Skip to main content

Why high-speed rail is safe, smart

By Yonah Freemark, Special to CNN
July 26, 2013 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
 A bullet train arrives at Sendai Station in Miyagi prefecture in Japan, where high speed trains have operated safely for decades, says Yonah Freemark
A bullet train arrives at Sendai Station in Miyagi prefecture in Japan, where high speed trains have operated safely for decades, says Yonah Freemark
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yonah Freemark: High-speed train crash in Spain draws new attention to rail safety
  • He says Obama wants high-speed rail, and construction will start soon in California
  • He says France, Japan have had safe, well-managed high-speed rail for decades
  • Freemark: High-speed rail could revolutionize transportation in U.S. and is worth doing

Editor's note: Yonah Freemark writes the national transportation blog The Transport Politic. He is an associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago.

(CNN) -- This week's devastating crash of a high-speed train in Spain, which left nearly 80 dead, has drawn renewed attention to rail safety at a time when the Obama administration has prioritized the construction of fast new rail links.

These trains whisk passengers between city centers at speeds of 200 mph or more. European and Asian riders have enjoyed such service for decades. But such fast trains are still largely unknown to Americans thanks to decades of minimal government support for track improvement. As a result, intercity trains in the United States are mostly limited to about 110 mph.

So far, the Obama administration, thanks to support from congressional Democrats, has distributed more than $10 billion to begin investing in faster train service. Construction on the first phase of a link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which will be the country's fastest rail line, will begin over the next few months. As recently as this spring, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested the government planned to connect 80% of Americans to such trains by around 2040.

Yonah Freemark
Yonah Freemark

The trains will be fast. Will they also be safe?

Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile rail crashes over the years. In 1998,101 riders were killed in Germany when a train crashed in Eschede. And in 2011, two of China's newest, fastest trains slammed into one another, killing 40 people.

But those are exceptions to the rule, caused by poor maintenance and monitoring.

Rail, high speed or not, is one of the safest ways to get around. According to a National Safety Council review of 10 years of transportation fatalities, for every mile traveled, car drivers and passengers are more than 10 times as likely to die in accidents as passenger rail riders. In 21 years -- between 1990 and 2011 -- the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that nearly 900,000 people died in highway crashes, while fewer than 15,000 died in train collisions.

Other countries' experience shows that high-speed rail can be even safer than the much slower U.S. trains. The bullet trains that zoom through France and Japan, for instance, testify to the astonishing safety offered by well-managed rail services. Each nation's system has been in operation for more than 30 years and provided billions of rides.

Video captures moment of train's impact
Police detain driver of derailed train
Spain's king visits train crash survivors
Frame-by-frame look at the train crash

Yet thanks to advanced safety systems and extensive maintenance, no passengers -- zero -- have died as a result of a high-speed train crash in either country. Improvements in the design of German trains and a review of maintenance operations in China have also prevented repeats of previous train accidents in those countries.

Early reports suggest that the train crash in Spain could have been avoided. The train may have been traveling at more than twice the allowed speed limit. Modern train control equipment is designed to brake trains automatically when they travel too quickly or come too close to another train. Unfortunately, that train in Spain did not use that system.

The good news is that the United States, whose rail system already has a strong safety record, is becoming safer thanks to investments being made by public and private entities. The Federal Railroad Administration mandated last year that by 2015 all intercity track be equipped with train control systems that would prevent crashes such as this week's accident in Spain.

These realities should relieve the concerns of those uncomfortable about investing billions of dollars in American intercity train networks. The international record shows that high-speed rail is very safe to use.

An equally urgent question is whether such trains would provide a significant upgrade to the nation's transportation network, and here again the evidence is clear that they would.

High-speed rail offers the option to travel at fast speeds across hundreds of miles between downtowns in many of the country's largest metropolitan regions. Hopping on a train to travel between Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, or New York and Washington in two hours or less would aid economic development by easing business trips.

It would also lessen the stress of travel for millions of Americans. No more sitting in traffic, grinding teeth at the wheel. No more long airport security lines and shoe removals.

The environmental benefits would also be significant. California's system, the only one already set for construction in the United States, will operate on renewable energy alone.

Train service similar to that already offered in European and Asian countries would require a significant investment, but for many routes, an improved rail system is a worthy endeavor.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Yonah Freemark.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT