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Discussion » Questions » Current Events and News » If this is the greatest country in the world, why don't we have any high-speed rails?

If this is the greatest country in the world, why don't we have any high-speed rails?

Posted - May 14, 2019


  • 4313
    1 - We have stronger property rights than most countries WITH high-speed rails.
    2 - We have a long permitting process for large construction projects.
    3 - We have highly litigious environmental groups.
    4 - Our rail lines were built long before high-speed trains, and for freight more than passenger service.

    So we can't use the existing rail system ... and we can't build a new one.
      May 14, 2019 8:03 AM MDT

  • 2163
    So essentially the obstacles are legal, not commercial or technical? (Point 4 is not an obstacle at all.)

    On 1) and 2), the UK and most European countries have very strict and convoluted planning laws and processes too, based on both property rights and (nowadays) environmental protection. Whilst these slow the planning and authorising, they do not prevent major civil-engineering projects.

    In Britain, the planners can call on Compulsory Purchase Orders, though for obvious reasons they do so as sparingly as possible.  

    3) I don't know the European angle there, but the UK's equivalents are noisy and obstructive, not litigious. They can comment on contentious matters, but not fleece the tax-payers for a lawful, properly-made governmental decision with which they happen to disagree!  The only winners in civil-law cases are the over-paid lawyers anyway.  

    Besides, the UK, and the EU generally, have very strict environmental-protection laws which at least reduce the long-term damage.

    4) That presents "only" technical difficulties overcome by will, skill and bill.  

    The French TGV and the Japanese "Bullet Trains" use costly, specially-built, dedicated lines; as will the UK's HS2. I don't know the equivalent situation in Germany and Italy.

    Otherwise, regular 100+mph passenger- and somewhat slower goods- trains can and do share existing routes whose track, signalling and where applicable, power-supplies, are up-rated / replaced to the required standard. These lines do need a lot of very high-grade maintenance though, and of course that is expensive, though presumably its very sophisticated plant and machinery are financially as well as technically efficient.  

    The British and European-continental railways were all built right from their 19C origins for both passenger and goods services roughly equally, and this principle still applies. After steadily losing much of both to road transport for most of the 20C, the railways are now regaining a lot of that traffic, in both areas. In Britain we have seen some existing stations extended, a few closed ones re-opened, and even a few built where none previously existed (mainly serving airports and major industrial sites).  Most rail freight now is in bulk and container form; most of the latter is between the sea-ports and road/rail distribution depots. 

    So you can ... and you can... New routes or old, the engineering's perfectly possible, given the right national-level social and political will!
      May 15, 2019 4:44 PM MDT

  • If you haven't noticed, the trains we have are derailing all over the country, it's almost a weekly thing now, it seems.  What's so great about ensuring there are no survivors?
      May 14, 2019 8:45 AM MDT

  • 2163
    Interesting question. Not many countries do have such systems, though how would you define "high speed" nowadays. Over 150mph? Passenger train speeds of 100+mph are common now, running on existing lines modernised to take them, rather than specially-built ones.

    America may have the technical skills, but that's only part of the story. You'd have to find a dedicated team of appropriately qualified, skilled and experienced Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to plan and design the system, and to oversee its construction, operating and servicing.  

    Does the USA have the money available? The political will or desire? Too much competition from the airlines to make it worthwhile?

    The UK Government has committed the UK to having "High Speed Train 2" (HS2) but it is proving very controversial on grounds of value for the eye-watering costs, environmental and planning considerations, and simple need. Even if it is eventually extended to the two main Scottish cities the longest route distance from London would still be well under 500 miles.  

    It is reckoned it would save about 14 minutes on the present fastest journeys from London to Birmingham, less than 200 miles apart; and my view is that its main purposes are political vanity and a misguided theory that it will help revitalise the economy of Northern England. I believe it will simply extend London's commuter belt to the Midlands; helping push up house prices there but not do much else of any real value.

    There may be another reason though. Whether we leave the EU or not, Britain will still be affected by "Brussels", whose power-brokers are secretive factories of a never-ending stream of "Directives" for translating into law. Among the EU's possible policies for the near future is a very severe reduction in internal flights and operators, to the advantage of the railways if no-one else; naturally, for "saving the planet". As it is, Britain's railways' rise over the last few decades in both passenger and freight traffic is creating route congestion and crowded trains. After all, for UK inter-city distances, "only an hour's flight" (e.g. Glasgow - London) seems attractive, but as the real time between the two airport's front doors is more like 3 hours, and airports are some distance from city centres, rail travel from (usually) city centre to city centre in this country is often immediately advantageous in time even if not in fares.   

    HS2 because we have had "HS1" as it were - the High-Speed Train, or HST  - for some decades now. Built in both diesel- and electrically- powered versions they are multiple-unit trains of a rake of coaches cohesively between two "power cars". Each has its own driving-cab so the train can be driven in either direction without having to turn anything: the driver just walks to the cab at the other end. As far as I can make out, all cross-country trains in America are coaches drawn by a separate locomotive or locomotives which need turning and "running round" at the destination, for the return trip.  I don't know typical US express train speeds, but the UK's HST is speeded up to 125mph, and a few stretches of main line are maintained for service speeds up to 140mph.

    Railways capable of carrying even 125mph trains regularly and safely have to be maintained to a very high standard throughout, not so difficult in a compact country with lots of access-points from roads for the maintenance staff and machinery, but a real headache in a wide-open continent. The rails are also usually welded end-to-end, no bolted (so smooth running with no "clicketty-clack" noise!) - practicable in reasonably low-variability climates but problematical in a continent's  more extreme temperature ranges.

    How you translate all that to the USA I don't know, but the far greater distances between major cities probably mean any such line would have to be paid for not just by the railway companies assuming they can afford it; but by the Government (i.e. from taxes) and perhaps foreign investors such as Japan - so a cut of any operating profits would leave the country.

    Also it would be hard to attract passengers back to the railways from airlines. Continental distances raise the question of efficiency of travel for the passenger: the 4-hour flight might be 6 or 7 hours from booking-in to baggage reclaim, whereas assuming no mid-journey changes, railway-station door-to-door time need not be much longer than train time. Yet 4 hours in the air by standard jet airliner covers over 1600 miles - even Japan's "Bullet Train" does not run at 400mph. The world's fastest trains presently in service all run on specially-built lines and reach about 200mph: so 1600 miles would still take more than 8 hours non-stop.

    You do perhaps have the advantage of much more open countryside in which to fit such a line - England is very crowded - but with that are hundreds of miles more track and (probably) overhead-electric supplies to build and maintain.  

    So whilst it is superficially surprising the USA has no High-Speed Trains, even on up-dated existing routes like Britain's HST Intercity 125s,  it is rather less surprising when you consider the passenger needs, finance and politics. 

    And yet...

    Your (American) present Government does not believe in climate-change, but a future one might, and then might even consider replacing inter-city aeroplanes with major, inter-city, electrically-powered, fast trains. Whether that environmental equation actually works is another matter, but the drive to oust using coal, gas and oil fuels in most developed nations will put a lot of pressure on the US to follow suit whether it likes it or not. This does not consider whether such replacement will deliver its promises in the ways hoped, but it might encourage the USA's railroads to find new life.  
      May 14, 2019 8:45 AM MDT

  • 12994
    I'm not of the opinion that high-speed rails are a requirement.   
      May 14, 2019 6:54 PM MDT

  • 22400
    probably so people dont get hurt in thern
      May 19, 2019 4:41 PM MDT