Interstate High Speed Rail System Needed
American companies built the world’s best rail infrastructure for freight trains, intercity passenger trains and streetcars. Government added world-class seaport, roadway and airport infrastructure. In the 20th century, that salad of transportation infrastructure helped America become the world’s largest economy. Along the way, opponents arose who limited conversion of streetcars to Rapid Transit and conversion of intercity passenger rail to High Speed Rail. By under-building Rapid Transit and High Speed Rail, smog levels persist, greenhouse gases increase, and every American pays a Traffic Congestion Tax in the 21st century. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
America once had over 40,000 miles of intercity passenger rail featuring trains running up to 112 mph. When you add in station stops and slowdowns caused by freight trains sharing the same track, average speeds were 70-75 mph. Passenger trains were comfortable and loaded with amenities and good service for regional and long-distance travel. Our cities teemed with streetcars that enhanced local economic activity and social cohesion. They met at train stations.
From 1946 onwards, a consortium of industries convinced Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures, Governors, City Councils and Mayors to invest $2 trillion of taxpayer funds in Highways and $700 billion in Aviation. All drivers paid fuel taxes for Highway infrastructure. Airlines only paid small landing & terminal fees for Aviation infrastructure. As quiet as it’s kept, income taxes and public bonds covered the balance of costs for transportation infrastructure.
Within the Aviation and Highway ecosystems, automakers, aircraft makers, airlines and oil companies in particular, grew richer, created the most jobs, and curried the most political influence. Corporate law requires that publicly-traded companies maximize shareholder profit by any legal means. To maximize profits, automakers, aircraft makers, airlines and oil companies sought to keep nearly all public transportation funding for Highway and Aviation infrastructure. They formed lobbies to influence public perspective and backed like-minded politicians.
Highway and Aviation lobbies formed strong advertising relationships with news media. That led to many positive newspaper articles and TV news about Highways and Aviation. Those lobbies increased campaign donations to governors, state legislatures, county commissioners, mayors and council leaders who wanted more construction, factory, airport & highway service jobs in their state, county and city. Boeing and Lockheed added duel-lobbying heft as defense contractors.
With huge marketing budgets and relentless political influence, Highway and Aviation lobbies hired think tanks to help reframe public and government perspective of Intercity Passenger Trains and Streetcars as “Obsolete Technology.”
That perspective helped influence Congress and President Truman to introduce 1952 federal regulation that limited railway speed to 79 mph, if routes didn’t have over/underpasses for many contiguous miles for automobiles to safely cross. If more over/underpasses were built, intercity passenger trains could have sustained 110 mph top speed and 70-75 mph average speeds.
The obsolete technology perspective convinced state, county and city governments to only build railroad over/underpasses when it benefited highways and boulevards. Average speed for intercity passenger trains dropped to about 50 mph. At the same time, U.S. and state highways were improved for higher speeds and more people drove 60 mph.
Interstate Highway System construction began in 1956 and smooth-flying commercial jets were introduced in 1958. Cities and states invested heavily in their major airports. Those developments caused passenger train ridership to plummet.
Another shoe dropped in the same timeframe. Streetcars averaging 10-11 mph were suitable in our cities up through World War II. After the war ended in September 1945, cities swiftly grew outwards. Public-funded highways and boulevards enabled faster automotive speeds to city suburbs.
Convinced that streetcars were obsolete technology, city governments made no efforts to speed them up, like today’s Metro Light Rail or replace some lines with Metro Heavy Rail. Instead, they allowed a consortium of companies within the Highway Lobby to buy streetcar lines and sabotage service. The consortium also aided politicians with PR cover to rip up streetcar tracks and replace streetcars with buses that average 10-12 mph with stops.
Given a choice between slow public buses and faster personal cars, we know the alternative preferred by most Americans. Highways spread most business activity to city suburbs. The middle class followed. Only NYC, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia offered modest resistance to that trend. Commutes to their Central Business Districts via Metro Heavy Rail tunnels was still faster than by car and cheaper than parking fees.
