High-Speed Rail Gets A Boost In The U.S.

15:18 minutes

A 3-D rendering of a fast train line crossing a farm area
A rendering of a California High-Speed Rail train. Courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority

While the US was known for its railroads in the 1800s, we’ve fallen behind places like Japan, China, and Europe, which have invested in trains that go upwards of 200 miles per hour. There are economic, environmental, and practical benefits of electrified high-speed rail. But for generations, the US decreased passenger rail service and invested instead in highways and car-centric infrastructure.

But it appears we’re hitting a turning point. After decades in development, major sections of California’s high-speed rail project, which aims to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, have been completed. And the project recently received a $3.1 billion federal grant to aid in further construction. Additionally, Amtrak is expanding service and increasing the speed of its trains. And private industry is also stepping in to fill the void—a rail company called Brightline has been operating in Florida since 2018. It now provides service between Miami and Orlando, and just broke ground on a high-speed route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

But it’s not just California and Florida where growth is happening. Multiple regions in the US, including Texas and the Pacific Northwest, are actively planning high-speed rail lines between cities that are generally too long to drive between, but too close to justify air travel. (France recently banned short-hop flights over those kinds of distances to reduce carbon emissions and encourage people to take existing passenger rail.)

Rod Diridon Sr., co-chair for the US High Speed Rail Association, fills Ira in on the current state of faster passenger rail in the US, what challenges it still faces, and why he thinks there’s been a shift in public opinion about expanded train service.

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Segment Guests

Rod Diridon Sr.

Rod Diridon Sr. is the co-chair of the US High Speed Rail Association in San Jose, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. America’s high-speed train system is the butt of many jokes. That’s because we don’t have one. That’s the punch line.

While once known for its railroads in the 1800s, the US has fallen way behind the likes of Japan, China, and Europe, who have invested in trains that go upwards of 200 miles per hour. They are a joy to ride and save so much time between cities. But there is some good news in this country.

After decades in development, major sections of California’s high-speed rail project, which aims to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, have been completed. Amtrak, owned by the government, is expanding service and increasing the speed of its trains. And private industry is stepping in to fill the void.

A company called Brightline is filling the gaps in passenger rail transportation in Florida, and it just broke ground for a high-speed route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. There’s a lot to talk about. And here to give us an update on high-speed rail in the US and what challenges it still faces is my guest, Rod Diridon, Co-Chair of the US High-Speed Rail Association. Welcome to Science Friday.

ROD DIRIDON: Nice to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. You know, Rod, it’s so frustrating, isn’t it, to talk about high-speed rail in America. It’s almost an oxymoron.

ROD DIRIDON: It’s not just frustrating. It’s embarrassing. We travel around the world. We see the other countries– 18 other countries with high-speed rail systems. And the United States is supposed to be a world leader dominated by the oil companies to the extent that we haven’t created high-speed rail, which, of course, is electrically powered.

IRA FLATOW: And why has it taken it so long, then, to get these kinds of projects going in the US?

ROD DIRIDON: We have been wedded to the petroleum-powered automobile for the last 100 years. And it has assumed the responsibility for our transportation requirements– the automobile, the aircraft now. And we just have to break that addiction and recognize that the rest of the world has found a way to travel faster, more convenient, that focuses growth around stations, and fights climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So we have chosen to go the highway route while the other countries have gone the railroad route.

ROD DIRIDON: That’s exactly right. Not only railroads for longer distances, but also using trolleys, and light rail, and commuter rail, and other devices for feeder distribution systems that really get us away from the overcrowded highways and the overuse of petroleum fuel.

IRA FLATOW: And at what speeds do trains need to travel to qualify as, quote, “high-speed rail?”

ROD DIRIDON: The International High-Speed Rail Association declares that 300 kilometers per hour is the high-speed rail measurement point, and that’s 186 miles an hour.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You know, here in the Northeast where I live, I’ve traveled on Amtrak many times between Washington and Boston. And I’ve actually tracked the speed of the Amtrak train, and it never goes more than 125 or maybe close to 150 at a couple of points. So that doesn’t really qualify as high-speed rail, though we consider that to be.

ROD DIRIDON: You’re right. Acela is the highest speed we have in the United states, but it would not qualify as high speeds around the world.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about possibly some good news here. Let’s talk about California’s high-speed rail project that has been in the works for decades. Like I said earlier, it aims to connect LA to San Francisco in just under three hours. You’ve been closely involved in that process over the years. It’s been taking a long time, has it not? What is the status of that project now?

