Why The U.S. Can’t Have High Speed Rail

News notes from around the interweb:

  • With Southwest sharing Boeing settlement money over the 737 MAX grounding with employees American is expected to do so also. Will this be another payout where American gets nothing in return, not employee goodwill let alone moving closer to re-upped contracts (let alone more favorable work rules that would allow the carrier to deliver better service)?

  • Orlando airport worker took bribes from illegal taxi operator.

    Truman Capote said “The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have its protection.” You have to trust your counterparty, and in this case when the driver was approached by cops he was asked whom he was sending money to and he gave up the employee taking bribes. If only taxi driver kickbacks to hotel doormen received as much scrutiny.

  • How Pan Am created the modern economy class

  • American and Allegiant clipped wings in Tulsa. Allegiant flew the plane anyway after an inspection.

  • Why the U.S. doesn’t have high speed trains the truth is two-fold, though:

    1. fixed rail works great between dense population centers, which the U.S. has almost exclusively in the Northwest (plus LA/San Francisco and Seattle/Portland, maybe Dallas/Houston) and
    2. the U.S. is bad at major infrastructure projects, with costs and timelines greater even than Europe making them impractical.

    There’s simply not the extensive need for it as in Europe, so we don’t take advantage of the economies of scale. And public works projects in the U.S. face barriers from myriad levels at which different interest groups can extract rents or stall the process.

  • The decline of Antonov

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. High speed rail (HSR) is a lot more simple than many seem to understand. HSR is the railway equivalent of a freeway. It’s all about grade separation. Build a road without the driveways and intersections a road can more safely and reliably handle higher speed traffic. Same general principle for HSR.

    Building high speed rail enables walkable density further from downtown.

    Open a train station <60min from any port city and it becomes possible to develop density there. If a railway has level crossings it isn’t truly HSR.

    Infrastructure is slow and expensive in America is because of reduced funding from Congress. The counterpoint is WW2 buildup and the Interstate Highways which were built rapidly. Congress matched local taxes for the freeways $9:$1. Now we build with $1:$1 match. This means longer times lines and higher total cost per mile.

    The way to evaluate how many HSR projects America can afford is less about the dollars and more about crowding out: When the natural resources and labor becomes constrained and prices begin to rapidly rise (high inflation). This would negatively impact the productivity of the private sector. Traditionally this was managed through price control, conscription, rationing and war bonds.

    The graduated income tax brackets used to extend all the way up to 70% and at times all the way up to nearly 100% at times. These very high tax brackets were supposed to be an automatic control on excessive profit or “war profiteering.”

    All this is to say that HSR is very much technically possible while politically it may seem nearly impossible today.

  2. How is Portland-Seattle a good rail network and you don’t mention San Diego – LA?

    San Diego, not even including Tijuana, is much more populous than Portland and LA is much more populous than Seattle. And I would guess Angelenos love to visit SD much more than Seattle folks visit Portland.

  3. High speed rail is yesterday’s news, technology, and thinking. There is no reason to support a mode of travel that is so restrictive. It only goes from one point to another, with maybe a few stops along the way, but does it quickly. Big deal…

    Technology is showing the way and point to point rail travel is definitely not it. Only those with limited imagination, historic nostalgia, and love of giant government projects (and control) think these are the way forward.

    It’s refreshing that America has great disdain for point to point rail travel.

  4. The most obvious reason High Speed Rail will never come to fruition is the powerful air transportation lobby working against it.

  5. There is no possible way for the proposed high speed rail between Houston and Dallas will EVER by profitable . No way people in Texas will support this boondoggle when it is only 4 hours to drive and the ricing to pay for the so called $3B which will end op much higher will never be repaid without $500 or more fares one way. And the disruption of family ranches etc.

    What a boondoggle which will reward those who actually get paid for building this pig in a poke.


  6. In 1956, Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway bill providing over 41,000 miles of new roadways. The US chose to go in this direction over building more rail lines. Maybe we should embrace our new technologies to develop transportation solutions within our current interstate road system.

