While high-speed rail had a big moment this past year when President Joe Biden announced that he was doling out more than $8 billion for rail projects in December, train advocates still have their work cut out to create a new era of high-speed trains.

High-speed rail infrastructure in the U.S. is behind what exists in Europe and Asia, where publicly owned train lines can connect passengers from Beijing to Hong Kong or Madrid to Barcelona in a matter of hours. But progress is underway. That’s why more than 200 industry, labor, political and academic leaders converged at the U.S. High Speed Rail annual conference from May 14-15 in Washington, D.C. to discuss strategies and policies for pushing forward a nationwide high-speed rail network.

The event brought some high-profile Democrats including U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and former White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu, among others to headline the event.

While the conference included plenty of discussion on the publicly funded projects in California to help deliver high-speed rail service in the state’s Central Valley and create a brand-new high-speed rail corridor between Las Vegas and southern Los Angeles known as Brightline West, conversations also centered on how to popularize this emerging form of transportation, build political consensus around it and create a workforce capable of scaling it up.

“Without the national government taking the initiative, without the national government in China, Japan, Europe — that’s why they have good trains, comfortable trains, affordable trains. Because the national government set the standard and put forth the money. … If people say to you, ‘How do we get rail?’ You’ve got to have leadership at the top,” said Ray LaHood, former U.S. Transportation Secretary and U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition co-chair.

In April, Buttigieg broke ground on the $12 billion passenger high-speed train linking Las Vegas and the greater Los Angeles, which is arguably the first “true” high-speed rail line in the nation. Brightline, the rail company behind it, is hoping to attract millions of ticket buyers by the time it is slated to be operational in 2028. Brightline received a $3 billion grant from federal infrastructure funds to build the train line.

“I was honored to help the administration breaking ground on that Brightline West project,”  Buttigieg said. “We’re also proud to get things on the drawing board that will ultimately lead to compelling construction projects like high-speed rail in Texas, the pacific northwest and so many other places.”

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) also said that he hopes that the Brightline project in his home state is just “initial legs in what I think is an eventual national network.”

Speaking on behalf of North America’s other train operator, Amtrak, its senior vice president of high-speed rail Andy Byford said that the company is also moving forward with projects on a national level.

“These things start small — seeds that develop into large oaks — but we are putting together Amtrak’s national strategy as America’s railroad,” he said.

Other discussion focused on making the sustainability argument for trains. Terry Hynes, a transportation lawyer for Sidley LLP, did the math to show how little energy consumption high speed rail uses in comparison even with electric vehicles. Electric cars consume about 70 to 100 percent more than high speed trains over a 200-mile trip.

Though the politicians to attend the conference were largely Democratic, Buttigieg urged attendees to think about how to appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike on an economic basis.

“One thing I’d like to ask this group to do is to strip any partisan veilance around high-speed rail,” said Buttigieg. “Some of the really cool projects you’re working on are in ‘red America.’ This doesn’t need to be a red and blue thing.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood holds conversation with Current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg


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