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The high speed train (HST) must be one of the high-speed trains currently or no longer in service. The HST should run at its max operating speed as much as possible and practicable, to save time. HST can run at lower speeds, to abate noise and comply with noise regulations in urban residential areas.

Don't use Experimental trains! The HST and High Speed Route (HSR) should not have specifications not yet existent in 2021.

The cost between any two cities on any route must < the cost of a direct flight between these two cities.

Your HSR must include and cover all the colored routes, and all the cities on these routes in this plan by Alon Levy.

You can overlook these two fanciful maps that are just for reference.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 9 '21 at 14:36

19 Answers 19

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Conservatives Win the Mexican Reform War (1857–1860)

One of the major "problems" with US rail compared to European rail is that there was little strategic reason for the US Government to back railway construction or subsidize railways. In Europe the dense network of rails was largely due to military necessity, as more and denser rail nets made it easier to move troops and supplies in the event of war. This in turn meant that there was a foundation of railways for civilian traffic, making it easier for commuter rail to be cheap and effective. Cheap and effective train travel across the US to the point where it's easier to travel cross-country by train rather than car would in turn lead to easy acceptance of higher-speed and better trains as you asked in the question. Which means you need that rail network in place before cars become widespread. Enter Mexico:

The Conservatives win the Mexican Reform War (1857–1860), tossing out the liberal constitution and strengthening the military. With the country still somewhat unstable (IRL there were three civil wars between 1857 and 1929) the conservatives rally the nation by painting the US as The Great Satan and constantly beat the drum about re-conquering lost territory from the Mexican-American War. A unified and belligerent Mexico would provide impetus for the US to strengthen its north/south and western rail network so as to move troops and equipment to the southern border. This needn't have kicked off an actual war (though it might have) to result in the rail net capable of challenging cars, keeping civilian passenger rail in the US in ascendency and paving the way for High-Speed rail in the US.

footnote: Yes I know this isn't really a "small" change! But it's the smallest I could think of (the conservatives had a good chance of winning early war) that would realistically produce the results required. At the end of the day Americans are "Car People" and, IMO, you have to nip that in the bud for HSR to have a realistic chance. of being a thing that could have been in place today.

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    $\begingroup$ Heck, you could throw in a revanchist Britain in the mid-19th century to get a military threat from the north as well. But that would be an even larger change. $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '21 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ The described motivation to build out the rail network is essentially what prompted the building of the interstate highway network -- a perceived need for fast and easy transportation. It's just that that particular interstate transportation initiative happened after the invention of the automobile. $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ Note that development of a larger rail network and development of a decent high-speed rail network are not necessarily linked. See the UK for a country with a very large and old traditional rail network (which I don't think was motivated by military reasons, was it?) and virtually no high-speed rail. $\endgroup$
    – jcaron
    Dec 7 '21 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ One of the 'major' problems for rail in the US vs Europe is just how big the US is. I live in a US state slightly smaller than Germany, with less than 2 million people (vs 83 million in Germany). Would I like a 3 hour train to Denver instead of an 8 hour drive? Sure. As would the 5 other people wanting to do that trip today... $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Americans are "car people" because we're very suburban and rural... a good 150 million or more of us live outside major cities. Those who live in big cities will tell you a different tale... no one wants to deal with having a car in New York, for example. $\endgroup$
    – TylerH
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:29
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One option would be for Congress, when the Interstate System was being laid down, to decide that users of the system who induced high wear and tear should pay their fair share for the system.

This would result in tractor-trailers facing an excise tax, presumably on a per-axle basis, possibly through tire sales (tractor rigs go through tires like athletes go through socks). This levels the playing field between the trucking and rail-freight sectors, which causes a build-out of rail infrastructure serving major metropolitan areas (and the trucking fleet specializing in short-haul, local distribution service instead of long-haul freighting).

The existence of the industrial infrastructure for that system dramatically reduces the entry-cost for HSR, especially since HSR can also serve to replace expensive air-freight for all but the most time-sensitive/perishable cargoes. There'd be money already accustomed to investing in rail projects so even if the whole HSR concept was still a moderately hard sell, you'd be able to get pilot projects going - a lot of what holds them back is investors not being familiar with the risks associated with rail-transport projects.

This is a huge part of why rail succeeded so well in Europe - it was already a dominant transportation paradigm. The success of TGV and Shinkansen would probably be enough to get skittish investors on board if the United States didn't beat them to the punch.

