President Obama once again grasped onto the issue of “high-speed trains” during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, saying he wanted to bring access to high-speed trains to 80% of Americans. “For some trips it will be faster than flying,” Obama said. “As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.”

Except that the proposed routes in California and the Midwest and the rest of the country are not really high-speed trains but are rather Amtrak trains that could reach up to 110 miles per hour at their fastest. High-speed trains in Western Europe must reach a minimum of 125 miles per hour to even be classified as such. China recently had a passenger train hit 302 mph. The federal government’s proposed Cleveland-to-Cincinnati route in Ohio--that the new Republican governor has thankfully promised to cut--would be no faster or cheaper than driving that same route.

The problem is that actual high-speed trains require high-speed tracks, and even Obama is unwilling to push for big new “investment” in new tracks for high-speed rail.

As the Times Union business blog says


Crossing gates, for example, are calibrated for trains traveling at speeds up to 79 mph, the current top limit for passenger trains west of Schenectady on the CSX-owned tracks. Freight trains typically travel at no more than 50 mph, while intermodal trains move at 60 mph. … State and federal officials have sought to introduce 110 mph passenger service on the Empire Corridor across upstate New York, but CSX, citing safety issues, has said it will only permit passenger train speeds up to 90 mph, and that only after publicly funded improvements are made to tracks and signals.

Because the “high-speed” trains will be sharing tracks with freight trains, there is also the issue of traffic disruptions. CSX Transportation estimates that each 110 mph Amtrak train will displace six freight trains.

This comes at a time when rail lines are already struggling to meet freight demand. The Department of Transportation estimates that capacity must rise by 90% to meet demand in 2035. All the while, industry officials fear the increasing specter of regulation, thirty years after the railroads were deregulated in 1981. Since then, productivity has risen by 172% and rates are down by 55%.

The Economist notes that one of the reasons America’s rail lines are moving more freight is because trucking companies have opted more and more to use rail to ship goods long distances rather than increasingly crowded interstate highways. America’s federal Highway Trust Fund is facing budgetary shortfalls, so there isn’t much money to spend there.

Since the government has spent trillions of dollars year after year on expanding entitlements, expanding union benefits, providing “free” healthcare to families 300% over the poverty line, America is running out of money to spend on infrastructure that might set the stage for increased shipping and business travel. Even the federal air traffic control system is stuck in the 1950’s and causing delays and fuel waste. The government is finding now that if it spends profligately on things we don’t need, it won’t have money left for things we do.