  7. America was built on passenger travel via the wonderful automobile. The writer is just one more member of the “let’s be like the europeans!” club.
    The rats that live up north love rail because they are packed like sardines in their cities. In middle America it’s the auto for us. Oh, and don’t forget wonderful Amtrak. Bwahahahaha

  8. The US once had a rail system that was as good or better than in Europe. Then the Interstate Highway System authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 helped transform the country to increasingly rely on personal automobiles for distance travel. The observations in Gary’s posting about barriers to public projects is correct, with subsequent ever-escalating costs. Witness Boston’s “Big Dig” project, originally estimated at less than $6 billion, and is now at over $25 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in US history.

    To make matters even worse, our school systems value creating SJWs over engineers, making future such projects near impossible. The last time the US (or anyone) landed on the moon was almost 40 years ago (1972). Does anyone honestly think that can be replicated today, at even close to similar inflation-adjusted costs?

  9. Local zoning laws are to blame. Many large cities in the US still ban anything except single family homes with required side and front lawns. This lack of density causes the local bus routes to be non-viable. This causes HSR to fail because people still have to rent a car when they arrive in their city. The exception might be the business traveler who has one meeting in downtown then goes back to their home city.

  10. Automobile companies; airlines; existing freight railroads that own vast swaths of tracks and control traffic/rights of way; the array of local, state & federal governments; lack of funding; other special interest groups/lobbyists; litigation; environmental impact statements – oh, the list of obstacles to overcome just goes on and on.

    Oh, and let’s not forget so-called “Public Interest Groups” that are merely fronts for the Koch Brothers that also mount publicity campaigns against efforts to build public transit.

    Or of course, corrupt politicians who undermine mass transit/rail projects say the way former NJ Governor Chris Christie did to kill off the long ago desperately needed new ARC rail tunnels under the Hudson River to expand capacity from the existing pair tunnels that even before the storm surge from Super Storm Sandy in Oct 2012 inflicted severe damage were in need of rebuilding as they’re about 100 years old so he could divert funds to rebuilding (yep, you guessed it) state roads & highways without having to raise taxes.

    Then, after plans were coming into place under the previous administration and the two state governments that also need to provide funding to build the desperately needed new rail tunnels under the Hudson River so that the existing pair can be shut down and rebuilt after tSuper Storm Sandy caused catastrophic damage that temporary repairs can sustain for only so long as the Gateway Tunnels, the idiot in the White House decided that because NY and NJ are blue states whose senators refuse to stick their heads so far up the imbecile’s posterior their heads pop out of his pie hole (say, like the fawning & obsequious Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, etc., etc.), he won’t agree to federal funding for the Gateway Tunnel.

    Yeah, stuff like that is why the richest and supposedly most technologically advanced country in thousands of years of human history cannot build high speed rail links comparable to those that Japan and much of Europe has had for decades – or that “developing economies” such as China now has that makes our country look like the fading economic and backwards looking last century super power that it really is when considering just how inferior our country’s country’s many crumbling bridges, highways, airports, schools, hospitals and railroads are when compared to those in many countries around the world.

    It’s all so sad – and embarrassing.

    But, such is the price we pay for letting a charlatan pander to the most extreme elements of the fringe right wing about a fictional past of greatness that can be rebuilt into an imaginary fantasy of something that never was becoming “Great Again” instead of a true statesman, or even the “Master Builder” he said he was.

    Sorry – NOT sorry for being so preachy.

    I’d rather not be.