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    $\begingroup$ "This would result in tractor-trailers facing an excise tax..." They do: fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/hvut/mod1/whatishvut.cfm and moderntiredealer.com/articles/… Also, high-speed rail is largely irrelevant for freight, which travels perfectly well on the existing rail network: railroads.dot.gov/rail-network-development/… $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Also, actually running high-speed trains at high speeds requires a much higher standard of rail than lower-speed freight (or passenger) traffic. Thus in Europe you will often see four parallel tracks, two used for freight & local passenger service, and two for high-speed. Even then, the TGV into Lausanne ran quite a bit slower in Switzerland (or did when I lived there). $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ 1) Sure, but fast package delivery alone doesn't justify HSR. If it existed, FedEx &c would use it, but they wouldn't build it. 2) Most of the railroad freight is either bulk material, or it's multi-modal: e.g. you put a container on a train, ship it close to the destination, then put it on a truck for the last bit. Air freight wouldn't work at all well for that sort of thing :-) You also need to look at package handling costs: with FedEx &c you have many package sources feeding into bulk transportation, then distributing to many destinations. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6 '21 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @WilliamWalkerIII proper European high-speed rail usually runs on dedicated tracks, that don't carry freight (and are usually better fenced off from the rest of the world, and have minimal junctions). Here in the UK we run up to 125mph on track shared with freight (diesel or electric power). If you deem that high-speed rail, your freight services may help with the costs, but little rail freight is needed where people want to travel from so you still need passenger lines into inner cities over expensive land $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 6 '21 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, and we now have some freight carried on passenger trains (either with passangers as well, or converted. They're not high-speed rail, but as you say, they could be. We even lost our dedicated mail trains (sorting was carried out on-board) but now do have some mail carried by train again $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 6 '21 at 20:47
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Amtrak forms well before 1971

The US's problem with developing High Speed Rails (HSR; >250 km/h) can be seen by viewing some of the projects for the SE Corridor.

  • separation of grade (can't hit cars)
  • wider curves (higher speed)
  • dedicated rails (less traffic === higher speed)

To get to your required speed today, the planning (and implementation) of these tasks needs to start very early in the US.

The planing should probably start 25yrs before the usage of fast trains like the Milwaukee Road's class "F7". Those were built in 1938 and ran at speeds averaging >130 km/h.

That means Amtrak (US passenger rail) should have been founded before 1913.

Additionally: Laws would need to be reformed

US laws would need to be passed such that there is a focus on providing high speed transcontinental rail service. The High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 gave the US the NE Corridor and the Acela line (257 km/h new stock starting 2022).

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi again. thanks. Amtrack was founded in May 1 1971, which already gives it much time to materialize HSR in the USA! 2021 — 1971 + 1 (fence post error) = 50 + 1 = 51. If Amtrack didn't actualise HSR in 51 years, then Amtrak has failed, and we shall consider something else as the teeniest lone change. $\endgroup$
    – flyb
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @FlyB the point in the answer is a good one, or would be if it related the timing of the formation of Amtrak to widespread private car ownership (I'll arbitrarily say the 50s)- or even the 70s oil crises: with a decent network in place in time for either of those events, there would be a foundation to build on. OTOH here in the UK we lost a lot of track and even more stations in the 60s and 70s, not long before other countries started building dedicated high-speed trains. And of course trains compete with both the cars and planes $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 6 '21 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @FlyB US HSR attempt (1963) was before Amtrak (1971). Therefore, it can't be Amtrak fault. Amtrak is a US Gov. collection of failing businesses that hasn't been profitable since its inception. The one year it was going to be, a pandemic hit. The failure rests solely on the US. (US does spend as much on passenger rail as EU). And politicians don't want to spend money on a failing business. As such, for US to have HSR today, gov support (Amtrak) needs to start much much earlier. $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '21 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Also note: the only profitable lines in Amtrak are the Acela (HSR) and the Auto-train (carries passenger cars in addition to passengers). Building HSR today in the US is a Catch-22. to make money, you need to spend money. $\endgroup$ Dec 6 '21 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ You need to remember that Amtrak was founded to subsidize existing passenger rail, which had become unprofitable for a lot of reasons, including unfavorable regulations and featherbedding by railroad unions. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 7 '21 at 17:33
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FDR dies of polio/Guillam-Barre

... or at least is unable to return to political life.

The New Deal made the average American much better off, allowing more people to be able to afford cars. If you can't afford a car, you can't buy one.

The New Deal also did this by building much of the road infrastructure which made more widespread car use preferable. If roads aren't great, you wouldn't use a car, after all. And now people could also afford cars to run on those roads.

And then WWII happened. A newly-enriched US suddenly found that all its European industrial rivals had been obliterated by the war, and was perfectly positioned to pick up the slack. European industry came back after the war, sure, but it was always on the back foot after that.

It's not at all clear that any of this would have happened, or at least not as successfully, without FDR and his New Deal.

