Wolf Richter: Trump Promises “Fast Trains,” Japan’s Railway Stocks Soar

Jerri-Lynn here: Maybe California won’t secede just yet after all….

By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Originally published at Wolf Street

Do Trump and California suddenly see eye-to-eye on high-speed rail?

President Donald Trump met with airline CEOs at the White House on Thursday. At the core of the discussion was the overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration, including changes to the “totally out of whack” national air-traffic control system. He had other goodies for the airline CEOs.

Afterwards, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told reporters that the meeting had been “delightful.” It seems they’d gotten pretty much what they’d wanted. “We are very well-aligned on some very key topics: income tax reform, regulatory reform, and especially growing our industry,” he said.

But something wasn’t picked up by the US media, though it was picked up by hedge funds and other speculators: In his remarks, Trump mentioned high-speed rail in the US. And on Friday, Japanese stocks dealing with high-speed rail systems soared on huge volume! And even in China, it happened.

In his remarks (transcript) to the aviation CEOs, Trump said this about US high-speed rail, while complaining about airports:

As an example, some of you were saying yesterday to me that you go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place. We don’t have one. I don’t want to compete with your business — (laughter) — but we don’t have one fast train.

And a few sentences on US airports and the Middle East later, he added:

And we have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports, we have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. We’re going to change all of that, folks. You’re going to be so happy with Trump. I think you already are.

“We’re going to change all of that, folks.” And that apparently includes high-speed rail in the US.

This was followed up by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who after his meeting with Trump on Friday in his remarks (transcript) mentioned investment by Japan Inc. in the US, and then veered into high-speed rail and what Japanese companies with expertise in high-speed rail could do in the US to help move these projects forward. It would be nurtured with federal stimulus funding:

With President Trump taking on the leadership, I’m sure there will be — major-scale infrastructure investment will be made, including the fast-speed train.

Those of you who have rode on the Japanese Shinkansen, I’m sure you would appreciate the speed, the comfort and safety with the latest maglev technology. From Washington, D.C. to New York, where Trump Tower exists, only one hour would it take if you ride the maglev train…. Japan, with our high level of technical capability, we will be able to contribute to President Trump’s growth strategy.

But in the US, no one paid attention to this…

Not even those Republicans who’ve been vigorously opposing the high-speed rail project in California which has been steeped in controversy from the official day one, which was in November 2008, when California voters approved a proposition for funding the project. By early 2012, even I, a supporter of high-speed rail to connect large urban areas that are not too far apart, was beginning to snicker about how we’d been baited-and-switched and how it has gone nowhere. Today, it still has gone nowhere, though the price tag has changed and more money has evaporated.

So are Trump and California suddenly seeing eye-to-eye on something? Namely high-speed rail? And will Trump – who’d threatened to “defund” this “out-of-control” state – include California’s high-speed rail project in his $1-trillion infrastructure wish list, if it ever takes off? Governor Jerry Brown did you listen to Trump’s remarks?

Other states too have high-speed rail projects, including Texas and Florida. So for suppliers of high-speed rolling stock, technology, signaling, etc., this could be big bucks.

Speculators such as US hedge funds that gamble in Japanese stocks certainly seem to think so – at least for the moment.

Nippon Sharyo, of which Central Japan Railway Company holds 50.1%, makes trains, including the high-speed Shinkansen trainsets. It already has a plant in Illinois. Its shares soared 18% on the Tokyo stock exchange on Friday early on to a high of ¥332 before easing back to ¥322, up 14.6% for the day. Volume soared to nearly 5.3 million shares:

Daido Signal, which makes railway signaling equipment, after surging as much as 15% in early trading on Friday, ended the day up 9.2%.

Shares of Kawasaki Heavy Industries jumped 4.5% on Friday. Commuter trains and subway trainsets of Japan’s largest manufacturer of rolling stock are already cruising around US cities, and it produces trains in the US. So it might have a leg up.

Even in China, Trump’s high-speed rail enthusiasm caught on. CRRC, which makes rolling stock including high-speed trainsets, saw its shares jump 5% early on.

Alas, as so many times, these Trump-induced stock surges or plunges tend to run out of steam before reality sets in once again as the traders that follow Trump’s every breath abandon the trade. In early trading on Monday, Nippon Sharyo is down 1.6%, Diado Signal is down 1.9%, but Kawasaki Heavy edged up 0.5%.

High-speed rail in the US progresses at snail’s pace, if at all. Just trying to lay the track, which needs to run in as straight a line as possible and tends to cross private land where landowners and homeowners really don’t want a high-speed train go by every 20 minutes, triggers endless court battles. This is in part why the project in California has become such a fiasco. So real investors, rather than just short-term traders, who want to ride this to big profits better be ready to practice infinite patience.

It remains unclear how this scenario fits into Trump’s plans to deal with the US trade deficit with China, Japan, and other countries – after 25 years of apathy. Read… This Is How Out-Of-Whack US Trade Relationships Really Are

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Either Abe is confused (or trying to confuse Trump), or the translation is wrong – apart from two relatively old and slow demonstration maglev lines in Tokyo, the Japanese Shinkansen inventional rail, not maglev. The new super high speed Tokyo to Nagoya (and then Osaka) line is maglev, but that won’t be operational for a decade, so I’m not sure what he means when he says someone can experience it now.

