Tomorrow, two high-speed rail lines open in France, providing new corridors for trains to slice through the countryside at 200 mph (320 km/h). One is a 302-kilometer link that will connect Paris to Bordeaux in the southwest part of the country. The other is a 182-kilometer line connecting Paris to western France. They’ll provide riders the equivalent of linking Washington, D.C. to Charlotte in just over two hours (versus an eight-hour Amtrak trip today), or Dallas to San Marcos in less than an hour and a half (versus a seven-and-a-half-hour Amtrak trip).
What’s remarkable about the completion of these projects is not so much their scale (though at €7.8 billion and €3.4 billion, respectively, they’re hardly a drop in the bucket), nor the improvements in connectivity they’ll provide (though they’ll slash travel times in western France for millions of riders every year). What’s remarkable about them is, frankly, just how unremarkable they are; for people in most of the world’s wealthy countries, high-speed rail services of this sort have become commonplace.
The U.S., of course, is the world’s notable exception. Over the past thirty years, almost two dozen countries have built up networks of collectively thousands of miles for trains traveling at least 150 mph. Since 1976, for example, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain slowly but steadily built up large networks, under varying political and economic environments (Japan had started opening such lines in 1964; see the bottom of the post for a similar graph including China). Americans upgraded a route between Boston and New York and created 34 miles of track capable of such speeds.
In face of the difficulties inherent in investing in large infrastructure projects that have the potential to transform the travel experience, the U.S. has been unable to advance. Over the course of an entire generation, American society has proven itself incapable of pooling either the sustained motivation or the resources to complete a single major high-speed intercity rail project. Not that the country has committed itself to other forms of transportation, either; an automobile-centric place we may be, but our road network has hardly grown since 1980 in the face of massive population growth, congestion has worsened, and our airports are notoriously awful.
In this failure, high-speed rail encapsulates the American experience in general: A nation now fundamentally unprepared to change, whether in terms of transport, climate change, or healthcare.
My indictment of the U.S. is not founded on a claim that Americans are bereft of “ideas,” or that other countries’ populations are smarter, or wealthier, or more risk-taking than them. It’s just that our society suffers from a malaise resulting from its dysfunctional, irascible political system that is woefully unprepared to commit to anything particularly significant.
In early 2009, the U.S. and China were, in an odd sort of way, in a similar place when it came to transport investment. Propelled into office by a wave of voters who suggested they wanted change, President Obama’s administration released a visionary proposal for high-speed rail that suggested the potential for major new fast train corridors criss-crossing the country. He convinced Congress to pass a stimulus bill with very significant new funds to pay for such lines. He seemed to be promoting a way forward. At the same time, China had just begun developing its rail network; in terms of truly fast trains, it had little more than a short link between Beijing and Tianjin open. But the Chinese government also had big proposals to expand its network into a nationwide system.
What happened in the intervening years suggests the difference between the two countries. In the U.S., President Obama’s initiative was met by Republican governors elected in 2010 who, for reasons that had little to do with sanity, resisted free federal money to fund the completion of intercity rail projects their (Democratic) predecessors had developed. Lines in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin were scuttled. Republican members of the House of Representatives fought new appropriations for rail and instead pointed to what have been so far unfulfilled hopes for the private sector’s magic touch to bring fast trains to America.
The federal government, hand-in-hand with willing state governments, invested in dead-end studies of maglev projects. Commentators suggested that high-speed rail was “pointless” in the face of slower self-driving cars, a technology that, by the way, remains to be genuinely proven. Now, we’re being told by the president and the mayor of Chicago that the Hyperloop, another underdeveloped technology, is the transport of the future.
When it comes to intercity transportation, the attention span of the American mind, it seems, is little different than that of a child suffering from ADHD. Perhaps it is no surprise we have elected a president more interested in Twitter than policy.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government, committed to a long-term project, built the world’s largest high-speed rail network. It now carries more than a billion and a half passengers each year. It has reconfigured the nation’s geography such that high-speed rail is the most cost- and time-effective way to get around between most cities.
In the face of significant economic growth and mass migration to its urban centers, the Chinese government constructed a new transportation system. Yes, its roadway network and air travel systems have grown dramatically over the past ten years. But the largest growth in intercity travel has occurred on the high-speed rail network, which accounted for just a third of the passenger numbers of China’s airlines in 2007 but now is carrying almost two times as many riders, and many more than the U.S. air system as a whole.
Amtrak, whose government support has hardly changed over the past decade, still carries about 1/26th of the daily passengers of the nation’s airlines. Its negligible role in the nation’s intercity transport system—outside of the Boston-to-Washington corridor—remains entrenched, even as other countries have dramatically expanded the railroad’s role in their societies. The problem isn’t that trains aren’t popular to Americans. The problem is that American rail service is terrible, and we’ve done nothing to improve it.
It is true, of course, that the Chinese government is autocratic and that its ability to invest in rail does not face the same bureaucratic or democratic resistance as the U.S. does.
But such concerns didn’t prevent the French, Italian, and Spanish government from completing more than 2,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines since 2009. Moreover, American claims from early in the Chinese development period that “the Railway Ministry still can’t get anyone to ride its trains” now seem irrelevant given that millions of people ride the system each day. And though it is certainly true that the rail system was, in part, built on corner-cutting, over the six years since 40 people died in the terrible 2011 Wenzhou train crash, more than 160,000 Americans died on their precious roadways.
It turns out that it’s actually not that complicated to conduct transport policy in a manner that adapts to change. You don’t need competitions to gather the input of “geniuses.” You don’t need magical new technologies when we have systems that work today. You don’t need to encourage speculation from the private sector, whose primary interest is in making high returns on their investment, not the public interest. You need a (reasonably) long-term commitment to individual projects, across political lines and among multiple political jurisdictions. You need to amass the public resources to pay for them. And then you need a competent workforce to design, construct, and operate the lines. American society has not shown itself capable of any of those things.
President Trump’s claims over the past year have suggested significant interest in supporting improved infrastructure for the U.S. Democrats were willing to compromise, for better or worse, to make such projects happen. But then the administration revealed its budget, which cut a gaping hole in existing infrastructure programs. And the president has failed to even propose an appointment for the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, among many other positions.
The U.S. lost an entire generation of potential investment in high-speed rail to half-hearted proposals and political back-and-forths over whether to fund better services. There’s no evidence we’re any better off because of it; while other countries have developed new transportation systems that truly improve the ability to get between their cities, we’ve just become further mired in traffic, whether at the airport or on the highway. The current president gives us little reason to believe the coming years offer anything different.
There are, thankfully, still reasons for hope. Florida’s Brightline project, a private initiative that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere because it is being completed by a private company that already owns the right-of-way, nonetheless suggests that it is possible to develop what appears to be a competent, well-run new railroad in the U.S., though it is not truly high-speed rail. And California’s high-speed rail line, though years from completion and under continuous barrage from congressional Republicans, is actually under construction and it retains significant political support. Change could yet be on its way.
Sources for graphs: Wikipedia, U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, World Bank, Amtrak. Photo at top: TGV near Bordeaux, from Flickr user Adrien Sifre (cc).