Do high speed trains have a place in America?
June 10, 2015 9:33 PM   Subscribe

I've been reading articles about backlash towards high-speed rail in American cities, and it confounds me because I enjoy rail systems in Europe and Asia. Some people have said it logistically doesn't make sense in America, and I want to why that is.

I spurred a discussion with a friend when I mentioned that many people are opposing the high speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. She told me that high speed trains are useless in America because it is too big and that trains are only good for freight, under the basis of "transportation operations research."

Now I don't want to say that she's wrong because I actually don't know anything about actual transportation logistics. Does it really pollute that much? Or is more of a cultural thing that I'm biased in thinking of because I love trains so much? What is this research and are there resources, books, or articles that explains this?
posted by xtine to Travel & Transportation (39 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well the main opposition to the high-speed line from LA to SF has to do with the fact that much of the route is already built up, and much of the rest is valuable farmland. People don't want their homes knocked down to build the track, nor do they want to live next to high walls alongside the tracks, nor do they want their farmland sectioned off with tracks in the middle. Here's one quote from a recent LATimes story, regarding a tiny section of the track in the L.A. area: "...there could be noise and vibration affecting about 20,000 residences, 25 parks, 47 schools, 48 churches and nine hotels, as well as archaeological sites and wetlands."
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:43 PM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are no logistical reasons why the US cannot have many high speed rail corridors: SF-to-LA is a possibility, as is Boston-DC, and many other metropolitan connections where air and highway corridors are at maximum capacity.

However, the United States has extraordinarily high costs per mile when it comes to building High Speed Rail, compared to Europe:
Germany’s high-speed railway between Frankfurt and Cologne set them back 33 million euros a kilometer, whereas the per-kilometer cost of Italian high-speed rail surpassed 44 million euros. In Japan, lines generally cost between 35 million and 45 million euros per kilometer to build.

The U.K. has the highest high-speed rail construction costs, the study found, with the Channel Tunnel clocking in at 70 million euros a kilometer.

(Amtrak, however, is hoping to top that. They want to spend $151 billion to upgrade the Northeast Corridor to true high-speed rail standards. That works out to a third of a billion dollars per mile, or just over 150 million euros per kilometer. Jerry Brown looks thrifty in comparison, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority wanting to spend a mere $100 million a mile.)
It's these costs that make the possibility of spreading High Speed Rail a difficulty. Related to this is the challenge and expense of getting rights-of-way to create separate passenger rails that aren't shared with freight trains.
posted by deanc at 9:46 PM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

I would recommend reading this and this, for a bit more about the cultural obstacles (which I personally think are the dominant set of obstacles).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:56 PM on June 10, 2015 [17 favorites]

She told me that high speed trains are useless in America because it is too big

China's quite big.

That's a distraction, though: the distribution of population is what matters, and plenty of common journeys fit the sweet spot for high-speed rail. Atlanta to Charlotte is a four-hour drive, or a 45m flight buffered by however many hours it takes you to navigate the airports. It's 5.5 hrs on Amtrak; a reasonable-speed train ought to do it in a little over two hours.

The fundamental point, though, is that freight has ownership and priority over the existing network. Upgrading existing passenger lines so that they can reach highish speeds (i.e. faster than cars) is expensive. Buying off freight companies to gain priority is expensive. Building new dedicated lines is expensive and a regulatory nightmare, as the California experience is proving. It is very hard and very expensive to rebuild a passenger railway network in a country that previously gave one up and now regards ultra-short connecting flights in congested air space as reasonable bits of a travel itinerary.
posted by holgate at 9:58 PM on June 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Part of the issue is a lack of population density near terminals - SF and LA are not bad, but stopping in San Jose? There just aren't enough people nearby. And there's not much in the way of local feeder systems.

And as others have noted, it's plain ol' NIMBY with regards to the tracks themselves.
posted by GuyZero at 10:02 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

This article happened to be in my feed today:
High-Speed Rail Could Disturb 20,000 Homes Between Burbank And Palmdale.

