July/August 2011 The Case for Not-Quite-So-High-Speed Rail

The bad news: Republicans have torpedoed plans for American bullet trains. The good news: The Obama administration is quietly building a slower, but potentially much better, rail system.

By Phillip Longman

Fast vs. fast enough:Europe’s high-speed trains, like the German Intercity-Express, get all the attention, but we should aspire first to match its conventional rail service, which is faster than ours (Photo: Mollenhauer).

After concluding some business in Frankfurt, Germany, recently, I found myself with a day to kill and decided to use it to tour the historic Cologne Cathedral, about 120 miles away. I could have rented a car and driven through traffic on the autobahn for about two hours, but instead I decided to walk a few blocks from my hotel and board Intercity-Express #616. The sleek bullet train left Frankfurt’s magnificent nineteenth-century main terminal on time and sped along a super-engineered, beeline right-of-way completed in 2002 at a cost of $5.6 billion. The scenery wasn’t much, as we were often in tunnels built to keep the line straight and fast. But the ride was smooth, quiet, and comfortable, even at 180 miles per hour, and in a mere fifty-six minutes the train arrived on time to the second within steps of the Cologne Cathedral. The fare was $109.

You might expect me at this point to proclaim, like so many Americans who have sojourned in Europe, Japan, or China on gleaming bullet trains, that what the United States needs now is a crash program to catch up with our peers in building high-speed rail for the twenty-first century. And, for the record, I will proclaim that. It’s a vision almost all progressives have come to share, even as conservatives increasingly denounce it as creeping socialism, social engineering, or worse. But I’ll make an important qualification that should inform the increasingly partisan debate about high-speed rail in this country—one that is illustrated by my trip back to Frankfurt later that afternoon.

Having arrived in Cologne faster than I needed to, I decided to take the longer, more scenic route back to Frankfurt, which costs just $72, riding the old West Rhine Railway. Begun in 1844, it’s a conventional railway that twists and turns mostly along the banks of the Rhine, passing beneath many high-perched castles and vineyards. It also provides access to such midsize cities as Koblenz and Mainz, and to such bucolic spots as the famous Rock of Lorelei, all of which the new high-speed rail line misses in order to save time.

Because of its more circuitous route and local stops, and because passenger trains on the Rhine Valley line also have to share tracks with many freight trains, these trains are slower than those on the new high-speed line. Yet they still max out at about 100 mph, which means that they only take a bit more than an hour longer to go from Cologne to Frankfurt even as they serve more population centers in between. The line is vibrant, with local and express passenger trains passing through any given station every fifteen to twenty minutes. By European or Asian standards, this service doesn’t qualify as high-speed rail, but it is faster on average than most American railways, and frequent enough to provide vital connectivity throughout the Rhine Valley.

My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.

The debate over high-speed rail in the United States has become akin to that over organic food. Most people can’t define exactly what it is, but they tend to have strong, almost theological opinions about whether it’s morally good, elitist, impractical, and/or politically correct. Progressives are likely to tell you that high-speed rail is necessary to reduce global warming, prepare for “peak oil,” and overcome “auto dependency.” The Obama administration plays to this growing progressive consensus by proudly proclaiming that it has set in motion projects that will bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of the U.S. population within twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, especially since the elections of 2010, conservatives have been rallying their troops in full-throated opposition to any and all government spending to improve passenger rail service, often portraying it as another step on the road to serfdom. Though many Republicans, such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, have strongly supported Amtrak over the years (especially for service in their own backyards), we now see a new breed of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all making a big show of waving away billions in federal stimulus dollar for rail improvements in their states.

So how about we all calm down, chuck the theology, and look practically at what should be the future of passenger trains in the U.S.?

To do that, we need to start by defining what we mean by high-speed rail. An extreme example is the French National Railways’ train a grande vitesse (“high-speed train”), or TGV, which in 2007 set a world record of 357.2 mph. In regular service, its average start-to-stop speed is typically a bit north of 170 mph, with top speeds of around 200 mph. I once had the opportunity to ride in the cab of a TGV between Paris and Lille, and even to hold the throttle. It was an unexpectedly harrowing experience, as the windshield repeatedly filled with the remains of unfortunate birds who failed to get out of the way in time. But back in the revenue seats, the experience is sublime. Even as the French countryside shoots by in a blur, you won’t see so much as a ripple in your wine glass, and even the coach seats are bigger than what you would find in first class on an airplane.

