Since the 1950s, our Presidents and Congress have invested $2 trillion building the Interstate Highway System and Federal Aviation System. As transportation history informs us, they lacked similar will to invest in Interstate High Speed Rail due to illegal corporate practices and flawed federal policy. The status quo can not continue. Disturbing trends warn us to greatly expand High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit by 2035 or face dire consequences.
From 1971 to 2010, Congress invested $4 billion to partially upgrade a 437-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor to High Speed Rail (HSR). For the other 22,000 Amtrak corridor miles, only $1 billion was invested because HSR naysayers convinced Presidents, Congress and news media that:
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans prefer flying over intercity passenger trains
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, America don’t have enough population density to justify HSR
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, American cities don’t have enough Rapid Transit to help HSR succeed
• Americans always prefer driving Interstate Highways over riding intercity passenger trains
• Widening Interstate 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Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. And they never mention that taxpayers built and expanded our international airports. For example, $4.8 billion of taxpayer money was invested in Denver International Airport alone.
Understanding High Speed Rail enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or short news articles. It takes a sober look at how to balance transportation modes well into the future, yet begins with the glory days of trains, subways and streetcars. Come with me on this fascinating journey, even if you board as a skeptic.
America’S Passenger Rail Legacy Was Vulnerable
Intercity passenger rail began in 1830, then swiftly grew nationwide. Beginning 1888, electric streetcars blanketed our major cities. From 1892-1906, Chicago, Boston, New York City and Philadelphia opened subway lines. All three transportation modes met at train stations and Americans loved them for enhancing quality of life.
Unlike trains and buses that ran on cheap diesel fuel, subways and streetcars are electric-powered. Before World War II ended, nearly all electricity was produced from oil, coal and hydroelectric dams. Excluding a few places where subways and streetcars had access to cheap hydroelectricity, more labor is required to convert coal or oil into electricity than to refine oil into gasoline & diesel fuel. Therefore, cost per unit of energy for electricity was generally more expensive than cost per unit of energy for diesel fuel. Most subway and streetcar lines were owned by utility companies who, aware of the higher energy cost factor, subsidized their operation by charging all customers higher electricity rates.
Beginning Fall 1929, the Great Depression assaulted the economy. Soon, nearly 40% of Americans were thrown out of work. Most adults fortunate to retain jobs, could not afford cars. So they took streetcars and subways.
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 subway and streetcar lines.
From 1936-45, 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 gradually made streetcars less desirable by lowering service frequency and maintenance. At the same time, they influenced public transit agencies to introduce buses as alternatives to streetcars on many new routes. Subways, having higher passenger & revenue volume per unit of energy consumed, remained independent a while longer.
Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a reprieve during World War II (December 1941-September 1945). America needed oil companies to expand refinery capacity and railroads to transport soldiers and materials. Otherwise, oil, natural gas and metals were rationed. People not shipped off to battle maintained the economy at home. As Vital Public Utilities, subways, streetcars and buses received a larger ration of electricity and oil to transport workers and students.
Intercity passenger trains conveyed soldiers to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for war deployment. When they arrived at Los Angeles Union Station, the nation’s largest streetcar system transported troops to the ports and workers to defense factories — 70% of LA residents rode streetcars.
When World War II ended, rationing ended. Excess oil refinery capacity that made gasoline cheap and metals widely available again. America emerged as the world’s largest manufacturing employer. The G.I. Bill coupled with a surging economy enabled veterans to buy their first home in suburban housing tracts. That triggered more car-buying for longer drives to work, college, hospitals, shopping, dining and sports venues.
Crippled with higher unit costs for electricity and buses eroding patronage, private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding tracks to new housing tracts. The consortium coveted streetcar line rights of way to convert into additional roadway for more cars, trucks and buses. That in turn, would increase oil and tire demand.
New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia subways used dedicated tunnels and elevated tracks to maintain speed, frequency, dependability and safety advantages over buses and cars. Since subways were vital public utilities, transit agencies were formed and taxpayers voted to purchase private subway lines at fire-sale prices, then use tax revenue to partially subsidize passenger fares. San Francisco also spared a couple streetcar lines that ran through tunnels and hill-climbing cable cars.
Oil, not Hollywood, was LA’s largest boom industry. Defense Weapons plants converted to aerospace industry after the war. A large percentage of veterans relocated to Los Angeles for those blue-collar jobs. Since greater LA had lots of open space, new housing tracts spread over a 50-mile radius from Downtown LA. Angelenos purchased a higher percentage of cars than other cities.
