Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

20 November 2013

If you sit and read the headlines about high-speed rail in the US there’s no wonder it’s easy to become frustrated. They taunt us and hark back to the days that, as a country, we took great pride in making sure these monumental projects were prioritized and completed. Alas, talk in the American high-speed rail realm is cheap.

This being the case, the recent visit of high-profile US transport dignitaries to see the new maglev test train in Japan has me scratching my head. An article in this week’s New York Times highlighting the visit underscores the value (and scepticism) associated with high-profile fast-train advocates in the US.

Whether conquering an ocean by steamship or tunnelling under it with a boring machine, the West used to have a propensity for dreaming big. Such dreams were born of necessity and the desire to thrive; transportation, be it for emigration or the movement of goods, is an essential part of the human experience.

Pioneering spirit has always been part and parcel of the new world. For centuries, droves of people headed West to find new lives. Take the Titanic’s story as proof. Almost allegorical, it’s as much about westward expansion as it is humility, truth and quality of life. Emigrants didn’t stop coming to the new world when the ocean liner sank. It could be said that the story of each victim galvanised the idea that big dreams, however risky, might buy you a place in the history books.

At its very essence, a place in the history books is a clear soft-power proposition. If you look at some of the biggest players in terms of these metrics, big infrastructure and transport endeavours are clear differentiators between those who lead and those who follow. Japan’s Shinkansen trains wowed the world in the 1960s, setting the international bar for high-speed rail travel. Soon rail projects to mimic those bullet trains popped up around the globe.

So it seems fitting that former New York governor George E Pataki was joined by former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and others for a short and fast trip on Japan’s new maglev train. The train, set up up on a 43km-long test track, is there for performance trials. If all goes according to plan, Japan Central Railway will use the same technology to build a line between Tokyo and Osaka. Still, detractors say it’s too costly and that a projected 2027 completion date means Japan’s shrinking population won’t be able to keep the train full. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe says he’ll give deep discounts on the maglev technology for a US project. There is even word that the maglevs could start speeding across Texas by 2020.

I say, let’s just make it happen. Sure, money matters but what about the idea of being great again? A Japanese-US partnership to drive the high-speed discussion could help both countries reassert themselves as transport leaders. In the end, the talk, the headlines and even the federal dollars aren’t enough. We need to allow a bit of whimsy to drive this train.

Tristan McAllister is Monocle's transport editor.

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