The Rest of the Industrialized World Has High-Speed Rail, Why Can’t the U.S.?
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on March 22, 2019 |

In Europe and Asia, there are numerous high-speed rail (HSR) lines. For 2015, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association reported that there were 29,792 km (18,512 miles) of high-speed lines, 3,603 train sets in operation and 1.6 billion passengers traveling on those lines annually. China alone laid about 19,000 km (roughly 12,000 miles) of HSR in just nine years.

(Image courtesy of Lens News.)
(Image courtesy of Lens News.)

Compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. is woefully behind. Depending on one’s definition of HSR—which we’ll get to in a minute—there are about 32km (20 miles) of track in which Amtrak’s Acela Express line reaches 240 km/h (150 mph).

Why is the U.S., which is usually so proud of its technological acumen, so slow on the railway tracks? We looked into a number of factors and spoke to experts driving HSR initiatives in the country to learn the answer.

What Is High-Speed Rail?

First things first, let’s get our definition of HSR out of the way. Though there is no single definition of HSR, a rail line is generally considered “high-speed” if it meets the following criteria:

  • Relies on tracks that have been built for or upgraded for HSR
  • Has a minimum speed of 250 km/h (155 mph) on tracks built for HSR and 200 km/h (124 mph) on classic tracks upgraded for HSR in at least one section of the line.
  • The train itself, referred to as “rolling stock” in railway lingo, is designed specifically for HSR

Unlike conventional trains, in which multiple cars are pulled by a single locomotive, each car on HSR trains is electrified, referred to as “electric multiple unit” or “EMU” trains.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA), explained the speed benefits of EMU trains in this way: “Most locomotives are actually electric locomotives, and they’re dragging their generator plant around with them. At about 125 mph is kind of the break point where the power plant becomes too big to practically carry around, so you need electrification to go faster than 125.”

Additionally, the tracks themselves must be continuously welded together, rather than bolted together and nailed down with ties, and run on solid ground, such as concrete viaducts, rather than loose ground. To get up to high speeds, the tracks must also allow for a wider turning radius.

Other differences include changes to the signaling system, which must allow for greater braking distances, and intersections with traffic. It is generally unsafe to allow what are called “grade crossings,” wherein a railway line crosses a road at high speeds.

The U.S. Takes a Detour

The first modern HSR was Japan’s "bullet train," the Tokaido Shinkansen rail line, which debuted in 1964 and carried passengers across the 515 km (320 miles) between Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka at speeds starting at 210 km/h (130 mph). As the train’s speed increased, so did the number of HSR lines in the world. While Europe and Asia hopped aboard the high-speed express, the U.S. took a different route.

Europe's HSR network. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Europe's HSR network. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Though electric streetcars were prevalent throughout the U.S. in the earlier part of the 20th century, most cities saw this energy-efficient form of transportation disappear for various reasons, including a possible conspiracy by Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks and General Motors to monopolize and dismantle the streetcar system. At the same time, auto interests fought pedestrians to reframe streets as designated for vehicles.

GM also played a key role in giving cars more space to drive. The National Highway Users Conference, founded by GM president Alfred P. Sloan, lobbied the federal government and created a series of films glorifying life on the road. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which was meant to put $25 million into the construction of 41,000 miles (66,000 km) of highway over a 10-year period. To oversee the project, Eisenhower appointed Lucius D. Clay, a member of the board of directors for General Motors.


The Highway Trust Fund was created to see the federal government cover 90 percent of the costs for new highway construction, with the remaining 10 percent meant to come from local gas taxes. In fact, the Public Interest Research Group reported that only between 43 and 74 percent of costs for the interstate system have been covered by federal gas taxes.  

