High-Speed Rail Finally Coming to the U.S.

But billions in government support still needed to pick up the pace

3 min read

train on track going passed cars that are out of focus
Brightline West

In late April, the Miami-based rail company Brightline Trains broke ground on a project that the company promises will give the United States its first dedicated, high-speed passenger rail service. The 350-kilometer (218-mile) corridor, which the company calls Brightline West, will connect Las Vegas to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Brightline says it hopes to complete the project in time for the 2028 Summer Olympic Games, which will take place in Los Angeles.

Brightline has chosen Siemens American Pioneer 220 engines that will run at speeds averaging 165 kilometers per hour, with an advertised top speed of 320 km/h. That average speed still falls short of the Eurostar network connecting London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam (300 km/h), Germany’s Intercity-Express 3 service (330 km/h), and the world’s fastest train service, China’s Beijing-to-Shanghai regional G trains (350 km/h).

There are currently only two rail lines in the U.S. that ever reach the 200 km/h mark, which is the unofficial minimum speed at which a train can be considered to be high-speed rail. Brightline, the company that is about to construct the L.A.-to-Las-Vegas Brightline West line, also operates a Miami-Orlando rail line that averages 111 km/h. The other is Amtrak’s Acela line between Boston and Washington, D.C.—and that line only qualifies as high-speed rail for just 80 km of its 735-km route. That’s a consequence of the rail status quo in the United States, in which slower freight trains typically have right of way on shared rail infrastructure.

As Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, noted in IEEE Spectrum in 2018, there has long been hope that the United States would catch up with Europe, China, and Japan, where high-speed regional rail travel has long been a regular fixture. “In a rational world, one that valued convenience, time, low energy intensity and low carbon conversions, the high-speed electric train would always be the first choice for [intercity travel],” Smil wrote at the time. And yet, in the United States, funding and regulatory approval for such projects have been in short supply.

Now, Brightline West, as well as a few preexisting rail projects that are at some stage of development, such as the California High-Speed Rail Network and the Texas Central Line, could be a bellwether for an attitude shift that could—belatedly—put trains closer to equal footing with cars and planes for travelers in the continental United States.

The U.S. government, like many national governments, has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because that generally requires decarbonizing transportation and improving energy efficiency, trains, which can run on electricity generated from fossil-fuel as well as non-fossil-fuel sources, are getting a big push. As Smil noted in 2018, trains use a fraction of a megajoule of energy per passenger-kilometer, while a lone driver in even one of the most efficient gasoline-powered cars will use orders of magnitude more energy per passenger-kilometer.

Brightline and Siemens did not respond to inquiries by Spectrum seeking to find out what innovations they plan to introduce that would make the L.A.-to-Las Vegas passenger line run faster or perhaps use less energy than its Asian and European counterparts. But Karen E. Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, in California, says that’s beside the point. She notes that the United States, having focused on cars for the better part of the past century, already missed the period when major innovations were being made in high-speed rail. “What’s important about Brightline West and, say, the California High-speed Rail project, is not how innovative they are, but the fact that they’re happening at all. I am thrilled to see the U.S. catching up.”

Maybe Brightline or other groups seeking to get Americans off the roadways and onto railways will be able to seize the moment and create high-speed rail lines connecting other intraregional population centers in the United States. With enough of those pieces in place, it might someday be possible to ride the rails from California to New York in a single day, in the same way train passengers in China can get from Beijing to Shanghai between breakfast and lunch.

The Conversation (1)
Alan Kandel
Alan Kandel17 May, 2024

You mentioned average speed of Siemens American Pioneer 220 high-speed trains for Brightline (West?) will be 165 kilometers/per hour. Then you mentioned the average speeds on the Eurostar (300 km/h), Intercity-Express 3 (330 km/h) and Shanghai G (350 km/h) trains, respectively.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t 350 km/h = 218 mph? That would be a really fast average speed. One that would be faster than most HSR networks’ top speeds. That doesn’t sound right.