• U.S.

Can High-Speed Rail Get on Track?

20 minute read
Michael Grunwald/Orlando

I rode a train from Miami to Orlando — and I liked it.

I relaxed in a comfortable seat with Shaq-worthy legroom. I avoided the hassle of the airport and the maniacs on the highways. I did some phone interviews, read a book about the Compromise of 1850 and watched Funny People on my laptop; it wasn’t Amtrak’s fault the people weren’t funny. In the dining car, I enjoyed a chat over lasagna with a train buff who shared my aversions to traffic jams, exurban sprawl, global warming, gas-guzzling SUVs with ludicrously rugged names, car alarms that go off at 3 a.m., the Chrysler bailout, the Toyota scandal and other by-products of our automotive culture. At one point, our train stopped in the middle of a classic old-Florida ranch, alongside a majestic oak dripping with Spanish moss, and I remember thinking, There’s no better way to see America.

Unfortunately, for the next half hour, we remained beside that oak tree. Door to door, the entire journey took 10 hours for a trip I usually drive in four. My seat cost only $36, but taxis to and from the stations cost twice that. Even for car haters like my wife and me — at our wedding (in a train station), the rabbi advised us to stay off the road if we wanted to stay married — slow-speed rail is a tough sell. And most Americans aren’t car haters.

(See 50 essential travel tips.)

This is why the Obama Administration is launching high-speed rail in the U.S.: so that Americans can ride sleek 220-m.p.h. bullet trains like the ones already zipping through Europe and Asia, as well as improved Amtrak lines that will still go far slower than bullets but will more consistently go faster than oaks. The goal is to create attractive alternatives to long drives and short flights, which would relieve road and air congestion; reduce carbon emissions, highway deaths and dependence on oil from foreign thugs or the blackened Gulf; create jobs; jump-start a new domestic manufacturing industry; and improve the competitiveness and convenience of the U.S. economy. President Obama inserted the first $8 billion for high-speed rail into last year’s stimulus bill, even though it won’t provide much short-term stimulus; it’s a long-term legacy initiative modeled on the interstate-highway system, a gradual effort to transform the way we travel.

The plans envision a national network of 13 high-speed corridors, including Miami to Orlando in just two hours. You wouldn’t have to get to the airport ridiculously early, take off your shoes, turn off your phone or pay extra for luggage; you wouldn’t have to worry about the weather or some Icelandic volcano canceling your trip. You wouldn’t have to watch the road, wait in traffic, find parking or pull over to stretch your legs; you wouldn’t risk arrest or an accident by drinking or texting.

Our freight rail system is world-class, and our metropolitan areas are embracing commuter rail, but our intercity passenger rail is a global joke. “There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,” Obama said in his State of the Union address. The next day, he visited Tampa, Fla., with Vice President Biden — whose daily train rides between Washington and Wilmington, Del., earned him the nickname Amtrak Joe — to announce high-speed grants for 31 states. In an interview, Biden said he couldn’t imagine an efficient transportation system in a carbon-constrained world without high-speed rail: “Tell me, how do you get it?”

(See “Can High-Speed Rail Succeed in America?”)

But while $8 billion is more than four times the annual federal subsidy for Amtrak, it is just one-eighth of last year’s federal spending on highways. And at a time when our national credit card is already maxed out, this down payment is only a tiny fraction of what’s needed to establish a competitive new mode of travel. China plans to invest more than $300 billion in high-speed rail by 2020, and Spain expects to complete a more than $200 billion system the same year in a country the size of Texas.

Meanwhile, the distribution of the Obama money — $3.5 billion to start new lines for bullet trains in Florida and California, plus $4.5 billion for sundry bridge and tunnel repairs, track straightening and other upgrades to existing Amtrak lines nationwide — has sparked intense debates even among rail advocates. Why spread cash around the country like peanut butter instead of targeting a few showcase projects? Shouldn’t the seed money go to game-changing new bullet routes rather than help for old Amtrak lines that bleed cash, share track with slow-moving freight and can never exceed 110 m.p.h.? Why not focus on Amtrak’s popular and profitable service between Boston and Washington, where Acela trains — now with wi-fi! — already reach speeds of 150 m.p.h. but average only half that? And how exactly does Ohio’s proposed 3-C corridor linking Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati at an average speed of only 39 m.p.h. and a top speed of 79 m.p.h. — first achieved by American trains 180 years ago — qualify as “high speed”?

