A decade ago, the US was promised high-speed rail—so where is it?

US president Barack Obama’s adventures with Amtrak.
US president Barack Obama’s adventures with Amtrak.
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In 2009, US train enthusiasts received some of the best news since 1886, the year the country finally agreed to use the same rail gauge nationwide. US president Barack Obama had a plan to revitalize the floundering US economy—and rail was a big part of it.

More than $10 billion of the  American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—the $787 billion stimulus package Obama signed into law that year to jolt the nation out of recession—would be dedicated to a shiny new future for US railroads. This, the president said in a 2010 statement, would be the “largest investment in infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System was created,” creating a high-speed rail network to rival the world’s best. “There’s no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains, when we can build them right here in America.”

Even the act’s smallest promises represented the greatest federal commitment to rail in decades, including a $1.5 billion investment pool for surface transportation projects, where “passenger and freight rail transportation” was specifically name-checked. Another $1.3 billion was designated for Amtrak to “repair, rehabilitate or upgrade” its assets or expand passenger rail capacity. (It could not, crucially, be used to subsidize ongoing operating losses.) But the chunkiest of these offerings was $8 billion earmarked for brand new rail lines, with priority given to “projects that support the development of intercity high-speed rail service.”

Not since the days of 19th century railroad tycoons had there been so much opportunity—or cash—for US trains. Some 39 states leapt at the opportunity: Between them, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak, nearly 500 applications competed for the roughly $10.1 billion total pot available for rail projects. (Approving them all would have cost in the region of $75 billion.)

By May 2010, the Department of Transportation identified some of the big winners—$2.8 billion for the Midwest, $2.3 billion for California, and $1.25 billion for Florida, for instance. Meanwhile, Amtrak’s much-traveled Northeast Corridor would get a little TLC to the tune of $1.5 billion, to come from the related Passenger Rail Improvement and Infrastructure Act, passed the same year.

Ten years on, the world-class, high-speed rail network sketched out by Obama is nowhere to be seen. Three of the most significant projects—in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin—were cancelled almost at the outset; others, like the high-speed Empire Line from Albany to Buffalo in New York state, are still a long way from completion, with a slow-moving environmental impact study causing delays. In California, the 171-mile (275 km) Central Valley segment from Bakersfield to Merced—itself a smaller segment of a hoped-for Los Angeles to San Francisco connection—is many months behind schedule. Governor Gavin Newsom put the kibosh on other non-ARRA high-speed rail projects in the state earlier this year. 

Much good did come out of the ARRA, argues transit consultant Eric Peterson—but virtually none of it was high-speed rail. In short, there simply wasn’t enough money for these enormously expensive projects, he says. “It was woefully underfunded, but the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and states, and Amtrak have really made the best of the situation” by using the money for less visible projects, he told Quartz. Nationwide, he said, the reliability, quality and frequency of inner-city passenger trains has improved, laying the tracks for even better rail to come. 

Thanks, but no thanks

Massive infrastructure projects are almost always more expensive, complicated, and time-consuming than they seem at the outset—even with sufficient funding and unwavering political support. Most of the ARRA rail projects had neither.

Writing in 2010, in a sweeping overview of what was planned in Mass Transit magazine, Peterson noted how much more money would need to come: “The network of high-speed corridors reflected in the map above could cost as much as $1 trillion to complete over the next several decades, particularly if it is pursued in the incremental manner described by the administration,” he wrote. 

The challenge was compounded in 2010 by midterm elections that sent many of Obama’s plans, including those for years of continued investment in high-speed rail, careening off course. The Republican party enjoyed a landmark victory—the greatest since 1948—in the House of Representatives, with a net gain of 63 seats. Republican governors displaced Democrats in 11 states. Many of the successful candidates were affiliated with the Tea Party movement—an informal grouping of anti-tax populists who ran on a platform of reduced government spending.

