Faster trains are finally coming to the United States, in cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, and Las Vegas. Where will they appear next?
While countries like Japan, China, Germany, France, and others have been running trains that regularly reach around 200 miles an hour for decades, the U.S. has been notoriously slow to adapt the same technology. That’s finally starting to change—not without its fair share of controversy, inflated budgets, and blown schedules, though.
We’ve assembled a list of up-and-coming high-speed rail hotspots in the United States–including places where the systems are under construction, as well as possible sites for development. Granted, there are plenty more possibilities other than those listed here. This is just the beginning.
Los Angeles—San Francisco
Why it’s a great idea: This plan, which is already in motion, represents a perfect situation for high-speed rail: Two major metropolitan areas that are commercial and cultural hubs, but that aren’t super far away. It’s the same scheme that’s worked for high-speed rail hotspots the world over, like Tokyo to Osaka and Cologne to Frankfurt. That’s key for HSR routes: They need to be two major cities, and be close enough that faster, cheaper land transport that could make an air route obsolete.
San Francisco’s Transbay Center, which has been under construction since 2008, will serve as the terminus for California’s high-speed rail trains from Los Angeles. Credit: Transbay Center
Right now, the rails are under construction, at first in a 29-mile stretch in Fresno County. California eventually wants to extend the route from LA to SF to include San Diego and Sacramento. At 200 miles per hour, the plan could better connect the 60 million residents in the state whose 170,000 miles of freeway are the busiest in the nation.
Current status: This plan is currently the most realistic, most far along high-speed rail program in the United States. Construction started in January, and up in San Francisco, construction is well underway for the Transbay Terminal—a West Coast Grand Central that we’ve written about before. It’ll be home to the tallest skyscraper in SF, and function as an apartment complex, huge park, and tons of retail space. Mainly, though, it’ll connect San Francisco’s existing rail lines (like Caltrain) to, and act as a terminus for, the California high-speed train.
Problem is, recent reports indicate that the project is vastly over budget. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that fault lines in the quake-prone state has proven problematic in the tunneling process (the biggest tunneling project in American history), which could not only cause the price tag to skyrocket above the planned $68 billion. It could also push the planned completion date. (Cali should be looking to Japan for some quake countermeasures.)
The project has long been controversial, as well. Some folks don’t a futuristic train running through their backyard. In any event, the current timetable is open the first leg of the track in 2017, with the whole SF to LA shebang ready to roll in 2029.
Why it’s a great idea: Texas is one of the fastest-growing state economies in the country, and is home to three of the top five fastest-growing cities in the country. Houston, America’s fourth biggest city by population, and Dallas, the ninth, are both home to skyrocketing workforces in industries ranging from aerospace to energy to video games.
So it’s no surprise that Texas, aiming for a global image of innovation and progress, wants to bring shinkansen—Japan’s iconic bullet train—to the Lone Star State. Texas is working directly with JR Central, the Japanese rail company that oversees Japan’s world famous HSR system, which was the world’s first and has seen zero passenger fatalities or injuries in 50 years.
Texas is working with JR Central, the company behind Japan’s shinkansen bullet train, to bring the same train to America. Credit: Texas Central
More people are moving to the relatively low cost of living and high job growth in Texas, both from across the U.S. and the world. Robust infrastructure needs to be in place to handle that growth: In fact, if Texas were its own country, it would have the twelfth biggest GDP in the world.
Current status: The situation is sort of the inverse of the California project: Unlike California, Texas has picked a country whose HSR that want to model their own after. But construction hasn’t started yet.
Another big difference between this and the California plan is that the latter is going to be publicly funded by tax dollars, while Texas’s bullet train is a privately funded venture. That’s good, because it provides the Texas plan more freedom. And it’s rolling along, or at least seems to be: Even though some legislators think the initiative’s claims that it won’t need public financial backing are farfetched, the Texas Central railway project secured $75 million in funding this fall, and expects a state-owned Japanese bank to help bankroll at least half the costs. Still, the expected costs are still a hefty $12 billion, so there’s a long way to go—especially since, like the California plan, there are plenty of detractors.
