Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Let’s Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead

My latest blog post, and one sure to make some people unhappy, is up over at New Geography and is called “Let’s Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead.” In it, I argue that a mix of a fiscal crisis, Republican takeovers in the US House and in state houses, a poorly executed HSR program at the federal level (such as frittering away the HSR stimulus and not addressing regulatory hurdles), and unseriousness by most advocates has basically doomed the HSR project. A serious rethink is required.

Some have pointed to a bit of already in the pipeline money such as that which is earmarked for a short Central Valley segment in California as proof that HSR isn’t dead. But as in flight funds drain out of the system, it doesn’t seem likely any significant amounts will be forthcoming. Hopefully at least the Northeast Corridor investments will proceed in some way.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t potential value in high speed rail. It’s clearly needed in the Northeast Corridor for example, and perhaps some other places. (A lot of the proposals are outright boondoggles, however). But I don’t see how any major national system like the one envisioned in the map above gets off the ground any time soon.

Topics: Transportation


20 Responses to “Let’s Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead”

  1. CityBeautiful21 says:

    Aaron, having just read your NG piece, I agree with you that the HSR program is in rough water. However, I think the piece has a considerable weakness in that many of the critiques (explaining why HSR is in this position) you level could be equally targeted to any piece of publicly funded infrastructure and not merely HSR.

    Let’s review:

    1. Perception of stimulus failure, which was a successfully waged media campaign from one side of the aisle. The stimulus bill was what, $800-$900 billion dollars? $8 billion went for HSR. Regardless of how HSR turned out, the perception of success/failure of the stimulus was going to be determined largely by other components.

    2. Putting $$$ towards the wrong projects. The CA and FL projects would have been true 150-mph plus operations, and after the money from WI and OH was redirected, almost half of the program was going into those projects. I agree that the others were overselling HSR the way other projects oversell BRT transit as equal to light rail. The OH project was ridiculous. But the Cascadia and NC/VA projects were decent investments, and given my next point, I don’t think the Midwest projects were bad investments, either. But why was this the outcome? The stimulus bill needed to get through a Congress with 60 votes in the Senate. This outcome is a fault of the state of how Congress works first and foremost, not HSR. Trace some of the highway spending in the stimulus to rural areas with negative job growth to see more on this subject.

    3. Your FRA comments are unfounded. Please link to some commentary where HSR advocates are saying that the “FRA is not a critical part of the problem, let’s leave them be.” I’ve followed the HSR issue closely and seen nothing of the sort. Sure, Amtrak could be improved, but the lack of criticism on the pro-rail side for Amtrak is a mirror-image of the anti-rail folks who disingenuously suggest they want to “improve” Amtrak while putting forth legislation that they are 95% sure will terminate the agency.

    There are really three core problems with bringing true TGV-style HSR in America to fruition.

    The first is the difficulty and expense of buying land for new lines in the places where HSR would work best. Our sprawling cities have fewer rural and semi-rural expenses surrounding them than do European cities where it is easy to get land for fast, straight lines.

    The second is that the propulsion technology for true HSR (electricity) is not shared with the propulsion technology for the legacy system everywhere off the NEC, (petroleum products)which makes the incrementalization of HSR investment much more difficult here than it was in, say, France or Germany, who have run electric passenger lines for decades since WW2.

    The third is that our present politics prevent us having from a mature conversation about infrastructure investment in the US. The incentives of Congress are about as unaligned with the needs of citizens and communities as I’ve seen them in my lifetime, and the decision framework of the median politician has become months/weeks rather than years/decades. Even if the other two issues were solved, I’m not sure it would matter because the third one has so powerfully hamstrung the USA.

    So, is HSR dead? Maybe. But is highway expansion dead, too? Maybe as well. Mica’s bill has so little money in it there will be pressure to turn it into maintenance-only dollars if a bill that size moves forward. Would that be enough for the bridge deficiencies our engineering societies detail in annual reports? Probably not. How about port security enhancement? Maybe dead. Upgrading the electricity grid? Maybe dead. You get my drift.

    To take this conversation in a more interesting direction, I’d encourage you to propose a framework in which the NEC and at least two other non-BOS-WASH true HSR projects get on the ground, with funding assumptions.

  2. CityBeautiful21, thanks for the comments.

    I’ve been on the mailing lists for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, similar bodies at the national level, etc. and don’t ever recall getting an email from any of them that ever a) said any project labeled “high speed rail” anywhere wasn’t worthwhile or b) said that the FRA needed to be reformed. Heck, for the most part you don’t even see them taking on Amtrak. They just assume Amtrak is the operator.

