Interstate High Speed Rail & Rapid Transit - Part 5

Interstate High Speed Rail & Rapid Transit

Streetcars once dominated American commutes and met at busy train stations in Central Business Districts. They attracted powerful enemies who bought up streetcar lines, diminished service and convinced local governments to rip out streetcar tracks. Those same enemies convinced federal lawmakers to implement policies that nearly killed intercity passenger rail. More recently, state and local governments have made rapid transit a priority, but they more federal funding to offer real alternatives to drivers, while complimenting Interstate High Speed Rail.

Streetcars Needed To Evolve As Rapid Transit

SEPTA Girard Streetcar in Philadelphia, Interstate High Speed Rail & Rapid Transit

A surviving Streetcar line in Philadelphia

As explained in Part 1 of this narrative series, no substantial federal funds were directed to Rapid Transit until 1964, when President Johnson convinced Congress to start funding rapid transit. Funding for rapid transit however, was never fair. While Congress insured that 85-90% of Interstate Highway projects were federally-funded, whether in urban or rural area, Congress would only fund 50% of urban-centered Rapid Transit projects. Only big cities fearing loss of CBD jobs to the suburbs or suffering heavy traffic congestion to CBDs would apply for rapid transit funding. Many Streetcar lines that should have been converted to Light Rail were not.

In rapid transit terminology, “Metro Rail” means Heavy Rail and/or Light Rail, depending on each transit agency’s naming convention. Metro Heavy Rail has larger stations and longer trains for higher capacity and is completely separated from roadways for higher speed, dependability and safety than Metro Light Rail. I refrain from calling Metro Rail “subway”, because both Heavy Rail and Light Rail can have subway mileage. This article uses the name Metro Heavy Rail to differentiate it from Metro Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Regional Rail. Consider these approximate average speed, seat capacity and frequency of service factors for rapid transit & streetcar modes:

Metro Heavy Rail: 25-45 mph, 75 seats/cabin, 4-10 cabins, 5-15 trains per hour/2-way
Metro Light Rail: 18-42 mph, 75 seats/cabin, 1-4 cabins, 3-6 trains per hour/2-way
Regional Rail: 30-50 mph, 70-110 seats/cabin, 4-8 cabins, 3-5 trains per hour/2-way
Commuter Rail: 28-40 mph, 70-110 seats/cabin, 4-6 cabins, 8-12 commute hour-only trains
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): 15-28 mph, 50-75 seats/bus, 1 cabin, 3-6 trains per hour/2-way
Streetcar: 9-11 mph, 50-60 seats/cabin, 1 cabin, 4-6 cars per hour/2-way

Metro Heavy Rail is the Gold Standard for speed, capacity, frequency, dependability, patron shelter and safety because it relies on electric-powered track in subway and elevated viaduct to completely separate from autos, people and animals. Based on speed, capacity, frequency, large American cities needed to build Metro Heavy Rail as fast as possible when land, materials and labor were relatively cheap. From 1965 to mid-1973 however, the Vietnam War drained away half of federal transportation funding. Funding highways and airport remained a higher priority, so the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) had to downscale Rapid Transit funding of Metro Heavy Rail.

From mid-1973 to 1981, Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter returned federal funding of Metro Heavy Rail projects to levels planned in 1965, but not enough make up for unbuilt mileage during the Vietnam War. In 1982, President Reagan cut Rapid Transit funding again, with most remaining transportation funds committed to airports and highway expansion. Though Congress and President Clinton increased federal funding for rapid transit over 1993-2000, it never returned to the inflation-adjusted levels of 1973-81. Over 2001-08, President Bush II repeated the pro-highway transportation policy of Reagan-Bush I. Our highways and airports have strained to absorb the 97 million population increase between 1980-2009, since Rapid Transit projects were downscaled or cancelled.

