Crisis As Opportunity: High Speed Rail in the US

In “danger + opportunity ≠ crisis“, Sinologist Victor Mair warns us that we often misinterpret the hanzi (or what we Japanese speakers call kanji) – literally “Chinese characters”. In the case of the danger + opportunity = crisis, we are interpreting “incipient moment; crucial point” as “opportunity”. Not the same thing at all.

But, I think that the paradigm is still useful. We should see Threats as Opportunities to change. Along those lines, the US Stimulus bill includes a very small (only $8 Billion out of $787 Billion) support for high-speed rail in the US.


Although decades behind the Japanese Shinkansen system or the French TGV, the US is now actively supporting regional high-speed rail systems that can out-compete airlines for speed and reliability. At 310 MILES PER HOUR, and without having  to show up 2 hours ahead of the departure, and without locating stations an hour outside of city centers like airports, the new train systems are far and above superior to air travel within smaller regions. (My 350 km trip from downtown Osaka to downtown Tokyo was three hours faster by rail than plane, by the way. London to Paris is a feasible trip for a night out on the town by rail, not by plane.)

Further, these new systems are not only convenient but can get the US off its oil addiction and reduce green-house gas emissions. Bully for Obama.

Canadian Connection

Now, look closely at that map. The regional high-speed lines are getting closer together. They may be linked soon into a continental system. They are already linking with Vancouver and Montreal. Toronto can’t be far behind. And Winnipeg is close enough to Minneapolis to join the system eventually. All this is well and good in of itself. But, consider the effects on Canadian sovereignty.

In 1867, the new Canadian government understood that our geography meant that most Canadian centers were easily absorbed into regional US systems. Thus, the national railway was built to link the country together and encourage East-West instead of just North-South travel, communication, tourism, and trade. If Canada wants to keep up with the rest of the first world and protect our sovereignty, it is time that we begin to construct our own regional high-speed networks. The oft-mentioned Windsor-Quebec corridor would be a first step. Alberta and Southern BC would also benefit from high-speed rail. And the Prairies? Can Winnipeg be connected to these new systems or are we to remain out of the loop? How can we be part of the solution to many convergent crises?


7 responses to “Crisis As Opportunity: High Speed Rail in the US

  1. This is fascinating stuff, Don…I believe that high-speed rail will only be cost effective for regional systems if it consistently moves high levels of traffic (aka people) in order to justify the money needed to build it…also I believe that winter conditions can play havoc with the system as well…not to mention politics…but it is something worth supporting as it is greener, more efficient, and less expensive over the long haul.

  2. I think Canada’s lack of density makes high-speed rail impractical, save for the Windsor-Quebec corridor. We should be looking to places like Russia, with a similar geography, to see how they have dealt with things. Or, on a smaller scale, though with similar density and climate, the Scandinavian countries.

  3. London to Paris might be feasible for an over-nighter, but not really for a night on the town. It is still 2.5 + hours on the train. That doesn’t count the 1.5 hours we spent in line at Gare du Nord. Nevertheless, high-speed train rocks. I would rather take a train than airplane for most trips. Like Jonathan says, Windsor-Quebec is a natural.

  4. Edmonton – Calgary is so busy a corridor that airlines make money on less than $100/ticket..

  5. I’ve always thought high speed rail would be a phenomenally positive investment in Canada. The great distance between our cities makes car travel sometimes time consuming and oftentimes not an option.

    At the same time, airfare is often ridiculous and completely infeasible.

    High speed rail could carry many passengers, especially as Chris suggested between close cities like Edmonton-Calgary or TO-Montreal, could move huge amounts of passengers at a lower cost and be very popular.

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  7. Увлекательно. Поброжу у вас еще. А долго ли писали этот пост?

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