When Considering the Future of Rail, Look to Japan

As Congress edges closer to passing a long-term transportation bill for the first time since 2005, we are starting to get a picture of what the future of America’s roads, bridges and railroads will look like.

Considering the changing trends in how we move—people are consuming less gasoline—many members of Congress view the transportation bill as a prime opportunity to rethink how we fund and build infrastructure. Due to concerns about the deficit, however, some of these ideas have been paired with a sizable scaledown in rail funding, especially high-speed rail. State legislators who recently traveled to Japan as part of a CSG delegation learned firsthand about the advantages of a different transit focus.

Unless you live in or around a major city, rail is not a primary mode of transportation for most Americans. Even in northeastern states, where the population is denser and several large cities are accessible by Amtrak or regional services, most people travel by car. The reasons are convenience, cost, trip duration and accessibility.

Driving from Washington, D.C., to New York City, would take roughly four hours by car, unless traffic is heavy on I-95, which would be highly likely, and cost two-thirds of a tank of gas and about $25 in tolls, about $75 total. Convenience also is a factor. Drivers can leave anytime from any location and arrive at any location. Taking Amtrak, on the other hand, would take three and a half hours, cost $136 and requires travelers to leave from Capitol Hill and arrive near Midtown Manhattan. Even on the Acela, Amtrak’s high-speed service, the trip would still take nearly three hours and cost about $200. Driving seems like the easy choice.

The situation in Japan is quite different. The CSG delegation had the opportunity to ride on the Shinkansen Line from Tokyo to Sendai, about the same distance between Washington, D.C., and New York. The trip took about one and a half hours on the Japan Railway Company’s high speed E5 train. The cost of a standard-class ticket is about $70.

“It was amazing to experience firsthand the quality and easily accessible high-speed rail that links important areas in Japan,” said Massachusetts Sen. Thomas McGee, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “This type of high-speed rail network has the potential to improve the challenges in travel the Northeast faces every day.”

Vermont Rep. Patrick Brennan, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, said, “The level of performance on the Shinkansen rail line coupled with great customer service provides for an ultra-smooth travel experience. Japan Rail is a first-class operation, and should serve as a model for the Northeast on how things get done in an expeditious and highly efficient manner.”

Building a passenger rail network similar to Japan’s is no easy task, if it is even possible. In 2010, Japan passenger rail companies transported 22.67 billion passengers, the most in the world. Ridership in the United States, meanwhile, was not even in the top 10. Another major difference is Japan’s strongly centralized system of government, which works to ensure the profitability of the country’s rail companies.

While the rail industry is not directly subsidized, government officials give private sector leaders wide latitude to push through right-of-way decisions and expand their business model to include lucrative real estate developments. Highways also are privately controlled and expensively tolled, which helps to safeguard the rail industry’s position. The U.S. federal system, with strong state governments and a public transit network that is partially subsidized at the federal and state levels, calls for a different model entirely.

The U.S. is very much a car-focused culture. Without a massive national network of public transit, people are used to driving and their lives are structured around it. This is simply not the case in Japan. Driving is more costly and public transportation is more widely available and cost-effective.

With gas prices continuously in flux and our collective carbon footprint certainly not getting any smaller, maybe the question we should ask is how long do we want to remain car-focused?