The U.S. highway system. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
The U.S. highway system. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Now, according to Jeff Morales, former CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Association (CHSRA), “There’s really no federal support for passenger rail programs.” Morales has served in various transit positions and is now the managing principal of an infrastructure consulting firm InfraStrategies. “Amtrak is starved and kind of limps along, but it doesn’t get nearly the support it should. Federal policy has been very skewed toward highways and aviation. Rail has been the stepchild in the transportation policy for a very long time.”

An important role in this lack of interest may be the lobbying efforts on the part of oil companies and other interests, according to Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA). Kunz said that, in particular, the billionaire Koch brothers and their network of think tanks and dark money groups have been funding efforts to stop HSR and other public transit projects from taking place.

Last year, the New York Times published an investigation that looked at how the brothers’ Americans for Prosperity deployed an astroturf campaign to convince voters to vote against a light rail project in Nashville, Tenn. Like GM of a previous era, Americans for Prosperity is in favor of tax dollars for new roads and highways but against rail. The efforts used in Nashville have been used with other transit initiatives, including HSR, across the country while, according to Kunz and numerous other sources, the Kochs' influence leadership in Congress.

The Times reported, “Since 2015, Americans for Prosperity has coordinated door-to-door anti-transit canvassing campaigns for at least seven local or state-level ballots, according to a review by The New York Times. In the majority, the Kochs were on the winning side. Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-backed groups have also opposed more than two dozen other transit-related measures—including many states’ bids to raise gas taxes to fund transit or transportation infrastructure—by organizing phone banks, running advertising campaigns, staging public forums, issuing reports and writing opinion pieces in local publications.”

“It is a fight to the death between Big Oil and everybody else. Everybody else will benefit from HSR. It cleans up the air. It opens up all kind of new possibilities where you can live a more affordable life and get jobs further away,” Kunz said. “Everyone is going to benefit, except the oil industry, and that’s where the problem is.”

Getting Back on Track

After several bumpy starts, the U.S. is beginning to jump on the HSR train once again with several initiatives underway across the country, two of which are making significant progress using different funding approaches.

A map of Texas Central Railway’s proposed HSR line in Texas. (Image courtesy of Texas Central Railway.)
A map of Texas Central Railway’s proposed HSR line in Texas. (Image courtesy of Texas Central Railway.)

In early 1989, the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority was formed to create an HSR network that would connect Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. That initiative was successfully derailed by Southwest Airlines, which was threatened by a challenge to its short-flight business model. Nearly 20 years later, plans for HSR were revived but wouldn’t get off the ground until a private company, Texas Central Railway, raised its own funds to build a line from Houston to Dallas.

“I don’t think the airlines are fighting it anymore,” Harnish said. “It doesn’t make financial sense to put an airplane in the air for less than 300 miles and probably some of those don’t make sense either. Though, certainly you’ve got the people making a lot of money building highways and selling gasoline.”

While the Texas HSR line is a private project, California is building its own publicly funded HSR. In 2008, voters approved a $9 billion bond to begin construction on the original portion of the track. Between 2010 and 2011, the state received a further $6.25 billion from the federal government.

“There were some unique circumstances—and there still are—around the California project that complicated things,” Morales explained. “Some of it was Proposition 1A that passed in 2008 in the state, which was really the means for moving the program forward. It had a lot of very specific conditions attached to it that, frankly, it made it very hard to implement and do so in a very logical way.”

Some of these conditions include requiring a minimum speed of 200 mph (320 km/h) where conditions allow, a maximum travel time of two hours and 40 minutes between San Francisco and Los Angeles and that it be financially self-sustaining. Meeting all of these specific requirements was further complicated by schedule conditions set by the federal funding.

“Then, when the federal funding came along for the first time through the stimulus, it had deadlines attached to it for when the money had to be first committed and spent, which forced the project to move faster than it normally would have,” Morales said. “We moved to construction earlier than we would have in order to meet all of the various requirements we had to. That created some real problems because things weren’t as fully developed. We didn’t have property in place the way you would normally want to have in place.”

