Like most train enthusiasts, I’m all for high-speed rail. But there are benefits to taking the slow route.
Everyone had assured me the Nevada desert was the most boring part. Maybe because we happened to be there when the sun was setting, or maybe because my cabin was on the left side of the train, the highway out of sight, I thought it was the most spectacular.
I was heading east on the California Zephyr, an Amtrak train that joins Emeryville, California with Chicago, and all I could see out my window was desert, as vast and inhospitable as it must have looked a hundred and fifty years ago. I had always wanted to take the train through the American West, and a sale on last minute fares meant, for the first time, I could do it. For only slightly more than the cost of an airline ticket, I had purchased an 18-hour trip from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City via private room. By the time the sun was setting, I had about ten hours left in my trip—an hour more than I had been scheduled for, after a delay—but I didn’t care. I could have stayed on for days more and been happy.
Why couldn’t I go everywhere this way?
With climate change forcing some difficult decisions, expanding passenger rail transportation seems like one of the easiest ones we could make. Even at less than full capacity, trains emit far less carbon dioxide per passenger than any form of mechanized mass transit. But when national and regional governments talk of rail travel as a climate solution, the conversation inevitably tilts towards a certain category of rail—not trains like the California Zephyr, which are legacies of an earlier era of intracontinental transport and lurch at 80 or 90 kilometers per hour, but high-speed rail, like we see in Japan, China, and much of Europe. In the last two years, new high-speed trains that can run at speeds at or above 300 KPH have appeared in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Another, connecting Indonesia’s two largest cities, will take its first passengers as soon as next year. The European Union has vowed to triple its high-speed capacity by 2050, and there’s even an ambitious, but struggling, plan to bring actual, Japanese bullet trains to Texas.
Like many (maybe most) rail enthusiasts, I’m all for high-speed rail. But what if we’re missing something by devoting so much attention to this ultra-advanced mode of transport? There are benefits to taking the slow route. When speed is an overriding concern for our mass transit plans, entire towns and regions get left out. We lose more than just scenery, but the people who live outside major cities, or care to visit them. Solving climate change requires building a transit system that serves everyone, and to do that, we’ll need slow trains, too.
If high-speed rail is like a taut rope strung between city centers, slow rail is like a chain with many links that branch out into other chains—an often intricate web that connects entire regions. It’s why, in the heyday of passenger rail, when a train was typically the fastest and often the only way to travel long distances overland, it gave rise to entire corridors of human activity. Italy’s formation as a unified nation state, Canada’s consolidation of British Columbia into its burgeoning union, Russia’s conquest of Siberia, and the United States’ settlement of the American West all depended on railroads. Like any high-speed project today, those railroads were also major infrastructure projects. But the simplicity of their components meant they could meander in places, and be extended and adjoined with shorter lines as needed, like creeks feeding into major rivers, finding people where they were.
Where slow trains are the progeny of a 19th century legacy, high-speed trains are descendents of a completely different mode of transportation. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, passenger jets were just taking off and threatened to dominate long-distance travel all over the world. Fearing the end of long-distance overland travel, Japanese planners wanted to maintain a role for passenger rail, but the only way to do so was to make trains that were just as fast as the emergent passenger network in the sky. The realization led to the development of the world’s first high-speed train network, the Shinkansen. As Bob Gwynne, a curator at the British Railway Museum, explains in a video tour of one early Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen’s designers—many of whom engineered military aircraft during World War II—wanted their trains to look their part as passenger jet competitors by adapting the same aesthetics, like bulbous nose cones and front windows that joined at sharp angles to resemble cockpits.
Even today, high-speed rail enthusiasts still talk about their favorite trains like earthbound passenger jets. It’s a comparison that invokes not just an image of speed, but also a certain kind of passenger—namely, business people who travel frequently and value comfort, but mostly just want to get from the center of one major city to another fast and with space to work on their laptop. For these travelers, high-speed rail is very nearly the perfect mode of long-distance transportation. But reworking the rail network to suit them hasn’t exactly benefited everyone else in the same way.
The reason is cost. High-speed trains à la the Shinkansen or France’s TGV not only cost more to ride, they also cost a lot more to build. Since they can’t run on slow-speed tracks, they need dedicated infrastructure, and that necessitates some enormous capital investments—often with very little return. A 2019 report from the European Court of Auditors found that various EU governments have spent enormous amounts of money on high-speed rail lines for often marginal gains. The Madrid-Galicia route, for instance, opened in 2019 and cost almost €14 million per kilometer to build. Its trains are designed to reach 300 KPH, but its average speed is only about a third that fast. Other routes, still under construction, have come at a higher cost with more questionable benefits. An incomplete Munich-Stuttgart route costs around €40 million per kilometer to save passengers, on average, less than an hour of travel time. These figures don’t even account for the enormous amount of power required to keep high-speed trains rolling. Even the most committed environmentalist can be forgiven at this point for wondering if the costs of tripling the size of the European network, as EU member states plan to do, would not outweigh the benefits—and whether the money might be better spent on some other, slower part of the rail system.
Even as humanity becomes an increasingly urban species, with a greater proportion of people living in cities than ever before, slow rail continues to link small and mid-sized towns to metropolitan centers, distributing the benefits of economic growth across a region. Riding the train across the American West today, one can begin to appreciate the vastness of the region and rail’s essential role in making it a single place. The train crosses farmland, mountains, and desert, with stops in big cities, like Sacramento, and small towns, like Colfax, California (population: 2,000) and Winnemucca, Nevada (7,400)—towns that were founded as railroad stops, and still benefit from Amtrak’s service.
By contrast, the extraordinary cost of high-speed rail means planning any but the most direct route can make a project unviable. In California, the French national railroad operator reportedly walked away from one of the biggest high-speed rail projects in the world partly because the state insisted on running a San Francisco-Los Angeles route inland through the Central Valley, instead of a more direct route closer to the coast. The Central Valley has been neglected from California’s development plans for decades, and the idea was to use high-speed trains to join four of its metro areas with a combined population of 2.5 million people to the rest of the state. Yet what would have made perfect sense for a slow rail project has made California’s high-speed rail plans so expensive, the entire project is now in doubt. The latest figures put the final bill at around $113 billion—more than four times the budget voters had originally approved, a figure likely to rise again before the trains are finally rolling.
By contrast, in 2021, Amtrak released a proposal for a systemwide upgrade. Among other advances, the plan called for new cars and more fuel-efficient locomotives, along with new stations in 160 areas their trains currently do not serve. Upgrading the service would increase revenue and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Amtrak said, and all for the cost of $75 billion over fifteen years. (The US Congress eventually gave Amtrak $66 billion as part of a major infrastructure bill.)
Perhaps it’s time we reconsidered our obsession with high-speed rail entirely. Instead of fixating on speed at the expense of just about everything else, we could demand a system which makes the breadth of its reach and the depth of its connection its leading ambitions. We might even retool our expectations of overland travel itself. When the time of our arrival is no longer the only thing we care about, we can turn our attention to other things—the view, the company, the book in our hands. On a trip like that, you might not think about where you’re going at all, or even care.