Why doesn’t the United States have a high speed rail system?

If you are a travel enthusiast, you probably have experienced riding on bullet trains and enjoying speedy transport vehicles from other countries due to high-speed rail (HSR) services. You might wonder why a similar transportation network has not been implemented in other countries like the United States.

Aside from freight services, many countries in Europe and Asia have developed high-speed rail for passenger travel. There is no single international standard for high-speed rail, but new train lines having speeds over 250 kilometers per hour (km/h), or 160 miles per hour (mph), and existing lines over 200 km/h (120 mph) are generally considered to be high speed. (click here for more details)

Japan is a pioneer of a high-speed rail system, which began in 1964. It is known as the Shinkansen or bullet train. Today, the country has a network of nine high-speed rail lines serving 22 of its major cities, stretching across its three main islands with three more development lines. The bullet train can accommodate 420 000 passengers on a typical weekday, making it the busiest high-speed rail service in the world. It can travel up to 320 km/h (200 mph), and one good thing is that in over 50 years of operation, there have been no passenger fatalities or injuries due to accidents.

Next to Japan, France made a high-speed rail system available in public in 1981. It had a speed of 200 km/h (124mph) between Paris and Lyon. Currently, over 2,800 km of Lignes à Grande Vitesse (LGV) comprised a French high-speed rail network. It allows speeds of up to 320 km/h or 200 mph, on which its TGVs (Trains à Grande Vitesse) run, operated by SNCF, France national rail operator.

In Germany, the operation of the Inter-City Express (ICE) high-speed trains through several cities began in 1991. Travel from Paris to London via the Channel Tunnel was possible with Eurostar service, which began operating in 1994. The early adoption of France of the high-speed rail, and its central position between the Iberian Peninsula, the British Isles and Central Europe, most other high-speed rail lines in Europe have been built to the French standards for speeds, voltage, and signaling. On the other hand, Germany followed the existing German railway standards.

If other countries can develop this system of transportation, why can’t the United States? Except for California that thinks of itself as the state where the future happens. In 2008, its voters supported the project for a high-speed rail. That same year in November, they approved a $9 billion bond issue to put in reality one of the most ambitious government infrastructure projects in U.S. history: a bullet train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, at the cost of $33 billion. (click here for more details)

Who would not dream and agree on this kind of comfort having a high-speed railway can give? But there are several considerations before putting up this rail system in the U.S.

The first consideration is the population density. If you happen to fly across the United States, if it’s a non-cloudy day, try to look down. You’ll have a clear comparison of how empty and different it is compared to most Asian and European countries. Even the denser cities are more “suburban sprawl” compared to the concentrated type of urban living in Asia and Europe. For instance, despite being the fourth largest metropolitan area, Dallas has a lower population density than Hebei province. Hebei is not even considered a particularly dense Chinese province. This is probably the most significant single factor making the economics of high-speed commuter rail very difficult. (click here for more details)

Another factor is property rights. This is one thing that requires a considerable amount of money, securing land along a relatively straight path (you can’t run trains at high speeds along too sharp a curve). Acquiring property in the U.S. is exceedingly expensive. Back when it was cheap to secure land, the U.S. had no problem building train tracks. Unlike in China, the property is still primarily controlled by the State, making it much easier to secure.

Culture is something not easily changed. And the use of automobiles is deeply ingrained into the core fabric of the American way of living, and it might take time to change it.

The value of network effects is another significant and essential facet of a high-speed rail system. It is a far more attractive proposal to build an HSR system that looks more like a web than a point-to-point line. This is because networks tend to result in much higher utilization than point-to-point systems. And utilization is the most crucial determinant behind the economics of high fixed-cost businesses like high-speed rail.