Public vs Private

These legislative and funding mechanisms introduce some interesting differences between how the U.S. operates when compared to other countries, including China, when it comes to large infrastructure projects. In the U.S., railway lines are privately owned. Municipalities either rent space on the tracks or hire a business to run the tracks.

China's railway system. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
China's railway system. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“Private industry wants to keep its asset base as low as possible, whereas government entities don’t have that same kind of restriction,” Harnish said.“Nobody on the railroad side is thinking about innovative new services and taking risks with getting those services. They’re maintaining the high value stuff but letting the rest of it deteriorate. On the business side, there’s a business case for letting the railroad deteriorate over time.”

The upfront costs for launching a new HSR line are expensive and take time for the investment to pay for itself. This means there is less incentive for private companies to launch HSR projects, with a few exceptions. Therefore, most HSR projects are financed by the public sector. In other countries, the larger role the state plays in central management allows large infrastructure projects to get underway with fewer hurdles.

“As a general rule, when those governments decide they want to move forward on something, they tend to be able to do it much more nimbly,” Morales said. “We have multiple layers of review that are needed that get in the way of just making a decision to move ahead and do something. Their funding is really attached to the level of priority they place on the investment, and they see [rail] as something important to the economies in their countries and overall mobility. They make it a priority to do it. We have not been able to do that.”

A key obstacle to building a large scale infrastructure project like HSR is land acquisition, which has both environmental and social considerations. In the U.S., it’s possible for the government to take land from private owners through eminent domain laws, but this process is streamlined elsewhere, according to Morales.

“Generally speaking, in other countries, once they make a decision that they’re going to do something, they have a much easier time acquiring property and getting through whatever environmental reviews they have,” he said. “We have much more burdensome processes. You can argue the merits of that. Those rules and regulations are there for reasons.”

A slice of the California HSR project, including the section from Merced to Bakersfield currently under construction. (Image courtesy of LA Curbed.)
A slice of the California HSR project, including the section from Merced to Bakersfield currently under construction. (Image courtesy of LA Curbed.)

Kunz said that it’s possible for the U.S. government to make the permitting process much faster.

“It usually takes three to four years of permitting, studying, engineering and hearings and another four to five years of construction depending on the complexity,” he said. “If the federal government gets involved, we can organize and accelerate all of our permitting processes and shorten that part of the timeline and shorten it down to one year no problem. The construction part of the equation is something we can do as fast as China.”

Able to fund itself and grab land quickly, China spent about $360 billion to lay 22,000 km (14,000 miles) of HSR in just 10 years, with plans to construct 15,000 km (9,300 miles) more by 2025.

Some in the media have blamed cost overruns for derailing California’s project. While there may have been cost overruns, HSR experts are quick to point out that with large infrastructure projects, there are always cost overruns, including in highway and stadium construction.

“That’s standard operating procedure,” Harnish said.

According to Alon Levy, a mathematician who has performed extensive calculations on the costs behind mass transit projects, China’s railway costs are “in line with the global average,” while HSR in the country “is on the expensive side.” Levy wrote, “The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million Yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels—only 1.2 percent of the line’s length.”

Levy is involved in a long-term project determining why costs for railways in the U.S. are so much more expensive than the rest of the world. The factors are many, but, in terms of California’s HSR project, he believes the choice of a particularly problematic contractor was crucial in leading to cost overruns.

The Reality of Transportation Emissions

Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have until 2030 to cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by nearly half if we want the Earth to continue being habitable to humans. Now, a further U.N. study has projected that, even if we immediately stop emitting altogether, the Arctic will warm 4 to 5°C by 2100, compared to levels at the end of the 20th century.

In other words, if we want to maintain the only planet with sentient life for millions of light years in any direction, we have to act dramatically and immediately.

Among the sectors that need a complete overhaul is transportation. Overall, transportation accounts for 15 percent of CO2 emissions globally, including cars, planes, ships, trucks and other vehicles. While the adoption of electric cars and trucks has been increasing, planes are another matter.

