Amtrak has announced it will spend $2.4 billion to upgrade its fleet of Acela trains by 2019. The new locomotives, which will run between Washington, D.C., and Boston, will have a top speed of 160 mph. That’s about 25 mph faster than the Acela can go now—but don’t expect them to save you much time travelling up and down the East Coast.
The current Acela trains are technically able to hit 135 mph, but they almost never reach that number. The average speed for the typical Washington-to-New York Acela run is less than 80 mph, for reasons that have nothing to do with the machines themselves. Blame tracks congested by slower-moving commuter trains and rail infrastructure that can’t handle high-speed vehicles. That won’t change with the purchase of sleek new trains.
The Obama administration has spent almost eight years insisting that railroads are the transportation system of the future. Yet its grand plans to reshape how Americans travel keep running into pesky 21st century realities, like the fact that most of the U.S. is not densely populated enough to make high-speed rail work the way it does in Japan or Germany—or the fact that there’s a limited amount of space on train lines in the Northeast, the only part of the country where train travel actually makes sense.