A tease on high-speed rail in the United States

The dream of high-speed rail transit in the USA has been unrealized for years.  Even with the Acela service in the north-east there just isn’t anything comparable to a true high-speed service available.  And that is truly unfortunate as there are regions that could benefit from such service.  It almost certainly would not work nation-wide – the United States is just too large – but there are areas where it could make sense.  It looks like the US government is going to tease us a bit more on this front with the latest version of the economic stimulus bill that has been proposed.  It includes $5 billion for infrastructure development and maybe $8 billion more of additional rail developments.

So why am I calling it a tease?  Well…

First up, there are ten different routes/regions being defined:

  • A California line from the San Francisco Bay Area south to San Diego via Sacramento and Los Angeles.
  • A corridor linking Eugene and Portland, Ore., with Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver.
  • A South Central network linking Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Little Rock.
  • A Gulf Coast line from Houston to Atlanta via New Orleans, Mobile and Birmingham.
  • A Midwest network based at Chicago with high-speed lines to Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville.
  • Florida Corridor service linking Orlando, Tampa and Miami.
  • A Southeast Corridor from Washington D.C. to Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Columbia, Atlanta, Macon, Savannah and Jacksonville.
  • A Pennsylvania line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh via Harrisburg.
  • New York State high-speed rail connecting New York City to Albany and Buffalo.
  • A New England project linking Boston, Montreal, Portland, Springfield, New Haven and Albany.

Of these ten, only a couple rally seem viable to me.  I think that the California line, the Chicago hub and maybe the New England and South Florida lines could work.  The others are pipe dreams at best.  But if you want to actually get funding for a project in the US government you have to include spending in states where it will not actually work, just to secure the money for the places that actually have a chance to succeed.  That’s why Amtrak is still operating in forty-something states.

And, for reasons that are beyond comprehension to me, the most likely viable corridor for success is missing.  There is nothing listed there for the BostonNew York CityWashington, DC corridor.  Sure, there is already Acela on that route, but that can hardly be considered high-speed rail.  It operates on shared track with the rest of the train traffic in the region meaning that it runs at the slow speeds in areas where commuter rail is operating.  That is an impossible solution for true high-speed rail.  If they are thinking that Acela is successful enough that we don’t need to improve it then the rest of the projects are doomed to failure as the benchmark is being set way too low.

Finally, the money involved in the proposals – $13 billion – really isn’t enough to make anything happen.  Yeah, it is a big number.  There are a whole lot of zeros involved.  But capital infrastructure projects are ridiculously expensive, especially for something like high speed rail.  The most recent major project to be near completion is the Beijing – Shanghai line in China.  It is ~1,400 kilometers (~870 miles) of track and the capital cost is about the same as what has been proposed in the United States for a vastly greater scoped project.  The island nation of Taiwan invested more in their high-speed network to cover an area smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined.  Just acquiring right-of-ways to build track is going to be obscenely expensive in the USA.

I love the idea of investing in infrastructure, especially in mass transit infrastructure.  But if we’re going to do it we should actually invest enough money to accomplish something and focus the efforts in a place where it can succeed.  But the United States government doesn’t do that sort of thing, so I guess we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.