It has some links that might be helpful, including a link to this 62-page report from DOT and the California High-Speed Rail Authority board [PDF].
posted by Room 641-A at 10:07 PM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Conrad raises a good point: yes, our rail infrastructure is poor. But so is our airport infrastructure and our road infrastructure. It's just that the rail infrastructure is much worse. But none of those things are a particular priority for US investment.
posted by deanc at 10:07 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

People who say it "logistically" doesn't make sense are basically saying "our highway system works fine, why should we make a new thing when we can improve / fix something that works".

And in a certain way, they are right: US haven't used passenger rail for so long it's limited to primarily the East coast and some commuter trains. Amtrak service cross-country is slow as HECK.

But then there WAS a CONSPIRACY against rail, heavy or light rail. GM was in on the conspiracy as it basically funded hush campaigns to petition / lobby cities to rip up all their light rail and replace them with (GM) buses. Whether are are similar conspiracy against the passenger rail, I have no idea.

There are plenty of freight trains moving around. Some of the more modern trains can double-stack containers and that really improves load. But they *are* slow. But then, interstate truck aren't that much faster.

And trains are BETWEEN THREE TO TEN TIMES MORE energy efficient, according to most calculations, than trucks. An average train can move a ton of cargo, with 1 gallon of fuel... well over 450 miles (average figure, varies between 476 to 484)

So... do nothing? But again, this is basically "let's kick the can down the road", and nothing gets done, because something better ALWAYS comes along.

This is NOT talking about high speed rail. And high speed rail will cost a LOT of $$$, as it cannot be run on existing tracks (too many curves, too sharp curves, track not of the right quality of steel, too many crossings, etc. etc.) So you need to buy a ton of land, and it had to be contiguous, and it gets really really messy. Which is why people are asking why are we building something like HSR when we should be researching the NEXT PHASE (something like the Hyperloop) and skip this step altogether, because we can't really use ANY of the existing infrastructure. We don't even want any slow trains ON THE SAME TRACK as the HSR. It's just easier to do it that way, esp. when there's no cost savings.

And then what would the high speed rail do that well? We already have hourly departures from airports to fly north and south at about $100-$150 (SF to LA or such). Given the BAZILLION bucks needed to build the HSR what ELSE can it do, besides passengers not quite as fast as a jet (airport travel time + 1 hour flight time, 3?) but faster than a bus (give or take, about 8-9 hours) I'm guessing this would be 3-4 hour trip. How much to charge? $75? This would take so long to recoup costs it'd likely be obsolete before then, assuming couple hundred passengers per run. And you can guess airlines will hate it all.

It sure can be used to move priority freight a little faster, but do we need it?

The case is a little different between NorCal and SoCal, as there are two completely separate economies at work, and they can use a lot of freight and people movement. It can even spawn new commute communities along the HSR line. But being in California, you know the environmentalists would be frothing at the mouth if you're hinting at "more growth". (hahaha)

So where does that leave us? Going nowhere.
posted by kschang at 10:07 PM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's plenty of places in the U.S. with density that can support high-speed rail or at least medium-speed rail. But apart from any cultural and bureaucratic issues, one of the biggest obstacles is the amount of freight rail that uses the existing tracks. Not only are the rail corridors owned by private companies that are loathe to do substantial upgrades to tracks, those companies run enough of their slow freight trains (many more than in Europe) that coordinating with passenger rail is hard.
posted by parudox at 10:23 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

not quite as fast as a jet (airport travel time + 1 hour flight time, 3?)

Right. I fly between the Bay Area and Southern California a lot for work. Often there and back on the same day. The flight takes around an hour. I have Pre-Check, don't have to check bags, and know the airport well, so I can safely arrive an hour before the flight or even a little less. So about two hours total. Airports are a pain, but I can't imagine any scenario in which I'd prefer to use a train for that trip.
posted by primethyme at 10:35 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Rail advocacy also misses an important point, rarely brought up, which is that sprawling cities are not set up in a way to take advantage of it.