The consortium viewed Los Angeles streetcar lines as the big prize because at 400 miles, it had the nation’s largest streetcar rights of way. The consortium backed auto-oil-centric politicians rise to power over LA transportation policy. They convinced transportation agencies to expand highways, convert many streetcar routes to wide boulevards, reduce streetcar service, and purchase more buses. LA had only one short streetcar tunnel into Downtown that required political influence to close.
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 transit agencies.
Some Los Angeles officials hoped that a lawsuit would rescue its ailing streetcar companies. 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 cars and highways. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.
Legally unfettered, the consortium stepped up efforts to convert streetcar avenues to wider boulevards, then dismantle or burn streetcars nationwide. Also in 1949, the 4-Level Stack Freeway Interchange completed in LA, severing streetcar service to the Downtown LA tunnel. The LA streetcar-death-spiral played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for transit agencies to nail the coffins.
Federal Regulation & Policy Weaken Intercity Passenger Rail
Though consortium 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 national fuel tax accelerated paving of national highway. Since gasoline cost under 10 cents per gallon, driving at highway speeds was cheap fun — until the next stoplight or stop sign.
In 1950, few U.S. National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to bumps, dips, uneven curves, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew that better, faster highways were needed to fully convert America to an auto-centric lifestyle. To achieve that goal, automotive companies marketed cars as personal freedom. Oil companies expanded service stations along boulevards and intercity highways. In an era of only three TV networks with automotive and oil industries as the biggest TV & Radio 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 highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway intersecting Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste of limited access, non-stop driving at higher speeds. Knowing that a network of non-stop intercity highways would jolt America into an auto-oil-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to convince the President and Congress to help fund it. By interconnecting cities with super-highways, an ambitious Highway Lobby would add intercity railroads to its crosshairs.
Asking for taxpayer funds to change American lifestyles was a non-starter. So in 1951, the Highway Lobby approached President Truman and Congress about funding limited-access, non-stop intercity highways to boost business productivity. They won over many in Congress, but 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.
Intercity passenger trains used to reach about 110 mph with stops every 25-75 miles, producing 80-90 mph average speeds. Trains had significantly shorter journey times than automobiles. But occasionally, horrific train-ramming-train accidents occurred due to inadequate safety signaling and lack of siding track for malfunctioning trains to pull aside. Sprawling suburbs and growing towns created more and busier roads that crossed railroad tracks. Too many people took deadly risks crossing in front of oncoming trains.
The Highway Lobby reminded President Truman, Congress and news media of every such accident to escalate public outcry for federal regulation. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to increase the safety of roadways crossing railroad tracks.
The safest way to preserve train speed was to build railroad overpasses, improve train signaling and fence-off tracks in urban areas. Since railroad profits were thin, they could not afford those expensive upgrades. The sordid pre-1929 history of privately-owned railroad company anti-trust behavior also worked against the industry.
Given that backstory, Congress and President Truman would not fund overpasses, siding tracks and fencing for private railroad companies. Instead, Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation on 31 December 1951 that effectively limited trains to 79 mph top speed. Factoring in stops reduced intercity passenger trains to 55-65 mph average speed. Federal regulations also decreed that all trains sharing the same tracks must have heavy locomotives, like freight trains, for crash-worthiness safety. An unintended consequence is that American trains run slower than international counterparts.
The Highway Lobby must have popped champagne.
President Eisenhower Launches Interstate Highway System
In January 1953, President Eisenhower arrived. In July 1953, the Korean War ended and high income tax rates finally started reducing our National Debt. Congress was anxious to start infrastructure projects to increase jobs and business productivity. Those conditions and a 5-star general’s transportation perspective influenced Eisenhower to go all in for non-stop highways.
During World War II, General Eisenhower admired how the Autobahn network of straighter, limited-access highways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops in Germany. When the Highway Lobby called on him as President Eisenhower about similar super-highways for America, he noted that they could also be used for national defense and emergencies. In that manner, President Eisenhower united Highway Lobby interests with Military interests.
The Highway Lobby produced videos 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. Automotive companies assured Congress and President Eisenhower that higher-power autos driving more miles on freeways would consume more gasoline, producing more fuel tax to fund interstate freeways.
