Since 1955, American taxpayers have funded a $1.5 trillion Interstate Highway System and a $500 billion Federal Aviation System. In this century, maintenance alone will not relieve pressure from our crowded highways and airports. Why don’t we build an Interstate High Speed Rail System and expand Rapid Transit like other advanced nations?
From 1971 to 2009, Congress invested only $4 billion to partially upgrade a 437-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor to High Speed Rail (HSR). For the other 22,000 Amtrak corridor miles, an outrageously low $1 billion was invested because HSR naysayers convinced Presidents, Congress and news media that:
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough population density to justify High Speed Rail
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans always prefer short flights
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening highways solves intercity traffic congestion
Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding Interstate High Speed Rail enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or short news article. It takes a sober look at transportation modes that embrace the future, yet begins with the glory days of passenger trains, streetcars and subways. Come with me on this fascinating journey, even if you board as a skeptic.
How Our Rail Legacy Became Vulnerable
America’s intercity passenger trains began in 1830. In an era before automobiles, our railroads grew rapidly nationwide, filling in routes that eventually appeared on the Amtrak System Map shown above. Streetcars were introduced in 1888 by utility companies. In a nation transitioning from horse-drawn carriages, streetcars swiftly blanketed our cities. Chicago (1897), Boston (1901), New York City (1904) and Philadelphia (1907) opened subway lines that complimented streetcar service. All three transportation modes met at train stations and Americans loved them for enhancing mobility.
Though cars were introduced decades earlier, few people could afford them until the the Ford Model T came in 1908 for only $825 ($21,730 today). In 1916, the Federal Aid Road Act allocated $75 million for building roads and adapting select military vehicles for road maintenance. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 provided additional funding for road construction. By 1924, there were 31,000 miles of taxpayer-funded roads — a massive subsidy to America’s automotive industry.
Unlike trains, buses and cars that ran on cheap diesel fuel or gasoline, subways and streetcars are electric-powered. In the early 20th century, electricity was produced mostly from coal, with oil and hydroelectric dams contributing smaller percentages. Excluding a few places where streetcars had access to cheap hydroelectricity, more labor is required to convert coal or oil into electricity, than to refine oil into gasoline and diesel fuel. Therefore, cost per unit of energy for electricity was more expensive than cost per unit of energy for diesel fuel or gasoline. Utility companies subsidized the higher energy cost of subways and streetcars by charging all customers higher electric rates.
Beginning Fall 1929, the Great Depression assaulted the economy. By the early 1930s, up to 40% of Americans were thrown out of work. Though fortunate to retain jobs, few adults could afford cars. So most people took streetcars, subways and buses or walked.
Operating on small profits during the Great Depression, the fortunes of subway and streetcar companies worsened when the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 made it illegal for a business to provide both transport and electricity to the public. One by one, utility companies divested streetcar lines they could no longer subsidize. Subways, being faster and more labor and energy-efficient than buses, maintained profits a while longer.
From 1936-41, utility companies sold 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities to two national streetcar companies owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies. The consortium made its streetcars less desirable by lowering service frequency and maintenance. Public transit agencies saved remaining streetcars and gradually increased their purchase of buses. The consortium became principle backers of the Highway Lobby.
During World War II (December 1941-September 1945), subways and streetcars got a reprieve. America needed oil & natural gas companies to expand refinery capacity to fuel more ships, planes and trains that transported soldiers and materials. Oil, natural gas and metals available to the public were rationed.
As “vital public utilities” to help maintain the economy and support the war effort, subways, streetcars and buses received a healthy ration of electricity and diesel fuel. For example, when military personnel arrived by train at Los Angeles Union Station, the nation’s largest streetcar system transported them, day or night, to the port for war deployment. They fit right in with 70% of LA residents who rode streetcars to work and school.
When World War II ended, oil, natural gas and metal rationing ended. Excess oil refinery capacity made gasoline and diesel fuel cheap. Unlike Europe, Russia and Japan, none of our factories, bridges and seaports were bombed. With the best transportation infrastructure for its time, cheap gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, huge mining reserves and large labor force, America emerged from war as the world’s largest manufacturer. The G.I. Bill coupled with a surging economy enabled veterans to buy their first home. Since most affordable & desirable new homes were in the suburbs, returning veterans accelerated car-buying. That combination produced longer drives to work, school and shopping malls.
