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New rail age challenges

Jon McDonald, PE | 09 Jan 2015 | Comments

A recent article in The Telegraph suggests that a new age in rail may be dawning in the US, noting the upcoming groundbreaking of California’s high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although high-speed rail is certainly a vital development in the US, an American renaissance in rail still faces a number of significant challenges.

Lawmakers, stakeholders, and advocacy groups alike must undertake the daunting task of convincing most Americans to not only forgo their cars for their morning commutes, but also invest billions of precious tax dollars on projects that can take decades to complete. California’s high-speed rail, for instance, will not wrap up until 2030 at best. Amtrak improvements and other high-speed rail systems will not be completed until well after. In that timeframe, America’s population (projected to reach 440 million by 2050) and mobility demands will quickly surpass high-speed rail’s mobility supply.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, by 2040, the top 100 metropolitan areas will grow by nearly 250 percent. America’s current highway, air, and other transportation systems could not possibly accommodate that increase in traffic levels and passenger volumes in the same timeframe. Investing in high-speed rail would cost considerably less than expanding our existing roadway and air networks, and new rail options would help alleviate the inevitable traffic jams and road congestion that will follow intense population growth in urban areas.

Transit agencies also face the additional challenge of a lack of available skilled resources to meet the new demand, especially in rail specialties. Atkins’ new Transit and Rail Design Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is just one of many steps the firm has taken to address the new realities of the US rail industry.

Greater investment in rail is indeed crucial to supporting a better quality of life in US cities over the coming decades, and meeting these challenges will require a change in the way we think about and plan our transportation infrastructure.