Phillip Longman is a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches health care policy. He is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where Atul Gawande is a board member.


  • Mike Peterson on June 29, 2011 6:15 PM:

    The byline of your article "Republicans have torpedoed plans for American bullet trains" is simply not true. Two of the most powerful Republicans in the House and Senate are both moving forward plans for bullet trains in America and working hard to get private capital involved. Chairman Mica has held repeated Congressional hearings in the House recently to advance true high speed rail (200+ mph) along the Northeast Corridor from DC to New York and Boston. Senator Kirk just released proposed legislation to advance a $100 billion fund to help finance true high speed rail systems across America.

    True high speed rail is what America should be striving for as that's what the rest of the world is building today. Everything we have always done in America has always been the best, and we shouldn't now change course and settle for a second rate rail system as this will be our 21st century transportation system once other forms of transport are too expensive to use due to high oil prices.

    High speed rail systems are very profitable. The French national rail operator SNCF recently announced record net profits exceeding $1 billion last year from running high speed trains. The CEO of Ferrari has launched a state-of-the-art new train company to run 200+ mph trains all over Italy making substantial profits doing so.

    The New York Times just did a great article on the new Chinese high speed rail line that opened this week between Shanghai and Beijing that will transform their country in many beneficial ways, and further advance China past the USA. This 800+ mile new rail line was built in just 3 short years!

    This is the future and we should be embracing it fully, or we will get left behind!

  • Randy on July 02, 2011 8:09 PM:

    Um, so what possible justification is there for this to be done with taxpayer dollars? If the train between Washington and Chicago has sleeper cars booked weeks in advance, why don't they add cars and increase revenue? If there is a market for people to travel by rail to and from Cleveland to somewhere (anywhere!), why isn't the service added?

    Is the problem that the operator is incompetent and cannot see this terrific profit opportunity? If so, Amtrak needs new management. Or competition. Or, maybe the people who study the actual revenue potential for trains out of Cleveland just don't see a sufficient return on the required investment to attract private capital, in which case the investment ought not to be made.

  • sinz54 on July 02, 2011 8:58 PM:

    All those folks who are hoping for a high-speed rail run between Boston and Washington DC should take a map of that area, and try to draw some straight lines (since high-speed rail requires straight rights-of-way) that don't go through cities and towns.

    The author is correct: The area is already so densely built up that you would have to bulldoze your way right through numerous towns, industrial parks, and shopping malls in order to put a straight right-of-way through there for high-speed rail.

    So I'm going to wait patiently until the proponents of high-speed rail stop waving their hands and actually show me the route it will take.

    One more point. The Amtrak Acela run between New York and Washington would be faster if the train didn't have to make several stops in New Jersey. Those stops are there because New Jersey's Dem governor and other Dem politicians wanted them there.

    High-speed rail between Boston and Washington won't be high-speed, if the politicians start demanding 57 different stops along the way to service their favorite constituencies.

    Just wait until a local politico demands a special stop in HIS town in exchange for his vote of support.

  • LoboSolo on July 05, 2011 2:51 PM:

    The rails in France are owned by Reseau Ferre de France (RFF) ... which had a loss of 2.5 billion in 2007 ... that erases the "profit" of 1 billion by the TGV.

    The Amtrak OIG report shows that France provided 7.8 euros of public funding for each euro of "operational profit" that SNCF claims. http://www.amtrakoig.com/reports/E-08-02-042208.PDF

    HSR is a boondoggle anyway. If you really want to go fast, you should invest in maglev. It costs about the same to build; it's significantly cheaper to operate; it's faster and quieter; and its more efficient.

    Otherwise focus on expanding the current network and getting up to HPR (High Performance Rail ... 90-110 mph) speeds and a better Amtrak management.

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  • Steve on July 05, 2011 8:32 PM:


    It's not that Amtrak is incompetent but that Amtrak doesn't own (except in portions of the Northeast) the tracks it's trains run on. Amtrak leases access from the freight companies that own the tracks. Currently, if there is a conflict between a freight train and a passenger train, THE PASSENGER TRAIN HAS TO WAIT, no matter how many people on board are inconvenienced or how much it throws the passenger train off schedule. By building more rail sidings, passenger/freight train conflicts can be decreased, resulting in higher average speeds and better on time performance by Amtrak trains.

