The U.S. used to be a country built on extensive and prospering railroad systems. Today, the passenger railroad industry is lagging far behind Europe, China, and Japan as Americans have fully embraced air travel and highway systems in the past several decades. High-speed railways, however, are considered to have benefits in many different ways, including ones that air travel and highways do not have: trains can be the fastest mode of transportation between cities in proximity, they create far fewer emissions than planes and cars, and they carry a large number of travelers.
Despite the dependency on planes and cars, the U.S. government has made attempts to introduce high-speed trains to the country. In the early 2000s, Amtrak’s Acela was put into service and has remained America’s only high-speed rail service. However, the service is flawed. Though it connects some of the most populated cities on the East Coast and runs with imported Alstom trains (Alstom is a French company that manufactures the trainset), Amtrak did not construct a separate track for Acela and merely electrified and revamped some sections of the pre-existing infrastructure. Thanks to aging bridges and tunnels, Acela runs at a speed much slower than its full potential.
A notorious example of a similar government-funded project is the California High-Speed Rail, known as CAHSR. The original $10 billion plan to connect the Bay Area and LA, which marketed itself to travel at a speed of 220 miles per hour, was approved by voters in 2008 but the progress stagnated due to significant budget deficit and eminent domain disputes. While phase one of the plan would connect Bakersfield and Merced, which are smaller cities in the Central Valley, its completion date is unclear, not to mention there are difficulties of future construction through mountainous and urban regions. Despite Governor Newsom’s support to continue the project, public opinion in the state remains split.
Apart from that, there are also numerous high-speed rail proposals throughout the country, though the possibility of any one of them becoming a reality is quite low, in my opinion. The reasons why America builds its transportation infrastructure extremely slowly can be multifaceted. I do not have the expertise to carefully examine the finance or land policy underneath the situation nor further compare the U.S. to successful countries. However, I must argue that in the U.S., many cases contain one common theme— the government funds them. Of course, the government has managed to finish countless projects over time and can certainly keep doing so, but any decision can stir up debate both in public and on town hall floors. According to polling, many Americans support such measures on public transportation funding. Supporters are thrilled by the outcome’s value on traffic alleviation and sustainability. Others, however, cast doubt on increased taxation, unrealistic budgets, and slow construction progress. This division is usually along party lines and can be seen in city referendums, CAHSR, and even in the recent Congress vote on the Build Back Better Act. Political disagreements will certainly hinder the progress of any infrastructure construction.
What would happen if we hand the work over to private entities?
In 2013, a private corporation named All Aboard Florida acquired a $1.6 billion federal loan to construct a passenger rail line between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida. Construction started swiftly in 2015 and the rail service, under the name of Brightline, began as early as 2018. It is pretty unimaginable for a government-funded project this expensive to be completed within a decade. Brightline is ambitious too: the extension to Orlando is scheduled to open later in 2023, and construction of a high-speed railroad between LA and Las Vegas is starting soon with an estimated completion time of merely four years. However, caveats exist as well. A Texas company named Texas Central Railway was founded in 2013, striving to build a high-speed railroad between Dallas and Houston. The project has faced land acquisition challenges in this state that places land property rights on a pedestal, which even led to the CEO’s resignation. Construction will not start in the foreseeable future.
That being said, we still have to acknowledge that the involvement of private businesses can bring innovative changes in the transportation infrastructure field. Unlike government projects, which must rely on tax dollars, public support, and a complex decision-making process, a private corporation makes decisions on its own and treats its projects as a profitable investment. This will further incentivize them to carry out the project sooner and provide services better in order to win customers’ support. After all, capitalism in America has made enough achievements that didn’t seem possible in the beginning.
To sum it up, it may be too hasty to conclude that private business is the absolute solution to transportation infrastructure over the government. However, when government-funded plans don’t seem optimal, why not try capitalism?