Elsewhere, city governments got played. By replacing streetcars with equally slow public buses, America’s transition from “Transit-Passenger Train-Auto Culture” to “Auto-Jet Culture” gained a public seal of approval. A byproduct of that cultural shift was that suburbs grew stronger, while the tax base of big cities weakened.
High Speed Rail, A New Threat To Industrial Opponents
In 1964, High Speed Rail was introduced in a nation that America conquered in World War II. Due to jealously, embarrassment or both, it sparked overwhelming agreement between Congress and President Johnson to launch a Washington-NYC High Speed Rail project in 1965.
To Highway and Aviation lobbies, if that High Speed Rail project succeeded, it could spread nationwide and threaten their domination of public funding for infrastructure. In decades since 1965, it became the mission of Highway and Aviation lobbies to manipulate naive news media, politicians and citizens to believe opinions misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies such as:
• We’ve invested a lot in Amtrak, but it still isn’t High Speed Rail
• High Speed Rail doesn’t deliver enough benefits to justify the costs
• 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
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail since 2010, remaining opponents want naive news media, politicians and citizens to continue believing a dozen more opinions misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies.
Understanding High Speed Rail (HSR) first requires that one knows its two speed definitions by the UIC, the international agency representing Intercity Passenger Rail systems. The UIC measures train speed by kilometers per hour (kph), rather than miles per hour:
1st Generation HSR: Legacy railway upgraded for passenger trains to reach at least 200 kph (124 mph)
2nd Generation HSR: Upgraded legacy & new railway for passenger trains to reach 250+ kph (155+ mph)
One can easily disprove the first lie and half-truth. Amtrak has been running 1st Generation HSR in the Northeast Corridor (Washington-NYC-Boston) since 2000. Unfortunately, our politicians invested never fully upgraded the HSR route. Consequently, 457-mile Northeast Corridor HSR corridor has only 36 miles for trains to run at least 150 mph, like other advanced nations.
Fortunately, California hints at HSR progress. After passing a state bond in 2008 and early project hiccups, California started constructing a HSR system in 2015. Top speed will reach 220 mph.
Understand High Speed Rail Benefits Over Cost Before Judging It
Taxpayers are right to be cautious about Transportation infrastructure funding because construction costs are high. Yet our leaders continue selecting & funding projects because millions of people must transport each day. Mobility powers economic activity. A few recent cost examples for taxpayer-supported Interstate Highway, Rapid Transit, High Speed Rail and International Airport projects follow.
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 High Speed Rail System, it will cost up to $23 billion to build 171 miles of 220 mph infrastructure or $135 million/mile. In Chicago, its costing $14.5 billion to modernize O’Hare Airport without adding another runway.
Depending on segment, California HSR construction costs range from $80-135 million per mile. It costs less per mile than new Interstate Highway. Nevertheless, such high costs per mile should trigger the next two questions. What causes high infrastructure construction costs? Do HSR Benefits outweigh Costs?
Transportation planners and civil engineers first calculate costs to draft preliminary plans, gather geological & environmental data for route alignments, gather public input for environmental reviews, engineering and construction. A glance at this Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy reveals many more factors contributing to HSR construction costs.
A rule of thumb, is higher HSR construction costs should produce larger benefits (higher speeds, frequencies, capacity, safety). I’ll describe more HSR benefits in Part 2 of this series. For now, focus on what’s called a “Benefit/Cost Ratio.”
No infrastructure project should be funded with a projected Benefit/Cost Ratio below 1.0. When Japan introduced smooth-riding 130 mph HSR at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, it became immensely popular. That tech-savvy nation proved High Speed Rail can produce a Benefit/Cost Ratio well above 1.0 and immediately began planning HSR expansion.
Coveting Japan’s success, other advanced countries funded plans for HSR infrastructure. Some funded High Speed Train R&D too. In 1965, President Johnson, with overwhelming Congressional support, announced that America would open the second HSR line in Washington-NYC corridor. The trouble is, they only funded $90 million — just enough for High Speed Trains without new infrastructure.
