Interconnecting international cities by rail

Travel between  regional urban centres has become more challenging in recent years.  Barriers include high gasoline prices and road congestion, reduced rail options and increasingly cumbersome air travel due to deathly slow security procedures.  These transportation barriers may need a re-think by governments at different levels in the near future.  Some background:

Ryan Avent and Richard Florida have been musing about the importance of interconnected cities to super-regional economic well being.  Avent notes how Philadelphia undergoing a renaissance as an affordable yet cool overflow area for people and business that might want to be connected to New York, but cannot afford it.

Avent:

 For Philly, part of the reason is its presence in an area with great market potential. The city has excellent connections to other booming cities, which makes it a natural place for firms and people to locate. It also benefits from being one of the low cost options in its neighborhood. Need a full service city close to the northeast action and can’t afford New York? Head to Philadelphia.

The Rust Belt has plenty of capable cities, but they’re a lot farther apart than the ones in the northeast.  … New York to Washington is only 200 miles, between which is a lot of stuff. Chicago to Detroit is closer to 300 miles, and there’s a lot less in between, because so much of the Rust Belt urban geography is clustered along the lake shore. In general, the Rust Belt is a much looser and poorer version of the northeast….

To rejuvenate the Rust Belt economy, then, governments have to find ways to allow their citizens to punch above their weight. That has to mean improved connections within and across Rust Belt cities. Deep, connected pools of human capital fuel the economy of the northeast, and the midwest has to try to marshal and mobilize its resources by moving them closer together.

Florida adds the comment that decades ago, many cities in the “rust belt” northern mid west were more connected than they are today.  People travelled by rail, sometimes overnight, to do business in another city the next day.   He also mentioned the Toronto-Buffalo megalopolis, an economic region with a troublesome international border to navigate if citizens and businesses on both sides of the border are to take full advantage of their mutual proximity.

Seattle and Vancouver  and even stretching into Portland face similar challenges.  Montreal and Boston could perhaps mutually reinforce each other in certain clusters, if travel were easier.

Rail seems to be a solution.  Even on conventional tracks rather than new “high speed” technology, better use of trains seems like an obvious way to better connect people and commerce (and non-profits and really any type of organization) in different cities.

First, train travel doesn’t need the level of security screening that airline travel now does.  It can take 90 minutes+ to go through the combination of checking in and security screening at some US airports.  For a short hop flight, this is ridiculous.  To fly from Canada to the US, you need to add time for the customs and immigration screen too.  The flight from Vancouver to Seattle takes about 45 minutes the rest of the procedure about 90 minutes, for a 2.5 to 3 hour epic (making it quicker to drive — if not for the border line up).

Second, with new wireless technology many people can be productive on the train ride if they so choose.  Cell phone conversations are allowed, and I’m sure the technology exists to offer internet connections during at least some of the journey.

Finally, on international train routes crossing the US-Canada border, customs and immigration procedures could be carried out for passengers while on board the train.  On the way to the border, an immigration screen could take place with individuals not acceptable to enter the other country left behind during a brief stop at the border.  During the rest of the journey customs officials could do their inspections of individuals and their luggage.  A version of this is done now on the Amtrack between Seattle and Vancouver.  But it could be even faster.   This way, you could hop on a train in Vancouver at say 7 AM, it would arrive in downtown Seattle at around 9 AM, and all border formalities would be carried out en route.

Similar for a trip from Buffalo or Rochester to Toronto.  Or Montreal to Boston.
In fact, trains could have sealed cars for Nexus pass holders (people pre-screened by US and Canadian customs and immigration services to cross the border without inspection).  This would reduce requirements for immigration and customs work and allow individuals with business ties faster, less intrusive travel.

In some parts of North America, for citizens of certain cities to “pull more than their economic weight” will require better cross-border connections to nearby big cities on the other side of the border.  Rail and train travel may be the solution.

10 comments

  1. Dan Hill says:

    Good points. I made similar in a piece on the potential of high-speed rail to link up the major cities on Australia’s south and east coast:

    http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2008/01/the-shinkansen.html

  2. Kim Siever says:

    I just wish Canada had a southern route on Via Rail.

  3. Andy in Germany says:

    “I’m sure the technology exists to offer internet connections during at least some of the journey.”

    This is already happening in Europe with wi-fi ‘Hot spots’ on high speed German trains. We also have onboard customs checks at the EU borders: officials check while the train is moving. The technology and experience Exists. You just need the political will to use it. On the other hand the airlines are probebly aware that over here rail is now making big bites into the Short-haul flight market between major centres because they are quicker point-to-point, so there will be a major lobbying fight against this happening in the US.

  4. Johnnyb says:

    Been looking over your blog, and I agree with a lot of your ideas. Unfortunately, I know that Andy in Germany is right, and its going to take political will to create a better future, just like it took politics to create the present suburban nightmare. I say unfortunately because I do not think that Americans want to take the pain that would be necessary to make it a reality. Too much financial interest in keeping the suburban status quo, even though suburbia sucks.

  5. Wendy Waters says:

    Wow. All great comments. It certainly will take some political change, but also changes to the popular will. One could read all the excitement over Obama and change generally in the US presidential primaries as a sign that many people do want a change and politicians will have to respond. Whether this will mean better rail links across the Canadian-US border is another story.

  6. Bronson Fung says:

    The Eurostar link between London-Lille-Paris has already been doing this for a lot of people. The idea of using a train car (or several) as a customs check point is innovative and feasible, but potentially susceptible to terrorist attacks.

    The major distinction between rail link and airplane link is a connection between “city centers” instead of just “cities”. The main advantage of train over car is “passenger” over “driver”; productivity in transit is a major factor.

    Regarding wireless on trains, in addition to WiFi hotspots on high speed trains, many high speed and regional railways in Japan are close to making wireless a prerequisite service on their trains. Advertising should be a sufficient answer to the cost.

    Let’s hope the political resistance can be battered down.

  7. Vincent Clement says:

    Or we could work to replacing the US-Canada border with a perimeter system like that used by the EU.

    It is ridiculous and a waste of limited resources to make people wait one to two hours at US customs in Detroit, Buffalo and Blaine when the overwhelming majority of people crossing are not a threat.

  8. Budd Campbell says:

    “It is ridiculous and a waste of limited resources to make people wait one to two hours at US customs in Detroit, Buffalo and Blaine when the overwhelming majority of people crossing are not a threat.”

    Vincent, you may be right in principle. In practice, Homeland Security is tightening up, and is in no mood for loosening. Consider the case of Kevin Gibbons:

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2008/03/31/bc-borderblocked.html

  9. Greg Hyslop says:

    Most of the so-called Rust Belt cities have four times as many large-scale department stores than what their demographics can support. You need 40,000-50,000 people to support a department store and there one department store for every 10,000-15,000 people. Business overexpansion is caused by politics.

  10. airline travel is the best but the high cost of air travel makes it a not so great option,”~