Infrastructure in America: The West Turns to High-Speed Rail
By Andrew Xiao
Mid-November, President Joe Biden, with bipartisan support, signed into effect the $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into effect, a major crux of his economic agenda. The plan, a near trillion-dollar reduction from the originally proposed American Jobs Plan, allocates funding over five years for key interests in American infrastructure, ranging from roads and bridges to new investments in rail, broadband, and climate mitigation. However, with the Congressional Budget Office reporting that the legislation would add roughly $350 billion to the national deficit — with more to come over the course of 10 years — questions have been raised about the need for such legislation and whether national interest warrants the costs.
Proposed in March of this year, the American Jobs Plan was scaled down into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in the interest of bipartisan support, with other portions focusing more on human and social infrastructure to be included in the Build Back Better Act that President Biden and House Democrats passed last week. The plan calls for major investments in traditional infrastructure repair, as well as funds for newer technologies, covering everything from nationwide broadband internet to electric school buses. However, in calculus, the most notable of such investments would be the $66 billion investment into passenger rail, as well as a $12 billion investment into high-speed rail. The initial investment would eliminate Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, add new rail lines, and modernize the Northeast Corridor Line. While the $12 billion allocations into the high-speed rail are by far not the largest allocation of the bill, it still stands as a long-awaited sign of America’s commitment to high-speed rail.
High-speed rails are far from being a new technology, but rather, a proven and reliable one — finding its roots in post-war Japan. As the world emerged from the second world war, Japan, in the era of the jet age and the automobile, opted for major investments in passenger rail. While the world roared on with the jets and interstate highways, Japan was laying down rail lines in an age where train travel was viewed as slow, inefficient, and immobile. Many began to question Japan’s investment into high-speed rail, and as the budget ran double the original estimate, critics called the investment a disastrous failure — a waste of taxpayer money. When service began in 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen—colloquially known in English as the bullet train— was quick to silence critics. Connecting the 320 mile stretch between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s two biggest cities, the Shinkansen would run at service speeds up to 137 mph, nearly unheard of at the time, pulling the two cities closer together. A Tokyo businessman could attend a meeting in Osaka and still be home for dinner, the Shinkanes. Since its commission, the Shinkansen has served over 10 billion passengers without a single passenger accident or fatality. High-speed rail in Japan has become a gold standard in the world — a combination of speed, frequent service, and punctuality, with delays measured in just seconds, galvanizing enormous benefits for Japan’s economic growth. Known as the Japanese economic miracle, a period of record economic growth between the post-second world war and the end of the Cold War, was largely stimulated by the development of high-speed rail infrastructure; Japan’s economy was propelled to the world’s second-largest economy at the end of the Cold War. Japan proved to the world that high-speed rail worked, and the world followed: France opened up its high-speed TGV line in the 80s, and China now leads the world in the longest high-speed rail network.
As lawmakers in America finally begin to show interest in high-speed rail, questions have been raised on why high-speed rail has struggled so much to launch in the United States. A combination of lackluster federal funding and government infighting has not just prevented high-speed rail infrastructure in America from expanding but has also prevented traditional public transit infrastructure from developing. Public transit in America has long been criticized for its high costs, inefficiency, and unreliability, which has not always been the case. Before World War 2, the rail industry in America was quite developed, but this quickly changed with the passage of the $500 billion (adjusted for inflation) National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956, signaling an end to rail superiority in America. As the country shifted to an auto-served industry, where having an automobile was considered essential to the American dream, manufacturers such as General Motors, Standard Oil, and Flintstone tire, advocated strongly against public transport, running negative ad campaigns, and buying up streetcar lines only to phase out service. By the end of the century, the automobile was considered king in the United States, with an estimated 850 cars per thousand inhabitants, a sharp contrast with China’s estimated 250 cars per thousand inhabitants.
With mounting pressure from oil, automobile, and aviation lobbyists, steady funding for high-speed rail has failed to materialize despite a 2015 survey finding that 63% of Americans would likely use high-speed rail if the infrastructure was in place and 71% of young adults signaling interest. With costs related to labor and environmental regulations, as well the need to purchase property rights, government-led efforts for high-speed rail infrastructure have proven to be sub-par — states such as California’s high-speed rail plan run billions over budget — leading the private sector to step in. The private sector has brought forth a multitude of high-speed rail projects, such as the company Richard Branson’s Virgin Group which constructs high-speed rail lines in the South East, pulling from investor funds rather than public grants. Additionally, Microsoft pledged $300 thousand for a Pacific Northwest high-speed rail line, connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. High-speed rail, albeit a rather delayed one, has a promised future in America. Critics often cite budget overruns and high construction costs, almost echoing the same criticism that faced the Shinkansen. With the help of the largest infrastructure bill since the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, high-speed rail in America is finally receiving its long-awaited commitment, holding a promising start to revised public infrastructure in America.