High Speed Trains In The U.S.: A Matter Of Efficiency

High Speed Trains In The U.S.
High Speed Trains In The U.S.

With the high speed rail debate officially jumping the tracks into the political arena, American citizens are left to sort through the onslaught of bureaucratic bantering which so often leads to misinformation. The question that’s causing tempers to flare on both sides is whether the government should be funding high speed rail projects across the nation. Many believe that high speed rail is vital to the future of transportation in America.  Yet, all politics aside, is it even feasible now to consider that the U.S. could develop a framework of true and efficient high speed rail?

U.S. GG1 Electric Train From the 50s
U.S. GG1 Electric Train From the 50s

At one time, we had the best passenger rail system in the world. But while other countries like France, England, Japan, and China were building their high speed rail lines, the U.S. placed priorities in the auto and airline industries. Now we’re left with crumbling train stations, watching while the price of gas inches toward that $5 a gallon mark. In an effort to play catch-up with those countries in Europe and Asia, the U.S. government is ready to build a high speed rail infrastructure. The question is not should we have high speed rail that rivals the rest of the world (because we should) but can we do it the right way so that the U.S. gets the most benefit out of this most efficient form of travel.

If We Build It, They Will Come

America 2050 Map
America 2050 Map

According to this report, 9 out of 10 Americans are open to long distance high speed train travel in the United States. America 2050, a national committee devoted to the renewing of the country’s deteriorating infrastructure, talks about an efficiency gap that exists in American transportation when it comes to traveling a distance of 200 to 400 miles. With trains being 3 times as energy efficient as cars and 6 times that of planes per passenger mile, high speed rail can more than fill that gap.

The map above shows the outcome of a recent study by America 2050 on the rail corridors that showed the highest potential for ridership. The darker the red lines, the higher score those routes received. We can also look to Amtrak to predict the success of ridership for high speed trains in the U.S. Last year marked a new annual ridership record for Amtrak, with every route carrying more passengers. And Amtrak doesn’t even operate efficiently. As pointed out in this article, not everyone has to use a community service in order to benefit from it.

Dedicated High Speed Train Tracks: The Key To Efficient Train Travel

Freight Locomotive Assisting Amtrak
Freight Locomotive Assisting Amtrak

For a high speed train to run most efficiently it needs its’ own track. Many current governmental high speed rail projects are calling for trains to run on the already existing network of tracks owned and operated by the nation’s freight railroads. Not only would this cause a slow down of freight trains since they’d have to give the right of way to high speed trains, but the safety issues involved would be unparalleled. Of course the freight railroads aren’t psyched about the idea and are preparing to derail the plans before they get started as explained in this WSJ article. The U.S. has the largest and most successful freight rail system in the world. It would be detrimental to jeopardize this industry in an attempt to get another one up and running due to time and money restraints.

Yet another problem in running on existing track would be the fact that this would not be true high speed rail.  Under current rules set forth by the Federal Railroad Administration, trains cannot exceed 89 mph. Even if the Surface Transportation Board, who overlook the nation’s railways, is willing to raise the maximum train speeds, the freight railroads still have the right to set their own limitations and CSX has already said they won’t allow passenger trains to travel over 90 mph on their tracks. Not exactly the high speed bullet trains we’re used to hearing about in France and China that exceed speeds of 220 mph. The entire design and structure of a high speed train would have to meet guidelines set forth by the FRA in order to run on the same track with a freight train as shown in the above picture where an Amtrak engine needed assistance from a freight engine. Also railroad crossings are designed to safely handle freight trains that typically only run at 50-60 mph.

France's TGV
France's TGV

Anyone who has ever ridden the TGV in France will tell you that it is a smooth and comfortable ride. This is because the train runs on smooth welded track that sits on a concrete base rather than wooden rail ties. According to French rail executive, Denis Doute, who is interested in investing in high speed rail in Texas, the operating costs of a true high speed rail line “are only slightly higher than that of a conventional rail line“. Doute advises the U.S. to have the highest aspirations when it comes to train speed. After all, we already accomplished the 100 mph electric train service back in the 40s and 50s. As he states, “It makes no sense to build rail lines that don’t do better than that”. It should also be noted that there has never been a fatality on a French or Japanese high speed train. All of these issues point to the need of dedicated high speed track to run these trains in the efficient way they are meant to operate.

High Speed Rail In California


The California High-Speed Rail Authority may be on the right track, so to speak, in creating the nation’s first true high speed rail line. It will run on 800 miles of electrified track with speeds up to 220 mph and will be emissions free. Though still in the planning stages, the project is on a schedule to be completed by 2030. The plan involves connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco by building new track, but also by using some existing track along the way. This is where costs could get exorbitant as developers attempt to reach agreements with the freight railroads and may even be forced to purchase land due to eminent domain. However, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to seeking guidance from experienced developers of high speed rail.

For more on high speed rail in California click here.

For more on high speed rail projects across the U.S. see here.

5 thoughts on “High Speed Trains In The U.S.: A Matter Of Efficiency”

  1. I am a fan as well and can’t wait to use the rail for travel. One thing about trains however as can be seen by the poor planning of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is that the train is usable to folks close to the rail. Building a separate infrastructure for bicycles that allows for safe bike lanes and storage will enhance these endeavors significantly. Securing bikes both on and off of the trains will expand the rails usable width by 5 miles around each station for a majority of riders.

  2. I am definitely a fan of rail travel. However, I think there is one important difference between the states and Europe which must be considered when looking at the convenience of rail travel. The US simply does not have the public transportation options that are available in Europe. Taking a train in the northeast is definitely an option as the bus and metro systems are very convenient in many of those cities. With a driving time of 3.5 hours, taking a train from Austin to Dallas, on the other hand, is less appealing. Upon arriving, most travelers would be required to rent a car to get around. Many travelers will simply choose to drive in order to have the convience of their own car when they arrive. Unfortately, many US cities are simply too spread out for a metro and bus system to function efficiently. As I mentioned, I love the idea of a rail system and I think it has it’s applications, but I don’t know that it is the solution for the entire country.

  3. This is the best article I have read about train travel being in our future here in the USA. We have a need to get caught up and at least equal Europe and some of the rest of the world!
    Everyone talks about saving energy and more efficient travel means, rail travel would greatly assist in reducing our carbon footprint.
    Whether traveling for business or pleasure, rail travel should be the focus of our future.
    Thanks for this great article and raising awareness of the great need of rail travel….. the spotlight of our future for travel

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