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The Biden Administration Invests in High-Speed Rail
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The Biden Administration Invests in High-Speed Rail

‘It’s all too easy to be deceived by what we see in other countries.’

Happy Monday! When driving over the river and through the woods this holiday season, we recommend following a few simple rules of the road. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drive through treacherous blizzards. And please don’t crash into the presidential motorcade.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • During fighting in eastern Gaza City on Friday, the Israeli military mistakenly shot and killed three Israeli hostages who had escaped Hamas captivity and were waving a white flag—an episode that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “broke the entire nation’s heart,” though he vowed Israel would continue to fight “until the end, until we dismantle Hamas, until we return all our hostages.” Over the weekend, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Herzi Halevi, accepted responsibility for the incident. “The shooting at the hostages was against the rules of engagement. It is forbidden to shoot at someone who raises a white flag and seeks to surrender,” he said in a statement released Saturday. “However, this shooting was carried out during combat and under pressure.”  On Saturday, Qatari News outlet Al Jazeera claimed one of their cameramen, Samer Abu Daqqa, was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli missile attack, “as Israeli forces prevented ambulances and rescue workers from reaching him, denying the much-needed emergency treatment.” During continued fighting over the weekend, the IDF reported the capture of nearly 90 terrorists at the Kamal Adwan Hospital, in northern Gaza.
  • U.S. and British naval destroyers shot down a combined 15 drones launched by Houthi militants on Saturday, the latest in a series of aggressive maneuvers targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea by the Iranian-backed rebels. On Friday, several shipping fleet operators, including AP Møller-Mærsk and German company Hapag-Lloyd, announced pauses on ship traffic through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. A ship owned by Hapag-Lloyd came under attack Friday.  
  • Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić claimed victory on Sunday in the nation’s parliamentary elections, with projections showing Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party winning 47 percent of the vote and the main opposition coalition, Serbia Against Violence, projected to capture just 23 percent of the vote. Multiple irregularities were reported—and charges of election interference were leveled—on Sunday, including claims from local election observers that individuals from neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina were being bussed to vote in Belgrade. 
  • The Vatican criminal court on Saturday sentenced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu—the pope’s former chief of staff—to five-and-a-half years in prison after finding him guilty on counts of embezzlement and fraud. Becciu, 75, was the highest-ranking Vatican official to face a trial before the Vatican’s criminal court—his “Trial of the Century” revolved around the Secretariat of State’s purchase of a 350 million euro investment property in London. Becciu’s lawyer said his client will “certainly” appeal the ruling.
  • The House of Representatives voted 310 to 118 on Thursday to pass the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act—an $886 billion package that includes a 5.2 percent pay raise for military personnel, the procurement of new missile-defense systems and weapons, and an extension of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative—though the bulk of future Ukraine military aid is still being debated in Congress. More Democrats (163) than Republicans (147) voted in favor of the legislation, with some conservatives opposing the bill due to concerns about extending warrantless surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Following negotiations with the Senate, the final bill also did not include several provisions championed by House conservatives taking aim at Pentagon policies regarding abortion and diversity. The legislation—having already been passed by the Senate in an 87-13 vote—now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.
  • Former New York City mayor and Trump campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani was ordered on Friday to pay $148 million as part of a defamation case brought by two Georgia election workers whom he falsely accused of rigging the 2020 election against former President Donald Trump. Giuliani said he will appeal the decision, and still faces criminal charges in Georgia related to his efforts, along with Trump and 17 others, to overturn the state’s election results.
  • Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who led the U.S.-allied nation for just over three years, died on Saturday at the age of 86. The 83-year-old crown prince, Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was named his successor. Nawaf served as the Kuwaiti defense minister during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which sparked the Gulf War.

All Aboard the Future?

