Adkins: The Case for High Speed Rail in the US
It’s time for the United States federal government to invest in high speed rail.
To start this winter term at Dartmouth, I took an Amtrak from New York City to White River Junction. As I sat on the train for the seven-hour journey, I couldn’t help but imagine how little time a similar route would take in a place like Europe or Southeast Asia. In Japan, a train ride from Tokyo to Osaka — a journey 30 miles longer than New York City to White River Junction — would take just over two hours. Now, this may not be the best example, as White River Junction is much more rural than Osaka, but let’s apply this comparison to a 300-mile train ride from Boston to Philadelphia, an equidistant journey to the Japan example. I found that a $125 (at the cheapest) Amtrak train ride would take up to six hours. For 35 dollars less, a 300-mile ride from Paris to London would take about two hours. In Europe, traveling via train is incredibly efficient and cheap.
I argue that it is time for our federal government to confront this lack of high speed rail in America.
While people may point out that there is no market for rail travel in America, I claim that without substantial HSR infrastructure, lack of train usage is a poor metric when it comes to assessing true demand. In fact, according to a poll conducted by the Rail Passengers Association in 2022, 78% of respondents said they wanted more train investment. In a press conference, Rail Passengers Association president Jim Mathews stated that the poll was “broad-based across all demographics — Republicans, Democrats and Independents, men and women of all ages and races and even rural or urban living.”
The argument that there is no market for rail travel thus does not seem to hold true. With this understanding, it is imperative to think of solutions to not only inefficient travel in the United States, but also to our climate crisis. When confronting the high carbon emissions released by cars, we should encourage the use of trains. Compared to planes and cars, they are substantially lower emission alternatives. More than 20% of the world’s oil consumption is used by the United States, which holds only about 5% of the world’s population. Transportation in America — overwhelmingly carried out by cars — contributes to 27% of our carbon emissions. However, as China’s investment in HSR has shown us, there is far less highway use when people have more access to trains. According to Nature Climate Change, “expansion of the High Speed rail network between 2008 and 2016 led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions in the transport sector” in China. In the United States, moving freight via train versus trucks lowers emissions by 75% on average, according to the Association for American Railroads. The same study showed that “in 2021 alone, U.S. freight railroads consumed 790 million fewer gallons of fuel. They emitted nine million fewer tons of carbon dioxide than they would have if their fuel efficiency had remained constant since 2000.” Expanding train networks also means expanding trade networks throughout states, which in turn will lower emissions.
Furthering an economic point of view, investment in train infrastructure creates thousands of jobs. California’s train line in the Central Valley created 6,000 jobs across 119 miles of construction. Not to mention, these projects bring jobs to disadvantaged individuals in rural areas in America — who have often been neglected by Republicans and Democrats alike. According to the California High Speed Rail Authority, “30 percent of all project work hours are performed by workers from disadvantaged communities where annual household incomes range from $32,000 to $40,000.”
President Biden has seemingly recognized this and invested $66 billion dollars in Amtrak to expand rail services throughout the country. This was the largest bipartisan infrastructure bill since the creation of Amtrak in the early 1970s. According to the White House, the bill “will create good-paying jobs — including union jobs and jobs that do not require a college degree. The projects will grow the economy, strengthen supply chains, improve mobility for residents and make our transportation systems safer for all users.” While this sounds like a solution to my longings for the United States to invest in HSR, the reality is far different. According to UCLA’s director of Luskin Center for Innovation, “we won’t see much of it [the investment] go to high-speed rail.”
So yes, trains are thoroughly invested in, but high speed rail is unfortunately not on the top of America’s list of priorities. While these investments will stimulate the economy by creating jobs, this reality is upsetting for those who recognize the positives of high speed rail. As Steven Zeitchik laid out in the Washington Post, “a high-speed rail United States is a place where people commute regularly from Houston to Dallas; where New York office workers can take a quick hop to their homes in suburban Philadelphia; where Silicon Valley executives can jump on an afternoon train to a studio lot in Hollywood; and where Disney World vacationers can make a dinner jaunt to Ybor City, now just 30 minutes away.” Despite these potential realities, a $10 billion clause to invest in HSR in the recent Build Back Better Act in the House was shut down.
It is disappointing to see the United States continuously veer away from investing in HSR due to political reasons. The market exists and the potential positives are apparent, but the federal government simply cannot follow up on its promise to build effective infrastructure.