Is high-speed rail the future of U.S. transportation?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The elements of President Biden’s massive infrastructure plan are so broad, the proposal has sparked a debate over just how far the definition of the word "infrastructure" can stretch. One of the biggest surprises to infrastructure experts, however, was something that isn’t in the plan: High-speed rail.

Many transportation observers believed Biden might be the president to bring the super-fast trains, common in Europe and Asia, to the United States. Famous for commuting to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak during his days in the Senate, Biden has called for a “second great railroad revolution” and had championed high-speed rail projects while serving as vice president. Biden’s pick for transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, has said he wants the U.S. to be “leading the world” in high-speed rail.

The infrastructure bill does include $80 billion to improve and expand the nation’s railroads, on top of $85 billion for public transit in general. But at the moment, none of those funds are designated for high-speed rail projects.

The world’s first high-speed rail line began operating in Japan in 1964. Today that country has a network of trains that carry more than 420,000 riders on a typical weekday at speeds of over 200 mph. A series of high-speed rail systems connect Europe’s major cities. China has poured enormous sums into developing the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network — with more than 23,000 miles of track and trains that top out at 267 mph. Although American presidents have expressed interest in high-speed rail since as far back as the 1960s, no trains currently operating in the U.S. can reach 200 mph.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for high-speed rail say the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries, where super-fast trains allow for efficient, reliable travel between cities. Supporters say clusters of high-speed railways connecting urban centers in the Northeast, the South and the West Coast would boost the economy by cutting workers’ commuting times and spurring development along train lines. Many environmentalists argue that high-speed rail could reduce Americans’ reliance on auto and plane travel, a major step in combating climate change.

Skeptics, however, say that high-speed rail isn’t the right solution for America. They argue that the nation’s specific conditions — like the significant distance between major cities, the difficulty of securing land along train routes and the high cost of infrastructure projects — make creating a nationwide high-speed rail system unfeasible. They point to California, where a bold plan for lines running from San Francisco to San Diego has been dramatically scaled back after years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns.

What’s next

For now, Biden’s plan appears focused on improving the country’s traditional rail infrastructure, though negotiations among lawmakers could change the specifics of the proposal substantially before it reaches a vote in Congress.

California’s smaller train line, which would become America’s first high-speed rail service, could be completed by 2029.



High-speed rail would fuel economic growth

“While a long, slow train ride across the country can be a great thing, the US needs real high-speed rail too. That’s especially true between big cities that are close to each other but currently require hours of driving or the hassle of a flight to move between. ... These cities form one of the great economic and political corridors of the entire world. They should have a reliable and super-fast bullet train zipping between them.” — Gabriel Leigh, Forbes

America has fallen behind the rest of the world

“Rail is a microcosm of America’s growing infrastructure investment needs. … And compared to other advanced nations, the U.S. system is painfully outdated.” — Eugene Daniels, Politico

More train passengers means less car traffic

“Major metropolitan areas in the U.S. are in serious need of an overhaul when it comes to transportation infrastructure. … Investments into a high-speed rail system wouldn’t just improve the railroads — automobile traffic could also see some relief.” — Lawrence Banton, Cheddar

The U.S. needs big transportation solutions that highways can’t provide

“We’ve gone for a long time starving infrastructure, transportation in particular. We need big ideas. We need to think like it’s 1932. It’s time to invest in fundamental pieces of infrastructure that work for everybody. … In the Northeast, there just isn’t the room to build more highways. Our destiny has got to be moving people more efficiently.” — Transportation development advocate Douglas McGarrah to CT Mirror

High-speed rail is crucial to curbing climate change

“This is the larger existential question: How can the United States rise to meet the challenges posed by climate change and continue to be a leader in economic and technological innovation if it can’t rise above personal squabbles and local politics to build a single high-speed rail line.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Train travel is more pleasant than cars or planes

“I am obsessed with trains. I love trains. I think trains are the most civilized way to travel.” — Joy Reid, MSNBC


High-speed rail is a fantasy

“Determining the best way to deploy finite government spending on infrastructure upgrades requires a serious analysis of the costs and benefits of different projects — not daydreaming about how cool trains are.” — Eric Boehm, Reason

Many of America’s big cities are too far apart to connect with rail lines

“In other places of the world, such as China, Europe and Japan, major population centers are much closer to each other. And big cities that are reasonably close together is pretty much a prerequisite for high-speed rail, which is why they have it and we don’t. Imagine what it would take to build a line from New York City to Los Angeles — or to Chicago, Houston or Phoenix.” — Megan McArdle, Washington Post

There isn’t a large enough customer base to support expensive rail projects

“Most riders of Chinese high-​speed trains were previously riders of conventional trains — the trains attracted few if any out of cars or airplanes. Amtrak doesn’t carry enough passengers to justify high‐​speed trains.” — Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute

The money would be better spent on improving local railway systems

“We don't have nearly enough commuter rails for most families to justify selling their cars. Liberals are right that America has a car problem — but it's commutes, not road trips, that suck. This means dropping the grand goals of red-eye rail rides between Seattle and Manhattan and instead getting people to their jobs.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner

Building a nationwide high-speed rail system would consume too many resources

“High-speed rail is bold and attention-grabbing, but the scale of the project makes it near impossible.” — Gabby Birenbaum, Vox

Emerging green technologies will make high-speed rail unnecessary

“By the time any significant high-speed rail project begins service in the United States, it is likely that a large proportion of new cars will be electric, thereby limiting carbon savings from additional passenger rail service.” — Marc Joffe, The Hill

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images