A high speed rail plan which should never happen


I have no idea why this proposed high speed rail (HSR) map for the USA is getting so much play right now, but it is. I’ve seen it all over Twitter and Facebook and it apparently has received more than 27,000 signatures on the White House site to be considered. So, what’s the problem with it? Mostly everything.

So many of the routes just don’t make any sense. The financial proposition for transcontinental rail across extremely low density areas is a horrible one. Enormous costs and near nil revenue. And it isn’t like connecting New Orleans to Miami or Orlando via HSR is going to dramatically shift the travel patterns in that region. They are still far enough apart that flying simply makes too much sense. Denver to El Paso? Maybe not so bad at 3.5 hours on the train, though flying is half that. But are there enough passengers making the trip to justify the necessary frequency of trains to supplant planes?

There are small chunks of the country where HSR makes sense. A full mesh national network, however, is a waste in many ways. Too many of the routes would still require too much travel time to supplant air travel. HSR is desperately needed in the USA. In certain areas. But this view is crazy to me. It doesn’t actually address the needs of the country from what I can tell. And going all-in with a plan like this makes it so much harder for the places it should exist to succeed. Everyone loses.

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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.

35 Comments

  1. It’s crazy to you and for everyone else with a brain… 🙂
    HSR is badly needed in the Northeast corridor.
    It might make sense in California (if San Francisco and LA where 100 or 200 miles closer together the case for it would be much stronger, in the real world they are on the borderline of not making sense in terms of distance, although the sheer total population of the state might change the analysis in its favor) and around Chicago (maybe not “true” HSR would be needed in this case, since distances are much closer, and reliable trains at 100 or 125 mph might be enough).
    Maybe, maybe, in Texas (Southwest basically lobbied their 1990’s project to oblivion), Florida, or Portland-Seattle-Vancouver. For everything else, spending money to assess its need is a waste of money in itself as the answer is simply NO.

  2. I think that the only place in the US where HSR makes sense would be Boston to New York to DC… and arguably SF to LA as well

  3. This is a good idea, have you every driven on I-4 between Tampa and Orlando? Reduce the train travel time from mke to Chicago in 30 minutes would be great.

    This will also leave more airspace to ga

  4. As an SFO-based EXP, I disagree to an extent. SFO-LAX would be attractive to me. Yes, flying would be faster, but not having to deal with security for such a short flight would make me use HSR. If tickets remained affordable last minute, I would spend many more weekend in LA. The same for SEA, RNO, TVL, PDX, LAS if there was HSR. I see any ability to replace short segments (and especially regional routes) as beneficial and even if the routes proposed aren’t perfect, if this is when it takes for HSR to at least start in the US, I’m in favor.

  5. That map is absolutely nuts. So many of these cities make so little sense to connect. Like most things in our country, there’s demand on the coasts and not much in between. Other than in a few small circumstances, the people of the US don’t strike me as the type to compromise and accept HSR when they can drive or fly quicker or cheaper (or both).

  6. Yes, I’ve driven I-4 between Tampa and Orlando. And even if I could cut 45 minutes off the drive time you’d still likely need a car at either end. There isn’t a lot of either city which can be done without one. And I say that having worked for clients downtown in both, often without a car.

    There are a few regions outside of the NE Corridor where it can make sense. Around Chicago and Texas are two of them. West coast, too, though a bit harder because of some distances.

    And who says a new HSR infrastructure wouldn’t have security in place like airports. Do you really believe they’d build this and not take the opportunity to further the police state mentality??

  7. Couldn’t be a bigger proponent of high-speed rail, and couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. It just doesn’t make sense for some of the routes on this map right now. For the expense, it’s ridiculous to build two parallel lines in FL.

    It makes great sense and should have been implemented decades ago on some of these routes, which is frankly an embarrassment to our national infrastructure, but there is no sense in over-compensating and blowing $x billions on non-sensical or superfluous routes.

    I’m in PDX so this is close to my heart. SEA could be an hour away, vs. a 45 minute flight with all the hours of bullshit before and after. I’d love to have a line from Vancouver to San Diego, but the part between Eugene and Redmond would be the most difficult to build and least economically sensible based on passenger traffic, so I think targeted builds on this is the way to go. And by “targeted builds” I don’t mean a demo line in the middle of nowhere in California’s central valley…

  8. @Seth, I’ve tweeted you but it seems you don’t check your twitter often enough.

    Are you sure the JJ space is actually there? It doesn’t show up on Aeroplan or ANA so it seems to me like it’s phantom.
    And the real difficulty is finding space between NA and SA (whether phantom or not).

  9. Tried HSR in China and it was amazing experience. Much more comfortable and less hassle for travel.

    But, it’s not ganna happen in US.

