Our New Opportunity to Make America’s Transportation System Great Again – Part 2

Part 2 :  Our Missed Opportunity

High quality, convenient, and affordable transportation truly has been an essential element of the American dream.

In the first part of our four part article series, we looked at America’s past, and identified three periods of US greatness and world leadership in transportation, from the early/mid 1800s through to the mid/late 1900s.

But the last almost 50 years has seen the US fall further and further behind in pretty much every field of passenger transportation.  There’s been an enormous missed opportunity, which we discuss in this part of the series.

Beyond that, however, in part three we suggest that missing this current opportunity may be a good thing, if we respond appropriately now, and in part four, we look to a possible Utopian future, which might be no more than a decade away, if we make the national commitment needed to create it.

The Transportation Revolution We Missed

Regular upgrades to the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains can be seen in this picture of four different models side by side.

While we in the US have been distracted with our cars, trucks and planes, there has been a largely overlooked revolution occurring in a form of transportation we’ve essentially chosen to turn our backs on and ignore.  Passenger rail – viewed as being either old-fashioned or not relevant to our geography and population distribution.

From about the 1920s, rail’s dominance as a transportation method, in most of the western world, was first being attacked and then being utterly defeated.  But whereas the role of rail continued to diminish pretty much without pause in the US, a new opportunity appeared elsewhere in the world, starting almost exactly 50 years ago, in the 1960s.

New types of rail and cross-tie, improved track laying and maintenance, combined with new types of locomotive, allowed for astonishingly fast, energy-efficient and comfortable train travel, with the speed feature in particular being of important but overlooked relevance to the US.

Drawing on earlier French concepts, the Japanese ‘bullet train’ made its debut in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.  These trains, operating on the 320 mile line between Tokyo and Osaka (with two intermediary stops) initially had a maximum speed of 130 mph and averaged 101 mph from start to finish.  This allowed for a 3 hr 20 minute scheduled journey – fast when it first started, and it has been repeatedly accelerated over the 52 years subsequently.  Now, even though the train has increased from two to five stops en route, the travel time is 2 hours 22 minutes, with a maximum speed of 175 mph and an average of 136 mph.

The US felt that rail travel had become permanently and irrevocably irrelevant to its transport needs, and so lost focus on these developments.  For a while it was indeed the case that trains were ‘too slow’ for the large distances between most (but not all) US cities.

Even short distances quickly became ‘too far’ for Amtrak trains, speed limited to 79 mph and seldom averaging much more than half that speed.  It was always faster to drive and usually faster to fly (even after allowing for the time wasted going to the airport, checking in, etc etc) when traveling pretty much any distance at all.  This is clearly shown on this chart, which shows private car to be best for up to about 250 miles, and flying to be better for all distances beyond that.  Rail doesn’t get close to being a factor at any distance.

Nowadays, fast trains in other countries average not 40 mph, but 140+ mph, and indeed, some trains in Europe and China average closer to – or even slightly more than – 200 mph.  The world speed record for a passenger train is currently 375 mph for a maglev train and 357 mph for a conventional train – speeds that are faster than some turbo-prop passenger planes.

These new speeds have revolutionized the appropriateness of rail as a means of travel.  Let’s look at the same chart as before, but instead of using an average speed of 40 mph for train travel, let’s push that up to a ‘state of the art’ 200 mph.

We now see a ‘sweet spot’ for rail, starting somewhere around the 100 – 150 mile range (depending on the convenience of where train stations are or could be and the alternate travel time by car) and stays valid through to perhaps 800 mile journeys (about 4 – 5 hours by high speed rail, a similar total journey time as going to an airport, checking in, going through security, etc).

The New Opportunity for High Speed Rail in the US

An artist’s impression of the proposed California high speed trains.

The weakness of slow rail had been that it ‘fell between the cracks’ – as the first chart above shows, short distances were massively easier (and faster) to drive in one’s personal car, and longer distances were massively easier (and faster) to fly.  (Ignoring the Northeast corridor) there was no length of journey, in the US, that made practical sense to take by train – especially with trains averaging 40 – 45 mph – much slower than a private car on a freeway.  Any remaining possible factor in favor of trains was neutralized by schedules typically offering no more than one train a day, often with ridiculously inconvenient departure and arrival times.