See 50 authentic American experiences.

See the 50 worst cars of all time.

It’s true that most of Obama’s initial rail investments don’t match his grandiose high-speed-rail rhetoric. Most will provide only incremental improvements to an embarrassingly outdated system. A more honest description would be “higher-speed rail.” But none of the high-speed networks operating in nations like Japan and Germany or under construction everywhere from Brazil to Turkey rely exclusively on top-of-the-line bullet trains. And for all the hype about the new new thing, this is really about improving all kinds of intercity train service — not only Amtrak but also the venerable freight railroads that share its tracks and haul 43% of our intercity cargo.

Anyway, overall trip times and reliability matter more than top speeds. It’s more cost-effective, Obama aides say, to slice 90 minutes off trips between Chicago and St. Louis, Mo., by removing choke points and boosting speeds to 110 m.p.h. than to build a new superfast line. Yes, most Amtrak routes need subsidies, but so do most roads and airports. Yes, the dense Northeast corridor looks like train heaven — in Acela’s first decade, rail has displaced air as the dominant mode between New York City and Washington — but even there, massive investments in infrastructure would be needed to produce even modest reductions in trip times. Yes, the broad distribution of grants had obvious political overtones, but high-speed rail needs broad political support to survive. “We’re giving birth,” says Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo, “and that can be messy and painful.”

(See who’s who in Barack Obama’s White House.)

Not even the first bullet route, a Tampa-Orlando link opening in 2015, will be the kind of state-of-the-art wow machine that Obama and Biden have promoted. It’s a relatively short, 84-mile stretch with a fast but not blinding top speed of 168 m.p.h. But it’s the starter project that will help define what high speed means in America. That’s why I rode Amtrak’s Silver Star to Orlando, where the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) was holding a conference — and the scent of money was in the air.

The Florida Experiment
The year-old USHSR is one of those Washington lobbying groups that pop up whenever multibillion-dollar initiatives are born. Veteran rail advocates dismiss it as a latecomer to the high-speed bandwagon, carrying water for the foreign trainmakers who pay its steep membership fees and attend its pricey events, undermining Amtrak to push its pipe dream of a gigantic new supertrain network nearly half the length of the interstates. But more than 300 business types showed up at its shindig at the Orlando Hilton, where they saw cool models of German, Spanish, South Korean and Japanese bullet trains and cool video of a French train traveling a record 357 m.p.h. When I asked a lobbyist I recognized what he was doing there, he grinned and rubbed his thumb against two fingers.

(See the most important cars of all time.)

It was no accident that the conference was held across the street from the future location of one of Orlando’s high-speed stations or that its headliners were two key Florida Representatives: John Mica, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, and Corrine Brown, Democratic chair of the rail subcommittee. The Tampa-Orlando line will go out to bid soon, and vendors are desperate to snag a piece of that action. Thirty foreign firms have pledged to manufacture in the U.S. if they land contracts, and investor Carl Icahn has launched an American start-up to compete. At one point, an executive was telling me about her company’s expansion plans when she spied the director of Florida’s program across the room, broke off our chat in mid-sentence and raced off to introduce herself.

Florida is in many ways an ideal high-speed launching pad. It’s flat, which means low construction costs and no tunnels. It’s densely populated, with short distances between major cities. It’s a tourist mecca, attracting millions of foreigners who ride trains at home. And it’s a swing state, especially around its bellwether I-4 corridor; the Tampa-Orlando trains will actually travel up the I-4 median. But the main reason Florida is getting $1.25 billion to start connecting downtown Tampa to the Orlando airport is that this is the nation’s most shovel-ready bullet-train project; the state has nearly all the necessary land and permits. So when Obama wanted a quick success, Tampa-Orlando looked perfect.