  10. Dallas to Houston/Austin would be a good route. There are MANY people that fly SW between Dallas and those two cities daily. Rail makes a lot more sense when you consider airport check-in, etc. Also agree that NorthEast and LA/SanFran are great routes. While I love the train systems of Asia and Europe, it’s just hard to see how we are going to catch up. Blame the car manufacturers who destroyed trains on purpose in the early part of this century (or last maybe). Grr!

  11. Do you think fuel prices are going to get cheaper in the future? Hard to believe a finite resource is going to sustain air travel forever.

    HSR is a very enjoyable means of travel and is extremely fuel efficient. In countries where its available it greatly reduces the need to drive long distances in rural areas where people are hard hit by fuel costs and low incomes.

    In Sweden, you can hop onto the countries finest salmon runs after reading a book on the train instead of having to pay attention to the road, buy gas and deal with directions in a car. Then after you land a massive Sea Trout, just hop back on the train literally right next the river.

    Imagine taking a ski, fishing or hiking trip in yellowstone from Chicago by jumping on the train on a Friday night checking into a suite on board arriving the next morning and waking up fresh without wasting any time due to road and air travel. During your trip you can relax and have a drink, surf the web, walk around without having to deal with traffic, cramped airlines with baggage limits and an ever growing list of fees.

    Wanna go skiing in Tahoe for the weekend but hate the drive from the bay? why not HSR straight to the resort and a pleasant trip home after a nice apre-ski with drinks and not be paranoid about getting a dwi for having a couple glasses of wine with dinner.

    Hating on HSR is really senseless if you haven’t given it a try. Not to mention it will become massively cheaper than air travel going forward.

    Of course, why be forward thinking. That’s China’s advantage. They don’t suffer from 4 year election cycles. They can develop long-term strategies that actually work in the long-term instead of having to develop vitriol to kill great ideas that can greatly improve quality of life. Its also why they produce 2/3s of the worlds solar tech and have killed our ability to compete.

    The US is too busy securing political offices and less concerned on the US long-term ability to compete on a global scale. But yeah, drill baby drill — then export all of what you drill — makes sense right? After all we get profits on historically low natural gas prices and all the waste and destruction to aquifers. Asia gets cheap gas to further improve there competitive edge in moving away from finite resources.

  12. The post isn’t about whether HSR is convenient/enjoyable/less stressful for passengers than air travel. The point is about economic feasibility – billions and billions (or trillions and trillions in the case of this map) of costruction costs (let alone operations) need to be made up for by some form of revenue.

    Comparisons to China and wining about election cycles are uninformed. Obviously population density and mass transit infrastructure are radically different in a country with many of its 1.3 billion people concentrated in a small portion of its land mass. And let’s not look at China’s infrastructure investment as a model – much of their spending is of dubious practical value and could in the end result in the sort of over investment legacies Japan is dealing with.

    I support high speed rail and have had great experiences with if in places like China, Russia, Japan, and Europe. HSR has a place in the US too, but completely agree that focus areas should be the priorities – not transcontinental dreams.

  13. Depends on the stock they use – if they are REAL high speed trains (180mph+) then more of these routes make sense than one might think. Cost will be astronomical and you better believe the hack TSA will be far too involved. I’d be happy with BOS-NYC-DC and maybe an extension up to Montreal. (read: Acela, you suck)

  14. I took Amtrak from NYC to Montreal once to enjoy the scenery without having to pay attention to the road. I really enjoyed it until they told us to all get off and transfer to a bus because the train was 3 hours behind schedule and would not make Montreal until after midnight. After that I doubt I’ll be taking a train in north America again.

  15. Have u ever wonder why HSR is such a success in Europe and Asia? And why Acela is a failure? One word INFRASTRUCTURE. Look at France, from the beginning of HSR, to accommodate speed of 180mph+, France build a high speed track network. Regular trains don’t travel on the high speed track network which allows the French SNCF to offer a TGV service every half hour from 6am to 9pm between Paris and Lyon (the 2nd largest city in France). The distance is 290 miles and it takes 2 hours to cover it, so average about 145mph.
    The reason Acela is a failure is because it doesn’t have the same infrastructure the French TGV has to offer the same kind of service the French HSR offers.
    The other thing is mentality. The French have no problem leaving the car behind and take the train. I doubt American will do that. Unless gas hits $8-$9 a gallon.

  16. Anyone with these great plans who says look at Europe or Japan better have a look at a map and see how big these countries are compared to the continental USA. Don`t see high speed rail spanning Russia or China except between the most populous centers. BTW this country is broke…this going to pay for this…

  17. Rail lines have many other uses other than people traveling over them. First of all, this would make cargo a TON cheaper and faster to move. Not everything makes sense to travel via air. Secondly, rail right-of-ways are of GREAT use to fiberoptics, as they are an easy path to follow to cross the country and go between cities. These are both HUGE revenue sources that you are not taking into account. Thirdly, just because WE enjoy traveling via air, doesn’t mean everyone else does. The US would be frozen if for some reason air travel became impossible, be it a volcano or other occurrence. This gives us a backup method to travel across the country. Fourth, its a great jobs program, just like the federal highway system was, and to a certain extent, still is. Remember, one of the reasons why the TSA is/was legal was because there were supposedly other methods of traveling that did not force air. This would actually make that possible. Overall, the map might not be perfect, but as an idea, its great, and I hope it gets built.