    Sec. LaHood controls the FRA, yet the Obama Administration, which make HSR a cornerstone of its infrastructure program, really hasn’t grasped the nettle on reforming it or Amtrak.

    I agree completely on the political problems facing not just HSR, but any sort of rational decision making in Washington, as well as the funding shortfalls likely to affect all infrastructure.

    I probably can’t give what you want on the concept corridors since I don’t have enough details to produce the deals. But at a broad brush, I’d probably base the NEC on some variant of the Mica plan. Get the infrastructure under one ownership, bring in private capital for the investment plan, outsource operations to an international company that knows what they are doing.

    I did write up a fairly detailed piece on what a starter Midwest system might look like, though the two cities I picked might not be the best first test cases:

    In the case of entering Chicago from the south, there’s already a very wide, straight ROW along the Illinois Central. It’s a straight shot into downtown on a line that has very little connectivity to the rest of the Chicago south side rail system. In this case, that’s a good thing. And it’s already electrified.

  3. Henry Porter says:

    HSR deserves to die a quick death because it’s benefits would never out weight is costs.

  4. HC GREISMAN says:

    Dear Mr. Renn:

    Apart from the costs-benefits issue, it may be that a lot of Americans simply don’t like trains, high speed or otherwise. Just in my part of the country alone, seems like I’m forever running across this sentiment.

    Up in Niantic CT, the townspeople in this allegedly Progressive community were pretty much united in their opposition to Amtrak’s replacement of a century old trestle on the NE Corridor. Never mind that it was about to collapse; there were all kinds of arguments against it, like impeding marine traffic, messing up a boardwalk, and things like that. It finally got done, but at a cost to the railroad (i.e. taxpayer) that amounted to a stick-up.

    And also in Connecticut, I can’t recall exactly where, there was a huge fracas when the diesels were replaced by electrics. Someone maintained that the power lines generated “electrosmog” (?), and got her whole town mobilized against the changeover.

    Over in New Jersey, south of Trenton, residents fought a light rail line for years. This battle got really bitter, and twenty years after the fact, they still want it shut down. The little trains are so inoffensive it’s hard to imagine how the locals got so worked up. The thing was cast as an “urban intrusion”; I got curious and checked. These tracks were laid out in 1840! I’ll bet those filthy steam locomotives were a lot more “intrusive.”

    I lived in the Washington area during the ‘seventies. This was the scene of the infamous Georgetown opt-out from the Metrorail system then being built. Some years later, just north of town, in the monochrome (Blue) Maryland suburbs there was a similar episode.

    There was a disused freight line connecting the northern suburbs with downtown DC. The traffic in this neighborhood is really horrendous, so it seemed like a natural candidate for light rail. Not so fast! Big, noisy trains had carried coal down to a power plant along these tracks for a hundred years. Still, locals shrieked that the railcars would damage the environment. They even got up a pro bono Brain Trust from the University of Maryland to demonstrate “adverse impacts!”

    The project got killed. And this was in a region that ranks right up near LA with some of the worst traffic jams in the country. There’s a hiking trail there now, just along the right-of-way.

    Maybe some people are afraid that public transit of any kind will bring “Them” out to the suburbs, or into their neighborhoods. Bus service can be easily re-routed or canceled, but rail is more permanent. It could be that most Americans wouldn’t mind riding a tourist railroad with their kids, or a monorail in Disneyworld, or even a high speed train in faraway Europe. But when it comes to “My Back Yard”, it’s a whole different story.


    HC Greisman

  5. Aaron M. Renn says:

    HC, thanks for the comments. You make some great points. I’m always particularly interested to observe how it is some of the bluest of blue, nominally progressive communities (including Evanston, Illinois, where I used to live), which are often the most rife with anti-progressive NIMBY sentiment when it comes to things like transit and transit-oriented densification.

  6. Bill Barrow says:

    The comment about people not wanting to ride trains made me realize that I don’t. Not really. Recently I rode Amtrak from New York to Philadelphia (maybe the Acela) and while there were nice things about it, I sure wouldn’t want to ride it to work every day. Nor the New York subways, which were interesting but a big hassle to depend upon for commuting. I like my car, especially the privacy and flexibility it brings. Maybe we should concentrate on networking the coming fleet of personal electric cars to squeeze maximum efficiency and safety out of them instead of trying to get everyone going from point a to b together in one rigid-route vehicle.

