California High Speed Rail – A Glimpse of the Future

California’s High Speed Rail project is being touted as “the Project of the Century” and with good reason. This project has its share of engineering challenges, including tunneling as much as 500 feet underground and spanning gorges 300 feet above the ground. Even so, the biggest challenge that engineers have to take into consideration is the fact that the “Bullet train” is going to have to cross seven fault lines.

Zip from San Francisco to Los Angeles
Zip from San Francisco to Los Angeles

Japan has successfully operated high speed rail lines across faults for many years, so this isn’t without precedent. That means that many of the engineering challenges have already been dealt with, allowing the engineers to concentrate on design, rather than having to invent new technology to go forward.

Nevertheless, this will be the first of a new wave of high-speed rail systems built in the United States. The bullet trains and their tracks are being designed to sustain speeds as high as 220 miles per hour in some parts; much higher than current American high speed rail systems in use.

This system is being seen as a portent of new things to come. As transportation needs for our growing population increase, racing neck and neck with environmental concerns, the need for new systems is paramount. It is interesting that the solution may be something right out of our own history.

Rail transportation was a major part of the westward expansion of the United States, settling territories on the frontier. As rail lines moved westward, eventually completing the first transcontinental rail line in 1869, the lands alongside the tracks were the first that became heavily settled. Many western towns were abandoned, simply because the tracks passed them by, choosing instead to bring service to another town, closer to their intended route.

In those early days, rail transportation was used for everything from carrying cows eastward to the slaughterhouses, to carrying Uncle Joe’s coffin home for burial. Yet for years, our nation’s rails have been relegated to providing bulk carrier service at relatively slow speeds.

With this project, the revitalization of rail transport may very well be beginning. Rail is extremely efficient once the tracks are laid. The energy used per passenger or per pound of cargo is much lower than other common means of transport. That’s clearly demonstrated by the number of trucking firms which use rail for long-distance transit, loading their trailers onto flatcars for moving them over long distances.

While the initial investment for creating the high speed rail system is enormous, much of that is offset by reducing the necessary investment in other transportation infrastructure. Without the California high speed rail system and others, a similar amount of money will have to be invested in the creation of new highways and airports. Considering the age and condition of much of our transportation infrastructure, taking some of the load off of it clearly makes sense.

Much hangs in the balance as this project goes forward. Its success could provide the impetus for many other similar projects, especially in high-population areas. If so, transportation in the future could look much like it did in the past, except with sleeker lines and much higher speeds.

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