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Would high-speed rail work in the US?

Overseas, the concept is already reality. While the U.S. was in the throes of building highways, Japan opened the world's first high-speed railway.
Posted at 4:20 PM, Feb 08, 2023

Over 100 years ago, the invention of the streetcar made the country accessible like never before. Tracks stretched from bustling city centers into rural areas, turning empty land into neighborhoods.  

Farmers could catch a train and sell goods statewide, businesses got wealthier and cities grew. But the dominance of public transit didn't last once people got a newer, more convenient way to get around. Suddenly automobiles crowded narrow city streets, driving down streetcar tracks and creating a problem never seen before — massive traffic jams.  

Streetcars couldn’t keep up with the private, modern comfort of an automobile. Maintenance costs rose, service dropped and streetcar monopolies started going bankrupt. 

Private companies like General Motors purchased failing rail companies and converted them into bus lines, while the government signed off on a $25 billion interstate highway system. 

That brings us to 2023, where typical commuters spend at least 51 hours a year sitting in traffic. In times like these Andy Kunz dreams of a better way to get around — with high-speed rail. Kunz is the CEO and president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy and trade group dedicated to advancing fast rail across the country. 

"The on time performance, the high capacity, the comfort levels, you know, have great food on the trains. There's no security hassles," Kunz said. 

From traffic woes to climate to affordable housing, he says high speed rail is a silver bullet solution. 

"It's extremely affordable transport. You can now have access to great job centers, you know, much quicker, much more conveniently, without all the headaches and the hassles and the energy consumption of of road congestion," he said. 

Overseas – the concept is already reality. While the U.S. was in the throes of building highways, Japan opened the world’s first high-speed rail network in 1964. It carries over 400,000 people around the country every day. 

Europe came next, starting in France with a 200-mile-an-hour inter-city rail line, which snowballed into the international rail network we see today. 

But China’s system outgrew them all, constructing over 26,000 miles of train lines, in less than 30 years. It's now serving nearly two billion people a year. 

Could the same type of transit work here in the U.S.? 

Marc Buncher, with Siemens Mobility, says there’s a key reason other countries have been successful.  

"It's a heavy investment from the government that helps it move forward. And that's what we haven't had here," Buncher said. 

President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure plan allocated $65 billion for rail. While it’s the largest investment in American rail in history — none of it was earmarked for high-speed trains. 

And according to Kunz, the nation will need much more than that to build out his association’s proposed 17,000 miles of new track. 

"That would probably cost around $600 billion to build," Kunz said. 

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Building a high-speed network isn’t as simple as putting faster trains on already-existing rails. It would mean overhauling  infrastructure from building brand-new train tracks, stations and modernizing the electric grid — all while cutting through miles of public and private land.  

Bureaucratic hoops, from land permits to environmental regulations, also make it difficult for the U.S. to build as quickly and cheaply as other countries. 

"There is no standardization. There's no federal leadership on it. So you're in a situation where we're trying to figure this out from from the start," Kunz said. 

California's High-Speed Rail Authority Project is the nation’s only bullet train currently under construction and aims to eventually connect San Diego to San Francisco. 

Voters approved the $33 billion project in 2008 — with the state optimistic the line would open in 2020. 

But three years past the deadline, California is just now working on a "starter" line in the middle of the state, set to open in 2030 with a new overall price tag of $113 billion.

"They've got three major mountain ranges. You've got highways everywhere you look, plus, California is a huge state. Of course, it's going to be the most expensive system in the country," Kunz said. 

Rail advocates have struggled to get more political support. There is currently no federal plan in the U.S.  

And some lawmakers in California echo national concerns the trains cost taxpayers too much and will be outdated by the time they open. 

"It's a nice dream. It’s time to wake up from it though, and own up to the fact that it’s not going to be built in our lifetime," Sen. Steve Glazer said.  

But Buncher is confident that when California’s line is complete, it will transform the way Americans view train travel. 

"Once the technology is here and it's proven to be safe, people will see the benefits of it. And I know when that when they connect these two cities, there will be a stop in the middle of it that creates another city. And when when other states see that, that everybody's going to want it," Buncher said. 

And Kunz says this undertaking isn’t anything America hasn’t been through. His vision is reminiscent of the dreams laid before by the interstates, of an interconnected country with unlimited access. 

"Even for like rural areas, this just brings rural people back into our economy and connects them. This is something that really is something in it for everybody in this country,' Kunz said.