Could the US crack high-speed rail?

Bullet train, Japan Bullet trains in Japan are state-of-the-art

A conference in New York is looking at plans to spend $600bn (£380bn) on a national network of high-speed railways, to rival continental Europe's. But how likely is it to happen?

The fastest train in the US pulls slowly out of platform 10 at New York's Penn Station, heading west.

Keeping a leisurely pace on the other side of the Hudson River, the Empire State Building sticks stubbornly to the horizon before eventually receding into the distance. Thirteen minutes later, the Acela Express makes its first stop, in Newark.

This is high-speed rail, American-style.

For many of the passengers packed on board the Acela Express to Washington DC, it is no voyage of discovery but a regular trip.

Train travel beats flying, says hotel executive Michael Shepard. "Getting a plane has become so unattractive, especially for short distances. The train is quicker and takes you right into the city."

Acela passengers rate the service

Acela Express


  • Comfortable
  • Wi-fi
  • Go right into city
  • No security hassle
  • Punctual


  • Not really high speed
  • No free drinks
  • More costly than flying
  • No allocated seats
  • Long queues on station concourse

But the 29-year-old New Yorker says the premium you pay for the Express does not represent value for money, with no more legroom than a normal train and not even a complimentary coffee or tea. And he questions whether it's fast enough (2hr 46mins between New York and Washington) to persuade drivers to ditch their cars.

"It's called 'high speed' but is it really? That's the question."

Other passengers say it's a reliable and comfortable service but those with experience of European trains say the American ones are a pale reflection - in terms of frequency, speed and relative luxury.

The Acela is the flagship line of Amtrak, the government-owned company that runs the US railways, a vast network which is reporting a post-war record for numbers of passengers.

Making enough money to cover its operating costs, but little more, it runs along the densely-populated, north-east corridor between Boston and Washington, using trains that briefly reach speeds of 241km/h (150mph) but average about 127km/h (79mph).

That's not fast enough to meet some international definitions of high-speed rail - though a forthcoming upgrade of a 24-mile section of track in New Jersey means the trains will reach speeds of 257km/h (160mph) by 2017.

"This is the first step of a larger programme for Amtrak's vision to get to 220mph (354km/h)," says spokesman Steve Kulm, adding that private firms have shown strong interest in helping to pay for it.

Chart comparing train speeds

Despite the relatively high standard of the service in the north-east corridor, the architectural grandeur of some stations and some scenic journeys, train travel in the land of the motor vehicle is not a mass pursuit.

In a country that owes its economic strength to railways - the first transcontinental railroad linked east and west in the 1860s - most investment in recent decades has been on roads and aviation.

Rail industry experts meeting in New York next month are pushing for a reversal of that trend.

The US High Speed Rail Association (USHSR), which is hosting the event, has set out a highly ambitious, $600bn (£383bn) plan to build a high-speed rail network in four phases by 2030, which it illustrates on its website with an animated map.

Map of the US showing proposed lines A network of high-speed lines across the US by 2030 is the USHSR vision

"This really is the transport system for the 21st Century and there's no reason why we shouldn't build it," says Andy Kunz, president and chief executive officer of USHSR. "In fact we will have to build it. There are no other options.

British rail

  • Normal intercity lines have higher average speeds than the fastest in the US
  • Main high-speed line is Eurostar (above) from London to the Channel Tunnel
  • A £17bn ($27bn) plan for high-speed rail lines linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is backed by Prime Minister David Cameron
  • It faces strong opposition from people living in some areas affected

"The oil supply and price is not sustainable and we will not be able to continue to run America with oil at $200 a barrel. If we are going to maintain our prosperity and mobility we have to build this rail system."

Using public and private funds, Mr Kunz argues the network could pay for itself within five or 10 years, because dependency on foreign oil currently costs the US hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and these railways would use cleaner energy sources. They would also generate hundreds of thousands of jobs.

When asked whether it's feasible to implement such a huge project any time soon, he points to two great American feats of engineering - President Lincoln's transcontinental railroad and President Eisenhower's interstate highways built over a period of 35 years a century later.

But there are considerable political and financial hurdles to overcome.

In 2009, President Barack Obama allocated $8bn in his stimulus package towards high-speed rail in 10 areas, but state governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin said "no thanks" and the funds intended for their states were allocated elsewhere.