See the 50 best inventions of 2009.

Watch a video on St Pancras International, a revamped train station in London.

There was just one problem. High-speed rail works when it’s connected to nearby public transit, not when you have to drive to the station on one end and rent a car or hail a cab at the other. But last year Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature blocked a plan for a new Orlando-area commuter rail and slashed funding for a Miami-area line. So Obama’s blunt Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, flew to Orlando and warned that if Florida didn’t get its act together on commuter rail, it wouldn’t get high-speed-rail money. As one official put it, you can’t get into Harvard if you’re flunking high school. Texas, Georgia and New York had ignored similar threats, but the notoriously dysfunctional Florida legislature met for a special session, reversed itself on commuter rail and created a high-speed-rail fund. “Las Vegas oddsmakers would’ve given a billion to 1,” marvels Ed Turanchik, the head of Florida’s high-speed-rail advocacy group.

The Tampa-Orlando line is expected to attract 2 million riders a year, more than half to a stop at Disney World. The entire route would take less than an hour, while braving the traffic on the interstate can take twice that. But there would be five stops — including one in sparse Polk County, home of several influential politicians — and none would link up with Orlando’s new commuter trains, prompting talk of a sixth. “You can’t have real high-speed rail if you’re stopping all the time,” Mica told me. “It’s in my district. I should be as happy as a hog eating trash. But we need a real success, and this is pretty marginal.” Mica says the only high-speed grants worthy of the name went to California, where voters have already approved $9 billion in bonds to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours. But the land has yet to be purchased, the route isn’t set, and the estimated cost has ballooned to more than $42 billion in an already overextended state — so Florida is the high-speed showcase for now.

(See 10 things to do in Miami.)

Like every other House Republican, Mica voted against the stimulus, and if he seems unenthusiastic about the new bullet train in his backyard, he’s downright irked by the Amtrak upgrades elsewhere. He used to describe them as “slow-speed trains to nowhere” until his Midwestern colleagues complained. Now he calls them “costly slow-speed trains to somewhere.” Whatever. Mica sees Amtrak as a rat hole that loses money on every ticket it sells outside the lucrative Northeast corridor, as an antiquated system with 100-year-old bridges and tunnels, 80-year-old electrical systems and 60-year-old trains that travel slow and arrive late. “If high-speed rail gets hijacked by our existing Soviet-style train system, I’m not a happy camper,” Mica says. He’s equally critical of the paltry grants for the Northeast, since most U.S. flight delays are at New York City airports. “We need to pick routes that make sense,” Mica says. “If we pick dogs, we’ll end up scratching fleas.”

(See the best travel gadgets of 2009.)

LaHood, a former Republican Congressman from Peoria, Ill., is an affable guy, but when I related Mica’s critique of Obama’s rail surge, he turned red. “It’s just a stunning about-face,” he fumed. “It’s schizophrenic.” He said it was Mica who invited him to Orlando to push commuter rail and later thanked him for saving Florida’s high-speed bid. “We did everything he asked!” he said. LaHood sees Tampa-Orlando as an opportunity to knit together two booming cities relatively quickly and cheaply so Americans can see bullet trains zipping past bumper-to-bumper traffic along I-4. But the real prize would be extending the line to Miami. Then it would give tourists who might want to see Miami’s South Beach as well as Orlando’s Epcot — and us locals who have to make the trip to see the in-laws — an alternative to the schlep of the highways or the 77 daily flights between Central and South Florida.

Ultimately, Tampa-Orlando is supposed to be only one step in a long journey toward a more balanced, more sustainable, less dangerous transportation network. “We can’t just keep building more highways that turn into parking lots. People are tired of the congestion. Everyone has a horror story about flying too,” LaHood said. “This is a new vision. You just walk on the train, flip open your laptop — it’s nice!”

