“THIS IS THE reinvention of train travel in America,” Patrick Goddard, a dapper Irishman and the president of Virgin Trains USA, declared in late June. The path to reinvention traveled through a nondescript platform outside Orlando International Airport, where Goddard and area luminaries had gathered for the groundbreaking of the company’s new Orlando-to-Miami route. It was made possible by 67 wealthy investors, who had collectively financed the project with $1.75 billion in private bonds.
“We decided, ‘Everyone in America uses cars because the rail network is run by the government – and they have nothing like what we have in Europe,’” Virgin founder and British magnate Richard Branson told the Miami Herald in April.
For decades, countries such as China, Spain and Turkey have connected distant cities with rail links of 200 mph or faster while American infrastructure has languished. The country’s only moderately high-speed train, Amtrak’s Acela Express, which spans from Boston to Washington, briefly reaches a top speed of 150 mph. But now that several new private sector efforts are underway, will American cities finally catch up?
In 1964, the world’s first high-speed train network, known as yume no chotokkyu – the “super express of dreams” – cut travel time between Tokyo and Osaka by more than half and established Japan, still reeling from World War II, as a global technology leader. Since then some two dozen countries have added their own high-speed routes, including Russia and Uzbekistan. Their impact on whole regions is often dramatic: Destination cities become accessible even for day trips, while secondary cities are pulled into the cultural and commercial orbit of major centers.
“Europe really has been transformed by the implementation of these new high-speed rail lines,” says Deike Peters, an assistant professor of environmental planning at California’s Soka University. New or upgraded stations, if planned well, can jump-start an “urban renaissance effect,” she says.
A century before Japanese riders ever saw a bullet train, it was the U.S. that led the world in railroad infrastructure. In the 1860s, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad facilitated the growth of California and the West. A few decades later, a locomotive in New York became the first train in the world to surpass 100 miles per hour; at its peak, in 1916, the country’s network extended more than 250,000 route-miles.
But while other nations continued investing in train travel, including in multibillion-dollar high-speed projects, American passenger rail atrophied. The fall was dictated both by the rise of the interstate system and the free market: While tracks and other infrastructure are typically nationalized elsewhere, American railroads – unlike American freeways or American airports – are privately owned. (The passenger service Amtrak, which began in 1971, is government owned.) The short-term accountability to shareholders, says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, has often precluded American rail companies from making transformative long-term investments.
“As a country,” says Harnish, “we’ve been letting that network decline now for over a century.”
In 2009, as part of the broad stimulus package, President Barack Obama allotted $8 billion toward a new national high-speed rail network; the administration pledged $53 billion more in state grants two years later. Fierce Republican opposition – ostensibly because of fiscal responsibility concerns – killed several initiatives on arrival, including projects in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio.
“We’re talking about nothing short of transforming transportation much the same way the interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower,” an exasperated then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wrote in 2010. “Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said, ‘No thanks – we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere?’”
Federal funding ultimately was granted to California and to Illinois, where crews in 2010 began work on a decades-planned upgrade between Chicago and St. Louis. The proposal called for an increase from a current maximum speed of 79 mph to 110 mph. In 2013, the state also studied a possible 220 mph link from O’Hare airport to St. Louis and Indianapolis, a speed that would reduce the more than five-hour trips to about two. In December, after years of construction and complications implementing a new safety technology, Illinois officials projected the majority of the Chicago-St. Louis line would reach 90 mph by the end of this year, and declined to give a timetable for 110 mph.
“It’s got brand-new signals, all the track is just in beautiful shape … all the stations are either brand-new or almost-new rehab, and we got new locomotives that are running and new coach cars that are on the way, so it’s been a fantastic investment,” says Harnish. But the project was originally promoted as high-speed rail, he notes, “and having that not happen makes it very difficult to talk about the huge advances.”
The California project has fared far worse. In February, incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom admitted the state’s highly ambitious, $100 billion Los Angeles-San Francisco bullet train network remained a pipe dream: After countless delays, cost increases, and municipal battles, only a small amount of track has been built, in the state’s Central Valley, and the project’s future remains uncertain.
“It is a catastrophe,” says Jim Patterson, a Republican state assemblyman and prominent project critic. “This is a multibillion-dollar collapse.”
But private sector projects are advancing. In the densely populated Northeast Corridor a company called Northeast Maglev is in the early stages of a project that could eventually connect Washington and New York City in one hour. Virgin’s Orlando-to-Miami network, which will top out at 125 mph, is projected to start running in 2022. The company’s 70 mph Miami-to-West Palm Beach trains began operating early last year. Branson has said he’s “100% confident” the high-speed route will soon extend to Tampa; the company is also seeking funding for a high-speed line between Las Vegas and greater Los Angeles.
In Texas – a state with large and growing cities spread over vast distances – a company called Texas Central, backed by Citigroup and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, is promising to accept no taxpayer subsidies and has competed with SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, to open the region’s first network.
SNCF has previously pitched the Federal Railroad Administration on a “T-Bone” route connecting most of the state’s major cities at 125 mph; Texas Central, using Japanese Shinkansen trains and partnering with the Spanish operator Renfe, is developing a new high speed-only line between Houston and Dallas. Its Texas Bullet Train would run at an initial 186 mph, connecting two of the country’s largest metro regions in under 90 minutes.
The Texas Bullet Train – which has pulled ahead of the SNCF project – has faced a swell of opposition: Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers proposed 11 separate opposition bills, since failed, that sought to kill the network over concerns about property rights. But most Texans do want better mass transit: A majority of respondents in one 2011 University of Texas survey said they’d even commit tax dollars toward new intercity passenger rail.
The Texas Central project, says Peter LeCody, president of the nonprofit Texas Rail Advocates, represents the state’s best chance for high-speed rail. And after a favorable Department of Transportation ruling last week, the company could begin construction as soon as next year.
Passengers, adds LeCody, don’t care how the operation is funded. “We just want to get the doggone thing going.”