Conservative antipathy toward rail, sometimes characterized as the “war on trains,” comes from many angles. On the one hand, there’s a simple reluctance among many to invest federal or state funds: Train lines are expensive to build, often require costly maintenance (or ongoing state subsidies), and can’t always deliver certain return on investment. Highways, by contrast, are almost always extremely well used, with an estimated federal cost of between 1 and 4 cents per driver, compared to the cost of 13 cent per rider for Amtrak.

There are other objections, too. On a practical, political level, rail tends to benefit people living in cities, who do not tend to vote Republican. Others are more ideological: Certain conservatives, including the commentator George Will, see trains (and public transit more generally) as having the secondary goal of “diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” Writing in Newsweek, Will applauds the theoretical freedom enabled by automobiles, which “go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables,” Trains, meanwhile, requite “deference” to the will of the community and when it is most convenient for its members to travel—not to mention its financial support.

In three states earmarked for some of the most obviously sexy ARRA rail projects, gubernatorial changes resulted in first a swing to the right, followed by an abrupt end to proceedings. All three governors had replaced the Democratic or independent governors who had originally appealed for the funds.

In November 2010, newly elected Wisconsin governor Scott Walker called for the $810 million earmarked for a Madison-to-Milwaukee line to be redistributed to improving the state’s roads. When he was told that this would not be possible, he rejected the money, and the plan, outright. Next, in January, John Kasich, Ohio’s brand new Republican governor, took steps to honor one of his own key campaign promises: “The 39-miles-per-hour ‘high-speed train’ is dead when I become governor.” The $400 million line linking Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus was slated to require an annual subsidy of $17 million from the state. Kasich believed it would be too slow to attract passengers at either 39 mph, its initial proposed speed, or the zippier 50 mph of later plans.

In a letter to Obama, Kasich also appealed for the administration to redistribute the money to other, more pressing infrastructure projects in Ohio, or put the funds “toward reducing the federal government’s $1.4 trillion deficit.” Obama and his Department of Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, did neither. Instead, $385 million went back into the pool, to be used on other rail projects. But $15 million had already been spent, to no real end, on initial engineering in Ohio. 

The death of these two projects, and the more than $1 billion in grants they represented, should have been to Florida’s benefit, almost doubling the funding available for 324 miles of high-speed rail between Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. This project would have been one of the most ambitious of all, with trains traveling the roughly 85 miles between Tampa and Orlando at top speeds of 170 miles. And though the project wouldn’t come cheap, it promised to be relatively uncomplicated—the US government already held the right-of-way to build along the route—and would provide as many as 27,500 jobs in a state with an unemployment rate around 12%, in the doldrums of the financial crisis. This landmark project should have been the most “shovel-ready,” as one report put it.

But in February 2011, Rick Scott, the newly-elected Florida governor, shocked many by moving to kill the proposal and reject more than $2 billion in federal funding. Scott had previously insinuated that his primary hesitation was whether Florida taxpayers would have to foot the bill for the excess. But the federal funding reallocated from Wisconsin and Ohio had almost doubled the federal funding, which should have made this less of a concern.

Scott announced that Florida would be returning the funds and cancelling the project, which he deemed “too uncertain” with “far too little long-term benefit.” At a news conference in Tallahassee, Scott made it clear the rejection was as much a matter of his personal political ethos as it was practical budget-keeping. “Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means and we cannot continue this flawed policy,” he said. “The answer is to reduce government spending, cut government’s leash on our state’s job creators and then hold government accountable for the investments it makes.”

Even without the intransigence of Republican governors, Obama’s promised network of high speed trains was improbable at best. Speaking to the House Subcommittee in 2016, transportation policy expert Baruch Feigenbaum, of the pro-free market Reason Foundation, suggested that these big dreams had always been an impossibility. “A relatively short high-speed rail line (250 miles) costs at least $20 billion to build,” he explained—more than double the total funds promised by Obama, for a single line, rather than the planned 10 lines. “For the president’s high-speed rail vision to be realistic, the farebox recovery rate would have to be close to 80%, and the states would need to chip in significant funding.“

Farebox recovery rate, or how much of operating expenses are paid by passengers, varies massively across the US. Though Amtrak’s rate is around 84%, most other regional rail networks barely break 50%. New York’s Metro-North system, at around 60%, is one of the country’s most robust, while in areas such as Utah, Connecticut and New Mexico, it lingers below 20%. Central Florida’s commuter rail has a farebox recovery rate of around 6%. 