    The problem for the US is that most urban areas are just too low density and have poor internal public transport systems, so high speed rail isn’t really a viable option on most corridors. And if Japan is seriously proposing to sell its new Maglev system, its even more so – its a staggeringly expensive system which probably only makes sense on super dense corridors, with plenty of spare land between them for the new lines. The French experience is that HSR only really works for cities around 3-400 miles distance – any longer and its tough to compete with internal flights.

    To make matters worse, it takes years to get a system up and running, primarily because of land issues. Punching directly across country is always difficult unless you are in nice flat areas of open farmland, otherwise, its expensive and a legal minefield. A further complication is the necessity to tunnel to city centres. This is a slow and expensive process. In some countries, such as Taiwan, they tried to reduce the cost by having out of city railway stations, but this is also problematic as it reduces some of the speed advantages for business use.

    In short, even with the best will in the world, there isn’t a hope in hell of getting a ride on an HSR line in the US before 2030. Once someone points this out to Trump he’ll lose interest.

    1. Clive

      Yes and yes and yes again. That sums up a lot of the inconsistencies in trying to adopt Shinkansen solutions to the US geography. Ultra High Speed train is a good approach where you have a lot of large but evenly distributed population centres. But you would no way consider taking a Shinkansen between, say, NYC and San Francisco. Or even NYC and Chicago. It might just about make sense between NYC and Miami but probably not necessarily between Washington and Miami. There aren’t enough calling points in between to make the long line length have any sort of business case.

      California is about the only area it makes any sense in. Plus maybe as noted below the Great Lakes conurbations.

      Of course the other explanation is that it is all pure pork barrelling.

      1. Altandmain

        In theory, the Acela if it were replaced by a full high speed line might work, but it would have to be an independent line altogether and the rule about collisions would be waived (since it was its own separate line).

        That would however need huge upgrades to signalling, tunnels, bridges, and perhaps some local speed ordnances, along with noise shelters.

        There were proposals in Texas for a Dallas-Houston line. Not sure how that ended though.

      2. Enquiring Mind

        California’s potential HSR is burdened by the efforts of the Senate and Assembly geniuses in Sacramento. They imposed intermediate stops in their districts in exchange for votes, and started building the train to nowhere in the middle, guaranteeing bad optics to supplement the sketchy economics. The project has some gigantic difficulties including how to get from the flat central valley over or through the mountains (and those earthquake faults) to Los Angeles.

        As a California taxpayer, I see boondoggles, graft, corruption and all-around incompetence, so business as usual here. What looked good in theory is turning out to be horrendously expensive in practice. I doubt that such a train will be completed in my lifetime.

        1. Anonymous

          California Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband, Blum, is connected to the disastrous California HSR.

          Blum also has connections to a contractor, Tutor-Perini, who does work for the HSR, LAX runway projects, and the Los Angeles Metro Rail project. All of the projects have had major issues and possible fraud.

          The California HSR is a massively expensive and destructive project that will not help any California residents but will destroy communities, waste yet more billions of taxpayer money (on top of the billions already spent on the project), etc.

          1. Enquiring Mind

            Blum also has his fingerprints all over the looting of post office branch real estate through his CB Richard Ellis investment.

            Thanks for serving the public, Diane.

          2. jrs

            Oh there are all kinds of suspicious looking things going on with the L.A. metro, but whatever graft there is there, at least for that shrinkage (skimming x% of the top or whatever other games they are playing, all kinds of empty suspicious metro buildings all over town) they actually DO produce some functioning local rail and subways and etc. that millions of daily commuters make use of, which is a lot more than can be said for the HSR project. It’s like the unsavory mobsters that actually do perform a useful service at least as opposed to just having your money stolen.

        2. michael

          Well said. However do not worry because Trump will not be pouring any more money into the California “hole.” Even Obama refused to give them any more money.

        3. Synoia

          The CA High speed rail first leg should be LA- Vegas. I-15 is parking lot at weekends.
          Second leg from that route down to San Diego.
          Third leg up to the Bay area.
          Fourth Leg Up and Down the I-15, San Diego to Canada.
          Fifth Leg parallel to I-70.

          One the east coast, Parallel with I-95.

          Then mirror the interstate highway system.

          The right of way is exists.

          The stupidity in CA was not following the I-5 right of way, and put the train in the middle, partly elevated, of the highway.

        4. jrs

          Not just bad optics, if the whole thing is canceled after you have built a line from say L.A. to San Diego, not a great use of money, and not really needed, but at least you have a small functioning piece of infrastructure that many people will take for all our billions spent, Bakersfield to Barstow, is more like a ghost town, yea people live there, but not huge population centers. And the distances on Northern CA hardly justify a partially built high speed at all (San Fran to San Jose say) but at least there is population there as well, middle of nowhere is just most ridiculous. Voted against it all when it was first voted on.