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    $\begingroup$ liberals are responsible for car dependent America... now that's a switcheroo! $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Dec 7 '21 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Liberals usually improve living standards for average people (unless the whole world is screwed), and liberals always invest better in infrastructure for the long term. So yes, it's one of those things. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Dec 7 '21 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ Not really, as cars would be used in much the same way as they are now: to drive to the high-speed train station instead of to the airport. People who drive long distances generally do so either because they want to see the country in between, or because the distances between home/destination and airports is such that it's quicker to drive - e.g. almost any place in the west on the maps. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 7 '21 at 4:28
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    $\begingroup$ @croald That's because the USA you know today is not the liberal social-democratic country it was under FDR and Truman. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Dec 7 '21 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ FDR didn't build the Interstate system. Ike did. Eisenhower was inspired by the ridiculous ease of military logistics within Germany due to the Autobahn, contrasted with the miserable time Ike had, dealing with the Pennsylvania Rail Road. $\endgroup$ Dec 8 '21 at 4:22
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The Wright Brothers' experiment fails

One of them is killed in the first test flight, or they never get off the ground, or they're just satisfied selling bicycles for the rest of their lives and never even try, or any variation along those lines. Oh sure, somebody else would've invented the airplane eventually, but it'd be years or even decades later, allowing the rail system more time to expand and remain the dominant means of long distance transport. If you want to make it even more likely, have a similar incident occur to Henry Ford and delay the development of cheap automobiles by a few more decades, though admittedly that would be two changes rather than one.

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    $\begingroup$ This would probably have delayed powered flight by weeks, at the most. The Wright brothers were by no means the only people trying to accomplish powered flight, and if either or both had died in the attempt, they would have been just another statistic. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ The Wrights were not the start of commercial aviation. They were the start of heavier-than-air aviation in general, and that only by the skin on their teeth. Commercial aviation as a real alternative to long distance rail-travel only appears after WW2 $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @EvilSnack: Was anybody close to the Wrights in solving the issues of stability and control? $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ Air travel didn't really become anything more than a sideshow until after WW2 at least, and maybe arguably not til the deregulation of the 80s. Seems like it was really the car that killed rail travel in the US (explicitly so in the case of streetcars), so your time traveller should prioritize Henry Ford. Who was kind of a fascist anyway. $\endgroup$
    – c roald
    Dec 7 '21 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer there were several inventors around the world working on heavier than air flight in the same time window. Naturally every country favours their local hero with blind one-eyed parochialism, whereas I know Richard Pearse was first. (humour) $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Dec 7 '21 at 21:38
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Assume that there is increased terrorism (or at least fear of terrorism) in the 1960s and 1970s (Weather, PLO, take your pick). Notably, there is fear of aircraft hijackings with madmen wanting to go to Cuba, but train hijackings are less of a concern. Perhaps because they cannot go to Cuba, and also because they are much harder to divert from their course and much harder to bring down with a small explosive charge.

So post-9/11-style TSA screenings start a generation earlier, while there are no similar checks at train stations. The decisions where security is (or isn't) increased are not fully rational, there is much locking of barns after the specific horses have bolted. Accounting for an hour or two in line plus the administrative check-in, trains become sufficiently superior to win out on both coasts for connections like Los Angeles to San Francisco or New York to Baltimore. And once there is the habit, the trans-continental gap gets closed with overnight trains.

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    $\begingroup$ Why didn't this actually lead to a better train system in the US after 9/11? $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Randal'Thor because by then air travel was cheap and established, and the land that would be needed for decent rail services occupied/expensive. It's always hard to beat an incumbent. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Train tracks are perfect terrorism targets - unsupervided along huge lengths, accessible to low-tech destruction at any point, high value targets come along at scheduled intervals - i don't see the terrorist abstaining $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Anti-train terrorism directed at HSR is much easier than anti-plane terrorism. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 8 '21 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke, I disagree. A train is a MUCH harder and lower-value target than a plane. To survive a bear attack, you don't have to outrun the bear... just a slower guy behind you. If your goal is to injure, kill, and terrorize, there are FAR softer targets than trains. You could drive a car w/explosives into schoolyard, or board a crowded city bus or subway with a bomb in your backpack. Or fly a dirty bomb into a stadium & remotely detonate it. Trains & planes are transportation, but that's all they really have in common. Much of 9/11's shock value came from its Rube Goldberg complexity+novelty $\endgroup$
    – Bitbang3r
    Dec 8 '21 at 17:58
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The Korean War is more intense

With more resources needed for the war effort, the US government reinstates WW2-era rationing of automobiles, gasoline, and tires. The rise of car culture and suburbanization is thus stalled.

Meanwhile, military leadership demands more efficient cross-country transport of troops and materiel. Congress responds by funding upgrades to the country's rail network.

Eisenhower still gets elected in 1952 and still proposes the Interstate Highway System. But with fewer people driving cars, and a greater amount of debt accumulated from the Korean War, it's harder to justify the expense, and the system is massively scaled back compared to OTL.

