Interstate High Speed Rail -- Part 1

Building an Interstate High Speed Rail System is not cheap. Neither were our Interstate Highway System and Federal Airport System. Yet America marshaled the political will to invest $2 trillion building the latter two. To understand why America has lacked similar will to invest in Interstate High Speed Rail, briefly review our transportation history. Then consider worsening traffic congestion, global economic competition and disturbing environmental factors to understand why it must substantially complete by 2035 or we are in big trouble.

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Interstate High Speed Rail

America’s federal government has never fully committed to Interstate High Speed Rail. So when you hear that the government invested $5 billion in Amtrak, do not be impressed. Spread over four decades and 437 miles, that amount was only sufficient to partially upgrade one Northeast corridor that today, runs at a profit. Only $1 billion was invested in the remaining 22,000 passenger rail miles.

In January 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 less than 5 years is the largest federal and state funding of intercity passenger rail. So what’s not to like? 

Plenty, if you believe High Speed Rail (HSR) naysayers:

• Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans won’t ride trains
• Outside the Northeast, America doesn’t have Europe-like population density for HSR to succeed
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a perpetual money-loser
• American cites don’t have enough Rapid Transit to help HSR to succeed
• Americans always prefer driving highways over HSR
• Americans always prefer flying over HSR
• Unlike, Amtrak, fuel taxes solely pay for Interstate Highways
• 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 complete falsehoods.

Understanding Interstate High Speed Rail well enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or short news article. It takes analysis of transportation modes that America can sustain 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.


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.


Beginning 1830, intercity passenger rail 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 it.

Unlike trains and buses that run on cheap diesel fuel, subways and streetcars were and still 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. 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.

In fall 1929, the Great Depression assaulted on the economy. Over a third of Americans were soon thrown out of work. Most adults fortunate to retain jobs could not afford cars, so they used subways and streetcars. 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.

The higher passenger volume of subways allowed them to absorb higher fuel costs and remain independent longer. But 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.

Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a reprieve during World War II (December 1941-August 1945). America needed oil & gas companies to expand refinery capacity and its railroads to transport soldiers and materials. People not shipped off to battle worked to support the war effort and maintain the economy. Oil, gas and metals were rationed. Existing subways, streetcars and buses received a larger ration of oil or coal-powered electricity because they were considered vital public transportation utilities.

Intercity passenger trains conveyed soldiers to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for war deployment. Since Los Angeles was a point of departure for troops and a defense factory hub, intercity passenger rail transported a huge number of soldiers and sailors to Los Angeles Union Station. From Los Angeles Union Station, the nation’s largest streetcar system transported troops to the ports, workers to defense factories and people everywhere else. In fact, 70% of LA residents rode streetcars.

When World War II ended in August 1945, rationing ended. America suddenly had excess oil refinery capacity that made gasoline cheap and metals widely available again. America also emerged as the world’s largest economy and manufacturing base. The G.I. Bill coupled with surging Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Consumer Income enabled veterans to buy their first house. Returning veterans created a sales boom for suburban housing tracts. That triggered more people buying cars to drive 30-50 mph between work, college, home, shopping, dining and sports venues. With eroding patronage and higher unit costs for electricity, the remaining private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding tracks to new housing tracts in the suburbs.

Since Los Angeles received a larger percentage of relocating veterans, Angelenos purchased a higher percentage of cars than eastern and midwestern cities. LA’s streetcar tracks became highly coveted by the consortium because their 400 mile rights of way, converted to additional roadway, would increase capacity for cars, trucks and buses. That in turn, would further increase oil and tire demand. Gasoline cheaper than electricity and avoiding expensive track & overhead electrical wires for streetcars were powerful tools of persuasion. The consortium used those tools to convince various LA transit agencies to purchase more buses.

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.

Though San Francisco to Oakland streetcar tracks across the Bay Bridge were converted to roadway, San Francisco transit agency spared a couple streetcar lines that ran through tunnels to downtown. Los Angeles also had a major streetcar tunnel into downtown, but auto-centric politicians rose to power who directed a larger percentage of transit agency budgets towards buses, which increased the vulnerability of streetcar patronage. The LA version of streetcar vulnerability played out nationwide.

A merger of the two national streetcar companies and rapidly declining streetcar service nationwide prompted investigation by Congress. In 1946, congressional hearings reviewed the intent of the national streetcar consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. Instead of changed behavior from those powderpuff hearings, General Motors supplied even more buses to transit agencies.

Los Angeles officials bet 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 the consortium. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.

Legally unfettered after that 1949 court decision, the consortium stepped up efforts to to rip out streetcar tracks for roadway and then dismantle or burn streetcars nationwide. The same death-spiral for LA streetcars played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for transit agencies to nail the coffins.


