Are North American attitudes towards high-speed rail beginning to thaw?

Perhaps. National rail company Amtrak is currently rebuilding a 20km swathe of its Northeast Corridor route in Central Jersey, with the hope of permitting travel of up to 160 miles per hour. Elsewhere, feasibility studies into the benefits of high-speed rail are being carried out in the states of California, Florida and Texas.

But, in spite of President Obama’s first-term pledge to provide 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, progress remains dilatory.

In addition to the expected opposition from Republicans, plans to build high-speed rail links have also been received poorly among local communities and taxpayers, who suspect they will be required to foot the hefty bill for such projects.

The announcement at the beginning of the year of plans to build a high-speed rail link between San Antonio, Texas, and Monterrey, Mexico, was therefore something of a curveball. After all, if federal transportation authorities still cannot agree on the case for high-speed rail in their own country, how can a cross-border project be expected to receive backing?

Then there’s San Antonio’s uneasy relationship with public transport to consider. In 2000, voters put their feet down over funding a metro system in the city. Only this year, municipal authorities were forced to scrap plans to build a streetcar network due to a lack of consensus over its benefits.

San Francisco’s BART system is overhauling its rolling stock for the first time since it launched in 1972.

Not so far-fetched: The case for high-speed rail between the US and Mexico

But, the case for the route – as conceived together by representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation and congressmen from the state of Nuevo Leon (whose capital city is Monterrey) – is not as fanciful as one would first think.

First off, a high-speed rail line would allow passengers and cargo to travel between the two cities in approximately two hours; a car or bus journey currently takes in the region of five hours, while red-eye flights are far from cheap.

It could also offer a potential tourism boon to San Antonio, which already receives 26 million visitors a year, according to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. The same goes for Monterrey’s trade links, too. In recent years, the city has emerged as North Mexico’s main commercial hub, and is home to several multinationals, including ALFA, Coca Cola and Heineken.

Plans also include the incorporation of pre-clearance with US Customs, cutting out the need to display documents on the border: a slow and tedious process, which has long been the bane of northbound motorists’ lives.

Leaders of the proposal are bullish. Following a meeting between American and Mexican officials in January, Henry Cuellar, US Representative for Texas’ 28th congressional district – which includes San Antonio – declared: “I think we are going to get it done. It’s a long-term vision, but I think we took an important step here.”

“The very notion of high-speed rail appears to remain gnomic to both US politicians and the general public.”

A question of cost: deregulating Mexico’s railways and the need for investment

The main challenge for both sides will come in reconciling national strategies regarding high-speed rail. Despite the recent decision to cancel a planned China-led rail network between Mexico City and Queretaro (details remain murky), Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has shown itself to be willing to put its money where its mouth is, and has already invested in several research studies into high-speed rail.

Speaking on the back of January meeting, Jorge Domene Zambrano, chief of staff to the governor of Nuevo Leon, claimed state officials had already obtained the necessary permission to commence work on the project on the Mexican side of the border.

“The Mexican side is ready in terms of the permit,” he said. “We need to start looking for the money, which is very important to make it happen, and we are working for 2015 to be ready to start receiving the first amount of money to start the project.”

Stateside, advancements appear to have been more tentative – but not entirely unpromising. According to Jeff Austin, Texas Department of Transportation commissioner, the current high-speed study between Oklahoma City and South Texas -worth $14bn – will act as a benchmark for the potential extension of a line into Mexico. Officials are said to have requested an additional $400,000 to continue the study south of the border.

“Once we have route selection, then this will be available for us to participate in discussions to bring in the private sector,” said Austin.

As Austin suggests, progress in the US will be contingent on a mix of private and public investment. With regards to Mexico, whose railways are set to be further deregulated and privatised in 2015, some feel the country is almost ready to draw in the estimated $1.5bn needed to begin construction work.

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False optimism: Why preconceptions over high-speed need to give way

With its flat terrain and widely disseminated cities and towns, Texas would appear to a natural home for a high-speed rail network. Yet, akin to the majority of its fellow states, the very notion of high-speed rail appears to remain gnomic to both US politicians and the general public, despite its rise in Europe and Asia.

That goes beyond the mere argument over inordinate demands of taxpayers to fund projects – as promulgated by Republicans – but also concerns the lack of clarity over budgets, timescales and administration.

Some reports have claimed that a new railroad between San Antonio and Monterrey could be up and running within the decade. That seems optimistic. While Mexico would appear to be champing at the bit to get started, its American counterparts still have some convincing to do as to the benefits of high-speed rail; only then will investment follow. That could take some time yet.