President Biden delivers remarks on his Investing in America agenda at the Carpenters International Training Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on December 8, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)
President Biden delivers remarks on his Investing in America agenda at the Carpenters International Training Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on December 8, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that President Joe Biden is a big fan of trains—while in the Senate, Biden commuted by train between Washington and Delaware, earning the moniker “Amtrak Joe” and eventually getting Wilmington’s station named after him. Earlier this month, the president sought to double down on his reputation by announcing billions in funding provided through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (better known as the bipartisan infrastructure law) for America’s first high-speed rail (HSR) projects. The federal dollars represent a boon for train enthusiasts as major rail projects spin up, but it remains to be seen whether HSR can become a viable form of transportation in the U.S.

Transit advocates—inspired by the extensive rail networks of Europe and Japan’s pioneering Shinkansen (bullet train) lines—have long dreamed of greater investment in passenger rail and HSR. And thanks in part to the infrastructure law’s funding, some projects that have languished as concepts for decades are starting to take real shape. “If there ever was a time we can make high-speed reality in the U.S. it’s now,” said Andy Byford, the head of Amtrak’s HSR program (and formerly known by New Yorkers as “train daddy” for his improvements to the city’s subway system). “We have the support. We have the funding. We are looking to effect a rail revolution across the U.S.” 

Byford is right—at least when it comes to the money. The Biden administration announced $8.2 billion in funding for 10 rail projects across the country, most of which involve improving existing rail corridors and expanding service. But two involve the creation of what would become the first HSR lines in America. California High-Speed Rail (CSHR), a project to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with a high-speed line, will receive $3.07 billion in funding through a grant under the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program established by the infrastructure law. Brightline West, which would connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas, will receive $3 billion. “We’re putting high-speed rail on the fast track,” Biden said in a speech in Las Vegas earlier this month.

Funding for the California and Nevada projects accompanies additional billions the Biden administration is spending to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), the most trafficked passenger rail corridor in the country. The infrastructure law—which passed Congress on a bipartisan basis in late 2021—invested $66 billion in rail, with $22 billion allotted to Amtrak alone. While a new fleet of faster trains are supposed to be introduced into the NEC, the current Acela trains don’t technically qualify as true high-speed. The International Union of Railways defines high speed as operating at 155 mph or higher on dedicated tracks and 125 mph or higher for trains on regular tracks; Acela trains run at speeds up to 150 miles per hour (mph) for only a few stretches along the corridor. The new trains can travel as fast as 220 mph, but will be limited to a top speed of 160 mph on the NEC as most of the track is not built for true high-speed use. Only 32 miles of the corridor’s 457-mile mainline can handle 160 mph. Amtrak plans to add an additional 100 miles of high-speed track, but says the endeavor will take more than a decade to complete. 

Billions in public funding notwithstanding, is HSR actually feasible in America? Infrastructure and transit researchers argue U.S. HSR is possible, but won’t necessarily fulfill the dreams of rail enthusiasts. “It’s all too easy to be deceived by what we see in other countries,” said Joseph Schofer, a civil engineering professor at Northwestern University whose research focuses on transportation policy and finance. He argued that Europe’s settlement patterns and density make rail networks more practical than in the U.S—America’s population centers are more spread out and developed or redeveloped post-automobile. “We are not going to be like Europe, in those dimensions, anytime in the foreseeable future,” Schofer told TMD

Unlike in Europe, where most railways are publicly owned, domestic rail projects often require redevelopment, purchasing new land, and securing rail-use rights that are owned by freight train companies, all of which adds to the cost of HSR development. (The U.S. has a much more developed freight train system than Europe). Amtrak’s (relatively) slow speeds on the NEC are partly due to the fact that it shares railways with commuter and freight trains. U.S. passenger trains are also required to be significantly heavier than their international counterparts to withstand potential collisions and crashes with freight trains, unlike high-speed trains in other countries that operate on dedicated tracks.

It’s taken the U.S. quite some time to reach the brink of HSR development. President Lyndon B. Johnson lamented that America has the “same tired and inadequate mass transportation between our towns and cities that we had 30 years ago” when he signed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act in 1965. A year earlier, Japan debuted its bullet train that had a peak speed of 135 miles per hour.

