Why We Can't Have Japanese Style Bullet Trains

Why We Can't Have Japanese Style Bullet Trains

A Japan Railway maglev train hit 374 miles per hour on an experimental track in Yamanashi Tuesday, setting a decisive new world record. Witnesses erupted with excitement and applause when the new record was set.

Americans who have visited Japan often marvel at the sleek looking bullet trains and wonder why we can't have these state-side. A bullet train from New York to Los Angeles would offer a viable alternative to air travel and provide travellers with a level of comfort not found on airlines these days.

But bullet trains are prohibitively expensive and Japanese systems are even more expensive than their counterparts in France or China because they run on elevated tracks to avoid traffic crossings. The networks also incorporate disaster monitoring systems. The largest cost of construction comes from boring tunnels through mountains.

For some perspective, France's high speed train cost approximately $22 million dollars per mile. New York to LA is about 2500 miles and the route would include boring through numerous mountains.

A conservative cost estimate for such a project would somewhere near $75 billion. While Americans are known to be master financiers the population sizes of Japan and United States make this an unattractive proposition for investors.

Japan has a population density of roughly 850 people per square mile while we have a density of roughly 85 per mile. In transportation terms this means we have one tenth of the need and given the huge size of our country, something like 20x the distance. At 20x the cost and 1/10th the demand it doesn't make sense for us to have high speed rail - we fly instead.

So it's not that we don't have the technology or resources to build these glamorous high speed bullet trains. For us, it just doesn't make sense.

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