Interstate High Speed Rail System Needed
American companies built the world’s largest railway infrastructure for freight & passenger service. American government added world-class seaport, highway and airport infrastructure. Powerful opponents limited Rapid Transit investment. Our sole Amtrak High Speed Rail corridor has mediocre infrastructure and every other Amtrak corridor is worse. The results are lost economic productivity, more air pollution, fewer jobs and a Traffic Congestion Tax on every American. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
America once had over 40,000 miles of Intercity Passenger Rail and trains that ran at or above 100 mph. Our cities teamed with Streetcar systems that enhanced economic activity in Central Business Districts. Then from 1946 to present, a powerful consortium of industries convinced Presidents, Congress, Governors and State Legislatures to invest $2 trillion of taxpayer money in Highways and $700 billion in Aviation to stimulate economic activity. At the same time, government invested little to nothing in Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcars.
Our cities reorganized around highways & boulevards to become sprawling metro areas. Municipal airports became larger international airports to support the Jet Age. Industries benefiting from public funding of Highways and Aviation used their marketing muscle and political influence to dispel Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcars as obsolete technology and to mold “Auto-Jet Culture” in America.
For the backstory, spend 7 minutes reviewing American Passenger Rail History to understand how we built the greatest rail network, then let it atrophy to 21,400 mediocre miles used by Amtrak.
Industrial opponents were most successful at kneecapping Intercity Passenger Rail from converting to High Speed Rail by manipulating naive news media, citizens and politicians in America to falsely believe that:
• We should never attempt High Speed Rail projects because they are too expensive
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Interstate Highway solves congestion
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
• Outside the Northeast, High Speed Rail projects are “Trains to No Where”
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail today, remaining opponents want naive news media, citizens and politicians to continue believing a dozen more anti-High Speed Rail arguments that are opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies.
Understand High Speed Rail Before Judging It
Let’s begin with the two official High Speed Rail (HSR) definitions by the UIC, the international agency representing Intercity Passenger Rail systems and standards:
1. Legacy railway upgraded for passenger trains to reach at least 124 mph (200 kph)
2. Upgraded legacy & new railway for passenger trains to reach 155+ mph (250+ kph)
All construction costs for Transportation infrastructure are very expensive. We primarily cost-justify them because their mobility capacity enhances economic activity. Let’s see a few recent examples to get a sense for modern Highway, Rapid Transit, Airport and HSR project costs.
In Los Angeles County, its costing $1.9 billion to widen 7 miles of existing freeway by 4 lanes or $271 million/mile. Expanding Washington Metro Rail 11.5 miles in Northern Virginia is costing $6.8 billion or $591 million/mile. In the longest stretch of California HSR, it will cost up to $23 billion to build 171 miles of HSR or $135 million/mile. In Chicago, it will cost $14.5 billion to modernize O’Hare Airport without adding another runway.
These facts dispel a half-truth that implies HSR projects are “too expensive”, relative to Highway, Rapid Transit and Airport projects.
Most HSR nations have found that 124 mph routes attract good ridership up to 260 miles and higher economic activity around train stations. More importantly, they discovered 155-199 mph routes attract significantly higher ridership up to 350-480 miles and even higher economic activity around train stations. Their ongoing success proves that HSR is 21st century infrastructure with transformative mobility and economic benefits. The big question is, do HSR Benefits outweigh Costs?
When politicians consider which Transportation infrastructure projects to publicly fund, they commission transportation planners and civil engineers calculate what’s called a “Benefit/Cost Ratio.” No infrastructure project should be funded with Benefit/Cost Ratio below 1.0.
HSR Benefit/Cost Ratio is calculated by the costs to draft preliminary plans, gather geological & environmental data for potential route alignments, corridor traffic data and public input for environmental reviews. The next steps are engineering design, property acquisition, construction and testing trains on railway.
HSR route requires straighter alignment than Interstate Highway. Track smoothness, train speeds, passenger capacities, train frequencies, high voltage power supply, communication systems and safety features are also engineering factors used to calculate HSR Benefit/Cost Ratios. Property rights and environmental laws are critical as well.