Union Station, Washington Some of the US railway stations are magnificent

In February, when vice-president Joe Biden proposed a $53bn bill for what he described as the biggest investment in rail since Lincoln, he was derided by one influential Republican as "insane".

For some critics, the problem is not high-speed rail in principle but picking the right projects to invest in, especially when the country is facing a financial crisis and huge spending cuts.

A spokesman for a public policy think-tank, the Reason Foundation, questions the projected passenger figures that enthusiasts put their faith in, and says that beyond the north-east, there are very few places in the US where it could pay its way.

In Europe, where higher fuel prices and denser populations help make high-speed rail more attractive, there has been a frenzy of construction and planning. France and Spain aim to double their networks of bullet trains in the coming decades.

China, which already boasts half the world's high-speed lines, is making similar strides, although an accident that killed 40 people earlier this year sparked a debate about whether the government was moving too fast.

Hitting the buffers

States that said No:

  • Ohio - governor said it would require annual subsidy of $17m
  • Florida - governor predicted a $3bn bill, although local mayors said there was no risk to taxpayers
  • Wisconsin - denounced cash as '"out of control" government spending

The country also operates a magnetic levitation train, which reaches staggering speeds of 430km/h (268mph).

In the US, California could be the first state to get a dedicated high-speed passenger rail system, with work due to begin next year on the first section of a line running the length of the huge state, which would carry 322km/h (200mph) trains.

Congressman Jim Costa believes building the railway will generate nearly 300,000 jobs and then another 450,000 permanent posts after it's built.

But Christian Wolmar, a transport expert based in the UK, has serious doubts.

"In California, the notion that they can build in one fell swoop a high-speed network that runs from Sacramento to San Diego is just too ambitious.

"Why not start with a high-speed line that stretches from one end of the Bay Area to another? Then extend it to LA? Instead they plan this massive high-speed line that goes from one end of the state to another."

Arnold Schwarzenegger Arnold Schwarzenegger looked at Japan's bullet trains when California governor

While the US freight rail system is fantastically successful, the existing passenger service is decades behind Europe, he says, due to low investment and hostility from freight companies, which own most of the track.

"America has not been able to retain anything but a vestige of a passenger railway. Amtrak carries about 30 million [passengers] a year, which in Britain, a much smaller country, is about 10 days' worth of journeys," says Mr Wolmar, who recently returned from the US and wrote about the American railways in his blog.

"They haven't managed to achieve speeds, frequency or fares that would rival cars."

The fact that so many Americans have never boarded a train presents a significant cultural barrier, he adds.

But Mr Kunz disagrees. "People say Americans were born with car keys in their hands and driving is in our DNA - but if you look back to 1922 then 99% of Americans lived in cities and moved around on trains."

From that point on, the oil and motor industries pushed for road projects and American cities were developed with that in mind. But he believes the expansion of light rail and metro systems can help turn urban America into more "walkable communities".

Back on the Acela, the train pulls into its final destination, Union Station, bang on time.

"This is Washington DC. Final stop," says the announcement.

For the American dream of high-speed rail, it could be just the start.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Ok, assume you can ride a train for a relatively short-trip. But then, again - you'll need a car to move around! That's why airport car rentals are so busy all the times! But for a relatively short trip, and more than 1 person traveling - I bet the car will always be the best choice here. As for the long trips - airport, car rental - has been there for a while...

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    33. richdix
    Who wants to travel 12 hours on a train when one hour on a jet gets you there.
    Me. I chose to travel by train from Seattle to San Francisco. Took 24 hours but I got to see some beautiful country (Forests/Mountains in Orgeon then wake up to desert at Sacramento). The 1 hr flight involves 2 hrs+ check in getting asked if you're Al Que'da then another hour waiting for your bag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    42. crash
    High speed rail is never going to work in the US,it will never be profitable competing against the airlines.
    Remember how many US airlines have gone bust over the past few years? PanAm, TWA etc are all gone. From the centre of Nottingham to the centre of Paris rail competes very well both on price & total journey time, especially during EU parliament holiday time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The U.S. needs to invest a lot of money to improve tracks and signalling, then it will be possible, as we have proved in Europe, to move between even widely separated cities faster than going by air. No cab to airport, a 2 to 3 hour check in (security), no long wait by the baggage carousel, then the cab queue to your final destination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @21 has pegged part of Florida's problem. The Orlando-Tampa high speed link would've been a white elephant because the supporting mass transit is a joke. If you want to get around in those sprawling cities, you need a car. The drive - which I manage every weekend - is 1-2 hours. The train? 1.5 hours, plus driving to the train station, plus parking, plus getting a rental car at the destination...