Given the high costs for electricity, overhead electric wire & track installation, no transit agency, even if they preferred streetcars, could afford their expansion to new housing districts. Since buses had the same speed, patron capacity and schedule dependability as streetcars, but cheaper diesel fuel, buses cost less to operate transit agencies purchased more buses. To accelerate car, bus, truck, oil and tire demand, the Highway Lobby coveted streetcar rights of way that could be converted into wider roadway.
New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia subways had tunnels and elevated tracks that buses could never match for speed, passenger capacity, schedule dependability and labor per passenger carried. Transit agencies saved them. Since streetcar tunnels did not easily convert to roadway, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Newark and Cleveland transit agencies saved those routes as well. New Orleans streetcars and San Francisco cable cars were spared by devoted citizens who got them designated as National Historic Landmarks. The latter became tourist attractions.
Los Angeles is the mega-size example of forces changing transportation to and within American cities. After World War II, oil refining and defense-aerospace remained LA’s largest industries. A large percentage of veterans relocated to LA for those good-paying blue-collar jobs and great weather. Since there was lots of open space, new housing tracts spread over a 50-mile radius from Downtown LA. With such large distances between work, schools, shopping centers and beaches, Angelenos purchased a higher percentage of cars than other cities.
The consortium-backed Highway Lobby viewed LA streetcar lines as the big prize because at well over 400 miles, it had the nation’s largest streetcar rights of way. Highway Lobby-backed politicians rose to power over most transportation agencies in greater LA. They happily bought more buses. Streetcar tracks were ripped out for wider roadways to handle a larger volume of cars, trucks and buses.
A merger of the two national streetcar companies and rapidly declining streetcar service nationwide prompted congressional hearings in 1946 to review the intent of the consortium controlled by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. After those powderpuff hearings, General Motors supplied even more buses to LA transit agencies.
City of Los Angeles officials welcomed new bus purchases, they hoped that a lawsuit would rescue its ailing 400 miles of streetcar infrastructure. In 1947, the Federal District Court of Southern California indicted the consortium under Sherman Anti-Trust Law. Long story short, the trial was switched to a Midwest federal court sympathetic to the Highway Lobby. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.
Legally unfettered, the consortium-backed Highway Lobby stepped up efforts to rip out streetcar tracks, then dismantle or burn streetcars nationwide. LA had only one short streetcar tunnel into Downtown that required political influence to close. In 1949, the Highway Lobby also celebrated completion of the 4-Level Stack Interchange between two freeways, while severing streetcar service to the Downtown LA tunnel.
The LA streetcar-death-spiral played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for Highway Lobby-backed transportation agencies to nail the coffins.
Federal Regulation & Funding Policy Weaken Intercity Passenger Rail
Though automotive and oil companies formed a Highway Lobby in 1932, by 1949, the lobby expanded membership to freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters and road construction companies. With cars, buses and trucks multiplying like ant colonies on a food trail, the fuel tax accelerated paving of national highway. Since gasoline cost under 10 cents per gallon, driving at highway speeds was cheap fun — some of the time.
In 1950, few National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to unbanked curves, insufficient guard rails & signage, too many bumps, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew that better highways were needed to convert America from streetcars and subways to an auto-centric lifestyle. To achieve that goal, automotive companies marketed cars as “personal freedom.” Oil companies expanded service stations along boulevards and national highways. In an era of only three TV networks and a few national radio programs, automotive and oil companies became the biggest program sponsors. Their marketing pitch was to demand more and better highways to increase your freedom and choose better gasoline for higher automotive performance.
America already had a few limited access, non-stop highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway intersecting Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste of higher speeds. Knowing that an intercity network of limited access, non-stop highways would jolt America into an auto-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle convincing President Truman and Congress to fund it.
Something more happened. By interconnecting cities with limited-access non-stop highways, the Highway Lobby would add railroads to its crosshairs.
By 1950-51, the Highway Lobby convinced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that network of limited access, non-stop highways and interchanges would boost business productivity, jobs and product distribution. Since the population and economy were growing, the Chamber allied with the Highway Lobby. Together, they asked Congress and President Truman to fund a system of intercity limited access, non-stop highways. They won over many in Congress, but President Truman was pre-occupied funding the Korean War. He only authorized $50 million in the Federal Aid Highway Act that would take effect in 1952.