The two projects most likely to make HSR a reality in the U.S. shed light on the challenges and necessary conditions for new railways to succeed. California’s project has proven to be a behemoth plagued by all the problems you’d expect from a massive, politically influenced public infrastructure program. CHSR’s costs have ballooned since it was first approved by voters in 2008, more than doubling from an initial estimate of $40 billion to between $88 billion and $128 billion—in fact, cost estimates have increased by billions of dollars on a seemingly monthly basis. The planned train route even veers off into the Mojave Desert because a Los Angeles county supervisor apparently wanted it to run through a portion of his district. The railway was originally scheduled to be completed in 2020, but now planners are hoping a middle portion of the track will be operational some time between 2030 and 2033.

Critics of the project argue CHSR has taken on a too-big-to-fail quality where officials have fallen prey to the sunk-cost fallacy even though most of the money needed to complete the project has yet to be secured, let alone spent. The national French rail company SNCF was initially interested in CHSR, but left the project in 2011 over mismanagement issues. “There were so many things that went wrong,” said Dan McNamara, a veteran project manager at SNCF. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”  

Some infrastructure researchers are more optimistic about the potential success of Brightline West—the planned 218-mile electric HSR between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Rancho Cucamonga, California, that would connect to Los Angeles via the city’s Metrolink transit. The project is estimated to cost $12 billion—at least for now—and, if successful, will ferry passengers between California and Sin City in just over two hours (Google Maps currently pegs the trip at three-and-a-half hours by car, and five-and-a-half hours by public transportation). 

“There’s a middle ground between full blown California high-speed rail and less costly options, and Brightline chose the latter,” Joseph Schwieterman, a Depaul University public policy professor who focuses on transportation and urban planning policy, told TMD. Planners say that the project is near shovel ready and could be completed in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Los Angeles. “Our country has collectively always said that we wished we had what they had in Europe or Asia,” Ben Porritt, a senior vice president at Brightline, said earlier this year. “We’ve just expected the federal government or the public sector to build it. For resource reasons and others, that’s just not always possible.”

Brightline is a private company that built the first new private passenger railway in more than 100 years, offering a potential model of success for future projects. Their new line connects south and central Florida, running from Miami to Orlando at speeds of up to 125 mph. The company built the railway without direct public funding, although it took advantage of tax-free private activity bonds, and completed the line in less than a decade. Early signs suggest the project is sustainable—this year, the company announced that the southern segment of its line had already reached operational profitability with ridership surging this year. “There’s a lot of private capital at risk,” Schwieterman said of the Florida project. “So operators are very, very aggressive in meeting deadlines and keeping costs in check.”

Observers are optimistic that Brightline can leverage its experience in Florida to successfully complete the California-Nevada project. The company’s most straightforward advantage is accountability for investments and profits, leading it to invest in projects that face minimal hurdles. As Bloomberg columnist Matt Yglesias argued in September, “Brightline brings to the table a private-sector superpower: the ability, and willingness, to say no and just walk away.” 

Brightline West is a much simpler project than CHSR. “Brightline West benefits from almost a perfect alignment of the stars,” Schwieterman told TMD. Not only is the project less than half as long as CHSR, it mostly avoids costly battles to acquire the necessary real estate—96 percent of the line will run in the median of Interstate 15. “That’s what we have to do in America if we really want to build a high-speed network across the country,” argued Porritt, the Brightline executive. The project largely avoids the complexity of connecting HSR with local transit and travels to a destination, Las Vegas, where many visitors don’t feel the need to have a car. “This is a historic moment that will serve as a foundation for a new industry,” Wes Edens, Brightline’s founder and chairman, said earlier this month, “and a remarkable project that will serve as the blueprint for how we can repeat this model throughout the country.”

But HSR skeptics are still wary of Brightline West as, unlike the Florida line, the project relies on the $3 billion grant from the Biden administration. Generally, the stand-up costs for HSR are incredibly high compared to air and car travel, and virtually every HSR program in the world relies heavily on continual subsidization from the government. “A U.S. high-speed rail network is a pipe dream,” argued William Vantuono, editor-in-chief of Railway Age. “A lack of political support and federal financial support combined with the kind of fierce landowner opposition that CHSR has faced in California means that the challenges for new high-speed projects are enormous.” 