With less direct competition from highways, intercity passenger rail remains profitable into the 1960's. The railroads start introducing high-speed lines.

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The cost between any two cities on any route must < the cost of a direct flight between these two cities.

Well, that's easy -- both modes are heavily subsidized so it's just a matter of the government turning knobs.

"New Deal" build-up of rail, has knock-on effects

What actually happened: In WW1, railroads were nationalized. In WWII, railroads convinced the government not to nationalize them - but they were in crush overload conditions, and Pennsylvania Rail Road management "peeved off" General Eisenhower big time. Eisenhower built the Interstate freeway system to remove the military's dependency on the railroads. Eisenhower knew it would bankrupt the railroads, and was happy for that. Meanwhile, fast electric interurban railways were dying off pre-war. The "New Deal" was partly projects to create jobs - but on infrastructure projects that will pay economic dividends for decades, such as the TVA dams, Hoover Dam, Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, etc.

The US railroads ask Roosevelt to prioritize rail infrastructure to prepare for the inevitable war. Roosevelt agrees (Optional: on the condition that the railroads be nationalized again in the event of war.)

As a result, railroad infrastructure is a big part of the New Deal. It is ready and able to handle the nation's war needs. Pennsylvania Rail Road gives General Eisenhower 5-star concierge service. (Optional: The railroads are nationalized and Eisenhower is put in charge. Eisenhower sees it all from the other side of the fence). Eisenhower becomes pro-rail, and as President sees ways to improve rail further, and invests in rail instead of the Interstate system. This is the seed of American high-speed rail.

Notably, the interurban electric railways were on their last legs in the 1930s, but the New Deal re-investment in rail breathes new life into them and positions them to be the prototypes for electric high speed rail, with incremental improvements to their infrastructure - pantographs, weight-tensioning existing catenary, grade separation and alignment upgrades, voltage bumps. The former 600V single cars that bounced down the line at 75 mph now are fine modern 1500V 2-car sets cruising 125 mph on good rail. That's just the interurbans, obviously Big Rail aims much higher.

The Shah of Iran aspires to a constitutional monarchy

The Shah admires the constitutional monarchy of Britain, and adopts this at home. Which tickles both the Shah's American backers, and the domestic critics. Senators Khomeini, Khamenei, Banisadr etc. all work within the system instead of fomenting revolution - two of them having turns as Prime Minister.

The Shah thus becomes an influencer rather than an administrative leader, adored by the public throughout the Middle East. The Shah is highly influential in the Middle East, forming OPEC much sooner, and convincing many of a core belief: That oil is simply too valuable to burn as fuel, and should be reserved for its ability to create plastics and fertilizers. The Shah leads the Middle Eastern Nations to not "give away" their oil -- they treat their oil as a precious, one-time national asset. This has a huge impact on the price of gasoline and diesel. It remains a strategic national asset for every country that has it - not to be wasted on bloated 7 MPG personal automobiles with V-8 engines. The post-war automotive boom does not happen.

As a result, national investment goes elsewhere.

Many of us confuse "Progress" and "car ownership". But you have to look at a few things about the automotive life which are a constructive total loss. The life cycle of a car - building it, maintaining it, getting the fuel for it, building the roads for it, scrapping it - all of this is capital investment gone in the end. Like a candy bar, it gave someone pleasure for awhile, but it's gone now.

Are cars essential for some sectors and in some locations? Sure. But in the most highly populated urban locations, cars are hardly necessary and even get in the way. People only want cars because public transit is rubbish. Chicken and the egg. We need some, but not near so many as we have.

Another constructive total loss was "white flight" to the suburbs. You already have a perfectly usable building. Building another one while letting that one fall to ruin is a complete waste of material. Yet that was the fate of many cities from the 1950s to the 1970s, because of 12 cent gasoline.

Now, these constructive total losses do not happen so much. But that doesn't destroy the economic value of building that car and suburb -- much the opposite, the economic value is simply redirected into other things - things which may have enduring value.

For instance I could see the electronics revolution happening sooner. Strides might be made in healthcare. Electronics. Social equality. Renewable energy. Progress. Certainly, given this economic power that was created due to less cars, "high speed rail" is pretty much couch-cushion change. Just look at France, who can easily afford its first-rate high speed rail system.

