How to define “high-speed” rail in the United States

High-speed rail may be expanding in the United States – but it is not be “high-speed” according to European definitions.

Does that make the new trains high speed? It depends on who you ask. According to the European Union’s definition, high speed trains must be able to travel above 124 mph on conventional tracks, and at speeds over 155 mph on tracks specifically upgraded for high-speed rail.

Although the Charger locomotives feature the latest technology, with emission controls and on-board diagnostics, they’re relatively conventional. The “new” trains are based on a popular European design, and top out at 125 mph. That’s as fast as the Metroliner that ran between New York and Washington D.C. in 1969. By that definition, the new Siemens trains don’t qualify as “high speed.”…

“It is also necessary to take into account those railways which are making laudable efforts to provide high speed despite a basis of old infrastructure and technology which is far removed from that employed by the railways of western Europe.”

In other words, because the American passenger rail system is so far behind the rest of the world, any improvement whatsoever could be considered high speed. It’s an important step forward, despite the appearance that the U.S. is rejecting HSR.

Maybe we should add a modifier: these are American high-speed trains, not high-speed trains by global standards. So much for American exceptionalism…

The article goes on to note how high-speed rail isn’t proving too popular to taxpayers in several states where it has been proposed. Proponents say this may not be too much of a problem: once Americans see the capabilities of truly high-speed rail, they would avidly use it. But, this is a difficult chicken and egg problem: people don’t want to devote millions/billions to a new project that may or may not succeed but they can’t truly know the possibilities until one is built. Perhaps everyone would benefit from seeing one really popular, speedy, and consistent spoke of a system (outside of the dense Washington-to-Boston megapolis served by the Acela Express – which can go over 150 mph but averages more like 80 mph) before trying to build numerous links?

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