But the last several decades have seen the speed of high speed rail systems, elsewhere in the world, skyrocket, while air travel has slowed down and become less pleasant.  Travel by private car also has become more susceptible to traffic congestion and, depending on the price of gas, more tangibly costly, too.

This has created a new and growing sweet spot in the middle between very short distances that are best driven by car, and very long distances that currently remain better by air (but see the next two parts of this article series for more on these points).  The second chart above shows this to be from somewhere around 125 miles to somewhere around 800 miles.

When you start drawing circles with an 800 mile radius around major US cities, it is astonishing how much of the country would be well served by high speed rail.  800 miles from New York gets you to all of New England and up to the major Canadian eastern cities, to Detroit and Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Atlanta and to within 35 miles of Jacksonville.  Even in the less populated west, 800 miles from Los Angeles goes over to El Paso, up through Albuquerque to Denver, Boise, and to within 35 miles of Portland.

This is not some sort of abstract theory that could never occur in real life.  It is being demonstrated, every day, in Europe and China, as both regions continue to add more and more high speed routes and operate more and more trains.  The bulk of people who fly short distances these days are people who are taking a short trip before or after a longer connecting flight.  Fewer and fewer people travel by air for these 150 – 800 mile type journeys, because train travel is more comfortable and more convenient.

Sure, coast to coast travel in the US, ie 2000 – 2500 mile journeys – are problematic, but 10 – 12 hour overnight sleeper train runs could travel up to almost 2500 miles in that time.  Sure, not everyone likes overnights, but the reality of coast to coast flights is that when you go west to east, you take an entire 24 hours from when you start your journey through to your first business meeting.  You typically leave in the morning, get in to the east coast after the close of business, and so have nothing to do except go to your hotel and sleep through until the next morning.  Why not work a full day in your normal office, then that evening, take a train to the east coast, arrive the next morning, and go from the train to your first and subsequent meetings.  That way you’ve saved the loss of a productive day and instead of sleeping in a hotel, you’ve slept on the train.

Traveling from the east coast to the west coast often takes the form of working half a day, then flying mid afternoon to the west coast, getting in that evening, overnighting, and being ready for a meeting the next morning.  A train would allow a similar experience – work most of the day, then travel overnight on the train, and arrive in time for the first meeting the next morning.

The Two Big Problems with Traditional High Speed Rail

Okay, so the latest greatest high speed trains are wonderful.  They are fast, comfortable, convenient, energy-efficient, and safe.

But – and it is a big but.  They are also thought to be very expensive, and take up lots of land.  The noise of them passing is surprisingly loud, and the slipstream/wind buffeting as they shoot past surprisingly strong.

Let’s look at both these challenges.

Not as Environmentally Friendly as Claimed

High speed rail lines impact on a broad swath of ground around their pathways.

The first problem is its surprisingly intrusive and impactful effects on the environment, which gives environmentalists a curious bipolar attitude towards rail – they love the idea, and they love the fuel efficiency that full trains offer – so much better than other forms of travel.

But they love these things just so long as the trains are simultaneously close and convenient to directly benefit them, but – ooops – not too close as to inconvenience them.  That’s a very difficult compromise to get just right.

Just like airport expansion protesters, people who feel a high speed rail line is too close have made full use of all the protections and protocols to delay and divert such projects for years and sometimes decades.

High speed rail requires large swathes of land set aside for the train line, for a ‘buffer zone’, for landscaping projects, cuttings, and embankments, so the track can remain as level and straight as possible, and for safety barriers to ensure that animals, people, assorted objects and vehicles can’t access the track.  The environmental impact of all this land taking and shaping, and a potential change from open unspoiled countryside to track, overhead wiring, and high safety/shock/sound barriers is considerable.

In particular, if a train goes through the middle of a ranch, it makes it very hard for the ranch to continue to be operated as a single contiguous ranch, because of the cost of creating overpasses for animals and the farm workers to pass over the train, and the impact the passing trains might have on the farm animals.