In Democratic nations with strong private property rights and environmental laws, it often takes decades after preliminary planning to open the first HSR route. Inspired by Japan’s introduction of HSR in 1964, several other countries launched HSR project R&D in 1965-66. Two of the best known HSR countries illustrate the range of construction delay caused by lawsuits. With small legal delay, it took France 15 years (1966-1981) to open its first HSR route. With huge legal delay, it took Germany 25 years (1966-1991) to open its first HSR route.
Only a small percentage of Americans have rode HSR in Western Europe or Eastern Asia to experience their fast, frequent and comfortable rides. Consequently, the lengthy construction time of HSR projects makes it more vulnerable to opponents and naive news media who sow public doubt in America. When public doubt grows large and persistent, it pressures politicians to under-fund or cancel HSR projects. The outcome of American politicians bending to public pressure is that most Amtrak trains only run 50-80 mph over most of its 21,400-miles.
“A metaphor for American HSR is “The Old Man & The Sea” fishing tale. He starts out with a giant catch. By the time he reaches shore, sharks devoured it to the size of a small fish.”
Democratic nations building Intercity HSR Systems while honoring private property and environmental laws similar to America merit closer examination. We should model the Interstate HSR System after one of them.
Should Japan be Our Nation-Model for Interstate High Speed Rail?
Heavily bombed in World War II, Japan had to quickly rebuild railway, rapid transit, highway and airport infrastructure to restore their economy. America forced Japan to become a Democratic nation. Under American-supervised occupation until 1952, post-war Japan entered a future with high gasoline prices and excessive dependence on imported oil. To reduce foreign oil dependence, Japan built nuclear power plants for electricity, modernized its electric grid and built more electric high-capacity transportation.
Since mainland America was not bombed during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of investment at home and abroad. America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan’s infrastructure in part, to make it an export market for American goods.
Japan Central Railway Company built over/underpasses at all railroad crossings between its largest metro areas — Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Hitachi converted heavy weight, diesel-powered passenger trains to lighter weight, electric-powered trains that accelerate & brake faster. More electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Heavy Rail lines fanned out from Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka train stations.
Like Americans, Japanese citizens also wanted personal mobility to explore their nation by car. Citizens and automakers convinced the Japanese government to start building a national tollway system in 1957. To prevent excessive dependence on foreign oil however, the tollway system was limited to 4-lanes between cities with a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. The tollway connected to narrow 4-6 lane urban freeways.
When the Commercial Jet Age began in 1958, Japan modernized its airport hubs as well.
During the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Japan introduced the world’s first HSR line to commercial operation. Called “Shinkansen”, its top speed was 130 mph in 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor. Electric-powered Shinkansen attracted so many riders that airlines cut flights between Tokyo and Osaka. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, Shinkansen, Commuter Rail and Metro Heavy Rail invited passengers to spend more time in station cafes and retail stores. That virtuous cycle generated handsome profits for Japan Central Railway, who also owned the train stations.
By 1993, Shinkansen carried over 2 billion passengers and blazed at 168 mph, like a passing train in the following video.
Japan has 2.5 times the population-density of America’s densest region, the Northeast. The combination of hyper-dense population, high imported oil costs, full embrace of HSR and Rapid Transit, slow intercity tollways and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America to make good assumptions about their application here. Though Japan first proved that HSR technology operates successfully, it would not to be a good HSR nation-model for America.
Which Country Should Be HSR Nation-Model for America?
Railways, roadways, airports and factories in Europe were also heavily bombed in World War II. In 1948, America invested $15 billion ($161 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild European infrastructure and revive the continent as an export market for American goods.
In 1965-66, the railway agencies of Italy, West Germany, United Kingdom, France and Belgium were no longer satisfied with 99 mph diesel-powered passenger trains. They accelerated R&D for passenger trains to achieve higher speeds too.
Western European nations also wanted to compete for commercial airplane business, but did not have aerospace companies as powerful as Boeing. In 1970-71, a consortium of companies from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and Netherlands formed Airbus to produce commercial airplanes strong enough to compete with Boeing. The Airbus consortium successfully lobbied for more public-funded airport expansion across Europe.
In the 1970s, Italy had modest population density on its large peninsular nation, half of America’s Median Household Income and half of America’s per capita car ownership. Italy imported most of its oil and its airports were not congested. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph Autostrade Tollway speed limit. Italian sports cars were celebrated and exported worldwide. Italian trains were not.
