Why The US Has No High-Speed Rail, May 2019, 16 minutes. Full transcript below, made by the Train Campaign.
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China has the fastest and largest high-speed rail network in the world. The country has more than 19,000 miles of high-speed rail, the vast majority of which was built in the last decade.
Japan’s bullet trains can reach speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. And date back to the 1960s. They’ve become a staple for domestic travel and have moved more than 9 billion people without a single passenger casualty.
France began service of the high-speed TGV train in 1981 and the rest of Europe quickly followed.
And high-speed rail is quickly expanding all over the world in places like India, Saudi Arabia, Russia Iran and Morocco.
And then there’s the U.S. U.S. used to be one of the world’s global leaders in rail but after World War II, there was a massive shift.
If you look at the United States prior to 1945, we had a very extensive rail system everywhere. It all was working great except a number of companies in the auto and oil industries decided that for them to have a prosperous future they really needed to basically help phase out all the rail and get us all into cars.
The inflexible rails permanently embedded in cobblestones were paved over to provide smooth, comfortable transportation via diesel motor coach.
General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil and a few other companies that got together and they were able to buy up all the nation’s streetcar systems and then quickly start phasing out service and literally dismantling all the systems over about a 10-year span.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill to create the National Interstate System. It allocated about $25 billion dollars to build 41,000 miles of highways. The federal government paid for 90% of that, the states covered the final 10 and rail fell by the wayside.
Can’t you see that this highway means a whole new way of life for the children? And a way of life that we have a chance to help plan and, and to build.
We dedicated a huge amount of dollars to building automobile infrastructure in the middle of the 20th century and we’re still kind of attached to that model of development.
We went from a rail-served country to a auto-dependent nation by the 1960s.
We’ve become a car culture and it’s hard to break out of that cycle. Not to mention the fact that in our political system we have very powerful oil lobbies, car manufacturing lobbies, aviation lobbies, all the entities that the high-speed rail would have to compete with.
This is the American dream of freedom on wheels.
We average some 850 cars per thousand inhabitants in the U.S., in China it’s only 250.
And we’ve never gone back. But according to some, this country’s transportation ecosystem is reaching a tipping point.
When you look at what’s happening with the corridor development, again states across the U.S. who are recognizing they are running out of space to expand their highways or interstates. There are limits at airports, there is aviation congestion, so what are the options?
A better rail system is one and could come with significant benefits.
It’s largely an environmental good to switch from air traffic and car traffic to electrified high-speed rail. That’s a much lower emission way of traveling. When the high-speed rail between Madrid and Barcelona in Spain came into operation, I mean air travel just plummeted between those cities and everyone switched over to high-speed rail which was very convenient. People were happier. They weren’t forced to switch. They did it because it was a nicer option to take high-speed rail.
There’s a sort of a rule of thumb for trips that are under three or four hours in trip length from city to city, those usually end up with about 80 or 90 percent of the travel market from aviation.
Where rail exists and it’s convenient and high-speed, it’s very popular. America, I think, is waking up to this idea that rail is a good investment for transportation infrastructure.
One survey showed 63% of Americans would use high-speed rail if it was available to them. Younger people want it even more. Right now the main passenger rail option in the U.S. is Amtrak. It’s operated as a for-profit company but the federal government is its majority stakeholder. Train systems reaching top speeds of over 110 to 150 miles per hour are generally considered high-speed and only one of Amtrak’s lines could be considered as such. That’s its Acela line in the Northeast Corridor running between D.C., New York and Boston.
One of the challenges we face is that the Northeast Corridor has a lot of curvature, a lot of geometry. We really operate Acela Express on an alignment that in some places was designed back in the nineteen hundreds and so it really was never designed for high-speed rail.
