Bullet Trains in USA

written by kansai2kansas as a term paper for his Geography 160 class

High-speed rail, or bullet train as it is more commonly known, is a method of transportation more commonly found among advanced countries in the world. According to the standard directive used by European Union, High-speed rail is generally defined as any railway service with a minimum speed of 250 km/h (for the newly built ones) and a lower threshold of minimum speed of 200 km/h (for the upgraded conventional ones) [Source 1].

Among European and Eastern Asian countries, the technology of bullet train, and the lack of interest of American people for its use in USA thereof, has somewhat become a global laughingstock. So far, there is only one bullet train service that is already fully operational in USA, namely the Acela Express (owned by Amtrak) that runs from Boston to Washington DC.

It is a sad fact indeed. Despite being the most economically and militarily advanced country in the world, there had only been limited interest in developing or funding this particular method of transportation in America.

It was only in February 2011 that Vice President Biden proposed to improve passenger rail in the United States with a cost of $53 billion over six years. This would include separate high-speed rail corridors in the state of California, Texas, Southeast region, Midwest region, and Pacific Northwest region. This plan unsurprisingly became a hot issue for the Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are usually reluctant to adopt this technology in the first place [Source 2].

However, it has become evident that with Barack Obama, a Democrat, holding the presidency, slightly more liberal values of adopting this bullet train technology has become more and more accepted these days. 70% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans (which total to around 48% of Americans) are in full support of Biden’s plan [Source 3].

Now let us explore this question: why was it from 1900 to 2000 Americans were always reluctant to adopt this brilliant technology?

This caters to the human-environment interaction theme of Geography. It is not that USA lacked the ability to adopt it. As a matter of fact, believe it or not, USA was the country that invented bullet train technology in the first place! Called high-speed interurban, it enabled people to travel in a relatively shorter time than cars [Source 4].

However, due to various reasons, starting from the Great Depression which left the maintenance of interurbans to be too expensive to the scandal involving General Motors’ plan of killing off the existence of interurbans so that Americans would use more of GM’s vehicles instead (which some people these days cite as a conspiracy theory) [Source 5], Americans stopped using interurbans at all.

Conspiracy theories aside, the very idea of having a competition in ground transportation is found in the main enemy of bullet trains, which are the airline companies. This is the economic factor of geography. One commonly known example was when Southwest Airlines, with the help of lobbyists, tried and (successfully) blocked the financing of Texas High Speed Rail Authority in the Texas Triangle (which consists of Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and San Antonio) in year 1994 [Source 6].

For the people in Southwest USA (around Nevada, Utah, and Arizona), having a high-speed train service also would not be to their best interest. This caters to the movement theme of geography. They have a mountainous geography (where it would cost more pricey to build rail service) with relatively less people to use the trains in the first place [Source 7].

It also somehow caters to the culture of American people itself. The very culture of USA, that it is much more delightful if you can drive from East Coast to West Coast (and vice versa) in the comfort of your own SUV, truck, or convertibles has been popularised in pop culture scenes, such as the song Country Road (by John Denver), the movie Crossroads (starring Britney Spears), or the movie Road Trip. Americans see it as much more “fun” if you can travel while stopping at certain favourite towns on your car drive instead of having to abide by such strict predetermined stops of train travel [No source, this is from author’s personal knowledge].
These days, if you do not live in the states of New York, Massachusetts, or Maryland, there is no chance that you can ever ride in a bullet train.

The limited availability of bullet train is about to change within the next 5-15 years though. The earliest (tentative) completion date for more bullet trains can be as early as 2017 for Florida’s Corridor (which would run from Orlando to Miami) to 2025 for California Corridor (which would run from Sacramento to San Diego) and Midwest Corridor (which would run from Chicago to St Louis and Cincinnati) [Source 8].

So far, Obama’s administration has got a head start with $8 billion of federal funding, with the main test bed is in California (which already has voter-approved funding).

