Will America ever get on the way to high-speed rail?

Martin A Davis Jr.

If there was a land made for trains, it would be the countryside between Madrid and Cordoba in central and south-central Spain.

The state-owned Renfe AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, or Spanish high-speed train) tracks run through the heart of rolling, fertile valleys that produce some of the best olives in the world. Cruising past trees at speeds of up to 167 mph, rows and rows of olive trees are framed by golden hills that influence weather patterns and make this region perfect for the popular fleshy fruit.

The ride is as beautiful as anything you will see in Europe.

So it’s hard not to wonder if such a system wouldn’t work here in America, and especially along the Northeast Corridor. American businesses, citizens and governments are certainly interested.

In Texas, Renfe was chosen to design, build and be the first operator of a high-speed train running between Dallas and Houston. This train promises to reach speeds of nearly 240 mph and travel the 240 miles between the two cities in around 90 minutes. (The trip from Madrid to Cordoba is 244 miles and takes one hour and 45 minutes.)

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Critics, however, are pushing just as hard for that not to happen.

The free-market-focused CATO Institute, for example, published a compelling study last year after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed for high-speed rail. Among CATO’s concerns is that high-speed train technology is “outdated”, as CATO has argued since the advent of the 707 aircraft. They also point to the high costs of building such a system and argue that building dedicated infrastructure is like building wasted infrastructure.

There’s a lot to choose from here, but the biggest problem I have with CATO’s analysis is in the first statement of this report: this train is “likely to carry less than 2% of the nation’s passenger trips and no freight”.

CATO assumes that an efficient high-speed system like the one in Spain would not pull drivers from their cars or planes. But in Spain, trains carry more passengers than planes according to pre-pandemic data. And ridership, which was breaking records every year before the pandemic, is rising again now that COVID is under control.

The Spaniards were drawn to the train by many factors. One is speed, obviously. Another is ride quality and convenience. Renfe trains are simply comfortable, with plenty of space to stretch your legs and enjoy the ride. Plus, trains leave major cities every few minutes, making them very convenient.

And then there are the environmental benefits. High-speed trains in Spain are much less harmful to the environment than airplanes.

Is it unreasonable to believe that the Americans would not follow the Spaniards and adopt high-speed trains?

Surely there are those who will complain about a government-run train system, saying that the government can’t do anything right. But in Spain, the problem is not the government, which has done a great job in launching the project.

With an experienced partner like Renfe, the US government can surely make it work. The problem here will be that Americans will continue to think more about themselves and their short-term needs than about the long-term public good.

I spoke at length with a dual US-Spanish citizen on the flight to Spain about the differences between our two nations.

They noted that while both countries are great, they are very different in some profound ways. One of the most important is perhaps the Spaniards’ desire to put other citizens above their own interests.

“Nobody likes paying taxes,” she said, “but if our taxes can make life better for everyone,” we’ll support that.

Continuing to impose an overreliance on airplanes and fossil fuel cars only prolongs the inevitable: we are going to have to fight climate change.

The high-speed train helps to do this and creates a much more comfortable and certainly faster means of transport.

It doesn’t have to be a national system, as Spain has done. The American population is concentrated in urban areas. The northeast corridor, the west coast, and possible routes like the one coming to Texas, or between Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh in North Carolina, or between Miami and Orlando could be, like the race from Madrid to Cordoba, ideal for a bullet rail system.

For my money, it’s an easy call. High-speed trains over cars and planes every day.

Our younger generations seem to understand this better than older people like me. But even us old-timers can have our heads turned by the high-speed train, just as mine was by the olive trees passing by the window on a comfortable, fast ride to Madrid.

Martin Davis is the editor of the opinion page. Contact him at [email protected]

Jose P. Rogers