It’s an open question whether there’s appetite for the continual large investments in rail, like the infrastructure law, that are required for ongoing maintenance. “Until we are serious about high-speed rail in the same way that we were serious about the interstate highways, we’re highly unlikely to see a national high-speed rail system,” said Louis Thompson, a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and World Bank rail adviser. 

Still, some see a role for limited high-speed, or at least higher-speed, rail projects in the U.S., particularly ones that can prove sustainable markets exist in some corridors with minimal ongoing government subsidization required. Schwieterman believes the sweet spot for new rail projects are lines between 100 and 275 miles, where trips take around three hours and don’t necessarily require true high speed. “High-speed rail is not the solution for everything, but it has its place,” said Scott Sherin, the chief commercial officer at European train builder Alstom’s U.S. branch. Sherin argues that increased car congestion around population centers and the significant costs of expanding highways in and around cities could make HSR an attractive solution to reduce pressure on roads. 

“What we need is more experimentation in the United States to understand the market,” Schofer told TMD. The future of HSR in America will likely hinge on the success or failure of the early experiments out West.

Worth Your Time 

  • In The Atlantic, Ben Sasse—former U.S. senator and current University of Florida president—writes on the moral decline of elite universities. “To keep America’s universities the envy of the world,” he writes, “we need to make our institutions welcoming homes for those who are passionate about the glorious mission of education and the communities of free thought it requires. If you entered academia because you share that joy, find institutions that are serious about renewing higher education and are serious about stewarding this incredible calling. Those of us—left, right, or center—who value human dignity, pluralism, and genuine progress and who want to make sure that we pass these blessings to the next generation cannot abandon institutions to post-liberals on the left who would destroy them from within or post-liberals on the right who would tear them to the ground. At our best, the academy promotes human flourishing in ways that no other sector can. If we commit ourselves to the work of creating, discovering, and serving—not enforcing impersonal hierarchies of power or stifling inquiry—we’ll rebuild public trust.”

Presented Without Comment

Former President Donald Trump on Truth Social: “ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION IS POISONING THE BLOOD OF OUR NATION. THEY’RE COMING FROM PRISONS, FROM MENTAL INSTITUTIONS—FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. WITHOUT BORDERS & FAIR ELECTIONS, YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

Also Presented Without Comment

New York Times: DeSantis Says Trump Will Declare Iowa Caucuses Stolen if He Loses

Also Also Presented Without Comment

CNN: Senate Aide Out of Job After Purported Sex Tape Apparently Filmed in Senate Hearing Room

Toeing the Company Line

  • Alex Demas calculated how much Kevin McCallister’s Home Alone shopping trip would cost in 2023.
  • In the newsletters: Mike and Sarah analyzed the debate over whether Trump has presidential immunity, the Dispatch Politics crew reflected on House Speaker Mike Johnson’s tenure so far, Nick wondered if (🔒) President Biden could be the real winner of the GOP’s impeachment inquiry, Jonah mused on the usefulness of trying to predict the future, and Chris warned against (🔒) taking Vivek Ramaswamy too seriously as a candidate.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah ruminated on the legacy of his 2008 book, Liberal Fascism, and we offer a sneak peak (🔒) at a Dispatch Live-turned-Skiff episode where Adaam and Mike were joined by John Aziz to discuss the war in Gaza.
  • On the site over the weekend: Rebecca Richards reviewed Alexandra Hudson’s The Soul of Civility, Giancarlo Sopo critiqued the made-for-Gen Z movie Saltburn, and Megan Dent revived an obscure Christmas liturgy.
  • On the site today: Megan Stewart explains Biden’s proposal to seize pharmaceutical patents. 

Let Us Know

Would you like to see an expanded high-speed rail network in the U.S.? Do you think such a project is possible?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.