    But, I’m so tired of reading (or regurgitating) the same tired old excuses about why our country, which has all the resources and talent to be the greatest builder of state-of-the art, 21st century infrastructure can’t even build airports half as good as those commonly found around the world; can’t manage to build direct rail links from its airports to its biggest and most prominent cities – but yet has a city [NYC] with the gall to claim it’s the “Capital of the World” despite having some of the lamest and most pathetic toy trains that are expensive at $7.75 per person just to take someone a few miles from the airport to the nearest train station where they then have to change trains/platforms, pay additional fares, and just to wait [again] for a real train that takes them somewhere to finally arrive…); or in this case, yet another “excuse-a-thon” about why our country, despite its vast wealth and other resources, yet still cannot build high speed rail half as good as what Japan or France have had for decades, or many other countries now also have or are building.

    Like I said, it’s all so sad…

    But, hey, we still haven’t locked Hillary up yet – or found the hacked DNC servers in the Ukraine…and we can’t think about anything else til she’s behind bars and we’ve finally “proven” it WAS the Ukraine, and not Russia that hacked the DNC’s servers back in 2016…

    Or that tens of millions flocked to Washington DC for the largest crowds to ever attend an inauguration in our country’s history in Jan 2017! 😉

  11. Roadways for autos are increasingly expensive. Largely because the routes are planned in secret and the people in the know buy up the properties at low low cost and sell it to the government entities at sky high prices. The same would be for rail. Greed and corruption are the cost for infrastructure. While we have humans in charge nothing will change. Since we have no choice about humans in charge Ho Hum!

  12. “the U.S. is bad at major infrastructure projects”

    As the decrepit infrastructure of the entire country shows

  13. This is a bigger reason:


    US Safety regulations have until just last year required US train cars to be much heavier than in other countries. No actual high speed rail in the world is or could be operated with such heavy trains.

    TGV Duplex with 545 seats: 380 metric tons
    Acela with 304 seats: 566 metric tons

    You could change every fact about trains that people love arguing about (evil Republicans, budget cuts, lack of political vision, focus on highways, preference for cars and so on and so on). But until the one fact of weight was changed a proper high speed train in the US was mathematically impossible.

  14. Saw a few comments defending freeways and cars. It’s not a zero-sum game.

    Cars and freeways exist in France, Germany and Japan AND they have HSR too.

    We can easily make our roads faster and safer as well as build HSR.

    What we can’t do is continue on our current path of longer and longer commutes. With larger fleets of vehicles consuming more fuel/electricity and payroll to accomplish less and less.

    When will enough be enough? 3hr commutes? 5hr commutes?

  15. An airline lobby or car lobby working against HSR is so counterproductive and shortsighted.

    Just because we may take a train instead of driving/flying for certain trips doesn’t mean we won’t still rent/hire/own cars and need/want to fly.

    Trains and transit are an effective way to quickly fill and empty downtown office buildings, stadiums and airports. And connecting city pairs <500miles.

    They’re not so great at so many other kinds of trips and longer distances.

  16. This issue here re the lack of High Speed Rail (HSR) in America coming a day after I had the opportunity to contribute an explanation here why Amtrak is in a spiral dive is a real treat for a transportation historian and published pundit on railroading.

    Their are real economic, political, and social reasons to explain how the U.S. historically became a third world nation in ground transportation, despite when so many privately-operated passenger trains operated at 100mph under steam and diesel into the 1950s, including:

    -Coming off a spectacular success of industrial power arming allies and to lead a two-ocean victory in WWII, the need to maintain a postwar growth of the U.S. economy encouraged the federal government to embrace elaborate government-supported programs to maintain that industrial power, e.g., 1956 Eisenhower Interstate Highway system (benefitting suburban home construction, oil, tire, and auto industries); construction and maintenance of the Air Traffic Control System (after 1956 mid-air over Grand Canyon and 1960 mid-air over Queens, NYC).

