top of page

High-speed rail in the U.S. has new promise, and new pitfalls

During a press conference last month to announce that his multifaceted Virgin brand would be taking over a U.S. train line in Florida, British billionaire Richard Branson pointedly criticized the current state of rail service in this country.

“People in America have not had the good fortune to experience good train travel for a while,” he told reporters.

Branson’s company announcement that it’s collaborating with the Brightline, a privately funded effort to create a higher-speed rail service between some of Florida’s biggest cities, gives energy to flagging efforts to develop better rail options in the U.S. With Virgin’s new stake in the company—the exact amount hasn’t been disclosed—Brightline becomes Virgin Trains. The company will be rebranded throughout its existing network, which stretches from Miami to West Palm Beach, cutting the two-hour journey by car in rush hour to just an hour by train (with a top speed of 120 miles per hour and average speed of 80, it’s technically higher-speed, not high-speed, rail). Permission was also granted to expand the service to Orlando, and eventually, the two companies hope, they’ll be able to add a link to Tampa as well.

Richard Branson, of Virgin Group, waves as he arrives on a Brightline train, Thursday, April 4, 2019, in West Palm Beach, Fla. The state’s Brightline passenger trains are being renamed Virgin Trains USA after Branson invested in the new fast-rail project that is scheduled to connect Miami with Orlando.

Branson’s bet on improved rail in the U.S. isn’t limited to Florida, where it also happens to offer synergy with Virgin travel brands, such as flights and cruise ships. He’s reportedly exploring a $7 billion Vegas-to-Los Angeles project, and seeing if others routes between big hubs, such as St. Louis and Chicago or Charlotte and Atlanta, may be feasible.

It’s a bullishness that’s typically lacking in discussions on high-speed rail in the United States, and it comes not a moment too soon for supporters of the long-deferred dream of modern train networks across America.

So far this year, two of the most promising options for high-speed rail have been downgraded or faced renewed opposition. Just as environmental groups and progressive politicians coalesce around the Green New Deal, which promotes high-speed rail as a way to cut carbon emissions generated by transportation, the feasibility of such a modern rail line seems even more implausible.

Unfortunately, for those who want to see high-speed rail succeed and spread across the country, the most well-known example of such a project is the over-budget, overdue boondoggle in California. In February, new Governor Gavin Newsom spoke to the realities of funding and political support for the project and said its Los Angeles-to-San Francisco ambitions would be put on hold, with the focus squarely set on the segment between the Central Valley cities of Merced and Bakersfield.

His statements initially spooked rail advocates into believing the entire project was being canceled; he later reiterated his support and said he believes working on more immediate goals made the most sense. Initial confusion aside, there’s no doubt the project is a “cautionary tale” with “serious problems,” as Curbed’s Alissa Walker wrote in February.

Is a Japanese shinkansen-style high-speed rail in the future for Texas commuters?

The California project may be saved, perhaps by seeking separate, regional funding solutions for each of the main sections of the 520-mile LA-to-San-Francisco stretch. But Newsom’s retreat complicates the overall plan, Walker argues. Now it’s more difficult to get federal funds, and there are more question marks around how the entire line gets constructed.

Across the country—as well as the political and philosophical spectrum—a plan to link up Houston and Dallas with high-speed rail is hitting roadblocks in Texas, specifically the legislature.

Led by Texas Central Railway, a private company, the project offers a funding option significantly different than the California model. The plan to create a Japanese-style bullet train that would provide a 90-minute trip between the two biggest cities in Texas would use no state or local funds, while adopting Japanese technology and Spanish operational support.

The company, which has raised more than $450 million in funding, seems to have a clear runway to move forward. It’s hit all its goals so far, with total construction cost estimated at $12 to $15 billion. The proposed route, through a flat stretch of mostly rural land, is much easier and less expensive than laying track across California’s varied terrain. Texas Central Railway says it’s set to break ground once safety and environmental permits come through, which could be as soon as later this year.

The concept of high-speed rail has always had its detractors in Texas, who mostly fear that even a privately funded system that doesn’t take a dime of public funding will fail and leave the state to pay the bills.

“We’re under no illusion that those people have figured out the first fully funded, self-sustaining high-speed rail over its entire existence in the world,” Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, told CityLab. “The possibility of that is so minute and slim that it’s just not reasonable.”

But this year, the opposition has been even more fierce, and in many cases, directed from the Statehouse. In February, a lawsuit contended that Texas Central wasn’t technically a railroad, since it hadn’t laid a single line of track, and therefore didn’t deserve to use to right of eminent domain to seize needed property to lay track.

The Texas Tribune reports that opponents in the Texas State Legislature plan to file and vote on a blizzard of bills meant to disrupt, delay, or stop the bullet train. There’s even an entire subcommittee dedicated to managing the various fights over the project. While much of the legislative battle remains to be fought, these new roadblocks add more setbacks to an already colossal infrastructural undertaking.

California may figure out a better way to fund, permit, and build the remaining sections of its high-speed rail line. Texas Central might prevail against legislative bullying and pushback. And Branson may bring a bit of British know-how and substantial resources to the effort to set up functioning, modern rail lines across the U.S.

But while supporters still champion the dream of more environmentally sustainable and speedier passenger rail, the fact that it’s so difficult to get trains to run for so many different reasons suggests high-speed rail has many hurdles to overcome to gain momentum in the U.S.

Even Florida, which arguably has a system in the works, definitely doesn’t see train travel as a key part of the state’s long-term transit plan. Legislators there just passed a plan to build three massive toll expressways through different stretches of rural Florida, projects that would potentially cost more than $10 billion to complete. That could buy many miles of train track, but Florida leaders don’t seem interested in trying.

bottom of page