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 Highway Lobby joined Eisenhower exerting influence with Congress to transfer a percentage of general taxes towards the Highway Trust Fund. Combining general taxes with fuel taxes in the Highway Trust Fund, we built Interstate Highways.
A virtuous cycle was created. Better highways accelerated economic productivity that produced higher tax revenues, that helped reduce National Debt accumulated from World War II and the Korean War.
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 Highway Lobby marketed the plan, while the Military-Industrial Complex added backroom muscle with 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.”
Initially, the federal government paid for 85-90% of the Interstate Highway System. Yet with few exceptions, it 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. Under good weather and light traffic, cops let people drive 5-10 mph over speed limits.
Above-the-speed-limit behavior for 3 to 5 hours on freeways with one stop in between enabled 70-75 mph average speed between destinations — speeds faster than intercity passenger trains after 1951. Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeways, drivers only paid for cheap gasoline, oil and a small registration fee. Given general taxes funded a large percentage of Interstate Highways, intercity bus lines, car renters and freight truckers enjoyed lower operating costs as well. In contrast, railroad companies paid for 100% of track construction and maintenance.
Enjoying infrastructure cost advantages over railroads, intercity bus lines passed along savings as lower fares than intercity passenger rail, hence the rise of Greyhound Bus Lines. Freight trucking narrowed the shipping cost gap with freight rail too.
Few could argue that the Interstate Highway System and state highways were not good for America. We had plentiful cheap oil. Highway construction spurred growth in automotive, oil, freight trucking, intercity bus lines and tourism industries, leading unemployment to 4% or less during much of the Eisenhower Administration. The 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 between large cities enabled 75 mph average speed, relatively few people wanted to drive solo for over 6 hours. 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 the biggest hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. Business travelers loved flying 500-3000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days by train. They swiftly changed to jets.
Promising more aviation-related jobs for each metro area, chambers of commerce influenced federal, state and local politicians to allocate land and fund large airport construction via general taxes and bonds. This government aid to private airline companies robbed private railroad companies of premium-fare, long distance travelers. Smaller profit margins forced most intercity passenger trains to cease.
The railroad industry survived by consolidation and mothballing most passenger trains to focus on high-volume, heavy cargo unfeasible for freight trucks — coal in particular. 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 into status suitable for only 49-59 mph.
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 highways, airports and rapid transit funding, effective 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 UMTA funding would increase to anchor at least 50% of rapid transit projects nationwide.
Unfortunately in August 1964, Vietnam War ramp-up reduced the federal transportation budget. At a smaller budget table, Interstate Highway projects ate first and Federal Aviation projects ate second. That left scraps for UMTA. Aside from NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland (opened a subway line in 1955), only rapid transit projects in San Francisco-Oakland, Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami were chosen for federal funding.
Having lost speed and profitability advantages to jets, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling the benefits of scenery and comfort over long journeys, like the California Zephyr. There is only a small market for travel patrons without time constraints.
In 1950, there were 9,000 faster passenger trains in service carrying nearly 50% of intercity traffic. By 1970, there were only 450 slower passenger trains in operation 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.
By 1970, America had a poster child for replacement of older transportation modes with new ones. In Los Angeles, streetcar tracks were removed to widen boulevards and America’s most comprehensive freeway system. LAX became a busy world-class airport, while Los Angeles Union Station was practically a ghost town. LA’s automotive and aviation lifestyles marketed in movies and TV programs, inspired the transportation network model for America. Other cities raced to build Interstate Highways and International Airports. Classic train stations were demolished, shuttered or converted to non-transportation use.
The narrative was complete. Corporate collusion, harmful federal regulation, and federal investment in highways and airports made streetcars and intercity passenger trains collateral damage. Future generations would easily believe a false narrative that “Americans always prefer automobiles and planes.”
Amtrak Becomes A Flicker Of Hope For Intercity Passenger Trains
In 1971, President Nixon was consumed by the Vietnam War. But he understood that city populations were expanding into suburbs, then forming large metro areas. Long suburb-to-downtown commutes were constraining business productivity. He convinced Congress to modestly increase UMTA funding, which sped up a handful of subway construction projects.
Nixon and Congress were embarrassed that America’s heritage of privately-owned intercity passenger rail was killed by factors that included federal regulation and federal investment in two transportation modes that competed with trains. So Nixon and Congress consolidated remaining intercity passenger train companies as “Amtrak” and partially subsidized its operation.
