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Lost Hopes and Speeding Up

Meeting Details:

Next meeting, Oct 24th, 8pm, Zoom:


Faster Headlines

Wheels on Steel:

KBTX - CBS, Byran, TX
Fresno Bee
Japan Forward
Government Technology
The New York Times

In the Tube:

Car Scoops

Up in the Air:

Business Traveller
The Guardian

Tracks Across Campus

(Madison, WI) There are more to those tracks next to Union South than you realize.

(Source: Google Maps Streetview)

For those who go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, those railroad tracks that parallel University Avenue and cut through the engineering campus are a nuisance. Especially when the trains fire their horns to chase the students off the tracks or block traffic on University Avenue. But there is much more to the tracks than students, drivers, and residents realize. It is because of those tracks that the city of Madison exists and why the university is the flagship university of Wisconsin.

When the village of Madison and the university were established in the 1840s those tracks did not exist. There was no efficient form of transportation to Madison except dirt roads. That is why in 1852 even though Madison was the state capitol it only had 4,000 residents.

Then in 1954 the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad (predecessor to the Milwaukee Road) built tracks from Waukesha, over Monona Bay, through the south side of Madison, and west towards what would become Camp Randall. Two years later the population of Madison doubled to 8,000 and Madison officially incorporated as a city in 1856. The university and the city of Madison truly grew up around those tracks.

While today Camp Randall is known more for Badger Football. Between 1861 and 1863 those tracks carried over 70,000 Wisconsin men to the front lines of the Civil War from the staging and training center that was the original Camp Randall. Ironically, over those tracks, several hundred, if not thousands, of captured confederate soldiers also arrived in Madison to be held.

(source: Wikimedia Commons)

Then after the Civil Way those railroad tracks were the start of Madison becoming a crossroads of trade between the port in Milwaukee and the trading port in Prairie De Chen on the Mississippi River.

However, eventually, Minneapolis became the more popular transfer point for goods down the Mississippi River and a connecting point towards the American West. As a result, tracks north of Madison became the new crossroads of commerce and these tracks along University Avenue were used less and less until they became the quiet tracks we know today.

(Source: Google Maps Streetview)


What the New York Times article (and SNCF) really said about building high speed rail in the US:

On Oct 9th, out of nowhere the New York Times ran an article on the dysfunction of the California High-Speed Rail project. The New York Times ran the article as part of a whole section on future transportation with negative articles also being written on the Hyperloop hype and Elon Musk's Boring Company ventures. But the article on California High-Speed Rail went viral. Especially the part about how SNCF left the project...10 years ago.

Sadly the American writers who wrote these articles took the SNCF’s project manager's statement about building high-speed rail to be about the California project itself…not about America’s policy on high-speed rail. But they were wrong. What was missed by the writers is that the message from SNCF was to all Americans that we set up high-speed rail projects to fail.

According to articles in 2012 by Market Urbanism and Streetsblog USA, SNCF had lined up real estate developers for a San Francisco to Los Angeles route that paralleled the Interstate 5 corridor. These investors would have significantly reduced the price of the project. However, planners for the state of California chose the more expensive route through the central valley, leading SNCF to withdrawal from the project. What SNCF missed, though, was the politics. SNCF did not expect politicians to be dictating the route and when the politicians dictated a much more expensive, but politically safer, route through the central valley SNCF protested.

Of course, America has forgotten how they built the original rail lines back in the 1800s. Back then the states and the federal government just gave the railroads a concession to build rails. From there, the railroads would line up investors to support the private railroad who would then build the infrastructure and start service. That is how the subway got built in New York, Chicago became a railroad hub, and how the transcontinental railroad from Omaha to California was built.

Unfortunately, we are in a much different era. Ever since the 1970s when the government took over Amtrak (and regional railroads throughout the US) politics have mattered more than financing. That is why building high-speed rail in the US has not taken off. It isn’t because Americans love their cars, or the US isn’t dense enough. It is simply because politicians get too involved in the project. This is why the California project is going through the Central Valley, why a Wisconsin a high-speed rail system needs to stop in Eau Claire, or why Texas Central needed to publicize the stop in Brazos Valley.

Luckily the New York Times piece will soon be forgotten. However, to build high-speed rail in the US “The politics” are more important than the technology. Unfortunately, SNCF did not see this when they issued their business plans back in 2009 and learned it the hard way in 2012.