With his economic stimulus approved by Congress, President Obama boosted Rapid Transit and Amtrak-HSR funding to appropriate levels in 2009-10. Unfortunately from 2011-16, new Congressional leadership reduced Rapid Transit and Amtrak-HSR funding again, despite many Obama proposals by Obama to increase as economy improved. Over 2017-20, President and Senate leadership has continued blocking increases to Rapid Transit funding, while cutting Amtrak-HSR funding.

The reckoning is upon us in 2020. Highways in America’s Top 40 metro areas are severely congested during commute hours, despite having more highway lane-miles than any other nation. America produces more transportation-related smog and GHG than any other country.

Metro Heavy Rail – Captured & Missed Opportunies

As American Passenger Rail History explains, we could have done better. It is worthwhile however, to examine how our current rapid transit systems, projects and project costs are relevant to the vitality of city CBDs and the Intercity HSR System we need.

Consider these 2019 average costs for construction in America, excluding vastly more expensive NYC:

Subway Rail: $700 million per mile
Elevated Rail: $300 million per mile
Surface Rail: $150 million per mile
BRT Busway: $50 million per mile
Railway over/underpass: $60-125 million each

In 1981, a number of metro areas built Metro Light Rail and Commuter Rail projects because they require less subway, elevated viaduct and over/underpass. Since 2005 or so, they are building Metro Light Rail more with a bit more subway and elevated viaduct for more speed, capacity, frequency and safety. Some metro areas have upgraded Commuter Rail to Regional Rail with more over/underpasses, electric trains and better stations for more frequent service. Given the stiff competition from American freeways, it takes 35-40 years of continuous Metro Rail expansion & intersection from CBDs, plus intersection with Commuter Rail/Regional Rail service at train stations to better assess a rapid transit system’s performance for:

(a) Daily Ridership
(b) Riders Per Mile
(c) Drivers Diverted to Rapid Transit
(d) Transit-Oriented Development around stations

Why is serving 8 or more corridors with high frequency, medium-to-high capacity rapid transit important to large metro areas? As cities become metro areas that grow to 2 million residents, they generally radiate from the CBD to 8 corridors of the compass. When they pass 3.5 million residents, they typically spread to 10 corridors of the compass. When they pass 6 million residents, they spread to 12 corridors and build activity corridors away from the CBD. Large metro areas whose growth is blocked by mountains or sea, would of course, limit number of corridors radiating from the CBD.

In cities where Intercity Passenger Rail, Commuter Rail, Regional Rail, Metro Rail and BRT serve central train stations from 12 or more corridors, their CBDs thrive as well. It is no coincidence that NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco-Oakland built Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail from at least 11 corridors. NYC and San Francisco also built ferries to their CBDs. Each maintains vibrant CBDs.

Choose The Right Rapid Transit Mode

Heavy Rail systems deliver the most (a), (b), (c) and (d) benefits named above. They are most expensive because its take longer to complete environmental clearances and construct subway and elevated railway. They draw electricity from 3rd rail on the opposite side of boarding platforms. To board/deboard patrons faster, their station platforms have level-boarding with train floors. Most Heavy Rail lines have stations 1/2 mile to 1.5 miles apart. Heavy Rail expansion is best suited in the dense population corridors of NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Baltimore and Cleveland. Though Atlanta and Miami metro area are not dense, they have CBD-to-airport and CBD-to-High Activity corridors suited for Heavy Rail. A single Heavy Rail corridor running 5 trains per hour (tph) Off-Peak and expanding to 15 tph Peak Hours, can transport 80-250,000 daily riders.

Wikipedia identifies Heavy Rail systems by opening date, mileage, stations and number of lines. If they also have Light Rail, Commuter Rail, BRT and/or good bus service feeding their stations and multiple intersecting lines, a high ridership per mile results. Excluding NYC, American Heavy Rail systems have lackluster to poor bus service feeding their rapid transit stations, as compared to Western Europe.