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    You don't need maglev, but car trains are the way forward.
    It would be wonderful to drive from my house to the station, hop the train with the car and then drive from the station to my destination.
    One thing about channel tunnel I never understand is why the lorry/car terminal is so far into Kent. most traffic comes around the M25 so put the station there.

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    High speed rail is never going to work in the US,it will never be profitable competing against the airlines.Train travel in Europe is already having problems competing against low cost airlines,this would be another giant white elephant the tax payer would have to prop up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Recently I travelled from Madrid to Valencia by rail. Speed during the trip 304 km/hr, duration for the 350 km trip was 1 hour 40 minutes. Trip cost, $76.00, cheaper and faster than by plane (with security and check-in times) and certainly by car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @Martin "As long as they don't model their system on our British rail network..."
    A ludicrous statement. No one in their right mind would model their rail network on the UK system, seeing as it was built in the Victorian era and wasn't planned in the slightest.
    Channel Tunnel style trains? -Drive car onto train -Sit in car for 12 hours -Drive off train. Uncomfortable. Hire car system would better

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I live in New Jersey near NYC and havent been on a train once...i own a car and it just seems like I can save time and money driving...gasoline is at 2.60 a gallon..true its been over 4 dollars which is alot here but trains dont offer services or prices that apeal for us to ride slow..and they are ugly and falling apart... these are the reasons we dont ride on this aging infastructure

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The rail bed in the northeast U.S. corridor is inadequate to handle truly high speed traffic (note mention of a section being improved). Railroad worker unions with help from the U.S. federal government destroyed passenger rail transportation scores of years ago. Now unions and government ownership result in mismanagement and the overly expensive fares in the corridor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Cultural factors aside, this article also completely ignores the environmental factors which make high-speed rail unfeasible for the US. Firstly, in such places as Wisconsin, winters are typically very bitter. The past season which caused difficulty for rail in Europe last year is par for the course in places like Wisconsin. Get on Canada to make high-speed rail and make it work, then we talk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Interesting use of the term "fail swoop" which was traditionally "fell swoop" as used by Shakespear and more recently modified to "foul swoop" (ugh), but I guess that's why we love the English language.. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I'm a huge believer in high speed rail. But it's easy to look at Europe, China or Japan as a model, but any area outside the East coast, with so few cities and such large distances that train technology we see today would never work, we'd need a whole new model.
    Remember also that arriving in say, the center of LA, you may speed at 500mph to downtown LA, and then need to queue to rent a car!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    An article I read recently about the US rail system suggests that their safety standards are far too high, which means that the trains are much heavier than elsewhere in the world. The side effect of this is track maintenance costs are high and they find it difficult/expensive to source new bespoke trains from manufacturers abroad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The train system in the Boston-Washington corridor works. The bus (coach) using the interstate system has taken over from passenger trains in the U.S.A.. America is so big we jet from city to city. Who wants to travel 12 hours on a train when one hour on a jet gets you there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    According to the article "They haven't managed to achieve speeds, frequency or fares that would rival cars."

    Well, 2 out of 3. Outside the Eastern corridor, fares are actually very competitive. A couple of years ago, Amtrak took me from Rochester to Chicago, roughly 600 miles, for $58 one way. No way would it have been cheaper for me to drive. Speeds and frequency, fair comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @Glenn Harvey, well the 'line' is High Speed 1 (HS1), used by both the SouthEastern High Speed 'Javelin' services and Eurostar - which is incorrectly used synonomously with the name of the route here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    It seems to me that most Americans don't realize how crucial upgrading the rail system really is. The article notes that the US economy relies on the rail system, but in the future, this will not be the only aspect of America that relies on trains - personal transportation will soon become unsustainable and unaffordable for most Americans; group transportation will need to be used in stead.


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