Why the U.S. doesn’t have high-speed rail – yet

Fast trains: California vacillates while Europe and China charge ahead

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

Californians have a problem — a problem China tackled without a second thought, and Europe handled far more aggressively than the United States. Just about everyone agrees that bustling economies thrive with modern, efficient transportation like high-speed rail. The problem in the Golden State: who is going to pay for it?

In the U.S., there is only one train that can travel at speeds above 150 miles-per-hour: Amtrak’s Acela Express, which runs daily between Boston and Washington, D.C.

“We like to call it the hassle-free way to travel,” says Cliff Cole, a spokesman for Amtrak. Cole says the Acela is Amtrak’s most traveled and profitable route, with nearly 3.4 million riders in fiscal year 2011.

Latitude News went to Boston’s South Station to ask Acela commuters to share their thoughts on fast rail expansion in the U.S.

But Cliff Cole points to a fact about high-speed rail’s future in the U.S that makes it controversial. “There is no country in the world,” he says, “that operates a rail system without federal subsidies.”

Should the U.S. make the investment?

Waning support in California

California is supposed to have a high-speed rail under construction. In 2008, voters narrowly approved a bond measure to pay one-third of the $33 billion cost.

The train was supposed to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but the plan has changed three times in as many years, transforming high-speed trains into a political third rail. The proposal ballooned to an estimated $99-$117 billion dollar project that would not be completed until 2034; this week the plan shrunk by $30 billion dollars and seems to be garnering more widespread support — for now.

Rail lines that your taxes are subsidizing

Californians are not the only Americans who can’t agree on how to pay for high-speed rail. President Obama has been lobbying for a network of fast trains since his first months in office. “Within 25 years,” President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union Address, “our goal is to give 80 per cent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” But Congressional Republicans have stripped the President’s fast-pace dream of much of its funding, and Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio have rejected federal dollars for high-speed rail projects.

Still, about $10 billion in federal money is earmarked for rail, including high-speed corridors in the Northwest, Midwest, California, Southeast, and the Northeast. Florida’s rejection, for example, could mean more cash for the Seattle-to-Portland corridor.

On the global scale, though, plans in the U.S. are moving relatively slowly. Why? The democratic process.

Everything’s bigger in…China

China has been bankrolling train tracks at a rate that would give a Republican governor vertigo. Forget 400 miles of controversial track from Los Angeles to San Francisco — China has plans to lay 10,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2015.

In part, the Chinese are playing catch up. The nation has fewer than half the miles of train tracks as the U.S., and about four times as many people. China’s top-down authority has pushed the nation to increase its rail miles by 50 percent since 1995.

Rescuers carry out rescue operations after two carriages from a bullet train derailed and fell off a bridge in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province July 24, 2011. The accident occurred after the first train lost power due to a lightning strike and a bullet train following behind crashed into it. (REUTERS/Aly Song)

Fast growth has come at a cost in China. Construction slowed last year after one bullet train rear-ended another, killing 40 people. Shoddy design and mismanagement were to blame. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government acknowledged its rail ambitions were outpacing its ability to manage the system. Then, last month, about four miles of high-speed rail in Hebei province washed away with a heavy rain. Despite the slowdown, China still plans to connect 100 per cent of its cities with high-speed rail.

China is a prime example of a trend in high-speed rail development: centralized governments get fast results. To lay 200 miles of high-speed rail from Chicago to Detroit, Americans must schlepp through a planning process involving stakeholders, private citizens and federal, state and local governments. Yet since 2008, the global high-speed fleet grew from 1,737 to 2,517 trains.  Two-thirds of that growth occurred in five countries with more centralized authority than the U.S.: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain.

If New Jersey were in China (a strange thought, indeed) Governor Chris Christie never could have rejected federal dollars for a rail expansion to New York City.

Things move faster in Europe

By European standards, the Acela is no high-speed train. Amtrak’s finest can hit 150 miles per hour, but it averages far less because it shares tracks with commuter trains. Ride time between Boston and New York is about three-and-a-half hours — without traffic, you could make the same time on the highway.

Two InterCityExpress high-speed trains operated by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn in Munich, February 2012. (Reuters/Michael Dalder)

But the Acela does have the key ingredients for success, according to Alexander Jan. Jan heads the Advisory Team for Transport at Arup, a multinational engineering and consulting firm. Arup is advising the California High-Speed Rail Authority on the best way to lay track on the west coast.

“The Northeast has densely populated cities, people with wealth, and reasonable distances between cities,” says Jan. He calls it “journey-time competitiveness.” Two hundred to 400 miles is a reasonable distance for high-speed rail to swipe market share away from cheap air carriers. The U.S. cities in the map above fit these criteria. So does much of Europe.

