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Will High-Speed Rail Ever Get on Track in the U.S.?

Insights + Opinion
Will High-Speed Rail Ever Get on Track in the U.S.?
An extended version of the Fuxing bullet train at the China National Railway Test Center on Oct. 15, 2018 in Beijing, China. VCG / VCG via Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

Is it just us?

Other countries don't seem to have a problem getting their high-speed rail systems on track. This superfast, fuel-efficient form of mass transit is wildly popular throughout Asia and the European Union. Japan's sleek Shinkansen line, the busiest high-speed rail system in the world, carries an estimated 420,000 riders every weekday. In China, the new Fuxing Hao bullet train now hurries more than 100 million passengers a year between Beijing and Shanghai at a top speed of 218 miles an hour, allowing its riders to make the trip of 775 miles — roughly the distance from New York City to Chicago — in about four and a half hours. Spain, Germany and France together have more than 4,500 miles of track dedicated to high-speed rail, over which more than 150 million passengers travel annually.


But here in the U.S., attempts to implement regional high-speed rail networks have floundered and faltered. The most recent setback was in California, where just last month the state's new governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that he would be dramatically downsizing an ambitious, exciting system linking the northern and southern portions of the state via a 220-mph bullet train. Cost overruns had more or less doubled the original price tag from roughly $40 billion to $77 billion, with some estimates placing the final bill at nearly $100 billion. As of right now, the previously planned 800-mile line between Los Angeles and San Francisco has dwindled to a $10.6 billion project across 171 miles between the rural Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Merced — what cynics have mockingly dubbed a "train to nowhere."

Meanwhile, in Texas, plans for a bullet train linking the state's two biggest cities, Dallas and Houston, are going forward — but not without plenty of resistance. Unlike the California project, the Texas Central Railroad's project, pegged at $12 billion to $20 billion, is being financed entirely with private funds, so no one is complaining about the money. Instead, the complaints come from landowners and other stakeholders upset about the seizure and purchase of privately owned tracts through eminent domain. In late January, a court ruled that Texas Central Railroad, in point of fact, isn't even a railroad in the legally recognized sense of the word, since it doesn't currently own anything by way of tracks or rolling stock. As a result, the company's reliance on eminent domain to obtain land for its future trains' right-of-way is misplaced — and illegal — according to the judge overseeing the case. (Texas Central Railroad must now face individual landowners in court.)

The friction these projects are encountering can take many forms, but there's no denying that it's real: A lot of Americans seem downright resistant to high-speed rail. To some, whatever benefits rail travel may confer to individual riders, cities or the environment can't ever be enough to offset the massive (and, typically, ballooning) costs to taxpayers during the construction period, which can stretch on for decades. To others, high-speed rail projects — no matter how they're funded — are little more than land grabs that punish rural communities in pursuit of what many perceive as an urbanist folly.

I can't help but wonder if behind both sentiments is a latent fear: that this form of mass transit, precisely because it's so popular in other cultures, somehow poses a threat to our own culture of rugged individualism. The history of American transportation conjures romantic images of the "lone rider" — in the past on horseback, now on a motorcycle or in a car — charting his or her own course out on the open road, free from interference or intervention. This notion often gets compressed into a shrugged assertion: Mass transit is a nice idea, but let's face it: America is a car culture. As a people, we just like to drive. We don't like to be driven.


Actually, if this was ever true, the data suggest it is less true now. Millennials, especially, are rejecting the romanticization of automobiles. According to a 2018 report published by Arity, a Chicago-based company that studies transportation data, more than half of millennials say that car ownership isn't worth the money or the hassle, and that they don't much care for driving anyway. It's worth noting that these are the same people who are currently leading the leading the public fight against climate change, refusing to accept the untenable status quo foisted upon them through the inaction of their elders.

This generation is also, not coincidentally, key to the future economic success of cities, states and regions. If you want to attract young, educated professionals to your city or town, you'd be wise to meet their demands for better and more plentiful public transportation.

Let's face it: When it comes to feelings about mass transit, young Americans appear to have more in common with Asian and European citizens of all ages than they do with older Americans. In anticipation of the day when they're calling the shots economically and politically — a day that's already dawning — we should be busy installing high-speed rail systems in all regions of the country where traffic congestion, pollution and the expenses associated with driving hinder travel between major cities and reduce the quality of life for their citizens.

Yes, we should be mindful of costs. Yes, we should be mindful of landowners' concerns. But should we allow these factors to derail us? Absolutely not.

Jeff Turrentine is the culture & politics columnist at NRDC's onEarth.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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