Quantcast

Will High-Speed Rail Ever Get on Track in the U.S.?

Insights + Opinion
An extended version of the Fuxing bullet train at the China National Railway Test Center on Oct. 15, 2018 in Beijing, China. VCG / VCG via Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

Is it just us?

Other countries don't seem to have a problem getting their high-speed rail systems on track. This superfast, fuel-efficient form of mass transit is wildly popular throughout Asia and the European Union. Japan's sleek Shinkansen line, the busiest high-speed rail system in the world, carries an estimated 420,000 riders every weekday. In China, the new Fuxing Hao bullet train now hurries more than 100 million passengers a year between Beijing and Shanghai at a top speed of 218 miles an hour, allowing its riders to make the trip of 775 miles — roughly the distance from New York City to Chicago — in about four and a half hours. Spain, Germany and France together have more than 4,500 miles of track dedicated to high-speed rail, over which more than 150 million passengers travel annually.


But here in the U.S., attempts to implement regional high-speed rail networks have floundered and faltered. The most recent setback was in California, where just last month the state's new governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that he would be dramatically downsizing an ambitious, exciting system linking the northern and southern portions of the state via a 220-mph bullet train. Cost overruns had more or less doubled the original price tag from roughly $40 billion to $77 billion, with some estimates placing the final bill at nearly $100 billion. As of right now, the previously planned 800-mile line between Los Angeles and San Francisco has dwindled to a $10.6 billion project across 171 miles between the rural Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Merced — what cynics have mockingly dubbed a "train to nowhere."

Meanwhile, in Texas, plans for a bullet train linking the state's two biggest cities, Dallas and Houston, are going forward — but not without plenty of resistance. Unlike the California project, the Texas Central Railroad's project, pegged at $12 billion to $20 billion, is being financed entirely with private funds, so no one is complaining about the money. Instead, the complaints come from landowners and other stakeholders upset about the seizure and purchase of privately owned tracts through eminent domain. In late January, a court ruled that Texas Central Railroad, in point of fact, isn't even a railroad in the legally recognized sense of the word, since it doesn't currently own anything by way of tracks or rolling stock. As a result, the company's reliance on eminent domain to obtain land for its future trains' right-of-way is misplaced — and illegal — according to the judge overseeing the case. (Texas Central Railroad must now face individual landowners in court.)

The friction these projects are encountering can take many forms, but there's no denying that it's real: A lot of Americans seem downright resistant to high-speed rail. To some, whatever benefits rail travel may confer to individual riders, cities or the environment can't ever be enough to offset the massive (and, typically, ballooning) costs to taxpayers during the construction period, which can stretch on for decades. To others, high-speed rail projects — no matter how they're funded — are little more than land grabs that punish rural communities in pursuit of what many perceive as an urbanist folly.

I can't help but wonder if behind both sentiments is a latent fear: that this form of mass transit, precisely because it's so popular in other cultures, somehow poses a threat to our own culture of rugged individualism. The history of American transportation conjures romantic images of the "lone rider" — in the past on horseback, now on a motorcycle or in a car — charting his or her own course out on the open road, free from interference or intervention. This notion often gets compressed into a shrugged assertion: Mass transit is a nice idea, but let's face it: America is a car culture. As a people, we just like to drive. We don't like to be driven.


Actually, if this was ever true, the data suggest it is less true now. Millennials, especially, are rejecting the romanticization of automobiles. According to a 2018 report published by Arity, a Chicago-based company that studies transportation data, more than half of millennials say that car ownership isn't worth the money or the hassle, and that they don't much care for driving anyway. It's worth noting that these are the same people who are currently leading the leading the public fight against climate change, refusing to accept the untenable status quo foisted upon them through the inaction of their elders.

This generation is also, not coincidentally, key to the future economic success of cities, states and regions. If you want to attract young, educated professionals to your city or town, you'd be wise to meet their demands for better and more plentiful public transportation.

Let's face it: When it comes to feelings about mass transit, young Americans appear to have more in common with Asian and European citizens of all ages than they do with older Americans. In anticipation of the day when they're calling the shots economically and politically — a day that's already dawning — we should be busy installing high-speed rail systems in all regions of the country where traffic congestion, pollution and the expenses associated with driving hinder travel between major cities and reduce the quality of life for their citizens.

Yes, we should be mindful of costs. Yes, we should be mindful of landowners' concerns. But should we allow these factors to derail us? Absolutely not.

Jeff Turrentine is the culture & politics columnist at NRDC's onEarth.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

"Take the pledge today." Screenshot / StopFoodWasteDay.com

Did you know that more than a third of food is wasted or thrown away every year? And that only 25 percent of it would be enough to feed the 795 million undernourished people in the world? That's why today is Stop Food Waste Day, a chance to reflect on what you can do to waste less of the food you buy.

Stop Food Waste Day is an initiative of food service company Compass Group. It was launched first in the U.S, in 2017 and went global the year after, making today it's second worldwide celebration.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15 in Paris, France. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

When Paris's Notre Dame caught fire on April 15, the flames threatened more than eight centuries of culture and history. The fire evoked shock, horror and grief worldwide. While the cathedral burned, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed determination to rebuild what the French regard as a sacred site.

Read More Show Less
An artist's impression of NASA's InSight lander on Mars. NASA / JPL-CALTECH

Scientists have likely detected a so-called marsquake — an earthquake on Mars — for the first time, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Hero Images / Getty Images

Across the political aisle, a majority of American parents support teaching climate change in schools even though most teachers currently do not.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Priit Siimon / flickr / cc

By Andrea Germanos

Lawyer and visionary thinker Polly Higgins, who campaigned for ecocide to be internationally recognized as a crime on par with genocide and war crimes, died Sunday at the age of 50.

She had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last month and given just weeks to live.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

An E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef has spread to 10 states and infected at least 156 people, CNN reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
The Anopheles stephensi mosquito, which carries malaria. CDC / Jim Gathany

The world's first malaria vaccine was launched in Malawi on Tuesday, NPR reported. It's an important day in health history. Not only is it the first malaria vaccine, it's the first vaccine to target any human parasite.

Read More Show Less