In 1969, electric-powered Metroliner was introduced sporting 125 mph top speed. Within 1 year, safety, dependability and ride vibration issues on old infrastructure led the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to reduce Metroliner to 110 mph. In 1971, the FRA reduced Metroliner to 100 mph, again for safety reasons.
Though Congress and President Nixon formed Amtrak in 1971 to save intercity passenger rail, they didn’t fund new infrastructure either. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Congress and President Ford fumbled another HSR opportunity when costs were an order of magnitude lower.
If the backstory interests you, spend 7 minutes reviewing American Passenger Rail History to understand how we built the world’s greatest railway network, then let it atrophy.
Should Japan be Our Nation-Model for Interstate High Speed Rail?
By 1993, several Democratic nations had opened successful new HSR lines, while honoring property rights and environmental concerns. They merit closer examination because we needed to model our Washington-NYC Corridor HSR upgrade like one of them.
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 most of its electricity and modernized its electric grid.
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.
In the 1950s, Japan Railway Company started building over/underpasses at all level railroad crossings between its largest metro areas — Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Hitachi converted heavy diesel-powered passenger trains to lighter electric-powered trains that accelerate & brake faster. More lines of electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Heavy Rail expanded from Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka train stations to all compass points in their metro areas.
Japanese citizens and automakers also wanted more personal mobility by car, they convinced 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, 62 mph speed limit, high tolls and connected to narrow urban freeways.
When the Commercial Jet Age began in 1958, Japanese government funded airport modernization as well.
In 1958, Japan funded the equivalent of $3.6 billion dollars in dedicated electric railway for 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor. When the world’s first HSR line (“Shinkansen”) opened there during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, top speed was 130 mph. Shinkansen trains made several intermediate stops for 80 mph average speed. Shinkansen attracted so many riders that airlines immediately cut flights between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, Shinkansen, Commuter Rail and Metro Heavy Rail invited more passengers to spend time in station cafes and retail stores.
By 1993, Shinkansen carried over 2 billion passengers and top speed reached 168 mph, like a passing train in the following video.
Japan has 2.5 times the population-density of the Northeast, America’s densest region, . 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 HSR application here. Though Japan proved that HSR operates successfully, it would not to be the best 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 diesel-powered passenger trains reaching 99 mph. 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 large and capable as Boeing. In 1970-71, a consortium of companies from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and Netherlands formed Airbus to produce commercial airplanes competitive 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. An Italian company introduced the Pendolino, whose tilt-train technology lets passenger trains go faster in curves. 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. But today, an advanced version of Pendolino technology is embedded in many High Speed Trains (HST) operating worldwide.
By treaty 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. By the same treaty, 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. It was ready start 7-8 years construction of electric-powered HSR by the mid-1970s, but West Germany had to overcome a decade of lawsuits related to route alignments. That country also had to reunite West and East Germany in 1990. Given those strained conditions, Germany did not open its first HSR line until 1991.
Germany was not a well proven HSR nation-model by 1993. Nor did United Kingdom, Belgium or Spain satisfy enough conditions at that time, 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 Metro system were spared from bombing.
After Japan launched Shinkansen, France began extensive HSR R&D as well. By the early 1970s, the French economy was in decent shape and population density was increasing in the populous Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Avignon-Marseille-Cannes-Nice corridor. The corridor had about 70% of America’s Median Household Income and people were driving Autoroute Tollway in it.
As leading participants in the Airbus consortium, French aerospace and airline companies convinced their government to expand airports for larger air travel. To attract more travelers from North America and Asia, the French Tourism Board concurred.
To remain competitive with Autoroute 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 set test speed records between 155-186 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 government prioritized construction of nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. Though SNCF had a few prior electric railway lines, it accelerated conversion of passenger railway from diesel-power to electric-power. Alstom had to re-engineer the HST to electric-power as well. Lighter weight electric trains had the added benefit of faster acceleration & deceleration to produce shorter trip times.
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 and substantial earth moved for straighter & flatter routes. It has premium track bedding, high-speed switches and precisely shaved tracks for smooth rides. LGV’s electric power system has higher voltage to support higher speeds. Every LGV has complete fencing and electronic track monitors for safety.