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    $\begingroup$ OPEC gives us the finger. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Dec 8 '21 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ I was scrolling through the other answers thinking "but what about Eisenhower and the interstates? what if he'd gone for rail instead?" Nicely done. $\endgroup$
    – zwol
    Dec 8 '21 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ OPEC gives you the finger was never going to happen. The USA would immediately have gone to war even if they had to dress as Arabs and blow stuff up to get it started. Desert Storm was about Iraq trying to write contracts in Euros, which threatened the value of USD. Prior to that international oil contracts were exclusively written in USD. This effectively made USD an oil-backed currency while still allowing the US to print money - a way of stealing from the rest of the world. Who was negotiating contracts in Euros? France and Germany, the countries that refused to participate in the war. $\endgroup$
    – Peter Wone
    Dec 8 '21 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterWone an understandable sense, since OPEC has a history of making America dependent on its oil, then delivering oil shocks for political reasons. ( which we never did anything about, note). I was thinking more subtle, and a lot earlier - where America says "Why would we care? We're an oil exporter ourselves, we have loads in Texas." But as Texas runs out, the mentality is "forget OPEC, they're too expensive" and they look to the Canadian tar sands, etc. Of course that results in expensive oil, which means the land yacht age doesn't happen. $\endgroup$ Dec 9 '21 at 21:16
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just build it...

Like roads, bridges, tunnels and the postal service: have a Fiat!-moment and legislate the rails be built and paid for. This could be as part of the NewDeal, or as a national pride thing instead of the moon landing, or as a military fever dream instead of the Manhattan Project. As long as there is rails, there will be users. Hauling a train across the continent is inherently much cheaper than flying a plane the same distance.

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    $\begingroup$ Such a thing would have to go through Congress and would probably be litigated at the supreme court. The US' separation of powers and (two-party system these days) often means progress is very slow compared to some other nations with less decentralized govt and more familiarity with coalition governing. Keep in mind that even parts of FDR's New Deal were shot down/abandoned because they wouldn't fly, politically. $\endgroup$
    – TylerH
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, but just as the Moonshot and the Manhattan Project and the War on <x> did, sometimes financial behemoths get greenlighted. My point is not that one senator introducing the legislation at some specific point in history would have been a surefire way to have this, but rather that, looking back from a future where such a thing exists, it will have been just one of those things. It would not need a slow grassroots movement like womes rights, it would just one day be decided, and then the rest is bureaucracy. $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ The US subsidizes Amtrak to the tune of $1.8B a year for passenger service. Simple; tell 'em that's what it's got to be. In Europe, HSR is "the result of government subsidies." $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Dec 8 '21 at 11:25
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Eisenhower is inspired by WW2 to build a network of strategic train lines:

Dwight Eisenhower was inspired by the German Autobahn to invest in a similar system of roads in the US as a way to prepare US industry and civilians for potential future war.

But what if Hitler's ill-conceived plan to build highways had instead been an expansion of the German Rail system to meet the needs of wartime Germany? The parts of the autobahn that WERE built were mostly useful to the invading American armies, and anything that helped invaders was a bad idea. Instead of being inspired by the autobahn to build an interstate highway system, he was instead inspired to build a network of fast rail lines to allow the US to quickly deploy strategic resources and rapidly evacuate major cities in the event of nuclear attack. High speed rail is inspired to be high-speed strategic freight first.

By 1960, the US is in a competition with the Soviets for nuclear-powered trains, and high-speed trains become the subject of a "train-race" to build the biggest, fastest, and most powerful trains possible. Once the risks of nuclear trains become apparent, nuclear trains become electric maglev trains powered by nuclear reactors along the routes. Abundant long-distance rail reduces investment in airports, and air travel is a thing of businessmen and the rich.

The attractiveness of faster trains and lack of investment in interstate highways and public airports versus military ones would mean that people would increasingly rely on the very extensive and rapid network of trains for long-distance travel. Americans are encouraged to support the train as part of their civic duty. The difficulty of driving and high cost of air travel would mean Americans looked to trains to take them where they wanted to go. Cars simply never captured the imagination of the US like the romance of trains did.

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  • $\begingroup$ @evolva thank you. I thought I had fixed that. In my defense, it's a family sore topic, since the Eisenhowers were Eisenhauers and switched the name. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Dec 20 '21 at 2:06
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Delays in the development of the bicycle

This allows time for the rail network to expand further. (But note in postscript this all boils down to precision bearings.)

Early 19th century had the dandy horse, or Draisine which was essentially a balance bike for adults. Only around 1860 were pedals and cranks added, and then the safety bike in the 1880s. That is only ~25 years before the aeroplane.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, as were many of the proto-automobile and motorbike makers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Had the Bicycle not been popular enough to provide a living for these inventors, the aeroplane and the motor car would have been delayed. Their continual exposure to chains, chainwheels and the idea of lightness would cause the aeroplane and the automobile to come decades slower than it was.

Rail, on the other hand, was a well established concept. The first steam loco was 1804, with intercity rail in the UK in 1825. By 1850 rail was an accepted concept, and railway-mania meant railways were being built all over the first world.

The first Transcontinental US railway was build between 1863 and 1869, predating the (common) bicycle and the automobile in our timeline.

By delaying the bike, therefore the aeroplane, motorbike and automobile, the train could have had decades more to establish itself and gain greater traction. This would result in more track and more right-of-way authority established.