          “The project has some gigantic difficulties including how to get from the flat central valley over or through the mountains (and those earthquake faults) to Los Angeles. ”

          maybe that’s why the snail rail goes along the coast in much of the state and pulls inland in parts of it.

      3. Mel

        How about William Gibson’s “The Sprawl”, which seems to run Boston – New York – Philadelphia – Baltimore – Washington ? (Or is that what’s already called Acela?)

      4. L

        I disagree about California being the only place that it could work. If you look at the Obama administration’s plans for high-speed rail they identified several areas where it could be made viable. Among them lines from Wisconsin to Chicago and from there through Pittsburgh to the east coast. And others from Atlanta up to DC. These are areas where there is already enough travel that high speed rail would see use and they have the track and right of way already available.

        The Republicans fought it tooth and nail of course. Wisconsin’s governor even killed their involvement despite the fact that they were also going to be home to new plants which would manufacture the cars.

        Maglev would probably be undoable even in the near term but high speed rail could be quite attractive if we actually get investment rather than this political jerking around.

        1. Code Name D

          Concure. The area that would best beniifit high speed or even conentional pasnger rail would be fly over teritory. You know, places where you have to drive 300 miles just to GET to the airport.

          The problem is that the airline system only serves the mega cities. Places such as Wichita only has an anir-line if the city ponyes up masive subisides for air fairs. Citys smaller than Wichita, such as Huchenson, are simply locked out of the system all together.

          This is another example where high-speed works everwhere eles – but dosn’t work in the US because of – reasons.

    2. Uahsenaa

      Two Points, the first of which doesn’t really contradict what you say, but for the purposes of comprehensiveness, it’s worth noting. There is a small maglev line near Seto in Aichi-ken. It was built for the World Expo in 2004 (maybe 2005, I don’t remember exactly when…). It is probably the most useless train line in existence.

      Second point, re: getting things up and running, it’s not the insurmountable obstacle you might think. There’s already a massive Nippon Sharyo plant in northern Illinois, near Rochelle, that seems to grow in size every year. It’s perfectly situated to deliver cars either East or West, though at the moment mostly supplies to the CTA in Chicago and Amtrak. Lines running from Detroit to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis/New Orleans, etc. are already in heavy use, so upgrading that would be a substantial improvement. You could also modernize many of the existing but unused lines that run throughout the Midwest. There are also light rail projects throughout the middle of the country that never get off the ground for lack of funding, though the tracks and many of the stations are already there.

      tl;dr – industrial output is already there; lines already exist but are unused

      1. Clive

        Don’t know if you’d agree with me too that, amongst the “regular” Shinkansen lines, there are some spectacularly absurd wastes of money. The extension of Tohoku Shinkansen from Hachinohe to Shin Aomori is my favourite ever white elephant (after maybe the Seto maglev, which I wasn’t aware of until I just read it above).

        The only thing that makes me think that all sanity hasn’t been lost is that the Shikoku Shinkansen keeps getting kicked into the long grass. That would be like shinkansen-ising Montana.

        1. Uahsenaa

          Oh, absolutely. I think people get a little too starry-eyed, when they think about bullet trains, when, for anything but long distances, it’s a terrible idea. The Tokaido-sanyo is a good line, though, cuts across the country from Tokyo to Hiroshima with stops in major cities.

          But I think what should be under discussion is the range of “limited express” (特別急行) trains Japan makes use of that run at speeds between 60-80 MPH and run on conventional tracks. This would work better for more closely connected cities, say, in the east. It might also be worthwhile for connecting cities in the middle of the country, where cars are currently king.

          That said, you could not easily but doably shinkansen-ize the major cities of the plains and Midwest and even the South, where the land is much more open and a high speed line would provide substantial benefits over cars (faster, less tedious) and planes (hassle). You could even do it piecemeal between major cities: Detroit to Chicago, Indianapolis to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis, St. Louis to Kansas City, Des Moines to Minneapolis, etc. In fact, a Nozomi-like line that ran from Chicago to Bloomington-Normal to Springfield to St. Louis would see quite a bit of passenger traffic. That’s roughly equivalent in terms of stops and distances to what you see on the Tokaido-sanyo.

          Last point, which I forgot to note above, is that the history of infrastructure in the US, particularly rail, has been that the towns/commerce grow up around the lines, not the other way around. Worth considering, especially for hard hit rust belt states that could use a newly invigorated economy.

        2. susan the other

          Speaking of shinkansenizing Montana, Clive: We might want to make maglev just one aspect of doing a useful rail system. Montana has a population along the mountain corridor that could use a puddle jumper or two. The entire west could use a few. Just because a train doesn’t do maglev doesn’t mean we don’t need it! I’d like to see whistle-stops again. There were so many unprofitable trains in the 30s and 40s that they went out of business. It was the end of the RR boom which was spread too thin to make a big profit. So now we have a lot more hindsight. And we are faced with climate change. It could be that doing trains is more destructive to the climate than driving electric, or combustion engine cars – or maybe not. If that question is discussed it could turn out that trains, which have a longevity far beyond the life of an automobile, might be beneficial. I’d like to see some actual analysis on this. And in that analysis I think we gotta consider a few more north-south trains because seasonal migration might be a useful thing in future too. Etc.

