Why Not High-Speed Trains?

A retired pilot of my acquaintance told me the other day how to start solving the nation’s air travel problems: high-speed rail.

A robust and reliable network of high-speed trains would alleviate air congestion by reducing the number of small, regional jets hopping among cities in the same region. The trains could carry passengers rapidly from one city center to another, alleviating highway congestion between airports and downtowns. 

The United States already has one high-speed rail service – depending on how you define high-speed rail. Amtrak’s Acela Express can reach speeds of 150 mph on its trip between Boston and Washington, but it travels at an average of less than half that because of track limitations.

Still, the Acela Express is the fastest train in the country – and it operates at a profit.

It would be difficult for Amtrak to replicate the Acela’s service elsewhere because the Northeast Corridor is unlike its other rail routes. In the Northeast, Amtrak owns most of its  tracks. Almost everywhere else it must use tracks owned by freight lines.

Amtrak’s dismal on-time record is, apparently, a direct reflection of this circumstance. In the Northeast, Amtrak’s trains arrive on schedule 86 percent of the time. Outside the Northeast Corridor, on long-distance routes where Amtrak shares the rails with slower freight trains, that drops to 42 percent.

Not surprisingly, a  recent study by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general concluded that Amtrak would lose less money if its trains were on time.

Anyway, it’s pretty clear that new, high-speed rail in the United States will have to involve new, high-speed track. If built to European standards (which means not only high-speed track but lighter trains) we could see sustained speeds over 200 mph.

It’s an expensive proposition, but not an unimaginable one.

Voters in California will decide in November whether to spend $10 billion to jump-start a $42 billion plan for bullet trains that would travel at 220 mph, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours.

There’s also talk of a mag-lev train that could carry passengers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in less than an hour.

There could be more. In 2002, the Federal Railroad Administration designated 10 potential high-speed rail corridors, including a new one between Washington and Boston.

Throw in some light commuter rail, and I can ditch the car and the airport.




6 thoughts on “Why Not High-Speed Trains?

  1. AlanB

    Acela does not operate at a profit. Never has, and it’s unlikely that it ever will.
    Acela does cover it’s operating costs based upon the last set of numbers that I saw, but factor in its capital costs and Acela looses big bucks.
    That said, it is still a good service and a desperatly needed service in this country. We definately need more high speed corridors just like Acela. Just don’t expect them to be profitable either.

  2. Gary Trolley

    Amtrak was a political compromise. Only when the airlines or other companies see the ability to make a profit by moving people by rail will there be a significant move in that direction. Today the governments subsidize the real cost of auto transportation and parking. We don’t even realize how much we are being helped to drive by so much help coming from other taxes. Only when people ask honest questions and expect honest answers will there be the possibility of good quality high speed rail.

  3. Nik N

    In reality, airlines also do not operate at a profit and never will. They depend on governmental subsidies and infrastructure, and are still continuously going bankrupt while providing barebones service. Nor do highways turn a profit, as the investment from government is immense, on top of all the oil subsidies we provide. That said, no system of intercity transportation is really too profitable. But the one closest to breakeven, and the one with the greatest capacity, least environmental impact, and least use of land is high speed rail – that’s why we need it.

  4. Martin Engel

    Jeanne, if I may, I’ll tell you why not. Because in the United States, even in the Northeast corridor, inter-city high speed trains will not do what all their advocates persistently claim, reduce vehicle and air traffic.
    Vehicle traffic has been somewhat reduced with urban and greater metropolitan multi-modal mass transit systems. In many cities, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles, urban traffic is a nightmare and in neither region is there a comprehensive network transit system.
    In both those population centers there are a myriad of transit providers, each doing their own thing and castigating the rest for seeking more capital and operational funding and subsidy support. That’s where the problems are, and will be, and that’s where the mass transit solutions need to be, but aren’t.
    Actually, high-speed trains in most parts of the world are luxury trains. They are expensive to ride and serve the well to do. Furthermore, they are poor investments, which, despite claims to the contrary, are money losers, subsidized by their governments.
    High-speed trains have become the media darlings, eagerly pursued by the developers, contractors and rail bureaucrats. But, despite their enormous and skyrocketing development costs, in the US will become an additional expense burden on taxpayers. In most, if not all cases, they are pork-barrel politics at their worst, boondoggles that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

  5. Andre Peretti

    Contrary to what Mr Engel says the French TGV (high-speed train) is not subsidized. In fact, it makes huge profits (billions), which even shocks left-wing politicians who consider it immoral for the state to get money from a public service. In fact, the SNCF (French railways) is run like a private business and calculates its fares to capture 80% of the market. When airlines lower their fares, the SNCF does the same. In 2010, it will have to compete with trains run by budget airlines because railways will be deregulated in Europe. This will be the end of short-haul flights.
    I suspect Mr Engel’s reasons are the NIMBY kind, but he is very clever in presenting his fictions like verified facts

  6. Ven

    Weren’t Mr. Engel’s “derail HSR” comments already refuted in his last post/article “Why the California High-Speed Rail plan is fundamentally flawed” ?
    I guess it has spread over here now.


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