Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy

Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy

Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy identifies and details categories for Parts 1 & 2 of the this article. Elsewhere in the world, it would be called an Intercity High Speed Rail Taxonomy. Readers will see many unconventional miles per hour (mph) speeds converted from conventional kilometers per hour (kph) from elsewhere in the world, where High Speed Rail. Since 10 kph = 6.213 mph, these international train speeds are common:

62 mph = 100 kph
68 mph = 110 kph
75 mph = 120 kph
81 mph = 130 kph
87 mph = 140 kph
93 mph = 150 kph
99 mph = 160 kph
106 mph = 170 kph
112 mph = 180 kph
118 mph = 190 kph
124 mph = 200 kph
130 mph = 210 kph
137 mph = 220 kph
143 mph = 230 kph
149 mph = 240 kph
155 mph = 250 kph
162 mph = 260 kph
168 mph = 270 kph
174 mph = 280 kph
186 mph = 300 kph
199 mph = 320 kph
205 mph = 330 kph
211 mph = 340 kph
217 mph = 350 kph
224 mph = 360 kph
236 mph = 380 kph
248 mph = 400 kph
267 mph = 430 kph
280 mph = 450 kph
311 mph = 500 kph

Freight rail companies own the majority of America’s 22,000 miles of legacy rail. They often share it with commuter trains. In America, freight trains can legally run up to 79 mph, but for safety and fuel economy, they typically limit speed to 49-59 mph. Their routes have a torture test of “Slow Zone” factors. Consequently, they average 35-45 mph — just fast enough to convey the world’s most comprehensive freight train network.

Conventional Rail Routes reach 59-79 mph. These legacy routes host diesel-powered freight trains, commuter trains and Amtrak trains. Some routes feature a 3rd siding track in sections for slower trains to pull aside while faster trains pass. Most stations have low platforms, so passengers step up and down from trains. Boarding and un-boarding take longer at low-platform stations. Commuter and Amtrak trains often slow to 59 mph when crossing roadways in these routes. Stations are often 5-15 miles apart so these routes tend to average 50-55 mph.

Amtrak Coaster in San Diego (left) and San Diego Coaster (right)

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner (left) and San Diego Coaster (right)

Improved Rail Routes reach 90 mph. These legacy routes host diesel-powered commuter trains, Amtrak trains and freight trains. They are typically 2 tracks or 1 track plus intermittent siding track for slow trains to pull aside. Stations are often only 25 miles apart, so these routes tend to average 60-65 mph. Most stations have low-platforms like Conventional Rail routes. These routes achieve 80% on-time with fewer road crossings per 25 miles, better safety arms at crossings, and 2-3 tracks.

Intercity Rail Routes reach 110 mph in America, 106-124 mph elsewhere via diesel-powered or faster accelerating electric-powered trains. Passenger trains dominate these tracks, but freight trains may share them. There are more overpasses, fewer road crossings per 25 miles, and usually 2 tracks. They tend to have more stretches of 3rd siding track for slow trains. An automated train control system enables more trains per hour. Unlike loud diesel locomotives whose moving parts breakdown more frequently, electric locomotives run 15 decibels quieter and up to 300,000 miles between maintenance. In pursuit of higher average speeds, lower noise and no greenhouse gas emissions, some routes are converting from diesel-powered to electric-powered trains. Such routes require poles to suspend electrical wires overhead (“catenaries”) touched by pantographs extended from the top of trains to transmit electricity to the train engine.

High speed train Pantograph extending up to a Catenary (electric wire)

High speed train Pantograph extending up to a Catenary (electric wire)

Depending on electrification, percentage of railroad crossings, siding tracks and number of stops per 25 miles, an Intercity Rail Route can average 80 mph and 85% on-time performance. Routes usually feature 12-16 intercity passenger trains per day.

1st Generation HSR Routes reach 125-149 mph in America, 137-149 mph elsewhere in the world. They have electric catenaries, overpasses/underpasses for every road, upgraded track bedding, automatic train control and fencing over the route. Since they evolved from Intercity Rail Routes, a number of curvy Slow Zones remain, but high-platforms enable patrons to board/un-board faster. Freight trains only run on these tracks late night or adjacent tracks, but commuter trains often share these tracks. These HSR Routes enable 83-105 mph average speed, 14-24 daily intercity trains and 85% on-time performance, like Amtrak Acela from NYC to Washington. Business travelers prefer these trains from 250-315 miles, when travel times under 3 hours.

Amtrak Acela HSR train stopped in Baltimore

Amtrak Acela HSR train stopped in Baltimore

2nd Generation HSR Routes reach 155-174 mph in the rest of the world. Routes were initially designed for this speed via fencing, tracks that feature milder curves, good bedding, high speed switches, concrete ties, continuous welding and more stringent leveling for a smoother ride. The fastest routes average 110-125 mph and 90-92% on-time performance. Excluding nightly maintenance hours, they usually operate 28-50 intercity trains daily.