SNCF spawned a new government agency to operate that Alstom-made HST branded as “Train a Grande Vitesse”, which means High Speed Train. The HST and its train operator became known by its acronym, “TGV.”
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 nation that never built a substantial automotive export market like Germany, USA, Japan, Italy and United Kingdom, the world’s fastest train evoked national pride in the French.
By 1988, SNCF and Alstom technical tweaks enabled TGV to reach 186 mph on LGV. Train frequency increased. Coach Fares lowered. More TGV, Regional trains, Metro trains and Trams went to train stations. Large foot-traffic caused a retail and tourism boom within and near train stations. TGV success, train station retail growth and national pride inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion.
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 62-63 mph average speed. The corridor was ready for a new transport alternative and France was its best HSR nation-model.
Though Amtrak Metroliner topped at 100 mph and averaged 65 mph with 4 stops between NYC and Washington, it proved that Americans would still ride Intercity Passenger Rail, if train speeds were as fast as driving and fares were affordable. We should not be surprised. The Northeast Corridor had higher Median Household Income, more business travel 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 demographics, President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reasoned that Northeast Corridor could produce TGV-like ridership success. In 1993, America needed to rebound from an economic recession. So Congress approved economic stimulus funds for Clinton to quickly deploy. His USDOT targeted a portion of stimulus funds to upgrade Northeast Corridor for 165 mph HSR service.
Amtrak’s first High Speed Train (HST) would run slower than 186 mph because, unlike TGV on straighter railway, it would need to tilt often on curvy railway. At the time, tilt-train technology was only certified for commercial operation up to 165 mph. That speed would still be reason to brand Amtrak’s first HST “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) whose editorial stance misleads naive news media to believe HSR falsehoods. Naive news media in turn, influenced citizens and naive politicians to continue believing many HSR falsehoods.
By 1993, USDOT expanded the project to become Washington-NYC-Boston HSR corridor. But a majority of Congress believed or hid behind HSR falsehoods. They only permitted President Clinton to invest $4.3 billion/8 years in Federal Railway funds, which attracted about $1.5 billion from state, local & private sources. Given 28 years of inflation since 1965, $5.8 billion total funding was 1/4th the amount needed for world-class HSR in the Northeast Corridor.
Since Clinton could not garner enough federal funding for 457-mile Washington-NYC-Boston HSR corridor, all of it should have been invested in the 226-mile Washington-NYC corridor segment. Washington-NYC corridor segment was the most populous and had highest passenger travel and second highest freight travel in America. Amtrak and state transit agencies already owned most rail rights-of-way. That would lower construction costs. NYC-Boston corridor segment should have been designated as Phase 2.
As an essential transportation mode in the corridor, politicians in Washington-NYC corridor segment could have justified $2 billion/8 years in matching funds from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. With $6.3 billion focused on Phase 1, initial HSR results could have been impressive, while improving commuter rail and freight rail schedule reliability too.
Instead, Amtrak Acela launched a 165 mph train on mediocre infrastructure in 2000. 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 limited top speed to 150 mph in that segment. About 60 miles of New Jersey and Maryland infrastructure was upgraded to 125-135 mph. The remaining 365 miles of Northeast Corridor remained embarrassingly slow.
Next Opportunity For Interstate High Speed Rail in America
The second President Bush arrived 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 for air travel became overbearing. There were longer queues in every aspect of air travel. Airline legroom between Coach Class seats shortened. There was no WiFi on airplanes.
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-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel time between Central Business Districts.
Travelers also benefitted from Amtrak Acela’s sibling service called “Amtrak 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 Acela and Northeast Regional 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 upgrade or new HSR 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 Congress shared most of his agenda and “Amtrak Joe” was his Vice President, most HSR advocates hoped that President Obama would designate $50 billion towards HSR from economic stimulus funds. His USDOT could then invest $10 billion to address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog and $40 billion to Northeast Corridor, California, Florida and Chicago-Midwest HSR projects that could demonstrate large benefits in 5-12 years:
Unfortunately, President Obama allocated only $8.5 billion of economic stimulus grants and standard USDOT funding to HSR and Emerging HSR projects, plus $5 billion to Amtrak maintenance backlog. Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio governors rejected $3 billion in Amtrak-HSR grants. Their funds were redirected to California HSR and two Amtrak Chicago-Midwest Emerging HSR projects. But HSR advocates knew that $8.5 billion was too small to succeed.