Let's say you had HSR into Los Angeles. Where does it terminate, exactly? Union Station? OK, now how do you get from there to your meeting in Santa Monica? There are poor public transportation options. You'll take a cab or a bus. If that's the case, why not just fly? You'll cab it out of the airport, too. But it's faster.

Contrast that with, say, dense cities like Paris, or London, or Tokyo, where HSR is enmeshed in a robust subway system. You'll go point-to-point much, much easier.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:37 PM on June 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

It also depends on which HSR you mean. The current one? Or any potential train?

If you skipped the current design and went for the maglev design, you could go LA to SF in an hour if you had the land and willpower to build it (350+ mph, SF to LA is ~ 350 miles by car).

OK, now how do you get from there to your meeting in Santa Monica?

In 10 years? You take the subway. And if you wanted to build a _real_ HSR option, that would also take 10 years or more, so thats fine.
posted by thefoxgod at 11:27 PM on June 10, 2015

Basically most of the arguments are either FUD (people who seem to think LA has no subway or rail, for example) or very pragmatic. The latter have a point --- its not so much that we _couldnt_ make HSR work in California, but are we going to use eminent domain to seize all the land we would need? Will we spend the money to make it happen? Probably not. But there's a bit of chicken-and-egg in that thinking as well, if people wanted it enough we could certainly make it work.

And of course if we were serious about it, building out local trains and subways even more would be part of that effort, so its not quite right to say that a lack (or perceived lack) of those is the blocker.

But basically we would need to switch to a very train-oriented planning system, like Japan, and that would take a MASSIVE pr effort to sway people into thinking it was worth their tax money.
posted by thefoxgod at 11:30 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

OK, now how do you get from there to your meeting in Santa Monica?

Once the Expo line extension and the downtown regional connection corridor are in operation (projected to be 2020, far sooner than an HSR line into union station could realistically be built), Union Station to downtown Santa Monica will take about 50 minutes on the expo line. That's certainly faster than driving the same distance during business hours and probably even faster than LAX to Santa Monica during rush "hour".

But anyway, what's wrong with taking a cab or carpool to the train station? Most of LA's population lives closer to Union Station than to LAX or Santa Monica.
posted by lisp witch at 11:35 PM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Foreigner's perspective: The United States most important contribution to train culture is its absolute global dominance in the world of songs about trains (and a strong showing on films set on trains too - plus Richard Scarry to introduce them to kids ). It also knows how to make the horns on trains make the right sound. The problem is that the sort of trains which inspire songs and need to blast away on horns every few seconds and look good in childrens books, are slow and lumbering; not high speed at all. American trains are, hands down, the world's best when it comes to taking a journey in your head - but just not so great for actual travel.

Contrast with France - which has mostly shit songs about trains - but where the idea of having an efficient train network is baked into the national psyche (look at the smiles on everybody's faces as their train breaks the speed record). This means that people don't mind so much about having a train line go right past their window if it is in the greater good of France. This also means that not only is the train system pretty good - but also that other public transport has been designed to take you to and from the cool thing that is the train station. It is taken as an absolute that a passenger can go from his home in suburban Paris to his destination in suburban Marseilles without ever having to resort to a car, for example.
posted by rongorongo at 12:46 AM on June 11, 2015 [33 favorites]

Do high speed trains have a place in America?

Yes. They can make more sense than flying when you add the extra time at both ends of the flight. They are cleaner than flying. They are safer than flying. There is nothing that makes trains a bad idea in America but a good idea elsewhere. If the trains and stations existed already, people would use them.

That they are never built in America is because of a combination of "not in my backyard" and "not from my back pocket." People would like fast trains but no one wants to do what it takes (personally or politically) to build it.

Of course, things would change much faster if the real decisions weren't always being made by guys who are chauffeur-driven everywhere unless they're flying in first-class seating or private jets. Put all those senators, representatives, and CEOs on common public transportation (train, bus, bicycle) every day and suddenly public transportation systems across America would improve drastically under a grand new spending scheme with a grand new bullshit backronym.

