Amtrak's High-Speed Rail Plan: Can't We Do Better?

train amtrakOn Tuesday, after years of furious debate, Amtrak finally announced plans to build a high-speed railway from Boston to Washington, D.C.

The proposed line will make it possible to travel from Beantown to the Big Apple in 86 minutes and from New York to the nation's capital in just over an hour and a half. It will link the East Coast with a futuristic, 220-mile per hour bullet train, employ thousands of people, and generate an estimated $900 million per year.

Unfortunately, it will also take a generation to build. The proposal estimates that construction will take 25 years and will be finished by 2040, at a cost of $117 billion.

For rail enthusiasts, it is easy to make unflattering comparisons between America's poky rail system and that of almost every other technologically-advanced, industrialized country. But in some ways, this proposed line makes the U.S. look even worse. It's not just China and Germany that are doing better with high-tech rail infrastructure -- and the jobs and higher economic activity that go along with it. The proposed East Coast rail line is put to shame by the efforts of earlier and less-advanced governments, from Teddy Roosevelt's administration to the rule of Tsar Alexander III of Russia.

Here are a few infrastructure projects that show more national ambition and moxy -- and took much less time to accomplish:

The Panama Canal

panama canalBetween 1904 and 1914, U.S. engineers oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal. While the 48-mile long trench is just over one-tenth the distance of the proposed Washington-Boston train line, the canal runs through some of the most treacherous, disease-ridden land in the Western hemisphere. The amount of work involved is astounding: Construction on the canal consumed an estimated 12 million pounds of dynamite per year and displaced enough dirt to build a pyramid over three-quarters of a mile high. In addition to spending millions of dollars and hiring thousands of workers, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt also had to create a new country: Faced with slow-moving, bureaucratic Colombian negotiators, he supported a Panamanian independence movement which supported the new canal. Even with all this, the Panama canal took only 10 years to build -- a third of the time that it will take the U.S. to connect Boston and Washington.

The Chunnel

In 1988, after over 150 years of discussion and debate, the United Kingdom and France began construction on the Chunnel, a 31-mile long undersea tunnel connecting Kent, England to Coquelles, France. Actually consisting of three tunnels, the Chunnel is the longest underwater tunnel in the world, and is 250 feet deep at its lowest point. It is used by both passenger and freight trains, and connects high-speed rail lines in the United Kingdom and France. Finished in six years, construction took only 20% of the time allotted for the Boston-to-DC rail line.

China's Golmud to Lhasa Railroad

train china tibet lhasaChina's controversial railroad from Golmud to Lhasa connects Mongolia to Tibet, effectively drawing in two of the country's more far-flung regions. At 709 miles, the line is 60% longer than Amtrak's proposed route, and was a much tougher build. Unlike the relatively gentle topography of the Northeastern U.S., the Golmud to Lhasa rail covers some of the roughest terrain in the world, including over 340 miles of permafrost. The line runs across Tanggula Pass, the world's highest-altitude rail, and has two of the longest tunnels in the world, as well as 675 bridges. Construction on the line began on June 29, 2001 and finished on Oct. 12, 2005. At four years, three months and fourteen days, it took a little over one ninth the amount of time that Amtrak has allotted for the D.C.-to-Boston route.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad

Connecting Moscow to Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian railway is the world's longest railroad. At 5,753 miles long, it spans seven time zones and is the primary route across much of Russia. While it is more than 13 times as long as the proposed D.C.-to-Boston line, the Trans-Siberian rail took 22 years to build -- eight years less than Amtrak has proposed for its route.

The Trans-Continental Rail

trans contintental railroadFrom 1863 to 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads built a line from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco, California. The new route, which linked to the East Coast's extensive rail infrastructure, ultimately connected the U.S. from coast to coast. Containing 1,777 miles of track, the transcontinental railroad was funded by 30-year bonds issued by the U.S. government, and was helped along by government land grants. Despite covering over four times the distance of the D.C.-to-Boston line, the line took only six years to build.

The Moon Shot

The race to the moon began on Oct. 17, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, a small satellite, into orbit around the earth. Almost immediately, the U.S. government launched the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA. Dating the race to the moon from Sputnik's launch to the July 20, 1969 -- the day Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon -- it took eleven years, nine months and three days, just over a third of the time that Amtrak has budgeted for the D.C.-to-Boston line. In terms of distance, the trip was roughly 238,857 miles -- or about 540 times the distance between Washington and Boston.