3rd Generation HSR Routes reach 186-205 mph. They feature curve straightening and premium track bedding, track leveling, high-speed switches, catenaries, bridges, tunnels, engines and advanced train control systems. High Speed-Only tracks with trains running at similar speeds are required for 130-155 mph average speed over 3 hour trip times and 95-99% on-time performance. They usually run 36-64 times daily. Outside urban areas, they have wider spacing between tracks to reduce the air pressure vibration of trains passing in opposite directions or air pressure exerted on adjacent freight rail tracks in the same corridor. These routes introduce Business Class service that features leather seating, electrical outlets, WiFi and in-seat dining service.

Japan and France have transported billions of HSR passengers on them without a single fatality. France and Japan use nuclear energy to power trains and carry up to 800 passengers per train set — equivalent to passengers on two Boeing 747 jets yet having a carbon dioxide footprint equivalent to a single Toyota Prius.

TAV, the Italian HSR train about to depart a station

VHSR Routes are being designed to operate at 205-224 mph via state-of-the-art track profiles (premium track bedding, leveling & switches, VHSR train control systems, long straightaways, mildly banked curves) for a smooth ride and higher average speeds. VHSR requires many miles of straight High Speed-only tracks. To prevent bottlenecks and maximize train frequency, trains travel at the same speed on straight portions of the track. For example, on straight portions of the route, all VHSR trains can travel at 217-224 mph. Completely elevated, submerged or fenced off, routes are monitored to detect objects that fall onto tracks well before a train arrives. Outside urban areas, they have wider spacing between tracks to reduce air pressure vibration of trains passing in opposite directions. Like freeway interchanges, some routes use flyovers to eliminate crossing other tracks at same the grade. The newest catenaries are more durable and can operate as cold as –58 degrees Fahrenheit. Given VHSR trains are lighter weight, VHSR-only tracks maintain alignment and leveling better that other tracks.

VHSR trains have the most advanced wheels that can tilt on mild curves at higher speeds and regenerative brakes that slow quicker, both while creating electricity for on-board services. These train sets have smaller electric motors under each cabin instead of bulky locomotives at each end. This configuration enables more passenger seats. To train operators, that means more potential revenue per trip. At very high speeds, even minute bulges on train exterior or gaps between trains increase wind-drag for higher wheel-on-rail vibration, noise and energy consumption. Heavier trains also require more energy to accelerate and decelerate. So VHSR trains like the French AGV, German Valero and Canadian Zefiro are more aerodynamic, have smaller inter-cabin gaps, have lower height and use 20% lighter materials for 20% better energy economy and a smoother ride. AGV goes a step further by placing each set of 4 wheels (called “bogies”) in the junction between train cabins with two wheels under one cabin and two wheels under the adjacent cabin. Alstom, the AGV builder, claims this wheel alignment further reduces cabin vibration, wheel noise and prevents jack-knifing in an accident.

France successfully tested a modified VHSR train at 357 mph (575 kmph) on a VHSR Route. That is a major reason why train builders certify the latest VHSR trains for 248 mph (400 kph), if needed for short bursts during commercial operation. With acceleration to top speed in 4 minutes and stops spaced 60-100 miles apart, VHSR routes are capable of averaging 165-180 mph for journeys of 495-540 miles of travel in 3 hours. The faster speeds on VHSR tracks will enable up to 96 intercity passenger trains daily.

Despite their technological prowess, high speed trains are successful because surrounding communities tolerate their noise level, patrons trust their comfort and their energy costs allow train operators to make a profit. In France, Spain, UK and Japan, communities surrounding a few Express HSR Routes and train patrons are accustomed to the noise level and cabin vibration of 199 mph trains. Train operators don’t seem to mind the energy bill for that speed either. To stay within that comfort zone, VHSR trains are unlikely to operate above 217-220 mph for the foreseeable future.

Here’s an example. In 2011, French company Alstom sold the first AGV trains to Italy’s Ferrari sports car company. Under test conditions that simulated commercial operation, AGV running at 217 mph has the external noise and cabin vibration profile of an Express HSR train running at 186 mph. Electricity costs were somewhat higher at 217 mph. But due to Italy’s track limitations and higher wheel and catenary maintenance cost per dollar of patron revenue, AGV commercial operation is limited to 186 mph. By early next decade, more Italian wind, solar and geothermal energy projects for less expensive electricity. Materials science advancements will produce more durable wheels and catenary. Italy will finish VHSR route upgrades to gradually increase VHSR trains to 211 mph, possibly 217 mph, to shorten Milan-Rome travel times for business patrons.