If a rail line goes through a town or city of any size, that also creates major safety problems.  Level crossings are not recommended for high speed rail lines.  No matter how effective the barriers, level crossing crashes are a fact of life, even with slow lumbering freight trains at 30 mph.  Now consider what happens instead with a high speed passenger train, at closer to 300 mph.  In half a minute, it has traveled 2.5 miles – it has gone from being a distant speck to being right on top of anything on the track, and its kinetic energy is 100 times that of a train ten times slower, causing much more damage not only to anything it collides with but to itself and its passengers, too.  So towns and cities will necessarily be split with only a few overpasses instead of level crossings on every road that formerly crossed where the track now goes.

These problems are really no different to those created by freeways, of course, and can readily be solved with sufficient money invested.

High speed rail is surprisingly noisy and also sets up shock waves as the train forces its way through the air in front of it.  If you’ve ever been on a station platform in Britain or Europe and had a fast train dash through the station, you’ll have had a taste of what that is like – and note that speeds through stations are much lower than they are when traveling in open countryside.

The sound level is comparable to being close to a lawn mower, but instead of a steady drone it is a sudden sound that quickly appears, then quickly disappears – much more intrusive.  And with high speed train schedules likely to have trains at least every 30 minutes, they are frequent, probably from early morning until late evening.

This means that even if there is a potential willingness to pay for the cost of high speed rail, objections from people who find themselves in the vicinity of the new track and faster trains may make the entire concept impossible.

Britain has been struggling with this in their attempts to create a high speed rail line from London up the west side of the country into the Midlands (Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds), although, undeterred, it has also announced another project for an east-west line across the Midlands between Liverpool and Hull, too.

Closer to home, Amtrak’s desire to increase the speed and number of trains from New York up to Boston is (dare we say) going off the rails due to objections from people in its path.

 More Expensive than We’re Willing to Pay

Long bridges, cuttings, and other trackworks make high speed rail expensive.

Rail’s other major problem is that it is perceived as being very expensive.  Perhaps a better way of stating this is that rail’s other major problem is that there’s no currently acceptable or obscured way of paying for it, because in truth, high speed rail is not more expensive than freeways.

California has been struggling to build a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco since 1992, and has been thinking of the possibility for even longer.  At present, initial work is underway but the entire system, with some 800 route miles of track (extending beyond the core LA-SF route down to San Diego and over to Sacramento) is projected to cost officially about $65 billion, but with the first small section seeming to be going as much as 50% over budget (and maybe also slipping seven years behind schedule), the $65 billion figure is probably way low.  We’d be surprised to see it completed for under $100 billion.

More realistically, noting the current total lack of identified funding for the vast bulk of the project cost, California’s general lack of money, and public support that is at best problematic, we’d sadly be surprised to see it ever completed at all.

But, is this $65 – 100 billion cost really expensive?  In part one, we mentioned how a six or so mile extension of the 710 freeway in Los Angeles is projected to cost $6 billion.  $6 billion for six miles of freeway, compared to $80 billion for 800 miles of high speed rail (including not just the rail, but also stations and trains).  When looked at from this perspective, the high speed rail project looks more like a bargain.  Some studies, supporting the project, have suggested that the alternate costs of adding more freeway lanes would be as high or higher.

Similarly, Amtrak is struggling to get funding for its $150 billion 450 mile rail line from Boston to New York and DC.  But compare that to the ‘Big Dig’ cost – 8 miles of freeway in Boston for $22 billion – and the Amtrak project too looks like a bargain.

These are of course extreme examples.

How much does high speed rail cost, in general?  Sure, we can see examples on both coasts – perhaps $100 million per route mile in California and a stunning $350 million for the Amtrak east coast project.

A privately funded project to run a high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas is estimated at costing perhaps $18 billion for the 240 mile route.  This is a very low $75 million per mile, with the savings being in part due to the line starting and finishing not in the central downtowns of both cities, but on the outskirts of each city, avoiding the very high costs of running the line into the downtown areas.

