Future Tense

The Catch-22 of America’s Trains

A train that reads "50 Amtrak" on its side.
Amtrak celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2021. Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Listen to What Next: TBD:

As part of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is edging ever closer to passage, Congress is set to give Amtrak $30 billion for the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, part of a $66 billion grant for the network nationwide. To some, this may seem like a good step toward realizing a future of American train travel that’s more in line with the high-speed, low(er)-cost systems in countries like Japan and France. Alon Levy, a mathematician who works on the Transit Costs Project at New York University, estimates that somewhere between $15 billion and $20 billion would be needed to implement a high-speed, fairly affordable, and frequently running train system between Boston and Washington.

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But Amtrak seems to have less ambitious plans for the “greatest investment in Amtrak’s 50-year history.” Rather than using the funds to build an efficient, high-speed rail in the Northeast, Amtrak has allotted $30 billion for one single project: Gateway. Gateway would restore the aging tracks that bring commuters from New Jersey to New York City, rebuild an existing tunnel, construct a second tunnel, and expand Penn Station.

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On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Eric Goldwyn, who works with Levy at the Transit Costs Project, about why America spends so much money—and gets so little—when it builds trains. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Grabar: So instead of getting superfast travel times, low fares, and high frequencies on all these routes between these cities where lots of people ride trains, we’re basically planning to spend half the money from Congress—like $30 billion—on one tunnel and some associated projects around it?

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Eric Goldwyn: Yeah, that’s a good summary of what the critics are saying.

What’s gone wrong here? Why are we building things at a cost that is so much higher than our peer countries?

I think we use the term “peer” a bit loosely. From like a GDP-per-capita standpoint, sure, we have peers. Europe or developed parts of Asia, things like that. But in terms of rail infrastructure, we are not peers with these other countries. They are way ahead of us.

America’s been building trains for 100 years, and we used to be kind of good at building things, right? That’s sort of our reputation. What went wrong here?

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America absolutely was at the vanguard in the 1900s. And then I think when the Japanese introduced their high-speed rail, the Shinkansen, it sort of caught not just America, but a lot of countries, flat-footed. And so we did try in the ‘70s in America to catch up to the Japanese, and the French started their investigations into high-speed rail around that time. And it’s just that we didn’t actually do it.

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America basically turned its attention elsewhere. And while that was happening here, countries like South Korea were looking at Japan and France and taking notes.

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They looked at what was going on all over the world. They looked at things like tunnels and viaducts and the diameter of tubes and the technology of the rolling stock and the power source and the track gauge. They did the field work, and they collected all of the details and said, “OK, this is what these places have done.” They brought in French experts to help them with things that they didn’t have the capabilities in. They developed that capacity. And so what you see over time is projects improve.

In the Korean example, you see tunnel diameters shrinking over time, you see the turning radii reducing over time. So that the total envelope that the project fits in is smaller and consumes less land. And it just takes practice at doing this stuff to get it right.

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It’s reassuring to know that there is a learning curve, that other countries have started badly and then found their footing on this.

Yeah. And it’s not just about railroading. It’s about pretty much any industry. You can’t really take a break for 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years and expect to be able to perform at the highest level and compete against the countries that are sort of in the lead in those things.

It sounds like one thing you’re saying is that all of the various factors that are cited as dragging American down when it comes to competitive projects—design and labor, environmental regulations, political meddling, NIMBY-ism—can kind of be put under the umbrella of a lack of public-sector expertise and experience. Do we just need to start doing it, to get better at doing it?

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That’s right. I think if we had a plan and a vision that said, “OK, this is what we need to do, and this is how we’re going to do it. And this is sort of the best way to do it,” sorting out some of the regulatory pieces becomes a bit easier. But if you work backwards, without that strong, clear vision, things fall apart very quickly. Things devolve to, “OK, well, what can I get done?” If you read some of the language of transit legislation, oftentimes there’s an emphasis on, “OK, well, what will be operable?” And what is operable is not always what is best.

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I guess what you’re saying is, people see $66 billion for Amtrak, and they say, “Wow. Finally, a big investment in Amtrak.” But you see that and you say, “If only that money could be spent in a way that was consistent with international best practices, we would get so much more for it.”

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Yes, that’s exactly right. The whole reason for the research that I do and that we do in our group is to get more transit infrastructure per dollar spent, so that we can get to a point where we are providing that anywhere-to-anywhere connectivity. Because you can’t scale a project at several billion dollars a mile, right? You’re only ever going to be able to build a mile or two at a time. Our cities and our regions are just much larger than that. And that’s the real frustration.

In a way, it’s sort of a Catch-22. We haven’t built any of this, so we don’t know what we’re doing. So it costs so much to build it every time. So we don’t get to build a lot of it because it costs so much. So we don’t get that practice that we’d need to finally get in shape, so to speak.

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Absolutely. I was interviewing someone about Second Avenue subway recently, someone who’d worked at the agency since the 1970s. And what this person had mentioned to me was that they basically shut all expansion talks and projects down in the ’70s, and it didn’t really get revitalized until the 1990s. And by that time, you’d had people retiring, a lot of internal knowledge sort of disappearing. And so you had to, again, build it back up.

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What is maybe a silver lining is that, ultimately, building high-speed rail is something that has been done in lots of countries—building subways and metros, and those types, it’s been done in lots of places. That expertise is out there. It’s not like trying to figure out the Google algorithm or something like that that is abstruse. We can find it. It’s out there. We just need to empower the right people to get moving on this stuff.

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For this to get better, someone needs to care about making it better. I’ve spoken to the CEO of Amtrak about this. And I even asked him about the Gateway Tunnel. I used some of the cost comparisons that you guys have put out, looking at how this project compares to something that might get done in London or Paris or Madrid. And he just basically said, eh, he didn’t really buy it. He didn’t really buy that this was actually out of line with international best practices in a way that wouldn’t fly in one of those places. So what do we have to do to even get people in power to admit that there’s a problem here?

It is curious how expensive this stuff is and how the costs—even in the domestic cases—have just gone up and up and up from project to project. If you look at LA’s Purple Line, it’s currently three phases, but each subsequent phase is increasing. Phase 1, which should come online in the next couple of years, is about $500 million per kilometer. But then Phase 3, which is maybe a decade out or something like that, it’s pushing $1 billion a kilometer.

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And so, even if you just looked at that, you would say, OK, let’s forget about what’s going on in Spain. Let’s forget about what’s going on in Korea. Let’s forget about what’s going on in France. Just by looking at what’s going on in Los Angeles, or just what’s going on in New York, you can see that subsequent iterations of projects are more expensive than the projects that came before, and greater than the rate of inflation. It’s pretty obvious from that we are not doing so well.

So instead of getting better, we’re actually getting worse?

From a cost perspective, I would say yes.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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