Can High-Speed Rail Work in the U.S.?

CA HSR Rendering Central Valley

It’s an Often-Asked Question, and the Short Answer Is: Yes, of Course High-Speed Rail Will Work Here.

HSR is exactly right for this moment, in fact, because it helps solve some of our biggest challenges. It creates prosperous economies and gives everyone access to fast, affordable and reliable transportation. Instead of sprawl, it incentivizes reinvestment in city centers. Instead of dividing communities, it brings them together.

There are at least three separate questions folded into the question of whether HSR will work in the U.S. So, it’s useful to take them separately. They are:

Icon Train Tunnel

Why do we need high-speed rail?

Since people already have plenty of options for flying and driving?

Is the U.S. too big and spread out for high-speed rail?

Aren’t we different from the relatively small countries that are well known for their HSR lines, like Japan, Italy and Spain?

Why Do We Need High-Speed Rail?

Nearly everyone agrees that the U.S. transportation system is subpar and needs substantial investments and upgrades.

The consensus on that point is so strong that Congress approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021 with broad, bi-partisan support—even though the parties in Congress can come together on very little else.

So, the question isn’t whether we need to invest more in our infrastructure. The question is: Which investments will deliver the highest returns and have the biggest impact?

Instead of seriously grappling with that question, too often we settle for adding new lanes and building more highways. A good example is the road-building binge that’s going on in Houston, where a project to widen and rebuild 25 miles of highways and interchanges running through the heart of the city—at a projected cost of $7 billion—has been in the works for years. That plan follows on the heels of a $2.8 billion project in the early 2010s that widened the city’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes.

Some people believe that this course—pouring more money into new lanes and highways, instead of investing in a more sustainable transportation mode—is exactly right. They believe it will reduce traffic congestion, create safer roads for drivers, and make cities more accessible.

Adding Lanes Is Likely Trying To Solve Obesity With Bigger Pants

In the case of Houston, the expansion of the Katy freeway to 26 lanes followed a familiar pattern: The promise of a quick commute incentivized more people to get in their cars and drive, which then created more congestion. Rather than falling, evening rush hour travel times on the freeway increased by more than 50 percent from 2011 to 2014.

More people on the road means more accidents, of course, and the upshot is that Houston’s roads are the deadliest and most dangerous in the nation. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that 640 people die annually on Houston-area roads. That’s the equivalent of every passenger on three loaded 737s dying each year, as the paper pointed out. Nearly 3,000 more people are injured each year.

More broadly, traffic fatalities are spiking across the U.S.: More than 20,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, which is an increase of nearly 20 percent over the first half of 2020. The U.S. Transportation Secretary called the spike in fatalities a “crisis”—and with good reason. “In the United States, motor vehicles are now the leading killer of children and the top producer of greenhouse gases,” as a recent analysis noted. “Each year, they rack up trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs and claim nearly 100,000 American lives via crashes and pollution, with the most vulnerable paying a disproportionate price. The appeal of the car’s convenience and the failure to effectively manage it has created a public health catastrophe.”

It’s not just that car culture is deadly and that highways are overcrowded—no matter how many lanes we add or new highways we build. They’re also increasingly expensive. One 2019 study, for example, found that (in real dollars) highway construction costs tripled from the 1960s to the 1980s. The spiraling costs can be seen in the 10-year, nearly $2 billion price tag to upgrade just six miles of I-5 in Los Angeles with two new lanes in each direction.

And that’s just the immediate cost. The long-term costs of highways are even more outrageous. In addition to draining budgets, they devastate communities. In Houston, for example, the proposed $7 billion highway expansion through the city’s downtown would displace 168 single-family homes, 331 businesses, and more than 1,000 multi-family units. As a report by the Los Angeles times recently noted, the U.S. Interstate Highway System “is one of the country’s greatest public works achievements, but it came at an enormous social cost. More than 1 million people were forced from their homes, with many Black neighborhoods bulldozed and replaced with ribbons of asphalt and concrete.”

And the displacement is ongoing. In the last three decades, according to the Times, at least 200,000 people have lost their homes to federally supported road projects. Since many states do not report the number of homes taken, the total is actually even higher. “Highway construction devoured entire neighborhoods, especially in cities,” as the report observed.

Highway construction devastates communities in another way. As Strong Towns notes, new highways and added lanes don’t reduce commute times, which consistently average between 20 and 30 minutes across the U.S. Instead, they incentivize people to move further away from city centers, creating development patterns marked by disinvestment and sprawl. Buffalo, for example, experienced a net population growth of zero from 1950 to 2010. Yet, in the same timeframe, the city’s developed land area tripled. “When we prize the ability to go places quickly over the actual value to us of the places we’re going, we end up destroying our cities,” as Strong Towns pointed out.