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 of our National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to bumps, major curves, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew that better, faster highways were needed to convert Americans to an auto-centric lifestyle. To achieve that goal, automotive companies ramped up marketing cars as instruments of personal freedom. Oil companies increased their convenience by expanding service stations along boulevards and intercity highways. In an era of only three TV networks with automotive and oil industries as the biggest TV program sponsors, their marketing pitch was to “demand more and better highways to increase your individual freedom and choose better gasoline for higher automotive performance.”

America already had a few highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste of limited access, non-stop driving at higher speeds. Knowing that a network of limited access, non-stop intercity highways would jolt America into an auto-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to convince the President and Congress to fund the majority of it. By interconnecting cities with limited-access, non-stop highways, a more ambitious Highway Lobby would add intercity railroads to its crosshairs.

Asking for taxpayer funds to change American lifestyles is 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 110 mph with stops every 30-75 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 outcry for federal regulation. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to increase public safety of roadways crossing railroad tracks.

The safest way to preserve high-speed trains was to build railroad overpasses, high-speed train signaling, add siding tracks and fence-off tracks in urban areas. Since railroad profits were thin, they could not afford those upgrades. The sordid pre-1929 history of privately-owned railroad company anti-trust behavior also worked against the railroad industry.

Given that backstory, Congress and President Truman would not help 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 similarly heavy locomotives for crash-worthiness safety. An unintended consequence of that law is that commuter and high speed trains in American run appreciably slower and consume more energy than their international counterparts.

We can imagine the Highway Lobby popping champagne.


In January 1953, President Eisenhower arrived. In July 1953, the Korean War ended and high income tax rates finally started reducing our Gross 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 from World War II 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, non-stop 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-Industrial Lobby interests.

The Highway Lobby produced videos and other data that influenced President Eisenhower and Congress to plan a network of interstate freeways like Arroyo Seco Parkway, 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, thereby producing more national fuel tax to fund interstate freeways.

But higher fuel tax was insufficient to build the network of interstate freeways. America was still paying down Gross National Debt from two wars 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 would be created. Better highways would accelerate economic productivity that helped increase GDP, that produced higher tax revenues, that reduced Gross National Debt.

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 Lobby added backroom muscle with Congress. In 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the year-to-year combinations of fuel and general taxes to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of the “Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.”

The federal government paid for 85-90% of the initial Interstate Highway System, yet with few exceptions, allowed states to own each interstate highway. Thus, each state posts speed limits they judge safe for a given stretch of highway, based on degree of straightness and elevation. The fastest legal speed, 85 mph, was posted in straight flat areas of western states. Under good weather conditions and light traffic, cops let people drive 5-10 mph over speed limits.

Above-the-speed-limit behavior for 4 to 5 hours on freeways with one stop in between often 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 and the occasional oil change. Given a large percentage of interstate highway construction was paid with general taxes, 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 was not good for America. We had plentiful cheap oil. Interstate 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. Heydays in the 1950s led General Motors executives to boast, “What’s good for GM is good for the nation.”


Even where Interstate Highway between large cities enabled 70-75 mph average speed, relatively few people wanted to drive 6 hours or more. 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 avoid the biggest hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. Boeing attracted competition from Lockheed. Business travelers liked saving 2-3 hours traveling 350-500 miles, but wildly loved traveling 500-3000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days by train. Hence, business travelers switched from intercity passenger trains to jets.

Promising more airline and airport-related jobs for metro areas, chambers of commerce influenced federal and state politicians to spend princely sums on airport construction via a mix of 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 49-59 mph Slow Zone status.

In 1963, America felt better about the economy, President Kennedy lowering federal taxes and avoiding a war with Russia and Cuba. Shortly before his assassination, Kennedy pushed for budget increases for highways, airports and rapid transit, effective in 1964.

In early 1964, President Johnson followed through on the late JFK’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 International Airport projects ate second. Aside from NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland (opened a subway in 1955), only rapid transit projects in San Francisco-Oakland, Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami were chosen for federal funding.

Having lost speed, frequency and ticket price advantages, 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 however, for travel patrons without time constraints.

In 1950, there were 9,000 passenger trains in service, which carried just under 50% of intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were 450 trains in operation, carrying only 7% of intercity passenger 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. Its streetcar tunnel was long closed. In Los Angeles, most streetcar tracks were removed to widen boulevards that fed 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 auto- and aviation-centric lifestyles marketed in movies and TV programs, inspired the transportation network model for America. Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Jose and other large cities raced to build Interstate Highways and international airports. Old train stations were shuttered, demolished or converted to non-transportation use.

