America has finally made Interstate High Speed Rail progress. For decades prior to President Obama, the federal government invested only $4 billion to upgrade 437-miles of intercity passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor. Managed by Amtrak, that upgraded passenger rail service for Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-New York City-New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor is called “Acela.” Less than $1 billion of federal funds were applied to the remaining 22,000 passenger rail miles.
In January 2010, Obama directed $8 billion to many rail corridors previously selected for speed and frequency upgrades. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, he also directed $5 billion over 5 years. A few months afterwards, Congress allocated $2 billion more and another $3 billion came from various states towards Amtrak projects.
America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, began upgrading intercity passenger rail amidst two wars and the Great Recession. His actions suggest a poetic bookend to President Lincoln who authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad amidst the Civil War. By far, $18 billion is the largest federal and state funding of intercity passenger rail. So what’s not to like?
Plenty, if you believe High Speed Rail (HSR) naysayers:
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans won’t ride trains
• Outside the Northeast, America doesn’t have Europe-like population density for HSR to succeed
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, American cites don’t have enough Rapid Transit to help HSR to succeed
• Europeans ride HSR because their gasoline is more expensive
• Americans prefer driving highways over HSR
• Americans prefer flying over HSR
• Unlike HSR, fuel taxes solely pay for Interstate Highways
• Widening Interstate Highways solves intercity traffic congestion
Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and complete falsehoods.
Understanding HSR well enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or short news article. It takes analysis of transportation modes that America can sustain into the future, yet begins with the glory days of trains, subways and streetcars. Come with me on this fascinating journey, even if you board as a skeptic.
22,000 MILES OF RAIL — OKAY FOR FREIGHT AND COMMUTER TRANSIT, BAD FOR HIGH SPEED
American rail routes are mostly owned by freight train companies and to a lesser degree, by pubic transit agencies. By law, freight train companies and transit agencies lease Amtrak trains access to their tracks. Since leasing fees are low, freight train companies have no incentive to upgrade infrastructure for high speed. Nor do transit agencies have extra funds lying around. Consequently, America’s intercity passenger rail is plagued with “Slow Zones” that do not support high speeds and frequent service due to:
• beat-up tracks, regulation & signaling systems that limit most Amtrak trains to 59-79 mph
• excessively curvy tracks
• antiquated bridges and tunnels
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track
• slow freight and commuter trains limiting faster Amtrak trains sharing their tracks
As bad as Slow Zones are for Amtrak, they are fine for freight trains and tolerable for commuter trains.
EXTERNAL FACTORS WEAKEN AMERICAN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES
Beginning 1830, intercity passenger rail grew nationwide. Beginning 1888, electric streetcars blanketed our major cities. From 1892-1906, Chicago, Boston, New York City and Philadelphia added rail rapid transit systems, commonly called “subways”, though some portions of track are elevated above roadways. All three transportation modes met at train stations and Americans loved them for it.
Unlike trains and buses that ran on cheap diesel fuel, subways and streetcars were (and still are) electric-powered. More labor is required to convert fossil fuels into electricity. That means cost per unit of energy for electricity was more expensive than for diesel fuel, except where subways and streetcars had access to cheap hydroelectricity. Most subway and streetcar lines were owned by utility companies who subsidized them by charging all customers slightly higher electricity rates.
In fall 1929, the Great Depression began its assault on the economy. Over a third of Americans became unemployed. Most adults fortunate to retain jobs could not afford cars, so they used subways and streetcars. Operating on small profits during the Great Depression, the fortunes of subway and streetcar companies worsened when the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 made it illegal for a business to provide both public transport and supply electricity to other parties.
Utility companies started divesting streetcar lines to national streetcar companies owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies. From 1936-45, national streetcar companies purchased 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities. The consortium gradually made streetcars less desirable by lowering service frequency and maintenance schedules. The higher passenger volume of subways allowed them to preserve service levels longer, but profit margins became razor-thin.
Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a reprieve during America’s participation in World War II (December 1941-August 1945). America needed its oil & gas companies to expand refinery capacity and railroads to transport soldiers, materials and weapons. People not shipped off to battle worked to support the war effort and maintain the economy. Oil, minerals and metals were rationed. Existing subways, streetcars and buses got a larger ration of oil or coal-powered electricity because they were a vital public transportation utility.
Intercity passenger trains conveyed soldiers to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for war deployment. Since Los Angeles was a point of departure for troops and a defense factory hub, intercity passenger rail transported a huge number of soldiers and sailors to Los Angeles Union Station. From Los Angeles Union Station, the nation’s largest streetcar system transported troops to the ports, workers to defense factories and people everywhere else. In fact, 70% of LA residents rode streetcars.
When the war ended in August 1945, rationing ended. America suddenly had excess oil refinery capacity that made gasoline cheap and metals widely available again. America also emerged from the war as the world’s largest economy and manufacturing base. The G.I. Bill coupled with surging Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Consumer Income enabled veterans to buy their first house. Many veterans who served in the Pacific relocated to LA, creating a sales boom for suburban housing tracts. People who owned cars could drive 30-50 mph between work, home, shopping, dining and sports venues.
As LA exemplified, cars represented such an elevated socio-economic status that affluent and middle-class Angelenos purchased a higher percentage of upscale cars than anywhere else. With eroding patronage and higher unit costs for electricity, the remaining private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding tracks to new housing tracts in the suburbs.
The consortium would not invest in streetcar expansion. Their economic incentive was to influence the conversion of streetcar tracks to roadway.
LA’s 400+ miles of streetcar tracks were coveted by the consortium because their rights of way, converted to additional roadway, would increase capacity and smoother roads for cars, trucks and buses. That in turn, would increase oil and tire demand. The consortium used all its persuasive powers to convince transit agencies to purchase more buses. Gasoline cheaper than electricity and avoiding expensive track & overhead electrical wires for streetcars were powerful tools of persuasion.
Having dedicated tunnels and elevated tracks, New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia subways maintained speed, frequency, dependability and safety advantages over buses and cars. Using public funds, their transit agencies purchased remaining subway lines and some commuter rail from private companies at at fire-sale prices. Then they supplemented passenger fares with tax revenue to cover operations. Though San Francisco to Oakland streetcar tracks across the Bay Bridge were converted to roadway, San Francisco transit agency spared a couple streetcar lines that ran through tunnels in the city.
Los Angeles streetcars however, did not have tunnels and elevated tracks. As streetcar patronage declined, auto-centric politicians rose to power in municipal governments that oversaw transit agencies.
A merger of the two national streetcar companies and rapidly declining streetcar service nationwide prompted investigation by Congress. In 1946, congressional hearings reviewed the intent of the national streetcar consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. Instead of changed consortium behavior from those powderpuff hearings, General Motors supplied even more buses to transit agencies.
Los Angeles officials still bet that a lawsuit would rescue its ailing streetcar companies. In 1947, the Federal District Court of Southern California indicted the consortium under Sherman Anti-Trust Law. Long story short, the trial was switched to a Midwest federal court sympathetic to the consortium. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.
Legally unfettered after that 1949 court decision, the consortium stepped up efforts to to rip out streetcar tracks for roadway and then dismantle or burn streetcars nationwide. The same death-spiral for LA streetcars played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for transit agencies to nail the coffins.
FEDERAL POLICY AND MORE REGULATION WEAKEN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES
Though consortium companies formed a Highway Lobby in 1932, by 1949, the lobby expanded membership to freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters and road construction companies. With cars, buses and trucks multiplying like ant colonies on a food trail, the national fuel tax accelerated paving of national highway. Since gasoline cost under 10 cents per gallon, driving at highway speeds was cheap fun — until the next stoplight or stop sign.
In 1950, few of our National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to bumps, major curves, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew that better, faster highways were needed to convert Americans to an auto-centric lifestyle. To achieve that goal, automotive companies ramped up marketing cars as instruments of personal freedom. Oil companies increased their convenience by expanding service stations along boulevards and intercity highways. In an era of only three TV networks with automotive and oil industries as the biggest TV program sponsors, their marketing pitch was to “demand more and better highways to increase your individual freedom and choose better gasoline for higher automotive performance.”
