I don't get the high-speed rail thing (yet)

Some pointed questions for the Big Train dreamers.

I love high-speed trains. I’ve ridden on the shinkansen, the TGV, and the Shanghai maglev, and they were all great. It’s super convenient to be able to travel from Tokyo to Osaka — about the same distance as SF to L.A. — in 2.5 hours, then step off the train and be right in the middle of a central subway station. I’m also well aware of the potential climate benefits of high-speed rail relative to airplanes and cars.

But that still leaves me with tons of questions about the recent enthusiasm for a huge new network of high-speed trains in the U.S. Among many young people on Twitter, this zeal has reached an almost ecstatic pitch. Tweets of a famous 2013 proposal for a high-speed rail system by urbanist Alfred Twu (whom you should definitely follow on Twitter, by the way) regularly get thousands or tens of thousands of retweets:

Vox wrote an article about the virality of this map, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted that article out, saying “Gen Z is dreaming big. It's time we all did the same.”

Soon, other people were tweeting out their own ambitious HSR maps. Here’s one by transit researcher Alon Levy that also got a lot of attention:

Other people and organizations have been quick to make alternative, equally ambitious maps. Amtrak even released its own, though it included more than just high speed rail. Here was the most entertaining one (though certainly the least serious):

Twu’s, however, remains the most famous.

I don’t want this to sound like a cranky anti-HSR rant, because I would seriously love to have the kind of train transportation in this country that I enjoy every time I go to other rich nations. It’s just that I have lots of questions about these maps and this whole effort. I wonder whether a big nationwide high-speed train network like this is the right transportation priority for the U.S. right now, and whether it’s even feasible.


Why HSR before local trains?

The best thing about using the shinkansen in Japan is that you can get to and from the high-speed rail station using a dense, convenient network of local trains. In America there is no such network. Thus, when I imagine taking the train from SF to L.A., I imagine taking a scooter or an Uber to and from the strain station. In L.A., which is so spread out that I probably won’t stay in a small area, I imagine I’d rent a car. That’s a very different experience from using the shinkansen in Japan. And in NYC, it would mean dealing with the nightmare that is Penn Station — a thoroughly stressful and inconvenient experience.

Building high-speed rail without having a usable network of local trains instinctively feels like putting the cart before the horse. If I had a choice between being able to train around San Francisco conveniently, or quickly get between SF and San Jose, I’d choose either of those over being able to take a shinkansen-style train to L.A. or Seattle. The lack of local trains and fast commuter rail simply limits my travel options much more than the lack of high-speed rail. A local train network without HSR is great; HSR lines without local trains seem like something that’s at best slightly better than what we have now.

And yes, I realize that money earmarked for “high-speed rail” sometimes goes to create faster commuter rail, and that’s good. But that doesn’t answer the question of what these maps are for.

Will HSR make America more connected?

Maybe part of the romance of these maps is that they look like they’re connecting the country closer together. If you draw a map where the only lines are train lines, then the places with no connections look like they’re isolated from the rest of the nation. Perhaps that visual impression of unity appeals to people who feel like our country is too disconnected from itself.

But in fact the country isn’t disconnected. A dense network of freeways and air transit routes already connects American cities. A round trip between SF and L.A. costs a little over $100. A flight between the two costs maybe $100 to $150. A round trip between Osaka and Tokyo (a slightly shorter distance) costs over $200. In other words, intercity travel is actually slightly cheaper in America than in a country with excellent high speed rail. If people expect a high-speed train ticket to cost “a little more than a local train ticket”, rather than “a little more than an airplane ticket”, they need to look at some actual prices.

This is not to say that HSR has no benefits over cars and airplanes; the benefits come in terms of convenience and climate impact rather than actual cost. But the point here is that our nation is already very “wired up” in terms of how easy it is to get back and forth between cities. People in Tampa are not trapped in Tampa.

In fact, there’s one way that HSR might make us less geographically connected. Freeways look like lines on a map, but in fact those lines are highly porous — there are highway exits every few miles. Those exits sustain a vast number of small towns; people driving on the highway get off to get gas or eat or do a little tourism and look around. This distributes economic activity across the U.S. countryside.

HSR, in contrast, is a point-to-point connection — you get on at the start and get off at the end, and you don’t stop off in between. That means rural areas and small towns that benefit economically from freeway traffic will suffer from being bypassed by HSR, just as they suffer from toll roads or short-hop air travel. (Update: Here is some evidence that this actually does happen in Japan.)

Who will use it, and how will this benefit the economy?

High-speed trains are mostly not usable for daily commutes. Instead, they’re used mainly by business travelers, vacationers, and tourists.

But business travel has an uncertain future. In the age of Zoom, it’s infinitely cheaper to simply have a free video chat with the L.A. office rather than paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to send a corporate representative down there to meet in person. This is a good thing, since it makes our economy much more productive. But it poses a threat to traditional modes of transportation, like airlines. And that means it poses a threat to the economic viability of a future high-speed rail network as well.

