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Why a High Speed Rail Network Would Supercharge the Emerging Maker Economy

One artist's proposal to bring a high speed rail system to revolutionize the shipping industry.

Online marketplaces for secondhand goods, rentals, and custom on-demand manufacturing offer great potential in conserving resources by facilitating reuse, eliminating the problem of unsold inventory, and reducing the need for flashy packaging. However, delivery of these items remains a major challenge. Presently, choices are costly airmail or waiting a week for the truck. However, there is a potential third way: fast trains that overnight products throughout the country at low costs.

A few weeks ago I released a U.S. High Speed Rail map that combined proposals from various agencies and advocacy groups, sparking nationwide excitement and conversation about the possible uses of high speed rail in the U.S. While most discussion has been about passenger service, some have pointed out important freight opportunities. Nathaniel Pendleton, another high speed rail advocate, pointed out that while people might find an 18-hour cross country trip too long, "cargo is more patient." Pendleton has created maps showing potential routes in relation to existing UPS, FedEx, and U.S. Mail sorting hubs. Unlike planes, which only serve these hubs, however, high speed rail freight could also drop off deliveries at smaller cities along the way, with shipments moving from train to train much like data packet switching on the Internet.

Low cost next day delivery can expand the market for secondhand goods and on-demand manufacturing by reducing the total cost to the buyer. To give an example, I've made the U.S. High Speed Rail map available as a print on demand poster, made in San Jose, CA. For a $25 item, shipping is $6 for delivery in one week, $14 for 2 day, and $23 for next day. What if next day shipping was only $10?

Today, high speed trains carry mail and express cargo in Europe. Similar and additional opportunities abound for high speed cargo in the U.S. Need something repaired? Put it on a train headed to the factory today and have it back tomorrow. Farmers could get local produce to markets 150 miles away without having to leave town at 5 a.m. Need medical samples analyzed? Working on a prototype with a team located in a different city? Want to rent a specialized tool or formal wear? These industries and more can all benefit from low cost same day and overnight long distance delivery.

In the 19th and 20th century, delivery of small parcels via railway express agencies enabled the growth of the mail-order business. Bringing speeds up to the pace of the 21st century would allow this efficient, high-capacity form of transport to continue creating innovations in retail and maintain its leading role at the cutting edge of the economy.

Alfred Twu is an artist and designer, and created the U.S. High Speed Rail system map based on proposals by various government agencies and advocacy groups. He has also led the creation of a map of existing mass transit in California and is currently fundraising for a similar map for the Northeast U.S.

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