These negative results are all predictable and chosen. When we prioritize new highway and lane construction, we reinforce the incentives for people to drive. More people on the roads equals more congestion, which incentivizes more highway construction, which results in more deaths on the highways and more destruction of established communities and core city centers.

Fast, frequent trains reverse these incentive structures. And they actually deliver on the promises made for highways: While new highways are a boon for big box stores and strip malls on the edges of town, trains promote development in urban centers.

They offer a safe and affordable way to get around; make cities more accessible for everyone; and boost the prospects of small business owners. Instead of hollowing out our cities and creating sprawl, they knit communities together. They incentivize people to live in, invest in, and do business in core areas that are already developed and have under-used, under-appreciated assets.

Trains build real wealth in our communities.

ICE Northbound near Lindburg

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Is the U.S. Too Big and Spread Out for High-Speed Rail?

This idea doesn’t take into account the way that people actually use HSR, or why people prefer it to flying or driving when it’s an option, or how the national high-speed rail network will be built.

Take the case of a high-speed line from Chicago to Atlanta, which is a driving distance of about 700 miles. The nonstop flight is a little under 2 hours. With travel, parking, and airport terminal time factored in, the overall trip time is at least 4 hours. Traveling at maximum speeds of about 200 mph, modern high-speed trains can cover the same distance in 5 to 6 hours, depending on the number of stops.

For many travelers, the small time savings of flying from Chicago to Atlanta would be outweighed by the convenience, affordability and amenities of traveling on a train—where you can relax and socialize in a way that just isn’t possible on a flight.

But only a small fraction of people riding on a Chicago-Atlanta train would ride it for the full, 700-mile trip. The line would also stop in Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, and Chattanooga (at the least). Which means that many riders at any given time would ride between two intermediate stops—Louisville and Nashville, for example—or between one of the intermediate stops and Chicago or Atlanta.

For these shorter trips, travel times on a high-speed train would be at least equivalent to flying. On the shortest segments—Nashville to Chattanooga, for example, which is a distance of about 130 miles—it would be much quicker but much cheaper.

The same principle holds true for a Chicago to New York line, which is a distance of about 800 miles and could include intermediate cities like Fort Wayne, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. Having the option of taking a high-speed train from Chicago to New York would be great—but the bulk of the ridership would come from people taking short trips between intermediate stops, or between an endpoint city and those stops.

Why Doesn’t the US Have High-Speed Rail Already?

It’s time to stop accepting the false narrative that high-speed rail is too expensive, too difficult to build, and not a good fit for the U.S. And it’s time to stop pretending there is something unique about the U.S. that makes it unworkable here.

The truth is this: HSR networks will expand rapidly across the U.S. once people experience the speed and comfort of high-speed trains—and their power to build strong economies and communities.

Countries around the world are proving that every day. They’re rising to the challenges and blowing past us in developing first-class transportation networks with high-speed rail at their core. Spain, for example, just completed a 68-mile section of high-speed line through a mountain range. Sixty percent of the segment runs through tunnels and across bridges. Despite such obstacles, Spain’s network has grown to more than 2,200 miles of high-speed line since the country began building HSR lines in the early 1990s.

It’s the same story everywhere: High-speed networks are growing rapidly from Poland to South Korea to China. Why?

Because people prefer to take fast trains when they have the option. In France, for example, the distance from Paris to Toulon is about 500 miles, or roughly the trip from Chicago to Nashville. It takes four hours by TGV (high-speed trains), 1.5 hours by plane, and eight hours by car. HSR claims 54 percent of the travel market; driving has 12 percent; and flying has about one-third.

Or take Amtrak’s Acela corridor, which runs through the densely populated mega-region of D.C. to Boston. Travelers have an abundance of flight options, yet Acela’s share of the air-flight market for travel between New York and Washington, D.C., increased from 37 to 75 percent from 2000 to 2012. “On both ease of travel and potential productivity, rail holds a large competitive advantage over the plane,” Bloomberg noted. In 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, Acela and Amtrak had their best ridership numbers ever. In 2022, Amtrak introduces a new fleet of high-speed Acela trains that can run at up to 160 mph and have 25 percent more seat capacity to meet the growing demand.

All of which means that the closest thing the U.S. has to true high-speed rail is beating the competition and steadily improving its competitive advantages.

Why Isn’t That Happening More Across the U.S.?

Blame perverse incentive structures and feedback loops. The industries that profit from building more congested highways and airports fund political campaigns and think tanks devoted to lobbying legislatures for more highways and airports. Naturally, policymakers are responsive to the people who fund their campaigns and rationalize their policy priorities.