The controversy in the U.S. still hinges on one point: should the public fund high-speed rail? The European experience shows public funding is essential. After large capital investments from central governments, Jan says most high-speed rails in Europe cover their operating costs. But the real benefit of high-speed rail isn’t that the trains make money, he added. Instead, they enable cities to grow and create jobs while reducing congestion.

Those arguments haven’t gained much traction in the U.S., where high-speed rail has inflamed conservatives critical of government spending. But that doesn’t mean the debate over high-speed trains is over.

Proponents argue that Amtrak has improved its cost-effectiveness in recent years despite its underfunded, antiquated infrastructure; that airlines show how private transportation systems in the U.S. are not necessarily more likely to be profitable than government ventures; and that critics rarely if ever factor in the collateral benefits of improved rail, like fewer carbon emissions.

For a point/counterpoint discussion of these issues in the US from one of the associations advancing public transportation, click here. For a pro-rail report issued last year by the Department for Transport in Britain, where high-speed rail proposals are also controversial, go here.

Tori Bedford contributed to this story.

  • Nick_Nehamas

    Ran into David Gergen on a bumpy express train from NYC to Boston. He commented via twitter: “US must push hi speed rail. Am told Acela averages 68 mph vs 160 Japan.”


  • QA Wagstaff

    Europe is collapsing as we speak from its debt. The vast majority of average Europeans don’t take High Speed rail. It’s a myth. Check the traffic in London, Paris, or Rome, its terrible.

    China has a Trade surplus. They actually can afford the program.maybe our idiot politicians should concentrate on improving ours?

    We can’t build anything anymore in this country for competitive costs.

    • JRLatitudeNews

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      I agree that “average Europeans” probably don’t take HS rail, given the cost. As Mr. Jan says in the story above, HS rail is only successful where there is relative wealth (i.e. people who can afford it). The Acela from Boston to New York Penn Station costs $104 to $173, with an additional $78 for first class. It’s way cheaper to take the bus. So if by average you mean non-wealthy, this makes sense to me.

      But even if the average European doesn’t take HS rail, that doesn’t mean ridership on the rails is low. “According to 2011 year-in-review Eurostat figures,” Jan says, “the passenger volume on EU-15 high speed rail networks…has increased some 10.5% (CAGR) annually since 1990.”

      Thanks again for speaking up,
      Jack Rodolico

      • http://www.facebook.com/prestonburford Preston Burford

        The Acela has the highest ridership of any train line in the US. Yah it’s expensive, but so is flying a plane. 11 million people rode the train last year. You are right about the bus comment, but that works with planes, or owning a car as well. How about riding a bike… that’s cheaper than a bus. Or walking. I think the whole point of HSR is to have an alternative option to flying, and hopefully when the system gets larger and faster, a faster alternative also.

        I agree that money is a big problem, but if we can spend trillions on the defense budget, I think a few billion on a proper train system isn’t out of the question. Here’s an idea, put the high speed tracks above the wide median of the interstates so that we don’t have to buy as much land. Highways have gradual curves that would be perfect for high speed rail. The interstates go between all the major cities.

        And passenger service isn’t the only thing that HSR would be good for. It can ship goods as well. Cargo trains could move faster than 65mph and goods would get places faster and cheaper than using planes. And have we forgotten that airports cost well over 10 billion to build, and that the government usually pays a lot of that. The interstates don’t make money… they loose money. So why does a train have to make a huge profit? It’s about having a high speed transit going into the heart of many cities.

        • Jack Rodolico

          Thanks for your comment, Preston. You are definitely right that HSR is not in direct competition with cars and buses (or bikes!). In the areas where it works best, there is a great enough distance between cities that, currently, flying is the cheapest, fastest option. If you build a HSR line, then the trains can grab market share from the planes. This is the situation many are hoping for in California. I suppose the Northeast corridor is unique, though, in that there are so many other well-established, inexpensive travel options beside planes. Driving (if you own a car) or taking a bus from Boston to NY is the cheapest way to go. From there, the Acela is a jump in price – as is a plane. So it all depends on how much you want to spend, or if you want someone else to do the driving for you.

          Jack Rodolico

  • Sanakius

    of course finding 10 billion of government money to fund railways is always outrageous and very communist but when the same government re-locates over 1.5 TRILLION dollars for development of F-35 fighter that will protect your over-crowded under-developed out-rated cities and infrastructure then its okei.. after all, its our duty to protect our country! )) Dumbass americano..always the dumbass mentality.. so communism works just right but only if you fund for destruction of other nations, god forbid you citizens would fund railways or healthcare.. USA is the joke of the world.. people are laughing at your stupidity and inability to use brains..