May 7, 2024 - Business

Better trains are coming. Will America get aboard?

Illustration of an American flag with a railroad track being built on one of the stripes with little construction workers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We're entering a boom time for American rail — including bona fide high-speed trains.

Why it matters: Train travel can be faster, more convenient and cleaner than driving or flying.

  • But hurdles — ranging from a lack of investment to geographic and political challenges — have held trains back in the U.S. compared with global peers.

Driving the news: Brightline West, which calls itself the nation's only private intercity train service provider, recently broke ground on a 218-mile route that'll provide high-speed service between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, California (just east of Los Angeles).

  • The company aims to run "zero emission, fully electric trains capable of speeds of 200 miles per hour," with total route times of two hours — about half the driving time.
  • A station at Rancho Cucamonga will let riders transfer to other transit networks that'll bring them to L.A.

State of play: There's already Brightline service in Florida, which, as of last fall, connects Miami and Orlando — with hopes to expand to Tampa.

  • The Florida line isn't high-speed, but it's "pleasant," "comfortable" and "a vastly more relaxing experience" than driving, Axios' Jeff Weiner writes in his Axios Miami review.

Yes, but: While Brightline's ridership is growing, it recently lowered its estimates for passenger growth in the Sunshine State.

  • It's now forecasting 4.9 million riders this year, down from around 7 million, per Bloomberg — which also points out that the Florida service "lost $192 million in the first nine months of 2023."

Meanwhile, tried-and-true Amtrak is hoping to double ridership by 2040 through service improvements, train upgrades, infrastructure projects and more.

  • New "Borealis" service connecting Chicago and the Twin Cities launches this month, marking "the first time in 45 years there will be twice-daily service" on that route, per the Star Tribune.
  • Faster service is also planned for the vital Northeast Corridor, while new trains on this route, called Airo, are also on the way for several lines.
    • Airo trains will offer "modern comfortable seating, spacious restrooms and a contemporary food service experience," Amtrak says.
A rendering of business class aboard Amtrak's Airo trainset.
A rendering of business class aboard Amtrak's modern Airo train. Image courtesy of Amtrak

What they're saying: "There are plans in place with funding to basically replace the Amtrak fleet in the next decade, and that has never happened before," Amtrak president Roger Harris tells Axios.

  • That's a "huge transformational opportunity, especially from a customer experience point of view," he said. "People will have modern trains with modern amenities and comfort."

Amtrak is also taking the reins on a long-envisioned high-speed rail project linking Dallas and Houston, CNBC reports.

  • The project still faces major hurdles but could help connect and support the region's booming population.
  • "This is something that we genuinely believe is a tremendous long-term economic and social opportunity to improve connectivity between these two cities and remove congestion," Harris says.

Meanwhile, in California, a publicly funded project aims to connect Sacramento and San Diego — but it has faced big delays.

  • The proposed California High-Speed Rail is up against serious right-of-way and financial challenges.

Between the lines: Almost all of these projects are getting a huge financial boost from the 2021 infrastructure law.

  • Brightline West got $3 billion in federal funds, though the rest of the project will be privately funded, the company says.
  • It has also received $3.5 billion in Transportation Department bonds.

Reality check: The great rail line of history is littered with ambitious train projects that never saw the light of day, or emerged as a shadow of their proposed selves.

  • Building major new train lines is expensive, time-consuming and arduous — requiring not just big bucks, but buy-in from local communities, lawmakers, etc..
  • Convincing car- and plane-loving Americans to give trains a shot is another problem entirely — though fast, reliable and comfortable intercity service could make its own case, as it seems to be doing in Florida.

The bottom line: All aboard — if all goes well, that is.

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