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Why is High-Speed Rail Such a Heavy Lift?

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The closest service the U.S. has to HSR is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Acela Express, which soon will have new Alstom trainsets. Hopefully, California will be next, with a true HSR system.

FROM THE EDITOR, RAILWAY AGE FEBRUARY 2022 ISSUE: I turned 62 late last year; this July will mark 30 years at Railway Age. I’m very fortunate—blessed, even—because I’ve seen a lot and done a lot of things that many people who love railroads don’t get to do.

Best of all, I’ve come to know and work with many truly wonderful people who are dedicated to this industry, which is like an extended family. We get along, for the most part. Sure, there’s conflict, and the occasional saber-rattling, but on balance, rail is a good place to earn a living and do something worthwhile. Just take a look at this year’s 25 Under 40. Years from now, they’ll be mentoring younger people, just like many of them have been guided by the “old heads.” Well, “older heads.”  

There’s one thing I’d like to experience before I turn Railway Age’s reins over to a successor. (Don’t hold your breath; God willing, I’ve got a few more mileposts and control points to pass before I decrease the throttle setting and engage the blended braking.) I’d like to ride on and write a long feature story about a U.S. high-speed train—a true high-speed train, on a dedicated right-of-way. You know: the type that operates at 200 mph or better, with a ride quality so smooth you can set a glass of your favorite libation down on your at-seat tray table and not have to worry about it splashing you in the face on a turnout, grade crossing or other rough spot on the track. The type that you can set your watch to (or if it’s one of those new-fangled “smart watches,” you can check on arrival time and see if the train is really running under PSPR, “Precision Scheduled Passenger Railroading”). No mixing with freight or commuter trains. No-nonsense, no-excuses service. Fast, reliable, comfortable, frequent and civilized—not like the tin cans with wings that force you to jump through numerous tiny hoops before you get to cram yourself into a seat where “leg room” is an oxymoron, and you debate purchasing something to eat because there’s not enough room to rip open a tightly sealed package of stale pretzels without elbowing the poor soul next to you who’s dealing with the same “let’s see how many people we can cram into a 1962 VW Beetle” conditions.

Former House Railroad Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) took special pains to trash California’s HSR program. He was voted out of office in 2018 and is now a lobbyist.

You know what I’m talking about: the high-speed trains you can ride today in countries like France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, England, Switzerland, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China, all of which made the commitment to 21st century rail transport a long time ago, went ahead and just did it.Sure, some of those countries had to deal with  opposition from troglodytic politicians, the type who don’t know their asphalt from their elbow room—the type we have in abundance here, who stupidly adhere to the myth that passenger trains should be profit centers, and that the solution to traffic congestion is adding more lanes of pavement. The difference is the troglodytes in the nations that built high-speed rail systems didn’t have much of a voice, and they didn’t have the chance to be obstructionists and kill projects that didn’t conveniently fit their ideologies. 

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The United States has a sad history of HSR projects that never got a shovel in the ground. California right now is our only hope. Let’s tamp down the troglodytes. Let’s get it done. Build it and they will ride. All we need is one system up and running. The rest will follow.

‘Gen Z’s high-speed rail meme dream, explained’

I might be 62, but, where passenger rail is concerned, I—and many of my rail industry colleagues—think like “Generation Z” :people born from 1997-on, like my twin sons, born in 1999, both of whom love trains, passenger or freight. The following March 2021 article (edited for length, spelling and syntax), “Gen Z’s high-speed rail meme dream, explained,” from Vox.com by Gabby Birenbaum, illustrates my point:

Cara only has about 700 followers on Twitter. The 20-year-old frequently garners a handful of “Likes” on her content, which consists mostly of takes on pop culture and singing videos. But when she tweeted a popular image of a potential US high-speed rail map in January, saying “I want her so f___g much,” her tweet quickly went viral, earning more than 185,000 “Likes” and more than 50,000 retweets.

Such is the popularity among Gen Z-ers of high-speed rail.

“We look at other countries that have good examples of it, and we wonder why our country can’t do that,” Cara said. “It seems like a simple solution [for which] we can’t find the reason as to why we’re not doing it.”

For members of the young online left, the high-speed rail map has become a ubiquitous fixture of politics Twitter. Created by graphic designer Alfred Twu in 2013, the map depicts a system of interconnected high-speed rail lines, linking Los Angeles to New York and Minneapolis to Miami, among other projects. The map has been tweeted out by tiny personal accounts and the Sunrise Movement alike. It has its share of problems — the proposed rail lines go right through tribal lands — but it serves as a handy analogy for what the promise of high-speed rail represents to Generation Z. 

