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Do we need "High-Speed" Passenger Trains in the US?



It has been 60 years since the inauguration of the world's first high-speed railway, the Shinkansen, in Japan in 1964. In Europe, high-speed rail networks between major cities are well established, centered around Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. On the other hand, in the United States, the only high-speed rail segment is the 456-mile stretch between Boston, New York, and Washington DC. Its maximum speed of 150 miles per hour is relatively slow compared to other high-speed railways.



Why there was no “High-Speed” Passenger Trains in the US?


1. Freight-focused railway systems

In the United States, there's lots of land, so people spread out after automobiles became popular. So, trains for passengers started losing out. Later, planes came along and pretty much took over for long trips, and automobiles for short ones. That's when things slowed down for passenger trains.


After the widespread availability of cars and airplanes caused a sharp decline in demand for passenger trains, many railway & transportation companies withdrew from passenger rail operations and focused solely on freight railway businesses that were more profitable. As a result, they ended up hindering the development of railway infrastructure in the United States.


2. Minimal Investment in Infrastructure

The railway network in the US is huge, but railway& transportation companies haven't been keen on upgrading it with better technology or building high-quality tracks. As a result, the infrastructure hasn't improved much. Freight trains, though, have kept up their game by using big trains to carry lots of stuff, giving them a competitive edge against cars and planes. But, as these big freight trains started rolling on old tracks without enough room for passenger trains, the facilities for passengers suffered, making passenger trains even less competitive.

 


Why has it failed previously?


The high-speed rail project in California received approval from the US government in 2010, securing approximately $4 billion in funding over two years. Approval for construction was granted in 2012 by then-California Governor Jerry Brown. Starting in 2014, the project began to gain momentum as it received around 25% of the profits from carbon credit trading with the California state government. Finally, construction commenced in 2015 on the segment connecting Merced to Bakersfield in the Central Valley.


However, when Donald Trump became president in 2016, there was a federal funding cut, leading to budget issues. Due to lackluster progress and declining interest from residents, Governor Gavin Newsom, who took office in 2019, suspended the project.


Facing numerous obstacles such as budget constraints over the years, progress was sluggish. The COVID-19 further delayed construction in 2020.


It served as a prime example showcasing the dismal state of federal infrastructure projects in the United States.



Why do we still need it?


1. It’s fast

It connects city centers quickly, saving time. While planes are faster, the whole process of security checks and boarding, plus getting to and from airports, takes time. The US High-Speed Rail Association says that if they build a high-speed rail from downtown San Francisco to downtown LA, it would only take 3 hours and 10 minutes, much quicker than flying (5 hours and 20 minutes) or driving (7 hours and 20 minutes).


2. It’s eco-friendly

In the context of climate change, high-speed trains are environmentally friendly transportation powered by electricity. Therefore, there's a strong argument for expanding high-speed rail networks and reducing air travel, which emits a lot of carbon dioxide. According to officials from the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), recent studies show that the carbon dioxide emissions per passenger traveling from Boston to New York by rail are 25.3kg, which is less than traveling by bus (26.7kg), car (135kg), or plane (141.1kg).


3. It boosts the domestic economy & helps to stabilize housing prices

It also includes expectations for economic stimulus. Building railways creates many jobs on-site, and there's a growing need for personnel to manufacture and maintain high-speed trains.

The US High-Speed Rail Association states that constructing high-speed rail allows people to live further from major cities where there are good job opportunities, which helps stabilize housing prices.



So what’s the status of “high-speed” train development in the US now?


Initiatives to establish 'high-speed' train connections between major cities nationwide are underway, with projects breaking ground and Amtrak conducting trials for faster trains in the Northeast.


Additionally, the Biden administration has unveiled a $6 billion investment plan aimed at introducing 'world-class high-speed rail' and initiating new passenger rail routes across the nation, starting from California again.




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