Interstate High Speed Rail
America’s railway infrastructure was preserved during World War II from 1941-45. From 1946-64, we added federal highway and airport infrastructure that became the envy of the world. Over 1965-74, the Vietnam War sapped away federal funds and we lost some advantages. Equally important, we lost our sense of infrastructure balance. Today, only America’s airports, freight rail, seaports and new highways are among the world’s best. Our underinvestment in passenger rail, rapid transit and highway repair have placed a “time & productivity tax” on daily commutes and intercity travel.
America is the world’s richest country and has 21,400 miles of railway that works very well for freight rail, but sucks for passenger rail. Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $6.2 billion to partially upgrade the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere. That’s like giving one thirsty person a small cup of water, then asking 50 other thirsty people to sip from one small cup of water. Since passenger rail is not a good alternative outside the Northeast Corridor, our highways became overburdened with solo-drivers and our airports are congested with excessive regional flights.
Americans dual-preference for highways and aviation did not result from normal market demand. At its root, they materialized because well-funded corporate opponents influenced Congress, Presidents and governors to enact federal and state policy that crippled intercity passenger rail and limited rapid transit, while lavishly funding new highways and airport expansion. News media and public officials erroneously believed that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail across America is not cost-justifiable
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening highways with more lanes solves congestion
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer corporations oppose High Speed Rail (HSR) today, remaining opponents are powerful and determined. Opponents would have citizens, news media and politicians believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding HSR enough to pass informed judgment about whether to build a comprehensive Interstate HSR System requires more than a short video or news article that lacks context and depth. For example, the video below includes many truths, but exaggerates when it says America has no HSR.
A narrative journey is required to understand why America should have HSR operating in 19 states by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a comprehensive 20,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2050. Part 1 of the narrative journey begins with the glory days when America had the world’s greatest passenger rail network. If you are unfamiliar with that backstory, spend three minutes reviewing the American Passenger Rail History link below to understand how and why the USA let its urban and intercity passenger rail atrophy.
Let’s resume with other nations whose conditions caused them to pave the way forward in HSR development.
Railways, factories and offices in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. When the war ended in 1945, they started rebuilds shortly afterwards. Since America’s railways, factories and offices stayed intact during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of major investment at home and abroad. In 1948, America’s $15 billion ($161 billion in 2020 dollars) grant in the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe and built an export market for American goods. In 1952, America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan, another export market for American goods. Japan and Western Europe rebuilt their railway, while adding highway and aviation infrastructure.
Which Nation Should Be America’s High Speed Rail Model
Under American-supervised occupation until 1952, post-war Japan entered a future with high gasoline prices and dependence on imported oil. To reduce foreign oil dependence, Japan’s leadership built nuclear power plants to generate electricity and rebuilt the electric grid. In its largest cities, that island nation expanded electric-powered Metro Rail, commuter rail and upgraded train stations. By 1956, some space cleared by war bombing was used to ease railway curves and build over/underpasses at each roadway crossing between Tokyo and Osaka. Even up to 106 mph, their electric-powered trains became dependable and safer than before World War II.
A large industrial company in Japan developed more powerful electric train engines. Coupled with more electricity generation to new electric power systems for trains and fewer curves, Japan opened the world’s first HSR line during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Top speed reached 130 mph over 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka trains stations. Fed by larger Metro Rail systems to those stations, the Japanese Shinkansen HSR was an instant hit. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, more travelers also spent longer time in station cafes and retail stores — generating profits for Central Japan Railway Company, who owned the stations.
Japan was not completely wedded to electric passenger rail. It also built a 4-lane intercity tollway system with a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. The tollway system connected to narrow 4-6 lane freeways in large cities. Japan also built substantial airport infrastructure. Excluding aviation and freight trucks, those factors helped Japan limit imported oil as its population grew. But Japan’s hyper-dense population, high oil costs, slow tollway speeds and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America to be a good model for conditions that Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR would operate under.
