Railroads helped usher in the modern era more than a century ago. Now, many are looking to high-speed trains for help in ushering in a new, greener era of mass transportation.

Indeed, the next few years may prove to be pivotal for high-speed trains.

Growing environmental concerns are being challenged by economic worries stemming from enormous capital and operating expenses. The technology will likely evolve and speed records will likely be broken, but how much the public benefits from high-speed rail in the future remains to be seen. Serious concerns over cost have arisen, especially in light of the global financial situation. And while the potential seems great, high-speed rail’s time may not arrive for quite a while — if at all.

One place where high-speed rail does enjoy tremendous support is China. That country has more high-speed rail than any other nation on Earth: more than 4,800 kilometers worth of lines.

Besides China, the trains already run in some places in Europe and Asia. In the United States, however, high-speed rail has received limited support.

Let's take a look at where high-speed trains have been, where they may be going in the future and why Americans still may not embrace them.

History of high-speed rail

Beginning in the early 20th century, many trains reached or exceeded the speeds needed to be called "high-speed" but none of them were widely adopted for moving passengers or freight. Some never even made it past the testing phase.

After several decades of these fits and starts, the age of high-speed rail really took off when the Japanese opened a line between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964.

Dubbed "bullet" trains in English, the Japanese high-speed rail averaged 101 miles per hour along the route with stops in Nagoya and Kyoto. It reached a top speed of 130 miles per hour.

In Europe, high-speed rail sprang up in the 1960s with services in Germany and France. The following decade saw Great Britain and Italy building high-speed trains and the following years would bring more and more inter-European high-speed rail connections with popular lines running between Paris and London, London and Brussels and Brussels and Paris.

In the early 1990s, Spain began building its high-speed rail infrastructure. It has since grown to become the world’s second largest high-speed rail network with more than 1,900 kilometers of operating rail lines.

Shortly after Spain began its high-speed rail journey, China got involved in a big way. The government has pushed for improvements and construction of several thousands of miles of track. As a consequence, China now has the largest number of miles of high-speed rail: 4,840.

After initially purchasing trains and rail technology from other countries, China now manufactures much of its own rail equipment and infrastructure.

The government in Beijing began building high-speed rail at a frenetic pace following its 2008 stimulus plan. And, they’re not done yet; according to the China Securities Journal, the Chinese will pump an additional $451 billion to $602 billion into high-speed rail between 2011 and 2015.

Obama plan

In the United States, the Obama administration has pitched a plan build several high-speed rail lines throughout the country.

In making the announcement last month, Vice President Joe Biden called for spending $53 billion on passenger trains and high-speed rail lines over the next six years. The plan would boost President Obama’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within the next 25 years.

According to the administration, the identified high-speed rail corridors would include lines in California and the Pacific Northwest, in the Midwest with Chicago as a major hub, in Texas, in Florida and up and down the East Coast with lines extending from northern New England down through the Southern states and on to the Gulf Coast.

Republican response

But, the Obama plan has been criticized by many Republican leaders who fear the project will become a government boondoggle.

Not long after Biden announced the administration’s spending plans, Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected the idea of a high-speed rail line being built between Tampa and Orlando.

In effect, Scott turned away the federal government’s offer of $2 billion for the project.

In rejecting the project, Scott said that cost overruns could cost Florida taxpayers an additional $3 billion, that ridership and revenue projections are “historically overly-optimistic” and that if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and needs to be shut down, Florida will have to re-pay the federal government $2.4 billion.  

Scott was not the first Republican governor to turn down the Obama administration’s plans. John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have also rejected high-speed rail projects in their states.

Costs to build

The Republican concerns over cost are not without merit.

The World Bank issued a report last year that underlined the need for careful financial planning in undertaking any high-speed rail project.

The organization said that outside China (where prices are much lower) the capital and rolling stock costs for high-speed rail generally run between $35 million to $70 million per kilometer. The prices can vary depending on the complexity of the engineering required, the degree of urbanization along the route and the total amount of rail equipment needed.

In addition, many projects can take years — some even decades — to finish construction. Therefore, the World Bank report notes, many high-speed rail projects will accumulate very large debts years before they are able to see their first dollar of income.

In general, operating and maintenance costs are not the greatest cause of financial stress once the project finishes the construction phase and begins operation. Instead, the money to service the debt incurred by the capital costs is what puts financial strain on the system. The World Bank states that it is “very difficult for most stand-alone high-speed railways to recover much of the capital costs from the passenger revenue stream alone, except in the very densest traffic corridors.”

Environmental impact

High-speed trains would have both positive and negative effects on the environment. Of course, the trains’ impact on Mother Nature should be viewed in comparison to other modes of transportation and their carbon footprints as well.

Writing for the New York Times, Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaeser in 2009 analyzed a hypothetical high-speed rail line stretching 240 miles from Houston to Dallas and came to the conclusion that the environmental factors (a combination of reduced carbon emissions, reduced congestion and reduced traffic mortality) would produce about $21.63 million in benefits each year.

In the end of his analysis, Glaeser noted that this amount, even when combined with other potential savings and incomes, would be “quite small” when compared to the cost of the system.

The World Bank’s report also noted the good and bad effects of high-speed rail on the environment.

“A high-speed passenger train will use more energy, and thereby generate more greenhouse gases, than a slower passenger train over the same route,” the report states. “But if the higher speed attracts passenger travel away from road and air, it may reduce the overall long-term carbon intensity of the transport system as a whole.”

What does the future hold?

The money the Obama administration planned to give to Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin will likely end up being spent in other states that have more rail-friendly governors.

It’s difficult to predict how much it will cost and what effect it will have on the environment. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is China’s determination to dominate the high-speed rail landscape.

The only question may be whether they end up regretting it or not. Certainly, other nations will be keeping a close eye on the Chinese high-speed trains over the next few years.