Frequently Asked Questions
At its core, high-speed rail has two components:
1. High-speed trains. Today’s fastest trains cruise at 220 mph.
2. Dedicated high-speed lines. High-speed lines are like interstate highways with gentle curves and easy hills. All other railroads, roads, and walkways go over or under the tracks to create a sealed corridor.
As a result, high-speed rail is twice as fast as driving and more convenient than short flights.
But there is a lot more to the story.
The Beijing to Shanghai line is the fastest train running on a regular schedule. It cruises at 350 km/h (217 mph).
The French TGV holds the world speed record of 357.2 mph.
We’ve built roads, airports, and suburban sprawl through massive public funding and tax breaks. But privately-owned railroads in North America have few incentives to run quality passenger trains.
In our out-of-whack transportation system, federal highway spending leads to ever-more roads and lanes, which makes traffic congestion ever-worse. Meantime, train options remain a low priority for many legislators. Although trains would help solve the congestion problem and reduce our carbon footprint, railroads don’t have the same political muscle (i.e., lobbyists) as roads and airports.
That’s why a strong show of grassroots support is crucial.
Learn more: How to create better incentives
We urgently need a network of fast, frequent trains in the U.S. Only the sustained energy of a broad base of supporters will make it happen. The Alliance is committed to organizing and leveraging the energy of the national movement for high-speed trains. We hope you’ll join us.
For now, you can ride Brightline trains in Florida and Amtrak’s Acela system. The new Acela trains run up to 160 mph and accommodate nearly 400 passengers, or about a fourth more than older Acela models.
Acela trains run from Washington, D.C. to Boston with 16 intermediate stops. Acela has a nonstop service from D.C. to New York City that takes about 2.5 hours.
France, Japan, and other countries have shown that high-speed rail is transformative, but it has nothing to do with the length of their rail lines. And, in any case, many of the lines in countries often cited as “right” for HSR are much longer than most people imagine. Japan’s main line, for example, covers the distance from Boston to Orlando. And China has connected most of its major cities, with a network that would strech from Miami to Boston and New York to Omaha.
What’s important isn’t the size of the country but the will to invest in bold, visionary projects.
HSR vastly improves the travel experience by nearly every measure. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than flying or driving. It’s far safer and quicker than driving, and it beats (or is competitive with) flight times on trips up to about 1,000 miles. And in an era of intensifying climate change, it has the lowest carbon footprint—by far—of the three options.
Trains are a safe, affordable, and low-stress alternative to flying. And short flights are notorious gas-guzzlers at a time when we urgently need to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. They’re inefficient time-wise as well. The 110-mile flight from Madison (WI) to Chicago, for example, takes roughly an hour in the air, but airport terminal and driving/parking time add a minimum of 1.5 hours. By contrast, a high-speed train from Madison to Chicago, via Milwaukee, could easily take passengers to and from the city centers in under 2 hours. And, if upgrades to O’Hare Airport transformed it into a railroad hub, HSR could also replace the “puddle jumper” flights that connect dozens of cities in the region to the airport. That will be great for travelers from all over the Midwest and for O’Hare, which is undergoing a multi-billion-dollar upgrade. HSR would seriously improve O'Hare's competitive advantages as the premiere transportation hub of the Midwest.
The big challenge is that high-speed tracks must be straight for long stretches, and the medians would need to be very wide to accommodate trains. Except for some remote parts of the West, there are very few places in the U.S. where the roads meet those conditions. A related idea that deserves more study is to run the tracks alongside some highways—as Brightline does along State Road 528 in Florida. That segment is part of the line connecting Orlando International Airport to Miami.
In both hyperloop and maglev systems, vehicles “float” on magnetic fields as they are propelled through a guideway. A key difference is that hyperloop vehicles run through de-pressurized tubes to reduce wind resistance—thus saving energy and allowing for faster speeds. The maximum speed for maglev vehicles is roughly 270 mph. For hyperloop vehicles, it’s projected to be 750+ mph. Both systems can “work,” but scaling them is a huge challenge since they are prohibitively expensive to build. And, in the case of hyperloop, there are significant safety concerns in transporting people through underground tubes at high speeds. HSR’s big advantages are that it’s a proven technology with a stellar safety record across six decades; and it’s continually evolving and improving as countries across the globe add it to their transportation systems.
For example, about one-sixth of the U.S. population—55 million people—live within 300 miles of Indianapolis. That’s about twice the number of people living within 300 miles of Austin and Los Angeles (29 million and 30 million people, respectively). And it blows away most other major cities, including Atlanta (37 million), Charlotte (36 million), and Seattle (12 million). For comparison, 67 million people live within 300 miles of Philadelphia. Outside of New England and the mid-Atlantic states, in short, there’s nothing in the U.S. comparable to the population density of the Midwest. And consider this: Fast, frequent service between Chicago and Indianapolis would incentivize investments in a high-speed line between those cities and two of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S—Atlanta and Nashville. A train ride of 4-5 hours from Chicago to Atlanta—with intermediate stops in Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, and Chattanooga—would transform both regions.
In fact, the pandemic has spotlighted one reason we need to shift rapidly away from car culture: Even with less congestion on the roads, speeds and fatalities have spiked to record levels. Trains are safe and green. And because people can board and leave at intermediate stops, they make small and mid-sized communities within a region more connected to each other and to bigger cities. They also deliver people right to the heart of urban areas—which boosts land values and builds thriving downtowns. The truth is, there is no more powerful tool for shaping and reshaping communities than transportation modes. Highways and airports hollow out cities. Trains add value. We need them now more than ever.