Since Italy had fewer cars per person than America, Italians still rode intercity passenger trains. Rome also had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems anchoring its train stations. Florence had a small Commuter Rail system that went to its main train station. Those conditions were sufficient for Italy to open Europe’s first HSR line between Rome and Florence in 1979.
Unfortunately, that first HSR line was plagued with poor management and infrastructure that crippled train speed, frequency and schedule reliability. Those conditions depressed ridership and slowed expansion plans for nearly a decade. Italy would not be a good HSR nation-model for America.
Fortunately, an Italian company introduced the Pendolino, whose tilt-train technology lets passenger trains go faster in curves. Today, an advanced version of Pendolino technology is embedded in many High Speed Trains (HST) operating worldwide.
By agreement after World War II, Russia controlled East Germany, excluding West Berlin. East Germany was forced to become a Communist nation, but received very little help from Russia rebuilding its infrastructure. The economy of East Germany languished for decades.
Also by agreement after World War II, America, United Kingdom and France controlled West Germany and forced it to become a Democratic nation. America invested in West Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom and Belgium to help rebuild their infrastructure. By 1966, West Germany’s economy was strong enough to start HSR R&D. Before it could start HSR construction in the mid-1970s however, West Germany had to overcome a decade of lawsuits related to HSR route alignments. That country also had the larger issue of reuniting West and East Germany in 1990. Given those strained conditions, Germany could not open its first HSR line until 1991.
By 1993, Germany was not a sufficiently proven HSR nation-model for America. Nor did United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland or Spain satisfy enough conditions to be a good HSR nation-model for the USA.
France, HSR Nation-Model for America
France had a population size similar to America’s Northeast Region. Unlike the rest of Europe, Paris train stations and most railway between Paris and Lyon, the two largest French cities, were spared from bombing.
After Japan launched Shinkansen, France began HSR R&D as well. By the early 1970s, the French economy was good and population density was increasing in Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Avignon-Marseille-Cannes-Nice corridor. The corridor had about 70% of America’s Median Household Income. People were driving Autoroute Tollway System more.
As leading participants in the Airbus consortium, French aerospace and airline companies convinced their government to expand airports to support more air travel. The French Tourism Board concurred.
To remain competitive with tollway and air travel, the French train-maker, Alstom, accelerated R&D on a High Speed Train (HST) that utilized a jet-turbine engine whose fuel was based on oil. It surpassed 140 mph. Before Alstom could introduce its HST, events in October 1973 led French government to make a transformative Energy and Transportation policy shift.
The 1973 OPEC oil embargo exposed that France’s economy was too dependent on foreign oil. When oil prices increased, people cut tollway driving and airlines jacked-up fares. It crippled their economy.
To reduce foreign oil dependence, the French prioritized construction of nuclear & hydroelectric power plants and electric passenger rail. Though SNCF had some prior electric railway, it accelerated conversion passenger railway from diesel-power to electric-power. Alstom had to quickly re-engineer the HST to electric-power as well.
Paris and Lyon were only 274 miles apart. Modest distance, large population size, and no mountain range between them made the city-pair ideal for an initial HSR line. Between them, SNCF introduced state-of-the-art HSR infrastructure called “Ligne a Grande Vitesse”, which translates to “High Speed Line.” The French call it by acronym, “LGV.”
LGV has under/overpasses at every railroad crossing, tunnels & viaducts for higher speed, good schedule reliability and superb safety features. It has premium track bedding for flatter rides and precisely shaved tracks for smooth rides. LGV’s electric power system has higher voltage to support higher train speeds.
SNCF spawned a new government agency to operate that HST branded as “Train a Grande Vitesse”, which means High Speed Train. The HST and its train operator became known by its TGV acronym.
In 1981, TGV launched on LGV between Paris and Lyon at 168 mph and captured accolades as the world’s fastest train. For an advanced European nation that never built a substantial automotive export market like Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Sweden, the world’s fastest train evoked French national pride.
By 1988, SNCF and Alstom technical tweaks enabled TGV to reach 186 mph on LGV. Train frequency increased. Coach Fares lowered. TGV became more accessible. More Paris and Lyon Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and Trams went to TGV train stations. Increased foot-traffic caused a retail boom in train stations and nearby tourism boomed.