See the 50 worst inventions of all time.

See the best pictures of 2009.

Transportation Secretaries don’t usually talk like that, especially when they used to send highway pork to their Illinois constituents. But there’s a New Urbanist tilt to this Administration, and LaHood has embraced it with the fervor of a convert. Obama came of age in Chicago. One aide said he probably rode more trains in an average week than Amtrak basher George W. Bush rode in his life. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is another rail-friendly Chicago guy. And Szabo, the man in charge of the grants, is a former conductor on Chicago’s commuter rail. To understand the Administration’s vision beyond bullet trains, it helps to visit the Windy City.

Higher-Speed Rail
The way to go fast, railroaders say, is to stop going slow.

My train to Orlando took so long because of that half hour beside the oak, plus several stretches where I could have jogged at higher speeds. Almost all of Amtrak’s tracks are owned by freight lines, and they’re riddled with time-sucking choke points: grade crossings, sharp curves, congestion hot spots and outdated bridges that require slow speeds for safety; long single-track stretches that force trains to wait for oncoming traffic; even old-fashioned track intersections known as diamonds. I visited one of the nation’s worst blockages, a diamond in Chicago’s Englewood section that jams 78 commuter trains against 60 Amtrak and freight trains every day. The result is gridlock, like an intersection in the middle of an interstate. Right now, a cross-country train out of California can take as long to get through Chicago as it takes to get to Chicago, and as the economy picks up and 400,000 freight cars come out of storage, the congestion will only intensify. I arrived well after rush hour but still saw a logjam; one Norfolk Southern freight train hauling grain, corn syrup, lumber and steel across the country was delayed at least 40 minutes.

(See “Pimp My Bus Ride: Hip Intercity Motor Coaches.”)

That’s why the high-speed-rail grants include $133 million for an overpass that will replace the diamond. The “Englewood Flyover” should save suburbanites more than 20 minutes a day on their commutes, ease chronic Amtrak delays and start untangling the spaghetti bowl of convoluted tracks that carry one-third of the nation’s freight through Greater Chicago. Throughout the Midwest, the focus is on similar workaday projects to add capacity and subtract choke points: overhauling tracks and signals in Illinois, expanding bridges in Missouri, replacing hand-thrown switches with automated crossovers in Iowa and adding sidings that will help faster trains pass laggards all over the region. In short, if you speed up freight, passenger trains move faster too. “It’s not sexy,” says Szabo, “but if you take out enough pinch points, you’re going to make trains more attractive and take cars and trucks off the road.”

By aligning the interests of Amtrak and freights, the high-speed program has already improved a rocky relationship that began in 1971, when the government-owned corporation was created to take over the railroads’ money-losing passenger routes — and was assured top priority on their tracks. Unlike Europe and Asia, where passenger rail rocks but sketchy freight rail leaves highways clogged with trucks, the U.S. is geared for hauling cargo, not people. Warren Buffett didn’t pay $34 billion for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe on a whim. Long-distance rail is cheaper, safer and much more fuel-efficient than long-haul trucking, and while trucks help pay for roads through gas taxes, freights pay the entire cost of their tracks — and local property taxes to boot. The industry made some regrettable decisions to scrap tracks in the past, but it now invests one-fifth of its annual revenues — more than the entire high-speed program — to upgrade its tracks and equipment. Still, most Americans think of freight trains not as efficient and self-sufficient engines of our economy and conveyors of our stuff but as horn-blasting irritants that make us wait at crossings. And boxcars don’t vote.

By contrast, Amtrak has been ridiculed for spotty service and dreadful reliability, starved of funding for basic maintenance and neglected by Presidents of both parties. But it has steadily gained ridership — it’s on pace for an all-time high in 2010 — and it has a loyal following. One reason it loses money is that members of Congress refuse to let it drop unprofitable routes through their districts for fear of a backlash. So while there are potential pitfalls for freights in high-speed rail — including the threat of stiff fines if on-time targets aren’t met — there is mostly opportunity. “We’re just happy to see attention paid to the benefits of rail,” Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, told me. He was wearing a “4.5” lapel pin, because each rail job supposedly creates 4.5 other jobs. Last year, when fuel prices were the big issue, he wore a “436” pin, because trains can move a ton 436 miles per gallon. “I think the last time a President talked about rail in the State of the Union was Lincoln!” he said. “But look, Obama wants to save energy, cut emissions, mitigate congestion, increase our competitiveness, double our exports. That’s what railroads do.”