And while the Acela line can reach up to 150 miles per hour, it only does so for 34 miles of its 457 mile span. Its average speed between New York and Boston is about 65 miles per hour, which is in stark contrast to China’s dedicated high-speed rail system which regularly travels at over 200 miles per hour. But some people are trying to fix that. In 2008, California voted yes on high-speed rail. Now, a decade later, construction is underway in the Central Valley of the state. And right now, it is the only truly high-speed rail system under construction in the U.S.
Ultimately, high-speed rail is a 520 mile project that links San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim, that’s phase one. And it’s a project that’s being built in building blocks. So the one behind me is the largest building block that we’re starting with, this 119-mile segment.
This segment will run from Bakersfield to Merced. Eventually the plan is to build a line from San Francisco to Anaheim, just south of L.A. But as it stands the state is almost $50 billion short of what it needs to actually do that.
The current project as planned would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. We do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.
After Gavin Newsom made that speech President Trump threatened to pull federal funding for the project.
We will continue to seek other funding. We hope the federal government will resume funding the, contributing new funds to the project. I think in the future, as the federal government has funded major construction of infrastructure over time they’ll again direct money to high-speed rail because in fact it’s not just California but other states are also interested in high-speed rail systems.
To complete the entire line as planned, the official estimate is now over $77 billion and it’s unclear where the money will come from. So why is it so expensive?
Part of the problem in California, the big price tag is getting through the Tehachapi, very expensive tunneling, or over the Pacheco Pass to get into San Jose from the Central Valley. You know, Eastern China, the flatlands of Japan where they’ve built the Shinkansen, all of those are settings where they have, didn’t incur the very high expense of boring and tunneling that we face so the costs are different.
And a lot of the money is spent before construction can even begin.
Just in this little segment here alone we’re dealing with the private property owner, we’re dealing with a rail company, we’re dealing with the state agency and so just the whole coordination. Then we’re dealing with a utility company. Just in this very small section, we had to relocate two miles of freeway and that was roughly $150 million per mile. So there’s a lot of moving pieces to, you know, anywhere we start constructing.
China is the place that many folks compare. They have like 29,000 kilometers of high-speed rail and 20 years ago they had none. So how have they been able to do it so quickly? And part of it is that the state owns the land, they don’t have private property rights like we have in the U.S. You don’t have the regulations we have in terms of labor laws and environmental regulations that add to cost. It also delays the projects.
For some reason and I’ve never really quite seen an adequate explanation as to why, costs to build transit or many big infrastructure projects are just dramatically higher than in other parts of the world, including in other advanced countries. But the bottom line is we’re really bad at just building things cheaply and quickly in the U.S. in general.
So it’s not just rail infrastructure that is expensive, all transportation infrastructure is.
Just the physical investment in the freeway usually will be 5 to 8 to 10 million per mile but if you add seismic issues and land acquisition and utilities and environmental mitigation and remediation of soils and factors like that it can become as high as 100 or 200 million a mile. The numbers for high-speed rail can vary anywhere from 20 to 80 million per mile.
The big reason why America is behind on high-speed rail is primarily money. We don’t commit the dollars needed to build these systems, it’s really as simple as that. And it’s largely a political issue. We don’t have political leaders who really want to dedicate the dollars needed.
There’s a lot of forces in America that really don’t want to see rail become our major mode of transportation especially because it will affect passenger numbers on airplanes, it’ll affect the use of autos. So you have the politics, the message shaping and then the straight advertising and all three of those coordinate and work together to keep America kind of focused on cars and not focused on rail.
Some of the earliest support for rail came from the Nixon administration. Some of the original capital subsidies and operating subsidies for urban transit came from the Republican party. So, I think it’s only more recently that maybe this has shifted that more liberal leaning folks who care about climate and a whole host of urban issues have really argued for investing very heavily in rail.
If you had Democratic leadership on the Senate and a different president or potentially some leverage for a president to sign a new budget bill with some dollars for high-speed rail, that could override those objections from Republicans in Congress. But, I think it’s mostly ideological. They’re big on highways. They’re big on things like toll roads. They just, they don’t want the government spending dollars on this kind of project and they see it as something those socialist European countries do but not something that should be done in, you know, car-loving America.
