High-Speed Rail in Japan. Image courtesy of Alex Hudson

The allure of high-speed rail (HSR) has long intrigued people across the United States. Japan’s Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” exemplify the global gold standard in HSR, but many here wonder, can we replicate its excellent results here? As a nation with a penchant for vast, often sprawling landscapes and a love affair with automobiles, the prospect of efficient, eco-friendly rail systems has always held promise – but also some big questions. 

Advocates and agencies are trying to answer those questions here in Washington. 

During the 2022 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature allocated $4 million for additional analysis and development of an expanded framework for future high-speed rail and $150 million for matching funds to leverage federal funding opportunities over the next six years. (View the HSR status report submitted to the Washington State Legislature in June 2023.)

In the summer of 2023, WSDOT also announced to the Legislature the creation of the Cascadia High-Speed Rail and I-5 Program that formally combines the following:

  • The I-5 planning project, currently in the Management of Mobility Division, stretches from the Canadian border to the Oregon border.
  • Cascadia Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation, currently managed in the Rail, Freight, and Ports Division, includes the corridor connecting the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon.

Consistent with legislative direction and WSDOT leadership priorities, these two projects will now be managed together, and the agency teams hope to start more formal joint stakeholder engagement soon.

In October 2022, Transportation Choices Executive Director Alex Hudson took a trip with other Washington State transportation changemakers to Japan to explore the promise and the reality of Japan’s bullet trains.

In this blog post, we will delve into several pivotal lessons Washington can glean from Japan’s HSR model, with a sharp focus on equity, sustainability, safety, and accessibility.

Lesson 1: Equity Through Accessibility

Japan’s Shinkansen network is celebrated for its accessibility. Stations are equipped with amenities to accommodate passengers with diverse needs, including those with disabilities. Elevators, ramps, and clear signage create a welcoming environment for everyone. To bolster equity, the US can prioritize accessible infrastructure from the outset, helping ensure HSR is a mode of travel accessible to people of all abilities. 

However, one thing to keep in mind is how differently equity considerations play out in Washington State. Racial and economic disparities play a huge part in how transportation impacts bear out in the Pacific NW and must be accounted for through strong community engagement of BIPOC and low-income communities on transportation projects. 

Lesson 2: Sustainability as a Guiding Principle

Japan’s HSR system is not just about speed; it’s also about sustainability. These trains are significantly more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional modes of transportation. Japan’s unwavering commitment to sustainability sets a clear precedent for the US to develop HSR as an eco-conscious travel option, reducing carbon emissions and promoting a greener future.

Lesson 3: Safety is Paramount

Safety is deeply ingrained in Japan’s HSR culture. Cutting-edge technology, earthquake-resistant infrastructure, and rigorous safety protocols ensure the well-being of passengers. By prioritizing safety as a cornerstone, the US can build public trust in HSR and create a travel experience that is both swift and secure.

Lesson 4: Accessible Stations and Integration

Japan seamlessly integrates its HSR with other forms of transportation, fostering convenience and accessibility. Passengers can effortlessly transition between Shinkansen, subways, buses, and airports. Such integration not only enhances accessibility but also strengthens the appeal of HSR as a holistic travel solution. The US can take inspiration from this approach to create a more interconnected transportation network.

Before focusing on integration, we must also ensure our local systems – passenger rail, light rail, commuter rail, local bus service – are fast, frequent, reliable, accessible, and widely available to all residents. An HSR line would only be as strong as the local networks that connect to it.

Lesson 5: Progressive Funding and Public-Private Collaboration

Japan’s HSR success is partially attributed to equitable funding models and robust public-private partnerships. These arrangements bring together government and private-sector resources to drive progress. By embracing similar collaborations, the US can tap into diversified funding sources, reducing the burden on public funds and accelerating HSR development.

The lessons from Japan’s HSR journey provide a roadmap for success as the US aspires to create a transportation network that is truly inclusive, environmentally responsible, and safe for generations to come. By embracing these principles, Washington State can ensure that planning for HSR transcends speed and convenience, delivering better transportation options for all.

Image courtesy of Alex Hudson

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