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Construction Begins On The Nation’s First High-Speed Rail, But It’s Already Behind The Times

It will be at least 15 years before you can fly down the California coast on the rails. By that point, imagine what you’ll be able to do in Japan.

After more than a decade of planning and controversy, California is finally breaking ground on the nation’s first truly high-speed rail project at a ceremony attended by Governor Jerry Brown in Fresno today. By its estimated completion date in 2029, the full system is supposed to move passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours at speeds more than 200 mph.

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The U.S. has always lagged behind countries in Europe and Asia in rail transportation service. While Japan was building its bullet trains in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. focused on its gas-guzzling interstate system, and the two nations’ transportation trajectories continued from there. Today, Amtrak’s woefully old and congested infrastructure ensures that even its high-speed Acela service in the Northeast crawls at average speed about 70 to 80 mph–not the 150 mph it’s capable of (the U.S. DOT defines high-speed as above 125 mph). The California project, which began being formally planned back in 1996 and was approved in a state ballot measure in 2008, has been mired in over a decade of lawsuits and debates ongoing to this day over how to fund its $68 billion construction.


Let’s give California the benefit of the doubt and say the project will be completed on schedule 15 years from now. The sad thing is that the whole thing already looks incredibly outdated compared to newer, more advanced, and more efficient systems being built and planned around the world.

Already, in China, Japan and Germany, the fastest trains exceed 300 mph, with Japan testing its new 311 mph maglev train service in November. And in 2017, China is supposed to complete a 1,390-mile route connecting Beijing and Hong Kong, which with just the Beijing to Guangzhou portion, already is running as the longest high-speed rail line in the world. Even Saudi Arabia and Turkey are well along the way to completing their own high-speed service. And the cheapest high-speed rail ticket? That goes to France’s “budget rail-line” Ouigo, launched in 2013, that runs from Paris to Southeastern France for as little as 10 euros. (Watch a day of France’s high-speed rail here and see what we’re missing).


That’s not to say that California’s rail line is the only high-speed rail project the U.S. has in the works, but it is the most concrete and far along today. In Texas, a private company–with the help of advice from the Central Japan Railway Company–wants to move forward on plans to connect Dallas and Houston with a 90-minute train ride. And a group of investors from the U.S. and Japan wants to take riders from Washington, D.C., to New York in only an hour on a maglev train. Of course, there’s always Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, a far-looking futuristic proposal that seemed crazy when he proposed it in 2013, but is actually making some small progress courtesy of 100 volunteer experts working on fleshing out the designs.

Of course, there’s nothing that actually requires the U.S. ever have a rail infrastructure that lives up to the rest of the world’s best systems, or even its mediocre ones. Opponents of high-speed rail projects use all kinds of arguments against these plans, such as the high cost, low ridership, low speeds, and environmental impacts along routes. But the U.S.’s carbon footprint isn’t shrinking, and congestion in major cities is only growing–both problems that high-speed rail helps alleviate, reducing the need for people to drive cars and take flights. The U.S. High Speed Rail Association offers this inspiring map of what a system in the U.S. could look like. We are a long, long way from achieving that. However flawed the California project is, it’s at least getting started.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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