Chugging Along Behind - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Chugging Along Behind

Chugging Along Behind

By Libby Longino

SourceRobb Howard Photography


Because we all feel the need for speed. 

By Libby Longino

China and Japan have it. France has it, along with 11 other European countries. Come on, even Uzbekistan has it. The Obama administration really wanted it back in 2009. Sure, Amtrak sort of has it, with the Acela between Boston and Washington, D.C., but its average speed is a measly 78 mph. And Elon Musk dreams of a 760 mph Hyperloop, but right now that’s just a dream. So, why can’t the U.S. manage to get high-speed rail?

First: Japan, 1964

Japan developed the world’s first high-speed rail network in 1964. In 2012 the busiest Shinkansen line moved 143 million passengers from Tokyo to Osaka in 2 hours and 25 minutes, at a top operating speed of 168 mph.

Fastest: Shanghai Maglev, 311 mph

The Shanghai Maglev (short for “magnetic levitation”) has been clocked at a top speed of 311 mph, though its top operating speed is 268 mph. The Maglev connects Pudong International Airport with the city’s metro system, making the 18-mile journey in about 8 minutes.

Next: California, $68 billion

Phase 1 of the California high-speed rail system, which will take passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under 3 hours (top speed: over 200 mph), is projected to cost $68 billion and to be complete by 2029. The first segment, Merced to Bakersfield, has an estimated price of $6 billion. 

Part of the answer is that high-speed rail systems come with high price tags. A Spanish study from 2007 found that the average cost of high-speed rail projects around the world was $34.5 million per mile, and rail infrastructure costs tend to be higher in the U.S. than in other countries. (This is partly because U.S. rail-safety regulations ban systems used successfully elsewhere – the Acela rail cars, for example, weigh twice as much as those of France’s TGV.) Amtrak’s proposed Northeast Corridor capital-investment program would cost an estimated $151 billion between 2012 and 2040. 

Rail systems also require expensive maintenance. In June, Amtrak’s CEO told a congressional committee that Amtrak needed $782 million a year for the next 15 years to handle the maintenance costs of the Northeast Corridor alone. By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the Federal Highway Administration spent $2 billion for maintenance across the country in 2009.

Concerns about cost and overspending prompted Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida to reject substantial federal funds for high-speed rail projects in their states. Besides construction and maintenance costs, some worry that high-speed rail will not be profitable and will not create jobs

However, part of the American aversion to high-speed rail can be chalked up to culture: Americans love their cars, and some conservatives think train projects smell suspiciously like Euro envy and government attempts to deprive people of their sovereign choice to sit in traffic.

Are high-speed rail networks an instance of “If you build it, they will come”? Will travelers be wooed by comfy seats and more time to play on their smartphones? Perhaps. But without a much stronger political commitment from federal and local lawmakers (including Californians who didn’t like the idea of a train in their backyard), don’t count on seeing American bullet trains crisscrossing the country anytime soon. 

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