TGV success and national pride inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion. In 1993, France was clearly the best HSR nation-model for the Northeast Corridor HSR project.
America’s Lackluster Initiation of High Speed Rail
In 1993, America’s northeastern Interstate Highways in NYC-Washington corridor permitted up to 75 mph, but traffic congestion and tollway stations limited drivers to about 60 mph average speed.
Though Amtrak Metroliner topped at 100 mph and only averaged 65 mph with 4 stops between NYC and Washington, it proved that Americans would still ride Intercity Passenger Rail, if train speeds were slightly faster than driving and fares were affordable. We should not be surprised. The Northeast Corridor had higher Median Household Income, more business flyers and higher population density than the celebrated Belgium-France HSR corridor:
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – New Haven (500K) – NYC (17M) – Philly (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – DC (4M) = 34 Million Pop.
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseille (2M) = 15 Million Pop.
With those core demographics, President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reasoned that Northeast Corridor could produce a TGV-like ridership success. In 1993, America needed to rebound from an economic recession. So Congress approved economic stimulus funds for Clinton to accelerate economic recovery. His USDOT targeted a portion of stimulus funds to upgrade Northeast Corridor for 165 mph HSR service.
Amtrak’s first HST was designed to run slower than 186 mph because, unlike TGV running on straighter railway, it would need to tilt often on curvy Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut railway. At the time, tilt-train technology was only certified up to 165 mph. That speed would still be reason for marketing hoopla in America. Amtrak HST was branded “Acela”, a portmanteau representing “Acceleration” and “Excellence.”
Biased Think Tanks Attack Acela High Speed Rail
America’s Highway Lobby feared that successful Acela service would spark nationwide demand for HSR. Should a comprehensive Interstate HSR system be built, they feared it would reduce oil consumption from intercity car drives, intercity bus rides, tire purchases, car rentals, concrete & asphalt sales for highways. The Aviation Lobby led by airplane-makers and airlines feared lower jet sales, less regional flights and less airport expansion.
The HSR threat motivated Highway and Aviation lobbies to fund think tanks (Reason, Cato, Heritage Foundation) whose editorial stance misleads naive news media to believe HSR falsehoods. Naive news media in turn, influenced the Auto & Jet-centric citizens and politicians to believe many HSR falsehoods.
With a majority of Congress believing those falsehoods, they only permitted President Clinton to invest $4.3 billion — about 1/4th the federal funding Northeast Corridor HSR needed. The HSR project attracted about $1.5 billion from state, local & private sources. Clinton’s USDOT either mistakenly or politically spread that meager $6 billion over 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, instead of focusing on the denser 226-mile NYC-Washington corridor segment for stronger initial operating results.
When Acela launched in 2000, its 165 mph trains were hamstrung by woeful infrastructure. In its fastest segment, 17 miles between Boston and Providence, parallel tracks remained too close for passing freight trains. For safety, the Federal Railroad Administration limits top speed to 150 mph in that segment. 60 miles of New Jersey and Maryland infrastructure was only upgraded to 125-135 mph. The remaining 365 miles of Northeast Corridor remained so slow its not worth mentioning.
Acela’s over-promise and under-delivery was fuel for Cato, Reason and Heritage Foundation think tanks. They issued streams of articles and TV appearances to persuade naive news media, citizens and politicians that no further Amtrak infrastructure should be public-funded. The result was predictable. Naive news media unjustly criticized Amtrak, instead of Congress and President Clinton for underfunding HSR infrastructure. Most of the public bought it.
Next Opportunity For Interstate High Speed Rail in America
Not long after the second President Bush arrived, he pounced on Amtrak’s slow speeds, infrequent trains and undependable schedules to nearly kill all federal funding of Amtrak.
Then a global event caused travelers to overlook Northeast Corridor HSR shortcomings. After 9-11-2001, security-check hassle became the norm for air travel. There were longer queues in every aspect of air travel. Airline legroom between Coach Class seats shortened.
In contrast, travelers appreciated Acela’s fast boarding & unboarding, higher schedule reliability, ample legroom, wide seats, WiFi, electric outlets, cafe cabin and any-time restroom access. They also liked shorter NYC-Washington travel time between Central Business Districts. Travelers also benefitted from Acela’s 125 mph sibling service called “Northeast Regional.” It featured more stops, but fares cost less than half as much. That made Northeast Regional perfect for the heavy concentration of college students in its corridor and others on a tight budget.
To the chagrin of critics and surprise of naive news media, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor HSR services entered operating profit in 2006.
Obama Kickstarts High Speed Rail Beyond Northeast Corridor
Sensing opportunity for similar success with a new President and Congress in 2009, 37 governors adopted Amtrak-HSR upgrade plans. In his first months of office, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds for Amtrak-HSR projects. California committed over $11 billion towards its California HSR and Amtrak California projects. Several other states committed over $3 billion towards Amtrak-HSR projects.
Since the 2009-10 Congress shared most of his agenda and “Amtrak Joe” was his Vice President, most HSR advocates hoped that President Obama would designate about $50 billion for HSR from economic stimulus funds. He could then invest $10 billion to address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, while allocating $40 billion to three projects that could demonstrate large HSR benefits in 6-12 years:
165 mph Northeast Corridor HSR (upgrade)
220 mph California HSR (new)
185 mph Florida HSR (new)
Unfortunately, Obama allocated only $8.5 billion of economic stimulus grants to HSR projects and $5 billion to Amtrak maintenance backlog. HSR advocates immediately knew that $8.5 billion was too small & thinly spread to succeed on its own. The Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio governors rejected nearly $3 billion in HSR grants. Those meager funds were redirected to California HSR and two Amtrak Chicago-Midwest Regional service projects.
Nevertheless, in 2010, labor unions and Chambers of Commerce warmed to the opportunity for new HSR service like other advanced nations. President Obama’s economic stimulus saved the U.S. automotive industry. And since Obama promised that his upcoming U.S. Surface Transportation Proposal to Congress would also repair more highways, automotive and freight trucking industries stopped their public opposition to HSR.
As promised, Obama requested $53 billion/6 years for Amtrak-HSR projects in his 2011 U.S. Surface Transportation Proposal to Congress. Based on Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR financial breakeven, $13.5 billion of Obama USDOT funding and $11 billion matching commitment by California, Obama’s USDOT likely believed his new proposal would attract $10-12 billion/6 years more from other states.
If he succeeded, a combined $88-90 billion/8 year investment would have upgraded Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR, upgraded Chicago-Midwest Regional projects to HSR status and opened enough California HSR segments over 2016-24 to amplify public demand for more HSR.
Unfortunately, Obama underestimated the influence of industrial opponents, combined with a dramatically changed U.S. House of Representatives after the November 2010 election. In 2011, they kneecapped Amtrak-HSR and Rapid Transit funding in his proposal. In each subsequent year of the Obama Administration, the House of Representatives only sent “status quo” proposals for Highway and Aviation funding to the Senate for approval and President Obama for signature, while underfunding HSR and Rapid Transit projects. If President Obama did not sign their status quo infrastructure proposals, economic recovery would have stalled on his watch. Without a better alternative, he signed.
Post-Obama, HSR projects have been equally devoid of federal funding. Due to high-stakes political delay, America lost over a decade of substantial Amtrak-HSR progress. Ditto for substantial Rapid Transit upgrade progress.
America Trails With Only Auto-Jet Culture
In contrast to America, our Global Economic Competitors contended with less powerful industrial opponents. As a result, their political leaders built great Highways and Aviation infrastructure, while preserving Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcar infrastructure.
After the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo, they experienced less resistance investing funds to upgrade Intercity Passenger Rail to High Speed Rail and upgrade Streetcars to faster Tram service and build new Rapid Transit lines. Today, they benefit from a balance of Highway, Rapid Transit, Passenger Rail and Aviation infrastructure. They have “Auto-Rapid Transit-Passenger Train-Jet Culture”, while excluding the Northeast Corridor, America trails with only “Auto-Jet Culture.”
This 7-part series focuses on why America needs a high-speed, high-capacity, high-frequency rail mobility solution. Before linking to Part 2 however, I recommend a 5-minute review of Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy page. It provides a brief overview of passenger rail categories and passenger trains. The taxonomy will help you understand the massive HSR Benefits over Costs that our Global Economic Competitors enjoy.