The aviation sector currently accounts for 2.5 percent of global GHG emissions and, by 2050, is expected to increase by seven times as the numbers of flights and passengers increase. Biofuels, synthetic fuels and electric planes are expected to make a dent in these emissions but are decades away from realization.

According to a study on HSR in France and China by the International Union of Railways, “the carbon footprint of HSR can be up to 14 times less carbon intensive than car travel and up to 15 times less than aviation travel, even when measured over the full life cycles of planning, construction and operation of the different transport modes.”

It’s crucial to note that climate change is only one major process contributing to the sixth mass extinction currently underway, and HSR may not have a necessarily positive impact on the other processes, which include wildlife and insect loss, ocean acidification and land degradation.

The Future of HSR in the U.S.

Despite recent reports that the state’s HSR plan has been killed, construction on portions of the proposed line from San Diego to San Francisco are still underway. In 2019, newly sworn Governor Gavin Newsom announced that only segments already under construction will be completed. Those segments will connect only a couple of California's less prominent, leaving the big metros of San Francisco and Los Angeles disconnected—and defying the original premise of the project. Though this has been panned by many critics, Morales believes this is significant for the future of HSR in the U.S.

“There is very significant construction underway now, almost 170 miles of new HSR infrastructure being built in California. The full vision is for about a 700-mile system. The first leg connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco could be built within 10 years, if you had the money in hand—if you had all of the pieces in place,” Morales said. “The reality is that it’s very hard to do something like that in one fell swoop, in one shot. What you’re going to see both in California and elsewhere is a more incremental development of the system with pieces going into place first.”

While residents in San Francisco and Los Angeles might be disappointed that the first portion of the project wasn’t constructed in a more metropolitan area, the track from Bakersfield to Merced will serve some important purposes. Gov. Newsom pointed out that the Central Valley has some of the “worst air pollution in America and some of the longest commutes.”

From a technical standpoint, this leg is also the portion of the railway that will get up to 150 mph for about 20 miles. Once the track is tested and certified, it will be easier for subsequent tracks across the country to be approved.

There are other initiatives across the U.S. that are underway. For his part, Harnish is overseeing a three-phase project that will first see the state of Illinois repair its railways and perform some early start projects on HSR. Next, the state would create a passenger rail network across the state by connecting various lines. Finally, MWHSRA would begin engineering work on a new HSR line that would connect O’Hare International Airport to downtown Chicago and the south suburbs, eventually connecting to East St. Louis.

Globally, there are projects being explored on nearly every continent, but the next big step for reducing emissions will be to reshape the shipping industry. There are and have been experiments with using HSR for freight shipping. The French national railroad ran high-speed mail trains once a day on three routes but decided not to continue that program. Italy is performing tests in which the seats have been removed from an old high-speed train set and small, lightweight containers of freight were rolled on. China is also performing some tests with high-speed freight.

In order for the U.S. to catch up to the rest of the world in this space, it may require a change in political will.

“One of the things you need to get this off the ground is the governor has to want it to happen,” Harnish said.“It’s really critical in California that the people who want this to happen start riding on Newsom to make this thing work.”

Morales believes that a shift to HSR should be inevitable, given the state of the climate.

“I think that will change in part because, hopefully, as we get better focused on the importance of climate change and the role that transportation plays in that, it’s going to run toward a greater focus on rail as an important part of the transportation network,” he said.

Kunz sees it as an opportunity for engineers to lead the way.

“There are some major changes needed to our transportation sector, which means that we need to electrify it. That will mean a whole lot of work for engineers,” he said. “This is a huge project that the engineering profession needs to step up and be the leaders on. It’s not just an opportunity that means lots of jobs. It means the engineering profession gets to be front and center when solving this humongous problem that everyone looks at as almost unsolvable. It’s not unsolvable. It’s very solvable, but we need to be getting moving very quickly.”

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