Why it’s a great idea: Two of the biggest Mid-Atlantic hubs, these two cities are way closer to each other than, say, Los Angeles and San Francisco are to each other. So, it could be a more manageable spot to to construct not just any high-speed train, but a maglev one.
Japan’s maglev train, seen here in 2010, may be the same maglev train that could one day connect Baltimore to D.C. Credit: Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Maglev trains are like bullet trains on steroids. Amazing, superconductive, magnetic steroids. Here’s how they work: Magnets that are embedded into the tracks and in the bottom of the trains reach incredibly low temperatures and repel each other, causing the train to “float.” This cuts friction and allows the trains to be pulled along at practically warp speeds.
Current status: Just this week, Maryland got nearly $30 million from the government to kick off the project (planning, figuring engineering costs, etc.). Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, flew to Japan to ride their own maglev train. Two very promising signs, even if that $30 mil is only a teeny dent in the massive $10 billion the project might cost.
During a diplomatic visit to the U.S. earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a big pitch: He wants to bring maglev trains to the U.S. Why Japan? Because also earlier this year, that country broke the landspeed record for train speed with its own maglev train. Abe even promised the Japanese government would foot a whopping 50 percent of that $10 billion bill.
That’s some hefty help, but let’s not hold our breath. Japan’s been trying to export their rail technology all over the world, but has been running into road blocks. Like in Taiwan this week: Japan’s attempts to export the bullet train to the nearby Asian island has yielded huge loses resulting in government bailouts, which doesn’t bode well for Japan’s future, numerous plans to export shinkansen abroad.
Why it’s a great idea: The American East Coast is like a densely packed collection of huge urban areas—a megalopolis, if you will. One could argue that the Northeast Corridor is the closest thing America has to Japan-like population density and urbanism, so it’d make for a great HSR hotspot.
Again, that’s the rule of thumb: Connect dense urban areas that are close to other dense urban areas. One of the common criticisms about high-speed rail being implemented in the U.S. is that America is such a massive, spread-out country, so HSR doesn’t make a lot of sense. But, the thing is, no one is looking to connect Walla Walla to Shreveport.
We could easily make this route New York to DC, but since Boston’s so close, why not include it? After all, if Boston and NY alone were connected by HSR, it’d only be 60 minutes—more than enough to be only a leg of a longer journey.
What’s more, is that this particular route served 11.6 million Amtrak riders last year—the most in the Northeast Corridor’s history. The demand could definitely be there.
Current status: Technically, this region is already serviced by a “high speed” train: Amtrak’s Acela Express, which chugs along at barely 150 miles per hour. (Some comparison: Japan’s shinkansen hits 200, and Shanghai’s maglev, a mind-blowing 300. Japan’s maglev? 374 mph.)
But in 2012, Amtrak announced plans to open a high-speed rail route that could cut trips from New York to DC down to 90 minutes at 220 mph. It’s projected to have a $151 billion price tag, which is insane. Still, considering the amount of commuters and money packed into this dense space, it might be a return on investment—assuming we can actually pay for that investment, that is.
Las Vegas—Los Angeles metro
Why it’s a great idea: The desert: Sparsely populated, few obstacles, and lots of room to set up amazing infrastructure. That’s the rationale behind one possible HSR hotspot that’s been getting buzz this year.
Current status: Just this summer, a private company and a consortium of Chinese companies announced plans to construct an HSR train on this very route in an project named XpressWest.
Plus, China, like Japan, has been leading HSR technology for decades. While many countries around the world still look at those maglev trains we mentioned earlier as the stuff of sci-fi, Shanghai’s been running a maglev locomotive of its own since way back in 2004.
XpressWest is a company that wants to bring Chinese-style trains to the American West. Only private funds have been collected so far, but the company’s applied for loans with the Federal Railroad Administration. Credit: XpressWest
However, like a few other projects on this list, its definition of “high speed” is pretty puny compared to some of the great HSR systems worldwide: The goal is to build a train that goes 150 miles an hour. Still, it’ll cut the travel time between Vegas and the LA area to around 80 minutes, which is a big improvement. The project’s got an initial $100 million in the bank, with developers hoping to break ground next September. And if the train is a hit, it might convince investors, the government, the private sector, as well as the public, of high-speed rail’s benefits.
