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‘Watershed moment’ for U.S. rail as Biden gives $8.2B to train projects

December 11, 2023

President Joe Biden is a self-described train fan—commuting between Washington, D.C., and Delaware on Amtrak for decades when he was a U.S. senator. Now, in an effort to beef up U.S. passenger rail, his Administration is doling out more than $8 billion—including funds for two high-speed trains in California and Nevada, reports Forbes.

The Transportation Department’s Federal Railroad Administration is releasing $8.2 billion from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help fund ten passenger rail projects nationwide—including about $3.1 billion for California to complete the first 171 miles of its $100 billion bullet train system; and $3 billion for Brightline West, a 218-mile high-speed line from Las Vegas to suburban Los Angeles.

Additional grants will improve busy passenger rail corridors in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., and upgrade Chicago’s Union Station.

Biden is to discuss the projects today in Las Vegas. The funds come from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and are the country’s biggest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak a half-century ago, White House Infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu told Forbes.

“This is kind of a watershed moment in the history of rail in the United States of America,” Landrieu said. “As the president has often said, when he talks about Xi Jinping and China and competing with them, the United States ought to have world-class high-speed rail and this is a pretty good stake in the ground toward that goal.”

Japan debuted its shinkansen bullet trains six decades ago, and high-speed rail now connects major cities across Europe, South Korea, Taiwan; and especially China, which has a sprawling 26,000-mile system. New train lines also race across Morocco, the Saudi Arabian desert, and Indonesia’s Java island at 180 miles per hour or more.

The fastest train in the U.S. is the Acela on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor network between New York and Boston, topping out at 150 mph in limited segments. (The Biden Administration announced $16.4 billion of Infrastructure Law funding last month to upgrade tracks, bridges, and tunnels; and faster new trains to help Acelas travel at up to 160 mph.)

Brightline West, created by private equity billionaire Wes Edens and operating passenger trains connecting Orlando to Miami, intends to run at up to 200 mph through the desert when it opens by 2028.

California’s system, built mainly on an elevated viaduct, aims to run trains at up to 220 mph in its initial Central Valley corridor connecting the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, and Merced. That segment could open as early as 2030.

Brightline West and California plan to operate their trains on renewable power—mainly from solar farms—and promote them as much greener forms of transportation than driving or flying.

“There’s no turning back now – America’s high-speed rail revolution is coming,” Ray LaHood, former U.S. Transportation Secretary and co-chair of the U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition said in a statement. “With climate disasters bearing down on us, it’s time to kick these transformative, planet-saving projects into high gear.”

Edens is studying additional places to build more bullet trains, putting them alongside existing highway corridors connecting major cities with ground-level tracks to reduce construction costs. These include systems connecting Atlanta to Charlotte, cities in Texas and Los Angeles and San Diego, although Brightline hasn’t announced plans to move ahead with those projects.

“This is [an] historic moment that will serve as a foundation for a new industry and a remarkable project that will serve as the blueprint for how we can repeat this model throughout the country,” Edens said by email earlier this week after Brightline’s federal grant was announced.

Research contact: @Forbes