America’s intercity passenger trains used to reach 100-120 mph top speed with stops every 25-75 miles, producing 80-90 mph average speeds and significantly shorter journey times than automobiles. Horrific train-ramming-train accidents occasionally happened due to inadequate signaling and lack of siding track for malfunctioning trains to pull aside. Such accidents were rare until sprawling suburbs and growing towns built more roads that crossed railroad tracks. Too many people took deadly risks crossing them. The Highway Lobby reminded President Truman, Congress and news media of every such accident to escalate public outcry for federal railroad regulation.
The safest way to preserve train speed was to build more parallel tracks, railroad overpasses/underpasses, improve train signaling and fence-off tracks in urbanized areas. Since railroad profits were thin, they could not afford those expensive upgrades. And given the sordid pre-1929 history of railroad company anti-trust behavior, Congress and President Truman had no predisposition to fund those upgrades. Instead, Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation on 31 December 1951 that effectively limited trains to 79 mph top speed and shortened stopping distances.
Federal regulations also decreed that passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains must have heavy locomotives like freight trains for train-ramming-train-crash-safety. An unintended consequence is that heavy locomotives do not accelerate or brake as fast. And since suburban growth built more roadways crossing tracks, intercity passenger trains slowed to about 60 mph to safely approach suburban areas. As a result, passenger trains fell to only 50-60 mph average speed.
President Eisenhower Launches Interstate Highway System
In January 1953, General Eisenhower was sworn in as President. In July 1953, the Korean War ended, but income tax rates on the wealthy remained high. After paying down some war debt, Eisenhower and Congress were anxious to use those taxes on infrastructure projects to increase jobs and business productivity. Those conditions and a former 5-star general’s transportation perspective caused Eisenhower to go all in for limited access, non-stop highways.
During World War II, General Eisenhower admired how the Autobahn network of limited-access non-stop freeways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops throughout Germany. When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby called on him as President Eisenhower about similar highways for America, he knew they could also be used for national defense and emergencies. In that manner, President Eisenhower benefited from three powerful united interests (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Highway Lobby, Department of Defense) in his sales job to Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby produced films and other data that convinced President Eisenhower and Congress to plan an interstate network of freeways like Arroyo Seco Parkway and Hollywood Freeway, rather than tollways like Pennsylvania Turnpike. Oil companies said that America had enough oil to be self-sufficient well into the 21st Century. Automotive companies assured President Eisenhower that faster autos driving more miles on freeways would consume more gasoline, producing more fuel tax to fund Interstate Highways. They swore that more jobs would be created in every state.
As it turns out, higher fuel tax was insufficient to build the Interstate Highway System and no one had an appetite for higher taxes. So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby helped Eisenhower convince a majority of Congress to transfer a percentage of general taxes towards the Highway Trust Fund. Only then could we fund the Interstate Highway System.
With all the stars aligned, President Eisenhower could not have timed a better introduction for his National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Plan in 1955. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby marketed the plan, while the Department of Defense added backroom muscle influencing Congress. In 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the combination of fuel and general taxes to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.” That investment has the same buying power as $220 billion in 2016.
Initially, the federal government paid for 85-90% and states paid the balance of Interstate Highway construction. In contrast, railroad companies paid for 100% of route construction and maintenance.
With few exceptions, the federal government allowed states to own each Interstate Highway. Thus, each state posts speed limits they judge safe for a stretch of highway, based on straightness and elevation. The fastest legal speed, 85 mph, was posted in the straight flat areas of western states. States took pride of ownership for highways, not railroads owned by private companies.
Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeways, drivers only paid for cheap gasoline, oil and fuel tax. Given that every driver, whether they rode highways or not, paid fuel taxes and general taxes funded a percentage of Interstate Highway construction, freight truckers enjoyed lower operating costs than freight trains.
Intercity bus lines passed along roadway cost savings as lower fares, which siphoned away many 50-300 mile train rides. Car renters could also charge less for rentals, encouraging more family vacation drives than train rides.