          1. Clive

            That is a very valid set of points because it all comes down to construction costs and construction impacts set against the life expectancy of the assets and their maintenance overheads with, finally, the remaining side of the triangle which is passenger loading. Alter and one and the others get altered too in terms of what is or isn’t a viable thing to do.

            And I didn’t mean to do a downer on Montana ! Situations change and climate effects may cause a whole lot of population shifting.

            1. susan the other

              just for the record, I’m not a Montanan, (tho’ I wish I were); I’m a Utahn which is a close second. The American west really gets in your blood. I kinda love Montana. It’s way beautiful. And the argument holds for all of us out here and elsewhere in the sticks. Now, it’s always the greater argument about energy and efficiency… etc.

            2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

              Lots of good economic justification arguments above…but even muddling through with un-economic projects here in the U.S. would be a big plus. For the past decades we paid a cool billion $ for a single building in Kabul that will never open (the new embassy) and paid tens of billions to rebuild bridges and water treatment plants we had paid tens of billions to smash into bits. An overpriced boondoggle between LA and Vegas would be a great deal by comparison, America is rolling up it’s sleeves at home again, Rosie the Riveter, etc.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            Unfortunately I think the economics just don’t stack up for places like Montana. Railways are expensive to build and expensive to maintain. Countries where they still have very good rail links to small towns and villages mostly do so through big subsidies (Japan) or because the overall network is very dense so you can get to many places easily (Switzerland). Bear in mind of course that some parts of Montana aren’t even on the electricity grid (I cycled through the State a few years ago, I was amazed to discover that).

            In Ireland and the UK and elsewhere, the main use for lots of old railway lines now are as cycle routes. They are pretty good for them, but it is sad to see how many are abandoned. Just last week I was walking along the route of one in Ireland – it cost a whopping £8000 a mile to build in the 1860’s, and was shut in 1962. Large sections of embankment had simply been carted away for construction aggregate. I found one old bridge over a road left standing, with nothing on either side, as if it was a triumphal arch for the 2 houses served by the road.

      2. lyman alpha blob

        “It is probably the most useless train line in existence.”

        I don’t know – I think the monorail in Seattle is a competitor for that distinction. It goes from downtown to Queen Anne which is a very short distance – unless the train comes as soon as you step on the platform you could basically walk there quicker.

        Like the one you describe, it was built for the World’s Fair in the 60s as something to expect on a larger scale in the future, but 50 some odd years later it’s still all there is – this despite taxpayers voting for a monorail expansion back in the 90s or early aughts. The thought was this would ease congestion as passengers would be riding above the streets rather than through them. It was going to be expensive but not drastically more expensive than light rail was projected to be IIRC and not nearly as disruptive as trying to build new lines through the city. The PTB in Seattle decided voters didn’t know what they were talking about, ignored the vote and build some sports stadiums that voters had rejected instead.

        Left Seattle soon afterwards, right before the PTB decided to start tearing the city apart to build a light rail system which some of the big money people favored over a monorail. Anyone still in the area know how that’s worked out?

        While I’d love to see a high speed rail system in the US, it’s difficult to believe that it’s politically feasible based on what I saw happen in Seattle. Lots of rice bowls in a project like that.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I wonder if Amazon drones can double as taxis, speaking of commuting above the streets, by combing with Uber dispatch algorithm.

        2. Code Name D

          It’s still a lot cheeper than paved road way. Hell, had a coversation with an civic engenere who told me that could make that monorail gold plated and still be cheaper than adding a lane on the freeway.

    3. NotTimothyGeithner

      The only practical routes were intercity routes between a few Western cities. Too many stops, not enough room for high speed lines (whether it’s people’s homes, businesses, or utilities, there is no way to plop down sensible high speed lines on existing easements) and misplaced economic opportunities are the problems for much of the Midwest and Eastern seaboard. Easing suburban to urban congestion is more pressing than helping gamblers get to Vegas.

    4. Eclair

      “Punching directly across country is always difficult …”

      With certain exceptions, pipeline corporations seem to have no trouble doing this.

    5. Synoia

      MagLev goes fast, because it is frictionless. Stopping? Requires friction – how does that work with MagLev?

      1. Gaylord

        Reverse polarity of the linear induction motors, no friction needed until final stop. (If I remember correctly from Stanford Research Institute seminar I attended ~40 years ago. SRI did the pioneering research.)

  2. The Trumpening

    As a former Californian who has spent half his life taking high speed train in Europe I really don’t see a SF-LA TGV line as the place to start. And of course politically this does not work at all for Trump’s 2020 reelection priorities.

    Where there could be TGV lines in the US is what could be called “The Swing State Express” which would connect major cities in the upper mid-west / Great Lakes region. Chicago would have to be the hub (which is perhaps why Trump is pushing so hard to cut the murder rate there) but cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Kentucky could all be connected by TGV lines. Eventually these lines could connect into NYC, Boston, and Washington DC as well.