Something surprising happened in 2010. Labor unions, Chambers of Commerce and transportation infrastructure builders warmed to the opportunity for HSR 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 industry stopped their public opposition to HSR.
As promised, Obama requested $53 billion/6 years for Amtrak-HSR projects in his late 2010 U.S. Surface Transportation Proposal to Congress. Based on financial breakeven by Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR services, $13.5 billion of total federal railway funding and $14 billion matching commitment by California and other states, Obama’s USDOT likely believed his new proposal would attract another $7-8 billion funding from other states.
If he succeeded, a combined $85-88 billion/8 year investment during his administration would have upgraded Northeast Corridor HSR, both Chicago-Midwest projects to HSR status and opened enough California HSR segments by 2025 to amplify public demand. HSR success would have triggered rounds of larger funding to expand Interstate HSR service.
Unfortunately, Obama underestimated the influence of industrial opponents, combined with a dramatically changed U.S. House of Representatives after the November 2010 election. In early 2011, they kneecapped Amtrak-HSR and reduced Rapid Transit funding in his proposal.
In each subsequent year of the Obama Administration, the House of Representatives only sent “status quo” federal funding proposals for Highway, Aviation, Transit and Railroads. More Federal Highways could be widened and major airports could be upgraded. Federal Transit was only allocated enough for state & local transit agencies to choose between funding bus operations or small Rapid Transit projects. Amtrak received its standard small funding for operations, little for maintenance and nothing for HSR projects.
If the Senate and Obama did not sign the House’s status quo funding proposals, recovery from the Great Recession would have stalled. Without a better alternative, they signed.
Before leaving office, Obama slipped through a small federal grant to upgrade 24 miles of rail infrastructure between Philadelphia and Newark and federal loan for Amtrak to purchase nextgen High Speed Trains. When they enter service in 2022, Amtrak Acela riders will finally experience 160 mph over those 24 miles.
America’s Auto-Jet Culture Inadequate for 21st Century
If our Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures and Governors boldly funded HSR funded in 1965, Northeast Corridor HSR would have quadrupled Amtrak ridership by 1978-79. HSR expansion would have accelerated across America to produce a massive HSR Benefit/Cost Ratio, like Japan enjoys. In America, one half of our political leadership lost Transportation infrastructure vision in 1995, due to the outsized influence of industrial opponents.
In contrast, America’s Global Economic Competitors contended with less powerful industrial opponents. As a result, their political leaders built great Highway and Aviation infrastructure, while preserving Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcar infrastructure. Experiencing less industrial resistance after the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo, they began upgrading Intercity Passenger Rail to Intercity High Speed Rail and expanded Rapid Transit systems. Today, they benefit from having “Auto-Rapid Transit-High Speed Train-Jet Culture.” In America, only Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington metro areas can make the same claim.
Shortly before Shinkansen opened in Japan, naive news media complained that construction costs were well over budget. Amidst that public pressure, several Japan Railway Company executives tended their resignations. Nevertheless, Japanese government funded the HSR project and promoted new leaders to complete the project on time and avoid inflation later.
Today, Japan has the highest ridership per mile, highest punctuality, best safety record and best integration with Rapid Transit of any HSR system in the world. Those pioneering Japan Railway Company executives have hero status. Great HSR infrastructure takes 6-14 years to build. But Japan, approaching its 60th year of massive HSR benefits, proves the value of sticking to it.
This 7-part series focuses on why America needs an electric high-speed, high-capacity, high-frequency rail network by 2045. Before linking to Part 2 however, I recommend a 5-minute review of Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy page. It explains passenger rail categories and trains to help you understand the HSR Benefits over Costs that our Global Economic Competitors enjoy.