There are plenty of sounds that you associate closely with the USA: the hand-on-heart singing of the national anthem, and the thwack of bat on baseball that follows. The honk of impatient New York taxis. The rush of oceanic waves onto Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
One noise that is less obviously tied to the land of stars, stripes and super-sized everything is the imperious whoosh of the high-speed train. The stately rumble of an Amtrak service plodding through a dramatic landscape – yes. The workhorse clank and grumble of a mile-long freight train, holding up a growing line of vehicles at a busy Midwestern level-crossing – certainly. But the wind-whistle of a sleek, state-of-the-art Japanese-style shinkansen, zooming between cities in matters of minutes – not so much.
Not yet, anyway. However, those who pay eagle-eyed attention to developments in rail transportation, or to the minutiae of infrastructure policy on the other side of The Pond, or to both, will have noticed something stirring at the end of last year. In fact, if you were particularly focused on events in Washington DC just before Christmas, you may have spotted something significant. The birth of a fledgling American high-speed train system.
All right, so perhaps that is overplaying the press release which emerged from the White House briefing room on December 8. Yet if you read all the way to the bottom of the weighty document titled “President Biden Announces Billions to Deliver World-Class High-Speed Rail, and Launch New Passenger Rail Corridors Across the Country”, you may have reached the conclusion that a revolution in American train travel is underway. Which, in effect, it is. Slowly, imperceptibly, almost invisibly. But underway all the same.
The meat of the announcement is the $8.2billion (£6.5billion) in funding that the Biden administration has pledged towards 10 passenger rail projects – including, to use the statement’s own words, “the first world-class high-speed rail projects in our country’s history”. Continuing, it describes the money pot as “the largest investment in [American] passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak [over] 50 years ago”. A big statement indeed.
The most high-profile of these projects has already received a fair amount of publicity – even though, as yet, very little of the groundwork has begun. Brightline West is a scheme of considerable ambition; a 218-mile privately built link between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles conurbation.
While the line will not run right to the centre of the biggest metropolis on the West Coast – it will terminate at Rancho Cucamonga, some 25 miles east of downtown LA, where passengers will be able to transfer onto suburban trains – it will knock a sizeable chunk of time off the journey between Sin City and Sunset Strip. It takes about five hours to drive between the two, tracing Interstate-15 across the Mojave Desert. Brightline West says that it will be able to offer the trip in two hours and 10 minutes.
To do this, the line will need to operate at a shinkansen pace. Brightline West claims that it will. The promised 186mph fits within the window of 150-200 mph served up by Japan’s famous bullet trains, and will see locomotives easily outpacing road traffic along the section of track that will shadow I-15 in the dusty hinterlands where Nevada and California meet.
At present, the timeline is as ambitious as the project – the plan is to have Brightline West up and running in time for the Los Angeles Olympics, just over four years from now (July 14-30 2028). The estimated total cost is currently purported to be $12bn (£9.5bn), of which $3bn (£2.4bn) will be a sugarlump from the Biden Oval Office.
Of course, none of this is entirely new. If the word “Brightline” sounds familiar, then you may have visited southern Florida in the last six months.
That “West” suffix distinguishes the Vegas-LA project from the already existing “Brightline”, which has been cutting a dash between Miami and Orlando – via Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – since September. Although it has been promoted as such, you cannot really consider this 235-mile route to be “high-speed” in the modern sense.
Even the most optimistic and easily thrilled trainspotter would struggle to declare a line that only reaches a top velocity of 125mph – and only then on the track immediately east of Orlando – to be truly fast (in the largely residential areas along the Atlantic shoreline, it slows to 79mph). Nonetheless, the Florida Brightline is a game-changer and a trend-setter – the first privately funded railway line in the US for more than a century. The wait for another will be much shorter.
It is perhaps no surprise that these developments are taking place on Biden’s watch. The 46th US president has long been an advocate for rail travel, earning the nickname “Amtrak Joe” during his time as a senator for Delaware; notably in the early- and mid-Seventies when, having been widowed (his first wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash on December 18 1972), he rode the rails between Washington DC and Wilmington twice a day – determined to be at home in the evenings to take care of his two surviving children. An empathetic observer might glimpse the affection for train travel, born of those hard years, in last month’s far-reaching funding announcement.
And the funding will reach much further. As well as Brightline West, the December 8 announcement speaks of the “California Inaugural High-Speed Rail Service Project” – the current cumbersome moniker for the planned rapier-swift train corridor running up the middle of the Golden State. Construction began in 2015 on what will ultimately be a network connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Silicon Valley hub San Jose – with likely extensions up to the state capital Sacramento, and down to San Diego, on the Mexican border.