Few could argue that Interstate Highways were not good for America. Cheap oil was plentiful. Interstate Highway construction spurred growth in automotive, oil, freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car rentals, hotel and tourism industries, leading unemployment to 4% or less during much of the Eisenhower Administration. Those hey-day 1950s led General Motors executives to boast, “What’s good for GM is good for the nation.”
Funding International Airports Kills Intercity Passenger Rail
Even where Interstate Highway enabled 75 mph average speed, few business travelers wanted to drive solo over 4 or 5 hours between large cities. Then in October 1958, Boeing launched the Commercial Jet Age. Boeing 707 jets cruised faster (500-550 mph) and were pressurized to fly above 30,000 feet to cut a major hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. As soon as airports offered more airline routes, business travelers switched from trains to jets.
Promising more aviation-related jobs for each metro area, all Chambers of Commerce influenced federal, state and local politicians to allocate more land and fund large airport construction via general taxes and bonds. The Highway Lobby backed them because airport highways and oil-based jet fuel consumption would expand as well. Business travelers loved flying 300-3000 miles in 1 to 5 hours. But government aid to airline companies robbed railroad companies of premium-fare, long distance business travelers. Evaporating profits forced most intercity passenger trains to cease operations. To survive, railroad companies focused on transporting heavy cargo unfeasible for freight trucks — coal in particular.
The excess passenger rail routes of railroad companies were sold to transit agencies in NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and San Francisco Bay Area, where taxpayers could subsidize most of their operation. Under transit agencies, many passenger rail routes were reimagined as commuter rail routes radiating from central business districts to deep in the suburbs.
As the economy grew, freight rail shipments increased, enabling companies to add siding track in more places. But railroad companies let larger chunks of track slip to 69 or 59 mph top speed status.
In 1963, America felt better about the economy, President Kennedy lowering taxes and avoiding war with Russia and Cuba. Shortly before his assassination, Kennedy pushed for more Interstate Highway, International Airport and Rapid Transit funding, effective in 1964.
President Johnson followed through on Kennedy’s plan by announcing that the Great Society Program would allocate funding for rapid transit projects. In July 1964, President Johnson started the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with a $375 million federal allocation. He said that larger UMTA funding to come would provide at least 50% of Rapid Transit projects.
Unfortunately, the Vietnam War start-up in August 1964 changed priorities. With the Vietnam War sucking away the lion’s share of federal funds by 1966, there was less money for transportation projects. At a smaller transportation budget table, Interstate Highway projects eat first and International Airport projects eat second. That left relatively small Transit funding for the nation, which be default, limited Rapid Transit project funding projects.
By 1967, a large chunk of the planned Interstate Highway System opened. On freeways, drivers commonly averaged 65-75 mph for 2 to 5 hours. That was 10-20 mph faster than intercity passenger trains. Having lost speed and profitability advantages to jets as well, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling slow speed scenery and comfort over long journeys, like the California Zephyr. The market for long distance slow travel is however, very small.
American transportation mode change was profound. In 1950, there were 9,000 fast passenger trains carrying 50% of intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were only 450 slow passenger trains carrying 7% of intercity traffic. Low passenger volume could not save the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once the largest union of black employees, it became the unfortunate answer to a trivia question.America built the world’s most comprehensive freeway system and enlarged international airports. Most streetcar tracks were removed to widen avenues and boulevards that fed freeways.
By 1970, LA’s automotive and aviation lifestyles marketed in movies and TV programs, inspired transportation models nationwide. Even the streetcar tracks to Los Angeles Union Station were removed. LAX became a thriving world-class airport, while Los Angeles Union Station was nearly a ghost town.
Following LA’s lead, old train stations nationwide were demolished, shuttered, converted to non-transportation use or nearly ghost towns. An insidious narrative was complete. America’s privately-owned intercity passenger trains and streetcars were killed by corporate collusion influencing federal regulation against railroads, coupled with exclusive federal grants to highways and airports.
Amtrak Becomes A Flicker Of Hope For Intercity Passenger Trains
In 1971, President Nixon was consumed by the Vietnam War, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped him understand that population expansion to suburbs was increasing suburb-to-downtown drives. They in turn, were generating traffic congestion that constrained the flow of business goods & services. In 1973, the first OPEC Oil Embargo increased President Nixon’s influence with Congress to modestly increase UMTA funding. That sped up construction of rapid transit projects in a handful of cities. Nixon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also convinced Congress to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies as “Amtrak” and partially subsidized the new company’s operation.
