Off the Rails

Train travel in the United States is notoriously difficult. Is that a symbol of stagnation and political gridlock, or a small price to pay for progress in other aspects of American life?

When you think about how California’s been failing to build a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2008, it’s legitimately shocking to consider the state of train travel in, say, China. In just about that same time, China “has expanded their high-speed rail network from almost nothing to over 16,696 miles,” writes CNET, a number that accounts for “65 percent of the total amount” of high-speed rail in the entire world.

But instead of viewing the train situation in the United States as a failure, there are those who see it as almost a point of civic pride. To some, America’s inability to build high-speed trains — which are vastly more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly than cars and airplanes — is a symptom of the success of our economic history and the righteousness of our political system.

“Our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America,” concludes one columnist, Megan McArdle. That’s because to reach their full potential, high-speed trains need to go in as straight a line as possible, which means buying up all the necessary land between stations. In America, that land is extremely expensive — and the government has to compensate landowners when they take it. Even then, in America, those claims get endlessly tied up in court.

To thinkers like McArdle, these facts are proof of “our limits on government power, our democratic political system, and the fact that we’re already rich enough to have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure.” “All in all,” she writes, “I think these things are more valuable than even a really cool train system.”

She might have a point. Democracy and prosperity? Those are good things. But it’s the holidays — and Americans are all stuck at the airports, reading about Greta Thunberg and worrying about carbon emissions. Who could possibly feel so positive?

Shanghai’s Maglev train — “the fastest commercial service in the world.”

In 1987, a despairing filmmaker held a mirror up to America’s dystopian travel realities. In a 90-minute montage of devastated families and deadened dreams, he made his point: travel between New York and Chicago was just not feasible.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was heralded by critics as a “hilarious and touching… albeit predictable” comedy, but the idea that it’s just as predictable today means it’s almost more tragedy than romp. In America, holidays are still a mad dash by plane, car, or (outdated, slow, ineffective) locomotive. Meanwhile, in China, a high-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai — almost the very same distance as that from New York to Chicago — takes just about five hours.

A slow rail network isn’t just the inevitable price of a democratic government. Look at the successful systems in Japan and Europe. McArdle argues that America is particularly litigious — hard to deny, and in the face of eminent domain, a significant point — but there are other explanations, too, for the lack of rail options compared to democratic counterparts.

One of the more depressing reasons, and the one that argues most directly against a sunnier view of our stalled train system, is the army of oil and air travel lobbyists focused on stopping any rail progress before it begins. The outsized influence of money in American politics makes it harder to believe that this is merely a healthy feature of a well-oiled democratic system. McArdle acknowledges this herself, writing that “other countries have crony capitalism, of course, but the downside of our highly decentralized government… is that almost anyone can get a few cronies together and grab some politician’s ear.”

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
A still from the celebrated documentary, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”

A less shadowy, more logistically-minded rationale is simply that our big cities aren’t close enough together to make train travel profitable. “A general rule is that if a train journey takes around four hours or less, it’s faster to take the train than to fly.” From CNET: “This is because trains get you directly to a city center, whereas flying takes time to get to the airport, time at the airport, the flight itself and time from the airport, all that have to be included when considering total travel time.”

Tokyo and Osaka. Paris and Lyon. Florence and Rome. These are the type of major, adjacent population centers that make trains extremely effective, and Americans abroad love to return from those routes and ask why they can’t have that same convenience between their hometowns. The United States is so vast, the argument goes, that trains between our major hubs could never match the convenience of the air. No one would take them.

But then, if China could build high speed rail across a distance equivalent to New York–Chicago, why couldn’t the United States?

In Foreign Policy magazine terms, “Unique among today’s major world powers, China has the dubious advantage of being able to draw train lines at its pleasure while ignoring free market pressures.” In layman’s terms, China’s leaders can push through projects even if they that won’t very explicitly pay for themselves.

Take, for example, a tale of two stimuli. After pledging over $146 billion for train projects in 2008, China “simply signaled to banks that infrastructure projects… would be approved. Lending targets were increased and interest rates were decreased, and Chinese banks financed a spurt of construction.” The next year, President Obama “guaranteed $8 billion total in matching funds to any states” willing to build high-speed rail. Subsequently, for a variety of motivations in which phrases like “federal largesse,” “$10 billion in boondoggles,” and “taxpayers on the hook” were cited by train-resistant politicians, “Republican governors killed high-speed rail projects in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin.”

The reasons China’s built its trains are myriad — to improve shipping routes, to stimulate the economy, for national pride. But no matter how many benefits trains might provide a country, what it comes down to for the purpose of this lament is simple:

America can’t build them like China.

Vice President Joe Biden with Senator Arlen Specter on the Acela Express.

By now it’s time for the the obvious rebuttal — forget about the difficulty of linking New York and Chicago. What about San Francisco and Los Angeles? Dallas and Houston? How about Boston and D.C.?

America’s only high speed rail — Amtrak’s Acela — does link Boston with the capital. But on that route, the train averages 68 mph. In Europe and Asia, trains routinely reach 200 mph. To go faster, Amtrak lines would need costly upgrades, which means securing “tricky rights of way for new tracks and billions in new federal funding.”

Once again, it’s about the money and political capital.

So how did the Japanese and the Europeans pull it off? In some cases, high-speed trains are just a product of the right investment at the right time. “After World War II,” explains TIME, “many countries focused on building modern rail networks after their existing lines were destroyed.”

The United States also focused on infrastructure after World War II. But if you know America, you know our obsession with shiny things that run on four wheels and gas. John Hughes didn’t just write Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. He also wrote National Lampoon’s Vacation, an ode to the classic, post-war American cross-country car ride. “In the sprawling U.S.,” continues TIME, “with many cities hundreds or thousands of miles apart, resources flowed toward improving air links and roads.”

We didn’t modernize our rail system after World War II. Instead, we built the interstate.

Amtrak’s scenic but slow Empire Builder route from Chicago to the West Coast.

“Transportation — planes, cars, shipping — is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.” But zoom in and you’ll see that not every member of the transportation trinity — planes, trains, and automobiles — places the same burden on the environment. According to Vox, “trains carry 8 percent of the world’s motorized passengers and 7 percent of freight, yet use just 2 percent of the energy consumed in the transportation sector.” No matter how you look at it, we need more of them.

But if it all comes down to money and political will, America’s priority has just never been high-speed rail. A few of the buzziest words in modern locomotion are hoping to change all of that: the hyperloop and the Green New Deal.

Elon Musk’s hyperloop is definitively not high-speed rail, but it might work in a similar way in practice, launching “‘convoys’ of ‘pods’ that would leave the hub together and wind up in different destinations.” No matter what, it’s years away. The Green New Deal, meanwhile, promises similarly groundbreaking concepts for revolutionizing American travel, as its leaders say they aim to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.”

These are both massive ideas requiring massive public and private support. But — even though America can’t build like China — so was the interstate system. Instead of celebrating the wealth and democracy that hinders progress, isn’t it even more positive to challenge those things to do the opposite?

Truthfully, work on American high-speed rail is already underway. In California, Las Vegas, Texas, and the Northeast, new tracks and upgrades have all been proposed, and they’re all going through the financial and legal system with various degrees of promise. In many cases, the private sector is picking up to do what the government hasn’t.

Yes, the train of progress is chugging along in America. The problem is, it’s an Amtrak. With the sustainability problems we’re facing today, that might not be fast enough.