Los Angeles Metro light rail train headed to Long Beach

Los Angeles Metro light rail train headed to Long Beach; (c) Soul Of America

Light Rail trains also run on dedicated track that is new or rebuilt from old Streetcar lines. They use pantographs to draw electricity from overhead wires. Many newer light rail lines have subway and aerials to eliminate most roadway crossings their route, 1/3 mile to 1 mile distances between stations, and platforms level with train doors for fast boarding/unboarding. They have some roadway crossings per mile, no traffic signal priority at roadway crossings and stations 1/5 mile to 1/2 mile apart. Many lack station platforms, which slows boarding/deboarding and decreases patron safety. They range in cabins and variety of construction approaches, but can transport 35-125,000 daily riders in population-stable, medium-traffic corridors.

Commuter Rail lines are popular for low construction & operating cost by sharing existing tracks with freight trains and sometimes, Amtrak. They are diesel-powered or diesel-electric powered with batteries onboard trains. Few have level-boarding station platforms for easy boarding/deboarding and patron shelter is often inadequate. It often has on-time performance and safety issues because autos, people and animals cross tracks at too many places. It takes longer to reach top speed and brake. They have limited train frequency during Peak Hours and sparse train frequency in Off-peak Hours. They generally transport 3-30,000 daily riders in longer, medium-traffic corridors.

Regional Rail lines are Commuter Rail systems that have been upgraded by converting to electric-powered, light weight trains. They also use pantographs to draw electricity from overhead wires. They have additional overpasses/underpasses and better station shelter and platforms level with train doors for fast boarding/unboarding. With only $1-2 billion investments, most Commuter Rail lines can be upgraded to Regional Rail lines. Regional Rail lines in NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore are capable of 50-150,000 daily riders. San Francisco-San Jose Commuter Rail is fully upgrading to Regional Rail in 2022. Regional Rail track and station platforms can be shared with Amtrak and High Speed Rail.

Electric MARC commuter train that runs between Baltimore and Washington

MARC Regional Rail train between Baltimore and Washington

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) runs on dedicated busway with or without traffic signal priority. BRT does not require tracks, overhead catenaries and few have dedicated aerials or tunnels. They usually have smaller, unsecured stations 1/4 mile to 1 mile apart. BRT has higher fuel & maintenance costs per rider. I can not match the patron capacity of Light Rail. To keep labor cost under control, BRT is best suited for stable medium activity corridors.

To maximize cost-benefit to society, the appropriate rapid transit mode and line construction approach should be based on corridor activity level — current and near term forecast. For example, the best solution for a growing medium-activity urban corridor is likely a $700 million Light Rail project with some subway & elevated track elements, rather than completing a $300 million BRT project 3 years earlier, whose ridership bursts at the seams less than 10 years later.

Learning From European & Asian Rapid Transit

Major cities in Europe confronted similar population-congestion issues and they certainly have strong auto cultures that love highways. But their government priorities were to maintain strong CBDs and central cities, while extending transportation services to the suburbs. Take London, Paris, Madrid, Milan and Berlin as examples. Instead of building 10-16 lane highways throughout their metro areas, European cities built mostly 6-8 lane highways in metro areas while prioritizing subway & elevated Metro Heavy Rail construction when land & labor were cheaper. European cities upgraded most streetcar lines to limited-stop Tramways (Metro Light Rail). They have also done an outstanding job upscaling Commuter Rail to Regional Rail service to CBD Intermodal Transportation Centers. With great rapid transit systems as anchors, its common for 60-75% of European metro area residents to use public transit.

Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Seoul and Taipei followed the European transportation model. Consequently, 60-75% of their metro area residents use Rapid Transit as well. Those public investments invited private development within and near Intermodal Transportation Centers that preserved and enhanced vibrant CBDs. Equally important, those metro areas have far less automotive emissions producing smog and GHG.

We can’t turn back the clock on infrastructure decisions, but we can prioritize rapid transit in the future. If any metro area needs rapid transit assurance, consider Los Angeles Freeway Endgame. Every freeway widening re-invites congestion 2 years later. LA County voters finally awakened to Freeway Endgame in 2008 and 2016, when they passed two multi-billion dollar transit measures that give priority to rapid transit projects.