Despite Nixon continuing to fund rapid transit projects, Congress continued awarding Interstate Highways and International Airports the lion’s share of federal transportation grants. Amtrak remained a funding orphan. Without federal grants for railroad overpasses/underpasses, track upgrades and a faster train control system to enable 110-120 mph top speed again, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving American heritage.
In 1974, President Ford also enacted the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit to conserve gasoline. In defiance, people commonly drove 65 mph. In 1976, President Ford convinced Congress to fund a faster train control system, track repairs and better crossing arms for the Amtrak NYC-Washington rail corridor to reach 90 mph again.
In 1978, President Carter convinced Congress to fund the elimination of road crossings and urban fencing in NYC-Washington rail corridor within a decade. Also that year, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel — sparking lower airfares, more regional flights and more taxpayer-funded international airport expansion.
In December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. Overnight, long lines formed to refill gasoline tanks. To conserve oil, President Carter ordered enforcement of the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. Considering re-fueling hassles and slower speeds, most people refused to drive over 2 hours, crippling tourism in the Stagflation Era.
The downtick in economic activity chastened President Carter and Congress to boost UMTA funding for rapid transit projects and conversion of 6 surviving streetcar routes to faster, higher capacity Light Rail. Carter also proposed a world-class Boston-NYC-Washington High Speed Rail project. If successful, the latter would spark High Speed Rail projects around the nation.
Competition for federal transportation grants did not sit well with the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. They convinced Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before voting on President Carter’s proposal.
Within months after the December 1979 Oil Crisis, other nations sold us more oil that returned gasoline prices to a comfortable, yet slightly higher level. Gasoline lines disappeared. Though the National Highway Speed Limit remained 55 mph, people commonly exceeded it by 10 mph again. Under those conditions, funding a world-class HSR system in the Boston-NYC-Washington corridor wilted.
In 1980 President Carter did however, obtain a small grant for NYC-Washington rail corridor segment and deregulate freight rail to restore some of its competitive edge versus freight trucking.
Congressmen outside the Northeast, Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area knew that Amtrak and UMTA funding did not resonate with their constituency. Once President Reagan arrived in 1981, those congressmen, aided by Highway and Aviation lobbies, started a false narrative that Amtrak and UMTA funding represent “Social Welfare for the Poor“, at the same time they promoted Highways and Airports to be vital public utilities deserving of taxpayer funds. Another false narrative by the Highway Lobby was to portray slow public buses as a less expensive viable alternative to Rapid Transit.
When Carter-funded railroad overpasses and urban fencing completed in 1984, electric-powered Amtrak returned to 110 mph top speed in the NYC-Washington corridor segment and 79 mph top speed in the Boston-NYC corridor segment. Meanwhile, Japan, France and Italy leaped ahead with electric-powered 155-168 mph High Speed Rail corridors by the same year.
From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I are most responsible for politics that treated Amtrak and Rapid Transit as Social Welfare. Reagan and Bush I convinced a majority of Congress to subsidize more slow buses, cripple Amtrak funding and constrain Rapid Transit funding. In contrast, they awarded princely grants to Interstate Highway and International Airport expansion. For example, $4.8 billion was spent on Denver International Airport alone, most of it federally funded.
Which High Speed Rail Success Model Fits America?
By the time President Clinton took office in January 1993, the large increase in regional flights was congesting large airports more than long-distance flights. A drive to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, flight, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi to local destinations ballooned the shortest Journey Time for regional flights from 2 hours to 3 hours.
To combat airport congestion caused by regional flights, Japan, Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, United Kingdom and Germany expanded or started building HSR in high-traffic corridors. Having political, economic and terrain conditions most similar to America’s, France merits closer examination.
The major cities of France were spared from World War II bombing, but many railroad overpasses/underpasses needed repair to resume 106-112 mph (170-180 kph) passenger rail service. When the European battles of World War II ended in May 1945, France immediately started those repairs. Though it never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline, the democratic-market economy of France produced household income and strong citizen rights similar to ours. France also had large automotive and freight trucking lobbies prodding government to expand the 81 mph-Autoroute tollway system spread across a country the size of Texas. It had a large defense-aerospace industry urging government to expand airports for international flights.