The potential decline of business travel calls into question the entire economic benefit of HSR. Yes, making it easier for businesspeople to travel between production locations is a boost to productivity. But Zoom might simply supersede those gains by providing a much bigger boost. Making it slightly more convenient to talk face to face with a coworker, supplier, or customer in another city is good. Making it infinitely cheaper and much more convenient is better, and eliminates much of the scope for gains from trains.

Of course that leaves vacations and tourism. Foreigners coming in and riding the high-speed trains around would be a boon to our GDP. But how much does leisure travel within the U.S. boost overall U.S. economic activity? If you don’t go spend your money in Los Angeles, you’ll spend it in San Francisco. Within-country vacations can help individual regions, but it’s hard to see how it provides a net benefit to the country as a whole.

So this leaves me questioning how much of an economic boost HSR will actually give us.

Why haven’t we been able to do this so far?

All American infrastructure, including highways and housing, costs way too much to build and maintain; this is a severe, systemic, and ongoing problem that we need to fix if we’re going to continue to consider ourselves a developed nation. So I’m not going to say “HSR costs too much, hence we can’t do it!” — everything costs too much in America.

But HSR has so far turned out to be a boondoggle far beyond the standard boondoggle of American highways and transit and housing. When California’s high-speed train from SF to L.A. was announced in 2008, it was projected to cost $33 billion; that cost has now tripled to $100 billion, and it’s likely to go up by more ($8 billion has already been spent). But the far bigger problem is that the train has not actually been built; in 2019, Governor Newsom announced that instead of a shinkansen-type train linking the two biggest metropolitan areas in the state, what was actually getting built was simply a slightly improved train between Merced and Bakersfield, two small cities that people outside of California have likely barely even heard of. It’s not clear if or when the dreamed-of line will actually be built. More generally, although much of Obama’s train funding went to improve local train service (great!!), the ambitious plan didn’t result in the U.S. getting any actual true high-speed trains, anywhere.

Cost is kind of a side issue when nothing actually gets built for any price.

Why is America so awful at building high-speed rail? Back in 2014, Yonah Freemark made an argument that lack of federal willpower is the main thing holding back HSR. That may be true in the general, hypothetical sense that if a government wants to do something badly enough it will get done. But in the specific case of the U.S., there seem to be other problems. The general plagues of NIMBYism and inefficient contracting that afflict all of America’s construction efforts seem to be far more of an impediment when it comes to high speed rail, thanks to the all-or-nothing nature of each major line. Roads and local trains can be rerouted to avoid NIMBYs, but high-speed trains really can’t. And when construction is scaled back on roads because of cost bloat you get a little less road, but with HSR you get no train at all. Compounding this problem is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t actually have any experience in building HSR, and is starting from scratch.

This is not to say that HSR is doomed or impossible in the U.S. But the people sharing the big shiny maps, including Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, need to be far more serious and concrete about how their plans can succeed when similar plans have utterly failed in the recent past.

Is HSR monument-building?

Given all of these big questions surrounding HSR — the uncertain benefits, the uncertain ridership, and the uncertain feasibility of construction — it’s worth asking one more question. Are these maps actually calls for monument-building? To the Big Train dreamers, is the size of the dream what’s actually important? Is the primary purpose of HSR to prove that our government can do Big Impressive Things — or that activist movements can pressure our government into doing Big Impressive Things —rather than to effect material improvements in the economic life of the country?

This is sort of the impression I get from talking to Big Train dreamers on Twitter:

Going to the moon was a form of monument-building, and a very effective one in terms of inspiration and national pride etc. But going to the moon was something that had never been done before; with high-speed rail, the best monument we can hope to build is a system that’s somewhat slower and crappier than China’s. What sort of glorious monument is that?

Surely, if we want to show that our country can do Great Things, there are things we could build that actually play to our national strengths instead of our national weaknesses? The Ike Dike, perhaps, or an orbital defense grid to detect and deflect incoming asteroids?

Anyway, I don’t want this post to be a denunciation of high-speed rail, or a declaration that it’ll never work. I love the shinkansen, and I also dream of the day when America can switch from being a car-centric nation to a train-centric nation. But there are just a lot of questions that HSR advocates need to answer. Drawing pretty lines on pretty maps is fun, but we have plenty of those now, and it’s time to get down to brass tacks.

(Update: Alon Levy answers my first question. I’m not entirely satisfied with the answer; I think his models could stand to incorporate a demand model like a random utility model or machine learning model to predict how much people would actually ride HSR to the centers of very spread-out cities. But I understand that’s a pretty steep ask. Anyway, he does agree that some cities, like L.A., are not very convenient to ride a train to.)