The downside here is that tech of around 1900 would have laid more track, but it would be "steam-compatible" with tighter turns and steeper grades than a modern High Speed Rail network can accept.

Thus, just like the German Autobahn, there would have to be a period of redevelopment in the mid-20th century to modernise and improve the track+bed and to avoid releasing track and right-of-way.

Upshot - Trains and rolling stock are cheap(ish) while land and right of way is expensive.

I want to also highlight Nosajimiki's comment:

One of the biggest things that made late 1800s inventors successful, where inventors in the past had failed, was that every single early airplane design relied in some way on radial ball bearings which were invented in 1869 for use in bicycles to create near frictionless rotation.

This is a superlative point that really is the underlying tech behind my initial suggestion of Bicycles. Without precision ball bearings, we're left with babbit and direct metal on metal contact. These are "adequate" for the speeds of a train, but a car and a plane have parts that spin faster. ago

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    $\begingroup$ Not true about the Wright Brothers. They were a little ahead of the competition, but there were others like Glenn Curtiss who weren't all that far behind: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Curtiss#Aviation_pioneer $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 8 '21 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ A very underappreciated fact is that a lot of the US paved road system was built out to accommodate bicycle traffic in urban areas, long before cars. The long distance highways were simply links between local road networks. If bikes were never popular, most local roads would still be dirt/cobble, cars would be less practical, and trains more attractive. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Dec 8 '21 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Fair enough. I see from your link that Curtiss was involved with motorbikes, which at the time were essentially bicycles with motors. So while I didn't reference motorbikes, with a delay in bicycles there would also be a delay in motorbikes too. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Dec 8 '21 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Glenn Curtiss only got into motor bikes because his first job was as a bicycle messenger. Take away this, and you thrust his carrier down a totally different path. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 8 '21 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Yes, a lot of people were working on avionics at the same time, but nearly the entire community were either bicycle enthusiasts or inspired by bicycle enthusiasts for a reason. Inventors had been seriously trying to achieve flight since at least the Renaissance. One of the biggest things that made late 1800s inventers successful, whereas inventors in the past had failed, was that every single early airplane design relied in some way on radial ball bearings which were invented in 1869 for use in bicycles to create near frictionless rotation. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Dec 8 '21 at 20:03
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Lower average surface air density

If the Earth had the same air density as the existing atmosphere at, say, 10,000 feet, then take-off of passenger jets would be impractical so they wouldn't have been invented.

For passenger trains, however, form drag would be much lower, resulting in much higher efficiency – and therefore, high-speed trains would be ubiquitous.

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    $\begingroup$ High-altitude sickness at sea level seems like it'd be a pretty major change. $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ @WOPR Even with a zero-energy frictionless unobtainium train, you'll never be able to reach HSR speeds in many sections due to the tightness of the curves in the Right of Way. For Example: Raleigh area (NC; SE Corridor) won't be able to go above (iirc) 177 km/h (110 MPH) with currently existing Right of Way. $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ 10000 feet is not enough to make you sick, especially if you'd been acclimated to it since birth. $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie The problem is you need runways nearly twice as long, requiring they be "way far out" where the land can be had, like Mirabel (how popular that airport is). That in turn necessitates high speed rail to the airport... $\endgroup$ Dec 8 '21 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Kutz, most of the geometry-imposed limit is due to passenger comfort and desire to reduce maintenance costs. Banking tracks enables tight curves at high speed, but renders them unusable for freight. Tilting reduces the need for banking, but beats up the tracks & wheel flanges and requires PRISTINE maintenance. Passenger trains can deal with the same grades as a freeway, but beyond a point much steeper than freight trains can handle, start feeling like a roller coaster. Making passengers strap in and secure drinks & belongings like air travelers in turbulence is considered unacceptable $\endgroup$
    – Bitbang3r
    Dec 8 '21 at 18:22
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The cost between any two cities on any route must < the cost of a direct flight between these two cities.

I think the smallest possible change that achieves this is "US doesn't strike oil", or at least not in significant quantities. Rail travel continues to build throughout the 20th century, upgrading to high-speed towards the end. Air travel remains an expensive luxury. Most people commute by train not by car.

Of course, that's a pretty big change! Probably alters the outcome of the war in the Pacific, for example.

Another possibility is if the "too cheap to meter" nuclear advocates turned out to be right. The US does what France did in the postwar era and builds a huge network of nuclear power stations, none of which suffer accidents. Electricity is free. The US starts a TGV-equivalent programme too ...

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Passengers jets were having a very difficult time in the 50's, the DH-106 Comet suffered a series of highly publicized tragic crashes due to metal fatigue. Commercial and passenger confidence in the future of cheap commercial air travel was at an all-time low.

