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Will California’s New High-Speed Train Finally Help Make US Train Travel Decent?

California Train Travel
by Eben Diskin Jun 14, 2021

If you’re taking a train vacation in the US, you’re either a European who hasn’t yet realized how inefficient the rail network is in the states, or you have a Sheldon Cooper-esque obsession with trains. Fittingly, the only thing less cool than publicly dropping The Big Bang Theory references is traveling by train in the US.

The US rail network is notoriously inefficient, and lacks the affordability and connectivity of most of Europe’s train system. While the US is undeniably advanced in plenty of other fields of transportation technology, the size and quality of its rail network feels like it’s stuck in the 1980s. A new Biden administration initiative is offering a glimmer of hope for US train travel — at least in California.

There are many causes of the US rail network’s woes, but lack of funding is one of the most crippling. President Joe Biden is seeking to remedy this by committing to a $929 million investment in a high-speed rail project in California that connects the northern part of the state to San Diego. The project’s budget had been slashed by the Trump administration, which appeared to sound the death knell for efficient, high-speed train travel in the state. Now, the funding will be restored to the state of California, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and the US Transportation Department.

In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “The Biden Administration’s restoration of nearly $1 billion for California’s high-speed rail is great news for our state and our nation. This vote of confidence and restored close working relationship between the Department and the Authority will keep this transformative project moving down the track — ensuring California can continue to lead the way forward in creating jobs, promoting commerce, connecting communities, and protecting our planet.”

California’s path to a high-speed rail network has been beleaguered at best. An 800-mile high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco has been in the works for more than a decade, though Governor Gavin Newsom essentially pulled the plug shortly after his election, citing steep costs.

The current expanded project, reinvigorated by federal funding, has an expected completion date in the 2030s.

Europeans will still justifiably snicker at our trains for some time. This news certainly doesn’t spell the end for the lackluster rail system in the US, but it signals public motivation — and more importantly, federal commitment — to change it. High-speed rails are on the horizon elsewhere, too, like Brightline’s new track between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That 170-mile project is slated to break ground later this year. Nevertheless, the US as a whole is far from the cross-country high speed rail map dreamed up by some train enthusiasts who champion the sustainability aspect of train travel.

The US might be slow to catch up to its overseas friends, but optimists should take great solace in Biden’s personal enthusiasm. Famous for taking the train between Washington, DC and Delaware as a senator — landing him the affectionate nickname “Amtrak Joe” — Biden seems to view improving US infrastructure (including the rail networks) as a cornerstone of his presidency. Last year, his campaign promised to “spark the second great rail revolution.”

It might be late in coming, but frustrated US train travelers are doubtless familiar with a popular sentiment with a slight twist: Late is better than never.

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