The first U.S.-built high-speed “bullet” trains will begin running between Boston, New York and Washington as early as 2024, promising to attract new rail passengers who now drive or fly. Emissions will be reduced.
But Amtrak’s plans to run high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor face a major hurdle — the 450-mile route doesn’t have modern tracks that can handle the speed.
Amtrak, a federally owned passenger rail company, would have to run the new trains on tracks that were built more than a century ago to serve very slow passengers and freight. Bullet cars will be forced to run at speeds over 110 mph in most sections.
Many European and Asian countries operate high-speed trains up to 200 mph on special tracks designed for high-speed rail cars.
The aging rail infrastructure highlights the difficulties the Biden administration faces in bringing high-speed passenger rail service to the United States. President Joe Biden last year pledged to help develop high-speed rail as one of 37 “game-changing R&D opportunities” that could help the U.S. achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
E&E News identified four obstacles complicating Biden’s efforts to bring a high-speed rail system to the U.S. that could reduce driving and flying — two of the most polluting and common modes of transportation in the United States. The problems are interrelated, one problem complicating the other. These include:
- Tracks: None of the railway lines in the country are designed for trains to run at a speed of 200 miles per hour. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — the busiest intercity U.S. passenger route by a wide margin — is riddled with sharp curves, barriers, decaying tunnels, bridges and overhead power lines that slow trains. The corridor needs billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and to accommodate faster service.
- Buy America: The policy requires federally funded infrastructure in which rail cars and tracks are manufactured locally. These rules could slow high-speed rail projects and increase costs because American-made parts are generally expensive and manufacturing capacity is limited, although Buy America rebates are possible.
- Domestic Rail Industry: The US lacks a passenger rail industry that can produce all the components needed for a high-speed rail system and comply with Buy America. In addition, U.S. made tracks, signals, railcars and software are more expensive than imports, experts say, largely because the government doesn’t provide funding for rail like in European and Asian countries. are
- Money: Congress and the White House have not created an annual program to help build the domestic rail industry to produce railcars, tracks, and parts to meet America’s buying needs.
Lois Thompson, former director of the Federal Railroad Administration and a member of California High Speed, said building a national high-speed rail network requires decades of annual appropriations similar to the funding stream that started in the Eisenhower administration.
“Unless we get serious about high-speed rail the way we got serious about interstate highways, we’re very unlikely to see a national high-speed rail system,” Thompson said.
A federal funding program for high-speed rail would encourage American companies to invest in research, engineering and new plants that could produce high-speed rail components and meet America’s purchasing needs, Thompson said.
The interstate highway system cost $129 billion — about $290 billion in current dollars — and took 35 years to complete, running from 1957 to 1992. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill enacted in 2021 has $102 billion for rail, but none of that money has been earmarked.
High-speed rail can reduce emissions from intercity journeys of less than 600 miles. Bullet trains can take passengers directly to city centers, making the total travel time on trains similar or faster than air travel.
According to a report assessing the carbon footprint of transport options in southern France, bullet train travel emits 14 to 16 times less carbon per passenger than travel by car or plane.
According to the EPA, transportation is the largest source of planet-warming gases in the United States, releasing 28 percent of US carbon emissions. Trucks and passenger cars account for 81% of transportation emissions.
Samantha Silverberg, a deputy coordinator for infrastructure implementation at the White House, said in an email that Biden is delivering on “long-overdue plans to modernize the Northeast Corridor,” and the administration’s investment in rail. characterized as a “game changer” for the line.
The U.S. does not have high-speed rail under the definitions set by the International Union of Railways, a professional association representing the rail industry.
The group defines high-speed rail as trains that travel on special tracks at speeds up to 155 miles per hour. The definition includes trains that run on standard tracks, if the trains can travel at a speed of 125 miles per hour on most sections.
On Amtrak’s Express Acela service between Boston and Washington, old tracks and overhead power lines will prevent the new high-speed cars from running at high speeds, said Alstom USA vice president Scott Sherrin.
The company, owned by French rail manufacturer Alstom, is building the 28 high-speed trains Amtrak bought in 2016 with a $2.45 billion federal loan.
In Baltimore, trains zip through the 150-year-old tunnel at 30 miles per hour, making a sharp turn before entering the structure built during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
The Susquehanna River Bridge in northern Maryland has operated without major overhauls since 1906, limiting train speeds to 90 miles per hour. In Connecticut, the railroad passes through coastal towns, making the commute between Boston and New York slower.
Amtrak’s new railcars can lean into curves to maintain high speeds, Thompson said, but many of the curves are too sharp for even the latest technology.
“The fact that those things will bend won’t make a difference,” Thompson said.
Currently, only 32 miles of tracks on the Northeast Corridor can handle speeds of 160 miles per hour. Amtrak plans to build an additional 100 miles of track over the next 12 years capable of handling bullet trains.
The expansion will enable bullet trains to run at speeds of up to 160 mph on about 30 percent of the railroad by 2035, a decade after they begin operations.
Amtrak decided to buy the high-speed rail cars because its Acela trains are “at the end of their useful life” and new cars would cost less than repairing used cars on its Acela line.
In 2021, Congress more than eightfold to $102 billion in federal funding for rail improvements and repairs through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
But the act, which authorizes funding for five years, provides Amtrak with only a quarter of the money it needs to make track improvements over the next 15 years, according to Amtrak’s legislative report to Congress.
For example, modernizing the tracks in the Northeast Corridor would cost $117 billion, mostly on track repairs and capacity additions. The cost estimate does not include building a special high-speed track.
“Most of the money (from the act) goes into fixing equipment, which isn’t really related to speeding,” Thompson said.
Amtrak said increasing capacity and fixing infrastructure will make the “biggest improvement in trip times.”
The track improvements between Boston and Washington will reduce travel time by one hour, to about 5 ½ hours. High-speed trains across Europe and Asia currently take about three hours.
In California, the state’s high-speed rail authority has yet to secure about two-thirds of the funding it needs to complete the 520-mile high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The estimated cost of this entire project is 128 billion dollars.
Republican opposition in Congress to rail funding is another obstacle to bullet trains.
In July, the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee passed a fiscal 2024 spending bill that would prohibit the Department of Transportation from funding the California project and cut Amtrak’s funding by $1.5 billion.
Since taking office, Biden has vowed to strictly enforce the Buy America provisions, but rail experts say the U.S. does not have an industrial base that can make all the high-speed rail components.
“The Buy America provisions … are limited and do not recognize the reality of the American industrial base for rail equipment,” said Jim Matthews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.
The United States cannot afford to “unilaterally shut down (foreign) suppliers” of high-speed rail components.
Alstom’s Sherin said the new Amtrak trains are three years behind schedule in part because many of Alstom’s U.S. suppliers are experiencing supply chain issues with rail components. Shearin added that Buy America’s requirements “showed the fragility” of its US supply chain for rail.
Amtrak’s new Alstom trains received an exemption from Buy America requirements in November 2015, allowing the company to import parts, including aluminum shells for the cars and brakes, which are critical to safety and speed.
None of the six potential U.S. suppliers “currently manufacture brake systems for HSR trains,” its waiver from the Transportation Department says.
“It’s a very good idea,” Thompson said of Buy America. “But then nobody says, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to increase the money available for the project by 20 percent.’