America already had a few highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste of limited access, non-stop driving at higher speeds. Knowing that a network of limited access, non-stop intercity highways would jolt America into an auto-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to convince the President and Congress to fund the majority of it. By interconnecting cities with limited-access, non-stop highways, a more ambitious Highway Lobby would add railroads to its crosshairs.
Asking for taxpayer funds to change American lifestyles is a non-starter. So in 1951, the Highway Lobby approached President Truman and Congress about funding limited-access, non-stop intercity highways to boost business productivity. They won over many in Congress, but Truman was pre-occupied funding the Korean War. He only authorized $50 million in the Federal Aid Highway Act that would take effect in 1952.
Intercity passenger trains used to reach 110-120 mph with stops every 40-70 miles, producing 80-90 mph average speeds. Trains had significantly shorter journey times than automobiles. But occasionally, horrific train-ramming-train accidents occurred due to inadequate safety signaling and lack of siding track for malfunctioning trains to pull aside. Sprawling suburbs and growing towns created more and busier roads that crossed railroad tracks. Too many people took deadly risks crossing in front of oncoming trains.
The Highway Lobby reminded President Truman, Congress and news media of every such accident to escalate outcry for federal regulation. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to increase public safety of intercity passenger trains that cross roadways.
The preferred way to safely preserve high-speed intercity passenger trains was to build railroad overpasses, high-speed train signaling, more siding tracks and fence-off tracks in urban areas. Since railroad profits were thin, they could not afford those upgrades. The sordid pre-1929 history of privately-owned railroad company anti-trust behavior also worked against the railroad industry.
Given that backstory, Congress and Truman would not help fund overpasses, siding tracks and fencing for private railroad companies. Instead, Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation on 31 December 1951 that effectively limited trains to 79 mph top speed. Factoring in stops reduced intercity passenger trains to 55-65 mph average speed. The Highway Lobby popped champagne.
As a small sop to the railroad industry, Truman helped fund a better train signaling system for speeds up to 79 mph and more crossing arms.
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER EMBRACES INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM POLICY
In January 1953, President Eisenhower arrived. In July 1953, the Korean War ended and high income tax rates could finally reduce our Gross National Debt. Congress was anxious to start infrastructure projects to increase jobs and business productivity. Those conditions and a 5-star general’s transportation perspective from World War II influenced Eisenhower to go all in for highways.
During World War II, General Eisenhower admired how the German Autobahn network of straighter, limited-access, non-stop highways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops nationwide. When the Highway Lobby called on him as President Eisenhower about similar super-highways for America, he noted that they could also be used for national defense and emergencies. In that manner, President Eisenhower united Highway Lobby interests with Military-Industrial Lobby interests.
The Highway Lobby produced videos and other data that influenced President Eisenhower and Congress to plan an interstate network of freeways like Arroyo Seco Parkway, rather than tollways like Pennsylvania Turnpike. Automotive companies assured Congress and President Eisenhower that higher power autos driving more miles on freeways would consume more gasoline, thereby producing more national fuel tax to fund interstate freeways.
But higher fuel tax was insufficient to build the network of interstate freeways. America was still paying down Gross National Debt from two wars. No one had an appetite for higher taxes. So the Highway Lobby joined Eisenhower exerting more influence with Congress to transfer a percentage of general taxes away debt reduction to couple with fuel taxes to the Highway Trust Fund to build interstate highways. Higher economic productivity from better highways would increase GDP to produce higher tax revenues that, in a virtuous cycle, reduce Gross National Debt.
So from day one to present, general taxes have helped build Interstate Highways — which can accurately be described as Vital Public Utilities that increase our economic productivity.
With all the stars aligned, President Eisenhower could not have timed a better introduction for his National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Plan in 1955. The Highway Lobby marketed the plan, while the Military-Industrial Lobby added backroom influence with Congress. In 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the year-to-year combinations of fuel and general taxes to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of the “Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.”
