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 109.

    Nice article. I wish American politicians could resist the car and oil lobby. Why isn't the German ICE high speed train network mentioned in the list? AFAIK it's the largest in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    I never understood why North Americans aren't more suspicious of the corporate conspiracies to destroy alternate forms of transportation like rail systems. In the 1950's GM, Standard Oil, and General Tire were fined $5,000 for buying and destroying through negligence street car (street rail) companies all across the country. I suspect the airlines or car companies did the same to railways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    "Train travel in Europe is already having problems competing against low cost airlines"

    What utter nonsense. Low cost airlines are being hammered on several routes by HS rail notably between London and Paris by Eurostar. And why would Deutsche Rail want to start running a London to Frankfurt via Amsterdam services in 2013 if low cost airlines had the route all sewn up?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    On SouthWest Airlines you can fly from SFO to LAX for 30 bucks

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    American politicians have no vision to see the benefits to the national economy and national energy security of “investment” in a 21st-century transportation infrastructure. The transcontinental railroad of the 1880s and the interstate highway system of the 1950s show how a public-private partnership can succeed in a capitalist country with major competing special interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The time taken to drive the car is time wasted. Most of the concentration is required to check the same road every single day. On a train it is possible to read or to do some work. Even the plane is not as much effective as a train because a lot of time is wasted in security controls, boarding and everything else.
    The train network over the time gives europe a competitive advantage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    #94 - until oil runs out. Then you are royally stuffed;) Recession is the ideal time for capital investment programmes. Lower salary costs due to job shortage, boost of economy and tax take.

    The Hoover Dam was built during the Depression.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    A common anti-HSR argument is that "HSR cannot compete with air travel in the US". But that argument is flawed, when you have the federal govt subsidizing air routes to smaller cities, and when major carriers (LCCs included) pull out of smaller cities when there's no federal funding. Additionally, the pro-HSR camp needs to clarify that HSR does not compete with air travel; it COMPLEMENTS it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    #96 High speed rail and air travel are comparable like for like. Car journeys can only really be countered in high-density urban areas effectively using transit systems. Cars will continue to be required within this network for other areas.

    However, plane travel can be written out in their entirety unless the city is on an island, or the top of a mountain. Infrastructure will cost though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    And to finish my thought, there are some areas we should be focusing though. Corridors, mainly. Areas that are served by a large number of back and forth traffic. Areas that have public transport when you arrive (why would you take a train just to rent a car, when whereever you are going is in driving distance?). Its not a bad idea, it just needs to be planned a bit better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I think high-speed rail is a very exciting, earth-friendly method of moving people around! I believe much higher speeds could be achieved if mag-lev technology were to be coupled with "pneumatic tube" design. Imagine! A train suspended in a magnetic field without the force of friction compelled forward in an enclosed tube in which the air is removed in front and replaced behind the the train! :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Overlay a map of Europe on top of a map of America. Madrid to Moscow is roughly the distance of New York to Denver, i.e. not even the entire distance across America. In that area, you have 800M or so people, compared to 300M in US. Smaller area + more people means trains are much more suited. As much as I love European trains, we live in a different environment where they aren't as practical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Costs between car and train are not normally compared like for like - whereas rail fares incorporate the cost of track maintenance and running. However, quoted car journey costs are very unlikely to include road maintenance costs, nor are they that likely to include the overall car maintenance costs.

    I doubt if any car journey came under that of a train with these factors included.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    It is unreasonable to compare the US with European countries, as the US is dealing with a larger population that is spread out over a larger geographic area. High speed rail may be a great option for some areas such as the northeast and for shorter trips elsewhere, but ultimately we're also going to be heavily dependent on a mix of airplanes and cars as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I'm a Londoner working (every few weeks) in the Bay Area, one of the few places in the US with a good train service (the CalTrain). Its problem is that it's very infrequent, other than that it's a great service, I use it frequently but locals still prefer the jams on US-101. I've used the Acela many times, it's very slow and lacks decent 1st class service but it's still better than flying though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    I believe U.S. got many more problems to look for just right now or in the future and to resolve those problems for it's people. Than spending billions of dollars into these railways that I don't think people will needed it for now and we got cars and other transportation's that we can use instead of railways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    and for long distances you can use the wagons with beds and it's cheaper and comfort and you can travel very fast and comfort. but the thing which makes me think is US has a suitable surface for trains! why US government doesn't want to use this opportunity?!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    we can not say it costs much more than the car, for instance in swiss they offer a GA card or half price cards for public transports which with GA everything for you is free and you can enjoy watever you want! and for time and distance i can point out TGV for france which you can travel from zurich to paris in 3 hours

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    You quote "Wisconsin - denounced cash as '"out of control" government spending" Yet Walker still went "cap in hand" for funding of the existing Milwaukee - Chicago "Hiawatha" line.
    As like all Republicans... Hypocrites!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    The over-riding problem in all of this is the pressure the US puts on OPEC to keep oil prices down and production maximised. Were they to be left in the control of the oil suppliers and normal market forces allowed to take over, the economics would have forced investment years ago.

    Instead the market is being skewed to support the Wall Street growth bubble. This is a perilous situation.


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