Choose Rapid Transit Alignments for All-Purpose Ridership

A study by Steven Higashide of TransitCenter found three common patterns of transit use: (1) occasional transit riders; (2) work commuters; (3) all-purpose transit riders. The study also found that:

• 80% of all-purpose riders walk or bike within 1/2 mile to transit stations
• All-purpose ridership is stronger where it’s easy to get from a transit station to major destinations
• All-purpose ridership is stronger when service is every 10 minutes, every 5-6 minutes preferred
• All-purpose ridership is stronger when it provides access to many destination attractors
• All-purpose ridership is stronger when it provides adequate patron shelter
• All-purpose ridership is stronger when it provides Train and BRT arrivals on the smartphone app
• Too many metro areas over-commit rapid transit to Peak Hour commuters from low-density suburbs

Steven Higashide concludes that its better to build the right rapid transit mode and alignment within population corridors plus high frequency to attract higher Daily Ridership and Riders Per Mile, even when its more expensive to construct and takes longer to build.


Today, only 8 American metro areas have Rapid Transit systems that compliment both Amtrak-HSR stations and CBDs. When you step off an Amtrak train in NYC/Newark, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Jose or Washington, a convenient Rapid Transit transfer takes you within a quarter mile of most attractions in their CBDs.

NYC Grand Central Terminal, the great hall

The great hall in NYC Grand Central Terminal; (c) Soul Of America

Decades of NYC/NJ Metro Heavy Rail and Regional Rail expansion has saved taxpayer money by not having to build more automotive bridges, tunnels and highways that are more expensive to construct and maintain. More recently, NYC metro area added Metro Light Rail and BRT lines. NYC also demonstrates the public value of Transit-Oriented Development in & near stations. It transformed neo-gothic Grand Central Terminal into a 700,000-daily rider Intermodal Transportation Center bustling with restaurants, hotel and retail activity from dawn to midnight. NYC Penn Station features Amtrak-HSR, Regional Rail, Heavy Rail, buses, Uber/Lyft and taxis that attract 450,000 daily riders. A grander & larger Penn Station concourse replacement opens in 2021. NYC recently opened two Metro Heavy Rail extensions, plus an awe-inspiring World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The vibrance of transit-oriented Manhattan and Brooklyn significantly contribute to NYC being the most visited international destination in North America.

Chicago opened America’s first elevated Heavy Rail line in 1892 and later added subway Heavy Rail lines, including lines to both airports. The city also created a Commuter & Regional Rail system to its train stations. Its Metro Heavy Rail, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail network transport a combined 1.1 million daily riders. To increase rapid transit ridership, the city is replacing old trains, restoring stations, expanding three Heavy Rail lines and building a BRT circulator connecting Amtrak, Heavy Rail, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail lines at Union Station, Oglivie Transportation Center, The Loop, Millennium Park and Navy Pier. Two 110 mph Amtrak lines from Chicago Union Station run to St. Louis and Detroit. A master-planned Chicago Union Station and nearby Oglivie Transit Center will eventually connect via underground tunnel to enable high speed trains from Minneapolis and Milwaukee to pass-through Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis. The resultant Chicago intermodal transportation center will anchor a Midwest HSR network.

Boston’s rapid transit system began in 1897. By the 1980s, their transit culture resisted new Interstate Highway ripping through too many communities. Boston chose to balance highway construction with Amtrak, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail and BRT construction anchored by South Station, Back Bay Station and North Station. As a result, Boston enjoys 750,000 daily rapid transit patrons and a more vibrant CBD that is good for the city tax base. Now Boston is extending two rapid transit lines, and enhancing South Station capacity and amenities.

Philadelphia’s rapid transit system began in 1907. The city converted 30th Street Station to an intermodal transportation center for Amtrak, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail service. Philadelphia has 575,000 daily rail transit patrons and Commuter Rail to Atlantic City. Philadelphia is fixing bridges, upgrading old stations, replacing old electric power systems and buying new electric trains.