An interesting cost comparison can be seen in China.  China’s first long distance high speed rail line was between Beijing and Shanghai, a 810 mile journey initially scheduled for 3 hrs 58 minutes, but subsequently, after accelerated track wear, slowed down to 4 hrs 48 mins.  It opened in late 2010.

The cost of this rail line ended up being about $35 billion, or $43 million per mile.

In more general terms, a 2014 World Bank report suggests high speed rail averages a cost of US$27 – US$34 million per mile in China; $40 – $62 million in Europe, and it uses a $90 million per mile cost for the California project.

Going by these examples, it seems you get about 10 route miles of track and associated resources per billion dollars spent in the US.

Amtrak currently operates over some 21,300 route miles of track.  Not all would justify being upgraded to high speed rail.  But it seems reasonable to consider that a national network of high speed rail routes would easily exceed 10,000 route miles, and there we are, looking at $1 trillion or more in required investment.

To put these costs in context, in general, it seems that a four to six lane freeway can be expected to cost between $10 and $50 million per mile, depending on the amount of earthworks needed and the cost to procure the land.  So high speed rail costs somewhere around, say, 3 to 6 times as much as new freeway.

A Question of Priorities

Over 20 lanes of clogged ‘freeway’ traffic. Isn’t it time for something better than more of this?

While our nation seems willing and able to spend trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East, the ugly certainty is there is no way such money would ever be found for high speed rail domestically.  High speed rail has no true supporters in either political party.

As example of this, the $850 billion of ‘shovel ready projects’ that the government urgently created in 2009 to spend money on to soften the potential harm of the global financial crisis included a mere $8 billion for high speed rail development.

That, plus another $2.5 billion in the next year’s budget (2010) – a total of $10.5 billion – seems to have vanished without trace, and certainly without the 105 miles of high speed rail line that it would seemingly pay for.

A request in 2011 for a further $53 billion in funding for high speed rail (this sounds like a lot but it was to be spread over six years), failed to make it through the budget reconciliation process.

Democrats rushed to blame the Republicans for this failure, but truly the fault lies on both sides.  Not only was the notion of $53 billion over six years laughably inadequate to create any sort of working high speed rail line at all, but the final 2011 budget totaled $3603 billion in expenditures.  A one-sixth share of the $53 billion would have been $9 billion.  $9 billion is a mere ‘rounding error’ when you’re looking at a total of $3603 billion, it is one quarter of one percent of the total.

If the Democrats were truly committed to high speed rail, they could have got that included in the budget compromise that finally passed, by sacrificing something else they viewed as less important.  This shouldn’t have been hard – as it was, they ended up getting 94% of their total budget request approved.

But they settled for zero percent of their high speed rail funding request.  High speed rail was a political pawn that allowed the Democrats to score double points with their supporters – first for proposing it, and then second for blaming the Republicans for the measure failing.  The truth is that the amount requested was ridiculously low to start with, and the Democrats then rushed to sacrifice it in its entirety.

We equally blame both parties.

Since that time, nothing tangible has happened further, notwithstanding boasts and promises such as “There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains” (2010 State of the Union speech) and “I assure you that one day, not too many years from now, ours will be the go-to network, the world’s model for high-speed rail” (Secretary of Transport in early 2010) and “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” (2011 State of the Union speech).

Why Won’t We Invest in Rail?

Nothing beats a train for fast friendly comfortable travel experiences.

The unwillingness to invest in modern high speed rail is curiously at odds with the nation’s historic willingness to invest in new technologies and to develop its transportation infrastructure, and also at odds with its current levels of spending on road transportation.

The original coast to coast railway that united the nation in 1869 would not have been possible without federal funding – the Pacific Railroad Acts funded the line from Iowa to San Francisco with government bonds and gave the railroads massive amounts of land – an area larger than Texas in total and more than one tenth the entire US – that the railroads in many cases then sold off at great profit.