Of course, there are some important differences between Amtrak's project and these other efforts. After all, Chinese planners don't have to worry about civilian land easements. For that matter, neither did the Russian royal family. Yet the bureaucratic hurdles blocking the Panama canal were easily as difficult as those in the way of the proposed East Coast rail line, while the engineering difficulties of the moon shot dwarf any issues that Amtrak's planners are likely to face.

Ultimately, what separates Amtrak's attempt at high speed rail from earlier engineering marvels is a unified, cohesive sense that this project is a priority for the U.S. Unfortunately, amid calls for Amtrak to disband and demands for the privatization of rail travel, national cohesion is one commodity that Amtrak may not be able to rely on.

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Dream on, Amtrak. Why not approach Bill Gates and Warrent Buffet and ask them to finance this big deal? I am sure they would put up the dough in a heart-beat for this "can't miss" proposition. Just think, invest $117 Billion, and if one could earn 10% after tax (not likely), and annual revenues are $900 Million, one would earn back the initial investment in only 1300 years! Oh, you say the Government will put up the money? Now, that is different. Amtrak would not have to worry about ever earning a profit, enjoying never-ending subsidies. Besides, what is another $117 B? Just add it to the National Debt--we can never pay it back anyway. We can just turn the deed over to the Chinese.

October 12 2010 at 10:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Is it possible that the fact that the Boston to DC line runs through some of the highest densly populated areas and also through some of the most expesive real estate in the US could also have something to do with the timeing. Probably the in biggest deterent to speedy construction is availability of funds. Read increase in the gigantic national debt.

October 03 2010 at 7:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Makes sense to me. We're going to spend billions of dollars (that we don't have, of course) to build a rail line to replace rail lines we already have. Oh yeah, the trains will go faster. Oh, but not for 25 years. OK. Not to mention that it will be obsolete in half the time that it takes to build it. Let's all get behind this one.

October 02 2010 at 10:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

AM Track is a joke-Fire everyone making over $150,000. That would be 30% of employees. The managment has NO RR experience! They would not know a scissor switch from a frog. The project will be 5 years late and 2X budget. I know I laid the first rail on BART and DC Metro. Mike Young

October 02 2010 at 2:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Gonna provide a lot of jobs, that's all that counts!!!!!!!!!!! Guess what? you pay taxes and always will....get over it or move!!!!!!!!!!!

October 02 2010 at 1:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The interstate highway system was designed to go over roads with slower moving traffic to avoid accidents. The same approach needs to be taken with high speed rail whereas it flows over the slower rail traffic. In addition, when you consider the time it takes to go to an airport, check in two to three hours before your flight, the flight time, the time it takes to retrieved you luggage at your destination, it is more efficient to use high speed rail for travel that is 300 miles or less.

October 02 2010 at 1:54 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Give trains permission to earn a profit. Put freight on separate tracks so all trains can operate at peak efficient speeds. Foster development around train depots, to spread cost of otherwise expensive train stations.

October 02 2010 at 1:25 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Run your damn trains over the stupid interstates and you have your right of way. People can still drive their dumb cars, doing the speed limit and sitting in traffic in construction zones, while I go flying by overhead having a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper.

October 02 2010 at 12:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This will prove to be a waste of money and effort. A more logical and productive transport system would be like the one presented by the Aqua=Terra ( ET3 ( Additional information may be viewed at and at Thus, Caltrans, and all reading this response, should see the information at the above websites and by their choosing, get involved with this Aqua=Terra / ET3 project before building a meg-lev system that is of past technology, limited in speed, exposed to the elements and thus subject to operating cancellations, not as safe as the proposed airless-tube network and levitating magnetic system as is proposed by the Aqua=Terra / ET3 project and is a better and real job creating opportunity for all. Stations and the tube-link networks need to be built and thus, will need employees for the very long term not only to construct, also to maintain. A true economic recovery and prosperity program!

October 02 2010 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Amtrak and other U.S. rail service providers (state mass transit depts) all suffer from lack of fed policy favoring rail, much less high speed rail. We modernize airports and roads and bridges, but not rail or rail tunnels. Smart growth, reducing pollution, reducing dependence on oil, lower cost of goods transport, all are reasons to favor rail.

October 02 2010 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply