What are the prospects for a high-speed rail network in the United States?

There are several threads going on right now in the GD forum relating to whether any automobile fuel can be developed that would be an effective substitute for petroleum-derived gasoline. Maybe it can and maybe it can’t, but it occurs to me that we could reduce the problem, to a limited extent, by providing alternatives to automotive transportation itself.

For local travel, this would involve mass transit – subways, light rail, buses. (The way most American suburban areas have been developed since World War II, mass transit probably can never be made a practical option, but that’s another discussion.) For long-distance travel, we might do what the Europeans do: Use trains. But at present, our national rail network is extremely primitive compared to Europe’s. We could remedy that: If we (that is, our federal government) could build a national network of interstate highways, in principle we should be able to build a national network of state-of-the-art high-speed rail lines. Say, one line along each interstate highway corridor. Why not? If the Europeans and the Japanese can do it, we can do it! It would take some of the pressure off the highways and the airlines alike. High-speed trains are electrically powered – which means the power source can come from practically any kind of plant that produces electricity, whether it is coal-fired, gas-powered, nuclear, or hydroelectric. This would greatly lessen our national dependence on imported petroleum.

But what would building such a network involve? How much money would it cost? And how could we overcome the political obstacles? I live in Florida. A couple of years ago the voters approved a referendum on a constitutional amendment requiring the state to build a high-speed rail line linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami. And even after that vote, Governor Jeb Bush is still trying to block the project. His ostensible and quite plausible reason is that it would cost the state too much money. (Our state would have a much bigger, healthier budget if we had a state income tax, but no Florida politician will even mention that, it’s political suicide.) However, a person of cynical inclination might suggest that Jeb’s family’s involvement in the oil industry might play some role in his opposition. And we would be facing the same vested-interest opposition all over the country – from the oil industry, the auto industry, possibly even the airline industry. Can anybody see a way around this?

not going to happen.we love our cars/suvs and highways to much.

But would we if gas cost $100/gal?

What if pigs had wings? Then I suppose we could fly around on their backs, too, and wouldn’t need cars or trains.

I’m all for this idea. Let a private company invest in this venture and see if it flies (no pun intended). But, no gov’t money!

Of course we love our cars, HackDriver, and with good reason. No other transportation technology yet devised can match the automobile for getting you from exactly where you are to exactly where you want to go at any time of the day or night and with maximum protection from weather and criminal assaults. But just because we want to go on driving our cars forever doesn’t mean we can. Circumstances – a drastic rise in the price of gasoline, for instance – might get in our way.

And as long as we keep using gasoline-powered cars we remain dependent on a non-renewable resource, petroleum, most of which has to be imported from very dangerous and unstable parts of the world. This represents a major military and security problem – a serious Achilles’ heel. Most Americans use cars to get to work, to school, to shopping, to recreation. Practically everything we eat or wear or put in our homes was shipped from farm/factory to distribution point to retail market by diesel-powered trucks. If any hostile foreign power or combination of powers were to succeed in interrupting our oil imports, it would cripple our economy! But if we had an electric-powered high-speed rail network, we would have a safety net, a fallback. Gasoline rationing in World War II did not cripple our economy because, back then, non-automotive modes of transportation were available in most metropolitan areas. That is no longer the case.

And there are many other downsides to the automotive transportation system, such as massive public costs, air pollution, traffic injuries and fatalities, and (more controversially) the social effects. Some of these problems would remain problems even if we developed an alternative, non-polluting, renewable fuel for automobiles. But let’s not get into these right now. Let’s start by assuming a high-speed rail system is something we should have. That being assumed, is there any way we can have it? Could the government afford to build it? Could political obstacles be overcome?

By the way, John Mace, practically all the railroads in Europe are owned and operated by governments, not private industry, and those systems seem to be working just fine.

My husband was diggin through his old college papers and he found one that i thought was interesting. He admits to this day it is overly optimistic dreams but…

He and a work group in college figured up a way to create a mass transit system in America that might work. First, it hinged on a large increase in gasoline tax for personal cars. In areas where there were alternatives to driving (mass transit systems) the tax would be larger. I think they figured about $2.00 a gallon. The tax would also be increased in other areas as well.

That money would all, by law, have to be filtered into building up the infrastructure of the rail system/mass transit system in america. It would subsidize all ventures in this market and employee thousands of workers in the construction projects. The venture would be pretty much risk free for companies because the outgoing capital would be all covered by the tax revenues.

People would be encouraged to use mass transit because of high gas prices. Also, they talked about bonuses, from that money, for companies that received good reports from consumers for safety, comfort, service and cleanliness. It was really a comprehensive report.

When he saw it again, he chuckled at his own silliness in conceiving the idea in the first place, but boy it would have been neat if it could have worked.

IMHO, this sort of radical action (which I know has tons of downfalls- so please don’t pile on) is the only way Americans could ever have a large rail system.
In other words, we will never have one.


There are many people working on making automobiles not only more fuel efficent but not dependent on fossil fuels at all. There are electrical/gas hybrid vehicles currently available on the market and cars running on fuel cells are right around the corner. The problem you’ve noticed has been noticed by others and people are trying to solve it.


This thread is about high speed trains with lines between cities. High speed trains will do nothing to solve these problems.


Well sure, at some point an internal combustion engine will be involved in the shipment and possibly the production of the products we consume.


Wouldn’t a high speed train (hst) system also have massive public cost and social effects?

That’s an awfully big assumption. I suppose if we assumed we needed one then the government could build it.


Unless the government provides incentives to a private company, it will never happen. Any government incentive is essentially government money.

Government incentives, if not outright cash, expanded the railroads, airline industry, and all roads and highways.

Well, compared to Europe or Japan, the US is much more spread out, making any rail system for passenger transport much less practical.

I’ve often thought that a high-speed cargo rail system would have a better chance of working in the US, than a high speed passenger rail system. If it could get the cargo from Point A to Point B faster than trucks, but cheaper than airfreight, it might have a chance.

Does anyone else think the airline industry in going to have to cut its lest profitable lines. Something is going to have to take their place. Rail seems a good way to go.

lest = least

Americans seem to like (or at least tolerate) airliners though. And airliners can be less convenient than high-speed trains, especially with the recent increase in security. As long as you have plenty of rental cars available at rail terminals, I think it would be convenient enough.

Still, America is very spread out. I think a high-speed rail system would only be practical in several locations - the Northeast corridor and maybe another one along the west coast. Even in Japan, airliners are more attractive than trains for any trip over 600 miles (e.g. Tokyo to Kyushu or Hokkaido).

That is probably correct-
modern HST lines would only suit the East Coast and the West Coast of America…
to cross the larger spaces you might need an evacuated tube railway,
which could possibly reach speeds of 4000kph
but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to arrive…

SF worldbuilding at

Rail is more unprofitable than the airlines.

That’s probably a good reason for it not to happen, then. We don’t need another reason for the gov’t to waste our money. If it can’t be made to run at a profit, what good is it?

It will please train afficionados. Isn’t that good enough reason right there :wink: ?

  • Tamerlane

I think some might argue that there are significant external benefits from public transport which means that although railways may (usually) be financially unprofitable, in a broader sense they are profitable - they provide more benefit than they cost.

Highways and interstate freeways don’t make a profit either. Would you argue that they should all be privatized and operated as toll roads?