at speaking to American exceptionalism led to an unproductive maglev R&D program that set back true progress by a decade. Fortunately, during this timeframe, Amtrak was successful in electrifying the north end of the Northeast Corridor and procuring the Acela trainsets.
It’s not that Americans never adopt foreign technology. Even in the railroad industry, when there was an opportunity to take advantage of a beneficial new technology, Americans have been quick to adopt it.

Some have been successful—like spring clip rail fasteners—and others have not been so successful—like diesel hydraulic locomotives. But our view of an increasingly technologically integrated world is changing rapidly. In an era when there is no longer a 100 percent U.S.-made automobile and many young people think Honda is an ¬American brand, perhaps the time is right to “Americanize” high-speed rail.

The fact that every industrialized nation on the globe, including the United Kingdom, has a national high-speed rail policy seems to work against the success of this mode taking hold in the U.S. Our national nature is that of the pioneer and is highly individualistic.
Incorporating some of those traits in the U.S. fast train program could be key to gaining broader-based support at the senior leadership level and eventually the public. Building upon the lessons of international experience, we must adapt this technology to make it our own. The French did it with a novel equipment design, spectacular stations, and a re-organization of customer service, to name a few things. China focused on further equipment innovations and a highly automated infrastructure construction approach. Germany, Spain, and others in the high-speed rail club provide additional clues. What can and will the U.S. do to make high-speed rail our own and not just an imported technology?


Kenneth Sislak, assistant vice president, AECOM, and Thomas Frawley, principal, Thomas E. Frawley Consulting, LLC, contributed to this article, which has been excerpted from the June 2013 issue of Speedlines, a publication of APTA’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Committee. The author and contributors are members of the committee.

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