Why can't America have high-speed trains?

Story highlights

  • A Japanese maglev train has reached a speed of almost 400 mph
  • Michael Smart: Big barrier to improved U.S. rail service is lack of political will

Michael Smart is an assistant professor of transportation planning at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Imagine being able to travel from New York to Los Angeles without having to step on a plane, yet be able to do so in a fraction of the time it would take to drive. On the surface, that tantalizing prospect took a step closer with the news last month that a Japanese maglev train had reached a top speed of close to 400 mph, breaking its own world record in the process.

And the sight of futuristic looking trains whizzing past platforms at hundreds of miles per hour isn't confined to Japan: China, France and Spain, to name a few, have their own high-speed rail networks. Indeed, while these bullet trains may look futuristic, they have been around for decades; they're a tried and tested technology that the Japanese debuted over 50 years ago.
    So surely it's only a matter of time before large numbers of U.S. passengers are doing a daily commute to New York from Washington and Boston in about the time it would take them to drive to work in their own cities, right?
    Not anytime soon.
    While several countries have undertaken the tough work of raising the money to invest in bullet trains, it's unlikely the United States will ever see the vast network of high-speed trains that blanket other countries. Indeed, passenger rail service in the United States lags behind much of the rest of the developed world, for several reasons.
    For a start, much of the United States is not exactly an ideal market for high-speed rail. Compared to places where rail really flourishes -- Japan and Western Europe, for instance -- the United States is geographically vast. As a result, in much of the country, cities are far enough apart that air travel provides significant time savings, even compared to some of the fastest trains.
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    The layout of cities matters, too. When you arrive in Tokyo, Paris or Barcelona, it's often convenient (and even pleasant) to walk to your final destination. When it's not, a fast and frequent mass transportation system awaits to whisk you away. This is not the case in many American cities, where arriving by train typically means jumping into a cab or renting a car for the last leg of your journey. Simply put, in many sprawling U.S. cities, getting to your destination by train can still mean you've got quite a way yet to get home. We could change that. And we probably should. But we're not there yet.
    Still, there are several parts of the United States where high-speed rail makes a great deal of sense.
    The Northeast Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) comes in at the top of just about every list of potential candidates for high-speed rail, with the distances involved being considered within the "Goldilocks" zone for fast trains. For example, at just over 200 miles from New York to both Boston and Washington, fast trains could compete with even faster airplanes by offering centrally located stations and providing an alternative to the hassle of airport security lines. These cities are dense, have strong downtowns, and extensive mass transit systems once you arrive.
    Just as importantly, rail on the Northeast Corridor can also compete with driving, mainly because traffic congestion makes driving in the region so slow and unreliable, while tolls and parking costs can make it an expensive and time-consuming option. Rail in the northeast even has a great track record; after Amtrak's almost-high-speed Acela service began on the Northeast Corridor in 2000, ridership exploded, quickly outstripping air travel between New York and Washington.
    However, the biggest barrier to improved rail service in the United States is simply the lack of political will. At the federal level, support for passenger rail service has languished and Washington has devolved decision-making (and increasingly, funding) to the states. With the nation's transportation trust fund nearly broke and no permanent solution in sight, it seems unlikely the federal government will champion high-speed rail -- a costly endeavor -- in the near future.
    Without leadership from the federal government, the states are largely in control. Yet many of the most promising corridors for high-speed rail cross state lines, making it difficult to plan for better rail service. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded nearly a billion dollars of stimulus money to plan and upgrade a high-speed rail line connecting Chicago to Milwaukee and Madison. A year later, Scott Walker, the newly elected governor of Wisconsin, rejected his state's portion of the money and the project was, for the time being, at least, derailed. (The money quickly found its way to a grateful California for its high-speed rail line.)
    Still, all is not lost for those hoping to see high-speed rail in the United States.
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    California is committed to building its high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, paying for the line largely with state money raised by a new cap-and-trade market on carbon emissions. Several privately funded projects are also in the planning stages. For instance, a Dallas-to-Houston line promises 205 mph service in 2021 without a single dollar from the taxpayer. Meanwhile, another private company has already begun construction on a Miami-to-Orlando line with a more modest speed of 125 mph, with service expected to begin in 2017.
    All this points to how high-speed rail will likely progress in the United States: piecemeal. It is doubtful that we will have a nationwide system of fast trains soon. And this is not necessarily a bad thing; through a combination of private and public action, we should target markets where high-speed rail makes sense. That means looking for shorter corridors connecting dense places with existing mass transit infrastructure.
    High-speed rail won't be cheap, so we'll have to choose wisely. Some of the most promising corridors are also the most expensive; Amtrak estimates upgrading the Northeast Corridor to true high-speed rail would cost upward of $150 billion. Such an undertaking requires careful consideration of the economic, environmental and other costs and benefits of individual projects. But more importantly, it requires the kind of long-term planning that seems to have become vanishingly rare.
    Thankfully, high-speed rail doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. And while given the choice I would rather be riding Japan's speeding bullet trains, even the incremental improvements we've seen in services like Amtrak's Acela can make rail travel a lot more appealing for the hundreds of thousands of passengers who rely on it every year.