On a demonstration flight of the Boeing 707, test pilot Tex Johnson performed a series of barrel rolls to show off the capabilities of the aircraft; no-one knew that this was intentional, even Boeing's CEO thought something had gone wrong. In your alternative reality he simply doesn't complete the second barrel roll; the excessive stresses on the airframe cause it to break up in flight. Boeing is wound up, no-one ever makes a successful commercial jet aircraft. Air travel still happens, but it's limited to the very wealthy.

As populations increase, expanding the existing train networks becomes the natural way to reduce transit times between major cities.

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If the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (Creating The Interstate System) had included the provision for a right of way between the highways for passenger train service.

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Immigration Acts declared unconstitutional

If the Supreme Court had declared the Immigration Act of 1917 (or 1922, or 1924) unconstitutional – they were controversial at the time – the population may well have increased to the point where high-speed rail would be economically and socially desirable.

China has about 4.5 times the population on about the same land space, although it has even less arable land. In our scenario, the USA would have gained Europeans and Asians fleeing war and dictatorship from 1920–1950+, and taken in further immigrants afterwards, so its population might by this time be comparable to or larger than China's.

Not sure what reason the Supreme Court could have given for this decision, but the court has sometimes been creative with what is or is not constitutional.

It's interesting to speculate on the potential wider implications of this change in US society and the world. (White majority; holocaust; relative power of USA vs. USSR, China, Europe; citizenship laws; "great society"; welfare, etc.) That would be a separate question however. High-speed rail would only be one effect of the change.

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America loses the War of Independence and remains a British colony.

Had this happened, the Victorians would likely have built additional rails all over the USA to move goods and people (the USA being rich in various raw materials that would have been useful to the British). They built railways in lots of other colonies, and America being more culturally aligned with Britain may have seen more investment than some of the other colonies that were more "problematic".

Had that happened, there would be a culture of using rail for longer distance travel (and possibly shorter distance too). The really slow speeds that freight currently has to travel at would likely have been much faster, and certainly so for passenger transport. Where there are single tracks, there would likely be double, or else a second route to the same destinations. From then on, it's a matter of incremental improvement to get to the situation you describe.

This of course is by no means guaranteed. Britain was cris-crossed with countless railways, many of which were woefully uneconomical and could never have worked commercially. Those and many more were torn up and scrapped in the 1960s (the Beeching Cuts), and then decades of underinvestment lead to quite a decline in service quality. Even now, rail travel is a somewhat love/hate sort of thing, at least partly as a result of history. It is possible, likely even, that US railways would have followed a similar path.


The US did have lots of railways, some built during the Victorian era, and some now removed, although some remain of course. Effects and side-effects well noted.

My point here was the (British) Victorians really, really went crazy for railways. Britain was criss-crossed by dozens of lines to every little tiny place. There were actually far more lines that would even vaguely make sense, but they built them anyway. If you think Britain is well covered by rail, before the Beeching cuts, there was at least 30% more rail and 55% more stations (my guess is more has closed than been built since them too).

My assertion here was that had the USA been a colony at that point, it's possible/likely that the cultural similarities and raw materials would have made it a place the British would have similarly invested in (and British culture alone would have encouraged ever more railways, even where not really required). Thus, there may have been far, far more railways than the USA ever had otherwise, and whilst the UK pulled up a lot of theirs, many still remain - that could be true in the USA too. More railways encourages a "rail culture", which could result in investment in high speed rail - granted, it's barely happened in Britain, but American prosperity exceeds that of the UK, so may have delivered where Britain couldn't. Likelihood or lack thereof, well noted also - we're 'world building' after all ;-)

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    $\begingroup$ the British would have brought rail, but HSR? Is there any in Britain? $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Dec 7 '21 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ The Americans DID build lots of railroads during the Victorian era, The small town (~1000 population) where I grew up had a rail line into town, with an occasional train until I was in maybe my early teens, when it was torn up. The old V&T railbed is a short walk from my house, while the northern Sierra is full of remnants of old rail purpose-built for logging. Lots of similar cases: see "Rails to Trails" for examples. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 7 '21 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ The US built railroads over 150 years ago, and it was instrumental in populating the west coast, especially during the gold rush era. theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jul/18/… There are also stories where people riding trains would shoot buffalo for sport. nps.gov/gosp/learn/nature/where-the-buffalo-roamed.htm And Indian tribes were displaced because of it. legendsofamerica.com/rr-indiantroubles $\endgroup$ Dec 7 '21 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ More relevantly, is there any HSR in Canada? They were part of the British Empire until the 20th century. $\endgroup$
    – dan04
    Dec 7 '21 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @dan04 beat me to it, but yeah: Canada is basically Britain's North American colonies with independence delayed 90 years, and in fact major rail lines were critical early nation-building projects, but the decline of passenger rail in favour of roads has paralleled the US. $\endgroup$
    – CCTO
    Dec 7 '21 at 21:28
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Actually inhabit the USA's vast empty space

... and use it for industry, agriculture, and accessible recreation

The US is exceptionally rich and locally varied in its natural resources and climates. Many other answers cited a lack of population across vast, deserted stretches as a key reason why a high speed rail transit system has not been established to connect these areas. Gradually but incessantly converting wasteland areas into populated zones (small cities or towns, with regular separation between them--say, 15-25 miles) and supporting industrial and agricultural use of the surrounding territory would be the only grassroots, effective way to enact the requested change.

