Interstate High Speed Rail
Since 1955, American taxpayers have funded a $1.5 trillion Interstate Highway System and a $500 billion Federal Aviation System. Despite our railroad legacy and status as the richest nation on Earth, America has not built an Interstate High Speed Rail System and we’ve under-built rail-based Rapid Transit systems in large cities. Since 1993, most advanced nations are building or optimizing airport, high speed rail, highway, rapid transit, buses and bikeways in a balanced transportation network. Why hasn’t America added a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System and more rapid transit?
It is no accident that America lacks a world-class Interstate High Speed Rail System. Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $4.3 billion to partially upgrade 456-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor to a mediocre combination of Conventional Rail and High Speed Rail. For the other 22,000 miles used by Amtrak, an outrageously low $1 billion was invested because HSR opponents mislead news media, Congress and some Presidents to believe that:
• Upgrading Northeast Corridor to world-class High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable
• Outside the Northeast, America doesn’t have enough population density to justify High Speed Rail
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans prefer short flights
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening freeways solves highway congestion
Opponents would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding Interstate High Speed Rail enough to pass informed judgment requires more than TV soundbites or an occasional news article. A brief intellectual journey is required to understand why we should build at least 11,000 miles of Interstate High Speed Rail by 2040.
This series examines High Speed Rail (HSR) and complimentary Rapid Transit, yet begins with the glory days of intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars. To better understand why our passenger rail infrastructure sucks compared to other advanced nations, spend a few minutes reviewing this summary of American passenger rail history.
Assuming you read the summary or know that part of American history, which produced anti-passenger rail forces, let’s resume at the development of Japanese and European HSR, leading to President Clinton’s decision to start building a HSR line.
Which Nation Should Be America’s High Speed Rail Model
Highway and railway bridges between the major cities of Japan and Europe were bombed in World War II. By 1946, they started highway and railway rebuilds. Citizen land rights returned. Having less room for highways, Japan built narrow freeways in cities, narrow tollways between cities, and more intercity passenger rail. Japan limited freeway/tollway speed to 62 mph (100 kph). By improving electric engines, building over/underpasses at each railroad crossings and easing sharp curves, Japan opened the first 130 mph (210 kph) HSR line between Tokyo and Osaka during the 1964 World’s Fair.
Though intercity passenger rail returned to Italy, France and Germany after World War II, they retained most railroad crossings and sharp curves. The fastest trains were diesel-powered and ran up to 112 mph, but slowed down at railroad crossings. Reminded of Japanese HSR ability to transport enough people between cities to limit the width of tollways, Italian, French and German railway companies started R&D for 136+ mph trains and rail lines to understand their technical requirements.
Italy opened the first 155 mph HSR line in Europe in 1979. Though electric-powered like Japanese HSR, its development was plagued with cost overruns, maintenance issues and corruption. Since Italy did not have the per capita income for substantial car ownership that competes with HSR ridership, it would not be a good model for America.
France and West Germany (before Germany Reunification) had a democratic governments, population density, strong citizen land rights, per capita income levels and terrain conditions most similar to America. Though West Germany’s electric-powered HSR initiatives were promising, they were delayed a decade by Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) lawsuits. Hence, French HSR earns closer examination as a model for America.
Paris dominates France, like New York City dominates the Northeast. Though France never owned vast oil fields for cheap gasoline & diesel fuel, it obtained North Africa and Middle East oil and built many nuclear power plants. Abundant energy and abandoning war in Southeast Asia allowed French industry and commerce to produce good income levels by 1970. French “car culture” was amplified by automotive industries prodding government to expand the 81 mph-Autoroute tollway system across a country the size of Texas. France also had a large aerospace industry urging government to expand international airports.
When French HSR planning started in 1971, any large group of protesters among its 54 million citizens could overturn Imminent Domain for a transportation project. Pressure was on to make the first French HSR route a success because future HSR routes were at stake. Despite Paris-Lyon corridor lacking the population density of Tokyo-Osaka corridor, several factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range that would require expensive tunnels. As an alternative to the toll and fuel costs of driving, a significant percentage of French travelers already rode 106 mph (170 kph) intercity passenger rail between Paris and Lyon. France learned many technical and business details studying Japan’s HSR system before designing Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) to support Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) trains. Autoroute has toll roads between most large cities in France, including the curvy Paris-Lyon Autoroute corridor.
