The U.S. Is Not Ready for High Speed Rail

The U.S. already has 140,000 miles of perfectly good regular train tracks. Let’s start with what we have.
April 19, 2021, 1:00pm
High speed train in France
BERTRAND GUAY via Getty Images
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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Within the larger, dumber debate about whether President Biden's infrastructure plan really counts as infrastructure, there are virtually limitless smaller, better debates about whether the plan is any good. Even looking solely at the transportation section of the plan, such a debate can be had at several different levels. There is the high-level question of how much money ought to be spent on subsidizing cars and roads versus public transportation and other sustainable forms of transportation. Then there are countless other policy questions about how those subsidies should be structured, what kinds of public transportation should be built and where, and so on and so forth. 

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One such question is about high speed rail (HSR), specifically whether the Biden plan should commit to building any and, if so, how much. Although there is no official definition, generally HSR means a passenger train capable of traveling 125 mph or faster, but it does not necessarily mean the entire route goes that fast.

There is no doubt that HSR is a fantastic technology that would make the U.S. much better in any measurable way. It is a proven technology. It is also not a new technology, having first debuted in Japan in the 1960s (although like any technology it has of course improved over time). The fact that other countries like Germany, France, South Korea, Spain, and especially China have successfully built lots of HSR leads many hopeful Americans to believe we can too. It has spawned an entire meme subculture of drawing prospective U.S. HSR maps that are aspirational and fun but little more than Microsoft Paint lines across state maps.

While I love the optimism HSR fuels in American transit nerds, we are not starting from where Japan was in the 1950s or France in the 1970s. We have no passenger rail culture to speak of outside of the northeast corridor and some tourist novelty routes. It would require an incredible building spree, the likes of which the U.S. hasn't seen for generations. 

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So, at the heart of this HSR question is not "would it be good?" but, rather, a more strategic issue. Do we take the lower risk, lower reward path to drastically improve the rail infrastructure we already have? Or do we go with the big swing and try to start all over with high speed rail? We have a passenger rail network. It sucks right now, but we can make it better a lot easier than we can build a new one. 

One possible answer is "why not both?" This has obvious appeal. It's always preferable to not be forced into difficult choices. But given the several hundred billion dollars currently needed to build just one U.S. HSR line, "build it all" isn't likely to happen, especially in a country where one political party is opposed to publicly-funded HSR (although that wasn't always the case). 

To be sure, reasonable people can disagree on what that choice should be. But I'd like to take a moment to advocate for the humble ol' choo-choo train that can still move tens of millions of people a year quickly, reliably, and comfortably, and in an environmentally friendly way. 

HSR requires a lot more work than just buying faster trains. It needs new tracks and signals and often new routes entirely to both reduce the severity of curves and hills to enable faster speeds and to cut travel distances. 

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It is much easier to build HSR in countries with existing and widely used passenger rail. For example, countries like France and Germany built sections of HSR to cut travel times along major corridors while still using existing tracks for the slower parts of the journey in developed areas. Then they added more HSR to gradually increase speeds and reduce travel times. Over decades, they got a true HSR network with transformative effects. Six hour-plus trips now take three or less. But it didn't happen overnight or in one big building spree. It would have been much harder to do without an existing, efficient, dependable passenger rail network.

In order to build a transportation system that works, it is important to be realistic. And, realistically, the U.S. sucks at building public transit for all kinds for deep, structural reasons (I wrote a whole separate and frankly very long article about this a little over a year ago if you want to go into the weeds on that issue). More money can fix some of those problems, but it is not simply a question of more money. It is about fixing a public works mentality and legal structure that is fundamentally broken, requiring decades to even get such projects under construction after designing the project, acquiring the land, conducting all the legally required environmental reviews, and warding off the inevitable obstructionist lawsuits.

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These would all be surmountable problems if we had unlimited time to do it. But we do not. Unfortunately, time is running out to build an HSR network that will meaningfully shift travel patterns away from more polluting means like airplanes and long drives. It takes a long time to build HSR even if you're good at it. According to transportation researcher Yonah Freemark, in their first 20 years of HSR operations, Japan built 1,120 miles of HSR, France 896, and Germany 566; everyone else built even less. 

Except, that is, for China, which is a global HSR outlier on steroids. China went from having zero miles of HSR in 2007 to 17,431 miles in 2020, or just 13 years, the kind of building spree many HSR advocates would love to see in the U.S. But, China is able to do this because it is not a democracy, national infrastructure priorities are not subject to debate, and people living where the trains go are simply kicked out.

For the U.S., matching the building pace of other democratic nations would be too little too late. In 20 years, it will be 2041, a full decade after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says emissions have to be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and less than a decade before the planet has to be at net zero emissions. Even if the U.S. matched Japan's building pace in its first two decades of HSR, that wouldn't be enough time to build out three of the most obvious HSR routes: Chicago to New York, Boston to DC, and Los Angeles to San Francisco. Of course, the latter California route has been in various planning stages for several decades and is nowhere close to done at several times the original cost estimate, so even matching the building pace Japan accomplished several generations ago feels so aspirational as to border on delusion.

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Fortunately, as great as HSR is, we don't necessarily need it to make rail travel appealing again to many Americans. We just need to work with what we have and make it as good as it can be.

The U.S. already has an extensive 140,000-mile functional rail network owned and operated by freight rail companies that is also used by Amtrak. If we're going to have decent U.S. rail service in time to make a meaningful impact on emissions, this is our best shot. Amtrak even released a map of what this might look like should Biden's infrastructure plan get enacted. 

