To other countries, what we call 'high-speed' rail is more like half-speed

Riordan Frost
Riordan Frost is a transportation policy associate with Minnesota 2020.
Submitted photo

The vast majority of existing and planned intercity passenger rail lines in the United States involve trains that can travel at speeds up to 110 miles per hour. While that isn't exactly a slow train, it's not "high-speed rail" as the world defines it.

European high-speed rail corridors start at 125 mph and reach 220 mph. Chinese and Japanese high-speed trains reach the same velocity, though new maglev trains can reach up to 270 mph (they average much less in operation). These speeds seem a distant dream for most of America. Why is it that the rest of the world's train speeds start where ours mostly peak?

Amtrak operates a near-nationwide passenger rail service, running trains in 46 states across 21,000 miles of track. However, Amtrak owns only 29 percent of the rail miles it uses. Freight rail companies own the majority of the track, which they rent to Amtrak. Citing safety concerns, freight companies hesitate to allow trains traveling any faster than 79 mph on or near their lines.

Federal Rail Administrator Joseph Szabo recently pledged that high-speed rail will coexist with freight without harming the performance of either. According to the Journal of Commerce, Szabo said that the way to accomplish this is through investment in public infrastructure.

America has had an extensive relationship with the automobile. Creation and maintenance of roads and highways have dominated state and federal transportation budgets. It is hard to find funds for creating a new high-speed rail system and upgrading our current rail system when a great deal of money is required for keeping our existing roads and highways functional.

People opposing rail funding mostly use the same argument as Wisconsin's conservative gubernatorial candidate: We cannot afford to build high-speed rail when roads and highways are in poor condition.

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Further, if we cannot run high-speed rail on freight lines, we will have to create a whole new rail system, adding significantly to the costs. This is where the Midwest has an advantage, because buying property from dozens of farmers is much easier and less expensive than buying property from hundreds of business owners in a more densely developed area like the East Coast.

Fortunately, these barriers are not insurmountable. A few high-speed rail projects are making progress in America, slowly but surely. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently visited China and Japan to test their trains and elicit bids to construct California's high-speed rail system.

He also recently announced that California will be seeking financing from China. The state is already set to receive $2.25 billion of the $8 billion national stimulus allocated to high-speed rail, and that is just for the Los Angeles to San Francisco line.

Amtrak has recently revealed a proposal to modernize its Northeast Corridor, linking Boston with D.C. and cities in between. The plan will put high-speed rail (up to 220 mph) through parts of the East Coast, cutting travel times and congestion drastically, but it also comes with a high cost. Construction would require $4.7 billion annually for 25 years, totaling $117.5 billion. Sadly, hopes are not as high for high-speed rail in Minnesota.

If there is one thing studies and experience have shown us so far, it is that truly high-speed rail is a game changer. Speeds that reach 220 mph far outstrip car travel, which isn't going to get significantly faster anytime soon.

If the rest of the developed, modern world is building high-speed systems and seeing real results, it's time we did the same. What we have now in fast rail is only a start. It would be shortsighted to allow criticism of our moderately fast rail plan to keep us from seeking higher speeds in the future.


Riordan Frost, St. Paul, is a policy associate with Minnesota 2020, which describes itself as "a progressive, new media, nonpartisan think tank." This commentary first appeared on the organization's website.