Riding the Rails: A Platform for Speculation on American Urbanization in the Age of High Speed Rail

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Vast expanses of unpopulated landscapes along an Amtrak train route. Source: Author

Established in 1986 by Ronald M. Druker LF ’76, and by the Trustees of the Bertram A. Druker Charitable Foundation, the Druker Traveling Fellowship is open to all students at the GSD who demonstrate excellence in the design of urban environments. The fellowship offers students the opportunity to travel in the United States or abroad to pursue study that advances understanding of urban design. Melissa Alexander MAUD ’13 is the 2013 Druker Traveling Fellowship recipient. What follows are excerpts from her research. 

From the Prologue:

Unlike the United States, riding a train in most other countries is liberating. Travel is brisk, stations are attractive and clean, and trains are well attended and comfortable. Japan introduced the first high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka in 1964, and since then speeds have increased and high-speed rail (HSR) technology has been adopted by industrialized countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Train travel there is more environmentally friendly, more convenient, and more comfortable than budget air travel. Trains are the preferred mode of transit for distances between 75-500 miles in countries where it is available, because, at nearly 200mph, it is quicker than cars and more convenient than planes. Technology aside, trains shape the social space of cities. Whether historic, renovated, or brand new, train stations are the nexus of urban culture and commerce, the heartbeat generating and regenerating a vibrant urban community.

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Melissa Alexander MAUD ’13 presenting her work at the GSD on April 3, 2017.

Despite the broken condition of Amtrak, train travel could make a comeback in the US. American highways are congested and crumbling, daily commute times are inhumane, and many airports are at maximum capacity. Citizens are ever more aware of the environmental damage caused by carbon emissions from cars and planes. And, in a migratory ‘about face,’ Americans are now moving into cities instead of out of them. As such, there is renewed interest in all forms of transit. In 2009, as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration designated over $8 billion towards high-speed rail initiatives, and unveiled a ‘Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.’ Following the announcement, forty states and the District of Columbia requested over $100 billion for high-speed train projects. The demand, at least for studying high-speed rail, is there. In January of 2015, California broke ground on its own high-speed route, largely along the San Joaquin corridor through the valley, to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Florida, a high-speed rail project connecting Tampa and Orlando started but was disappointingly shelved in 2014. And in Texas, a group of investors is making progress towards a privately funded route between Dallas and Houston. If, after fifty years of stalling, Americans are finally ready to address the problem of mobility in the US, we must look outside of our own the traditional transportation planning processes that are still dominated by the tools, methods and assumptions, political biases, procedural failures, and instilled human behaviors of our past and current planning processes.

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Two models of TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) pull into a station in France. Source: Author

In order to accomplish this, designers need to reconnect with the rich spatial legacy of the train in nineteenth century America and understand the physical implications of 21st century high-speed trains. Using travel as a lens of inquiry, Riding the Rails explores the physical implications of the railroad in the past, present and future at several scales of intervention and in a variety of cultural contexts. Drawing from first-hand train passage throughout Europe and Asia, the resulting body of research establishes a platform from which to speculate on new models of American urbanization in the age of high-speed rail.

Part 1: The Birth of Restlessness explores the implications of the railroad on the physical development of a young and expansive United States from the early nineteenth century to World War II.

Part 2: Waiting on a Train focuses on the contemporary physical implications of high-speed Rail from World War II to the present day, using case studies from Europe and Asia to identify the new and exciting ways in which HSR invents new architectural and urban typologies, compresses space, and opens up new operative scales that supersede traditional scales of design and planning.

Part 3: I Hear that Train A-comin’ speculates on the future of passenger rail in America, which, due to the dominance of the car, is a challenging environment for high-speed rail.

Visit the project website at RidingTheRails.org.