America is an absurdly backward country when it comes to passenger trains. As anyone who has visited Europe, Japan or Shanghai knows, trains that travel at nearly 200 miles per hour have become integral to the economies of many countries. With its celebrated Tokaido Shinkansen bullet trains, Central Japan Railway has for the past five decades carried billions of passengers between Tokyo and Osaka in half the time it would take to fly. A new Madrid-to-Barcelona express train runs at an average speed of 150 miles per hour; since its inception two years ago, airline traffic between the two cities has dropped by 40 percent. In contrast, Amtrak’s showcase Acela train connecting Boston to Washington, D.C., averages just 70 mph. That figure is so low because many sections of the Acela’s tracks cannot safely support high speeds, even though the train itself is capable of sprints above 150 mph. Think of it as a Ferrari sputtering down a rutted country lane.
There has been a recent push to change all this. Earlier this year the Department of Transportation announced the recipients of $8 billion in stimulus funding designed to spread high-speed rail across the U.S. The 2010 federal budget requests an additional $1 billion in rail construction funds in each of the next five years. And in 2008 California voters approved a $9-billion bond measure to initiate an ambitious high-speed rail network that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco and, eventually, Sacramento and San Diego.