Though the federal government paid for 85% of the Interstate Highway System, with few exceptions, they allowed states to own each interstate highway. Thus, each state posts speed limits as they judge safe for a given stretch of highway based on degree of straightness and elevation. The fastest speed, 85 mph, was posted in straight flat areas of western states. Under good weather conditions and light traffic, cops let people drive 5-10 mph over speed limits.
Above-the-speed-limit behavior for 4 to 6 hours on freeways with one stop in between often enabled 70-75 mph average speed between destinations — speeds faster than intercity passenger trains after 1951. Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeways, drivers only paid for cheap gasoline and the occasional oil change. Given a large percentage of interstate highway construction was paid with general taxes, intercity bus lines, car renters and freight truckers enjoyed lower operating costs as well.
In contrast, railroad companies paid for 100% of track construction and maintenance.
Enjoying infrastructure cost advantages over railroads, intercity bus lines passed along savings as lower fares than intercity passenger rail, hence the rise of Greyhound Bus Lines. Freight trucking narrowed the shipping cost gap with freight rail too.
Few could argue that the Interstate Highway System was not good for America. We had plentiful cheap oil. Interstate Highway construction spurred growth in automotive, oil, freight trucking, intercity bus lines and tourism industries, leading unemployment to 4% during much of the Eisenhower Administration. Heydays in the 1950s led General Motors executives to boast, “What’s good for GM is good for the nation.”
JET AGE DEALS MORTAL BLOWS TO INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL
With only three years of construction by 1958, very few miles of Interstate Highway had been built. Relatively few people wanted to drive more than 4 hours on inadequate National Highways. Then in October 1958, the Commercial Jet Age began with Boeing.
Boeing 707 jets were pressurized to fly above 30,000 feet to avoid the biggest hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. Their jets flew faster (500-550 mph) and longer than turbo-propeller airplanes. Boeing soon attracted competition from Lockheed. For distances of 300-500 miles, commercial jets permitted travelers to shave at least 2 hours Journey Time compared to intercity passenger trains, buses and cars. Business travelers also loved traveling 1000-5000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days. From 1958 onwards, medium and long distance business travelers rapidly switched from intercity passenger trains to jets.
Promising more airline and airport jobs, chambers of commerce influenced federal and state politicians to spend princely sums on airport expansion via a mix of public-voted bonds and general taxes. This public benefit aided private airline companies, while robbing private railroad companies of premium long distance business travelers.
The railroad industry survived by consolidation and mothballing most passenger trains to focus on high-volume, heavy cargo unfeasible for freight trucks — coal and wood, in particular. As the economy grew, heavy freight rail shipments increased and enabled companies to add siding track in more places. But railroad companies let larger chunks of track slip into 49-59 mph Slow Zone. Though surviving intercity passenger trains depended on stretches of 79 mph top speed, most fell to 50-60 mph average speeds. With fewer business class patrons paying a ticket premium, smaller profit margins forced passenger trains to run less frequent or cease.
In 1962, America narrowly avoided a war with Russia and Cuba. In 1963, America felt better about itself with the economy growing and President Kennedy lowering federal taxes. Our ill-fated president announced 1964 plans to invest more in highways, airports and rapid transit.
In early 1964, President Johnson announced that the Great Society Program would allocate funding for rapid transit projects, as the late President Kennedy promised. In July 1964, President Johnson started the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with a $375 million federal allocation. He also announced that UMTA funding would increase in order to anchor 50% of many rapid transit projects.
Unfortunately in August 1964, Vietnam War ramp-up reduced the transportation budget. At the smaller budget table Interstate Highway and International Airport projects ate first and second. Aside from NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland subways (opened a line in 1955), in the 1960s, only UMTA projects in San Francisco-Oakland and Washington received enough funding to open multiple subway lines between 1972-76.
Having lost speed, frequency and cost advantages, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling the benefits of scenery and comfort over long journeys, like the California Zephyr. There is only a small market however, for travel patrons without time constraints.
In 1950, there were 9,000 passenger trains in service, which carried just under 50% of intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were 450 trains in operation, carrying only 7% of intercity passenger traffic. Low passenger volume could not save the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once the largest union of black employees, it became the unfortunate answer to a trivia question.
