Utah’s Future: Plan Far Ahead for Transportation Innovation

The Economist magazine recently published an interesting article about innovation in passenger train travel. While improvements in train technology don’t make big news, over the long-term these developments may revolutionize rail travel and make it more competitive with highway or short-haul air travel.

Says the article: “Better technologies are delivering everything from improved traction, braking and route-planning to sleek magnetic levitating trains designed to glide on air at an astounding 310 miles per hour. . . . There are schemes to transfer electrical energy from braking trains into local power grids, and even more radical plans for ‘moving platforms’ that dock with high-speed trains.”

Such a docking platform, or rail ferry, could allow a passenger to transfer from a FrontRunner commuter train or a regional high-speed train, to a TRAX light rail train, without having to wait at a station.

Given these developments, an European Commission transportation planning document calls for a tripling of high-speed rail capacity in Europe, and further investment in urban rail networks, with the goal of cutting in half the use of fossil-fuel-powered cars in cities within two decades. Another goal of the rail network is to further enhance Europe as a trading and economic region. Ultra-fast trains are also being constructed in many parts of Asia.

Meanwhile, in the United States, high-speed rail is making gradual progress. California is embarking on a $68 billion project to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, with funding secured for part of the project. Construction on the first phase may begin later this year or early next year. As has been the case with all new forms of transportation, some entity or region must step forward and test the waters. If high-speed rail is successful in California, projects will be constructed in other parts of the country.

Certainly, given the current political environment fostered by massive federal deficits and budget constraints at all levels of government, it’s understandable that few public officials want to invest in high-speed rail. It will take improved economic conditions before large investments are made.

But that doesn’t mean we ought not to be monitoring developments, thinking about the possibilities, and doing some advance planning, even here in Utah. History shows that other major forms of transportation, including air and auto travel, were once thought to be too expensive and impractical. Thankfully, innovative, visionary and entrepreneurial pioneers, assisted by forward-thinking public officials who built the infrastructure, didn’t listen to the naysayers.

I work with the Utah Transportation Coalition, and I was reminded of the need to continue to think about high-speed rail during a presentation by futurist Michael Gallis to Utah business and government leaders at a Salt Lake Chamber forum sponsored by the Coalition.

Gallis, a consultant specializing in long-term, big-picture metropolitan and regional strategic planning, suggested that the Rocky Mountain region needs to be better connected, including through improved transportation systems, if it is to emerge as a stronger economic and trading region, especially in a competitive global economy. He noted that the metropolitan areas of the Intermountain West are the nation’s fastest-growing region. His report said that while the major Intermountain West cities are “poised to form a significant network of major American urban centers, their futures will increasingly depend on the strength of their social, economic and transportation connections to each other and the global network. If connected in full, these ‘island metros’ can be transformed into a connected region of dynamic economic activity and sustainability. These opportunities and challenges, if not addressed with proper and thoughtful strategy, could severely stifle future economic opportunities to the entire region.”

See the entire Gallis presentation here: http://www.whsra.com/sites/all/files/Shannond/WRA-Vision_Step1_FinalReport.pdf

The reality is that high speed rail won’t be coming to Utah or the Mountain West any time soon, probably for 20 or 30 years. By then, many innovations will have been put in place. Speeds of 300 to 400 miles per hour might be routine. Incredibly powerful and efficient maglev trains or even nuclear-powered trains (using submarine technology) might be in use.

In some ways, the wide-open space of the Intermountain West is the best place in the country for high-speed rail. Trains can travel at high speeds for long distances without a lot of stops. The Gallis report notes that high-speed rail in the Intermountain area will clearly be competitive with air travel

It would be really cool to board a train, avoiding the irritating security hassles and long waits at an airport, and be in St. George in an hour, or Las Vegas in an hour and a half, or Denver in 2.5 hours, or the Southern California beaches in less than four hours – sleeping and working along the way. With the Salt Lake City International Airport as a potential high-speed rail hub, it could help turn the airport into a true aerotroplis, making the airport more of an economic center with better connectivity to downtown Salt Lake City.

Yes, this is all a just vision right now. But times change. Economies get better. Technologies advance. Populations continue to grow. Highway congestion increases, and air travel gets crazier.

And business models evolve. Perhaps the high-speed rail system will be built and operated mostly by the private sector, perhaps even by a big airline company, with strategic government assistance.

No, this isn’t going to happen for 20 or 30 years. But if we don’t start thinking about it today in an organized way, it won’t happen for 40 or 50 years. We need to be thinking, talking and planning. A few top Utah political leaders I’ve talked to are very interested. What about establishing some sort of Utah committee or commission that would collaborate with the Western Regional Alliance to keep high-speed rail on Utah’s radar? The commission could do some workshops, bring in speakers, monitor developments and engage in a visioning process and early phases of corridor evaluation. Perhaps it is something that Envision Utah, or the State Planning Office, could coordinate.

Utah’s secret sauce is our ability to collaborate and work together. We survived the great recession better than most states, in part, because of our investments in infrastructure and the resulting jobs and economic development. This is clearly as much an economic development project as a transportation project. We don’t want to be left behind. I believe that if you look at the history of the world, it’s clear that cities, regions, states and countries that invest in infrastructure are the ones that win.