The US on Track?

An interview with one of America’s foremost High-Speed Rail advocate

A Thalys Train — a similar sight in Europe, but not in America

When talking about high speed trains, we Belgians immediately think of the Thalys, a high Speed service between Brussels and Paris, or about the Japanese bullet trains.
However we don’t really think about American high speed trains, is this because we don’t know a lot about American trains or is it because of the lack of high speed trains in America? To find an answer to this question I talked to an expert on this matter: Demetrius Villa, President of the High Speed Rail America Club.

Demetrius, tell us a bit more about yourself: are you a student or do you already work?
I’m a student at Florida International University, studying International Business in the Honors track, I was originally a Mechanical Engineering major, and switched out since I believed business would be a better fit for me. I also do work part time in a couple of places as well.

Looks like you are doing a lot of things, But I’ve also heard you are the president of the High Speed Rail America Club?
That’s right, the idea of the group came out of what was going to be a TEDx talk in FIU speaking about HSR in the US. I was going to speak in November of 2013, but latter taken out due to political reasons and that much of what I had put blame in our current governmental administration. High Speed Rail America Club was thought up on December 13th, 2013, and then formalized in March of 2014.

What is the High Speed Rail America Club ?
That’s the High Speed Rail America Club; a group created to promote, research, and advocate for high-speed rail in North America, as well as collaborate with other companies and organizations to make it a reality.

If I get this right: the High Speed Rail America Club is for making High Speed Rail a reality in North-America. Is this needed because I thought that a country like the USA would have a massive High Speed Rail system?
We used to be the world’s largest and most advanced rail system many decades ago, before the Second World War. Our priorities with infrastructure changed after that, and we built massive highway projects and airports which worked in the short term, but long term, we saw the effects on traffic, the environment, and most importantly on movement and jobs in our country. Infrastructure and rail has been the backbone of our nation since the end of the Civil War in 1865, and today it is what makes nations such as China, Japan, and the European nations able to move people efficiently, quickly, safely, and effectively.

Demetrius’ Documentary “The American Train”

So you are saying that a country is dependent on how and how fast it transports his goods and people?
And how efficiently, yes. Take China for example, I believe the best example in the last 10 years of a country that has turned itself into an economic powerhouse. When HSR opened in the Guangdong region, business productivity rose 10% on average, according to the World Bank. It’s nothing to sneeze at, and even China being a communist party controlled country, these are some statistics that are believable because the same has happened in other countries as well once they have built these systems. The homogenization of technology also trickles down into other forms of transit such as metro trains, and is able to even let people who don’t use High Speed Rail to benefit as well.

You previously said that there was a shift in the priorities a while ago on how to transport people/goods and now with seeing the example of China I have to ask myself and others: is there a lack of political support in the USA for High Speed Rail?
There really isn’t a lack of political support, I would say misallocation of support. The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have gotten some people on board, especially the Trump campaign and their use of the “Trump Train” slogan have gotten people thinking of literal trains, and even Trump’s mentions of China and Japan’s High Speed Rail systems in his rallies. The biggest problem lies in where that support has gone, plans such as President Obama’s half baked plan to spend $12 billion USD sprinkled around the country to build HSR hasn’t moved anywhere, but in a good way, has angered a lot of states such as Florida and Texas to take matters into their own hands, and cut out the federal government in their own private ventures. I believe the public is the biggest facet that still has a ways to go in waking up to more information and formally supporting High Speed Rail. They like the idea, they just don’t know what it is, and fringe, red herring projects like the Hyperloop distract them from reality.

All Aboard Florida

I’ve also heard something about a possible High Speed Rail project in Florida and Texas. Are these real projects or is it just making plans for how to construct High Speed Rail?
Oh these are as real as real can get, especially in Florida where Florida East Coast Industries have created a subsidiary known as All Aboard Florida to run a Higher Speed Rail train between Florida and Orlando which will open up next year. I drive by the railroad everyday where it will be running on and work is occurring everyday.
Texas is moving forward on their plans to build a Japanese style bullet train between Houston and Dallas, and they already have been receiving funding through some other private firms, financing from Japan, and they’re almost done with their Environmental Impact Study.
Let’s not forget the largest of these projects in California, we already see the viaducts and tracks materializing.

And these are all projects from private companies?
Mostly, yes with the slight exception of California, where it is being funded through some public means — it’s more of a private public partnership where private companies will be building and then operating the system after a few years of government run operation through the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Again, it’s what works for some countries is usually what’s best, France runs their system through the government run public company, SNCF, Japan privatized all their rail companies in the 80’s and it worked marvelously for them. In the US, we have a long history of private entrepreneurship, especially in the Gilded Age.

Florida and Texas being projects from Private companies and California being a Private Public Partnership I’ve got to ask you this question: if the US government will not construct the needed High Speed Rail Lines, will private companies do?
Private companies ARE building them, that’s exactly what’s going on. The failure of the US government to run infrastructure has been seen in how they treated the railroad companies in the 50’s and 60’s — they basically sucked them dry by overtaxing them for using those funds to build roads and airports, which are all crumbling now. Railroad companies began to discard their passenger rail operations and the government consolidated those holdings and assets to create a zombie like, government operated and owned, rail company known as Amtrak. That “company” has never made a profit in it’s 40+ years of existence, has been slow to catch up, and it’s management cannot focus on a vision.

But I recall Amtrak having an High speed service called “Acela”?
It’s hardly high-speed, it only reaches 150 mph on a scant 20 miles of track near Boston in the whole entire way from DC. From New York to DC, you may save yourself only 20 minutes compared to the Northeast Regional service and even then, you still run the 25% risk of being late, for a ticket worth about $200 USD more.
My family and I rode it to visit DC one time, the tracks are in such a dismal condition that the train was always rocking around, the only reason we rode it was because we had free tickets. We could have taken it back to NYC, but we opted for the Regional Train, which actually worked since the Acela we would’ve taken actually arrived late.

That’s a shame, but to get back to my previous question; Do you think that High Speed Rail (HSR) will happen anyway and how long will it take before the USA can be considered being a nation with a worthy HSR-network?
I believe we’re on the right track now, pun intended, so yes, High Speed Rail will be happening in the US, and I will say that in 10 years, we’ll see where it’s going from there. I still believe it will be a while to we see a worthy national system; if we worked at it with the same vigor as the Chinese have, maybe in 15 years, but most likely 25 years until a national system is completed.

Looks like the High Speed Rail America Club will still have plenty of work to do for the next 25 years. I would like to thank you for your time and hopefully you can take the HST next year in Miami
Sure hope so, it’ll be quite the journey! Thank you!

Article written by: Ruben Van Miegroet

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