French-built AGV, a VHSR train

Here’s another example of VHSR trains running below their certified 236 mph operation speed. Higher speed accelerates friction wear of wheels and catenary wires, boosts energy consumption, cabin vibration and noise. No train operator wants such operating costs to exceed the additional revenue from such speed. TGV executives also want patrons to feel comfortable with current cabin vibration and noise levels. So they are installing more durable catenaries and plan to operate AGV up to 224 mph in France. If the French deliver on promises, they will extend the 3-hour sweet spot of train distance by 90-100 miles, making VHSR attractive to more business travelers.

MagLev, short for Magnetically Levitated Trains, requires powerful electro-magnets to both levitate and pull a large passenger train very fast above concrete tracks. Once a MagLev leaves the station and levitates up-forward, its small wheels retract like a plane, so there is no longer contact with tracks. Unlike the friction of wheels-on-rail, MagLev is quieter running through urban areas and requires less track maintenance than VHSR. MagLev accelerates faster than VHSR and climbs steeper gradients, so trip times are shorter and tunneling can be less expensive than VHSR. MagLev trains are ~20% more aerodynamic than AGV trains because they don’t require pantographs extending on top, nor wheels below while in fast motion. When slowing to a stop, their small wheels gently touch concrete tracks again. If MagLev and VHSR trains weighed the same, MagLev would require 20% less energy than VHSR at 224 mph.

There are huge cons to MagLev as well. MagLev can not use existing rail tracks, so its construction expense is typically twice that of new VHSR routes. That fact alone means MagLev must transport twice as many people per hour or charge twice the price of VHSR tickets or some combination of the two. People rarely pay twice the price without twice the benefit, so MagLev promises significantly faster acceleration/deceleration, higher speed and fewer stops for nearly half the trip time of VHSR.

Not so fast on the higher speed than VHSR. A law of Physics is that wind drag scales as the cube of vehicle speed. Thus, a given train that requires 1X electricity to overcome wind drag at 150 mph, requires 2X electricity at 225 mph and 4X electricity at 300 mph. Hence, even with 20% more energy efficiency than VHSR, MagLev barely dents the extra electricity required to surpass 300 mph. So to justify construction and energy costs double that of VHSR, MagLev needs a huge number of patrons willing to pay a premium for shorter trip time.

Financial comparisons favor VHSR, which transports twice as many passengers per trainset as MagLev. With those factors in mind, even Germany, a pioneer in MagLev development, couldn’t make the numbers work. So they cancelled a planned MagLev between Hamburg and Berlin, then sought China to license its MagLev technology. Instead, Germany is now upgrading its HSR Routes across the country to 155-205 mph (250-330 kph).

State-owned coal reserves power most of China’s electric plants, so energy supply was not an issue for that country. The Chinese government saw opportunity to marry a distant international airport with its largest business center (Shanghai, 19 million pop.) while showcasing its technological prowess to the world. Today, the MagLev China purchased from Germany operates between Shanghai Pudong International Airport and a Shanghai suburban station. Spending only $6/person for the government-subsidized ride, patrons are thrilled to smoothly accelerate to 267 mph (430 kph) in less than 2.5 minutes. Even airplane pilots are impressed that it takes only 8 minutes to cover 18 miles. China has energy resources and a construction cost profile that are impossible to replicate in another developed nation. It has much lower labor & land costs, greater imminent domain rights, and benefited from a motivated seller in Germany. The bill was only $1.3 billion and construction completed in under 3 years. Since cheap state-owned coal powers most of its electric plants, its energy costs are lower too.

Next Generation MagLev planned for Japan is a more interesting application for several reasons. Their test MagLev has already set a world speed record of 361 mph (581 kph) through mountainous terrain, proving its feasible to operate MagLev through in the 320 miles (60% tunnels) between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. MagLev can have lower tunneling costs than VHSR because it can climb a 10% gradient vs. a 4% gradient by VHSR. Japan is designing NextGen MagLev with advanced superconducting magnets and better aerodynamics that lower wind drag and electricity consumption, while accelerating to 311 mph (500 kph) in only 2 minutes.

By 2027, Japan anticipates opening NextGen MagLev between Tokyo and Nagoya. By 2042, Japan plans to extend NextGen MagLev from Nagoya to Osaka.

Japan's next generation MagLev train planned for operation in 2027

Japanese MagLev train planned for operation in 2027

Japan has labor costs, land costs and imminent domain rights similar/slightly higher than America and Europe. Hence, Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka MagLev construction is slated to cost $112 billion. Despite those daunting costs, Japan hopes that operating profits pencil out like a mortgage. Here’s why.

Japan’s nuclear, solar and wind energy cost less than importing oil or coal. The business centers of Tokyo and Osaka currently have 35 million and 18 million residents, respectively. Japanese business meetings often include dining and those population centers may grow to 45 million and 25 million residents by 2042. Japan Railway executives are betting that enough business travelers will pay a premium for 2-hour MagLev roundtrips vs. 4-hour MagLev roundtrips on VHSR with more overnight hotel stays.



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