  7. Eric G says:


    What about those of us who hate spending hours in congested traffic, and dread having to get back into the car and drive all the way to [fill in the blank] after a stressful driving commute home from work? The reason many people “don’t like trains” or “prefer their cars”, etc, is *because* of the state of our public transit in America…even New York which is the most transit-friendly city in the country has some very, very sad-looking stations compared the cities in Europe or East Asia where riding the subway is indeed a much more pleasant experience than New York or Chicago (I do like DC’s system, though). And before anyone points out that Shanghai’s and most of Barcelona’s systems are newer, allow me to point out that Paris’ and London’s are old, yet the charm of those stations has been retained. New York’s literally looks like you’re walking through the sewer system…all dark and dungeon-like.

    And a pleasant experience can also be had when commutes are short, which would require few-stop express trains as well as denser living…not necessarily like Calcutta, but bringing say Los Angeles to Paris or Madrid type of density…or even NYC (not necessarily Manhattan, but maybe a Brooklyn-type of density)…these cities are hardly overcrowded. But they DO have more efficient land-use. Los Angeles is a perfect example of inefficient land-use: Putting industrial and warehouse districts in the inner city (instead of the metro’s outskirts), between the CBD and your residential areas is a very inefficient use of land, because CBD emloyees will require a longer commute to the CBD. (At the same time, warehouse and industrial districts need to be automobile-accessible, so it makes sense to place these districts within the outskirts of a metro). Let alone segregated-use zoning, which puts more cars on the road. (Wouldn’t you rather be able to just walk across the street to get your carton of eggs?)

    And I understand that there’s people that do in fact “prefer” the suburban layout (although, a common mistake people make in these debates is to assume that people seek housing in the suburbs purely our of preference, and not because of other factors like school districts, and proximity to work if you work in the suburbs), but even these folks would appreciate some sort of traditional-city elements in their suburb, which is certainly possible. For example, no more cul-de-sacs; create a grid pattern, and you can zone properties along major streets to be high-density (apartments on upper floors and commercial on ground floors), while the properties between main streets -all along the side streets- can be single-family homes, with smaller plots than an exurb (and garage facing an alley to save space), but nonetheless, a quiet side-street where every single-family home gets its front and back yards. This way, people that live in a single-family home and can still be walking distance to a grocery store or transit stop, and in fact, parts of Chicago, New York, and London were in fact designed this way back in the 1920s. It’s a brilliant urban design for a neighborhood that’s on the fringe of a city proper (like Chicago’s northwest side, or NYC’s Queens, for example) and can certainly work very well in the suburbs. In fact, this model is being revived in Chicago’s peripheral neighborhoods in the NW Side, as well as some of Chicago’s inner suburbs.

    So it’s not public transit that’s bad, it’s the way we maintain our systems here in the US, and the way we’ve laid out our cities in the post-WWII era. We seriously need to re-think the way we’ve been designing our cities in the past 50-60 years in this country, instead of just giving up and saying “oh well, Americans don’t like…” The problem is that efficient land-use has not been properly-explained to the American public, a large percentage of whom would in fact very much appreciate a bit more walkability (and less time required commuting) in their daily lives.


    I’ve been following the whole HSR issue, but not as detailed as other folks here. Regardless of this fact, it’s very obvious to me as well that “HSR is dead” in large part due to politics in this country. Wouldn’t you say a large part of it has to do with the way HSR was sold to the American public…I mean when you have all this energy for a project in Florida, which CLEARLY does not need, nor want, nor would even BENEFIT from HSR as much as the NEC and California or even perhaps Chicago-Milwaukee would. And then we have maps showing HSR routes between Mississippi and North Carolina… people will see these as boondoggles, because that’s what they are. The NEC and California, however, sorely need true HSR, and I think part of the reason they’re not getting it is because of the urban-rural divide we have in this country (and the extraordinarily disproportionate political power that rural areas have, and the disproportionate subsidies that they receive at the expense of the cities who foot these bills), just as was beautifully explained in the “states as anachronisms” blog, which BTW, that blog is my BIBLE because it perfectly explains the sad dilemma that cities face in this country. In any other majority-urban country, it’s the cities that run the show, not the rural areas. And we need to change that.

  8. Bill Barrow says:

    I just rode the subway between Manhattan and Queens every day while visiting and thought how I’d “enjoy” the experience if it was a work commute. Ugh. Standing up half the time. No way to carry things. No refreshments. Not the way to end a long, hard day. I do like cities and I do find riding the rails fun, in theory, but guess in practice it asks a lot. Of course in Cleveland where I live, there is little traffic congestion anyway, as a city of 350K was built for three times that density. But have we decided that concentrating our people in cities is a good idea, as asymmetrical warfare becomes the norm? Isn’t concentrating anything — people, infrastructure, water systems, etc. — just painting a bulls-eye on it? Shouldn’t the model be distributed and networked, not concentrated?