After World War II, Western European rebuilt railway over/underpasses for diesel-powered intercity passenger rail that ran up to 81-112 mph. Beginning in 1968, Italian and French railway companies accelerated R&D for their intercity passenger rail to achieve higher speeds.
Italy had modest population density, half of America’s Median Household Income, modest car ownership and imported most of its oil. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph speed limit of Autostrade Tollway System. Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line between Rome and Florence in 1979, but it was plagued with maintenance issues until 1986. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had no Metro Rail. Those factors initially limited HSR patronage success and Italian appetite for HSR expansion. Though Italy engineered the best tilting train by 1988, Italian HSR would not be a good model for America’s first HSR project.
In 1954, abandonment of Southeast Asian wars allowed the French to divert more taxes to transportation infrastructure, plus nuclear, hydro and coal power plants to generate electricity. Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. Since France rebuilt the Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles passenger rail corridor, it was still popular with travelers who did not have cars.
BY 1973, France had significant population density in its largest cities, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. Autoroute Tollway System permitted 81 mph on 4 to 6 lanes that drivers often exceeded. Though greatly dependent on imported oil and expensive gasoline, Parisian families frequently drove over 400 miles south through Lyon and Valence to the Mediterranean. Autoroute often clogged from Paris and Lyon to Marseilles and other Mediterranean cities. That year, the oil embargo crippled France’s economy and changed it’s infrastructure priorities the following year.
Determined to never be as dependent on oil again, in 1974 France made nuclear power plant infrastructure and electric-powered passenger rail investment priorities. Lyon had a former defense plant convertible to a train station with run-thru tracks to southern France. Paris had large Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems. Lyon had popular Commuter Rail and Tram systems and its Metro Rail system opened in 1978.
The French also converted designs for diesel-powered High Speed Train (HST) to electric-powered HST. They named it Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV). For higher speed, dependability and safety, TGV would run on Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) that have under/overpasses to completely separate railway from roadway. Outside urban areas, LGV routes were made straiter than HSR routes in Italy and Japan, which required more short tunnels, viaduct and premium tracks for smooth rides. Only well-maintained TGV would run on them and track maintenance would be stringent.
In 1981, electric-powered TGV started between Paris and Lyon at 168 mph top speed. Though Japan’s Shinkansen HSR climbed to 155 mph by then, the faster TGV captured global imagination. A few years later, TGV was upgraded to 186 mph top speed. TGV train frequency rose and its Coach Fares lowered. More Paris-Lyon car travelers switched to TGV. French CBD train stations integrating TGV, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail increased retail, hotel and tourism activity. TGV success inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion north & west from Paris and south from Lyon.
By 1993, LGV routes opened from Paris to Tours, Paris to LeMans, and Paris to Lille. Regional flights in other heavily populated European corridors were congesting airports and lengthening tollway travel times. A ride to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, origin runway taxi, flight, destination runway taxi, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi or shuttle to CBD ballooned regional flight travel times from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. As alternatives to flying, travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening in 1994 for Paris-Lille-London HSR service and LGV expansion from Lille to Brussels in 1995. Combined with a brilliant safety record, French TGV had proven HSR operating success in conditions closer to those in America’s Northeast Corridor.
America’s Lackluster Adoption of High Speed Rail
President Nixon forming government-supported Amtrak in 1971 to save intercity passenger rail was only a life preserver. There were many signs that America should have started aggressively developing the Northeast Corridor in 1974 for HSR as well. Its population density and median income levels were higher than any corridor in France, Italy, United Kingdom and West Germany. Like the rest of America, Northeast Corridor transportation vulnerability was exposed during the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo (and again in 1979). Car-driven tourism, a staple of NYC, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore economies, cratered during the embargo. Despite those signs, President Ford, Congress and governors only invested $1.9 billion in 1976 to modestly upgrade NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor segment by 1984. Since too many 75-100 year bridges & tunnels, curves, old track switches and old power systems remained, top speed for passenger trains would only return to 110 mph in a few stretches.