    With all of California’s environmental laws it is unlikely much more ground will be broken on a TGV line there any time soon. But in the pragmatic Great Lakes region, Trump could see some economic impact in time for the 2020 election especially if upgrades are concentrated along existing rail lines.

    1. jrs

      I don’t think the California line has problems because of environmental regs but because of the NIMBY crowd, and other than building useless lines in Bakersfield it’s all dense population, but yea let’s throw out environmental regs … sounds like a plan.

      1. The Trumpening

        I’m not actually advocating throwing out environmental regs; only pointing out the reality that the path of least resistance will be chosen for infrastructure spending by Trump. And the NIMBY groups will often use environmental issues as a way to keep things out of their backywards.

        In fact the ongoing Oroville Dam drama is making some environmental groups look really smart right now since back in 2005 they warned about the possibility of the current problems arising:


    2. Left in Wisconsin

      Where there could be TGV lines in the US is what could be called “The Swing State Express” which would connect major cities in the upper mid-west / Great Lakes region. Chicago would have to be the hub (which is perhaps why Trump is pushing so hard to cut the murder rate there) but cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Kentucky could all be connected by TGV lines. Eventually these lines could connect into NYC, Boston, and Washington DC as well.

      Just to recall, before Scott Walker made his mark by gutting the public sector in Wisconsin, his first act as governor-elect was to turn back $850 million in stimulus money that would have improved and extended medium-speed rail from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison with longer-term objective of connecting with regular service to Twin Cities, on the specious grounds that the operating subsidies would cost the state a couple million a year (which was probably overstated). Because contracts had already been signed with Talco to manufacture trains in Milwaukee, and work had already begun, the state also ended up paying out the better part of $100 million in penalties.

      I would so love Trump to push for improved rail in the Midwest, if only to see how the R politicians around here would squirm. They are “all highway, all the time.” By far the biggest political story in WI right now is that the highway building fund is broke, Walker refuses to raise taxes, and the state’s roads are turning to shite.

  3. kimyo

    it is possible that high speed rail will benefit society. it is also possible that such an effort will make things worse, as in europe, where the ‘commoners’ can no longer afford to travel by rail, resulting in a increase in travel by air.

    High Speed Trains are Killing the European Railway Network

    High speed rail is marketed as a sustainable alternative to air traffic. According to the International Union of Railways, the high speed train “plays a key role in a stage of sustainable development and combating climate change”. As a regular long-distance train traveller in Europe, I have to say that the opposite is true. High speed rail is destroying the most valuable alternative to the airplane; the “low speed” rail network that has been in service for decades.

    The introduction of a high speed train connection invariably accompanies the elimination of a slightly slower, but much more affordable, alternative route, forcing passengers to use the new and more expensive product, or abandon the train altogether. As a result, business people switch from full-service planes to high speed trains, while the majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes.

    1. jrs

      I’d favor improving slow speed rail as a priority as well (very obvious improvements like making dual tracks in places that have single tracks etc.), but it’s not sexy enough of fast enough in a place where speed is everything, is probably the sad truth. Plus we don’t have a tradition of valuing rail in this country like they do in Europe (Amtrak has cut back it’s routes a lot over the decades – though I kind of like Amtrak, there’s the reason it’s not great, it’s been underfunded).

      I’d also favor public transit improvements in existing urban areas (any town big enough for it to make sense). Most travel people do isn’t actually long distance, it’s the daily commute. So light rail and more frequent bus schedules are more relevant to people’s day to day lives.

      1. Katharine

        I agree with everything you said there, especially the last part. I am continually irritated by the talk about the “need” for high(er)-speed transportation between Baltimore and Washington when it already takes less time to get to DC than to get across town on the MTA. It’s a ridiculous misallocation of funding. The people who want to plan in that way are not making a good-faith effort to promote the general welfare.

    2. jrs

      ” This explains why installing 10,000 km of high speed train lines did not stop the growth of passenger air traffic in Europe. From 1993 to 2009, air traffic in Europe grew by an average of 3-5% per year. It is estimated to grow by another 50% from 2012 to 2030″

      wow. ok someone could argue it would have grown even more, and without prior timelines who is to say, but clearly high speed rail has not solved the problem of air travel and it’s carbon impact.

      and I’m not sure high-speed rail to connect large urban areas that are not too far apart doesn’t actually have serious downsides, in terms of housing market distortions etc..

      Sometimes improved infrastructure convinces people to live further and further from work, so this creates long commutes when everyone flees the cities for the suburbs as they did historically (though that trend is kind of reversing). But imagine that on a much larger scale. Can you imagine if people decided living in L.A. and working in San Francisco or something actually made sense? How about living in Bakersfield (cheap housing!) and working in San Francisco? Madness that way lies. Imagine the same thing for a big city near you.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      The problem with that analysis in the link is that it ignores capacity constraints. Quite simply, new high speed railway lines free up capacity on existing lines for more slow services and more goods transportation. High speed city to city services are almost always a service to the wealthy, but if it is planned correctly the older lines can then become more efficient for providing local services and cheaper services for everyone. This has certainly been the experience in Japan and Korea and to a lesser extent in Spain and France.