When HSR planning started in 1971, France’s 54 million residents had a strong say in land-takings for any transportation mode. In other words, enough protesters could overturn Imminent Domain. The pressure was on to make the first French HSR route a success or future construction funding would be cut-off.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart. Autoroute often clogged from the Belgian border through Paris and Lyon to Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea. Paris has built a large Metro system since 1900. Lyon opened its Metro system in 1978 and has rapidly expanded. Both Metro systems would feed French HSR train stations.
When electric-powered 168 mph service called “TGV” opened on HSR-only tracks between Paris and Lyon in 1981, French Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured the government to make it prove operating success before expansion. TGV success came quickly, as fatigued Autoroute drivers between Paris and Lyon welcomed the short and comfortable Journey Time alternative. The absence of diesel fumes by electric-powered TGV trains also permitted train stations to shield outside weather for a pleasant all-season travel experience.
By 1988, TGV upgraded to 186 mph, train frequency was increased and coach fares lowered. More auto travelers switched to the time, hassle and cost savings of TGV.
By 1993, TGV-Metro stations of Paris and Lyon hosted as many restaurants, cafes, shops, shuttles, taxis and nearby hotels as an international airport. New HSR routes sprouted from Paris to Tours, LeMans, Lille, Calais and Brussels and from Lyon south to Valence. TGV was planned to go south of Valence to the third largest city in France, Marseilles. The Channel Tunnel enabling Paris-London HSR service was scheduled to open in 1994.
Wherever a TGV station integrated Metro subway or tramway (Light Rail) station, train passengers made more side-trips along the route. The French discovered that TGV + Metro stations rejuvenated cities along each HSR route with increased tax revenue from domestic and international tourists. Freight truckers appreciated less congestion on Autoroute as well.
If America mustered the same political will-power, we could replicate French TGV + Metrorail success.
Bill Clinton Funded Our Poorly Executed First High Speed Rail Route
By 1993, Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph, which meant people drove 65-90 mph top speed. Factoring in stops and toll stations driving in the Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, drivers averaged about 60 mph. Given Americans proclivity for cars by then, Amtrak would have to average significantly faster speed to attract more riders in the Northeast Corridor.
The Clinton Administration referenced the French TGV system as the model for Northeast Corridor HSR. Emerging from recession, he allocated economic stimulus funds to upgrade the Northeast Corridor for HSR service. He allocated slightly more grants towards Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington rapid transit projects as well.
Unfortunately, Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation followed those wise decisions with critical HSR construction mistakes. When Amtrak Acela service started in 2001, those mistakes limited top speed between NYC and Washington to 135 mph for a modest percentage of miles. Factoring in remaining Slow Zones, Acela only reached 84 mph average speed in that rail corridor. Plagued by even more Slow Zones between NYC and Boston, Acela only averaged 63 mph, despite achieving 150 mph top speed for 18 miles.
As you might imagine, Acela patronage grew substantially higher in the Washington-NYC corridor segment than the Boston-NYC corridor segment.
Since the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby did not want successful Acela service spawning competition from an Interstate High Speed Rail System, they exploited Clinton Administration mistakes by funding Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks to disseminate analyst reports, interviews and news articles to amplify the “Amtrak is Social Welfare” false narrative into a political football. Their disinformation succeeded to the point where many Americans who travel abroad never ask, “If High Speed Rail is succeeding elsewhere, why not here?
Averaging a decrepitly slow 50-60 mph and few daily trains outside the Northeast Corridor, few Americans rode trains. Without higher patronage, Amtrak was forced to beg for federal and state subsidies. In return for tax subsidies, many rural congressmen and governors forced Amtrak to maintain once or twice daily Slow Zone routes through their congressional districts and states. Calling those slow routes “Social Welfare” in 2004, President Bush II tried to kill Amtrak.