Personally speaking, I am delighted that a widespread adaptation of bullet train for other states (outside of Northeast) is coming soon. It is only a matter of time before us people in the Midwest regions also get a share of this excellent method of transportation, which could connect us from Cincinnati to Chicago (which is 410 km, or 254 miles apart) in two to three hours. [Source 9]

Some naysayers may argue that two to three hours for such a short distance is too long...airplanes can travel in much less time. For example, they would question why would we want to sit on a train for three hours from Chicago to Cincinnati when it only takes one hour by plane? [Source 10]

In asking such a question, they also seem to have forgotten that when they travel by plane, unless they actually own the plane (or it is a chartered private plane), they have to go through the painstaking process of checking-in their luggage, going thru security checks, waiting for the taxiing of the plane in the runway, and later on taking your suitcases from the conveyor belt which could altogether add up to another three to four hours total! Moreover, airports all around the world tend to be located quite far from the downtown of the city (such as O’Hare International Airport which is located in the northernmost corner of Chicago, JFK International Aiport which is located in Long Island, and even Greater Cincinnati CVG International Airport which is not located in Ohio but in Hebron, Kentucky!). Being located so far from the downtown would prove to add another travel time by road, thus the average time for someone travelling from Cincinnati to Chicago by taking an aeroplane would altogether add up to five hours total!

On the other hand, when you travel by train, you do not need to go thru so much hassle. You can simply go to your nearest train station (which would most of the time be located in the downtown, thus enhancing its reachability), buy a ticket, board the train, and alight in your next stop in the train station of city of destination (which would also most likely be located in the downtown). Thus, the average (tentative) time for someone travelling from Cincinnati to Chicago by bullet train would altogether add up to three hours total (As of today, this is still a mere estimate since such a Midwest corridor has been completed yet).

In terms of dreams, there have also been visions for a quite distant future to build an underwater train from New York to London, with a speed totalling 6000 km/h and would enable a travel time of only five hours. It is possible, and it might happen someday. Alas, such a plan is not economically feasible yet, since its skyrocketing costs can add up to $175 billion [Source 11]. As of today, the American government has more priorities it can spend on, such as improving the quality of education and creating more jobs. But it never hurts to dream, does it not? Especially since we have already got this dream of having more bullet trains in USA which is about to come true in the near future.


[Source 1] = "General Definitions of Highspeed - UIC - International Union of Railways." UIC - International Union of Railways - The Worldwide Organisation of Cooperation for Railway Companies. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.uic.org/spip.php?article971
[Source 2] = "Vice President Biden Announces Six Year Plan to Build National High-Speed Rail Network." The White House. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/08/vice-president-biden-announces-six-year-plan-build-national-high-speed-r
[Source 3] = Web. http://www.visioncritical.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/2010.04.06_Trains_USA.pdf
[Source 4] = "Houston Streetcars - Galveston-Houston Interurban." Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://members.iglou.com/baron/interurban.htm
[Source 5] = Adams, Cecil. "The Straight Dope: Did General Motors Destroy the LA Mass Transit System?" The Straight Dope - Fighting Ignorance Since 1973. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/551/did-general-motors-destroy-the-la-mass-transit-system
[Source 6] = "TGVweb - Texas TGV." TrainWeb.org. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.trainweb.org/tgvpages/texastgv.html
[Source 7] = "Don't Jump aboard High-speed Rail | Deseret News." Salt Lake City and Utah Breaking News, Sports, Entertainment and News Headlines - Deseret News. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705329446/Dont-jump-aboard-high-speed-rail.html
[Source 8] = Glave, James, and Rachel Swaby. "Superfast Bullet Trains Are Finally Coming to the U.S. | Magazine | Wired.com." Wired.com. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_fasttrack/all/1
[Source 9] = "City Distance Tool - Find the Distance between 2 Cities." Geobytes Home Page. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.geobytes.com/CityDistanceTool.htm?loadpage
[Source 10] = "How Long to Fly from Cincinnati to Chicago? - True Knowledge." True Knowledge - the Internet Answer Engine. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.trueknowledge.com/q/how_long_to_fly_from_cincinnati_to_chicago
[Source 11] = "Trans-Atlantic MagLev | Popular Science." Popular Science | New Technology, Science News, The Future Now. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2004-04/trans-atlantic-maglev

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