A $53 Billion Plan to Bring High-Speed Rail to the U.S.

It's no secret that the U.S. lags behind countries throughout Europe and Asia in the high-speed rail department. In 2009, the Obama administration announced a plan to catch the country up with an $8 billion high-speed rail project. But apparently, that wasn't enough money.

Earlier today, Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a strategy to spend a whopping $53 billion on high-speed rail over the next six years. It's a plan that will, according to Biden, bring the U.S. closer to giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail in the next 25 years—a goal highlighted in Obama's recent State of the Union address.

In the next year alone, the government will spend $8 billion on developing three corridors: a Core Express with trains traveling at speeds of 125-250 mph or higher, regional lines with train speeds of 90-125 mph, and emerging rail corridors with trains traveling up to 90 mph (to provide people access to the Core Express and regional lines).

More details will be revealed next week along with Obama's upcoming budget, but Republicans are already attacking the plan. "Rail projects that are not economically sound will not ‘win the future.’ It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidizing a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even. Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will," said Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster in a statement.

If previous experiences in planning high-speed rail corridors in the U.S. are any indication, the government will fight naysayers for the entire building process (see Trains magazine's piece about the battle between freight trains and passenger trains). We'll find out how well Obama's plan works soon enough; a high-speed route in Florida spanning from Tampa to Orlando will start construction this year and finish in 2014.

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[Image by Ivan Walsh]

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14 Comments

  • Nitin Alabur

    So, people opposing subsidies for the high speed rail are fine with subsidies for Boeing?

    Its such a farce to oppose high speed rail just because of the spending and the subsidies. Opposers need to look at the larger picture of the benefits of the High Speed Rail instead of just worrying about the money spent.

    Out of all the money invested, the only money that'll go out of US is if US decides to buy the trains and the technology from an another country. The rest, including the subsidies every year will be going to the American citizen's pocket (who are involved even remotely to the project).

    This is much much better than billions being spent on subsidizing Boeing, and defense projects, which are never accounted as subsidies when air travel is compared to HSR!

    PS: I am not an American, so I am even more bewildered at such an opposition by Americans who claim to be the do gooders of America!

  • Mark

    It's a minor detail, but those two spike lines to Montreal and Vancouver are going to require some sort of investment north of the border. Given the lack of dedicated track for VIA Rail, I will be interested to see how this plays out. Of course, the great irony would be if Canada invested in these routes, only to leave the Windsor - Quebec City high-speed study languising on the shelf for another year.

  • Connie Glover

    This country absolutely needs an alternative to air travel. And auto travel for that matter. It's a shame that it has taken us so long to start exploring this. Are we still being held hostage by the oil and airline lobbyists? Is that it? I'm at the point now where I try and find any other alternative to going someplace if it means I have to suffer through air travel. But beyond that is the opportunity for jobs, and jobs that are high quality; putting people to work at levels from the factory floors to engineers.

    I recently visited Madison, WI, a fantastic example of a progressive city, setting a national example for sustainable communities. Except that their newly elected governor immediately, within weeks of taking office, destroyed the high speed rail project that would connect all of the major midwestern cities, and open up job opportunities and commerce throughout the midwest. I panicked, worried that this might be our national mindset.

    Government spending is out of control, yes. But we could always stop the ineffective bailouts, among other things. We shouldn’t be nay-saying this type of innovation and progress because of stupid government spending when we could actually do something smart. Let's try to be forward thinking for a change.

    office, put d

  • hemidude

    I find it tiresome for those that try and marginalize opposing thought with put downs like "small thinking" and "self-indulgent". Government spending is completely out of control. If any of us spent like the government, we would have long ago been sent to jail. Until spending is reset to current income realities, talking about spending billions and billions and billions on something that may or may not ever make sense for our society is not only frivolous, it is irresponsible. Having the newest, fastest, shiniest new thing is not worth the increased debt. How about this - before billions are invested in fast trains, how about meaningful spending reductions, ending the two wars, closing 100 or 200 bases around the world, or at least start charging these nations for our services, and reduce our national spending by a trillion.

  • Amanda Iseri

    I agree with Robie- I like the idea of trains- but not if it makes traveling considerably longer and costs more to ride.