Metro-Center Station in Washington

Metro-Center Station in Washington; (c) SoulOfAmerica

Opening its first Metro Heavy Rail line in 1976, Washington executed rapid transit expansion better than any American city. Its Heavy Rail lines traverse all high-activity centers, except Georgetown. Washington Union Station has transformed into an Intermodal Transportation Center connecting Amtrak HSR, Heavy Rail, Commuter Rail, intercity buses, shuttles, taxis and tour buses. Dramatic public space, a shopping center, food court and cinema have made it a tourist attraction near the U.S. Capitol. Metrorail and Metrobus enable 38% of DC residents go without cars. Metro Heavy Rail expansion to Dulles International Airport opens in 2020. By 2021, many more maintenance projects will complete. By 2025, Washington Metro Rail will likely transport 850,000 daily rail transit patrons.

For context about the system’s success, a single Washington Heavy Rail line can pack 175 riders per cabin in an 8-cabin train at 26 trains per hour to transport 36,400 riders per hour. The Highway Capacity Manual, assumes average vehicle occupancy of 1.57 people, lists a single lane of highway capacity without RVs or trucks as 2,250 passenger cars per hour. Therefore, a 6-lane Interstate Highway filled with cars and trucks transports approximately 11,000 passengers/hour — that’s less than a third of one Washington Heavy Rail line.

In 1972, San Francisco-Oakland metro area opened their first Metro Heavy Rail line (“BART”), then connected both cities via tube under the San Francisco Bay in 1974. In 1980, San Francisco converted 4 Streetcar lines to Metro Light Rail. In 1987, Commuter Rail service began in the 49-mile San Francisco-San Jose corridor. Heavy Rail and Light Rail systems have expanded since then. Today, Heavy Rail, Light Rail, Commuter Rail, Streetcars, Cable Cars and Ferries attract over 650,000 daily patrons. In 2019, Salesforce Transit Center re-opened for BRT, Greyhound, Megabus, shuttles, rapid buses, taxis, Uber/Lyft and bicycles. In 2020, San Francisco expands subway Light Rail to Chinatown. By 2022, San Francisco-San Jose corridor upgrades to Regional Rail, though all station will not have level boarding platforms. By 2025, BART Heavy Rail is slated to reach San Jose intermodal transportation center. By 2027, San Francisco will extend the Regional Rail line via tunnel to Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco CBD. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metro area is on pace for 900,000 daily rapid transit and ferry patrons by then.

Over 1990-95, Los Angeles opened two Light Rail lines, one Heavy Rail line, one BRT line and several Commuter Rail lines. In 2008 and 2016, LA County voted for sales tax to accelerate rapid transit projects and repair highways. Los Angeles Union Station became an intermodal transportation center for Amtrak, Heavy Rail, Light Rail, Commuter Rail and BRT used by 400,000 daily commuters, plus shuttle, taxi, Uber/Lyft and standard bus patrons. In 2020, Light Rail will connect another station near LAX Airport to Light Rail. In 2022, four light rail lines will connect in Los Angeles CBD. Over 2023-27, Heavy Rail extends to Museum District, Mid-Wilshire, Beverly Hills, Century City and Westwood — the latter near UCLA. More Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Amtrak projects will complete for the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

Metro Aviation-Century Station serving LAX, under construction

Metro Aviation-Century Station serving LAX Airport, under construction; credit Los Angeles MTA

If LA continuously builds Rapid Transit according to agency plans, it can attract a 1.5 million daily riders with a system similar to this 2045 Los Angeles Rapid Transit Vision Map.

By 2020, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Houston are forecast to become our 4th, 6th and 7th most populous metro areas, respectively. All three lie in intercity passenger rail corridors designated to receive Interstate HSR funding at some point.