Opportunity To Restore Intercity Passenger Rail
American rail routes are mostly owned by freight train companies and to a lesser degree, by pubic transit agencies. By law, freight train companies and transit agencies lease Amtrak trains access to their tracks. Since leasing fees are low, freight train companies have no incentive to upgrade infrastructure for high speed. Nor do transit agencies have extra funds lying around. Consequently, most of America’s intercity passenger rail is plagued with “Slow Zones” that limit most Amtrak trains to 50-60 mph average speed and:
• 1 or 2 daily trains
• regulation & old signaling systems
• excessively curvy & old tracks
• antiquated bridges and tunnels
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track
• slow freight and commuter trains limiting faster Amtrak trains sharing their tracks
As bad as Slow Zones are for Amtrak, they are fine for freight trains and tolerable for commuter rail trains.
Fortunately, a positive HSR narrative is emerging. Though Acela HSR is mediocre by world standards, by 2006 that route started operating at a profit. Congressmen and governors funded small Amtrak projects proposed by Departments of Transportation (DOT) in California, Washington and the Northeastern states that reduced Slow Zones to restore speed, increase daily trains and improve punctuality. As a result, their patronage posted significant gains and reduced operating subsidies from states.
Electric-powered Amtrak Keystone service in Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph top speed & 6 daily trains to 110 mph top speed & 13 daily trains. The speed and frequency boost attracted so many new patrons that operating budget is approaching break-even. From that evidence, dozens more state DOTs concluded that reducing Slow Zones for faster, frequent trains is more efficient and cheaper than widening highways.
On the heels of Amtrak patronage growth, the Institute for Civil Engineers and the well-respected Brookings Institution agreed that America needs an Interstate High Speed Rail System. Many state DOTs hoped a change in sentiment by the next Congress and President would allocate more federal funds for higher train speeds and more trains per day.
California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to help build a world-class HSR system. State DOTs convinced 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties to support HSR projects. President-elect Obama could measure their support by applications for $75 billion of federal funds for intercity passenger rail projects.
President Obama Kickstarts Interstate High Speed Rail
In 2010, America finally progressed towards Interstate High Speed Rail. President Obama directed $8 billion in economic stimulus funds to more passenger rail corridors selected for speed, frequency and safety upgrades. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, he directed another $5 billion over 5 years. A few months afterwards, Congress allocated $2 billion more and another $3 billion came from various states towards Amtrak projects.
America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, began upgrading intercity passenger rail amidst two wars and the Great Recession. His actions suggest a poetic bookend to President Lincoln who authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad amidst the Civil War.
The $18 billion investment by Obama and several governors is paying off. Slow Zones were reduced and new Amtrak trains were added in the Northeast Corridor, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy has declined to only 15% of operating budget due to growing patronage on these upgraded routes. More of Amtrak’s federal funding can allocated to train speed and frequency upgrades. So what’s not to like?
Aware that $18 billion would not solve passenger rail issues nationwide, President Obama envisioned an interstate transportation solution that glues isolated HSR projects together. He wanted to “kick-start an Interstate High Speed Rail System to serve 80% of Americans by 2035.” If successful, President Obama would create a transportation legacy similar to President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.
American taxpayers have proven they are willing to invest in transportation modes that go where and when we want to go. The inflation-adjusted $220 billion Interstate Highway System planned in 1955, cost $1 trillion to complete. Since 2010, that system has been ready for maintenance mode to repair highway surfaces, interchanges and bridges. We also spent about $500 million on airports and related aviation infrastructure.
Since America needed more jobs emerging from the Great Recession and the multi-year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for renewal in summer 2010, President Obama believed that timing was right to begin building an Interstate High Speed Rail System, expand Rapid Transit, and repair Highways. Transportation grants would spread across all 50 states. What happened?
Observe the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program Map below, then ask yourself:
• Why is no Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati HSR route underway?
• Why does Southeast HSR construction stop in Charlotte, rather than 3-times larger Atlanta?
• Why doesn’t Texas-Oklahoma have a HSR route under construction?
• Why did Florida turn down federal grants for a 185 mph HSR system for a mostly 79 mph rail line?
Though U.S. and state Chambers of Commerce warmed to High Speed Rail and the Aviation Lobby has stopped its vocal opposition, the Highway Lobby is deathly scared of it. Congress buckled to the Highway Lobby. They chose to defund HSR projects and underfund Rapid Transit projects relative to the scale of need through out America.
In contrast to America, nearly every other leading or emerging nation is expanding HSR and Rapid Transit, as summarized in Part 2.