Dr. Ander Audikana is a Spanish Fulbright Schuman scholar currently conducting advanced research in urban planning at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The article below is the second publication stemming from his grant in the United States and contains his research about high speed rail systems in America.
High-speed rail development and beyond: an opportunity for a further US-EU cooperation
As an analyst in urban and transport policy, I have been visiting scholar at George Mason University, School of Public Policy, conducting a research on the development of high-speed and intercity passenger in the United States. This fellowship has been an opportunity to extend and enrich my research experience, after having completed a doctoral dissertation focused on the Spanish high-speed rail policy at Paris-Est University.
In order to understand the challenges of passenger rail transport in the United States, I analysed the different dynamics influencing current decision-making, since transport is not only about economics or technology, but also about history, institutional factors, geography, cultural trends and, of course, politics. Thus, during my research in Washington DC, I have tried to understand the history of transport and railway policy, the institutional framework of the transport systems, the mobility patterns of goods and people and territorial configurations, the way of life and habits, and the political and ideological aspects of transport in the United States.
The research provided me with number of insights. For example, it is necessary to note that the high-speed rail program that has been promoted by the federal government since 2009 is not entirely new; rather, different high-speed rail initiatives have been undertaken at federal and local level since the mid 60’s. In addition, I found that, despite the fact that transport policy has traditionally been bipartisan, the debate on high-speed rail has been influenced by the conflict inside the political stream. Nevertheless, over the recent years, the consensus inside the policy forums is that some kind of modernisation of passenger rail transport should be carried out in the near future. In short, high-speed rail in the United States is the subject of a long, passionate and still open debate.
As a Fulbright-Schuman grantee, the scope of the present research was more ambitious. Inspired by the comparative approach taken, among others, by Tocqueville, my research on high-speed rail seeks to promote a better understanding between European experience and the American plans. If the high-speed rail projects promoted by European stakeholders in the United States have failed in the past, it is probably due to a restricted conception of policy transfer dynamic. The European railway industry aimed at recreating in the United States territory the European projects without taking completely into account the specificity of the history, vision and transport organisation in the United States. The absence of policy mediators in the area of transport, frequently considered only under the technological criterion, may be one of the reasons explaining the past failures. In order to achieve a better cooperation a further mutual understanding and dialogue is needed between both sides: less policy transfer and more policy learning. That is, in my opinion, what the Fulbright-Schuman program is all about.
Urban and transport planning appears as a strategic sector to promote further cooperation between Europe and the United States, beyond the debate of high-speed rail projects. Indeed, during my Fulbright-Schuman fellowship, I have been involved in a research project on public-private partnership promoted by the Center for Transportation, Policy, Operations and Logistics. European experience in public-private partnership is currently a relevant research topic in the United States. Similarly, the European passenger rail liberalisation experience is also a subject of interest in the United States transport forums, while American freight rail transport is considered in Europe a model of efficiency. These are only some areas where further cooperation is possible in order to provide better local answers to global challenges. My 5-month fellowship in the United States has been an extraordinary and unforgettable personal research experience. I hope it also represents a contribution to promoting transatlantic dialogue relating to the future of our respective cities, territories and transport systems.