Because that's not going to happen, the next best thing would be to pry more upper- and middle-class people out of their cars through various disincentives to commuting by automobile. Raise road tolls. Stop building downtown parking. Make all existing downtown parking much more expensive. Annually expand the car-free downtown areas devoted to pedestrians. Convert car lanes into bus lanes and bike lanes to make buses and bikes better options than driving downtown. Build affordable park-and-ride options outside the cities.


We have to wait and see what happens when lots of autonomous cars (chauffeured driving for the common person) appear on the roads. What if people who don't have to drive their cars and can actually sleep through their commutes develop infinite patience with traffic jams and long commutes?

People might leave for work at 7:00 and not get there until 9:00, but not mind it a bit because they can leave in their underwear and get ready in their commuter SUVs with the private hygiene cabins (shit, shower, and shave) in the back. They might leave work at 5:00 and not get home until 7:00, but not mind that either because they will have watched a movie or had a nice nap or gotten ready to go out with friends while their mobile commuter cabins drove them home. What if the roads of the future are covered with windowless commuter pods inching along to and from work like blood cells going to and from the heart? In that sort of world, high-speed trains might be built to carry single-occupant commuter pods on high-speed stretches that add even more miles to daily commutes.

More optimistically, lots of efficient autonomous taxis and mini-buses might provide the first-mile and last-mile service needed to get pedestrians from home to train and from train to work in the morning, and then from work to train and from train to home again in the evening.
posted by pracowity at 12:47 AM on June 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

One way of thinking about the logistics of a US high speed network would be to imagine a rather idealised one in place. Let's assume it allows passengers to travel at 200 miles per hour on straight lines between cities and that ticket prices per mile are competitive with other modes of transport. Our network lets us get from Boston to New York in just an hour; and from Los Angeles to San Francisco in an hour and a half. However Boston to Los Angeles still takes 13 hours - which is about twice the length of a flight - and even Boston Miami would still be shorter by air.

Even on this idealised system a fair proportion of travellers would probably prefer to drive on the shorter haul trips (so they have their car with them at the far end and so they can go door to door) and fly on the longer ones (for speed).
posted by rongorongo at 2:09 AM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also do NOT underestimate the inherent technical difficulties of HSR.

Here in the Netherlands - where we have an extensive and nearly door-to-door multimodal public transit system - our HSR failed so spectacularly they are STILL holding government investigations into how we spent so much money and literally had to return ALL the trains back to the Italian manufacturer because they turned out to be multi-billion Euro pieces of trash.

I mean, if the country William Gibson called, "the land of heroic infrastructure" can't do its own HRS, that should tell you something about how damn hard it is to get right.

We do have HSR but it's French and German, not "ours."
posted by digitalprimate at 2:28 AM on June 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I will concentrate on the "America is too big" part of the argument. Let's look to Europe and Asia and see how they are performing.

First, France. There used to be a lot of flights between i.e. Paris and Lyon. Then, in 1981, came the TGV/LGV. People flocked to it and now the flights are pretty much gone. It's about 234 miles.

Second, Germany. Look to the Hamburg - Munich ICE routing. It's about 500 miles. Lots of flights exist.

Third, China. Here, we're going to concentrate on the CRH G-Trains running Shanghai-Beijing. That's roughly 750 miles. The service is going strong but air travel is stronger. Air China alone flies 35x between the two cities daily.

My impression is that you can get people to use rail to take them anywhere as long as they can reach their destination in 3 hours tops. If you propose a 5+ hour train ride like Shanghai-Beijing, a good couple of people will choose the plane, which takes you there in 90 minutes. It's when the travel time is lower that all the hassle of going to the airport, checking-in, waiting and so on gets to be so burdensome that people consider the train.

The benefit of high-speed rail is that you can move people further in this 3 hour window than you can move them by regular train or car. You can also move more people at lower cost and more environmentally friendly once the tracks are constructed. (That's no small feat — High-speed rail pretty much always means long stretches of huge, elevated concrete tracks being constructed.)

