America’s missing high-speed trains

An underperforming superpower

Though they are often dozens of metres long and weight hundreds of tons, sometimes trains can be hard to pin down, like the Nazi train filled with gold that has intrigued treasure hunters for decades. And it’s also the case with American high-speed trains, which are impossible to find anywhere, from the forests of Montana to the Texas desert. And that’s precisely because they don’t exist. Yep, you read that right: there are no real high-speed railway lines in the world’s greatest superpower. Only a handful of trains on the east coast get anywhere close, but the journeys are so short that the trains don’t reach top speeds. It’s an astonishing quirk that can be put down to a mix of historic, demographic, geographical and cultural factors.

The first is the density of the US population. With only around 35 inhabitants per square kilometre, much of the territory is pretty much empty and the major cities are very far from one another. TGV-like services are particularly efficient (and profitable) in regions where highly populated big cities are relatively near each other, like in many European and Asian countries. And the way cities are laid out also impacts on the relevance of high-speed trains. While European and Asian cities have grown around historic centres, where much of the population is concentrated, a huge proportion of Americans live in sprawling suburbs, made up largely of homes with surrounding gardens. That means that cars are pretty much necessary at the start and end of any train journey.

Add to that the culture of car ownership, bolstered by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act which so enrages Numtots. Many Americans will drive anywhere and for any purpose, whether to go shopping or visit their family at the other end of the country. The road trip has become a prized experience in itself, encouraged by dozens of books, films and TV series on the subject. Meanwhile, another factor that could explain the lack of railway lines in the USA is the rigour of property rights in the country. This makes buying land for railway lines extremely complicated and expensive.

Despite these obstacles, one high-speed line was built between the Californian cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, connecting them in just two hours and 40 minutes. Voted through by locals in 2008, the project was initially set to cost $33 billion and be running by 2020. Fourteen years later, only an initial 171-mile section is under construction, linking a few cities in California. But the budget has got out of control. Published in February 2022 by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the project was set to cost a whopping $105 billion. Three months on, this has already climbed to $113 billion.

As for when the trains will actually start running, California’s railway authority is aiming for 2030, with the works set to accelerate in the intervening period. According to The New York Times, the projections used by those in charge of the project show that up to $1.8 million is being spent each day on the project, though this is no guarantee that deadlines will be met. And the newspaper has also reported that the California High-Speed Rail Authority thinks the railway will never see the light of day in its final form. The $100 billion required to connect up Los Angeles and San Francisco is by no means guaranteed to be forthcoming.

The soaring budgets and delays didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re largely the result of political compromises made by the various regional authorities. Thus, rather than focusing on passenger transport between the two cities, as SNCF recommended, the route has been complicated to satisfy the greatest number of stakeholders possible. So much so, that the French railway operator, which had been advising on the initiative in hope of obtaining a major contract, upped sticks and quit the project. In fact, it’s said SNCF instead opted to focus on the high-speed network being developed in Morocco, which it deemed much less dysfunctional. It’ll still be quite some time before you see a high-speed train hurtling through California, Wyoming or Idaho.

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