    -Although the nation’s private Class 1 railroads offered the key single ingredient towards a two ocean victory by efficiently providing the sorely needed requisite capacity to move troops and material, despite coming off of the economically damaging decade of Depression years; continuing in good faith into the postwar years by investing $100s of millions in new motive power and passenger cars, our railroads were abandoned by that same federal government that had so recently totally relied upon them. Ironically, how much investment by the Marshall Plan enabled the industrial base in Japan (1964) and in Europe (1981) to develop HSR?
    In essence, the feds rushed to create an unleveled playing field against our railroads by using the U.S. Treasury to invest in and construct the interstate highways; to build airports in every city; to provide funding to expand runways and gates. Throughout the 1960s-1970s, the railroads took it on the chin with the feds financing their competition for passengers and freight, while handicapping the railroads with the ICC and Hepburn Act of 1906 that prevented any cost competition; including the prevention of taking any mutually beneficial action between the lines to cooperate in alleviating the enormously growing passenger deficit (created by archaic crew work rules based on mileage, feather-bedding and shop craft unions; archaic management smothered by the Hepburn Act). All the while, the railroads did not benefit from the federal investment to improve infrastructure as the airlines, trucks, buses, and autos did. Such Capex was at the railroads expense, as were the excessive taxes applied by every possible jurisdiction.
    The final kick of the bucket for passenger trains came in 1967, when the USPO abandoned the rails for airlines and trucks to move the mail/packages (despite being less efficient and more costly). In many cases, the post office was a subsidy that kept passenger trains in service.

    -As the railroads were not in good political standing in Washington in the postwar years, despite many of their problems attributed to Washington’s political class and back-to-back recessions throughout the 1950s, they had no voice as a vital constituency. An exception to this issue was when Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell authored MEGALOPOLIS UNBOUND in 1962, which secured the support of JFK, and later LBJ, to invest with the Pennsylvania Railroad and The Budd Company to build a high speed rail corridor between NYC-Washington; equip those trains with newly designed Metroliners. This was achieved by early 1969; perhaps the very last major ground transportation infrastructure project of any consequence as a timely P3 project. Also note that despite a dominant American aircraft industry, no high speed trains were developed; the exception was the TurboTrain in 1969 between Boston-NYC, which was scuttled by the mid-1970s.

    -The shifting of USPO funding off the rails accelerated the demise of passenger trains; creating Railpax as the ultimate bail-out in 1970 to relieve the freight railroads of their passenger liabilities through a quasi-government monopoly, Amtrak. As the actual intent here was to prevent the Penn Central bankruptcy from infecting the healthier western lines, Amtrak was never properly funded; languished as a political outsider.

    -The current reality today is clearly how Amtrak will never be the answer to base any HSR expectations upon, as it has become a political animal drinking from the Potomac and subservient to only the interests of the Northeastern political class. Ignoring the developing market opportunities to create or expand corridors throughout the nation while concomitantly over-charging non-Northeast Corridor states for their meager services is an issue that will eventually provoke those states to take control and eliminate the treachery of Amtrak’s monopoly. Already, this is happening in Western Pennsylvania, as it is a smoldering fire in California, where its significant regional train program could be profitable without the burden of paying street tax to Amtrak’s monopoly.

    -Ensuring Amtrak’s failing monopoly cannot extend its tentacles to squeeze HSR means only private enterprise, or, in conjunction with enlightened states, will finally have the ability to bring HSR to America, as seen in Florida, Texas, and Nevada. However, such programs continue to be threatened and delayed by the NIMBYs (e.g., landowners; gated communities) and the cabal of special interests relying on their political muscle to prevent real competition, (e.g., airlines, air and auto manufacturers, bus companies, auto rental companies, oil and construction firms). Remember 1990 when Texas sought to build a HSR triangle between Dallas-Houston-San Antonio-Austin-Dallas, and Southwest Airlines swung its political clout to kill it?

    As we need to dismiss the HSR dreamers with ‘no skin in the game’ broadly forecasting HSR between every corridor market, we should also remember the lost opportunity created by Obama in 2009, which further soured the country on the viability of HSR here. Rather than focusing his $9 Billion grant on one potential corridor already historically proven with fast and frequent passenger trains, as well as providing the ideal Midwest topography for such speed, Obama spread those funds like bread crumbs to every possible voting district which totally diluted any effectiveness. Certainly, California’s HSR would have been possible if a viable Midwest HSR corridor had been up and running; thus inducing private investments from Europe and Japan.