The narrative was complete. Federal regulation, illegal corporate collusion, and federal investment in highways and airports made streetcars and intercity passenger rail collateral damage. As older generations died, youngsters who never rode streetcars or fast passenger trains embraced a narrative that “Americans always prefer driving and flying.”


In 1971, President Nixon was consumed by the Vietnam War, but understood that cities were expanding into suburbs that formed larger metro areas. Long commutes from suburbs to central business districts was reducing business productivity. He convinced Congress to boost UMTA funding, which sped up construction of subway projects.

Nixon and Congress were also embarrassed that America’s heritage of privately-owned intercity passenger rail was killed by factors that included federal regulation and federal investment in transportation modes that competed with trains. So Nixon and Congress formed Amtrak to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies and partially subsidize Amtrak operation.

Despite Nixon’s best intentions, by 1971 driving and flying dominated American lifestyles. Therefore, Highways and Airports continued receiving the lion’s share of funding, with only modest funding Transit and scraps for Railroads. 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 authorized funding a faster train control system and more fencing for Amtrak to reach 90 mph 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 in 1978, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel — sparking lower airfares, more regional flights and more taxpayer funding of 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.

Line at a typical American gas station in June 1979, Interstate High Speed Rail

Line at a typical American gas station in June 1979; credit US News & World Report

By early 1980, intercity passenger rail was no longer moribund technology. Japan and Italy were enjoying success with electric-powered 155 mph HSR lines. France was feverishly building an electric-powered 168 mph HSR line. Amtrak was attracting more passengers in the NYC-Washington rail corridor.

The downtick in economic activity chastened Carter and some in Congress to boost UMTA funding and propose an Interstate High Speed Rail project. Carter noticed that it was far more expensive for HSR to reach 150-160 mph in the curvy Boston-NYC rail corridor. So the Carter Administration narrowed its Intercity HSR proposal to Washington-NYC rail corridor.

Competition for USDOT funds did not sit well with the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. Nor did the prospect of non-oil burning, non-tire using, electric-powered trains becoming popular appeal to the Oil Lobby and 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, Interstate High Speed Rail support from Congress wilted. Without Congressional support on the matter, President Carter did not fight for the appropriate amount of funding to build world-class Intercity 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.

When the railroad overpasses and fencing completed in 1984, intercity passenger trains (now called “Amtrak”) returned to 110 mph in Washington-NYC corridor.

Senators of both parties 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.” From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I embraced that false narrative. All of their federal transportation proposals to Congress cut Amtrak and minimized Rapid Transit funding.

Any objective look at USDOT budgets since 1982 reveals that highways and airports received far more “Social Welfare” (taxpayer funds) than UMTA and Amtrak. Since the federal budgets stop with the President, Reagan and Bush I are most responsible for abetting a political culture that treated Amtrak and Urban Mass Transit as Social Welfare.


When President Clinton took office in 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.

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 extensive 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 and alternative to traffic congestion. The lack of diesel fumes by 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 were 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.


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 could reference the successful 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 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.


Fortunately, a fact-based HSR narrative is emerging. Though Acela HSR service has been mediocre by world standards, by mid-2000s it became profitable.

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 NYC-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 additional patrons that its 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 substantially more federal funds to Amtrak for higher speeds and more trains.

California voters approved a $9.9 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.

Th $18 billion investment by Obama and several governors in 2009-10 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 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 that officially broke ground in 1956, was completed in 1992. To increase public utility, it was augmented with beltways and thruways that finished construction in all the important routes by 2011. Interstate Highways could therefore, go into “Maintenance Mode” to repair highways and replace 40 to 45 year old interchanges and bridges.

Since America needed more jobs to emerge from the Great Recession 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 start building an Interstate High Speed Rail System, expand Rapid Transit, and focus Highway funds on maintenance, not expansion.

Interstate High Speed Rail Investments map, 2014

Interstate High Speed Rail Investments map, 2014; credit USDOT

Five corridors outside the Northeast having HSR projects underway represents significant progress towards an Interstate High Speed Rail System. Yet when you observe the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program map, ask yourself why more corridors that have tailor-made demographics for HSR are not underway? Why is there no Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinati HSR route underway? Why does HSR construction stop in Charlotte, rather than 3-times larger Atlanta? Why doesn’t fast-growing Texas have HSR under construction? Why did Florida turn down a DisneyWorld-backed 185 mph HSR line to now promote a mostly 79 mph rail line?

Two powerful anti-HSR forces are still working behind the scenes to prevent Interstate High Speed Rail. More about them in Part 3. Before that, see why nearly every other leading or emerging nation is aggressively building an Intercity HSR System in Part 2.