I don't know if people would travel LA-SF but LA-LV and SF-LV seem like a pretty solid bet. I would look to any place where planes fly in less than one hour as potential targets for high-speed rail routes and expand from there.

Finally, don't underestimate how fragmented the US are. You guys are really not good with getting large infrastructure projects done. Airport runways are a good example — you take about as long to construct one as China takes to develop a bunch of new airports. When I see the 2025 deadline for the LA-SF railway move yet again I am not the least bit surprised.
posted by krautland at 2:56 AM on June 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

@deanc: The U.K. has the highest high-speed rail construction costs, the study found, with the Channel Tunnel clocking in at 70 million euros a kilometer.

You can't compare an under-the-sea tunnel linking two countries with an overland rail line.
posted by gorcha at 3:35 AM on June 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Some thoughts on cultural and economic obstacles to high speed rail:

We here on the North Shore of Massachusetts have a very decent way of getting into town: the commuter rail. There's also the option of parking at Wonderland to take the regular T.

Nonetheless, hundreds of people who could afford monthly commuter rail passes... drive their cars to work in town every day. It boggles my mind so I have to explain it to myself.. see below.

This is probably because even with parking expenses it may STILL be cheaper to drive that car. Living on the North Shore, you probably already have a car because you're not prepared to take on the hassle of riding the bus, riding a bike alongside Masshole drivers, or renting a Zipcar for non-work needs. So you're already paying the insurance and the maintenance, and the T pass is a significant additional expense. (Anyone who complains about gas prices in the U.S. ... I have no patience unless you are really strapped for cash.)

Also... I suspect many of those drivers enjoy the two-plus hours of alone time outside the house that the commute entails. Spousal avoidance is real, as is avoidance of sitting at home by yourself. Also, never underestimate the effects of being a boiled frog.

Myself, I would gladly pay a premium to avoid the drive assuming that I could at all afford it. Happily taking the commuter rail to town this very morning, which I don't have to do every workday. Wish I lived in a rail-friendly country but I'm probably too old to leave now. Over and out.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:43 AM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Right now the US ships a much higher percentage of freight on trains than does Europe (and obviously, the reverse is true for passenger traffic). One of the tricks, and something that drives costs up, is figuring out how to add high speed passenger rail without disrupting the existing (and economically important) freight traffic.

Environmental permitting and land access issues (especially private land) will drive costs and timelines up dramatically if you want to add new rail lines (as compared to repurposing existing lines), possibly to the point of making many projects unfeasible.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:37 AM on June 11, 2015

Pure opinion - the oil industry has a huge influence on American politics, and always lobbies against funding for mass transportation and non-oil energy sources. See also, auto industry, coal.
posted by theora55 at 6:37 AM on June 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

One other consideration is transit at the destination. If you have to rent a car when you get there by rail (if it's driving distance) it's an additional experience. If it's flying distance it's less of an obstacle.

I think the freight and expense are bigger issues, but it's another consideration.
posted by typecloud at 6:37 AM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

HSR comes up every so often in Atlanta as a way of relieving traffic along the I-75 corridor. In addition to the rights-of-way challenges mentioned above, you're also contending with a gigantic patchwork of municipal authorities in the form of the counties and cities. There is no larger transportation department at the state level that can impose a single mass transit plan across the entireity of the metro area.

It would take a coherent act of Herculean political will across many, many fiefdoms to pull off something like that, effectively rendering it a non-starter. It sucks, but there it is.
posted by jquinby at 6:40 AM on June 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Let's say you had HSR into Los Angeles. Where does it terminate, exactly? Union Station? OK, now how do you get from there to your meeting in Santa Monica? There are poor public transportation options.

The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica is on schedule for completion in early 2016. Once that's online you'll be able to get to and from Union Station and the beach by transferring to either the Red Line or the Purple Line. Estimated time: 46 minutes.

And if you fly? How are you getting from LAX to Santa Monica? During peak hours it could take you more than 45 minutes by car or cab. There are downsides to HSR but getting to Santa Monica from Union Station shouldn't be one.