Some critics have suggested Amtrak's plan includes a lot of political pork projects that don't connect viable rail corridors, but that's generally not true, such as the plan to create passenger rail service from Atlanta to Charlotte, two major and growing metropolitan areas. In fact, one of the plan's best attributes is enhancing service along existing routes that desperately need it, like Chicago to St. Louis.

In fact, the Chicago to St. Louis route is a perfect example of both what can be achieved and what still stands in our way to better rail service. The route has already received $2 billion in order for trains to have fewer crossings with roads and can travel at 90 mph (soon to be upgraded to 110 mph). But as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, that is unlikely to make a significant impact on people's travel habits because the trains rarely go that fast. They often get stuck behind freight trains. And since the freight companies run the rails, they rarely prioritize passenger rail as they're legally required to do. So, despite spending billions of dollars on useful infrastructure improvements that would cut travel times by 20 percent, it doesn't matter because the trains are still scheduled to travel an average of just 53 mph, anticipating inevitable delays. It often goes even slower. If Amtrak could schedule St. Louis to Chicago to travel at, say, 70 mph by finally getting those 110 mph sections and ensuring passenger rail has priority, it would be faster and cheaper than driving. 

Would HSR have made Chicago-to-St. Louis more appealing? Of course faster trains are better than slower ones if they exist. But Amtrak didn't have the right-of-way to build new high-speed tracks or the money to buy that much land, not to mention the costs for the HSR infrastructure itself. Closer to the cities, the high-speed trains would be stuck in the same freight rail traffic jams as the slower ones. Plus, we'd still be waiting for construction to start. Without a ridership base already taking the train putting pressure on public officials to make HSR a fiscal and political priority, there's no incentive to take the incremental approach that has been so successful abroad. 

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That being said, there are routes where building HSR may make some sense, at least theoretically, because there is no existing direct rail route. For example, New York to Chicago is a great candidate. Currently, passenger trains take a circuitous route across New York state to Buffalo, then to Cleveland and onto Chicago. It takes 19 hours as scheduled. The most direct line, which would cut through Scranton and head directly west to Cleveland, doesn't exist (at least, not for Amtrak, and what makes for a good freight rail route despite curves and steep grades may not make for a good HSR route). All this even though New York and Chicago are about 650 miles apart as the car drives and are connected by 1,462 nonstop flights per week. And even efficient conventional rail running at 70-90 mph would still be an all-day journey. In theory, HSR would be ideal for a route like this.

The problem is there are an awful lot of existing things between New York and Chicago. A direct route would cut through county after county of densely populated areas. China successfully built tens of thousands of miles of HSR by relocating untold numbers of families out of the way. That is simply not happening here.

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A common response I've gotten to all this HSR naysaying is usually some version of a patriotic pep talk, that the U.S. has built big, great things before and we can do it again. Specifically, people often mention the interstate highway system as an obvious analogue. But there are three reasons that's not a good comparison.

First, the interstate highway system did force tens if not hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes, primarily communities of color, destroying those neighborhoods. After decades of reflection, transportation experts have formed a general consensus that this was a huge mistake and are considering tearing down many of these urban highways. Anyone suggesting we should do the same thing but for trains because trains are better than cars needs to reflect on the fact that many people earnestly believed the exact opposite 60 years ago which is how we got into this mess today. We need humility in equal doses as ambition to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Second, doing something similar today would require displacing even more people at an even bigger scale. The U.S. has twice as many people as it did in 1956—328 million versus 169 million—when the interstate highway system construction began in earnest. And almost all of that growth has occurred in suburban sprawl, meaning more parcels of higher value land to seize from a greater number of people and greater limitations on what a potential track route could look like. To put it lightly, we are far from a political consensus that tens of thousands of suburban families need to give up their homes for any greater good, much less for HSR specifically.

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Third, the interstate system was built before environmental review laws were enacted. In fact, it was in part the interstate highway system's many endemic inequalities and environmental impact that helped Americans realize environmental review laws were necessary. Paradoxically, the highway system helped ensure we would never build anything like it ever again. 

At its core, the HSR versus traditional rail question harkens back to an age-old story about American ambition. More than anything else, Americans are united by a national myth that anything is possible, and that if it is possible we should do it to demonstrate our national superiority. We can build a train across the country and put a man on the moon if we want to. 

Sometimes, I see tweets or hear talking heads refer to the interstate highway system as if Dwight Eisenhower woke up one day and decided to build it from scratch and a few years later: boom, done. But this wasn't the case at all. The major interstates weren't completed until the 1980s. (A perfect testament to how Americans think of public works is the fact that it is infinitely easier to find posts celebrating the creation of the interstate system than any information about when it was finished.) And that doesn't include all the turnpikes and parkways states built on their own for decades prior to the interstate system. Suburbanization was well underway by the late 1940s in the postwar housing boom. The U.S. was already a car culture by 1956 when the interstate highway project officially began. We need to get to an analogous place with passenger rail in order for HSR to be successful.

Part of combating climate change is recalibrating our expectations surrounding our wants and needs. In particular, we as a species and Americans in particular need to abandon the mindset where we do things simply because we can. We have to re-evaluate every aspect of the carbon-based economy and take stock of what I can buy versus what I should buy, what I can do instead of what I should do, and, most importantly, how to use what we already have when it is not perfect but good enough.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article stated the California high speed project has been under construction for decades, which isn’t true; construction began in 2015. It has been in various planning stages for decades.

In addition, a previous version of the this article stated the Lake Shore Limited goes from New York City to Chicago via Boston. The Lake Shore Limited has two trains, one from New York and another from Boston, that meet and are combined in Albany before continuing to Chicago. The article has been updated to reflect this.