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Is High-Speed Rail the Future, or a Fantasy?

There are plenty of good reasons to expand high-speed rail (HSR) in the U.S. Widespread HSR could alleviate traffic congestion in crowded metropolitan areas, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, and give the airlines some competition on shorter inter-city routes. All noble causes, to be sure, but last week Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary Ray LaHood offered a potentially more convincing argument: Jobs.

“Our goal is to develop a national high-speed rail network, create good jobs here in America and help reinvigorate our manufacturing base,” LaHood said, following a conference on domestic HSR manufacturing. “We know these are tough economic times for many folks and we believe that U.S. rail manufacturers and suppliers will benefit greatly from this new program. We also look forward to establishing joint ventures with foreign firms who can provide expertise and establish or expand their operations here in the U.S.”

Super-fast train service is one of President Obama’s priorities, and appears to be emerging as a cog in his administration’s jobs-development plans for the coming year. The stimulus bill, passed in March, directed $8 billion toward HSR development. During his days as a senator, Vice President Joe Biden famously rode Amtrak from his home in Delaware to Washington. In short, the administration has HSR on the brain.

But will we ever have it on the ground?

Only one high-speed rail line currently exists in the U.S.: the Acela Express, which travels between Boston and Washington, D.C., via New York City. If you’ve ever taken the Acela (and I have, several times, between Boston and New York), you know that it’s comfortable, spacious, and quiet, but not especially fast. The Acela can top out at 150 miles per hour, but its average speed is roughly half that, which places it well below the usual speeds found in Europe and Japan. In fact, much of the experience, at least between Boston and New York, is indistinguishable from that of the Metroliner, Amtrak’s conventional (and much less expensive) train service. Is it quicker? Yes. Is it a lot quicker? Not really.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with HSR in this country: After decades of improvements to road and air, there literally isn’t any room for the long, straight tracks needed for true high-speed train service. Governments in Europe, by contrast, long ago invested in rail, and built infrastructure necessary to have a good HSR system. Here in the U.S., we have, up until now, made do with what have, which is old passenger and freight rail.

But these well-established areas are exactly the types of places the Obama administration has its eye on. Make no mistake: the President doesn’t envision thousand-mile tracks spanning the breadth of our nation. Instead, he sees a number of 100- to 600-mile intercity and regional corridors aimed at connecting metropolitan areas, thus reducing the stress placed on our highways and airports. (The full strategic plan can be found here.)

And if you ask Charles Leocha, founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, that’s just fine. “Though we are seeing images of bullet trains and hearing stories of 110 mph trains, reality is that our high-speed rail money is going to improve existing infrastructure to get rail ready to begin moving forward toward higher speeds,” he says. “If the government moves toward developing an intercity type of system with relatively fast trains (79-95 mph), the rail system could make a difference in the way Americans travel within a decade.”

But what about the cost? Let’s return to the Acela as an example. I priced a one-way ticket on the Acela from Boston to Washington, D.C., for next Tuesday (December 15). The lowest price I could find was $149 for a six-hour-and-forty-minute trip. Or I could book an hour-and-a-half JetBlue flight for $82, including taxes.

Oddly enough, Acela’s fare between Boston and New York that day beats the lowest airfare by $10. But the catch is obvious: The Acela takes three-and-a-half hours; flying takes about an hour-and-fifteen-minutes. True, the Acela deposits you in the heart of midtown Manhattan, but flying stll means a shorter trip even when you factor in travel to and from the airports.

So in order for HSR to compete for our travel dollars, the rail industry must revaluate its cost to the consumer. Train travel generally offers a better experience, as long as you’re not in a rush. Acela seats are big, similar to business class on an airline (42 inches of legroom!), and both Penn and Union stations are centrally located in New York and Washington, D.C., respectively. Train travel does offer a strong value angle.

But most of us think with our wallets, and understandably so. Unless train service makes a compelling financial case to consumers, it will likely struggle to compete with short-haul air travel. And according to Leocha, rail’s ability to compete financially depends on how much the government invests in infrastructure improvements. “We have to recognize that the government has a massive up-front investment in the highway systems that makes automobile travel viable and has connected every corner of our nation with the Interstate system,” he says. “If we spend similar amounts of money on the rail infrastructure, the cost to consumers will be affordable and will offer an attractive intercity alternative to air or car travel.”

So should HSR hopefuls keep dreaming of speedy, affordable train service in the U.S.? “Mass transit projects are always difficult to pass,” Leocha says, “[but] the usage almost always exceeds expectations. I think it will be the same for intercity rail. Travelers will look at the total comparison of car vs. rail vs. air. In most cases of travel between 150 and 300 miles, rail can compete with auto and air in time and costs when all factors are included.”

Definitely something to watch in the coming years.

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