On preview: If you have to rent a car when you get there by rail (if it's driving distance) it's an additional experience.

This is LA-specific, but practically speaking, unless you're just here for a few hours you're probably going to need to rent a car or Uber it no matter how you arrive, especially if you're here on business.( This is really a perception problem more than a logistics problem.)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:03 AM on June 11, 2015

Everyone says "well Amtrak doesn't have right of way" as if it were an immutable truth. Is there no way to change that?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:08 AM on June 11, 2015

If they don't have the right of way, they'd need to get it, either by buying it from the owner or acquiring it through eminent domain. In Atlanta, at least, the first would probably wind up being too pricey. The second would be extremely unpopular. Any return on the project would be years out and well past the shelf-life of anyone dealing with election cycles.
posted by jquinby at 7:17 AM on June 11, 2015

(just realized that 'right of way' for property/easements and whatnot doesn't mean the same thing on 'right of way' on an active rail line. My comment would still apply to constructing new lines anyway)
posted by jquinby at 7:21 AM on June 11, 2015

I've always thought the point about the US being "too big" for high-speed rail is a bit of a red herring. Of course relatively few people (aside from specialized cases such as students, railfans or senior citizens who have lots of time to travel) are ever going to take a train from New York to Miami or Los Angeles to Seattle, let alone Los Angeles to New York: flying will always be superior on a time basis to train travel for trips of this length until/unless we somehow invent a train that goes 400+ mph, at which point the travel equation will be radically different anyhow.

But situations like this aren't what HSR is designed for, even in Europe: Barcelona to Berlin is a similar distance (about 1850 km/1150 mi) and this is roughly 15 hours by train, or 2.5 hours by air: no guesses as to what the majority of Barcelona to Berlin (or Madrid to Amsterdam, or Copenhagen to Rome, which are all similar distances) travelers take. Unless you're one of those cases mentioned above: student with time to kill, railfan who loves trains, etc., then any reasonable person with the means to do so is going to fly.

But what both Europe and the US have are dense corridors that would be well served by train. Perhaps no one is going to train from LA to Seattle, but Seattle to Portland (or Vancouver) is a completely different equation. In corridors of this length high-quality rail would be absolutely competitive with air or auto travel on a pure time-basis alone. Whether it is actually competitive would depend of course on service reliability, fares, quality, etc. -- my point here is simply the "US is too big!!" argument is a vast oversimplification.

I also think the "bad transit at city destination" argument is a bit weak. I will absolutely admit that better transit at the destination can only help the prospects for HSR. But people fly relatively short distances between car-dependent cities all the time: all those air passengers between Dallas and Houston (only a 3.5 hour drive), for example, are clearly not able to bring a car with them and yet this is a busy flight corridor anyway. I actually think the bigger advantage of air in this case is the network effect: if you are doing a Boston to Houston trip via Dallas, for example (which is completely possible, say if you are flying via American Airlines), very few people are going to leave the airport to transfer to a train in Dallas.
posted by andrewesque at 8:07 AM on June 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

HSR between Indianapolis and Chicago would be a godsend. Currently, it's a long slog of a drive, and most of the flights are of the crappy commuter jet sort. At least O'Hare has train service straight into downtown, though.

Hell, Indy is perfectly situated to be a HSR hub to lots of destinations...Chicago, Cincinnati, St.Louis, Detroit, Louisville, etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:13 AM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually think the bigger advantage of air in this case is the network effect: if you are doing a Boston to Houston trip via Dallas, for example (which is completely possible, say if you are flying via American Airlines), very few people are going to leave the airport to transfer to a train in Dallas.

I think that's right -- though it's more a 'captive customer base' effect. On longish itineraries, adding a short up/down flight from a hub isn't much more expensive, and much cheaper than the up/down flight taken on its own. On the other hand, those spoke flights of 250-500 miles are also the ones that get delayed and cancelled and dicked about on the schedules because they're dependent on planes and crews being in the right place at the right time over multiple flights per day with limited margins of error, and American travellers accept that inconvenience as normal.

