Here's How Easy It Would Be to Travel if the U.S. Had High-Speed Rail

April 24th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

Imagine if you could hop on a train in Chicago and find yourself in San Francisco in less than half a day.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could travel by rail faster, cheaper and more comfortably than flying?

That's the dream and promise of high-speed rail.

Take that 2,438-mile trip from Chicago to San Francisco. A high-speed train traveling at about 375 mph—the top speed of Japan's experimental maglev train—could make a nonstop trip in as little as six and a half hours, compared to the current 52-hour trip on a conventional train. (A nonstop flight from Chicago to San Francisco takes about four and a half hours.)

Such trains already exist in parts of the world.

  • Japan has its famous "bullet train," the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which can travel at 177 mph and make the more than 300-mile trip from Tokyo to Osaka in as little as two hours and 20 minutes.
  • France has its Train à Grande Vitesse (literally "high-speed train"), which can travel up to 200 mph. It set a record when it traveled the 660 miles from Calais to Marseille in three and a half hours back in 2006.
  • There are also high-speed routes in Russia and China.

But high-speed rail in America remains a transportation fantasy.

Development of such trains has been hampered by the country's low population density, suburban sprawl, car culture, environmental concerns, regulations, local opposition, and high cost. The administration of President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages about high-speed rail.

But you can dream! What are the best U.S routes for a high-speed train?

It makes most sense to build a high-speed train to connect cities that are linked economically and culturally but are a bit too far apart for easy car travel.

Cities such as Dallas and Houston or Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example.

Such cities are already connected by heavily trafficked corridors of rail, road, and air travel.

Take the 240-mile Dallas-to-Houston corridor. A proposed train would shrink what is now a four- to five-hour drive to a little more than an hour's train ride.

Los Angeles to San Francisco.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has championed his own controversial and much-delayed bullet train to connect L.A. and the Bay Area, starting with a 119-mile segment of track in the Central Valley.

It now takes more than six hours to drive the 380 miles from L.A. to S.F. A high-speed train could cut that time in half.

Other proposed high-speed rail lines.

  • Officials are looking into a high-speed train to connect Seattle with the Canadian city of Vancouver. Such a train would cut the two-and-a-half hour drive to less than an hour on a train.
  • A proposed high-speed train between Orlando and Miami faces continual delays.

Perhaps the most obvious candidate for a high-speed rail line is the corridor between New York and Washington.

This has been toyed around with for a few years. One fanciful proposal suggested a Japanese-style magnetic levitation train that would reduce travel time on the 226-mile corridor to less than an hour (it now takes more than four hours to drive).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued for just such a train to Trump: "I'm sure you would appreciate the speed, the comfort and safety with the latest maglev technology— from Washington, D.C., to New York, where Trump Tower exists.”

High-speed rail could unlock the Midwest.

A 2011 study suggested that a 220 mph train line (which would cost $83.6 billion) would bring St. Louis, Cincinnati, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Detroit, and Cleveland a lot closer together, to their mutual benefit.

With such a train system, the Midwest would benefit from a boom in jobs and cash as 43 million passengers take advantage of the service.

The future of high-speed trains in the U.S.

It may be a while before Texas and California have their proposed high-speed rail lines. But it's still an exciting prospect if you love trains and love quick, convenient travel.

That prospect is also inspiring creative thinking by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, who has proposed a Hyperloop system that would replace trains and cars entirely.

In Japan, meanwhile, luxury cruise trains offer a new way to make the journey as pleasant as the destination.

Stay tuned: Trains in America are overdue for a renaissance.