Slowing down to speed up
Roundabouts, roads, regional jets, and rails
One of the big trends in American transportation engineering for the last several years has been the push to replace four-way stops and signalized intersections with roundabouts. With a roundabout, the driver accepts a certain predictable slowdown in speed in exchange for knowing they won't have to wait for seemingly interminable lengths at a stop. Everyone gets a turn, often without having to stop at all.
■ The United States is a peculiar place for transportation -- compared with many of the European countries we consider our peers, we're positively empty. Germany has 6.6 times as many people per square mile as the US. The UK has 7.6 times as many. And that's not an effect attributable solely to Alaska. Giant swathes of the United States have fewer than 20 people per square mile. Our major cities are few and far between.
■ We have a spectacular Interstate highway system to connect us, but road trips still take a long time. Since we don't have high-speed passenger rail outside of the Acela Corridor, Americans trying to cover long distances quickly turn to air travel.
■ But one of the big headaches afflicting both of our predominant methods of travel is weather. Winter storms shut down our Interstate thoroughfares at least a few times most years. And weather is the cause of generally around 40% of all delay-minutes in air travel each year. Yet passenger planes still fly at hundreds of miles an hour, when they're in the air. Would high-speed rail be immune to those problems? Could slowing down (versus air travel) lead, on average, to speeding up?
■ One widely-cited 2019 study conducted by Ohio State University researchers using data from transportation routes in China concluded that "In general, HSR [high-speed rail] is less vulnerable than aviation to most severe weather events." In Japan, noted for its exceptional high-speed service, "Weather impacts are essentially 'engineered out' of many railway networks".
■ The British rail service Network Rail points to wind-blown debris as their most significant weather impact, but notes that it generally takes "extreme" weather to really have a major impact on service. And in Sweden, quite a lot of effort has gone into maintaining high-speed rail service in long, harsh winters. Overall, European authorities appear to be counting on trains to be more resistant to both severe weather and climate changes than aviation.
■ Domestically, the Acela is sometimes slowed or scaled back due to winter weather. Ice storms in particular may be problematic for rail service, but in general, weather is not a main problem Amtrak faces. Heat, wind, and flooding appear to be the biggest weather factors causing trouble for existing US railroads. But, given the reliability of rail networks elsewhere, that may reflect a consequence of American behavior rather than inherent risk, suggesting that engineering and investment may make weather a much more "solvable" issue should we someday choose to go the bullet-train route.
■ If nothing else, high-speed rail elsewhere appears to put competitive pressure on airlines to improve their on-time performance -- at least for travel across short- and mid-range distances. And at speeds of 120 mph or greater, those trains would have a substantial inherent advantage over individual vehicles traveling at freeway speeds -- and if they can be more reliable during severe and winter weather conditions, they should have even more of a leg up.
■ The economics of rail and the wide distribution of American population centers pose substantial obstacles to the most optimistic visions of developing a national high-speed rail network. But if the proponents really want to make their case stick, they may well want to steer clear of romantic visions of rail travel and dial down the talk about its environmental benefits (even if passenger rail really is more efficient than other modes) and instead focus on service reliability. That's a message that might really stick the next time a blizzard in Chicago, a storm in Houston, or a computer glitch affecting Atlanta and Miami sends ripples through the country's air network or even brings it to a standstill. Going slower than an airplane -- but without the slowdowns -- could be a way of speeding up.