Everyone says "well Amtrak doesn't have right of way" as if it were an immutable truth. Is there no way to change that?

Amtrak services are least problematic when they either own the lines or are sharing with commuter rail networks like Metro-North. Freight lines are a different matter: getting Union Pacific and BNSF and Norfolk Southern and so on to cede priority on track that they own and maintain is not an easy sell. (In Europe, rail infrastructure is usually owned and maintained by state-controlled entities, regardless of whether the trains are private or public.)
posted by holgate at 10:10 AM on June 11, 2015

I have been wondering about this and this article gives a good perspective than any other on HS Rail in US. Its a long one but worth the read.

To pique your interest here are some lines.

"Compared with the high-speed trains of Western Europe and East Asia, American passenger rail is notoriously creaky, tardy, and slow. The Acela, currently the only "high-speed" train in America, runs at an average pace of 68 miles per hour between Washington and Boston; a high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona averages 154 miles per hour."

"House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail."

"Amtrak ran a long-distance train from Los Angeles to Jacksonville called the Sunset Limited. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed out the tracks from New Orleans to Florida. The service was never restored, and the Gulf Coast has been without rail travel for nearly a decade now."

"The Sunset Limited, when it ran, was about as useless a train as you could imagine. It ran only three times a week and boasted an on-time performance rate of about 4.5 percent. In 2004, the last year the train offered full service to the South, a total of 905 people got on and off the train in Gulfport. In a city of 70,000, in other words, fewer than three people were using that train every day."

Another one to mention, the rail lines in US are existing however owned by several corporate companies which care much more about their freight rather than consumer Amtrak rail (barely enough money to operate)
posted by radsqd at 8:22 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

but stopping in San Jose? There just aren't enough people nearby.

Uh, San Jose has more than a million residents, as per US census. That's MORE than San Francisco (900K)

Add the surrounding communities (Mt. View, Milpitas, Santa Clara...) and you're looking at several million.
posted by kschang at 1:13 AM on June 12, 2015

Add the surrounding communities (Mt. View, Milpitas, Santa Clara...) and you're looking at several million.

Try to get from Mountain View to San Jose without a car - it's a drag. And those communities are all considerably less dense than SF so it's a lot less convenient to Diriodn Station or wherever versus SF. Some people might drive to take HSR but my basic thesis is that if you have a car you'd just drive to LA. You need to get door-to-door via a public transit system and in San Jose and surrounding communities that is not very convenient. I suppose the VTA could be worse, but it's a very basic bus system and VTA light rail has pretty limited coverage.
posted by GuyZero at 6:45 AM on June 12, 2015

This article has some additional perspective on this issue.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:48 AM on June 12, 2015

@GuyZero -- don't disagree that public transit situation sucks, but that's general situation in the US except in a few tightly packed metro areas like SF, DC, NYC, and so on.

Would be interesting if the HSR stations would have a fleet of carshare cars o standby, wouldn't it?
posted by kschang at 1:08 PM on June 12, 2015

Some people might drive to take HSR but my basic thesis is that if you have a car you'd just drive to LA.

It's funny how driving for five hours is considered not a drag. The inconvenience and effort (and danger) of 200-500 mile car journeys -- the ones where it's usually too expensive or impractical to fly -- is a sunk cost in the US, a known and therefore tolerated bad experience.

That's a factor in the resistance to any kind of improved rail service: Americans have been familiarised with the crappy alternative to the point that they forget how crappy it is.
posted by holgate at 7:20 AM on June 13, 2015

Exactly, holgate -- many Americans are accustomed to eating shit -- after a while, they become used to it and even find it preferable. IMO the problem is that our politicians are driven everywhere -- unlike in Europe and Asia, they never take the train -- if they did, service would be improved.

Definitely read the Gopnik New Yorker article Conrad C linked to, which goes into detail about why Republicans find mass transit loathsome.
posted by Rash at 2:51 PM on June 13, 2015

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