Why it’s a great idea: An org called the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association is advocating for an ultra fast train that’ll link these major cities in Ohio and Illinois, with a midway stop in Indianapolis. Considering Chicago is the third biggest city in America, and the biggest one in the Midwest, it’d be quite convenient to have HSR lines funneling commuters into the Windy City. And since Cincy is only 250 miles away, it makes sense.
The MHSRA says that, currently, the journey from the Ohio city to Chicago is over 10 hours, but this Indiana-crossing route, which they’re calling the “Hoosier Corridor,” could bring it down to under five.
And the Midwest deserves great infrastructure. According to America 2050, the Great Lakes region’s population will boom to 73.6 million people from the 53.8 million it was in 2000.
Current status: A whole lotta nothin’. No official plans have been announced for this Midwestern infrastructure project. But since Indianapolis is bigger than Cincinnati—nearly 900,000 people versus not even 300,000—an Indy-to-Chicago route might be more realistic and practical, and greater demand could propel those plans to fruition. That’s why advocacy groups are pushing for the project, but there’s yet to be any real wind behind the sails—meaning, of course, no money has been forked over yet.
Why it’s a great idea: They’re the two biggest cities in the American Pacific Northwest, so they’re two obvious candidates. Plus, like many of the other cities on this list, they’re pretty close: Like we said before, these city pairs can’t be too far away from each other, or else it does start to become cross prohibitive and can’t compete with flying.
Plus, assuming we iron out the international laws—which I’m sure would be aplenty in a situation like this—we could even consider extending the terminus from Seattle to Vancouver. But if we could get a proper bullet train up there, it’d be amazing.
Current status: Amtrak Cascades, the trains servicing the Pacific Northwest corridor, are capable of high speeds, the company says—but reminder, Amtrak’s version of “high speed” is the Acela Express, which lags behind countries like Japan, China, France, and Germany’s high-speed rail.
Plans for faster trains in the Pacific Northwest Corridor stretch back as far as 1991. Credit: Shutterstock
In actuality, a high-speed rail plan has been in the works for the region for years: In 2006, the Washington State Department of Transportation presented a proposal that sees a high-speed rail train run from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia. Again, the target speed was only 110 miles per hour.
The Washington State Department of Transportation also says that it’s investing in something called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail, which is a collection of 20 HSR projects in the region, including a proposed Portland-to-Vancouver line. According to the website, $800 million in funding has been collected so far. Ten of these projects are already completed, which include seismic retrofitting tracks, for example. Otherwise, the goals are modest and could hardly be called high-speed rail when you look at other trains like shinkansen: The planned Oregon-British Columbia service will only hit 80 mph and shares tracks with freight trains (trains like shinkansen run on devoted tracks of their own, increasing safety and decreasing journey time).
Why it’s a great idea: Considering the two destinations are such popular hot spots, tourism dollars could go through the roof. South Beach and Epcot suddenly aren’t separate vacations—they’re day trips in the same vacation.
Current status: Just this week, existing plans to build an HSR service in southern Florida came more into focus, with a 100% American-made, bumblebee-colored locomotive called Brightline. It should cost more than $3 billion to join Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando over 235 miles. It’s a project that says it’ll be funded by private investors.
All Aboard Florida just debuted concepts of its Brightline train that’ll link Miami to Orlando. Credit: GoBrightline Facebook
That current plan, an initiative called All Aboard Florida, is planned for these two cities, but it’s not exactly lightning fast. The Miami Herald reports that the top speed will be 125 miles per hour, but that average speed will only be around 78 miles an hour. Those aren’t even Acela Express numbers, not maglev ones.
Still, some train is better than no train. And it doesn’t change the fact that the two cities are good candidates for HSR in the future. The goal for completing this project is an ambitious 2017, but construction started last year.
Top image via Shutterstock
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