Despite Nixon’s intentions, driving and flying dominated American lifestyles. Congress get compelled to continue awarding Highways and Airports the lion’s share of federal transportation funding. Without federal funding for railroad overpasses, track upgrades and a faster train control system to enable 110 mph again, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving American heritage.
The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 motivated President Ford and Congress to increase UMTA funding and enact the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit to conserve gasoline in 1974. In defiance, people commonly drove 60-65 mph. In 1976, President Ford convinced Congress to fund a faster train control system for Amtrak to reach 90 mph again in the NYC-Washington rail corridor.
In 1978, Congress and President Carter authorized funding to eliminate road crossings 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 airport construction.
In December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. Overnight, there were long lines 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, thereby crippling tourism in the midst of the Stagflation Era.
The downtick in economic activity chastened Carter and some in Congress to boost UMTA funding and propose a Boston-NYC-Washington High Speed Rail project. Carter noticed that it was far more expensive for HSR to reach 130 mph, like Japan, in the curvy Boston-NYC rail corridor. So the Carter Administration narrowed its HSR proposal to Washington-NYC rail corridor.
Competition for USDOT funds did not sit well with the Aviation Lobby. Nor did the prospect of non-oil burning, electric-powered trains appeal to the Oil & Highway Lobby. Collectively, those lobbies 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 quickly exceeded it by 10 mph again.
Under those conditions, High Speed Rail support from Congress wilted. Lacking Congressional support, President Carter did not fight for appropriate funding to build true HSR in the corridor. He did however, preserve funding to complete railroad overpasses and fencing for NYC-Washington corridor. Carter also deregulated freight rail in 1980, restoring some of their competitive edge versus freight trucking.
Senators from largely rural states knew that diverting funds from Amtrak and UMTA to highways and airports would resonate with their constituency. Once President Reagan arrived in 1981, those senators, aided by the Highway, Aviation and Oil lobbies started a false narrative that Amtrak and UMTA funding represent “Social Welfare for the Poor“, while Highway and Aviation funding represent a “Vital Public Utility.” Slow Buses were falsely portrayed as an reasonable alternative to Rapid Transit.
From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I embraced those false narratives. They are most responsible for cultivating politics that treated Amtrak and Rapid Transit as Social Welfare, but Highways, Airports and Buses as Vital Public Utilities, though all required substantial taxpayer-funding. Reagan and Bush I convinced a majority of Congress to constrain Amtrak and Rapid Transit funding, modestly fund buses, and award princely sums to build more Interstate Highways and expand International Airports.
When Northeast Corridor railroad overpasses, a better train signaling system and fencing completed in 1984, intercity passenger trains (Amtrak) returned to electric-powered 110 mph in Washington-NYC corridor. By then, Japan, France and Italy leaped ahead with electric-powered 155-168 mph HSR lines.
Which High Speed Rail Success Model Fits America?
When President Clinton took office in late January 1993, the commerical flight experience was congesting in high-traffic corridors. 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 commercial flying from 2 hours to 3 hours.
Japan, France, Italy and Germany experienced similar airport congestion in high-traffic corridors, yet chose to expand travel options: fly, drive or ride HSR. One nation among them had conditions most analogous to America’s Northeast that we could model for successful HSR — France.
After World War II, France rebuilt railroad overpasses and upgraded its train control system to maintain a 106-112 mph intercity passenger rail network. 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. When HSR planning started in 1971, France’s 54 million residents had a say in land-takings for any mode of transportation. France had large automotive and freight trucking lobbies prodding government to expand the 81 mph-Autoroute intercity tollway system spread across a country the size of Texas. It also had a large aviation industry urging government to expand airports for international flights.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart. The rail corridor between them held less than 25% of French population. Both cities had subway systems feeding train stations. Autoroute often clogged from the Belgian border through Paris and Lyon to Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea.
When electric-powered 168 mph service called “TGV” opened on HSR-only tracks between Paris and Lyon in 1981, Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured the French government to make it prove operating success before expansion. Having straighter tracks with welded rails to reduce cabin vibration and noise, success came quickly. Fatigued Autoroute drivers between Paris and Lyon welcomed the short Journey Time alternative to traffic congestion. The lack of diesel fumes by electric-powered TGV trains also permitted train stations to shield outside weather for a comfortable all-season travel experience.
By 1988, TGV was upgraded to 186 mph, train frequency was increased and coach fares lowered. Those changes attracted even more auto travelers to the time and cost savings of TGV.