Again, this will be shinkansen-level infrastructure; purportedly the world’s first fully solar-powered bullet train, with locomotives hitting speeds of 220mph. For now, though, work – and the $3.07bn (£2.4bn) of funding promised in the White House statement – is focused on the core of the project, the 171 miles of track currently being laid between Bakersfield (110 miles north of Los Angeles) and Merced (100 miles east of San Jose), via Fresno. The completion date for this section is pencilled as “2030 to 2033”.
It is likely to have a “neighbour”. The White House statement also makes mention of what is still more of an idea than a building site, yet will, at some point, aim to provide a similar connectivity in the north-west corner of the US – and through the fence into Canada. The “Cascadia High-Speed Rail” initiative will, if it comes to fruition, link the three key cities of the region, with a line forging south from Vancouver (in British Columbia) to Seattle (in Washington), and on to Portland – with the potential for further southbound construction into Oregon, and its second biggest city Eugene.
A total distance of 413 miles. At this stage, this is little more than a drawing-board outline, with vague murmurs of operational services by 2040. But the news that the project’s US section has been earmarked for federal cash has been welcomed on the other side of the border. “It’s a very exciting development,” said Laura Jones, the president and chief executive officer of the Business Council of British Columbia, on hearing the announcement. “This obviously changes the maths for British Columbia, as it will make sense for this to be a priority for the province as well.”
Elsewhere, reference is made to a fast line between Atlanta in Georgia and Charlotte in North Carolina – a 250-mile segment of the wider proposed “Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor” that has been under discussion since the turn of the century.
Should this come fully into existence, it would pass through five states, reaching as far north as Washington DC and as far south as Jacksonville (at the top end of Florida). It would also include stations in Columbia (the South Carolina capital) and Richmond (the capital of Virginia).
Curiously, the December 8 statement says nothing about a fifth American high-speed rail project, which bears another president’s fingerprints. The Texas Central Railway has been in the offing, under various development companies, since as long ago as 2009, and was listed as a national transportation “infrastructure priority” by the Trump administration in January 2017.
The project has become mired in legal troubles, not least right-of-way issues and opposition from landowners along the route. Nonetheless, there is bullish talk of a launch between 2026 and 2029, and of journeys of little more than an hour between Dallas and Houston; trains dashing 240 miles at 205mph, parallel to the US 290 highway.
Whether or not these advancements will entice Americans onto the platform is another thing. The US fell in love with the car the moment Henry Ford put the Model T on the market in 1908, and has maintained its devotion ever since. In a normal year, 245 million American drivers make 229 billion trips along American roads, adding up to 2.92 trillion miles covered, and 91 billion hours behind the wheel.
There are several reasons why the Amtrak network, now approaching its 53rd birthday, does not hold a warmer place in the nation’s heart, but one is that, although it passes through 46 of the 50 states (Wyoming and South Dakota, as well as, more obviously, Hawaii and Alaska, are the forgotten four), it does not – with the exception of the key routes around New York, Boston, Washington DC and the general north-east – offer a reliable and realistic service for daily commuters.
Brightline West is a case in point. While it is unlikely ever to be a Monday-to-Friday commuter route (the distance is too great), its arrival will plug a gap that, some would argue, should never have existed in a city that first appeared on the map in 1905 as a stop on the Union Pacific Railroad. But Las Vegas has not welcomed passenger trains since 1997, when the final Desert Wind – the Amtrak service which tied it to Los Angeles in one direction, Chicago in the other – trundled out into the desert. And while a restoration of the service has been mooted – as recently as in October 2022, in the case of the “Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study” – the older, clunkier version of the American railway is now seeing its thunder stolen by this host of proposed faster upstarts.
“The tide has turned for high-speed rail in America,” says Andy Kunz, the president and chief executive officer of the US High Speed Rail Association. “Electrified trains will transform the nation’s transportation system, reducing congestion, helping end our dependence on fossil fuels and advancing the fight against climate change. This investment by the Biden administration represents a milestone in advancing our progress and making us competitive with the 26 nations which currently have fast, clean, safe high-speed trains.”
A cynic would say that, in speaking for the main trade group pushing the cause of 21st-century rail in America, Kunz is scarcely an impartial onlooker. A cynic would also point out that each of the projects mentioned above is a separate entity, rather than a connecting piece of a fully formed, joined-up shinkansen network. But at a time when Britain has scaled back its own commitments to high-speed rail amid the shambles of HS2, it will be intriguing to see what sort of system the US – a great industrial innovator when it wishes to be – will create during the coming decades. New York to Los Angeles by blink-and-you-miss-them bullet trains before this century is out? Don’t bet against it.