In 1978, President Carter proposed additional investment to make the entire Northeast Corridor (Boston-Providence-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington) a world-class HSR route like those operating in Japan and under construction in France. That could have been accomplished for about $12-13 billion more, when everything was cheaper to build. Unfortunately, Congress and Northeast governors did not back his vision. Nor did the next Presidents (Reagan and Bush I) have interest in the project.
Skip forward to 1993. Interstate Highways returned to 65-75 mph speed limits, traffic congestion and highway toll stations in NYC-Washington corridor limited drivers to 60 mph average speed. Such low speeds helped Amtrak Metroliner survive while averaging only 70 mph in NYC-Washington corridor. The Clinton Administration’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) recognized opportunity for true HSR service. Given Amtrak Metroliner restored some rider demand, coupled with higher Median Household Income and higher population density than France’s HSR corridor, Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR should attract high ridership, despite America’s lower oil prices. His USDOT referenced France’s TGV as the model for Amtrak HSR to attract more people from their cars.
Corridor Distances & Metro Area Populations (millions) When Amtrak HSR Project Began, 1993
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseilles (2M) = 15M Pop.
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – New Haven (500K) – NYC (17M) – Philadelphia (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – Washington (4M) = 34M Pop.
To help emerge from economic recession in 1993, Clinton’s USDOT announced that federal stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR to 165 mph top speed. That was lower than TGV’s 186 mph because Amtrak high speed trains would need to safely tilt and slow often in ultra-curvy segment between southeastern Connecticut and NYC.
In an age when car and jet cultures dominated America, powerful opponents in the American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Lobby), feared that a successful electric-powered HSR System would reduce oil consumption, regional flights, car rentals, intercity bus rides, tire purchases, concrete & asphalt highway widening. So the Highway Lobby influenced Congress to only approve a petty fraction of needed Northeast Corridor HSR funding. The Highway Lobby also hired think tanks to mislead news media and the public to believe the under-funded HSR project should deliver TGV-like service. Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments about how HSR project funding would be allocated. As a result, the public expected “Champagne Taste on Beer Money.”
When the Amtrak HSR project fell short of TGV-like service, passenger rail critics multiplied. If the backstory interests you, click on the Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail link below.
New Opportunity For Interstate High Speed Rail in America
American rail routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies and to lesser degree, by commuter transit agencies. By law and contractual agreements, freight rail companies and commuter transit agencies lease track access to Amtrak at low fees. At usually less than 3 daily runs per route, freight trains can often travel in opposite directions on the same track at 30-60 mph. Freight rail companies operate well under those conditions, so they have little economic incentive to upgrade railway for higher speed. Most commuter rail operates at 60-80 mph speeds on 1 or 2 tracks in urban-to-suburban corridors. There are many places where autos, people and other animals cross tracks. Commuter and Amtrak trains slow there. Commuter transit agencies want upgrades for higher average speed, better safety and schedule dependability, but don’t have extra funds lying around.
By 2000, Amtrak owned about 300 miles of Northeast Corridor track where over/underpasses, bridges, tunnels and fencing completely separate railway from autos, people and other animals. Without more funding to upgrade the entire corridor, Amtrak HSR, called “Acela”, was hampered by repetitive Slow Zones. Not long after President George W. Bush (Bush II) took over, he pounced on Amtrak’s shortcomings and nearly killed its funding outside the Northeast Region.
Despite those challenges, a positive narrative emerged. Business travelers noticed that Acela HSR produced shorter NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel times and better on-time performance than flying. Boarding/unboarding was faster. Acela had wider leather seats, increased legroom, electric outlets at each seat and WiFi well First Class air travel and intercity buses. That made Acela more productive and comfortable than other modes of travel. After the 9-11-2001 terrorist event, all travelers placed greater value on the absence of security-check hassle at train stations.
Another positive narrative emerged by 2006. Acela and Northeast Regional (the other Northeast Corridor HSR train with more intermediate stops) increased their combined frequency to trains every 30 minutes during peak hours. Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR entered operating profit that year.
