When it comes to his favorite mode of transportation, President Joe Biden apparently has a very active imagination.
"What we're really doing is raising the bar on what we can imagine," Biden said in remarks at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. "Imagine a world where you and your family can travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas on a high-speed train close to as fast as you can go across the country in a plane."
Yes, imagine that. You'll have to, because it's not likely to be something you'll ever experience in real life.
For context, the fastest speed that a train has ever achieved—not while carrying passengers, mind you, but just as an experiment—is 357 mph. Over long distances, while carrying passengers and making stops at stations, the world's speediest train is China's Beijing to Nanjing line, which runs at slightly less than 200 mph.
Meanwhile, the average speed of a commercial jet in the United States is about 500 mph.
That's not even close to being an apples-to-apples comparison. After all, planes carrying passengers used to routinely break the sound barrier (roughly 760 mph, though it varies based on atmospheric conditions), and experimental aircraft have gone far faster. Still, the world's fastest train still finishes a distant second when matched up against an average, boring Boeing 737.
In other words, "close to as fast" is doing a lot of heavy lifting in Biden's prediction about the future of transportation in America.
But the more important point has nothing to do with racing trains against planes. Biden's comments on Wednesday are part of a grand tradition of overpromising the potential of high-speed rail—though he might have set a new record for the widest gap between imagination and reality.
Such policy making is how you end up with expensive boondoggles like California's Los Angeles–San Francisco high-speed rail line that's now a Bakersfield–Merced high-speed rail line. In the 13 years since the project was first funded, the overall cost has ballooned from $33 billion to more than $100 billion even as the scope of the project has been downgraded significantly. Most Californians traveling between San Fran and L.A. will continue to fly.
It's also how you end up making decisions based more on marketing the speed of your trains than on the actual speed of your trains. When Amtrak announced in 2016 that its new fleet of Acela trains would have a higher speed of 160 mph, it was supposedly meant to provide passengers with "the experience of the future," according to Amtrak's then-president and CEO, Joe Boardman.
The only problem: There are just three short segments in the Acela corridor where trains are safely allowed to exceed 130 mph. Having trains that can go 160 mph is not the same as trains that actually go 160 mph.
And, of course, none of that is anywhere near the speed of a commercial jet.
There might be ways in which intercity trains can compete with airlines for passengers, but speed is almost certainly never going to be a selling point. Upgrading rail infrastructure might address some of the most common delays for passenger trains—like getting stuck behind a slow freight train, something that delayed Amtrak trains in 2019 by more than a million passenger minutes—so that a trip from New York to Chicago by rail doesn't take a full day. But there's simply no way a train will ever make that 1,100-mile journey in less than two hours, as planes routinely do. There is not a train on the planet capable of going that far in less than five hours while carrying passengers and making stops.
And that assumes that building a national high-speed rail network won't cost more and take longer to build than proponents say—which, as California's experience suggests, it definitely will. Determining the best way to deploy finite government spending on infrastructure upgrades requires a serious analysis of the costs and benefits of different projects—not daydreaming about how cool trains are.
But in Biden's imagination, anything is possible.
"We're going to talk about commercial aircraft flying at subsonic speeds—supersonic speeds," he said Wednesday, before suggesting that future planes would be about to "traverse the world in about an hour, travel 21,000 miles in an hour."
That's roughly 10 times faster than the fastest plane in human history.
There are two possibilities here. Either Biden is just pulling these numbers out of his butt, or the planes of the future are going to be so awesome that they make high-speed rail even more obsolete.