  • Michael Carpet on July 06, 2011 12:40 PM:

    Higher-speed rail is a great idea. In the west the conflict between passenger and freight has another dimension: the government essentially gave the right of way to the railroads in the 19th century. Their cooperation should be required. Perhaps a proposal to start a program of condemnation by the federal government and lease-back to the railroad companies might get the negotiations started.

  • mjmjm on July 06, 2011 3:27 PM:

    I can only hope that we really shift our transportation priorities in this direction. We've subsidized a massive, unsustainable highway network that put our profitable passenger railroads out of business. We have no real alternatives to driving, and both our roadways and airways are hopelessly congested. I've ridden the local train along the Rhine from Frankfurt, and the bullet train back. That experience is so utterly pleasurable compared to driving or flying, and the cities along it are thriving. A four-lane highway runs alongside the high-speed tracks carrying light traffic. It's a shock to come back to the US and see 10-lane highways through the downtown, being widened at the cost of $100 million per mile and to the detriment of our most valuable real estate.

  • Mike Abernethy on July 07, 2011 12:09 AM:


    Thanks so much for taking the time to investigate how rail travel CAN be efficient and attract travelers. It is so frustrating to have experienced and then lost one of the fastest, highly patronized examples of HIGHERspeed rail services ever operated in the United States: The Burlington Route Zephyrs between Chicago, St.Paul, Minneapolis. During their fastest and best rail equipment era, 1948-1965 one could travel Chicago-St. Paul in 6hrs. 15 min.. There were only 7 intermediate stops. These trains became the WORLD'S fastest before the Japanese and French built their higher speed trains.If one analyzes ridership figures, the intermediate cities-to-big cities travelers were the greatest numbers.
    These trains were substantially faster than cars, especially from intermediate points to big cities, provided superior comfortable seats, dining, and lounge service, and traversed through some of America's most beautiful scenery; very much like your experience along the Rhine.
    This was a perfect example of what you wrote.
    In Illinois we are poised to have HIGHERspeed rail service between Chicago-Springfield-St.Louis. Even now the ridership patterns support the fact that intermediate cities-to-big cities is the greatest percentage. When the 110 mph. speeds and new equipment are implemented, this pattern will still hold true and become even stronger.
    I completely agree with your analysis. Rail passenger service should be improved in incremental phases, just as it was done in Europe and Japan. When the US public becomes more accustomed to how viable rail service can be, then there will be a strong support for a percentage of tax dollars to underwrite this form of travel.It MUST be given a chance.

  • ceilidth on July 07, 2011 12:47 PM:

    You make some very good points and overall what you say makes sense. But have you ever ridden the train in the NW? What mountainous terrain did you find between Portland and Seattle outside of what you get glimpses of to the east when you look at the Cascades? It's pretty flat where the railroad tracks run. Maybe getting out beyond the Beltway and actually experiencing what you write about might be useful.

  • john laue on July 07, 2011 1:33 PM:

    I agree that the only practical approach to improving passenger rail in this country is incremental--making the improvements in the short term to increase speeds to at least 110 mph on existing corridors like Chicago-St Louis. Out here in California, the proposed HS route between SF and LA is in serious trouble because the feds have mandated that the first segment be built in the central valley. The "missing link" between Bakersfield and LA is still a pipe dream, and may never be built.

  • J. Howard Harding on July 07, 2011 3:16 PM:

    Phillip Longman is correct that the U.S. needs to focus its rail passenger spending on incremental service improvements rather than on High Speed service. Every other nation on earth that now operates true high speed rail passenger service developed it incrementally, just as we must. He is also right to note that less-than-high-speed service is the backbone of all national rail passenger service systems world wide.

    Those who argue that private enterprise should determine where and how much to invest in rail passenger service live in a dream world devoid of awareness of how real world transportation works. Every transportation mode is heavily subsidized here and across the globe. None make a true profit (total system revenues minus total system capital and operating costs = +$). Private enterprise may earn a profit operating one or a few trains world wide, but no national rail passenger service network is profitable as a system. Similarly, no national highway system operates at a profit even though a few select toll roads/tunnels/bridges may earn a profit.