One of the most common criticisms is that HSR will require public subsidies. But in truth, every element of the U.S. transportation system is heavily subsidized with tax dollars. The airlines received pandemic-related bailouts that added up to $79 billion. That’s separate from the billions of taxpayer dollars spent every year on airport construction, expansion, and repair. Chicago, for example, is pouring $8.5 billion into expanding O’Hare Airport. In New York, public funds will cover a third of the costs for the ongoing, $8 billion redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport.

And car culture is reinforced from top to bottom—in every conceivable way—by public policies and tax dollars. Most obviously, the federal government bailed out General Motors and Chrysler with $80 billion in loans and subsidies when those companies teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008. And that bailout was only the tip of the iceberg. A 2015 report found that every U.S. household paid about $600 each year in taxes and other costs for road construction and repair—beyond the gas taxes people paid for their own driving. And a 2019 report showed that local ordinances that impose minimum parking quotas on new developments have left the U.S. awash in roughly 2 billion parking spaces—or about 6 spaces for every resident—“creating a landscape hostile to people on foot.” Federal and state tax codes reinforce this trend with subsidies that fuel suburban sprawl and make driving the only viable transportation mode in many places.

So, the key question isn’t whether U.S. transportation systems will be subsidized. They will be—just as they always have been. The key question is: Will our transportation systems create healthier and more vibrant communities, deliver economic prosperity, and make us safer?

If those are the criteria, we will invest taxpayer dollars much differently than we’re currently doing. And investments in high-speed trains will be a high priority.

It’s notable that the private sector is actually eager for this to happen. A private firm is conducting studies and building support within the business community for a high-speed line from Atlanta to Dallas, for example. And Wes Edens of Fortress Investments Group has called passenger rail in the U.S. “a gigantic opportunity.” Edens has used public-private financing models to bring Brightline trains to Florida, where a line from Miami to West Palm Beach is now in operation, and an extension to Orlando is under construction. Brightline also plans to begin construction on a L.A. to Las Vegas high-speed line that will connect with California’s high-speed rail system. Driving currently accounts for 85 percent of trips between L.A. and Las Vegas. Brightline projects that its trains will attract 22 percent of the market for the 260-mile trip when they are fully operational.

Brightline Interior
Dusseldorf Airport Rail Station
Morocco train station

High-Speed Rail: A Wealth-Building Tool Fit for the 21st Century

A “force multiplier” is a tool that leverage existing assets, opens up new opportunities, and makes everything work better. That’s what high-speed trains do.

They make every other transportation mode better. They improve highway safety by taking cars off the road, for example, and they make trips to the airport quick and less stressful. And they keep getting faster, more efficient, and more powerful.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, a consortium led by Microsoft is studying a high-speed rail system that would connect the region with trains running at 250 mph. The Pacific Northwest has a population of nine million people and is expected to grow by about four million by 2050. Estimates for the cost of the line range up to $42 billion. Adding one lane to Interstate 5 in each direction—from the Canadian border to the Washington/Oregon border—would cost an estimated $108 billion. A trip from Seattle to Portland or Vancouver would take about an hour on “ultra” high-speed trains—versus nearly three hours by car or air, including terminal time. “Building an ultra-high-speed rail system supported by great local transit and affordable housing will make our region more equitable by providing a faster, cleaner and more convenient way to travel for all residents of the region,” as the former governor of Washington, Chris Gregoire, wrote in a co-authored piece for the Seattle Times. Gregoire leads a business group that advocates for regional high-speed rail.

High-speed rail’s environmental advantages are steadily increasing as well. A 2020 report noted that trains are “already one of the most climate-friendly modes of transport, emitting at least seven times less CO2 than aviation, and almost five times less than cars.” Another study found that high-speed rail systems are phenomenally energy efficient, consuming nearly 30 percent less energy that conventional rail systems. And the carbon footprint of high-speed trains is steadily declining as the technology advances. The train-maker Talgo, for example, has developed a model that runs at up to 205 mph and has nearly 600 seats. “Thanks to their high capacity and light overall weight,” Talgo notes, the trains will “minimize energy consumption and multiply efficiency. This allows them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and further enhance the position of rail as the most sustainable means of transport.”

Put it all together and you have the most potent force multiplier of the twenty-first century, transportation-wise. High-speed rail boosts trade and tourism, brings communities and regions together, builds wealth in urban centers, makes travel dramatically faster and safer, and improves every other transportation system—all while steadily slashing greenhouse-gas emissions.

HSR is proving its power to do all these things in two dozen countries globally. Is it something that will work in the U.S.? A more pertinent question—given all that’s on the stake and on the line right now—is: What on earth are we waiting for.

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