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Why the US doesn't have high speed rail discussion
How the Shinkansen Created the Acela:
Its 1964 and in reaction to the inauguration of the Shinkansen in Japan, the US responded with the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. The Act received broad bi-partisan support with only 23 out of 432 members of the House voting against the act…How about that?
The HSGT Act of 1965 authorized the US government to explore high-speed rail in the US. As a response Penn Central (which was the result of a merger between New York Central Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and two other railroads) saw an opportunity to implement high-speed rail between New York and Washington DC with new Metroliner trains that would operate potentially up to 150 mph. Penn Central ordered the trains in 1966, started service in 1969...and then the company went... bankrupt. Amtrak then inherited the Metroliner service. Yep, that is how the Northeast corridor became America’s high-speed rail focus.
The Metroliners were very popular and over the next few years Amtrak actually increased the frequency of service from 9 to 15 trains daily and even increased speeds up to 125 mph. This made the trip from New York to DC in less than 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is slightly faster than Acela’s schedule today.
Nothing much happened in the 1980s, but by the 1990’s the Metroliners were getting outdated. So Amtrak made plans for all new types of trains and services. Trains based upon the ICE from Siemens were tested as well as the X 2000 train from Sweden…however a TGV-designed trainset from Bombardier and Alstom was chosen, which would eventually seat 304 passengers in 8 car sets (2 power cars and 6 coaches)....and be called Acela Express (later shortened to just Acela).
Acela, which was a made-up brand based upon the words "Acceleration" and "Excellence", inaugurated service in November 2000 and proved incredibly popular capturing over 54% of all passengers traveling on air and rail between New York-Boston, and New York - Washington DC. With this popularity the Acela service was increased to over 20 trains a day, eventually leading to the retirement of the older Metroliners in 2006. Then in 2016, Vice President Biden announced a $2.45 billion federal loan to pay for the all-new equipment on the Acela and infrastructure improvements. The new Acela trainsets are expected to enter passenger service in 2023 and will increase speeds up to 160 mph with capabilities of 185 mph if infrastructure improvements are made to the catenary systems.
So today the Acela is America’s high-speed train. Granted, the Acela only reaches 150 mph on 49 miles of track in Rhode Island (and recently for a few miles in New Jersey), but it is extremely popular. Then with the billions authorized under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the brightest part of Acela’s future likely still lies ahead.
Of course, the irony is that had it not been for the Shinkansen inauguration in 1964…The Acela might not even exist today.
Feature Story: How America Lost High Speed Rail: Part 2
Why Government Regulation caused America to Fall Behind
Last week we traveled back time to see how high speed rail created America, and eventually led to the building of Shinkansen in Japan...
It is now the late 1960s and in Japan the bullet train is speeding passengers between Tokyo and Osaka with plans to expand the system across the rest of the country (Although under the surface Japan is having some debt problems with their high speed trains).
Meanwhile, in the states the railroads were collapsing. With the introduction of jetliners and the interstates, the railroads started to lose huge amounts of money on their passenger operations. However, they were still required to run their unprofitable trains due to the Interstate Commerce Commission's regulations. So the railroads started to make their passenger services unreliable with poor service. This just acerbated the loss of passengers. The result was at first consolidation and then bankruptcies, specifically - Penn Central. Penn Centrals' 1970 bankruptcy was the largest bankruptcy in US history up till that time and think of it like Delta and American Airlines merging...and then going bankrupt...it was that big of a deal! In response the Nixon administration called for the creation of 2 nationalized railway companies:
Under these programs, these companies would act like private companies, but all of their stock would be held by the federal government. Also, all the railroads would have to give up their passenger services and equipment to Amtrak. This means such legendary trains as the Santa Fe's Super Chief, Burlington Northern's California Zephyr, New York Central's 20th Century Limited, and Illinois Central’s famed Panama Limited would be no more. Instead, all of the remaining railroads not owned by the government would now become strictly freight rail. This is like United Airlines or Japan Airlines ceasing all passenger operations, and instead becoming a FedEx or UPS. The shift was huge! Even in 2022 those railroads that gave up their passenger operations cannot operate passenger trains on any of the famed routes they once had. That is why you will not see Union Pacific or BNSF operating passenger trains today even though they once had world renowned service.
Going back to 1971, it is rumored that the Nixon Administration created Amtrak to kill off all passenger rail…so that new passenger rail systems could be created. But that may just be an urban legend cause the government did invest in Amtrak. Even experimenting with new high-speed rail trains such as the Metroliner and Turboliners. However, this investment would not be enough…and on other routes operating the legacy trains did not make a solid business case. As a result Amtrak limped along through the 1970s, being given enough money to operate but not the flexibility to become a true for-profit business. Worse, Amtrak operates over the tracks owned by the freight railroads…making Amtrak a stepchild of America’s growing freight rail industry...who once owned those very same trains.
Meanwhile, in Japan in the 1970s the Shinkansen sped along, slowly expanding. Then as subway systems in the major Japanese cities were built out the train became the center of Japanese culture. While in the US there was a very different transportation strategy as the automobile, the bus, and the airplane became the predominant form of transportation.
However, in the 1980s a fundamental shift was about to take place in Japan that would revolutionize the Shinkansen and make it the gold standard of high speed rail. While at the same time, in the US freight rail was going to become the future….
Find out next week how that all happened.
Bullet Train Part 2: "Right on Schedule"...and the Diesel
When you leave reality behind, the actual "bullet train" in the movie is beautiful and the train could not have been better portrayed. After all, the train was presented as luxurious, smooth, clean, extraordinarily reliable….and most important…as a premium service.
Yea, when you think about the movie…would it have worked on Amtrak. No. The whole idea behind the movie is that Lady Bug (Brad Pit) keeps getting stuck on the train because the train only stops for 1 minute in the station. Exactly 1 minute! So every time Lady Bug thinks he can get off the train, he gets slightly delayed is fouled by the train's reliability!
But then look at the train they portrayed - it is futuristic…and autonomous. After all, an engineer was never to be found which makes us assume it was autonomous.
Then look at the accommodations. The quiet cars (code for economy) were still spacious and comfortable. Then there was the spacious first-class seating with 19-inch monitors and then there was the bar/lounge car. Don’t forget the observation seats behind the engineering station at the front of the train (something the Chinese have introduced, but the Japanese have not) and who can forget the family Momonga car and its iconic anime character? Then don’t forget the toilets. That scene with Lady Bug figuring out the Japanese toilets is so underrated. As a good Japanese friend said…"you just never felt clean when using American toilets". Yes, Americans are behind in our toilet tech as well as our trains....sorry, Charmin Bears.
Of course, did anyone notice the Diesel references? Yes, it was funny…but where did the idea of using Thomas the Tank’s villain – Diesel - in a movie about a high-speed rail in Japan originate? Was it a knock on America’s passenger fleet being nearly all diesel engines?
After all, there is no mention of Thomas the Tank or “Diesel” in the book Maria Beetle, from which Bullet Train was based. But after watching Bullet Train you won't forget Diesel.
So while the movie was fun I would argue that Americans need to pay attention to the luxurious train in the movie….Cause we can have it here. We just need to stop playing around with Diesels!
The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.