    Also, what happened to freight trains and transporting cargo on tracks? Although it's a slightly different topic, it would clear up the roads and freeways and just seems to make more sense (one large freight per semi-truck , or hundreds per train and ship?...hard question) This wouldn't change traveling modes for us, but would clear many of the roads.

  • Nic

    While some may not be inclined to ride the rail, there are a number of people who would and do. Living in Chicago, I frequently take the rail to St Louis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It's more economical than driving, even though I own a Prius (a round-trip ticket ~$15-50). In times where we need to revitalize the economy and create investment (of any sort), I applaud the courage in doing something vs. the expectation that private industry will fill the void.

  • Steve Balduino

    I've never traveled by high-speed rail in Europe but can anyone shed light on the COST of the cost for a trip? With time for completion of a massive project like this aside, I love the concept and the alternative to air travel.

  • Mark

    Hi Steve,

    I purchased a return ticket from London - Paris a few weeks ago for £69. With everything included, cost came to £89, which is about $140 USD, I think. Comfortable, convenient, and quick! I'd love to have the same experience when I return to North America.

  • RG Gray

    Innovation requires you to look beyond the obvious. Innovation of the US rail system is going to have to take place for reasons that should be obvious to all that have to travel more than a couple of times a year. Your argument based on todays issues with inefficiencies of time (speed) and cost are the basic reasons for the need to modernize.

    A look at tomorrow. One major problem is congestion at our airports and on our roads. Every study points to towards an increase in air travel. Airport expansion in major hubs is also an extremely expensive proposition if possible. That’s before you add in the cost of environmental impact.

    Increased demand will increase the cost. Getting a jetliner airborne burns a lot of fuel. With China and India’s development demand for that commodity will also increase in cost. A quick look at the proposed rail map with minimal foresight identifies many areas where high speed rail makes very good sense.

    Any experienced business traveller will tell you that the overall airport experience has significantly deteriorated. Much of that is due to both congestion as well as security concerns. The US will require high speed rail to satisfy demand at a reasonable cost.

  • mountain julie

    With oil reserves in question, the expense of traveling by plane or car will make the train economical.

  • Bruce Strahan

    If they do ask, I for one will welcome the possibility of high speed train networks. I have traveled throughout Europe and would take high speed trains every time over planes, even if the price is equal. Even slow AMTRAK is a great alternative for traveling the corridors between DC and Boston. Can it pay for itself to the point of not requiring subsidies? Maybe not, but how will we know without some prototypes in some logical corridors?
    It is going to take creative and bold moves to move us away from the status quo approaches to energy and transportation -- fortunately not everyone thinks about answers for the future based on our biases of the past. Sadly, at a time when so much change and creative, strategic thinking is needed, our fundamental issue right now in the US is that our leaders have little incentives for looking into bold moves. Our tiny thinking, self-indulgent society loves to destroy new ideas (and their inventor) before anyone can even see if the idea has merit.

  • Robie Wood

    I admittedly now nothing about the machinations of train lines (e.g. who owns the lines, etc.) but I checked out of curiosity how much it would cost to take a train to Cincinnati. 18 hours! Not to mention it cost $40 more than flying. While I am all for having diverse options in travel, let the market rule. Are there companies clamoring to start railroad lines that are just being held back by the infrastructure?

  • Michael Carr

    Before jumping in with $53 billion for High Speed Rail, did they even ask anyone in the traveling public if they were interested in using a system like this? Typical government logic "Build it, and who cares if they come."

    I, for one, can't stand traveling by train, and would only use such a mode if the price was so low, and the service so high that it would far outstrip air travel. But we all know that won't happen, so what are they thinking?

  • Philippe Martinez

    HI Michael,
    Maybe you can't stand traveling by train because the US system is outdated? If you had experienced trains in Europe or Japan you might think differently.
    For example, to travel from downtown Paris to downtown Marseille you can choose to do it by car, by plane or by train:by car it will take about 8 hours, by plane about 5 hours (45 min to go to the airport, where you have to be one hour before your hour and a half flight, wait to get your luggage then another 45 min to get to Marseille). By train it would take 3 hours...