Paris has several train stations, including one for southbound trains to Lyon. Lyon had a former defense plant with rail yard convertible to a central train station with run-thru tracks to southern and eastern France. Paris had a very large Metro system and Lyon opened its Metro system in 1978. Both would feed Metro Rail riders to TGV train stations.
For speed faster than conventional rail, the French railway company knew LGV would require straighter tracks, grade separations from every road, complete fencing, higher voltage overhead electrical wires, and high-speed signaling. The French railway system also owned substantial track rights-of-way between both cities and most of it was straight enough to support higher top speeds. They made operational decisions to only run lighter weight, high speed trains on LGV and that most TGV stations would be at least 70 miles apart for higher average speed.
By 1981, there was pent-up demand for faster intercity passenger rail because Autoroute clogged in the Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor during summer, weekends and holidays. When electric-powered 162 mph (260 kph) TGV opened between Paris and Lyon that year, the world took notice. The absence of fumes from electric trains in TGV stations invited restaurants, cafes, gift shops and service providers to create a pleasant all-season passenger experience. Fatigued Autoroute drivers welcomed the comfortable passenger experiences, coupled with shorter travel time between central Paris and central Lyon. Regional flights and drives between Paris and Lyon reduced.
Threatened by that TGV success story, Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured French government to make TGV prove operating success before LGV expansion. Success came quickly.
By 1988, TGV engines, wheels, braking, electrical and signaling systems were upgraded to support 186 mph (300 kph) top speed and 120 mph average speed. Train frequency increased and LGV construction expanded north from Paris and south from Lyon. TGV Coach fares lowered, enticing more leisure travelers to switch from Autoroute and Paris-Lyon flights. Other regional (sub-500 mile) flights congested international airports more than long-distance flights. A drive to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, runway taxi, flight, runway taxi, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi or shuttle to local destinations ballooned total travel time for regional flights from 2 hours to 3 hours.
By 1993, TGV routes opened from Paris to Tours and LeMans, from Lille to Brussels and from Lyon to Valence, with LGV pre-construction work from Valence to Marseilles underway. The French and Belgians discovered that Central Business District HSR stations integrated with Metrorail, Trams (Light Rail), tourbuses, taxi depots and surrounding hotels helped tourism. Business and leisure travel anticipation was building for the Channel Tunnel enabling Paris-Lille-London and London-Lille-Brussels HSR service to begin in 1994.
Bill Clinton Funded America’s First High Speed Rail Route
By 1993, Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph. Factoring in stops and toll stations in Boston-Washington corridor, drivers averaged 60 mph. Given American preference for intercity driving 2-4 hours, Amtrak Northeast Corridor would need significantly faster speeds to attract more passengers. So the Clinton Administration referenced TGV as the model for American High Speed Rail, though the top speed goal was limited to 165 mph for cost reasons.
Compared to the French-Belgian HSR corridor in 1993, population size, density and income was higher in the Northeast Corridor. Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR would attract substantial ridership, despite Americans being auto-centric because of our population demographics:
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (<1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (<2M) – Valence (<1M) – Marseilles (2M)
456 Miles: Boston (5M) – NYC/Newark (17M) – Philadelphia (6M) – Baltimore (2.5M) – Washington (4M)
Emerging from economic recession, President Clinton would allocate economic stimulus funds to upgrade Northeast Corridor for 165 mph HSR. Unfortunately, Congress approved a fraction of what 456-mile Northeast Corridor needed. Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments with that funding. Instead of focusing on 150 miles of the highest traffic, cheaper-to-upgrade Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore segment for an exciting 165 mph proof-point, funds were spent on 18 miles of 165 mph HSR south of Boston, with the rest sprinkled across the other 438 miles of Northeast Corridor and wasted on expensive MagLev studies. An unpleasant surprise was that safety regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration would also limit those 18 miles between Massachusetts and Rhode Island to 150 mph because their tracks were parallel and too close for passing freight trains.
In return for Northeast Corridor HSR funding, Congress forced Amtrak to maintain once-daily slow trains through more rural districts and states. They ran at an operating loss, further crippling Amtrak’s finances and desire for a brand emphasizing faster speed. President George W. Bush pounced on those mistakes and tried to kill Amtrak lines outside the Northeast Corridor. Read the backstory of how Amtrak Acela became a political football and remained a federal funding orphan at Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail Progress.