      That article blames high speed rail for lots of issues and problems which in reality occurred independently. Conventional railway trips have been squeezed by three competitors – cars (on heavily subsidised and constantly improving roads), cheap bus services using improved road connections, and discount air fares, especially using secondary airports. To blame the loss of many local routes and night services on competition from high speed rail is to confuse cause and effect.

      Obviously, every situation is different – even within Europe there are huge differences in the historic development of the railway system meaning the justification for high speed rail varies from country to country and region to region. In Spain and France, the justification was primarily political – to knit the countries together to overcome the regional bias of existing lines (most railways were built by regionally based companies – in Spain they couldn’t even agree on a common guage).

      I’m personally sceptical of HSR in the US, except for certain very specific corridors in the Great Lakes and perhaps connecting New York to Boston and (maybe) Washington. It may also be possible to make viable HSR connections in Texas due to the terrain making it comparitively cheap. But to argue that you shouldn’t build them because they will impact existing railways is to get the argument completely around the wrong way.

      1. Carolinian

        Thanks for your informative comments on this topic! Personally I would say that the bulk of Americans will never take up rail travel again until forced to by government policies or very high fuel prices. Places like Europe and Japan with their high population density are completely different on a practical basis, even while their once socialist governments become more like our own. Trump is undoubtedly shooting the breeze on this, as he typically does.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Its certainly true i think that there would be a big problem persuading people to shift from car to trains, but maybe less to shift from aircraft to trains. But as you say, so much of the US is just too low density to support HSR. However, there are still a number of cities and corridors where I think it could work, but a lot depends on the topography – building a line through hills or coastal terrain is vastly more expensive than across a flat plain. Thats why paradoxically Texas might be more suitable than the east coast – it would simply be a lot cheaper to build a line.

          1. jonboinAR

            More travelers might be willing, I imagine, to choose at least fairly fast rail between cities over autos if the public transportation within the cities were decent. IOW, when you take the train from Dallas to Houston, or Chicago to Milwawkee (sp?), what do you do once you arrive? It seems like public transportation needs to be built up on several scales together to be effective. Maybe it would be efficient to (more or less) feature trains between cities, buses within them.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              Getting from the station to your destination is the key point. This is why high speed rail usually only makes sense with a destination node in the centre of a city with a good existing public transport system so it has a very large catchment within, say, half an hour of that station. So it would work fine for New York or Chicago, but there would be problems in California, just not enough people within the travel catchment. A lot depends on the alternatives of course – many city airports are very poorly connected too. Every city really is unique in this regard, which is why there are few general rules you can apply to HSR.

      2. upstater

        Pluto, your comments are correct regarding European or Japanese railroads where HSR squeezes or supplants existing lines. But in the US there is very little high-frequency passenger service that would remove passengers from existing lines to HSR. Only a few places like Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose (average sped 40 MPH), Santa Barbara-LA-San Diego, or a couple of lines out of Chicago meet this criteria.

        Most other places passenger trains are once or twice a day and they get hammered by freight train interference, and run late. In the US freight trains are 2 miles long and weigh 15,000 tons and plod along at an average speed of 25-30 MPH. Trying to run 60 MPH passenger trains around such slugs doesn’t work. The railroads are privately owned and even though they are supposed to give priority to Amtrak passenger trains by law, the dispatchers often screw the passenger trains. In Canada it is even worse.

        Regarding California, I would expect that by going through the Central Valley, one might see those dismal cities become more attractive for back-office operations where labor and rents re so much cheaper than the coast. This is how HSR is changing China. Anybody that drives from LA of the Bay Area to the Central Valley knows it isn’t a picnic; there are huge disincentives to travel to those areas by air or automobile.

        Population density in many areas of the US support HSR. The privately funded Texas project has acquired rights for 30% of the Right of Way; freight train density precludes medium speed services in Texas. Terminals will be on the periphery, like airports. Same is the with the Bright Line medium speed service which will terminate by the Orlando airport.

        1. jrs

          “The railroads are privately owned and even though they are supposed to give priority to Amtrak passenger trains by law, the dispatchers often screw the passenger trains. In Canada it is even worse.”

          You are wrong on this, they are supposed to give priority to freight by law, maybe it differs a little regionally but generally freight has the right of way. You have the wrong country, here in the good old U.S.A. we put profits before people.

          1. upstater

            No, you’re wrong. It was written into the law creating Amtrak in 1970. There have been proposals to eliminate this, but it failed, most recently last July:

            Feds drop proposal to prioritize freight trains over Amtrak

            While Amtrak has the law on its side, it has seldom used this power against freight railroads. The threat of using it has forced some to change practices. Most recently Canadian National on its line from Chicago to New Orleans.

            Canada is far worse in this regard.