ROD DIRIDON: Well, it’s broken through, really, with the help of Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom, who are determined high-speed rail advocates. But it’s broken through to the point where it’s been under construction now technically since 1996, but really aggressively since about 2008. And the system between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley is now about, oh, 70% complete.

The heavy infrastructure work is pretty well done with the creek crossings, and the major interchange points, and those kinds of things. And it’s expected to be in full operation by the end of the decade. That’s an aggressive objective, but it looks like it’s going to be accomplished.

IRA FLATOW: Will it have any extensions– I mean, feeder lines that go in and out of it?

ROD DIRIDON: Yes. It will service the Central Valley, which has a couple of million people in it. So it’s not insignificant, but it won’t be operating with enough ridership to cover all of its operating costs and so on.

At the same time that starter line is being completed, the line between the Central Valley and Silicon Valley is the one that will allow it to begin making money, covering its operating costs, and that line from a place called Chowchilla, just South of Merced, to Gilroy under quite a range of mountains. In fact, it takes four tunnels– one of them 15 miles long– under that great mountain range, to Mount Hamilton range. And it will come out near Gilroy and join the Caltrain system at Gilroy.

At that point, we have a connection, then, between the Central Valley, which is the population that likes to commute each day terribly– 2.5 hours, 3.5 hours per direction– between that area where housing is more affordable and the Silicon Valley where the jobs are. And that’s the market that we’re really trying to tap, and those are the people that we’re trying to serve. They experience a terrible lifestyle now where they have to get up before the kids wake up in the morning, 2.5, 3.5 hours later, burning $4 to $7 a gallon gasoline on dangerous roads.

They arrive at work, and then they’re supposed to do a day’s work. And then in the evening, they get back on those roads. And 2.5, 3.5 hours later, they get home with that arduous trip after the kids have gone to bed, and that’s a terrible lifestyle. Instead of that, they’ll be on the high-speed train, going to 220 miles an hour from Central Valley to Silicon Valley in 50 to 60 minutes, having breakfast, catching a nap, doing a little early work by computer, and arriving at work in Silicon Valley with a short commute by the light rail or buses that are already being set to stage from that station.

The station, by the way, is named after me, The Diridon Station. And they’ll be at work an hour and 15 minutes after they leave home. They reverse that at night, and they’re able to get home and maybe even watch the Little League game with the kid.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] That does sound like an ideal situation.

ROD DIRIDON: I read that’s 200,000-plus people a day.

IRA FLATOW: 200,000 a day? Wow.

ROD DIRIDON: That’ll be taking that trip. At that point, the system becomes profitable in operations.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of profitable, I know there’s a relatively new player on the scene, and it’s a private passenger rail service called Brightline. I know some listeners of ours in Florida might have heard of them because there is service in Florida. Many of our listeners have not. Tell us what Brightline is and what service they’re doing in Florida. Tell us about the Miami-to-Orlando service there.

ROD DIRIDON: Brightline is a breath of fresh air. They may not make all of the deadlines that they hope, but they’re doing a great job. That service is a Brightline project.

It was a dedicated right of way, and they were able to move ahead rather expeditiously. And they’re doing well financially. I don’t know whether they’re turning a profit yet on operations, but they’re coming close. And it’s a way to examine for the way forward.

IRA FLATOW: And so they’re building a route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles?

ROD DIRIDON: Actually, it doesn’t quite go to Los Angeles. It goes to a place called Cucamonga. That’s the butt of many jokes because–

IRA FLATOW: I remember an old Jack Benny routine that ended in Cucamonga.

ROD DIRIDON: Yeah. There is a town called Cucamonga. It’s a nice, little town.

And it’s the place where the commuter line at LA Metro ends, and they’ll be able to tap then right into the LA Metropolitan Transportation System. And they’re a little bit of a different kind of transportation system than the California system. They’re going to be in the middle of a freeway, so they have the right of way all dedicated to them, given to them by the state.

And they’re going to have some interchanges to circumvent. But other than that, they don’t have to worry about the land use and utility issues that the Greenfield Construction of the California High-Speed Rail Authority has to. But they’re moving ahead quickly.

They have some private funding. It’s nice to have the folks in Las Vegas supporting you. And they’re expected to be in operation by around 2030.