By 1993, the TGV-Metrorail 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. The Channel Tunnel enabling Paris-London HSR service was on schedule to open in 1994. The TGV was planned to go south of Valence to the third largest city in France, Marseilles. Wherever a TGV station integrated subway or tramway (Light Rail) station, train passengers made more side-trips along the route. The French discovered that TGV + subway + tramway stations rejuvenated cities along each HSR route with increased tax revenue from international tourists.
Freight truckers appreciated less congestion on the French Autoroute as well. If America mustered the political will-power, we could replicate French HSR success.
Clinton Funded Our Poorly Executed High Speed Rail Route
By 1993, Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph, which meant people often drove 65-90 mph top speed. Factoring in stops and toll stations driving from NYC to Washington and NYC to Boston, drivers average about 60 mph. Based on evidence from France and other nations, intercity HSR requires at least 110 mph average speed to entice dramatically more people to switch from driving.
President Clinton referenced the French TGV system as the model for Northeast Corridor HSR. Coming out of recession, Clinton allocated economic stimulus funds to upgrade the Northeast Corridor for HSR service. Unfortunately, Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation followed that wise decision with critical HSR mistakes. When Amtrak Acela service started in 2001, those mistakes limited top speed between NYC and Washington to 135 mph. Factoring in many Slow Zones in the route however, Acela average speed only reached 84 mph in that corridor segment. Plagued by even more Slow Zones, Acela only averaged 63 mph between NYC and Boston despite achieving 150 mph top speed over 18 miles.
Since anti-HSR forces did not want a successful Acela line spawning an Interstate High Speed Rail System, they exploited Clinton Administration mistakes by hiring Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks to disseminate analyst reports, interviews and news articles to amplify the “Amtrak is Social Welfare” false narrative into an anti-HSR political football. Their disinformation succeeded to the point where many Americans who traveled abroad never ask, “If High Speed Rail is succeeding elsewhere, why not here?
Operating at only 49-59 mph average speed outside the NYC-Washington corridor segment, fewer Americans rode trains. Without higher patronage, Amtrak was forced to beg for federal and state operating subsidies. In return for those tax subsidies, many rural congressmen and governors forced Amtrak to maintain Slow Zone routes through their low-traffic congressional districts and states. Emphasizing those slow routes and social welfare narrative 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, America’s intercity passenger rail is plagued with “Slow Zones” that do not support high speeds and frequent service due to:
• beat-up tracks, regulation & signaling systems that limit most Amtrak trains to 59-79 mph
• excessively curvy 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 trains.
Fortunately, a positive HSR narrative is emerging. Though Acela HSR is mediocre by world standards, by 2006 that route operated 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.
Electric-powered Amtrak Keystone service in Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph top speed and 6 daily trains to 110 mph top speed and 13 daily trains. It 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, more frequent trains serves more constituents.
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 a lot more federal funds to Amtrak for higher speeds and more trains.
California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to help build a 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 made real progress 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. By far, $18 billion concentrated in 5 years is the largest federal and state funding of intercity passenger rail. So what’s not to like?
Th $18 billion investment by Obama and several governors is paying off. Slow Zones were reduced and trains were added in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. Amtrak’s federal subsidy has declined to only 15% of operating budget due to growing patronage on these upgraded routes.
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.
The planned Interstate Highway System completed in 1992. Even additional beltways and thruways completed by 2011. Interstate Highways could therefore, go into “Maintenance Mode” to repair highways and replace their 40-to-45 year old interchanges and bridges.
Since America needed more jobs to emerge from the Great Recession of 2008 and the 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for renewal in Summer 2010, President Obama believed that timing was right to address those problems. He proposed to build a Interstate High Speed Rail System, expand Rapid Transit, and focus Highway funds on maintenance, not expansion.
A handful of corridor projects represents Interstate High Speed Rail progress. Yet the Northeast Corridor remains underfunded, preventing 200 mph speed like London-Paris-Lyon-Marseilles HSR corridor. And when you observe the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program map below, ask yourself these questions.
• Why is there 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 have an HSR route under construction?
• Why did Florida turn down federal funds for a 185 mph HSR system for a mostly 79 mph rail line?
Two powerful anti-HSR forces are still working behind the scenes to prevent an Interstate High Speed Rail System. Before reading about them in Part 3, see why nearly every other leading or emerging nation is aggressively building an Intercity HSR System in Part 2.