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 129.

    I don't even really agree with: "Taking a train from California to New York doesn't make a lot of sense...". It really depends on the train speed. The European calculation is that fast train can beat flights for anything up to about 1000-1500 miles. That isn't LA->NYC, but it _is_ LA->Chicago and NYC->Chicago. With Chinese-speed trains, even longer distances are possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    It's great that the US is looking into such extensive high speed rail options, plus its far more green than flying. We should also be looking at doing the same here in the UK. We're still struggling to get a line from London to Birmingham, a mere 102 miles, while nearby countries already have thousands of miles built. This is why we need to exert more effort into getting a system built in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    In Europe, airports are closer to cities. Do you intend to curtail all travel for those who do not live within 2 hours of an airport? Do you enjoy the 2 hour drive in addition to the 2 hour wait plus the luggage wait plus sitting in a sardine can plus the possibility your plane might fall out of the sky? At least in a train you have an even chance of getting out alive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Mal. If you are judging Amtrak by one article, I suggest you broaden your perspective and keep reading. Read Pro and Con. Then come and see for yourself. But do not judge the system by one ride. Typically, with exceptions, the east coast equipment is aged and the track in need of replacement. Midwest is better - better equip. and track. Western region has newest - best rolling stock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Very few railways in the US are close to profitable. Instead of sinking money into a drain, wouldn't it be better to put it into more efficient infrastructure?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Advocates of high-speed rail in the U.S. keep ignoring the lack of mass transit facilities in the cities they want to connect with rail.

    For example, suppose I traveled by high-speed rail from Orlando to a station in Tampa Florida. There's no mass transit in Tampa. I would have to rent a car there, which takes time. And if I'm staying in Tampa more than a week or so, that's expensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Mal, so you would prefer open cars, endless lawsuits for all the dead people (That one's easy! Just change the law!), inadequate track maintainance, fewer signals, less crew, less safety training, lack of reliable transportation for people who do not live close enough to airports.Oh, by the way rolling stock is in production iin US as well as in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Up until 2008, the US Congress consistantly refused to fund Amtrak. There has been a concerted affort to make the system fail. Now, when ridership is the highest since WWll, there is panic. "Oh My "Gosh"! We've got to put a stop to this! It might just be a success!

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    You can forget about the MIlwaukee-Minneapolis link pictured on your map. Wisconsin's Republican Governor Walker has already turned down an 800 million-dollar federal grant for that line. The right-wing mantra is "We don't want no gov'mint choo-choo train".

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Houston to the Texas state capital Austin takes two days via San Antonio with a Hotel stop overnight. You can drive it in three hours but the frustration of driving with fellow motorists who have not been trained properly to drive is incredibly frustrating. People here do not understand the concept of an overtaking lane and don't like anything new to them, Trains, French, Passports, Health care

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    re. #104.european66 wrote:
    "The time taken to drive the car is time wasted...The train network over the time gives europe a competitive advantage."

    Good point but our political unity more than makes up for it. We have one national fiscal policy to worry about, not 17, and we can always work a few minutes longer to make up for time we spend commuting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    The High Speed Rail as being implemented across various countries in Europe has no advantages over airlines on long haul flight. Also, vacuum tubes would be quicker than both planes and trains. High tech is the surely the American dream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    There are some things people forget. The energy to put a plane on the air alone to carry maybe 100 people cannot be as energy efficient as a train that does not have to fight gravity.
    As for the car, we have the same issue. A car can carry at most 4 to 6 people. The weight of those people do not even begin to match the weight of the car. We should all be riding horses or riding bycicles. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Our notion of high speed rail is more than embarrassing. We desperately need to bring passenger rail back to a meaningful level for short and medium distance travel. Taking a train from California to New York doesn's make a lot of sense, but taking one from Boston to any number of larger cities on the eastern seaboard certainly does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.


    On SouthWest Airlines you can fly from SFO to LAX for 30 bucks
    i just checked and i have news for you a one way ticket for that route is between $169 and $191.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    It isn't a matter of technology, it's a matter of politics. More government subsidies to build, maintain and operate a high rail speed rail service is not going to be politically popular, especially when the regional rivalries kick in. Why would folks in Montana want to subsidize the commutes of Wall Street workers so they can live in the suburbs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Well done miker21 for mentioning the high speed Spanish train service (AVE) given the poor research done on this article omitted it. The system which the Americans and many others have been to Spain to see in action. The country may currently have its problems but it has many high lines in service and others under construction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I think they're going about this in the wrong order. The problem is that most places don't have good public transportation and having a car is pretty essential. How do you get around when you've gotten off that nice new train? What we need first is good public transit. Light rail in all the large cities and towns. People don't ride because you need a car everywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Nice one Terraphiliac! --P88
    when then the onboard air goes pooff at a time the passengers still have reserve capsules. Maglev rooles. ..mwuhahaha. Genuinely, what is the world busy wiv? phrow me away loik. Ey hot chocolate on Gibraltar svp, tyippie-ney-oy-ney. More manic phings are happnin. A piff-puff waggling wagon at the sixth continent on BBC's weather-chart for next week or a soup-conductor

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    42. Can you give some statistics to back up your statement?
    Air travel in Europe is not going to surpass railways for the simple reason that many of the so-called low cost airlines land you in the middle of nowhere from where you now have to drive to the center of a major town.
    It seems to me that the most inefficient means of transportation is the one that has to overcome gravity.


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