Local specialization

If each town or city develops its own local specialty that others lack, the incentive to import that product (or to convey others to that destination for tourism, recreation, etc.) immediately exists, and has the soundest foundation for its source of funding: Free enterprise, local autonomy and the will to prosper.

In a pandemic or post-pandemic setting, and even during any era, this model of population distribution is ideal: The problems of long commutes, expensive real estate prices, rapid disease spread, shortages, crippled supply chains, excessive pollution and de-vegetation are all met optimally by a more decentralized model of residence and work (not fully decentralized, since within limits, city living is still ideal for numerous purposes, but with hard limits on quanta of density, so roughly equivalent to a "small city" format, with 10-20k persons per city). Recent events highlight the economic plagues of lockdowns and other prohibitive measures affecting large cities and businesses in a debilitating way.

The benefits of measured decentralization evidently far outweigh the costs. Intercity and interstate trade would benefit enormously from heightened specialization and correspondingly improved transportation. Moreover against the persistent backdrop of incredible advances in local automation and miniaturization, the myth of the necessity of hyper-urbanization for industrialization or prosperity has been forever shattered.

Decentralized residency

Apart from work requirements, the primary consideration for place of residence and transportation infrastructure is a social one. The rediscovery of the desirability and feasibility of distributed or virtual workforces is a key insight paving the way for a movement towards smaller, more connected local communities at a national scale, which is already desired. The missing element when contemplating a move away from big city life to the country is an unfulfilled desire for proximity to friends, family, and social opportunity.

As it turns out, the optimal work configuration matches the social needs quite nicely. Regardless of the enterprise, there is never a necessity (nor even a utility) of gathering more than 5-10,000 workers on the same campus. This same size of social pool (the workers and their families) affords plenty of conviviality to host all of the refinements desirable for a highly social society; there is no wholesome social endeavor even of the highest quality that would be unattainable for a city of this size. (Most people will probably never make this many acquaintances in a lifetime.)

Of course, families still want to stay connected to those living one or five or twenty cities away, and this would be a key motivator for establishing permanent high-speed rail lines connecting all cities, as it would provide highly efficient and convenient transport for persons as well as commercial goods.

The math is simple: Moving ten hours away from cherished relatives can be a deal-breaker for many. What if most in an extended family were enabled to live comfortably within an hour of each other, despite having diverse occupations, by inhabiting hitherto empty space and upping the speed and convenience of transit? High speed rail lines provide an obvious solution to this problem; even on the low end of speed ratings you could surpass ten cities' linear distance in under an hour of travel time on a non-stop route.

The defense implications of having such a network of transportation are of course vast and enticing as noted elsewhere, but the economic and social backbone is what will make it happen.

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    $\begingroup$ The US does not actually have a whole lot of "vast empty space" that is habitable by significantly more people than live there now. It's mountains, desert, and farm fields. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 8 '21 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Farm fields, deserts, and mountains are all definitely habitable, as I can attest. I have lived in all three types of environs, in thriving towns having populations at least as large as the quantum I specified, sometimes an order of magnitude larger, and even grown into major metropolitan areas. All of these types of empty space are actively being converted into habitable, urbanized and comfortable areas in some parts of the country. Most of the terrain occupied by major cities today in the West and Midwest would have qualified as "desert", "mountains", or "farm land" just 100-180 years ago. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Dec 17 '21 at 18:06
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The Eisenhower Administration Solved Its Problems with Trains

The U.S. Interstate is formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, due to the massive influence of Eisenhower in its construction. Eisenhower was a 28-year-old lieutenant in 1919 when he was part of an army expedition to ascertain the difficulty of military movement across the US. He described that the roads were a "succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes," and was extremely keen on creating a better transportation system.

As Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in WWII, he would later see a forerunner of his solution in the German Reichsautobahn system. If, instead, he were influenced by the European train network instead of the highways, he may well have invested in a national railroad. The US Interstate system is the largest single public works project in the history of mankind (see the Megaprojects section). Its funding going towards railroads, instead, would make long-distance travel by car entirely infeasible by comparison. From there, it's just a short matter of time until high-speed trains evolve as a natural next step in the world's largest railway system

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