High-Speeding into the Future

Despite Obama's pledge, America is on the slow train to high-speed rail

The sleek new high speed rail platform in Beijing’s South Railway Station.
(United States Army Band)
The sleek new high speed rail platform in Beijing’s South Railway Station. (United States Army Band)

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In his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama delivered an impressive salvo to our overseas peers:

There is no reason that Europe or China should have the fastest trains.

And with that, he seemed to have kick-started America into the race to develop the high-speed rail systems of the future. Except that in Europe and China, the future is already here.

While Obama’s promise of $8 billion of federal spending on high-speed rail is nothing to scoff at, it really will only buy us the blueprints—not the trains and tracks themselves. Anyone who has been across the pond knows that Europeans already enjoy a highly-developed high-speed rail system. But with little fanfare, China has also begun building a vast network of high-speed rail, and is showing no signs of slowing down.

As CNN reported recently, China just unveiled the world’s fastest long-distance passenger train service, connecting the booming cities of Wuhan and Guangzhou (that’s roughly the distance from Portland to San Francisco). Racing at 350 km per hour, the new train service cuts the travel time from 11 hours to a record-breaking 3 hours.

The Wuhan-Guangzhou line is just part of China’s gigantic network of 6,003 km of high speed rail, which the government intends to double by 2012 to 13,000 km. China already has more miles of high-speed rail than all of Europe combined. In 2012, if all goes according to plan, China will have more high speed rail than the entire world combined.

As a recent editorial in the Christian Science Monitor quipped, we’re gonna need a whole lot more than $8 billion if we want to win the high-speed race with Europe and China.

Ray is the VP of Communications and Marketing at Earthjustice. He is based in San Francisco.