Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
It’s not “high speed,” exactly. But a mix of privately funded rail projects and improvements to existing Amtrak lines are finally starting to get American trains moving.
There’s a long and distinguished conservative tradition of hating on passenger rail projects, mainly because of the massive federal expenses they tend to incur. Republicans vigorously fought President Obama’s $8 billion pledge to power high-speed intra-city lines back in 2009 (alongside Vice President “Amtrak Joe” Biden, of course), and blocked his plans to fund road, bridge, and rail projects with a $478 billion infrastructure bill in 2015. (A whittled-down, $305 billion version passed later that year.)
Will Donald Trump be more sympathetic to trains than the average Republican? Possibly. The President-elect has compared America’s railroads to those of third-world countries and made envious references to Chinese bullet trains: "They have trains that go 300 miles per hour," he said in March. "We have trains that go chug-chug-chug." As a New York City developer, he also knows how rail connections can anchor serious real estate investments. His much-touted $1 trillion infrastructure plan hinges on leveraging big chunks of private lucre with very small amounts of public cash—the sort of financing scheme that could actually work for a rail project along a dense, inter-city corridor with lots of development opportunities. (What does his nominated DOT secretary, Elaine Chao, think about rail? Who knows?)
Despite having long been left for dead, those sorts of rail improvements and connections are coming to life in the U.S.—corridor by corridor, at varying velocities. In the absence of much dedicated federal funding, private investments are paying the freight in some cases; others are getting state funding. If Trump wants to create jobs with splashy infrastructure upgrades, giving these existing high-speed rail projects a cash injection might be a good bet. (Especially now that the Federal Railroad Administration finally released updated safety standards for high-speed trains, which stands to speed up project approvals in the future.)
Here’s a roundup of America’s motley fleet of unfinished supertrains.
Florida’s model (private) train
Florida knows anti-train vitriol first hand. Back in 2011, Governor Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal change (Ohio and Wisconsin governors John Kasich and Scott Walker also rejected their chunks of Obama’s $8 billion rail stimulus) for a high-speed line from Orlando to Tampa due to concerns of state cost overruns—a decision that most Florida representatives, including Republican Congressman John Mica, greeted with dismay. (Mica is also the guy who once called Amtrak a “Soviet-style operation,” but he was convinced that private investors would pick up the rest of Florida’s HSR tab.)
Then a private rail company, All Aboard Florida, stepped in with plans to build a ultra-sleek passenger rail line along Florida’s east coast, and moved quickly on building. Running between 79-125 mph, the train won’t exactly be “true” high-speed—but that’s still nearly as fast as the Northeast Corridor’s Acela service, the speediest in the country. AAF is betting that the Brightline, scheduled to start service between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2017 (!), will open up big real estate development opportunities. It’ll be this country’s first privately run and operated passenger rail system in a century (it was also mostly privately funded, though the feds and the state wound up kicking in funds—for which Scott was, of course, criticized). An extension to Orlando might happen depending on how popular the service is. Rail supporters around the country will be watching.
California’s slow ride toward true high-speed rail
With limited support from Uncle Sam, California’s $68 billion, 200 mph L.A.-to-S.F. rail connection—set to be the first and only true high-speed project in the country—has been inching along behind schedule since voters agreed to finance it 2008. Land disputes, engineering challenges, and relentless opposition from a few loud-spoken politicians have bogged down its progress and forced some significant planning changes. But construction is seriously underway, with viaducts, bridges, and a whole mess of berms and protective walls coming to life in the Central Valley. That’s infrastructure that would be hard to simply up and abandon at this point, despite some speculation along those lines.
That said, “If the feds said California was a priority, they could just write a check,” says Andy Kunz, the president and CEO of U.S. High Speed Rail Association. “We spend that much on defense in a month.” (Well, almost.) Trump might be unlikely to smile quite that much on deep-blue California, though, given that state leaders are vocally gearing up to oppose many of his key policy points. But California is a wealthy state, with a bench of HSR support among gubernatorial contenders (rail-champion Governor Jerry Brown is out in 2018). The first segment might not be complete until at least 2025, but it’s still looking likely than California traingoers will one day break the double ton.