President Obama took land on 29 different occasions for new national parks during his eight years in office, and in total the federal government asserts ownership over 640 million acres of the US – about 28% of the entire US land area.  Why couldn’t he have given a few million acres to companies willing to use the land to fund the development of high speed rail?

The interstate highways were all built with federal funds ($525 billion in present day dollars), although notionally paid for via gas taxes (subsequently).  In recent years, a combination of Federal, state and local funding has seen $91 billion invested into roading every year, plus billions more into bridges and other roading related projects.

Even the aviation system is subsidized.  In addition to ticket taxes, the FAA receives anywhere from $1 billion to $5+ billion a year in general government funding.  In addition, state and local governments often contribute to the cost of airports and the related infrastructure to connect airports to surface transportation.

So there is plenty of precedent for the government investing in national infrastructure projects.

Oh – one more comparison.  The costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Opinions differ, and there are ongoing costs for decades to come in the form of veteran benefits, but a credible case could be made for suggesting the costs are in excess of $5 trillion, and probably more when the interest cost on the money the government borrowed to fund the wars is figured in.  To say nothing of the almost 7,000 killed and 50,000+ wounded we’ve suffered.

Our problem is not shortage of money.  It is a problem of priorities.  It is also a chicken and egg problem – at present, rail is seen as an obsolete and irrelevant/inapplicable/inappropriate form of transport, and there is no mass of present users who would be happy to pay a little more on their current ticket prices to fund an improved system.

It is easy, with air travel for example, and when there are over 650 million passenger flights a year in the US, to quickly bring in many billions of dollars in revenue just by adding on relatively minor extra costs per ticket.  But Amtrak carried about 32 million people – 20 times less.  A $10 fee on air travel brings in $6.5 billion a year; a $10 fee on Amtrak tickets (many of them for relatively short distances and therefore, at low cost and not so easily able to absorb another $10) would ring in $320 million.

We also consume about 140 billion gallons of gasoline each year (plus 35 billion gallons of diesel).  Adding 10c a gallon on that brings in $17.5 billion – and much as we’d complain, the truth is we’d none of us notice an extra 10c one way or the other.

But it is not deemed politically acceptable to have air and car passengers fund new high speed rail, even though they would all be beneficiaries – either directly by being able to then enjoy high speed rail themselves, or indirectly, by having the freeways empty out due to many other drivers shifting to rail.

We need to do the same thing we did with the interstate construction and with the original rail construction – we need to be willing to pay the establishment costs of a new generation transportation system up front, and then enjoy the benefits for decades into the future.  If we can fund foreign wars of dubious validity to the tune of trillions of dollars, why can’t we fund a domestic program of direct and clear value?

Which leads to our next point.  Should our new generation transportation system truly be high speed rail?  Or is there something better waiting in the wings?

Please return next week for part three and four of this article series, with the answers to that vital question.

9 thoughts on “Our New Opportunity to Make America’s Transportation System Great Again – Part 2”

  1. Pingback: Our New Opportunity to Make America's Transportation System Great Again - Part 1 - The Travel Insider

    1. These types of stories often have a connecting flight involved, and usually pose the same question of how it is a person didn’t realize they were headed absolutely and utterly in the wrong direction sooner.

      So while your question is a fair one, it is also typical. I guess if the person was more aware, they’d have noticed, well before getting even to Atlanta, that something was drastically wrong.

  2. Maybe if we had not spent billions (or is it trillions) when others like Germany or France spend very little on military, we would have done better. Who bears the bulk of cost of NATO?c

    1. Hi, Mike

      Your simple and reasonable question about the cost of NATO is, alas, not an easy one to answer. There are at least three different types of NATO related costs – general national defense spending, direct NATO costs, and indirect NATO costs.

      The pact between the 28 NATO members has them all agreeing to each spend at least 2% of their GDP on military/defense related matters. Some of that of course inures to the benefit of NATO, but some does not. However, even at that vague level of commitment, only five of the 28 members are spending 2% of their GDP on military items.

      Here’s a CNN item which has some more information on who pays what


  3. Pingback: Our New Opportunity to Make America’s Transportation System Great Again - Part 6 - The Travel Insider

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