Riding home on the Metro last Friday afternoon, I found myself thinking about the advantages of rail transport over automobiles. These differences are frequently addressed in terms of upfront construction cost, operating expenses, and capacity, and occasionally in terms of the beneficial ways in which rail shapes development. Other issues aren’t highlighted nearly enough, in my opinion. The human cost of an overwhelmingly autocentric lifestyle is appalling, for instance. Over 40,000 people die every year from motor vehicle accidents–some 95% of all transportation related fatalities. How is it that reducing that number is not a major priority, particularly when a potential solution–large scale investmentÂ in rail–has so many other additional benefits?
Secondly, you don’t often hear people speak of the speed advantages of rail transportation, but they are potentially very great. Even if we could design and build highway systems that weren’t prepetually congested, it’s very unlikely that the speed of automobile transportation would increase by any appreciable margin over the long run. Not so for rail. Technologies for bullet trains travelling in excess of 300 mph are likely to become better, safer, and cheaper over the long run, but many European mainline trains travel faster than 100 mph on plain old rails. It isn’t hard at all to imagine a well designed regional rail system bringing passengers from New York to Washington in an hour and a half, from Richmond in just under an hour, from Baltimore in thirty minutes, and from places like Fredericksburg in a quarter of an hour. Such a system would bring massive amounts of affordable housing stock within easy reach of major metropolitan areas; the resulting regional growth would be amazing to see.
Why are we so stuck on our cars again?