Traditionally, federal transportation spending has followed an 80/20 breakdown—80 percent for highways, 20 percent for public transportation. But in recent funding bills there has been an encouraging shift toward a more balanced approach. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in late 2021, for example, earmarked $110 billion for roads and bridges, $69 billion for passenger trains, and $39 billion for public transit.
In other words, the investments were roughly split between highways and trains/buses. At the same time, private companies are taking a strong interest in HSR as an investment opportunity. Projects in Florida, Texas, and Nevada/California are all being pursed by private firms. And Microsoft has been a major supporter and funder of recent reports and case studies focused on bringing HSR to the Pacific Northwest.
That’s true even before the high-speed trains begin running. Consider the case of California. The first high-speed line is several years away from being operational, but planning for the line is driving improvements to Silicon Valley’s commuter-rail system, Caltrain. It will soon run trains at up to 110 mph, with departures every 15 minutes during peak hours. Those upgrades are being funded (in part) by funds earmarked for HSR, since the two systems will share the same tracks. And both systems are part of a 2040 vision for the state’s overall transportation system. HSR incentivizes more service and better options—more passenger and commuter trains, more buses and bike trails—across a whole transportation system. Everyone wins.
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That means we work with state legislators and members of Congress on bills that fund passenger rail and transit systems, and we support high-speed rail projects being planned or now underway—California’s project in particular.
More funding for trains in the bill is crucial to the future of passenger rail service in the U.S. Please sign our petition here.
In addition to that nuts-and-bolts work, we create a vision and a path forward for what high-speed rail can look like in the United States.
People unfamiliar with HSR often think of it as just a set of tracks and trains that connect two major destinations. But when it’s done well, HSR is just one part of a tightly coordinated system that includes passenger rail, commuter rail, and buses—all working in sync.
HSR isn’t transformative just because it moves people between cities several times faster than a car or a conventional train. It’s transformative because it improves and multiplies the value of even conventional trains and transit systems. That means it connects and ties together whole regions, not just two endpoint cities. At the same time, it takes lots of cars off the roads.
So we work to educate people about the true scope of HSR’s impact and its full range of benefits.
A 2019 business case analysis conducted by the Washington State Department of Transportation found that an “ultra-high-speed” rail system between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver (B.C.) could be constructed for between $24 billion and $42 billion (including land-acquisition costs). Running at up to 220 mph, the trains would connect each city with a trip of less than an hour, shifting up to 20 percent of intercity trips to the high-speed rail system. Microsoft is a key supporter of the project, working with the states of Oregon and Washington and the province of British Columbia. In late 2020, WSDOT released a Framework for the Future report, which noted that the system would “provide an infusion of near-term construction jobs and long-term economic benefits, while providing zero-emission, equitable and modern infrastructure for future generations.” Go here for updates and more information.
Acela trains run from Washington, D.C. to Boston with 16 intermediate stops, including Philadelphia and New York. In 2019, Acela launched a nonstop service from D.C. to New York City that takes roughly 2.5 hours, versus a little under 3 hours on the regular Acela Express. The fastest Acela trips from D.C. to Boston are about 6.5 hours. Acela’s newest trainsets—built in western New York—can run up to 160 mph and accommodate nearly 400 passengers, or about a fourth more than older Acela models.
The industry has pushed potential customers that require fast and reliable service to use highways instead (both passengers and freight). The result has been frequent Amtrak delays and limited service. The answer is to create better incentives for the private railroads or for state or local governments to buy the tracks. (Amtrak owns some of the tracks in the Northeast Corridor, so the service there is less delay-prone.)
A high-speed line is something completely different than today's Amtrak service. Trains run on dedicated, grade-separated tracks, meaning the line runs above (or below) intersections and is used only by high-speed trains. So they run reliably on time in all kinds of weather. That’s a big win both environmentally and in terms of efficiency, since one busy street-level crossing can create 45 days worth of stalled traffic—and produce 1,800 extra tons of greenhouse gas emissions—each year.
High-speed lines also feed passengers into connecting shared-use lines, making the improvements to those other lines more viable.
The first phase—the Central Valley line running from Bakersfield to Merced—is expected to be in operation by 2028. In a February 2019 speech, Newsom reaffirmed the state’s commitment to building the Central Valley segment and to moving forward with the environmental reviews required for the full Bay Area to Los Angeles line. Newsom promised to keep working to secure needed funds in the same speech in which he supposedly killed the project.
The Central Valley line will run through the heart of a region that's home to three major universities, 122 community colleges, six of California’s 10 largest cities, and roughly three million people. Long before the full Bay Area to Los Angeles project is finished, it will connect the state’s vibrant interior to the major coastal cities via transit service and conventional rail lines (now being upgraded).
One reason to begin in the Central Valley is that connecting the Bay Area to LA will require tunneling through mountains at the northern and southern ends of the full line. That’s a daunting and expensive engineering feat. Starting with the Central Valley spine will demonstrate the power of high-speed rail and build political will to complete the full line.
However, mainline freight tracks are now built for two-mile-long trains with 35-ton axle weights, while HSR tracks are built for trains with about half that axle weight. The upshot is that, to run at higher speeds, high-speed trains need to run on tracks built specifically to accommodate lighter trainsets.