Off the Rails

The True Cost of Train Travel in America

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.


  1. The hidden costs of burning fossil fuels by cars and airplanes are almost never included in the financial calculations about transport: healthcare costs related to air pollution and lack of exercise due to door-to-door transport between home and work and home delivery of goods; environmental damage affecting us today and generations after us. It could be also argued that that several of the military conflicts in which US has been involved in the last decades that caused much death and disease and huge costs, have been at least partly about access to oil. Ruining the ecology, especially in pristine parts of US, by more fossil fuels produced locally has also massive long term costs associated with it.
    If such factors were taken into consideration instead of the short term focus on costs of development of world class public transport in US, then we would come up with very different solutions. Perhaps, making railroads with the associated costs of buying land is not the entire solution but railway modernization combined with parts of freeways converted for use by trains and by other fast electric autonomous vehicles with centralized transport planning that would make the maximum usage of these 24/7 would put US at the forefront of advanced global transport development. And provide a much healthier environment for us and the future generations!

  2. It is really a sad commentary on the progress that we are capable of, yet we are stagnant. Why? Because we have idiots in power who want the airlines to make more money, not considering what it is doing to the environment.
    Need faster railroads, why not have either the GVErmans or the Chinese come here and build them. More people would rather use the trains than go through the hustle of long airport lines and extreme discomfort on long trips sitting with two other people alongside you. On a train, you can get up, be comfortable and in the long run the amount of time you spend at the airport, you can be on a train. Wake up America, this country’s economy really depends on a great rail system.

  3. This country was explored and built because of the railroads. Unfortunately many railroad barons were greedy and evil corporate rulers, and the railroads got a bad name for being these evil entities. Now its the airlines that have taken over as evil corporate entities – same old story! I agree with what Kurt has stated and with what Igor has written as well. Other countries, all over the world (Japan, France, Italy to name a few) have successful railroads that carry millions of passenger every year. The only reason that situation has not been mimicked in the United States is that the fossil fuel industries, airline companies and the automobile manufacturers don’t allow it to happen. They are the current day evil doers. People need to wise up and stop being so attached to their automobiles as well. Traffic is bad, and pollution is terrible. Future generations will suffer greatly as a result. The old days of airplane travel were great because passengers were treated well, service was personalized and the passengers were well behaved. Today airline passengers are treated like cattle, and as a result they tend to behave very poorly. This is why I hate to fly, I don’t like to be treated like that. Our society is challenged and failing because of corporate greed. Railroad passenger travel is a throwback to the golden years when personalized service was important to the carriers. I guess they have forgotten/forsaken those ideals.

  4. I grew up in the Philadelphia area and trains and buses were a priority because of the colonial grid the cities of the east coast were built on.
    Cars were considered a necessary evil. But we need a balance of all modes of transport. Less people by car and plane is always a good thing

  5. Why does every comment section have to have so many naysayers and evil goblins out to destroy everything? Lighten up and get real! The history of trains, planes and automobiles throughout the world is varied and happened at different times for different reasons.

    For example, the interstate highway system in the USA was built m\for many reasons, but prime among them was defense of the country. Military mobility in a far flung country along with the flexibility offered by automotive transport vis a vis a fixed rail system was paramount. Rails did not offer the same combination of flexibility and support of economic development at that time. Today, things are a bit different, but of course there are different economic forces at work today as well.

    Despite what you might believe when listening to sound bite hungry politicians, the issues are not simple and 0 versus 1 choices. They are complex and driven by many factors, an yes lobbying plays a role. But to always look for a sinister force behind every problem we face fails to acknowledge each and every one of our own culpability and participation in the process. My response to the fear mongers and constant naysayers is “shut up and become part of the solution or just go away.” We don’t need to continue to waste time on responding to the negativists about every little thing, we need to focus on making the best of difficult situations and fixing the problems we can address.

  6. First, I must state, I appreciate the former comments upon this thread. I am by no means or imagination an expert on rail travel. But, I recently traveled via Amtrak from Emeryville, California to Manhattan, NYC upon the California Zephyr/Lakeshore Limited. In my limited understanding, much of that journey was upon shared rails. Many of the miles were on rails I surmise were designed for freight service. For instance, the California Zephyr was traveling along at crisp pace of 80mph between Reno and Winnemucca. It is apparent the rails were not designed for that speed and comfortable high speed rail travel. When we reached Salt Lake City, I noted passenger rail service was an afterthought. Fast forward to Chicago Union Station. There, I found the first robust rail travel – locally the loop. Upon embarking on the Lakeshore Limited, I noted a quieter ride. Perhaps, the rails are better maintained. I noted a period of increased velocity upon that rail ~90mph. I asked a conductor why are we able to travel so quickly upon this corridor. He stated most rails are rated to 80mph. We were flying along the rails.

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