In my judgment, it would take a very strong federal commitment, almost sort of a post-Second World War interstate highway kind of large scale national commitment.
This is why some high-speed rail projects are trying to avoid public funding altogether. One company, Texas Central, plans to build a bullet train from Houston to Dallas without using a dime of taxpayer money.
We’re taking what is laborious, unreliable four-hour drive if you’re lucky and turning that into a reliable, safe 90 minutes. And when you look at that as a business plan being driven by data, this is the right place to build the first high-speed train in the United States.
The Texas project is backed by investors motivated to make a profit and will use proven Japanese rail technology. Texas Central’s goal is to complete the project by 2025. Another private company is even further along with its rail system in Florida. It’s expanding its higher-speed train from Miami to Orlando.
Orlando is the most heavily visited City the United States. Miami is the most heavily visit international city in the United States. It’s too far to drive, it’s too short to fly, we had the rail link and that was really the genesis of the project.
Wes Edens has invested heavily in Florida’s rail project which used to be called Brightline. Brightline recently rebranded to Virgin Trains as the company partnered with Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
The team at Brightline, which is now called Virgin Trains, has proven that it can work. The people actually want to get out of their cars and they’d love to be on trains.
In order to reach profitability, the company sacrificed speed to save money. If you want to really go high-speed you have to grade separate. So you basically have to build a bridge for 250 miles that you then put a train on. That sounds hard, and it sounds expensive and it’s both of those things. So a huge difference in cost, a huge difference in time to build and not that much of a reduction in service.
And now tech companies are getting involved with infrastructure projects. In the Pacific Northwest a high-speed rail plan is underway to connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Microsoft contributed $300,000 towards research for the project.
Our number one priority from Microsoft as well it to really see and pursue this high-speed rail effort happen.
If you look around the United States and where all of the Fortune 500 companies are located they all are in a similar situation to Microsoft. The housing is unaffordable, traffic congestion is epic. It’s too hard to get anywhere and to get employees. So high-speed rail can solve this same exact problem in numerous regions around the United States.
So is the private sector the answer to bringing high-speed rail to the U.S.? If the private sector wants to invest in transportation and as long as it’s not impinging on the public taxpayers I don’t see a problem with private sector moving forward. And I think there is some truth that the private sector is gonna have much more of an incentive to hurry up on the construction and get things done more quickly, more cheaply. That said, the private sector still has to operate with the oversight and regulatory responsibilities of the public sector. So for example environmental review doesn’t go away just because it’s a private sector project. Labor standards don’t go away. The difference is that they don’t have to keep trying to sell a project to the public for a vote to raise taxes or sell bonds.
Some people remain optimistic that the U.S. can catch up to the rest of the world and have a robust, high-speed rail system.
We’re building that right now behind us. This 119 mile segment that we want to expand with the money we already have to 170 miles, it’s going to serve a population of 3 million people in the Central Valley. So it’s, not only do I believe, but it’s under construction.
A lot of activity is now taking shape, state rail authorities have been shaped in four or five states, so they’re actually taking these on now as a legitimate project and moving forward.
I think the future is very bright for train travel in the United States. There’s broad consensus with our policy leaders in industry that it’s time to move an infrastructure bill and that will certainly help kickstart U.S. rail.
Others are much less confident.
I wish I were a little more optimistic. It’s just very difficult to make the economics work here. No one has embraced it as a strong part of their political platform. There’s just too many other tough pressing problems we’re facing.
I don’t see us catching up to where the world is. It would take such a massive infusion of dollars for that to happen in California and probably waving a number of environmental requirements and some other government regulations that hinder the quick deployment of these projects in favor of other values.
My own instincts are that it’s going to be decades and decades of decades before you’ll be able to go a one-seat trip from San Diego to Sacramento or San Francisco. It’d be nice if there was just one simple answer, it’s this litany of factors that collectively add up that make this so hard to pull off in the United States.
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