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The United States, a nation that has long led many other areas of high-tech growth, lags far behind its peers in the development of high-performance rail (HPR) infrastructure. The few HPR projects that have taken off in the U.S. have been plagued by cost overruns, political opposition, and other problems, largely dooming them to failure.

But now, a new, high-profile deal between America’s XpressWest corporation and Chinese firm China Railways International stands to change the HPR landscape in the United States considerably. The principals intend to construct a rail link between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that would transport passengers at speeds of around 150 miles per hour. China Railways is bringing $100 million in funding to the deal. 

A technology best exemplified by the Japanese Shinkansen – or bullet train – system, high-speed rail travel is a convenient reality in many industrialized nations worldwide. Germany, France, South Korea, Russia, Spain and many other nations have been taking advantage of the speedy travel times made possible by this technology for decades. In recent years, however, China has become the leader in this type of transportation: It has laid down more miles of high-speed and high-performance rail than any other country, and in record-breaking time.

The exact definitions of what constitutes high-performance versus high-speed rail differ from place to place. High-speed is considered faster than high-performance, but the demarcations between the two are a bit fuzzy. Both terms taken together usually refer to rail travel at rates higher than 100 miles per hour

The reasons for HPR’s failure to take hold in the United States are hotly debated. Some point to the vast distances encompassed within U.S. borders and the phenomenon of urban sprawl as factors making this mode of transportation impractical. Others believe that the widespread availability of automobile and air travel means that there’s not much demand for efficient, rapid train journeys.

It’s not surprising that China is trying to bring high-performance rail to the United States. China’s own internal economy has suffered reverses lately, so by successfully expanding in America, Chinese companies can continue their growth in a wealthy, populous market. It’s less clear what benefits will accrue to the United States, which is a strategic rival to China and an opponent of its Communist governmental structure. Concerns have been raised about the safety record of certain Chinese manufacturing firms, and opponents are leery of letting China control critical U.S. transportation infrastructure.

We don’t have to put all our eggs in a Chinese basket however. Although not as well-known among the public at large, there are several similar schemes underway that don’t feature Chinese participation. California is working on its own high-speed rail project that would allow riders to traverse the approximately 350 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. After this initial connection is complete, there are plans to expand the system to other Californian population centers, like San Diego and Sacramento. Meanwhile, a private organization is trying to raise funding to build high-speed rails between Dallas and Houston.

It’s possible that Elon Musk’s bizarre

If either the Hyperloop or HPR become popular in the United States in coming years, the environmental consequences would be great. According to Ohio Gas, traditional oil- and gas-powered vehicles contribute approximately 27 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. By cutting down on automobile traffic, they’ll reduce the emission of these greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Even the cars that do remain on the road will perform more efficiently as gridlock and traffic congestion are reduced.

One of the problems confronting the United States is the fact that public transportation infrastructure, outside of a few major urban centers, is dismal and even dangerous. It’s almost certain that Chinese experience and capital investments will lead to viable American high-speed train routes. Even if these systems don’t become widespread, there are a few major parts of the country that stand to reap serious benefits.

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