The California project is what’s called the Greenfield project. In other words, it has to go through areas where there are not current transportation systems, and that makes it much more complicated. You have to negotiate with over 2,000 different little farmers and landowners, and it just takes an awful long time.

Many of them don’t want to settle quickly because if you go through eminent domain and fight it, you reduce your tax burdens. And so there’s every encouragement to delay. And of course, behind the scenes, we have the oil companies who are attempting to delay the project also because as soon as high-speed rail goes into effect, the short-hop airlines between those served cities are no longer profitable. And as in Europe, France has just outlawed short-hop airlines between cities that are served by high-speed rail.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting

ROD DIRIDON: So the oil companies are certainly not very happy with the high-speed rail system.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the trip from Vegas to LA, let’s talk about the total commute time. Brightline says on its website that the trip between Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga will be just two hours and 10 minutes. How does that compare to a car or a plane?

ROD DIRIDON: Two hours and 10 minutes, but then you have to get to Rancho Cucamonga. But it’s certainly a whole lot better than driving by car. Not only is it a lot better on the people that are taking the trip, but in terms of climate change, putting people in an electrically powered, high-speed train where there is no pollution– virtually no pollution– is a great step forward than having people on a short-hop airline or automobile, which are the most polluting devices on a seat/mile basis.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We’ve been talking about California and Florida, but I understand there are some other regions in the US that are planning for high-speed rail that you’re excited about– city pairs that are too long to drive between, but too short to justify a plane trip. Tell us about those and specifically, especially in the Pacific Northwest and then in Texas. Talk about those.

ROD DIRIDON: The largest area that’s looking at it now is Chicago. And there are several routes out of Chicago to St. Louis that are under consideration and being studied and upgraded from current systems. But the new high-speed rail projects that are under consideration are really moving ahead now are the Northwest Corridor. That’s from Seattle down to Portland and maybe on down to Eugene.

And the Texas triangle is moving ahead. They were ahead of everybody else. And then the governor of Texas– the last governor stopped the project, and now it’s moving ahead again gradually. The Florida project had been way ahead of everybody else, and they were stopped by their governor. And they had received quite a nice grant from the Obama administration, and they gave that money back.

But the Acela corridor has great potential to upgrade some of their track to high-speed rail. They’re going to have to change their rolling stock to be electrically powered high-speed rail trains. But they have the market, and they have the opportunity to move ahead very, very quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Do you feel there has been a shift in the thinking about expanding rail system in the US?

ROD DIRIDON: I think the shift has been dramatic. Over the last several years, people have begun to travel around the world. And there are 18 countries. All of the advanced countries and many of the emerging countries now have high-speed rail, and they’re replacing those short-hop airlines that cause all the pollution, and use all that petroleum, and make the noise and so on with the high-speed rail trains.

And as we travel around the world– the Americans travel a lot– we see these other countries served so wonderfully. For example, China– they have 27,000 miles of 235-mile-an-hour high-speed trains. And they’ve shifted much of their passenger and some of their freight work over to the high-speed rail systems, which are non-polluting. They don’t require the diesel fuel that the old trains do and get you there much faster and more conveniently.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I imagine that the cities would benefit from all the jobs that they would create building the rail system and not just making it easier for commuters.

ROD DIRIDON: Well, it will be a new boom in probably organized labor work. Remember, when the original railroads were built in America, it was the birth of the middle class because that’s when organized labor really began to be involved with the railroad unions and building everything from the tracks to operating the trains, and running the depots, and providing the insurance, and all of the rest. At one point, 40% of the jobs in the United States were associated with the railroads. Well, we’re going back into that boom period for railroads again. And it’ll be helpful to everybody from the porter that cleans out the cars to the person riding.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. As you say, you have a transit station named after you in San Jose. Are you hoping that your grandchildren are going to be riding the high-speed rail?

ROD DIRIDON: Well, I’d love to be able to do it myself. But at 85, that’s nip and tuck. But I have four grandchildren who I know will ride that train and remember grandpa. And more importantly, I have four grandchildren that will have a better chance at having a good life because we shifted people away from automobiles, and buses, and airplanes onto electrically powered trains and maybe save the environment a bit.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Rod, we wish you, your family, and everybody else in the train business good luck. And we’ll be rooting and watching along with you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ROD DIRIDON: Ira, thank you so much for looking into this issue. The future of the world is depends on us moving over to electric power.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Rod Diridon is Co-Chair of the US High-Speed Rail Association.

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