“We are so much more connected with people across the country, across the world,” says Matt Nowling, a 21-year-old college student from Columbus, Ohio, who has worked on Democratic campaigns. “High-speed rail provides an opportunity for people to connect in a more sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry about your car, about gas. It’s just so much easier.”

High-speed rail infrastructure exists across Europe and Asia, where publicly owned and maintained tracks can connect passengers from Beijing to Hong Kong in nine hours, or Madrid to Barcelona in under three hours. In the United States, there is currently one high-speed rail line— arguably. Amtrak’s Acela Express, which runs through the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., can reach speeds of 165 miles per hour, but frequently runs at an average of 70 miles per hour between those cities.

Even with America’s resident Amtrak champion, Joe Biden, now in the White House, and the Administration preparing a $2 trillion green infrastructure proposal, a network like the one in Twu’s map is at best decades away. To get there, the U.S. would have to overcome a number of obstacles, from Republican and corporate opposition to a dearth of expertise. Perhaps most important, it would require a level of federal commitment — both budgetary and planning-wise — the likes of which have not been seen in generations. 

The map, then, represents Gen Z’s ambitious, sincere wish — for a more connected, more sustainable future — and their inherent recognition of how impossible the dream of high-speed rail may be.

Gen Z isn’t the first group of young, online voters to care about transit. But they represent a culmination of trends that have been building in younger Americans: less interest in cars as status symbols, more interest in environmentally friendly transit methods.

The popularity of the high-speed rail map meme builds on years of similar conversation, some of it in the Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (Numtot), first created in 2017 and now serving as a “haven for people who love trains,” as administrator Emily Orenstein described it. The meme, and high-speed rail more generally, are popular topics with the group’s more-than 200,000 users, its three administrators say, because it allows them to dream big.

“I love the high-speed rail map image because I think a lot of urban planning and urbanism today, especially in the United States, is so devoid of inspiration because it’s so beaten down by so-called pragmatism, labor costs, legal issues, things like that,” said Jonathan Marty, a Numtot administrator who goes to Columbia University. “The high-speed rail thing, the map that circulates a lot, it touches people because it’s this genuinely bold and tangible image of the future. People can feel that.”

In addition, high-speed rail is a blunt example of just how behind the U.S. is. After the 2008 global financial crisis, China, in particular, made massive investments into high-speed rail, building more than 15,000 miles of rail lines that service more than 1.7 billion passengers yearly, according to the World Bank. 

“At that speed, you could get from New York City to Chicago in about four hours,” Juliet Eldred, a Numtot co-founder and transit planner, said. “The current train is about 20 hours. That makes me viscerally enraged.”

A number of significant challenges have prevented high-speed rail projects from getting started: the multistate nature of the projects, Republican and corporate opposition, and a lack of resources.

There have been moments in Democratic Presidencies when it looked like rail was poised for a comeback. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton secured funding for the improvement of Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor, leading to the opening of the Acela Express in 2000. President Barack Obama came into office in 2009 with plans to include massive infrastructure improvements as part of the American Recovery Act. But he got just $8 billion for new rail projects passed — and Republican governors promptly shot down the funding offers in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. 

One project in California successfully received federal funding in 2010. The line will run from Anaheim to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and is expected to open in 2029 — though its continual delays have become a popular punching bag for California Republicans.

In addition, there are strong, moneyed interests lined up against the construction of a high-speed rail network, including the Koch brothers, who have poured millions into killing projects through advertising, think tanks, and donating to GOP politicians.

Andy Kunz is the president and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association, a trade group that advocates for high-speed rail. The group launched in 2009, and despite the energy around high-speed rail in the Obama Administration, Kunz says it was swiftly met with an apparatus of opposition. 

“We were up against this nonstop anti-rail propaganda machine cranking out lies and myths — rail is yesterday’s technology, all this nonsense — from these think tanks funded by oil companies and car companies and the road industry and the aviation industry,” he said.

Read enough? The article is quite lengthy, delving into such subjects as light rail, and you can read the entire piece here. But here’s the deal: Young Americans want true high speed trains. They’ll hopefully have them some day. But it will probably take at least a couple of more decades, when the ranks of legislators and planners and business leaders are dominated by Generation Z—and the troglodytes are extinct, or at least rendered irrelevant. If I’m fortunate, I’ll be riding those high-speed trains as a very old man, with a big smile on my face.

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