    Finally, we must appreciate that although Europe and Japan achieved building exclusive, dedicated, fenced electrified HSR corridors without grade crossings, they still melded these lines in most cases with traditional infrastructure departing/arriving major cities. Given the limited infrastructure and inability to build new infrastructure, such as between Boston-NYC-Washington, we must be aware of the limitations of HSR here; instead, to seek improved signaling to increase frequencies at the highest possible speed.

  17. I think we can’t have high speed rail because it represents an incompatible mix of the goals of the left that it accomplishes and the policies of the right that are needed to implement it, and nobody is really admitting that or looking at it that way. The left has created a gauntlet of permits, community hearings, environmental impact studies, etc to slow the sprawl of heavy industry and protect the environment, which they are happy to see that these slow things like chemical factories, pipelines, mining, giant development projects, etc. I am not judging this gauntlet, simply saying it exists, and can be used to delay projects. This makes constructing a new oil pipeline a project of decades due to all the studies that are required and all the appeals and hearings that can be made along hundreds or thousands of miles through thousands of real estate tracts and municipalities. The fact that it has to be a continuous line and any community hearing or environmental study which changes the route starts the permitting clock all over, not just at that site, but for long stretches on each side of it due to the changed route. Although a chemical plant is easier to permit than a pipeline because it only exists at one site, it faces its own permitting challenges because it is very expensive, so the project cannot afford to order the parts until it is permitted and delays would cost way too much with the parts ordered, and when the project is finally permitted, the parts have a long lead time to arrive, and if the politicians change and cancel the permits the project is left holding billions of outdated equipment they cannot install and paying interest on the loans while it depreciates. But the one thing that this gauntlet is better at stopping than an oil pipeline or a chemical factory is high speed rail, because it is long, has to be continuous, causes possible detriments that 40% of the community will always complain about at a hearing (traffic, noise, bridge shadows, dividing areas), has to cross wide open stretches with rare species to get across the empty space between dense population centers, and is made of extremely expensive equipment requiring big electricity and earth moving not just simple pipe. Its like a factory and pipeline put together, Its the dodo bird for the regulatory gauntlet. But then comes the real trouble, its supported, not by the people who openly oppose the regulatory gauntlet and can rally against the delays it causes, but instead by the people who built the regulatory gauntlet and cant criticize it. So not only is it the perfect prey for the regulatory gauntlet, but like the dodo it does not realize its predator as a threat and puts up no fight. When HSR was delayed in California, supporters had to pretend the geography of California (very similar to Japan and Europe) presented unique challenges. The truth is that you cannot build the hardest to permit thing imaginable in the hardest place to permit it without talking about permits being hard and the need to scale them down to expedite a viable project. Right now the situation is that opponents of high speed rail can use the regulatory framework to create immense delays at immense costs and face no criticism for their tactics because the supporters of the HSR invented and support the very tactics being used against them. I remember there was a case where after the 1989 Earthquake the freeway in San Francisco was repaired much faster and at a much lower cost than expected by a disaster recovery construction firm after they made an agreement with the city requiring the regulatory permitters to be present on site during the entire project. But really what they did was not innovative. What happened was that all delays and hearings were removed by making all the decisions on site and breaking ground immediately, and the weight of permitting was removed because instead of going through all the paces, even the permitters wanted to get it done and recover from the quake, and nobody took the political risk to sue to delay the repairs. Outside of disasters it does not work like that. We could build things very quickly under budget if we just broke ground and got to work, but that requires everyone to agree, and when anyone doesn’t the regulatory gauntlet is an exponentially more effective weapon the larger and more continuous a project is, and HSR is the largest most continuous project possible.

  18. The airline lobby is very effective in fighting off High Speed Rail. They should see themselves as transportation companies and not just Airlines and invest into train systems such as the one being developed for Texas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *