More Interstate High Speed Rail Needed
After World War II, America added highway and airport infrastructure that became the envy of the world. We could have built world-class Interstate High Speed Rail and expanded Rapid Transit too. Unfortunately, powerful opponents and more wars led to underinvestment in passenger rail, placing a traffic congestion and air pollution tax on every American today.
World-class transportation infrastructure helped America become the world’s richest country. We’ve invested over $1.5 trillion in Interstate Highways and over $500 billion in airports-aviation. Our 21,400 miles of mostly private railway is great for freight rail. Unfortunately, it sucks for passenger rail.
Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $6.2 billion to partially upgrade the 457-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere for Amtrak routes. Since Amtrak is not a great alternative outside the Northeast Corridor, our Interstate Highways attract too many solo-drivers and our airports are congested with excessive regional flights.
Underinvestment in passenger rail occurred because a large coalition of industries opposed it. They influenced Congress, presidents and governors to enact federal and state policy that crippled intercity & urban passenger rail, while lavishly funding highway and airport expansion. Interstate High Speed Rail, the apex of passenger rail infrastructure, has been their largest target. Opponents manipulated news media, politicians and citizens to erroneously believe that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable in America
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Interstate Highways solves congestion
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail (HSR) today, remaining opponents want news media, politicians and citizens to continue believing a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies.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. What they mean is, America doesn’t have an Interstate HSR System befitting its global-economic status and its 21st century needs.
A narrative journey is required to understand why America should build HSR in 18-19 states by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a comprehensive 25,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2050. The narrative journey begins with glory days when America had the world’s best intercity & urban passenger rail infrastructure. 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 passenger rail atrophy.
Let’s resume with nations who paved the way forward in HSR development. One of them would become America’s HSR nation-model.
Would Japan be America’s Nation-Model for Interstate High Speed Rail?
Railways, factories and offices in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. After the war ended in September 1945, they had to rebuild. Since America’s railways, factories and offices stayed intact during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of 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.
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 built nuclear power plants for electricity and rebuilt their electric grid. Electric-powered passenger pail returned between cities.
Japan was not satisfied rebuilding legacy passenger rail reaching 81-99 mph. Over/underpasses were built at each railroad crossing between its three largest cities, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Space cleared by World War II bombing was used to ease railway curves for straighter track. Hitachi developed more powerful electric train engines. A high-speed train control system was introduced. Electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Rail systems in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya were expanded, multiplying access to train stations.
When Japan launched the world’s first HSR line, Shinkansen, during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, top speed reached 130 mph in the 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka corridor. Shinkansen’s 2 hour 40 minute travel time cut demand for Tokyo-Osaka and Tokyo-Nagoya flights. Trains were so dependable, you could set your watch by them.
Since electric trains do not emit fumes and access to train stations was easier, travelers spent more time in station cafes and retail shops. Those conditions generated profits for Japan Central Railway Company who owned the stations. Equally important, the combined network of Shinkansen HSR, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail trains enabled Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya residents to get most places with fewer cars per household.
Nevertheless, upwardly-mobile citizens wanted to explore more of their city, region and nation by car and explore other nations by jet. So Japan built a 4-lane intercity tollway system with a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. It connected to what Americans would consider, narrow 4-6 lane freeways within cities. Japan also modernized airports for jet travel.
Unfortunately, the hyper-dense population of an island nation, high oil costs, slow tollways and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America for Japan to be a good HSR nation-model.
Which Country Would Become Nation-Model for High Speed Rail in America?
After World War II, Western Europe rebuilt railroad over/underpasses for diesel-powered passenger rail that ran 81-106 mph between cities. By 1965, European national railway companies, sparked by Shinkansen success, accelerated R&D for their intercity passenger rail to achieve higher speeds.
When one considers the high Median Household Incomes, Porsche and BMW sports car tradition, No Speed Limit Autobahn, and large regional train network, its easy to anticipate Germany building HSR before its European neighbors. Not so fast. Although West Germany conducted High Speed Rail R&D in the 1970s, lawsuits over property acquisition halted project construction for a decade. Germany also had to prepare for West & East German reunification in 1990.
As a result, Germany did not open its first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line until 1991. Nor would Germany be a good HSR nation-model for America.
Italy had modest population density, modest car ownership and half of America’s Median Household Income. The peninsular nation imported most of its oil. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph speed limit of Autostrade Tollway System. Trains were not celebrated in Italian culture, like Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had Commuter Rail, but no Metro Rail.
And yet by 1979, Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line between Rome and Florence. Unfortunately, Italy HSR was plagued with infrastructure issues until 1986. Those factors initially limited HSR patronage and appetite for HSR expansion. Italy would not be a good HSR nation-model for America. Nevertheless, in 1988, an Italian company engineered the Pendolino whose best tilt train technology is still used today.
In the 1970s, Spain had lower population density, modest car ownership and less than half of America’s Median Household Income. Though it had more domestic oil production than Italy and Germany, Spain had fewer cars per household. Spanish airports were not congested. Drivers often exceeded the 75 mph speed limit of Autopista Tollway System, but Spain had no celebrated sports car tradition like Italy and Germany. The two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems accessing train stations. Spain’s infrastructure priority was to expand Autopista.
Though Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) HSR line opened between Madrid and Seville in 1992, simultaneous with Seville World’s Fair, Spain lacked essential conditions to be a good HSR nation-model for America.
In the 1970s, United Kingdom had population density, moderate car ownership and about 80% of America’s Median Household Income. It had more domestic oil production than Spain, Italy and Germany. UK had sports car and luxury car traditions. Like New York City, London had an extensive Metro Rail and Commuter Rail system. Heavily influenced by highway and aviation lobbyists in the 1970s and 1980s, the United Kingdom was more interested in expanding its national motorway system, and exporting Triumphs, Jaguars, Rolls Royces.
UK citizens were relatively satisfied with 93-105 mph trains that ran frequently between London and its other cities. This island nation lacked essential conditions to be a good HSR nation-model for America.
In 1954, abandonment from war in Southeast Asia allowed France to divert more taxes to nuclear & hydroelectric energy, a new power grid and transportation infrastructure. Since France rebuilt intercity passenger rail, trains were still popular with travelers. By 1970, French R&D for a gasoline-powered High Speed Train (HST) operating above 130 mph showed promise.
By 1973, France had significant population density in Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, a high percentage of car-ownership and plenty of regional flights. Autoroute Tollway System had 4 to 6 lanes with an 81 mph speed limit. Though higher dependency on imported oil produced more expensive gasoline than in America, Parisian families, couples and singles frequently drove 274 miles south to Lyon, then 195 miles further south to Marseilles or even further to French Riviera cities. Autoroute sometimes clogged from Paris to Mediterranean cities. That year, the OPEC oil embargo crippled France’s economy and changed how the nation would view infrastructure.
To reduce foreign oil dependence, France elevated priority for more nuclear energy and electric passenger rail infrastructure. Two of France’s three largest cities, Paris and Lyon, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. The French railway company re-engineered gasoline-powered HST to become electric-powered HST. Paris accelerated expansion of electric-powered Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines headed to train stations. Lyon upgraded its Commuter Rail system and opened its first Metro Rail line to the train station in 1978, with more lines planned.
Rather than rush introduction of its HST, called Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), France pursued a new state-of-art. TGV would predominantly run on Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) that have under/overpasses at every railroad crossing and more short tunnels and aerial viaducts to run straighter than HSR in Japan and Italy. LGV would have premium track bedding and carefully shaved tracks for smooth TGV rides. TGV would use a new 25kV power system for higher speed than a 3kV power system employed by legacy passenger rail. Equally important, LGV would use an advanced train control system and superlative track maintenance for high dependability and safety.
In 1981, TGV service started between Paris and Lyon. Though Japan’s Shinkansen climbed to 155 mph by then, TGV captured global accolades as the world’s fastest train, reaching 168 mph Top Speed in commercial operation. TGV sparked national pride in the French. That was meaningful in a European nation that had a celebrated race car tradition, but never achieved accolades for selling French cars to international markets, like Italy, Germany and United Kingdom.
In 1988, TGV upgraded to 186 mph Top Speed, matching the certified speed limit of its early LGV. TGV frequency increased and Coach Fares lowered, inviting more Paris-Lyon travelers to switch from cars and airplanes. Paris and Lyon train stations integrating TGV, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail increased retail, hotel and tourism activity in their Central Business Districts (CBD).
TGV success and national pride inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion north & west from Paris and south from Lyon. Lyon had a former defense plant with north-south run-thru tracks. By converting the defense plant to a train station, passenger trains no longer had to back out from a dead-end Lyon train terminal. That would shave about 15 minutes from travel time from Paris to destinations south of Lyon. 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.
By the 1990s, Autoroute Tollway travel times and airport queues in non-TGV corridors were lengthening due to population growth. As alternatives to long drives and regional flights, French travelers anxiously awaited LGV expansion from Paris to LeMans and Paris to Tours in 1990, LGV expansion from Paris to Lille in 1993, Channel Tunnel opening in 1994 for Paris-Lille-London HSR service, LGV expansion from Lyon to Valence in 1994 and LGV expansion from Lille to Brussels in 1995 for Paris-Lille-Brussels service.
French TGV had proven HSR operating success in conditions closer to those in America’s Northeast Corridor. France checked the most boxes to become America’s HSR nation-model.
President Clinton’s Lackluster Initiation of High Speed Rail
As detailed in American Passenger Rail History, Congress and President Nixon formed government-supported Amtrak in 1971 as a life preserver for intercity passenger rail, but not with federal funding to modernize its infrastructure. In 1978, President Carter’s proposal to build Northeast Corridor HSR was scuttled.
Skip forward to 1993. Interstate Highways returned to 65-75 mph speed limits, but traffic congestion and tollway stations in NYC-Washington corridor segment limited drivers to 60 mph average speed. Such low average speed helped Amtrak Metroliner remain time-competitive despite infrastructure limiting it to 70 mph Average Speed.
Referencing the French TGV nation-model, the Clinton Administration U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) revisited opportunity for a successful HSR route. His USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR should attract high ridership and sustain its operating budget in less than a decade based on sound evidence.
Amtrak Metroliner had modest ridership in the corridor, despite lower speed and train frequency than TGV. The Northeast Corridor had a higher Median Household Income and a higher percentage of business flyers than Brussels-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseille corridor. The Northeast Corridor had higher population density than the French-Belgian corridor in 1993:
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseilles (2M) = 15 Million Pop.
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – New Haven (500K) – NYC (17M) – Philly (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – DC (4M) = 34 Million Pop.
To accelerate recovery from economic recession, in 1993, Clinton’s USDOT announced that federal stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR and feature tilt trains capable of 165 mph. That speed was lower than TGV because American HST would need to tilt often in ultra-curvy Connecticut railway. And yet, there was hoopla for the electric-powered Amtrak Northeast Corridor HST branded as “Acela.”
The American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Lobby), feared that a successful Acela would spark demand for a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. Should the latter occur, it would reduce oil consumption, tire purchases, regional flights, car rentals, intercity bus rides, concrete & asphalt for highway widening. The Aviation Lobby also feared loss of regional flights. It should be no surprise that the Aviation and Highway lobbies welded their influence with Congress to limit Northeast Corridor HSR infrastructure funding to a petty fraction of its need.
Clinton’s USDOT mistakenly spread that meager funding over the 457-mile Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington corridor, instead of concentrating on 262-mile Stamford-NYC-Washington segment as Phase 1. That segment had America’s highest concentration of passenger rail ridership and would draw political support from 6 states and Washington DC. Early success there would attract more funding for Phase 2.
The other shortcoming was that President Clinton not fight for more Acela HSR funds when the economy improved over his 8-year tenure. Opposing any notion of HSR success, the Highway Lobby hired think tanks to mislead news media, politicians and citizens to believe that under-funded Acela should still deliver 186 mph TGV-like results.
When Acela launched in 2000, its trains were capable of 165 mph, but crippled by 440 miles of inadequate infrastructure. Top Speed was limited to 150 mph on 17 miles between suburban Boston and Providence, with 30-135 mph Top Speeds elsewhere. When Acela failed to deliver Champagne Taste on Beer Money, Amtrak critics multiplied.
If the backstory interests you, click on the Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail Progress link
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 rail agencies lease track access to Amtrak at low fees. At usually less than 3 daily runs per route, freight trains safely travel on 1-2 tracks at 30-60 mph. American commuter rail operates at 40-50 mph Average Speed.
Freight rail companies operate well under those conditions, so they have little incentive to upgrade. Commuter transit agencies want upgrades for railway over/underpasses, schedule dependability and safety, but don’t have extra funds lying around. Consequently, there are many places where autos, people and other animals cross tracks. Those conditions forced the rest of Amtrak to operate at 50-60 mph Average Speed with infrequent service and undependable schedules.
Not long after President Bush II took over, he pounced on Amtrak’s slow Average Speeds and undependable schedules. He nearly killed its funding outside the Northeast Corridor. Fortunately, governors and congresspersons fought back to preserve Amtrak. But once America entered the Afghanistan & Iraq Wars, the USDOT budget percentage for passenger rail infrastructure dropped again.
Despite all odds, a positive HSR narrative emerged after the 9-11-2001 terrorist event. All Northeast Corridor travelers placed greater value on the absence of security-check hassle at train stations and faster boarding/unboarding than airplanes. More Business Travelers noticed Acela’s NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel time savings, higher schedule dependability than flying and wide leather seats. All travelers appreciated more legroom, wide tray tables, electric outlets at each seat, and a cafe cabin. Acela and its sibling Northeast Regional HST with more intermediate stops, had combined train frequency of every 30 minutes from 6am to 7pm. Acela and Northeast Regional patrons avoided parking fees and long taxi rides from airport to (CBD). Those factors made Northeast Corridor HSR more time-saving, productive, comfortable and cost-effective than other regional travel modes.
Another positive narrative emerged by 2006. Consumer adoption of both HST enabled Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR to enter operating profit that year. In 2010, Acela also added WiFi well before airplanes.
Three more Amtrak lines built successful narratives. Amtrak Keystone 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 upgrade, more daily trains and extension to Pittsburgh.
In California, patronage grew when diesel-powered Amtrak Capital Corridor in San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento corridor increased to 15 daily round-trips and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Los Angeles-Anaheim-San Diego corridor increased to 12 daily round-trips. Their ridership growth despite only 80 mph Top Speeds, encouraged politicians to place a $10 billion HSR bond measure on the ballot that was approved by California voters in 2008.
President Obama Kickstarts Interstate High Speed Rail Beyond Northeast Corridor
Sensing opportunity for similar transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted Amtrak-HSR upgrade plans. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds for intercity passenger rail projects. Again, Congress only authorized a fraction of that amount.
President Obama doubled Metro Rail & Commuter Rail 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 intercity passenger rail. California also committed over $11 billion towards California HSR and California Amtrak projects. Several other states added $3 billion towards Amtrak projects. At the urging of Vice President Biden, America’s first black president kick-started the Interstate High Speed Rail System 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, President Obama knew that $6.2 billion of previous Northeast Corridor investment and $30 billion of new federal & state investment was only a kickstart 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 would open between 2015-25. Initial successes would make it easier for the next Congress, presidents and governors to increase funding for more HSR projects to open between 2025-40. If that scale of funding was authorized, the Interstate HSR System would create a legacy for President Obama similar to the Interstate Highway System for President Eisenhower.
More important than legacy vanities, Americans desperately needed jobs to emerge faster from the 2008-2012 Great Recession. Governors, mayors, labor unions, infrastructure builders and Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. Automotive industry, most airlines, and big construction stopped their public opposition to HSR. Intercity buses could plan for gradual conversion to biofuel engines over 10-12 years. Rental car agencies could introduce more hybrid cars in the 2010s and electric cars in the 2020s. Highways needed repair.
Since the multi-year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for congressional vote, Obama believed timing was right to expand the Interstate HSR System and Rapid Transit, while repairing highways and expanding electric charging stations for cars. Unfortunately, additional funding for HSR and Rapid Transit was never approved by Congress for President Obama to sign-off. What happened?
As electric transportation draws energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power, it reduces oil-powered driving and flying. Hence, the powerful oil & gas industry recognizes electric transportation as an existential threat. So they redoubled federal influence to limit electric Rapid Transit growth, stop Amtrak-HSR projects and limit electric charging stations. Despite Obama’s proposals to advance Amtrak-HSR, after the 2010 election, a Congressional majority would not approve needed federal funding for Northeast Corridor HSR, California HSR or any other HSR project.
There was some good news. The kickstart investment by Obama and several governors modestly paid off. A number of Slow Zones reduced and more daily Amtrak trains were added in the Northeast, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon. Before leaving office in 2017, Obama squeezed out funding for new Acela trains and 24 miles of HSR route upgrade. In February 2020, Amtrak operating budget was approaching breakeven before COVID-19 cratered the economy. In spring 2021, Northeast Corridor HSR will feature new Acela trains running 160 mph over those 24 upgraded miles.
Government & Highway Lobby Crippled America’s Transportation Alternatives
In summary, Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced federal, state and local governments to lavishly fund highways and airports after World War II. They convinced federal, state and local governments to cripple intercity passenger rail and underinvest in urban passenger rail. By 1993, Congress had failed Presidents Carter and Clinton who envisioned world-class Northeast Corridor HSR. By limiting HSR to small portions of the Northeast Corridor, America’s airport and highway congestion reduces business productivity and leisure time, while increasing green house gases and air pollutants.
In the next part of this narrative journey, see how and why Global Economic Competitors aggressively develop HSR for many advantages in the 21st century.