High-speed rail helps European economy; can it help the US?

European Union report cites increased 'social cohesion' as a result of high-speed rail links. But North America is laid out differently.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Will the introduction of a more comprehensive high-speed rail network in the United States lead to greater "social cohesion," bringing economically isolated or lagging areas more into the economic mainstream?

(Credit: Siemens)

That's the question Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institution raises in a new post, referencing a new report, “Trends in Accessibility,” which weighed the impact of high-speed rail in Europe.

As reported by Wagner, the agency that prepared the report, ESPON (European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion), examined the extent to which accessibility has changed between 2001 and 2006. ESPON defines accessibility as how “easily people in one region can reach people in another region.” This measurement of accessibility helps determine the “potential for activities and enterprises in the region to reach markets and activities in other regions.”

ESPON said that rail accessibility grew an average of 13.1 percent, and concludes that high-speed rail lines have “influenced positively the potential accessibility of many European regions and cities.”

Nations within central Europe -- the "core" of the high-speed network -- have found reason to link their economic hubs (cities) with high-speed rail, and have had the greatest returns on investment. ESPON also found that high-speed rail is starting to increase the accessibility of isolated places such as France’s Tours, Lyon, and Marseille.

However, the impressive impact of high-speed rail across the European continent may not be seen as widely across North America. For one, the residents of European nations have always been more closely tied to their rail systems as primary transportation networks.  In the US, the Amtrak system has been a bare-bones system connecting major hubs, but rarely seen outside the Northeast corridor as a significant mode of transportation. European cities are denser and more centralized than North American cities, and therefore more in reach of train stations. Over the past 50 years, North American urban areas have decentralized to the point where residents are scattered across areas up to a hundred miles in distance from urban or suburban cores.

Still, Brookings' Wagner ponders whether we may see some positive impacts if high-speed rail services are smartly planned and placed. "Fiscally, social cohesion translates into investing disproportionately more money into areas not producing sufficient levels of economic output," she relates, wondering whether such economic impacts were weighed in decisions to support high-speed rail projects across Florida or other locales. Florida certainly has a sizeable population, and contributes heavily to GDP. "Lessons from this accessibility study say that places with high population levels and GDP output offer the greatest accessibility and therefore success," she says.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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