    4. oh

      If you consider the time it takes to get to the airport, go through (in)security, fight air traffic delays, fly to the other end and reach your destination, high speed rail would be a bargain. Note that SCNF in France routinely runs specials that are quite low priced and compete with the “low” cost nickel and diming airlines like Ryan Air who con you into checking your luggage not to mention the cost of a reserved seat, beverage and such.

      (sarc ->BTW, I’m still wowed by the high speed trains that Lord Obama promised and built for us in CA and the Midwest. These high speed marvels are run so well>)

    5. Irrational

      Hear, hear!
      The Luxembourg-Zurich line is fully crapified since we got the TGV in April: down from 3 to 1 direct cinnections a day and slow connections take 6-7 hours instead of 5. Also impossible to do Luxembourg-Basel or vice versa daytrip. I haven’t even looked at the prices.
      Alternative? Car to Basel, fly to Zurich. Unfortunately, there is only one airline, so prices are exorbitant. Yes, high speed trains are great – in some places.

    6. Altandmain

      I wonder if the costs of high speed rail could be brought down. Take a look at France’s OuiGo for an example.

      Even if the top high speed rail >300 km/h could not be brought down, the 200-300 km/h trains could be brought to an affordable level.

  4. BeliTsari

    I’d invested in the ancient Indian-owned rail mill next door, since the Russian-owned one’s privately owned. Rail cars for coal, dilbit & other lethal chemicals seemed higher priority? Folks like Trump’s dad desperately fought rail, when GG-1s pulled ALL Americans up & down the corridor at 110 mph. So yeah, rebar, rails, concrete (all the taxpayer funded stuff white-flight required of the Eisenhower administration, that threw climate change into overdrive), but aside from a few show projects, to schlep our overlords’ help across the Hudson, I’m personally betting more on 19 large diameter pipelines (taking fracked gas, to power ‘bagger air-conditioners & the LNG export terminals), than revitalization of commuter rail. Amtrak will be parted-out, privatized… and it won’t work?

  5. mpalomar

    Thanks for the linked article and the excellent comments. I’ve often wondered about the misplaced societal transportation priorities in the US while making the nightmarish car trip on I-95 or chugging along on unreliable Amtrak. Misplaced priorities that allow for the unaccounted externalities the air and auto industry benefit from (to the detriment of the environment and inexpensive, fast, efficient transportation for everyone) along with the huge subsidies they enjoy coupled with passenger rail’s handicap of having to pay for access to the rails the freight companies own.


    If policy makers were serious about the environmental crisis and operating in an ideal political world (of course they’re not) where decisions were based on societal needs rather than benefits for the 1% I suspect we could have a high speed rail service running down the middle of I-95 along much of the eastern seaboard and elsewhere. I may well be wrong but the right of ways and the straight run problems would largely disappear if rail access to the interstate system were somehow opened up .

  6. Robert Dannin

    passenger rail service has never been profitable anywhere. historically, railroads have been state-subsidized undertakings to further the ends of commerce and political authority. the real question here is whether railroads are still relevant to either of these objectives. probably not.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Besides the environmental impact and the relative costs versus highways. When you use a highway, you also own and operate a motor vehicle which is its own form of subsidy. The highways are highly subsidized. We just call it something else.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Besides the environmental impact and the relative costs versus highways. When you use a highway, you also own and operate a motor vehicle which is its own form of subsidy. The highways are highly subsidized. We just call it something else.

      1. oh

        So true! I don’t see why people worry about railroads for passengers should operate at a profit. It’s a small benefit to people. Why do we always subsidize (give away money) to private corporations. What a free market it is!

  7. oho

    The Japanese investors (or algos) are high.

    If you look at it practically–pretty much everywhere in America, the best bang for the dollar/CO2 emissions/traffic is in local mass transit.

    But a network of commuter buses and suburban park ‘n ride lots doesn’t deliver much in the way of $$$$ or photo ops.

    1. oho

      if anything more $$$ should be spent on increasing capacity/speed on boring freight lines to make more freight move via rail and not the highways.

      but again not many photo ops and passenger rail advocates (ie the Left) will scream bloodly murder if the freight rails get a benefit from spending.

      1. jrs

        “if anything more $$$ should be spent on increasing capacity/speed on boring freight lines to make more freight move via rail and not the highways.”

        yes! this reduces CO2 seriously.

        “but again not many photo ops and passenger rail advocates (ie the Left) will scream bloodly murder if the freight rails get a benefit from spending.”

        you probably have the wrong party that will scream bloody murder, it will be truck drivers. If the need to sacrifice passenger rail for freight was actually justified by those reasons a lot of people might understand it. Just not those losing their jobs obviously.

        But freight makes sense, of course in an ideal world we could have both freight and passenger rail … just lay off the expensive boondoogles like much HSR has become but no …

    2. funemployed

      +1000 Buses are (usually) best. They aren’t just the most economical and environmentally friendly option in most places, they’re flexible. People’s transportation patterns change, railways don’t. You can also always find ways to make a well run and funded bus system more efficient and environmentally friendly, but once you build a train system, you’re stuck with it for decades, then have to dump another massive pile of cash on it when time inevitably turns it to shit. With buses all you need to do to retain a modern fleet is adequately invest a predictable annual amount and cycle out old technology as it ceases to be cost-effective.