    1. The rail infrastructure to move cargo already exists, Joelfreak. And you don’t need HSR versions of that really. Probably actually cannot have HSR versions, as the weights being moved around are very different for passenger versus cargo. Similarly the right-of-way thing is already played. There isn’t much need right now to further saturate the fiber networks in the USA; that was well accomplished a decade ago and we’re nowhere near close to maxing that out. And it wouldn’t be new right-of-way anyways based on the map; most of the suggested routes already have rail in place today.

      As to the idea of hopping on a train in Chicago and ending up in Yellowstone, the geography of it simply doesn’t work. At a minimum there will need to be connections and transfers to address the limited number of people making the trip. And, unlike the Sweden or France examples cited, the distances are several times greater. Finally, in Europe and China and Japan and Korea they have much, much greater population density at the city center where the train stations are. Urban sprawl and total travel time make it much less likely to play in the USA in most regions.

      Parts of Florida, Texas, the Upper midwest and the west coast have a chance. But transcon connections don’t. Chicago to LA is 1750 miles, give or take. Going that far from Paris would leave you in Moscow (1550 miles) or Africa, not Nice or Lyon. The geography of the USA really is very, very different than the other places where this sort of thing works.

      No doubt it would be a lot of jobs to get the network built. But at what cost and to what end? Just to give people something to do with minimal long-term utility? Doesn’t make sense to me.

  18. I think the analysis in the original post is very close to accurate economically. The political factor is central, however. Why would politicians from areas not served by HSR vote to fund it in the areas where it really makes economic sense? Everyone will want a piece of the pie – jobs, investments, competitiveness, graft – that the project will produce. Count how many states those lines go through. I only notice four missed. That’s why a Hurricane Sandy relief bill gets inflated with projects all over the country that have no relationship to the storm itself. Politicians can’t, and don’t want to, help themselves from grabbing at any money they can.

  19. HSR routes are not a simple matter of drawing lines on a map to connect two cities. You have to consider the engineering involved which is very different for HSR than regular rail. Want to go to Grenoble in France? You’re not going to do it on the TGV. The grades are too much to have HSR in that terrain. Similarily, you are not going to get to Denver or even cross the Rockies except for a few pints and with a lot of extra work. Even SEA-PDX would be a problem. This is also why the are starting California’s HSR in the middle of nowhere because they have not figured out how to do the hard parts.

  20. @glenn, “The grades are too much to have HSR in that terrain”

    Actually, that’s not true. HSR is the type of heavy rail that allows for the greatest gradients, around 4%, compared with the 2.5% of conventional rail (and new freight lines are many times built with a maximum of 1.5% in order to reduce costs).
    What HSR lines need is very very wide curves to maintain high speeds, making it uber expensive to build, especially in mountain areas where this translates into lots of bridges and tunnels.

  21. The way that high speed rail has evolved in Germany and in France is that they have incrementally built high speed segments along trunks where it had the greatest value, and then connect to the conventional rail network to extend the reach and value of the high speed segment. If the high speed segment saves an hour, it can save an hour on multiple routings. For example, the new TGV Est segment in France speeds up trains from Paris to Frankfurt, as well as toward Strasbourg, Stuttgart and Munich.

    If a project requires all new lines (like Japan’s Shinkansen did) that makes it cost a lot more and is much harder to build. But there are likely core segments all over USA where there is population density and multiple routings where it could make sense. There’s probably a segment from Chicago eastward that can tie in to trains toward Detroit, Cleveland, and maybe even Indianapolis/Cincinnati. And there ought to be core segments in California that could tie in to some existing lines. The incremental approach can be beautiful and create less barriers to getting started.

    Having said that, perhaps the map is what’s required by politics to get Senate support. So long as they build incrementally between core areas where there are population centers

  22. @Glenn There are absolutely TGVs serving Grenoble. They use the core TGV line toward Dijon/Lyon, and at some point switch to conventional rail for the final kilometers

  23. The testing of the HSR between Cleveland and Chicago was done about 40 years ago. My Dad worked the testing while it was still New York Central. So pre 1976.

    This is going to be very expensive to implement. So I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The cost to upgrade each crossing would be millions of dollars. Each rail crossing would have to either have a overpass, underpass or gates that completely block the crossings.

