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The United States is a nation connected by airports and interstate highways. An enormous volume of freight moves by rail, but passenger rail, particularly over longer distances, has never been prioritized like it has in Europe and Asia. But it seems that change is on the way. 

For years, Amtrak’s Acela has been the fastest train in the U.S. (and the Americas), connecting the Northeast Corridor of Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. While Acela reaches 150mph (240kph), it shares tracks with freight services and slower passenger trains, and only reaches its top speed for around 10% of the 457-mile (735-kilometer) route.  

This wider Northeast Corridor rail corridor, including Acela, was allocated $16.4 billion in Federal funds in November 2023 for 25 projects, including tunnels, bridges, tracks, power systems, signals, stations. 

But a potentially transformative signal came in December 2023, in the form of new Federal funding for dedicated high-speed rail development in several places around the nation.  

This was headlined by significant funds allocated to two high-profile projects: 

  • $3.07 billion for California's high-speed rail project. The ambition is to ultimately connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, but these funds will go towards completing the first 171-mile segment between Merced and Bakersfield in California's Central Valley.  
  • $3 billion for Brightline West, a 218-mile high-speed line from Las Vegas to suburban Los Angeles. Developers hope to complete this project in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.  

Other recent plans, trends and developments suggest that the U.S. has entered a new era for high-speed rail development. Brightline is already operating a (near) high-speed rail service between Orlando Airport and West Palm Beach, in Florida, which is the only private intercity passenger rail service in the country.  

Sustaining momentum 

High-speed rail lines are being proposed in many more corridors in the U.S., including from Dallas to Houston, in Texas; from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia; from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (via Seattle, Washington.) 

Connecting cities with high-speed rail has the capacity to revolutionize how Americans travel, with greater convenience, more comfort and dramatically shorter journey times. “There is momentum like we've never seen before,” says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the United States High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA), “we started this association in 2009, and compared to that back then, we are currently seeing tremendous optimism around high-speed rail.” 

Michael Reininger, CEO of Brightline agrees. “Times have changed,” he says, “people feel differently about driving, about getting a driver's license, about the impact of their car on the environment, and about sitting in traffic. This is part of the reason we are seeing a big momentum push in the United States today.”  

Climate change is a major driver of this, given that air and road transportation are major sources of emissions. But other factors are also important in the U.S. “One of the strongest reasons we're finally moving forward with high-speed rail is that the current transportation system is a mess,” says Andy Kunz. “You cannot get anywhere without delays and cancellations. This is more than just frustrating, it slows our economy, hurts tourism and creates supply chain problems.”  

High-speed rail could go a long way towards solving these issues while decarbonizing passenger transport. It could even help with the affordable housing crisis, by bringing areas with more space and cheaper land closer to economic centers. But there are many rail lines to build first, and the barriers that have slowed past efforts remain in place. 

Mega-projects need government and business working together 

Success in high-speed rail, and most mega-projects, depends on collaboration between the public and private sector. Governments can build infrastructure for goals such as community uplift, economic stimulus, decarbonization, livability and the global competitiveness of its cities.  

Businesses naturally build infrastructure for profit, ahead of (but not excluding) all other goals, since their continued existence depends on it. But governments and businesses can work together to get the best of both worlds and the achievement of all the goals. Crucially though, the ideal blend of control, support and funding is different for every project.  

Why involve the private sector? Because businesses bring several advantages. They are less constrained in some ways, as governments have a more complex set of drivers, processes and stakeholders. Businesses also have that clear and simple link between individual performance, the profits of success and the peril of failure. “We are a for-profit entity making massive investments at risk, so we work with that direct connection to the magnitude of the investment, and how it could succeed or fail,” says Michael Reininger, CEO of Brightline. “I think that this influences what you do and how you do it, and that works as a catalyst that makes things go faster, forces us to find efficient solutions, and quickly adapt to change.” 

The high cost of high speed 

Our recent research collected comments from U.S. based survey respondents working in the high-speed rail sector in roles including strategy, design, operations, consulting, regulation and finance.  

When asked about the biggest barriers to high-speed rail development, financial issues came up frequently, with comments such as:  


Recent Federal commitments are encouraging but this — along with private capital — needs to be sustained over the long-term. U.S. respondents also highlighted issues with land acquisition and regulatory approval, for instance:   

Federal funding doesn’t remove these challenges. Indeed, some sources of funding may be contingent on the acquisition of land and completion of approvals. “In the United States, the three most important challenges to making these projects happen are assembling the land, getting that land entitled, and then aggregating the capital investment required,” says Michael Reininger. “If you can clear the first two hurdles, and you have a strong business case, then that third one becomes much more achievable.” 

The path to accelerated progress 

We also asked respondents how the development of high-speed rail could be sped up. Issues to do with land acquisition, permitting, funding and government leadership were the most common responses but many also suggested other ideas, for instance: 

“International collaboration is vital for the efficient and successful execution of high-speed rail projects” 

“We need to effectively manage scope and resources, because if you increase scope without increasing resources (or decrease resources without decreasing the scope) then development appears to slow down” 

Make use of contemporary building methods and tools to hasten the construction process. Use standardized design and construction techniques to boost productivity and simplify projects. 

This last point is something that is somewhat dependent on having sustained funding and a long-term government commitment to high-speed rail.  “One of the reasons why China was able to build a high-speed rail network so quickly is because they developed prefabrication methodologies for infrastructure elements like bridge and tunnel sections,” says Andy Kunz.  

Another is that they developed the skills and capabilities needed to build a local high-speed rail industry. “The most important thing for the United States is creating the industry,” says Michael Reininger. “If we can develop a large enough concentration of brain power, manufacturing capabilities and technical expertise, we can increase efficiencies and reduce costs.”  

An industry, however, needs to be nurtured by sustained, consistent support, leadership and funding from government. “In the U.S. we have been doing things one little bit at a time, with uncertainty about future funding for individual lines, let alone a whole network,” he says.

Conclusion: the (rail)road is long 

Could political change derail the momentum that has been building around U.S. high-speed rail? Interestingly, that might depend on the nature of the project and the level of private sector involvement. “Our experience is that Brightline is a very bipartisan thing — red state, blue state, it doesn't matter,” says Michael Reininger. “The reason is that private investment into fundamental transportation infrastructure is a good thing no matter who you are and how you view the world. Plus we are contributing a solution that would otherwise be 100% born by the public sector. So I do feel like we have a degree of resilience that survives fluctuations in political leaning.”  

As Reininger points out some of these projects happen over periods of time that exceed election cycles. It will take a few decades to reach national ambitions for high-speed rail, and so some degree of consistent support and prioritization of high-speed rail is needed to ensure progress does not stall.  

But with increased funding, new projects on the horizon, and a growing public interest in sustainable transportation, there is reason to believe that we are on the brink of America’s rapid expansion into high-speed rail infrastructure, with all the economic, social and environmental benefits that brings. 

From vision to reality

For more detailed analysis on high-speed rail insights and best practices, read our high-speed rail playbook