See the 50 worst cars of all time.

See the history of the electric car.

For Amtrak, the high-speed program is an even bigger opportunity — critics would say a backdoor bailout. Amtrak is adding new service in Wisconsin and Ohio, although GOP leaders in both states are pushing to turn down the federal aid. It’s increasing frequency in North Carolina and Oregon, which can boost ridership even more than increasing speed. And it’s hoping to shed its reputation as a railroad on a shoestring, after Bush tried to slash its budget to zero. To Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, the state of his railroad is a national disgrace. “We need to replace our entire fleet,” he griped. “There’s been a total focus on aviation and highways in this country. It’s nuts!”

(See pictures of the world’s most polluted places.)

Wanted: Options
Without a sustained national commitment, high-speed rail will flop.

As a one-off investment, the $400 million to start Ohio’s 3-C service would be a laughable waste. At go-kart speeds, it will never draw drivers off the highways. It’s defensible only as a first step toward competitive speeds. Similarly, Tampa-Orlando makes sense as the first leg of Tampa-Miami, but alone it’s basically an expensive commuter line and Disney shuttle. Congress did approve $2.5 billion to expand high-speed rail in 2010, and House leaders have proposed an additional $50 billion over six years. But the estimates for a national network have ranged as high as $1 trillion, so at our current spending rate, we’d still be two centuries away.

Even with a China-style commitment, high-speed rail could flop in the U.S. Most of the regional corridors have the distances and densities that experts recommend, but as Obama noted in Tampa, we’re still a nation of car people, even though we don’t like paying for gas — or cleaning up oil spills. We fly a lot too, even though we complain about flying a lot. We give our kids trains sets and let them watch Thomas the Tank Engine, but it’s not clear if we’re ready for a major cultural shift.

(See the top 10 green ideas of 2009.)

Then again, uncertainties about the future are limited not just to trains. Airlines have been merging, charging for everything from carry-ons to bathrooms and canceling flights that aren’t full. The federal highway fund went broke last year, the outlook for fuel prices is volatile at best, and our traffic keeps getting worse. Maybe frequent driving and flying still seem tolerable today; they might not in a decade.

What’s certain is that the high-speed initiative reflects a vision of America’s future. To a lifelong rail advocate like former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who rode the subway to work as Massachusetts governor, it’s un-American that many of our passenger trains move slower than they did 50 years ago, that China will soon have more high-speed mileage than the rest of the world combined, that even Saudi Arabia and Russia are ahead of us. “It’s unbelievable that there are 100,000 people out there laying tracks between Beijing and Guangzhou, and we’ve just been putzing around for years,” Dukakis says. “We don’t even make trains anymore. It’s pathetic!”

To critics, the high-speed effort is emblematic of a Dukakis-style urban-elitist dream of a Europeanized America, like the Administration’s pushes for bike lanes and “livability,” not to mention organic gardens and universal health care. It’s about trying to improve on the freedom of the open road, constraining the American ethic of limitless possibilities with wonky studies about carbon emissions and freight efficiency. It’s true that the high-speed-rail program is an investment in a metropolitan future, a vote for Chicago over Crawford, Texas, for dense downtowns with a train station on Main Street over sprawl roads to exurbia.

But it’s mostly about what you don’t have when you’re stuck behind a jackknifed tractor trailer or when your flight is canceled for no good reason: options. It’s unclear exactly how many Americans would ride on a truly competitive intercity rail system. But it’s clear that we don’t have one now.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

See the Cartoons of the Week.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com