Boyhood memories of trains and fascination with steam locomotives bind much of the railfan community together and nostalgia brings everyone out for photo shoots when a classic train makes an appearance, but that very same nostalgia should make us cautious when planners propose massive high speed rail projects to reduce travel time between cities and eliminate congestion on our roads. Although those goals are admirable, the rail projects are rooted in the past and ignore the various technologies already appearing in intelligent cars and the rapidly approaching autonomous cars, like those being tested by Google, as potentially far better solutions than trains could ever be. Intelligent and autonomous cars make high speed rail seem outdated before the project is even under way.
Cars are already in showrooms with lane sensors that keep the car from wandering into oncoming traffic or adjacent lanes, adaptive cruise control can slow the car if rapidly approaching the car ahead and even apply the brakes if the driver is unaware of an obstacle blocking its path due to fog or darkness or any other reason. Sensors can also detect overtaking traffic in a driver’s blind spot to prevent pulling out at the wrong time. All of this is available now.
Inter-vehicle communication makes cars aware of one another and takes the power of sensors even further because now all vehicles in the area know where other vehicles are and how they are moving. Tests in Europe have shown “road trains” can safely and rapidly move a group of cars driving very close together because the computers can react to changes more quickly than a human behind the wheel. Though not yet available for sale, the technology exists.
These technologies can dramatically increase highway capacity and this is before we even consider totally autonomous cars which Google has shown to be very safe. It was just six or seven years ago that DARPA was running the first competitions to see if any vehicles could complete a course without human driver input, now, Google’s cars have driven over 300 thousand miles on public roads and their only accident was when a human took over! The speed of this technological advance is breathtaking. Imagine its capabilities in the next 20 years.
Compare the auto technology to high speed rail, like the project proposed in California. That technology is and will continue to be what is available today when the project gets under way and speeds are no faster than that attained decades ago. The cost is huge, the time span from start to finish is almost two decades and when completed will only serve people in a very specific and limited area. It’s hard to know what trains might be capable of in 20 years, but if you begin building now, as soon as it’s finished, it’s 20 years or more out of date, while auto technology is advancing at mind boggling speed.
Intelligent cars can also continue to eat away at any current advantage the train might have if it were somehow instantly available today. Intelligent cars can speed up the trip to and from the airport and pickup and deliver passengers door to door, not drop them at a single location downtown. The overall trip then becomes faster than any high speed train could manage, and unless you live very close to the station, any potential advantage of high speed rail quickly disappears.
Though politicians love huge projects like high speed rail, enabling them to pass out contracts to favored companies and friends, taxpayers who must ultimately pay, are far less supportive, especially when officials are already having trouble showing it could produce sufficient revenue to cover capital costs, let alone operating expenses.
While most readers here prefer to be in charge of the car they are riding in and not quite ready to hand off driving duties to the computer, the technology is arriving and advancing quickly. It’s not hard to see a time in the near future when intelligent cars will get us from place to place far more quickly, and certainly more economically, than any rail project ever could.