Other experts pointed to administrative mistakes. The FRA should never have been asked to oversee the project, said Thomas Hart Jr, president of the pro-rail consulting group Rail Forward. It was inexperienced, needlessly bureaucratic, and had “neither the experience, the staff, nor the regulations” in place to make high-speed rail work. To Hart’s mind, the largest problems were strategic: The FRA “tried to do too much with too little” by spreading the money across the nation rather than targeting the best possible projects, while simultaneously shutting out small or minority-owned businesses. He also believes the federal government made a fatal misstep in allowing Amtrak to run the projects, rather than opening it up to more experienced foreign competitors. 

Peterson disputes this claim: “The department did seek statements of interest from other countries, from the French, from the Germans, the Spanish. Those companies expressed preliminary interest, but when push came to shove, they weren’t anywhere to be found.”

The dust settles

Obama billed the ARRA as a way to give the US world-class high-speed rail. In retrospect, says Peterson, “those statements probably could have been made less dramatic. It might have reduced the impact of the whole initiative overall, but unfortunately those statements left the initiative vulnerable to attacks by people who said, ‘it’s a dream, it’ll never happen.’”

Instead, the money has mostly been spent improving what rail the US already has, and increasing capacity, speed, and frequency.

There are plenty of successes to celebrate, even if they aren’t quite as dazzling as the original proposals suggested. At the most basic of levels, says Peterson, federal money got out on time, with little to no fraud or abuse—not always a given with government projects.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. By 2016, more than half of the 150 projects funded had been completed, with the last handful now in their closing months. Vermonters now have 150 miles of new rail across the state, with umpteen rail tiles, switches, and crosses upgraded or replaced. In Illinois, two bridges on the Chicago to Milwaukee corridor have been replaced, allowing 16 daily passenger trains to cross them without needing to slow down. 

On the much-trafficked North-East Corridor connecting Washington, New York, and Boston, nearly $1 billion has been spent improving service. By 2020, the 24 miles between Trenton and New Brunswick, in New Jersey, will be traversed at speeds of up to 160 miles per hour—a genuinely high speed. All over the country, trains are somewhere between a little and a lot better, thanks to the ARRA. Ridership is also on the rise, increasing by nearly 50% in the Midwest between 2006 and 2015, while in Virginia, ARRA-funded expansion has virtually doubled passenger numbers on the Southeast Corridor.  

Some of these projects had an outsized impact on a local scale, even as they failed to make national headlines. In Normal, Illinois, a college town of 50,000 people close to Bloomington, $46 million was spent on revitalizing the station formerly known locally as “Amshack.” The gleaming new station has had an impact far beyond its front door, mayor Chris Koos told the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets in 2016: “Uptown Normal is now a vibrant neighborhood with residential, commercial, and entertainment opportunities.” Public funding has begot still more private cash, with $85 million from federal, state, and local government generating an additional $150 million in private investment in the district. 

Slow burn

With a significant change in leadership and approach, Amtrak is now on track to make a profit in 2020, for the first time ever. But while it is expanding its operations, it has other, more pressing projects beyond the glamour of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it high-speed rail, said Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing officer.

“The question really is, for us as an industry and as a company, in being pragmatic,” he said. All over the country, there are underserved segments of around 300 miles which are ripe for high-quality rail, he added. “We don’t even need to spend money on necessarily expensive high-speed trains—just getting what we have today working well at a hundred miles an hour, which is very feasible, is really viable.” 

Europe might have some of the world’s best high-speed rail, but it also had a great network of slower, 80-mile-per-hour trains, said Harris. “We should aspire to that first. We can deliver that and make a lot of people happy, without spending $100 million.”