    Assuming this is something serious and not just another case of Trump’s ADD talking out loud again, what kind of reaction/support would a major re-investment in high-speed rail get from Republicans in Congress? Something like this couldn’t be Executive Ordered into existence, the funding would need to go through the House and Senate. Do the movement conservatives & Tax Club for Growth crowd override Republicans’ tendency to obey orders from the top, and maintain the austerity regime? Do they sign on begrudgingly? Or will enough of them realize that America has regained its appetite for building big (some may even say yyyyyuge) projects again?

    1. funemployed

      I was wondering this too. I also wonder how Democrats will react. Will they jump on board with something they’ve been talking about forever but never really meant? If most do, he could probably turn enough Republicans with good old fashioned pork and primary threats. Or will the dems #resistance cause he’s an orange pussy grabber. Any thoughts? I’m currently leaning toward the latter, sadly.

  9. Dead Dog

    HSR is an aspirational project that is just the kind of infrastructure the US needs.

    There are huge obstacles, but the Donald just might be the man to make it happen.

    HSR has been talked about in Australia for decades (1980s was the first report, IIRC. The route most cited is Sydney Canberra Melbourne. Every four or five years, a new report comes out. But when the costs and economics are looked at, it has never stacked up. I suspect the US, with its large land mass and relative population density will pose similar issues for the US

  10. David B. Harrison

    Here’s an interesting fact: gas and diesel taxes do not cover the cost of building and maintaining the highways.The general funds of state governments make up the difference.Taxpayers are conned into believing that our transportation system came about as the result of the “free market”.In fact subsidies have been used to prop up and enrich the automobile and trucking industry as well as the airline industry.I have witnessed several bailouts for transportation based companies also.So most everyone commenting here are forgetting taxpayer funded protections for the transportation industry.

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Real estate developers, construction firms and other interests beyond transport also benefit from this system, including many of the largest corporations in the land.

      WRT to the subject of this article, noticed the Dow US Railroad index is up 54 percent over the past year, despite weak rail traffic according to the American Association of Railroads. So I am wondering to what extent the developments that Wolf Richter mentioned in his post are already baked into the “neoliberal markets” cake?

      Good to see infrastructure improvements on the policy table, though.

  11. Dave

    High speed rail? I’d be content withe what we had in the old Interstate Commerce Commission regulated days of the 1950s. You could take the Coast Daylight from S.F. to L.A. in a delightful day, with Southern Pacific offering great service, great food and reliability.

    Remember, the railroads got their land as a gift from the American public. In exchange for that, we got decent rail transportation along the profit making freight lines.

    1. jrs

      Yea slow speed rail does not have to suck as bad as it does, and even then it’s tolerable, but leaves much to be desired, but you can’t explain that to anyone off chasing the “new and improved!”

  12. oliverks

    This almost seems like Warren Buffet had inside knowledge on how the airline CEOs were going to be treated at the meeting. I believe he has being buying airline stocks since Trumps victory.

  13. Parker Dooley

    The “National Defense, Deportation-Facilitating and Job Creating High Speed Rail System.” We need it NOW before the train gap with the Chinese gets too large to close. And before Putin starts working on it! It’s Yuuge, Beautiful and 100% a Total Winnah! /s

    By the way, Japan Rail had a 350 mph maglev running passengers on a test track during the 2005 Aichi Exposition, and were talking about adapting it as a railgun for satellite launches.

  14. Katy

    This throwaway line is the most concerning/disappointing/unsurprising to me: “I don’t want to compete with your business.” As a businessman, Trump clearly knows that competition is bad for business. He already threw away his campaign promise to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. Expect him to be soft on antitrust laws.

  15. Gaylord

    “Habitat” not “infrastructure” is the priority because we are now into runaway global heating. We need to change our thinking entirely — nearly everyone erroneously assumes a stable climate. Apart from relocation of coastal populations (a massive if not impossible undertaking), foremost is food production which will require drastic reconfiguration to local production and distribution.

  16. heresy101

    Governor Moonbeam’s high speed rail to nowhere will never be built.

    President Trump’s call for “high speed rail” of “fast” 19th century technology is likely to come in second.

    Testing for Las Vegas’ hyperloop is beginning and building a hyperloop from Los Angeles will be much easier and less costly than high speed rail:



  17. VietnamVet

    Maglev and Monorail never took off because of the extreme costs and inflexibility of dedicated structures from station to station. California HSR will have direct access into San Francisco once the existing rail lines are electrified. This cuts costs and alleviates the much of the NIMBY uproar. The problem with road and air transportation is that it is fossil fuel powered. Already resource limitations are forcing the working poor into the far suburbs. Electrified rail can be powered by renewables. Globalist capital is flowing into gentrified high rises. Connecting cosmopolitan central cores by rail is the future. Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles both have basic safety questions that can only be ignored in the oligarch’s night dream of a deregulated liberal world without government and little people.

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