The State of High-Speed, Intercity Rail

The implementation of high-speed rail (HSR) networks can greatly reduce the travel time between big cities, with the optimal travel distance ranging from around 100 to 500 miles. However, in addition to its most intuitive use, intercity travel, HSR can also be used for daily commuting. It’s fast, reliable, frequent, and riders are free from road traffic and can sit comfortably throughout the entire journey all while having a lower carbon footprint. Despite covering more distance, the commuting time isn’t significantly longer, and may even be shorter due to higher traveling speed. In fact, HSR is already the norm in many East Asian megacities; bullet trains are full of commuters during rush hours, transporting people from city centers to smaller cities enroute. 

But commuting by HSR doesn’t just allow further but more comfortable commutes; it has also gradually shifted the spatial relationship between cities on HSR corridors, creating demand in real estate markets, new business in the services industry and stimulating new business investments.  

Unlike normal rail transit, high-speed rail routes have stations much further away from each other, far enough that they are at least in different county-level divisions where the governance, land-use, and demographic patterns are relatively independent to each other. HSR connects those places to major regional economic hubs. For megacities, it helps attract talent from farther away; smaller cities enroute can collect spillover benefits from the megacities. Many places in the United States have corridors that are suitable for building HSR for both intercity and commuting travel. Those corridors are around megacities, connecting surrounding cities by HSR trains. Corridors like Upstate New York to New York City and the Virginia Coast to Washington D.C. have great potential for developing HSR commuting. 

A successful high-speed rail commuting program may require subsidies, but it still creates lots of benefits. Despite having higher commuting costs, the overall living costs may be lower in comparison to renting properties in the center of megacities, or even the suburbs. Plus, people who use HSR to commute have higher income levels than the median, thus such a commuting pattern is within the budget for most of the users. HSR operations are subsidized and have government-regulated prices in many countries. Japan’s Shinkansen (the bullet train) does not receive a government operation subsidy, but the government does subsidize households that choose to move out of Tokyo, and employers may also offer discounts and monthly passes.  

Unlike the wild growth of suburbanization as the result of highway construction and auto-centric planning in the United States and North America, best-practices from Asia demonstrate that developments around new HSR stations are master-planned new transit-oriented communities (TOCs). Mid-high density mixed-use development allows residents to have amenities within walking distance that solves the “last-mile-problem” and encourages the use of transit. Building high-density residential buildings within walking distance around stations can alleviate housing problems. In the context of the United States, the density of those TOCs might be negotiated, but the goal of promoting active transportation should remain. 

When there is a large population living in an area with complete infrastructure, investments and business in services sectors will also grow in the region, mutually stimulating the economy and urban ecosystem, because of resource spillover from the hub. Furthermore, schools – particularly private schools and colleges— would be able to attract students from a further distance, as the HSR reduces the travel time to and from students’ homes. Thus, students from further distances can travel between school and home more frequently.  

Pyeongtaek is a small city (population 500,000) located 40 miles south of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Pyeongtaek Smart City – an entirely new TOC was master-planned around the Pyeongtaek HSR station, in accordance with HSR construction and Samsung’s plan to invest in a new campus in this city. With the HSR, travel time between Pyeongtaek and Seoul is only 20 minutes, providing enormous but flexible mobility for commuters, business, and resources circulating between. 

On the other hand, major new investments would also stimulate small businesses, particularly the retail industry. More frequent travel stimulates spending at retailers en route, at train stations, and in those newly developed communities.  

While reduced travel times between major metropolitan areas is the most well-known advantage of high-speed rail (HSR), its transformative impact extends far beyond just connecting large cities. The new pattern of commuting ushered in by HSR will promote transit-oriented development, provide a novel but sustainable lifestyle, and stimulate business. Governments and public agencies should be aware of these chain reactions when making plans and policies and should provide adequate subsidies to optimize the benefits. 


This content is part of Econsult Solutions’ thought leadership initiative, ESI Center for the Future of Cities, which brings together experts in urban economics, policy, and strategy to craft new evidence-based research on the most important issues facing cities around the world, and to provide consulting services for public and private sector organizations working in urban settings.


Lechuan Huang, Analyst | [email protected]

Lechuan Huang is an Analyst at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI). He has an educational background in urban planning, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Public and Urban Affairs from Virginia Tech, and his Master of Urban Spatial Analytics from the University of Pennsylvania.

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