Three more Amtrak lines built successful narratives. Amtrak Keystone line in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 80 mph top speed and 6 daily diesel-powered trains to 110 mph and 13 daily electric-powered trains. Keystone attracted so many new patrons that its operating budget is near break-even and plans are advancing for 125 mph top speed, more daily trains and extension to Pittsburgh.
In California, patronage significantly grew when diesel-powered Amtrak Capital Corridor in San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento corridor increased to 15 daily round-trips and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner line in Los Angeles-Anaheim-San Diego corridor increased to 12 daily round-trips despite only 80-90 mph top speeds. Their patronage growth encouraged politicians to place a nearly $10 billion HSR bond measure before California voters in 2008. Voters approved the building of a world-class HSR system. State transportation funds further improved Amtrak California routes as well.
President Obama Kickstarts More Interstate High Speed Rail
Sensing opportunity for similar transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted HSR and Amtrak upgrade project plans. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds for intercity passenger rail projects. Congress only authorized a fraction of that amount.
To his credit, President Obama doubled rapid transit investment and directed $13 billion of economic stimulus funds and $2.5 billion of normal USDOT funds towards HSR and other Amtrak projects over 2009-10. It was the largest ever federal investment in passenger rail. California also committed over $11 billion towards HSR and Amtrak projects. Several other states added $3 billion towards Amtrak projects. America’s first black president kick-started Interstate High Speed Rail amidst two Middle East wars and the Great Recession. His actions suggested a poetic bookend to President Lincoln, who authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad amidst the Civil War.
Since our 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost over $1.5 trillion to build, President Obama knew that $6.2 billion of previous Northeast Corridor investment and $30 billion of new federal & state investment was only patchwork towards a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. In 2011, he envisioned another $53 billion/6 years of federal funding to attract more state, local and private funding to HSR projects that could open between 2015-25. Initial successes would make it easier for the next Congress and President to justify increased funding for HSR projects to open between 2025-35. If successful, President Obama would create a Interstate HSR System legacy similar to President Eisenhower for the Interstate Highway System.
More important than legacy vanities, Americans desperately needed jobs to emerge stronger from the Great Recession. Governors, mayors, labor unions, infrastructure builders and Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. Automotive industry and most airlines stopped their public opposition to HSR. Since the multi-year Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for congressional vote, Obama believed timing was right to expand Interstate HSR and rapid transit, while repairing Interstate Highway.
Unfortunately, additional funding for HSR and rapid transit was never approved by Congress for President Obama to sign-off. What happened?
Powerful oil & gas companies remained arch-enemies to electric-powered passenger rail and rapid transit, whose concurrent support for more green energy would reduce their profits. More than other members of the Highway Lobby, oil & gas companies influenced a majority of Congress to underfund surface transportation infrastructure. Its why the Northeast HSR corridor did not get enough federal funding to reach TGV-like potential. Its why the California HSR project is several years under construction, but hasn’t directly received federal funds since 2011.
There is some good news. The modest investment by Obama and several states paid off. A number of Slow Zones reduced and more daily Amtrak trains were added in the Northeast, California, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon. To the dismay of passenger rail critics, Amtrak was approaching operating breakeven in 2020, before COVID-19 shut down the economy.
SUMMARY: Government & Highway Lobby Crippled America’s Transportation Alternatives
After World War II, federal, state and local governments lavishly funded airports, seaports and new highways. The federal government over-regulated intercity passenger rail without funding improvements to sustain speeds in excess of 100 mph. Since speeds under 60 mph enable successful freight rail, private freight rail companies only maintain track for such speeds. Local governments also ripped out streetcar tracks that could have converted to rapid transit at a fraction of today’s cost. The Highway Lobby, dominated by oil & gas companies, convinced a majority of Congress & Presidents to minimize support of rapid transit and muzzle support for intercity passenger rail. HSR has yet to fulfill its Northeast Corridor potential, but it does reduce airport and highway congestion. Every other populous corridor in America is overstressed with airport and highway congestion.
In the next part of this series, see how Global Economic Competitors have dramatically overtaken America’s intercity passenger rail and rapid transit infrastructure.