Atlanta opened its first Heavy Rail line in 1979 and its 3-line system draws around 210,000 daily riders today. Instead of 3 Metro Heavy Rail lines serving 5 corridors radiating from the CBD today, Atlanta should have built 4 Metro Heavy Rail lines and 1 Commuter Rail line serving 10 corridors to double rapid transit alternatives to its epic freeway congestion. Be that as it may, Atlanta is adding Metro Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Streetcar lines that will intersect with Metro Heavy Rail. Momentum is building for a Atlanta Intermodal Transportation Center in downtown and more frequent Amtrak service. In total, Atlanta might reach 350,000 daily Rapid Transitiders by 2030.

Atlanta MARTA subway at North Avenue

Atlanta MARTA subway at North Avenue

Dallas opened its first Light Rail line in 1996 and converted its Union Station to an intermodal transportation center for Amtrak, Light Rail and Commuter Rail. Today, its combined Rapid Transit lines draws 100,000 daily patrons and extends to DFW Airport. More Light Rail extensions are coming. Nearby Fort Worth opened an Enhanced Commuter Rail line to DFW airport. By 2020, Dallas Light Rail will likely attract 110-120,000 daily patrons between the largest business districts, tourist attractions, colleges, medical centers, Intermodal Transportation Center and both airports. When gasoline cost and parking fees double, Dallas will have Rapid Transit capacity for 500,000 daily patrons.

Houston opened its first Light Rail line in 2004 and blew away the Riders Per Mile Forecast. Consequently, Houston voters authorized an extension and two more Light Rail lines opening over 2015-17. If the 4th line opens around 2026, Houston Light Rail system will likely attract 100,000 daily riders and establish expansion momentum to one airport. Given that groundbreaking aproaches for a privately-built HSR line connecting Dallas to Houston by 2025, anticipate Houston pursuing federal funds for a Houston CBD intermodal transportation center connecting Texas HSR, Amtrak, Light Rail, Commuter Rail, taxis, shuttles and Uber/Lyft.

Miami has 2 Metro Heavy Rail lines and 1 Commuter Rail serving 4 corridors. Miami Metro Rail connects with private intercity passenger train service in Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach corridor that is expanding to Orlando. Cleveland has one Metro Heavy Rail line and two Metro Light Rail lines serving 4 corridors and a low frequency Waterfront Light Rail line connecting to Amtrak service. Baltimore has 1 Metro Heavy Rail Line and 1 Metro Light Rail line serving 4 corridors, plus 2 Commuter Rail lines serving 3 corridors and connecting to Amtrak service. In 10-15 years, their rapid transit systems can be expanded to serve 10-12 corridors.

Better Rapid Transit Systems Makes Metro Area CBDs More Attractive

For decades, older voters acting on racial stereotypes without understanding their total benefits of Rapid Transit to city CBDs and metro areas in general, resisted building or expanding systems. Younger voters fed up roadway congestion and wanting to reduce car expenses, smog and GHG emissions want more Rapid Transit. Their impact is being felt to a larger degree at the state and local level thus far.

Storefront streetscapes are vital to the economic and social health of cities that anchor large metro areas. Concentrations of office, retail, hotel, entertainment and art centers near rapid transit are key reasons that more people find NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston attractive to live in and visit. The growth of transit-oriented CBDs is also making Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, San Jose, Denver, San Diego, Atlanta, Miami, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Dallas and Portland more attractive to residents and visitors.

Given the many infrastructure benefits, Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle, Denver, Portland, San Diego, Honolulu, Buffalo, Orlando, Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Austin, Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Columbus, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Nashville and Omaha metro areas have also re-ignited Rapid Transit projects.

Once politicians can count on 50% federal funding for projects the Federal Transit Administration scores as well qualified and suitable, there will be more Heavy Rail, Light Rail and Regional Rail projects opening across the nation. We would see more lines having Rider Per Mile levels approaching those for NYC Regional Rail, Boston Heavy Rail and that of San Francisco Light Rail.

As you’ll see in the next article, high capacity, high frequency Rapid Transit at intermodal transportation centers also has a symbiotic relationship with Interstate High Speed Rail Progress.

Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

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