  9. Alon Levy says:

    HC: perhaps the source of the NIMBYism in Trenton is that FRA regulations require the train to sound a loud horn at every grade crossing?

  10. Wad says:

    To high-speed rail opponents, nothing here is of interest to you.

    To supporters of high-speed rail, I offer you this postcard (contains strong language).

    You must have forgotten, or never realized to begin with, that IT’S ABOUT THE WIN. It’s not about the facts; data are equal opportunity just like every team comes into a game with the same amount of players and positions for them.

    It’s not about superior intellect. Why is there even a thread about why high-speed rail is dead? Did the opponents make a case that was so compelling and unquestionable that supporters had no other option but to dissolve?

    No, because it wasn’t a battle of wits. It was a political battle in which the victors were overrepresented by paranoia, bigotry, superstition, sociopathy, ignorance, fear and cupidity.

    And it is these people who have so thoroughly defeated and demoralized supporters that right here, on an urban affairs board, they come to this little corner of the Web to cower and tremble like a kicked puppy.

    So the reality has come down to all eight of the posts here being anti-HSR. Please, resist the urge to waste bandwidth and dispute this. Don’t preface it with your alleged support of high-speed rail. One key principle of making a good point is not to make a self-indicting argument. You are just doing your opponents’ work for them. Or in this case, needlessly lashing yourselves for their amusement.

    Personally, I still see the case for American high-speed rail even in the face of unfavorable political or financial events, intimidating opposition and the risk of alienation or other disreputation.

    I see the objective as not the idea for high-speed rail, but a high-speed rail with the objective to lay track, run a train and have a service for people to use.

    That is the real goal. That is THE WIN.

  11. Greg says:

    Well said, Wad. The Tea Party (which supposedly consists of a supermajority of birthers) is mobilized to defeat anything that involves a strategic plan and serious investment to produce a long-term benefit.

    So why the hell aren’t we doing anything about it? I’m tired of watching a bunch of spectacularly uninformed people control the political debate about virtually everything. I’m afraid that engaging the public with eloquent arguments about the merits of public transportation is not going to win any hearts and minds or any funding battles. Our country’s ineffectual public transportation advocates have accomplished almost nothing in Washington over the past several decades. I’m really tired of it.

  12. John Morris says:

    “that involves a strategic plan and serious investment to produce a long-term benefit.”

    Mostly I think Aaron is dead on. The current crop of proponents is just trying to evade the facts in two main areas–

    A) Just how badly Amtrak is both planned and run

    B) How bad the FRA is.

    Adding to this the overall context we are dealing with. America made it’s great, historic “great leap forward” already, with it’s “investment” in the state and national highway system which was supposed to have led us to Futurama. Instead it’s a ball and chain we can’t get away from.

    The realization is just starting to kick in that we don’t have the money for both and sadly we are doubling down on the mostly bad investment, the highway system has turned out to be.

    My title to the post would have been “HSR is dead. Long Live HSR!”, since in this crisis we have the opportunity to grow a new much more privately funded transportation system all around.

  13. Eric G says:


    I didn’t say that public transit in America already *is* enjoyable. I said it *could* be enjoyable with some easy fixes that cities could implement if they weren’t tied down by their state and federal governments who kick around the big cities, and then treat them like ATMs.

    If you’re going from, say, lower Manhattan to Queens, or even from Midtown to the outskirts of Queens (close to NYC city limits, where the Long Island suburbs start), that’s a very long commute. But it doesn’t have to be.

    Without having to subsidize the remainder of their respective states, as well as non-urban red states, cities would be able to invest more in transit…create bypass tracks to allow for fewer-stop express trains, for example (NYC already has a number of express routes)…as well as better city-to-suburb commuter rail projects, and better stations that would in fact make public transit more enjoyable.

    If you have a short commute -just ten or fifteen minutes on a train- then you wouldn’t mind standing.

    And btw, this problem can also be solved by putting more trains on the rails, or more train cars on trains, or even double-decker trains where possible.

    As for needing to “carry things”…that’s what work vehicles are for, for those who actually need to haul things other than a briefcase or backpack, and that isn’t CBD office workers. Which is why I mentioned that it makes most sense to place industrial areas -which require automobiles- within the outskirts of metro areas, not in the center of a city.