By 1970, America had a poster child for the unnecessary replacement of older modes of transportation with new ones. In Los Angeles, most streetcar tracks were removed to widen boulevards that fed America’s most comprehensive freeway system. LAX became a busy world-class airport, while Los Angeles Union Station was practically a ghost town.
LA’s auto-centric and aviation-centric lifestyles, marketed in movies and TV programs, inspired the transportation model for America. Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Jose and other large cities raced to build Interstate Highways and international airports. Many old train stations that could have been restored were demolished. As older generations died, youngsters who never rode 110 mph trains embraced a narrative that “Trains are slow and infrequent, so Americans prefer highways and flights.”
The national narrative was complete. Federal regulation, illegal corporate collusion, and public investment in boulevards, highways and airports made streetcars and intercity passenger rail collateral damage.
FLICKERS OF HOPE FOR INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL IN AMERICA
In 1971, President Nixon was consumed by the Vietnam War, but understood that cities and their suburbs were growing into large metro areas. Congested commuting from suburbs to central business districts was reducing business productivity. So he convinced Congress to boost UMTA funding, which also sped up construction of Atlanta, Baltimore, and Miami subway projects.
Nixon and Congress were also embarrassed that America’s heritage of privately-owned intercity passenger rail was killed by factors that included federal regulation and federal investment in transportation modes that competed with trains. So Nixon and Congress formed Amtrak to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies and partially subsidize Amtrak operation.
Since driving and flying dominated American lifestyles by 1971, Congress and Nixon authorized most U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) funds for Highway, Aviation and Transit, in that order. They didn’t authorize funding for railroad overpasses, track upgrades and a faster train control system to support higher speeds again. Without a return to 110 mph, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving a part of American heritage.
The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 motivated President Ford and Congress to increase UMTA funding and enact the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit to conserve gasoline in 1974. In defiance, people commonly drove 60-65 mph. In 1976, President Ford authorized funding a faster train control system and more fencing for Amtrak to reach 90 mph in the NYC-Washington rail corridor.
In 1978, Congress and President Carter authorized funding to eliminate road crossings in NYC-Washington rail corridor within a decade. Also in 1978, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel — sparking lower airfares, more regional flights and more taxpayer funding of airport construction.
In December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. Overnight, there were long lines to refill gasoline tanks. To conserve oil, President Carter ordered enforcement of the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. Considering re-fueling hassles and slower speeds, most people refused to drive over 2 hours, thereby crippling tourism in the midst of the Stagflation Era.
By early 1980, intercity passenger rail was no longer moribund technology. Japan and Italy were enjoying success with electric-powered 155 mph HSR lines. France was feverishly building an electric-powered 168 mph HSR line. Amtrak was attracting more passengers in the Boston-NYC-Washington rail corridor.
The downtick in economic activity chastened Carter and some in Congress to boost UMTA funding and propose an Intercity HSR project. Carter noticed that in 1979, Italy would join Japan as the first two countries running 155 mph HSR lines in commercial operation. France was on target to open a 168 mph HSR line in 1981. Since it was far more expensive for HSR to reach 150-160 mph in the curvy Boston-NYC rail corridor, Carter narrowed his Intercity HSR proposal to Washington-NYC rail corridor.
Competition for USDOT funds did not sit well with the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. Nor did the prospect of non-oil burning, electric-powered trains becoming popular appeal to the Oil Lobby. Collectively, those lobbies convinced Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before voting on President Carter’s proposal.
Within months after the December 1979 Oil Crisis, other nations sold us more oil that returned gasoline prices to a comfortable, yet slightly higher level. Gasoline lines disappeared. Though the National Highway Speed Limit remained 55 mph, people quickly exceeded it by 10 mph again.
Under those conditions, HSR support from Congress wilted. Without Congressional support on the matter, President Carter did not fight for the appropriate amount of funding to build world-class Intercity HSR in the corridor. He did however, obtain enough funding to complete railroad overpasses and fencing for NYC-Washington corridor. Carter also deregulated freight rail in 1980, restoring some of their competitive edge versus freight trucking.
