Why Don’t We Have High-Speed Rail?

I’m asked that question all the time and the answer is complicated. First, we sorta DO have it. Amtrak’s Acela trains run at 150 miles per hour for short stretches of track between New York and Boston, but even that is less than the 190 mph (and more) which is pretty much the norm for true high-speed trains around the world. One of the problems is that only a small percentage of Americans have ever traveled to Europe or Asia and not all of them have had a chance to ride a high-speed train. Those who do, come back as true believers.
Still, we continue to hear “reasons” why high-speed trains won’t work in this country from the uninformed and the misinformed and the against-any-kind-of-rail people. Here are a few, the ones I seem to hear most often, along with my brief responses.
1- The U.S. is too big for high-speed rail.
Really? This country is about 3.8 million square miles. China is 3.7 million square miles and they have thousands of miles of high speed rail and they’re building more like crazy. Besides, no one is talking about high-speed trains running between New York and Los Angeles. We HAVE proposed high-speed routes linking major cities—just the way the Northeast corridor connects Boston, New York and Washington. One example: Dallas-Houston. Another is Miami-Orlando.
2- High-speed rail is a waste of money because no one will ride it.
Of course they will! Amtrak is ALREADY carrying 75% of the passengers traveling between Washington and New York, and that’s not even real high-speed rail.
3- We have topographical obstacles, like mountains and rivers and such, that will be difficult to overcome.
Nonsense. Twenty years ago, the French and the Brits dug a tunnel for high-speed trains under the English Channel. The Swiss are about to open one that runs for 37 miles under the Alps. Dontcha think we can manage, for example, a high-speed rail line across Ohio connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati?
4- High-speed rail costs too much to build and operate.
Oh, puh-leeze! We add lanes to existing freeways without a second thought, and in urban areas the cost can be as much as $75 million for just one lane-mile. Once a high-speed rail line is built, you don’t add lanes, you just add trains.
5- We don’t have the money.
Of course we do. What we don’t have is the will. And every one of us should be embarrassed by that … especially the “American exceptionalism” crowd.