Can high-speed rail finally become a reality in the United States?
The United States is so behind on the bullet train compared to other countries that it seems that the United States is Superman and the bullet train is its kryptonite. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder – maybe the bullet train is Superman, and American car culture is its kryptonite?
If you’ve had the luxury of traveling outside of the United States, you’ll likely have experienced high-speed rail or at least heard of or seen it. You can:
- I wonder how shocking the United States is because it is truly amazing to experience the bullet train.
- I wonder why the United States doesn’t have high-speed rail in abundance.
- Forget the fact that America is so behind due to its heavy car culture or think that the bullet train app just won’t work in the US.
I know I thought about all of these points when I had the pleasure of traveling on the high-speed train in parts of Europe.
However, what if all that was about to change? What if the United States is on the verge of a major shift where technology, politics, and climate action come together to help drive adoption of high-speed rail?
Well, it’s not that easy or perfect. But all is not gloomy either. After speaking with Marc Buncher, President and CEO of Siemens Mobility North America, I realized that the United States was much further along on high-speed rail than I thought, even with the obstacles that lay ahead. stood in their way. Buncher is a longtime proponent and expert of high-speed rail. Siemens Mobility is a leading supplier of everything high-speed rail, including trains, systems and spare parts (Siemens partners with civil engineering firm to lay track, ballast and perform maintenance.).
The conversation about high-speed rail in the United States is not new, far from it. GreenBiz and many others have it covered well. As a reminder, what is the high-speed train? According to Institute of Environmental and Energy Studies, high-speed train is brand new train line of 160 miles per hour or more. High-speed rail is what allows people to travel from London to Paris, a 300-mile journey, in as little as two hours compared to flying or driving, which takes more than several hours. The high-speed train has many advantagesincluding:
- Create jobs — every billion dollars of investment creates approximately 24,000 jobs.
- Increase economic activity — every dollar invested creates $4 in economic benefits.
- Reduce congestion and boost productivity — congestion in the United States costs $140 billion in lost time and lost productivity.
- Reducing dependence on foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing efficient, high-speed transportation choices — high-speed rail is as fast or faster and more efficient than air travel.
If you look at the history of mass transit in the United States and project it hypothetically into the future, in an alternate universe, we would have a nationwide bullet train. In the early 1920s, streetcars and mass transit covered the United States – then everything changed. Vox uncovered the true story behind the demise of the once mighty streetcar culture before today’s car culture stepped in; I strongly encourage you to read this article.
What if the United States is on the verge of a major shift where technology, politics, and climate action come together to help drive adoption of high-speed rail?
So what’s going on in the US on high-speed rail? Buncher highlighted a few important projects, including the California High-Speed Rail Authority project linking San Francisco and Los Angeles and Brightline West project linking LA to Las Vegas. Siemens Mobility is one of two qualified teams involved in the California High-Speed Rail Authority project and is part of the LA-to-Las Vegas project. Here are some facts about the two projects:
California High-Speed Rail Authority Project — Connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles
Brightline West Project — Connecting LA to Las Vegas
- The train is expected to reach speeds of 180mph, allowing travel twice as fast as by car.
- The project will reduce 400,000 tons of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to eliminating 3 million vehicles. A total of 50 million one-way trips take place between Los Angeles and Las Vegas each year.
- The developers aim to commissioning in 2026.
Based on my conversation with Buncher and digging deeper into the progress of these projects, I’ve found that the environmental benefits of broadband are only part of why it’s needed/desired in the US, and politics and funding remain uphill battles. .
“I think companies do [deploying high-speed rail] because they see the environmental impact… But when you’re a person living in LA who owns a car, I don’t think you think about your carbon footprint. … The same goes for Europe. For example, when you take a train in Europe, you do it because it’s easy to take a train…and then walk to your destination in the city center, and that’s the real reason why I think that people who live in LA or Las Vegas are going to take the bullet train,” Buncher said. “But along the way, there are also huge reductions in the environmental footprint.
Even with all the projects and the historic moment in politics with the death of The Law on Investment in Infrastructure and Employment (IIJA) and The inflation reduction law of 2022, there are still many tough battles to be fought for high-speed rail in the United States. Take for example the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The project was approved in 2008 and is expected to open in 2020, but it has been hampered by budget cuts. Based on July reports, the original cost of the project was $33 billion, with $12-16 billion coming from the federal government. However, the federal government only allocated $3 billion. Now the project should cost $105 billion.
However, additional funding is potentially forthcoming for high-speed rail as a whole. It seems funding for the high-speed train has not been the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act 2022. But, some funding has been created for “big projects” under the IIJA, which could include high-speed rail. “There’s money in the first bill [IIJA] … for example $10 billion for megaprojects, which would be things like the Hudson River tunnel in New York, but also high-speed rail would be eligible,” Buncher said. “With the $105 billion budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation [to improve rail among other areas of public transit] and the IIJA, we are in an unprecedented era where we have a lot of money coming into our industry.”
The United States is a far cry from seemingly endless high-speed railroads. However, we are closer than ever to the start of meaningful progress.