New Opportunity To Build An Interstate High Speed Rail System
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. Outside the Northeast Corridor, intercity passenger rail was plagued with “Slow Zones” that limit Amtrak to:
• old bridges, tunnels, track and signaling systems designed for 59-79 mph top speed
• excessively curvy & bumpy tracks shared with freight and commuter trains
• federal regulation requiring heavy locomotives that slow acceleration & stopping
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track for many routes
• Only 1 to 6 daily trains
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
Though Amtrak Northeast Corridor is mediocre by world HSR standards, a positive narrative emerged by 2006. Northeast Corridor trains entered operating profit. Observing that Amtrak milestone, Congress and governors also funded small Amtrak projects proposed by Pennsylvania and California Departments of Transportation to increase speed and train frequency of Conventional Rail routes.
Electric-powered Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph and 6 daily trains to 110 mph and 13 daily trains. The speed and frequency boost attracted so many new patrons that Keystone operating budget is approaching break-even. Diesel-powered Amtrak Surfliner and Amtrak Capital Corridor routes reached 90 mph in some places and 13 to 16 daily trains, respectively. More speed and frequency upgrades are coming that will also drive Amtrak California routes to operating profit.
On the heels of patronage growth in Amtrak California routes, California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to kickstart a world-class HSR system. The Institute for Civil Engineers and the well-respected Brookings Institution also agreed that America needs an Interstate High Speed Rail System.
President Obama Energizes Interstate High Speed Rail
Sensing opportunity for a transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted HSR and Conventional Rail upgrade projects. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications for $57 billion of federal funds for intercity passenger rail projects. Economic stimulus approved by Congress and normal Federal Railroad funding was far smaller than hoped, so governors and mayors would be underwhelmed or disappointed.
To his credit however, President Obama directed $8 billion of economic stimulus funds and Congress added $2.5 billion of federal railroad towards HSR and Conventional Rail upgrade projects. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog and need for new trains to increase service frequency, Obama directed another $5 billion of economic stimulus funds over 5 years. Over 2009-11, several states added $3 billion towards Amtrak and California HSR projects. America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, energized the building of 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.
The $18.5 billion investment by Obama, Congress and governors is modestly paying off. Slow Zones were reduced in the Northeast Corridor, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine. Due to growing patronage on upgraded routes and more daily trains, Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy declined.
An inflation-adjusted $226 billion only kickstarted the 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System, so President Obama knew that $18.5 billion, plus the previous $4.3 billion Northeast Corridor investment, was insufficient to build an Interstate HSR System. He envisioned larger federal funding to attract larger state, local and private funding for more HSR projects with a USDOT plan gluing them together in service to 80% of Americans by 2035. If successful, President Obama would create a transportation legacy similar to President Eisenhower — who deserves most credit for the Interstate Highway System.
More important than legacy vanities, America desperately needed jobs emerging from the Great Recession. U.S. and state Chambers of Commerce warmed to High Speed Rail. Automotive and most airline companies stopped their vocal opposition to HSR. The multi-year Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for vote in summer 2010. President Obama believed timing was right to fund expand Interstate High Speed Rail, expand Rapid Transit and repair Interstate Highways. What happened?
Oil & gas, tire, Greyhound, and car rental companies in the Highway Lobby remain enemies to electric-powered HSR and Rapid Transit. Their powerful political influence is why:
• California HSR and Northeast Corridor HSR projects can’t get federal funding levels like airports
• Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit Amtrak projects are under-scoped to 110 mph with many railroad crossings
• Though Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati is a 20-million person corridor, it has no HSR construction
• Florida turned down federal grants and private funds for an electric-powered 185 mph HSR system
There’s more insight about the political obstacles of future HSR and Rapid Transit funding at the end of this series.
SUMMARY: Our Government Picked Winners and Losers
At this juncture, its sufficient to know that an insidious timeline of passenger rail destruction was complete by 1964. Federal, state, county and city governments lavishly funded International Airports and Interstate Highways, ripped out Streetcars instead of conversion to Rapid Transit, and kneecapped intercity passenger train speeds. The absence of good passenger rail options are why most Americans drive between big cities, not Car Culture.
Though President Obama energized Interstate High Speed Rail for a couple years, our Global Economic Competitors made Rapid Transit and High Speed Rail a national priority.