It’s time for new thinking and new ideas for American transportation. The car/road/parking garage model is fine as far as it goes, but we desperately need fresh ideas, especially for urban areas where gridlock has become the norm. While U.S. cities remained car-centric in their planning and development, Japan, China, and Europe have moved forward with urban rail.
Some of these trains and projects are simply awesome. It’s hard to even describe what the Tokyo transit system is to most Americans. They simply can’t imagine a clean, fast, inexpensive, and pleasant mass transit system. And no wonder, in most American cities the public transportation infrastructure is ancient, dirty, slow, and decrepit.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And there are signs that team Trump gets it. There are rumors that the Trump infrastructure priority list contains several high-speed rail projects, among them rail lines from Houston to Dallas, New York to Washington DC, Baltimore to DC, and Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Japanese and Chinese companies are champing at the bit to land pieces of these plum projects.
Funding is of course the issue. Trump promised that he is going to rebuild American infrastructure with private funding. Critics of this proposal are concerned that for-profit companies won’t be responsive to public needs. The debate of public vs. private isn’t going away any time soon, in the meantime allow us to point out that the much-admired train system in Tokyo is almost entirely privately owned and run.
The Japanese rail system is truly a gem. It is the most advanced and efficient urban rail system in the world. It’s clean, fast, efficient and easy to use. And it is private. The government sets the goals and coordinates the grand design. Private funding and ingenuity do the rest. The system allows them to be flexible, responsible and innovative.
While we are pottering along on Amtrak trains that are older than our grandparents and have average speeds of slow, slower and slowest; the Japanese are zipping across the country in mag-levs that cruise almost silently at 200 mph. And that’s not good enough, a train that will run from Tokyo to Osaka at 310 miles per hour is in the works right now.
Worldwide, train and transportation technology is advancing at an astonishing rate. Recently the Japanese Railway Technical Research Institute tested the use superconducting cables on 310 miles of track. It resulted in a reduction of energy use of 5%.
What the Japanese seem to have truly mastered with their rail systems and research is the art of cooperation. 30 companies operate in the Tokyo system alone, yet cooperation in pricing and fares makes it seamless for users. Contrast this to typical urban areas in the United States, where crossing a city boundary line often results in a new and different fare. The Japanese rail system is free of these annoying issues and performs its intended purpose almost flawlessly and at a profit. And that’s a bold idea.