    A properly built and maintained public transportation infrastructure may make it possible for numerous private, for-profit companies to flourish. Such businesses would (and do)fail in its absence.

  • J. howard Harding on July 07, 2011 3:45 PM:

    Commenter Mike Peterson seems unaware that Republican Congressman John Mica is proposing to copy the British model for privatizing and upgrading Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. British rail passenger privatization -- and Mica's proposal -- intend to reduce government subsidy, increase private funding and decrease government involvement in rail passenger service. According to reports in the August 2011 issue of IRJ (the International Railway Journal), British privatization has failed on all three counts. Government subsidy has increased by 1.7 billion British Pounds Sterling; overall passenger rail spending has soared by 60 percent; and government involvement in service delivery is far greater than before privatization. Further, British rail fares are among the highest in the world. Further still, the number of private service providers has shrunk while making innovative service changes has become harder, slower and more difficult. Finally, rider convenience has declined as network connectivity and integration has weakened.

    As commenter LoboSolo notes, the vaunted French TGV profitability is a myth, in that the French rail passenger system loses far more money than TGV's alleged profits.

  • Boxhawker on July 08, 2011 5:22 PM:

    I live in Maine, and Amtrak is an occasional diversion. I use it to go to see the Bruins once a year, but it is 2x the cost of the bus and slower. We took the train from Portland, ME to Washington DC (switching stations in Boston) It was an 11 hour trip that we could have made in a plane in 2, for LESS money.

    In cost, travel time operating revenue and overhead, Trains fall far short of buses. Feel free to build railways to nowhere, but don't do it with federal tax dollars.

  • John Guidinger on July 08, 2011 5:48 PM:

    Mr. Longmann has written a very good review of the needs in the US for faster and better passenger trains. If we could just get the rutted station parking lot paved here in Jackson, Michigan, and speed up the pokey, unreliable Chicago-Detroit trains from an average of about 40 MPH to a reliable speed of 50 (dare I suggest 60!), I would be happy. When I travel to Europe or New York or California, I come back feeling that Michigan is Third-World in terms of modern passenger trains.

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  • DL on July 10, 2011 11:00 AM:

    I am all in favor of rail - so long as it is privately financed. If there's money to be made transporting passengers by rail, by all means, that's great. If taxpayers are going to be on the hook to subsidize either capital or operating costs, well, that's a piss-poor use of my and your money. How about taxpayer construction of roads for cars and trucks, you say? Well, those funds come from drivers via gasoline taxes. If you wanted to tax rail users similarly in order to subsidize rail construction, go right ahead, although I don't see the point.

    In any event, outside of the Eastern seaboard, where does the US have the population density necessary for profitable passenger train operations? Try traveling around China for a few weeks and see what real population density means.

  • June on July 10, 2011 11:17 AM:

    Working in a corporate environment, I have first-hand experience with how popular Amtrak's Acela is with executives - if Acela ia available, it is chosen every time over the hassle of flying. Enjoyed reading this excellent look into how to fine-tune and expand that type of service.

  • urban legend on July 11, 2011 12:20 AM:

    All of those like DL who demand that rail travel, and only rail travel, be entirely financed by private capital: why do you limit that demand to rail, when the infrastructure for auto, bus and air have been and continue to be publicly financed from the beginning? If it's for the common good, with numerous societal benefits -- not the least dealing with the simple fact that we are reaching or have reached road and air inter-city capacity for a growing population -- then what in the world is wrong with government building the rails and other essential infrastructure? If we the people decide we should use OUR government to do that, just as we have decided en masse to use our government to help provide retirement income security and health insurance, who are you to tell us we can't do that, all because of an ideology you have been propagandized to believe?

  • R v W on July 16, 2011 7:55 PM:

    This is an excellent article. Reliable, frequent, and reasonably fast train service is a good goal. And this can be done with relatively cheap improvements comparted to what is needed for true high speed rail. One good example is the great increase in passenger numbers on the "River Runner" trains between Kansas City and St. Louis after improvements to the Union Pacific tracks such as more siding and double tracking of some bridges. Now both freight and passenger trains operate more reliably. During the 70's and 80's when the railroads were in severe decline a lot of seemingly excess capacity was removed. Now with increases in freight and passenger traffic some of this has to be restored.

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