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Driving Change

Can high-speed rail finally become a reality in the U.S.?

Technology, politics and climate action may coalesce to put high-speed transit on the fast track.

A row of nine high-speed trains

High-speed transit plans in the works include a California High-Speed Rail Authority train connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and a Brightline West Project train from LA to Las Vegas. Image courtesy of Siemens.

The U.S. is so far behind on high-speed rail compared to other countries it seems the U.S. is Superman and high-speed rail is its kryptonite. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder — maybe high-speed rail is Superman, and America’s car culture is its kryptonite?

If you have had the luxury of traveling outside of the U.S., you will have likely experienced high-speed rail or at least heard about or seen it. You may:

  • Wonder how shockingly behind the U.S. is because it is truly amazing to experience high-speed rail.
  • Wonder why the U.S. does not have abundant high-speed trains. 
  • Brush aside the fact that America is so behind due to its heavy car culture or think that the application of high-speed rail simply won’t work in the U.S. 

I know I have thought of all these points when I have experienced the pleasure of traveling on high-speed rail in parts of Europe. 

However, what if all that is about to change? What if the U.S. is at the precipice of a major shift where technology, politics and climate action all come together to help spur the adoption of high-speed rail? 

Well, it is not that easy or perfect. But, it is not all doom and gloom either. After I spoke with Marc Buncher, president and chief executive officer of Siemens Mobility North America, I realized that the U.S. is much further along on high-speed rail than I thought, even with the hurdles that stand in its way. Buncher is a longtime supporter of and an expert on high-speed rail. Siemens Mobility is a leading provider of all things high-speed rail, including trains, systems and aftermarket parts (Siemens partners with a civil engineering company to lay the track, ballast and perform the maintenance.). 

The conversation about high-speed rail in the U.S. is not new — far from it. GreenBiz and many others have covered it well. As a refresher, what exactly is high-speed rail? According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, high-speed rail is any new train line of 160 miles per hour or more. High-speed rail is what allows people to travel from London to Paris, a 300-mile journey, in as little as two hours compared with flying or driving, which takes upward of several hours. High-speed rail has many benefits, including:

  • Creating jobs — every $1 billion in investment creates about 24,000 jobs.
  • Increasing economic activity — every $1 invested creates $4 in economic benefits. 
  • Reducing congestion and boosting productivity — congestion in the U.S. costs $140 billion in lost time and productivity.
  • Reducing dependence on foreign oil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing efficient and high-speed travel choices — high-speed rail is as fast or faster and more efficient than air travel. 

If you look at the history of public transit in the U.S. and hypothetically projected it out into the future, in some alternative universe, we would have high-speed rail throughout the country. In the early 1920s, streetcars and mass public transit covered the U.S — and then it all went kaput. Vox uncovered the real story behind the demise of the once-mighty streetcar culture before the current car culture stepped in; I highly encourage you to read that article

What if the U.S. is at the precipice of a major shift where technology, politics and climate action all come together to help spur the adoption of high-speed rail?

So what is going on in the U.S. on high-speed rail? Buncher highlighted a few prominent projects, including the California High-Speed Rail Authority project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles and Brightline West project connecting LA to Las Vegas. Siemens Mobility is one of two qualified teams involved in the California High-Speed Rail Authority project and is a part of the LA-to-Las Vegas project. Here are some facts about both projects: 

California High-Speed Rail Authority Project — Connecting San Francisco to LA
Brightline West Project — Connecting LA to Las Vegas
  • The train is expected to reach speeds of 180 mph, allowing for two times faster travel than by car. 
  • The project will reduce 400,000 tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to removing 3 million vehicles. Overall, 50 million one-way trips occur annually between LA and Las Vegas. 
  • Developers aim to begin operation in 2026.

Based on my conversation with Buncher and diving deeper into the progress of these projects, I found that the environmental benefits of high-speed are only part of the reason for why it is needed/wanted in the U.S., and politics and funding remain uphill battles. 

"I think companies are doing it [deploying high-speed rail] because they see the environmental impact… But when you are a person living in LA that owns a car, I don’t think you are thinking about your carbon footprint. … The same is true for Europe. For example, when you ride a train in Europe, you’re doing it because of the ease of taking a train… and then walking to wherever you’re going in the city center, and that is the real reason that I think people living in LA or Las Vegas are going to take high-speed rail," Buncher said. "But along the way comes huge environmental footprint reductions as well."

Even with all the projects and the historic moment in politics with the passing of The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, many uphill battles still remain for high-speed rail in the U.S. Take California High-Speed Rail Authority, for example. The project was approved in 2008 and set to open in 2020, but it was hampered by funding cuts. Based on reporting from July, the project’s initial cost was $33 billion, with $12 billion to $16 billion coming from the federal government. However, the federal government only allocated $3 billion. Now, the project is expected to cost $105 billion.

However, some additional funding is potentially coming to high-speed rail overall. It appears funding for high-speed rail didn’t make it into the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. But, some funding was created for "major projects" under the IIJA, which could include high-speed rail. "There is money in the first bill [IIJA] … for example $10 billion for mega-projects, which would be things like the Hudson River tunnel in New York City, but also high-speed rail would qualify," Buncher said. "With the $105 billion budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation [to improve rail among other areas of public transit] and the IIJA, we are in an unseen era where we have a lot of money coming into our industry." 

The U.S. is far from seeing seemingly endless tracks of high-speed rail. However, we are closer than ever before to the start of experiencing meaningful progress.

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