    Its a nice idea but it will never happen due to the cost involved. Just the upgrades to the tracks to allow the trains to go 200 mile an hour. Then factor in the expenses to upgrade rail crossings and signals. I can think of several sections of track near Toledo that would have to be completely redesigned. Because if they tried to go around the curve in my hometown at 200 mile and hour. The train would derail. The speed limit on that section of track is 35 mile per hour if I remember correctly.

  24. One thing that is missing in this concept is some reality. If there is one thing we as a nation have learned after messing with the Transcontinental Railroad for the past 140 years, that is freight pays, passenger rail does not. Worldwide, HSR has been found to be competitive against airlines in the 300-500 mile range. It has been found not to be a cost effective alternative outside of that range. And it is not the same as commuter rail, either, yet designers tend to treat it like one by adding stops everywhere in order to gain buy-in from local politicians. HIgh speed trains are not efficient or cost effective when they have to do a lot of stop and go between short distances. You have to look at the only two segments within two larger systems in the world that pay for themselves – Paris to Lyon and Osaka to Tokyo – and ask yourself if the map drawn by Twu is anything like them? I see this map as fun to look at, yet based in romantic fantasy.

  25. HSR is crazy. Cost in the US is estimated at 6x the world average – and that’s just the “low ball” number they always gratuitously toss out (ALWAYS costs much more in reality).

    Only makes sense in the NE – everywhere else, ridership density is way too low, even SFO-LAX is a massive boondoggle.

    But since it is politically correct, and most people are morons, they’ll probably build this one day. Thankfully, the country is broke and this nonsense won’t get much farther than the usual nitwits.

  26. Experience suggests to me that there is an inverse relationship between a person’s dogmatic certainty and his/her understanding of life’s complexities, particularly as those complexities relate to the target issue. One need look no further than the abundant frustratingly simplistic and dogmatic assertions in this discussion for supportive evidence. Their writers presume to possess a level of wisdom, knowledge and foresight never before possessed by a single inhabitant of this planet.
    The basic truth ignored here is that humans rarely know anywhere near as much as some may believe about either the existing or future world.
    Creating successful U.S. high speed rail passenger service warrants/requires calm, reasoned, intelligent discussion, as free as possible from ideological clap-trap that typically dominates discussions such as this one.
    First, the U.S. is different from China, Europe, Japan and South Korea. What works in those regions may or may not work here. Attempting to determine workability of US HSR based on present economic and social conditions here or there is a fool’s errand doomed to failure.
    A range of potential future conditions must be examined, from continued economic stagnation, increased economic polarization, and $10-$20 or $30/gallon transportation fuel costs to a booming world economy, vast economic status improvement for most people and relatively low transportation fuel costs, with a dozen or more variation in between these extremes. Where – if anywhere — U.S. HSR service will make sense will vary greatly depending upon what economic/social development trends actually occur.
    Meanwhile, continuing the original but poorly explained intent of the Obama administration’s rail passenger service improvement program — upgrading existing rail passenger and freight railroad services, to include true (above 125 mph) HSR in selected regions — is well justified. Such a program has multiple advantages, including but not limited to creating jobs, improving rail services, providing indications of where further service frequency and speed improvements may be warranted, restoring our nation’s domestic rail supply industry and upgrading major portions of this nation’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure.

    1. Thank you, Howard, for being so polite while calling me an idiot. I appreciate that. 🙂

      You are correct that the USA is not China, Europe or Japan. They all have MUCH higher population densities. They also have infrastructures which support a lifestyle focused more on shared transportation rather than private cars. It is certainly possible that, over time and with the necessary investments, the United States could adjust towards that same infrastructure and lifestyle in certain regions. But it is never going to work wholesale across the USA. There is simply too much space to cover and too many areas which do not have sufficient population density to demand a full HSR route network covering the nation. Even if fuel prices increase. Don’t forget that trains require power to run, too. Not as much on an ASM basis as planes or cars, but increases in fuel prices will affect all modes of transportation.

      I fully believe that regions of the USA can support HSR, more than just in the NE Corridor. But it is going to take a massive shift in mentality to get to the point where that sort of thing can be implemented. And maps like this one proposing a national mesh of HSR distract from the ability to deliver on that.

  27. I’m a big proponent of trains and love the HSR systems I’ve experienced in the UK and France. However those sort of systems just wouldn’t work in the US outside of a few areas , most notably between Boston & DC, select city pairings from Chicago, SFO-LAX is pushing it but could work, and a few areas in FL and TX. The idea of a cross country HSR system is insane.

  28. The Federal Railroad Administration’s ridiculous regulations are the real reason that HSR will always be financially unviable in the US. The following article explains the issue quite well: http://www.ebbc.org/rail/fra.html

    The Northeast corridor and West coast would have wildly successful HSR projects if they could use the latest, most efficient technology. Sadly, the oil and automobile lobbies will never allow that to happen.

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