How the US Lost High Speed Rail: Part 5: Lost Hopes and Speeding Up

In the movie Bullet Train (which came out in August ’22) the train is sleek, fast, reliable….and full of Americans. The irony of course is that the train is traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, is a bullet train full of Americans pure fiction, or can it become reality?

Rise of the Shinkansen:

Prior to the Shinkansen, Japan was struggling with what to do with transportation. As the country was emerging from WWII planners had to decide if the country should rely on automobiles or traditional trains. The planners chose trains, but they also thought about basic physics -> To move a large volume through a channel you can 1) increase the size of the channel or 2) Increase the speed at which one moves down the channel. Rather than building a right of way with 16 parallel tracks at a traditional speed, the Japanese invested in increasing the speed at which one moves down the channel. This strategy was not only a success for Japan but eventually lead to a healthy and prosperous private rail system in Japan with new and faster trains coming every few years. Afterall, while the first Shinkansen's maxed out at 125 mph in 1964, today's Shinkansen can reach 186 mph and can go faster. Then we have the Chuo Shinkansen being built between Tokyo and Nagoya which will travel at 300mph, making the Chuo Shinkansen faster than many small commuter aircraft flying today in the US, such as the Embrear 120, Beech 1900, or DE Havilland Dash 8 series.

Lost hope or a High Speed Rail Revival?

Here in the United States we may be on the verge of a high-speed rail renaissance, or once again a failed promise. After all there are many projects underway in the US to get excited about:

  • Brightline Miami to Orlando, planned to start: 2023

  • Brightline Los Angeles to Las Vegas, 2026

  • Texas Central, Houston to Dallas, 2028

  • California High-Speed Rail, 2030

  • The Northeast Maglev, Washington DC to Baltimore 2031 (continuing to New York thereafter)

Of course, there is Amtrak’s Acela which will continue to increase speeds as upgrades are met and with new trainsets being delivered in 2023.

Then there are new projects under serious consideration in:

  • Cascadia Rail (Portland - Seattle - Vancouver)

  • Southeast Rail (Atlanta to Charlotte)

Finally there is the Hyperloop which contains various feasibility studies across the US but has not broken ground on an actual high-speed system.

The question is which projects work, which once fail.

Need for a Strategy to Catch Up

The US is trying to build a high-speed rail system on par with Japan and the rest of the world. The problem is not the technology, nor even the funding. The problem is the misconception of what high-speed rail is and isn’t. For example, high-speed rail is not for transcontinental travel. Jet airplanes on flights greater than 500 miles are much faster, more productive, and on a per passenger seat mile basis…more sustainable (we will debate the sustainability another day).

Where high-speed rail makes sense is in markets that are 50-500 miles apart, with populations of at least 2 million at either end. Then sprinkled in between those two major cities are smaller cities with universities and cities with knowledge economies (such as high-tech firms).

To build a system, as Americans we need to decide why we are building high-speed rail. Is it:

  • To relieve a long-lost era of transcontinental rail travel?

  • Relieve congestion (the reason Japan built the Shinkansen)?

  • For economic equality (the reason France built theirs)?

  • For the economic redevelopment of city centers (reason Spain built there's)?

  • For political stability (the reason China built there)?

  • Or for sustainability or defense?

The US needs to figure out its objective for building high-speed rail because all of these strategies led to different routes, types of funding, and transportation technology. If we can agree on a reason for high-speed rail then we can we avoid the astronomical cost overruns of the California High-Speed Rail project, or the legal woes of Texas Central. Or even the decision of who will own the tracks, who will operate the trains, and who will own the real estate around the stations. Only then can we get private investment to support the public investment in high-speed rail, lower building costs, and prove that not only will high-speed rail work in the US…but will start a travel evolution that will be on par with the building of the first airports in the 1920s or building of the first interstates in the 1950s.


Youtuber Channels We Love: Alan Fisher

By Noah Sobczak

City planning but from the comfort of your own home. Alan Fisher, who also goes as the Armchair Urbanist, is a YouTuber who makes content about the need for more walkable communities and improved public transit in American cities. His humor might come off a little deadpan to some but it always gets his points across. Between all of his city planning videos, there are a few interesting music videos definitely worth checking out.

Here are some of our favs:

And here is even a video discussing the importance of main line electrification:


The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-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.

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