The State of the Current Bullet Train: 2018

The current Japanese Shinkansen is widely regarded  and recognized as one of the fastest operating trains in the world. It can average over 186 mph on some of its fastest routes. However, the newest Chinese bullet trains can attain up to 220 mph. That’s pretty fast. But how would that work in the United States?

220mph for a train is very fast, much faster than the railroads used in the 1800’s to help make America grow. American rail was very successful during that time period and helped start shape the America we know today. As the automobile was introduced and prices to own one was reduced, along with building roads and the Interstate Highway System, trains no longer were relevant. Airplanes have made it easier to fly long distances in short periods of time across the country. Both have played vital roles in shaping the modern American city. Now in 2018, are cars still relevant? Will people continue to use airplanes to fly across the country with bullet trains?

Cars will always be relevant. They will never go away. Americans love their automobiles. However, car ownership is declining in the States because more millennials are choosing to live where they can live, work, and play within walking distance, and using public transport like buses, or subways in cities that have them. Services like Uber and Lyft are also a cost effective option to get around town for a good price that either buses or other mass transit can’t reach.

Airplanes will not go away either. However, regional airline service could be reduced if an effective bullet train traveling fast enough could take place. And by effective, meaning it could get people from point A to point B much faster. However, long distance flights will likely remain safe from bullet trains. You can get across the country from New York to Los Angeles much faster on an airplane than you could a train. And bullet trains are not an option for going overseas.

With Americans in love with their cars and planes, what could be the role of a bullet train travelling at 200mph? The best and most effective way a bullet train could be is for regional travel. This would include densely populated areas that are between roughly 200 to 700 miles apart from each other. If you go under 200 miles, most people would continue to use their cars, making a bullet train useless. If you go over 700 miles, traveling by airplane becomes a faster and more viable option.

Are there other reasons Americans wouldn’t use a bullet train for a trip between 200 and 700 miles? Definitely. If you ride on a bullet train to another city, you don’t have your car with you. For some, that’s no problem at all, the train station is near public transit, their destination is close to the stop, or they don’t want to drive their car to the destination. For a lot of other Americans, they love driving their cars and want to have the freedom to move around as they wish. Car rentals at the train station could be one way to answer this, however, since the majority of Americans make car payments for their own vehicle, most don’t want to spend extra money to rent a car.

For these reasons, and in most cases around the world, bullet trains are not profitable. There are some bullet train lines (or other high speed rail lines) that are profitable. A few examples are  Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Washington DC to Boston, and Japan’s Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Osaka. Why are these lines profitable and most others aren’t? There’s a number of reasons for that.

Let’s look at Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The major cities included in this corridor are Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC (Richmond, Virginia is also sometimes included in this as well). The population in that corridor, roughly 50 million, and more importantly the population density helps make that line successful. Another big reason is that all of these cities have public transport that is well connected to the train stations. This makes having a car less important to people using the train system. And lastly, airline tickets are much more expensive than train tickets, and they take about the same time to reach the destination. Since the 4 major cities are relatively close together, trains can get to the big cities relatively quickly.

An Amtrak train on the Northeast Regional takes roughly 3 ½ hours from Washington to New York, and the Acela Express takes less than 3 hours but for a higher price. An airplane would get there faster, but you have to factor in arriving early to the airport and going through security. And once you’ve landed, you may have to go to baggage claim and wait for your luggage (this doesn’t apply to those who travel with just carry-ons). Once you add all that time up, it’s about the same time a train would take, for likely a fraction of the cost. The economics of the train in this case work greatly in their favor. It is also important to note that the Northeast Corridor is one of the very few sections of track that Amtrak owns and does not borrow using freight lines, as most of the track does.

One thing to note about how Amtrak provides their service is the train’s speed. The Acela Express can reach speeds of up to 150 mph. The only problem is, it can only reach that speed on very few straight stretches of track. The average speed of the train is much slower, at around 80 mph. That also accounts for stops along the way as well.

Now let’s bring up the idea of replacing the entire Northeast Corridor with a bullet train travelling at 220 mph. Could it be done? Or maybe it’s a question of, should it be done. The line is already operating at a profit (but do note as a whole company Amtrak is operating at a huge loss). One cheaper alternative to building a whole new line that’s being done is replacing the cars on the Acela Express. Amtrak is working on rolling out trains that can reach a top speed of 186 mph, and has the ability to go through curves faster than the trains being used today. However, just like today’s Acela, it could only reach 186 mph on very few stretches of track. But, with the addition of travelling on curved portions quicker than the current train, the overall speed of the train would be higher than the 80 mph average it has today. There is currently no timetable of when Amtrak will be putting these trains in use on the Northeast Corridor.

At the current moment, this seems to be the best option for the price. Rebuilding the entire corridor or replacing all of the tracks would be much more expensive to do, for Amtrak’s sake. Now, there could always be a private company that comes along and builds its own track, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point. In another post, I’ll go into what could happen if they do build a new bullet train line. And that possibility could be very exciting if it’s done right.

Brian Cole

I'm Brian and I'm the founder of TransportationOfTomorrow.com. I have a strong passion for fixing America's transportation infrastructure problem and traffic flow issues. I ultimately want to see the American economy grow as far as it will go, create massive amounts of jobs, and in that way help the quality of how people live.