The Northeast Corridor, stuck in a tunnel
The rail service between Boston and Washington, D.C. is Amtrak’s most profitable, but it’s badly bottlenecked, thanks to the zillions of rail agencies offering service on the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Service improvements along the NEC might also be the most viable and necessary in the country. Upgrades to the Acela line, which tops out at 150 mph, are happening little by little. In August, Amtrak announced nearly $2.5 billion worth of cutting-edge equipment capable of traveling 186 mph, and tracks and stations are seeing (utterly essential) piecemeal improvements.
But the new trains can’t get near their top speeds until they’re traveling on a fully upgraded set of rails. Amtrak has a $151 billion proposal to build separate high-speed tracks by 2030, but without dedicated federal commitment to the plan, the only kind of progress the NEC is likely to see is incremental. “Unless something radical happens, and people change their minds, the only place we’re going to see true high-speed rail is in California,” says Yonah Freemark, a transportation scholar and consultant.
The so-called “Gateway” project looks similarly iffy. That $24 billion plan proposes to make high-speed upgrades inside the Hudson River rail tunnels between New York City and New Jersey, which were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. But the project has descended into political and inter-agency bickering about who pays what. Without dedicated state leadership and dedicated federal funds, the Gateway is likely to remain hanging open—slowing down hundreds of thousands of daily riders and the nation’s largest urban economy.
The Midwest feels a need for speed
Perhaps more than any other state, Illinois has demonstrated strong, bipartisan support for rail improvements in recent decades. And soon, it’ll have a major connection to show for it: $2 billion worth of improvements on tracks between Chicago and St. Louis are set to wrap up in summer 2017. New crossings, bridges, stations, and rail upgrades should push corridor speeds to 110 mph—again, not true high-speed, but a lot better than the current 79 mph service. (There’s a theme here; outside of California, the U.S. might never see 200-mph-and-up trains like those in Europe and Asia. You need new tracks to do that, and there’s just not enough federal money, or will, to build them.)
There’s good reason to expect that the state could keep funding rail improvements on spokes to other cities—namely, Detroit. Michigan is also supplementing a big hunk of federal change with tens of millions in state funds to improve rail connections within the state and to Chicago. Ohio and Wisconsin governors John Kasich and Scott Walker may have turned down federal high-speed rail funds for their states, but Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri seem to be starting the Midwest’s engine on a legitimate 21st-century rail network.
Texas gets ready
Texas Central Partners, a group of private investors backed by the Japanese government, wants to start construction on a $10 billion true high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston as soon as 2017. Domain restrictions and disputes have meant this project hasn’t proceeded quite as smoothly as Florida’s private line (All Aboard Florida already owned most of the right-of-way), but given the serious potential for real-estate development in those Texas metros, this project seems likely to get built.
Other sparks of high-speed rail activity are crackling nationwide. The privately backed “XpressWest” proposal from Las Vegas to Southern California refuses to die. Virginia is making headway on plans for a higher-speed spoke between Washington, D.C. to Richmond, as is North Carolina for Raleigh’s connection to that corridor.
Then there are a pair of space-age wild cards: a Japanese maglev proposal between D.C. and Baltimore, and Elon Musk’s famous Hyperloop, which could revolutionize L.A. to San Francisco commutes in California, assuming people are willing to strap themselves into a windowless capsule that goes 760 mph inside a steel tube. Both would require enormous investments in new infrastructure, and the whole Hyperloop thing is still deeply unproven as a way of moving human beings around.
But in the meantime, a bonafide network of higher-speed passenger lines is slowly emerging in the U.S. anyway. And, strangest of all, it’s possible that the incoming GOP president might even help push it along, rather than try to derail it.