Faster, Cleaner Passenger Trains - Can America Ever Catch Up?
France recently made international headlines by banning short-haul domestic flights. The ban applies to routes where travelers can get to their destinations in under two hours and 30 minutes by train. France's decision on its own is not likely to reduce global carbon emissions much. That would require larger nations, like the US, to follow suit. But unlike France, which has one of the most advanced high-speed rail (HSR) networks in the world, America is lagging behind.
Can the US catch up? And is the country even interested in that? Here's what investors should know about the current state, potential future, and challenges facing passenger rail transport in the US.
The Current State of US Passenger Rail Transport
Prior to the Civil War, the US had a robust passenger rail system. However, after cars were invented, the technology improved rapidly. That, combined with factors like mass production and cheap fuel, encouraged people to move to suburbs without train stations nearby. A few decades later, the aviation industry’s success led to further disinvestment in passenger rail.
In the 1970s, passenger rail services were nationalized and transferred to Amtrak, a government-owned corporation. Because it’s been underfunded since its inception, Amtrak has struggled to attract investors and improve its services. This means passenger rail ridership in America is low, with just 20 million passengers per year, and most Americans think rail transport is slow, unreliable, and unpleasant.
In 2021, President Biden’s infrastructure bill was the first positive indication of the government's commitment to improving passenger rail in recent memory. It included an extraordinary $170 billion to improve the nation’s railroad infrastructure. This investment aims to upgrade our failing railway system so it is on par with other countries' high-speed rail networks.
Challenges to Passenger Rail Transport in the US
However, the nation faces significant hurdles making Biden administration’s vision a reality. First, the US is much bigger than France. Also, short-haul flights make up half of the domestic market. These are extremely profitable flights for those airlines, which have invested money, time, equipment, and personnel in these routes. Unfortunately, right now HSR routes are not competitive at that length.
And although the US has the most extensive rail network in the world, it’s almost all freight routes; it doesn't currently have any high-speed passenger rail systems. Investing in short train routes, therefore, doesn’t have as much of an ROI as investing in automobile and airline infrastructure does. It will take extensive political support and investment to build the necessary high-speed rail transportation infrastructure.
Rail will have to compete with powerful fossil fuel, automobile, and aviation lobbies within the political system. And overcoming travelers’ perception of rail transport as unreliable and slow will also require a significant investment in time and money. Finally, the lack of an robust rail network means there aren’t many trained rail workers in America. Establishing a rail network will require dedicated training programs to scale up the labor pool.
Advantages of High-Speed Rail Services for the US
Despite the above challenges, the American Public Transport Association lists these advantages of HSR implementation:
1. Job Creation. Every billion dollars invested will create 24,000 highly skilled jobs. Additionally, the increased economic boon will create further employment opportunities.
2. Increased Economic Activity. Every $1 invested will realize $4 in economic returns by connecting economic mega-regions and generating productivity along the corridors.
3. Reduced Congestion. Building more highways and runways won't be enough to address future population growth. Congestion currently costs $140 billion in lost time and productivity.
4. Reduced Emissions and Dependence on Foreign Oil. HSR is eight times more fuel efficient than air travel and four times more efficient than traveling by automobile. This will reduce reliance on oil and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
5. Improved Mobility. HSR can be even faster than air travel. It will also help connect rural and small urban communities.
Current HRS Projects
As with many clean tech innovations, California is leading the way when it comes to HSR. Ground has been broken on the California High Speed Rail (CHSR) through the San Joaquin Valley. The project has had several setbacks since first being proposed in 1996, but now it employs ten thousand people. Planned to be ready in 2030, the 171-mile line will join Merced to Bakersfield and run up to 220 mph.
Upgrades on either end could allow high-speed trains to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas (350 miles) in just 2 hours and 40 minutes. Depending on its final scope, the CHSR could increase the state’s transportation capacity by the equivalent of 4,200 new highway miles, 91 new airport gates, and two new runways for a fraction of the cost.
Earlier this year, plans were solidified for the construction of a 218-mile high-speed line between the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Cucamonga and Las Vegas. It will follow the Interstate 15 corridor through the San Bernardino Mountains and across the desert. By traveling at speeds of 200 mph, the line will reduce the four-hour car journey (or seven-hour bus trip) to just over an hour. It will also be the first passenger line in Las Vegas in 30 years.
High Potential Future Rail Corridors
Several corridors successful, well-traveled HSR lines are suggested by the data. One example is a possible corridor from Dallas to Oklahoma City, with a proposed connection from Oklahoma City to Kansas City. Other potentially lucrative corridors include Atlanta and Charlotte and Chicago to Indianapolis.
If HSR became established in the US, travelers would have access to a faster, more eco-friendly mode of transportation. However, as the US moves forward, developing a modern passenger rail system will take time and strategic effort. As we race to catch up to Europe and Asia's highly developed rail systems, it remains to be seen how we will perform based on the necessary financial investment and political will.