    This isn’t about forcing people into “concentrated areas” Most Americans already *are* concentrated into metro areas, which is why we need to male land-use more efficient. Do single-family homes *really* need to be located in land-wasting cul-de-sacs or windy side-streets? What’s wrong with the 1920s Chicago/London model I mentioned above? Unfortunately, we’ve had this model in this country for several decades now which practically forces *inefficient* land use, through uncapped mortgage subsidies (that encourages far too much land per capita), segregated land-use (miles and miles of residential areas, for example, forcing you to drive far for the most mundane tasks…like going to the post office…putting more cars on the roads), intra-urban highway programs (a failed policy, because multi-lane freeways are unfit for intra-urban travel given that they get jammed during peak hours no matter how many lanes are added), and exclusionary zoning laws (which zone out poorer people from various suburbs and evens parts of city propers). I’m not proposing anyone to force anything, just to allow cities to grow naturally -rather than forcing cities to grow in inefficient ways- by combining quality public transit with -yes- more relaxed zoning laws (as well as quality schools). This would in fact make the legacy cities (NYC, Chi, Philly, San Fran, Boston, DC) more appealing, and would also make the sprawling cities (LA, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Minnie, etc) a bit denser over time.

    And that’s because there’s no other option. Most of the rest of the world never caught on to the American post-WWII urban model, and with the urban renaissance that’s being experienced here in the US (and many large firms moving back into cities from the 1980s suburban office campus), it’s quite obvious that large businesses (that need specialized and skilled labor) require centralized locations within a metro area so that their offices can be accessible to the largest possible pool of workers within the respective metro area. These firms also need to be near each other, as well as to smaller businesses that offer specialized services (specialized corporate law, accounting, etc)…hence the rise and renaissance of a walkable Central Business District, where driving is difficult, rendering a public transit system necessary. This is partly why NYC is NYC, and how Chicago remained relevant in post-industrial America.

  14. stlplanr says:

    With oil peaking, pretty much all transportation in the US is dead.

  15. Greg says:

    John, you’re right, Aaron’s analysis is good, which I’m not disputing. But there is more to this story.

    He’s right that Obama’s program has been very poorly implemented, but to me that’s not such a surprise since to my knowledge our federal government has never (a) articulated a coherent vision for what our transportation infrastructure can become, (b) what it will take (dollars and a plan) to get there, or (c) seriously engaged the general public on transportation.

    There is no getting around the fact that the country has to get serious about this issue, and it’s going to take not just a regulatory overhaul, but also an enormous amount of investment in infrastructure from federal govt.

    Sadly, we as a country no longer seem to believe we can accomplish big things like this. And now there are many who don’t even want government to attempt something so bold and enterprising. It’s very frustrating to see more and more Americans embracing national inertia under the idiotic guise of government getting out of the way of the market.

  16. John Morris says:

    My point was somewhat broader.

    In many ways, America did make big bold choices starting in the 1930’s.

    We bet on huge entitlement programs, we bet on “urban renewal”, we bet on the national highway system; we bet on government backed mortgages; we bet on eminent domain-zoning laws and the home mortgage deduction.

    The problem now has more to do with acknowledging that many of these bets were massive errors.

    We see this lack of ability to make choices or to allow alternative choices to develop in the marketplace. We have doubled down on our bad bets.

  17. John Morris says:

    Please don’t go into all the details of when all these bets were made. Yes, this process started before the 1930’s but by the fifties they had formed a complete -if not formally stated policy to create total car dependency and sprawl.

    I meant to put free parking on the list. We bet big time on free parking.

  18. John Morris says:

    I threw in the entitlement programs for an obvious reason in that it provides the overall budget context.

    People who want a new ambitious spending program of any kind have to look at what we have already committed to spending.

  19. Greg says:

    John, well said. I have no quarrel with what you are saying, although infrastructure investments and welfare spending are not really apples to apples. Investments, by definition, are made because of the chance of getting a return on that investment.

    Yes, sadly those previous bad bets are indeed contributing factors in our country’s lack of a stomach for attempting anything big and bold.

    You’re absolutely right that we have to get our fiscal house in order and decide what our spending priorities are. I happen to believe there are a lot of things that could be trimmed significantly to allow for more infrastructure programs.

  20. david vartanoff says:

    First, if we had tax rates as we did when building the Interstates HSR would be easily affordable even assuming the normal Defense Dept level of corruption/cost fraud.
    Second, simply in terms of energy efficient transport and oil availability, gutting short distance air service in favor of rail (even 79mph) makes sense.
    Third, getting our fiscal house in order starts with cutting unemployment. The private sector has shown no interest in hiring; choosing rather to buy up rivals and cut jobs.
    Fourth, the Republicans have made clear from November 08 that obstructing Obama no matter what he proposes is their basic strategy in order to make him a one term president. Unfortunately he has been way too willing to compromise which has only encouraged them.

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