Is High-Speed Rail on the Rocks?

California’s proposed bullet train is in trouble, while a Texas project is meeting resistance. What’s going on?

March 22, 2019
The Fuxing C2001 train arriving at Tianjin Railway Station in China

Yang Baosen/Xinhua/Alamy

Is it just us?

Other countries don’t seem to have a problem getting their high-speed rail systems on track. This superfast, fuel-efficient form of mass transit is wildly popular throughout Asia and the European Union. Japan’s sleek Shinkansen line, the busiest high-speed rail system in the world, carries an estimated 420,000 riders every weekday. In China, the new Fuxing Hao bullet train now hurries more than 100 million passengers a year between Beijing and Shanghai at a top speed of 218 miles an hour, allowing its riders to make the trip of 775 miles—roughly the distance from New York City to Chicago—in about four and a half hours. Spain, Germany, and France together have more than 4,500 miles of track dedicated to high-speed rail, over which more than 150 million passengers travel annually.

But here in the United States, attempts to implement regional high-speed rail networks have floundered and faltered. The most recent setback was in California, where just last month the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that he would be dramatically downsizing an ambitious, exciting system linking the northern and southern portions of the state via a 220-mph bullet train. Cost overruns had more or less doubled the original price tag from roughly $40 billion to $77 billion, with some estimates placing the final bill at nearly $100 billion. As of right now, the previously planned 800-mile line between Los Angeles and San Francisco has dwindled to a $10.6 billion project across 171 miles between the rural Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Merced—what cynics have mockingly dubbed a “train to nowhere.”

Meanwhile, in Texas, plans for a bullet train linking the state’s two biggest cities, Dallas and Houston, are going forward—but not without plenty of resistance. Unlike the California project, the Texas Central Railroad’s project, pegged at $12 billion to $20 billion, is being financed entirely with private funds, so no one is complaining about the money. Instead, the complaints come from landowners and other stakeholders upset about the seizure and purchase of privately owned tracts through eminent domain. Earlier this year, a district court judge ruled that Texas Central wasn’t even an operating railroad in the legally recognized sense of the term, since it doesn’t currently own anything by way of tracks or rolling stock. The ruling threw into jeopardy the company’s reliance on eminent domain to obtain land for its future trains’ right-of-way. (Previously, a different judge had issued a ruling in the opposite direction, affirming the company’s identity as an operating railroad; Texas Central is appealing the most recent ruling.)

The friction these projects are encountering can take many forms, but there’s no denying that it’s real: A lot of Americans seem downright resistant to high-speed rail. To some, whatever benefits rail travel may confer to individual riders, cities, or the environment can’t ever be enough to offset the massive (and, typically, ballooning) costs to taxpayers during the construction period, which can stretch on for decades. To others, high-speed rail projects—no matter how they’re funded—are little more than land grabs that punish rural communities in pursuit of what many perceive as an urbanist folly.

I can’t help but wonder if behind both sentiments is a latent fear: that this form of mass transit, precisely because it’s so popular in other cultures, somehow poses a threat to our own culture of rugged individualism. The history of American transportation conjures romantic images of the “lone rider”—in the past on horseback, now on a motorcycle or in a car—charting his or her own course out on the open road, free from interference or intervention. This notion often gets compressed into a shrugged assertion: Mass transit is a nice idea, but let’s face it: America is a car culture. As a people, we just like to drive. We don’t like to be driven.

Actually, if this was ever true, the data suggest it is less true now. Millennials, especially, are rejecting the romanticization of automobiles. According to a 2018 report published by Arity, a Chicago-based company that studies transportation data, more than half of millennials say that car ownership isn’t worth the money or the hassle, and that they don’t much care for driving anyway. It’s worth noting that these are the same people who are currently leading the public fight against climate change, refusing to accept the untenable status quo foisted upon them through the inaction of their elders.

This generation is also, not coincidentally, key to the future economic success of cities, states, and regions. If you want to attract young, educated professionals to your city or town, you’d be wise to meet their demands for better and more plentiful public transportation.

Let’s face it: When it comes to feelings about mass transit, young Americans appear to have more in common with Asian and European citizens of all ages than they do with older Americans. In anticipation of the day when they’re calling the shots economically and politically—a day that’s already dawning—we should be busy installing high-speed rail systems in all regions of the country where traffic congestion, pollution, and the expenses associated with driving hinder travel between major cities and reduce the quality of life for their citizens.

Yes, we should be mindful of costs. Yes, we should be mindful of landowners’ concerns. But should we allow these factors to derail us? Absolutely not.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Texas Central’s corporate identity as an operating railroad is currently a matter of dispute, based on two different judges’ rulings that are in conflict with one another.

Tell your governor to lead the way on cleaner transportation


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Fifty years ago, Southwest Airlines revolutionized regional air travel. Now another Texas-based business is launching a counterrevolution on the ground—and the carbon savings could be huge.

onEarth Story

The Department of Transportation’s TIGER program helps communities thrive by funding innovative transportation projects. Congress shouldn’t let Trump do away with it.

onEarth Story

Bus rapid transit has gone totally off the rails.

Ali Eminov/Flickr
onEarth Story

Light-rail proponents in Maryland just won support from their Republican governor. Why is a self-styled “environmental” group standing in their way?

onEarth Story

How a single light-rail stop transformed a sleepy L.A. suburb into a vibrant, buzzing business hub.

onEarth Story

More and more European cities are effectively banning automobiles from their city centers—and it seems to be working out just fine for local businesses.

Mike Mozart/Flickr
onEarth Story

Gas is crazy cheap. Car sales are through the roof. So why isn’t taxpayer support for mass transit tanking?

onEarth Story

Bosses are offering employees cold, hard cash to give up their “free” parking space at work. And it may be a win-win for everybody—including Mother Earth.

Western Dispatch

The Rose City, a winner of the American Cities Climate Challenge, will reduce emissions as it revamps its transportation system—part of a new strategic plan called Central City in Motion.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.