When the railroad overpasses and fencing completed in 1984, intercity passenger trains (now Amtrak) returned to 110 mph in Washington-NYC corridor.
Senators of both parties from largely rural states knew that diverting funds from Amtrak and UMTA to highways and airports would resonate with their constituency. Once President Reagan arrived in 1981, those senators, aided by the Highway, Aviation and Oil lobbies started a false narrative that Amtrak and UMTA funding represent “Social Welfare for the Poor“, while Highway and Aviation funding represent a “Vital Public Utility.” From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I embraced that false narrative. All of their Federal Transportation proposals to Congress cut Amtrak and minimized Rapid Transit funding.
Any objective look at USDOT budgets since 1981 reveals that highways and airports received far more and increasing percentages of “Social Welfare” (taxpayer funds) than UMTA and Amtrak. Since the federal budgets stop with the President, Reagan and Bush I are most responsible for abetting a political culture that treated Amtrak and UMTA (Rapid Transit) as Social Welfare.
WHICH HIGH SPEED RAIL SUCCESS MODEL FITS AMERICA?
When President Clinton took office in January 1993, the commerical flight experience was congesting in high-traffic corridors. A drive to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, flight, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi to local destinations ballooned the shortest Journey Time for commercial flying from 2 hours to 3 hours.
Japan, France, Italy and Germany experienced similar airport congestion in high-traffic corridors, yet chose to expand consumer travel options: fly, drive or ride HSR. One nation among them had conditions most analogous to America’s Northeast that we could model for successful HSR — France.
After World War II, France rebuilt railroad overpasses and upgraded its train control systems to maintain a 106-112 mph intercity passenger rail network. Though it never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline, the democratic-market economy of France produced household income and strong citizen rights similar to ours. When HSR planning started in 1971, France’s 54 million residents had a say in land-takings for any mode of transportation. France also had large automotive, aviation and freight trucking lobbies prodding government to expand airports and the 81 mph Autoroute intercity tollway system spread across a country the size of Texas.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart. The rail corridor between them held less than 25% of French population. Both cities had extensive Metrorail systems feeding train stations. Autoroute often clogged from the Belgian border through Paris, Lyon and to Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea.
When electric-powered 168 mph service called “TGV” opened on HSR-only tracks between Paris and Lyon in 1981, Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured the French government to make it prove operating success before expansion. Having straighter tracks with welded rails to reduce cabin vibration and noise, success came quickly. Fatigued Autoroute drivers between Paris and Lyon welcomed the short Journey Time and alternative to traffic congestion. The lack of diesel fumes by TGV trains also permitted train stations to shield outside weather for a comfortable all-season travel experience.
By 1988, TGV was upgraded to 186 mph, train frequency was increased and coach fares were lowered. Those changes attracted even more single and double-passenger auto travelers to the time and cost savings of TGV. People who never fly, chose the train.
By 1993, the TGV-Metrorail stations of Paris and Lyon hosted as many restaurants, cafes, shops, shuttles, taxis and nearby hotels as an international airport. New HSR routes sprouted from Paris to Tours, LeMans, Lille, Calais and Brussels and from Lyon south to Valence. The Channel Tunnel enabling Paris-London HSR service was on schedule to open in 1994. The TGV was planned to go south of Valence to the third largest city in France, Marseilles. Wherever a TGV station integrated Metrorail or Tramway (Light Rail) station, train passengers made more side-trips along the route. The French discovered that TGV + Metrorail + Tramway stations rejuvenated cities along each HSR route with increased tax revenue from international tourists.
Freight truckers appreciated less congestion on the French Autoroute as well.
CLINTON FUNDED OUR FIRST, POORLY EXECUTED HIGH SPEED RAIL ROUTE
By 1993, Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph, which meant people often drove 65-90 mph top speed. Factoring in stops and toll stations driving from NYC to Washington and NYC to Boston, drivers average about 60 mph. Based on evidence from France and other nations, intercity HSR requires at least 110 mph average speed to entice dramatically more people to switch from driving.
President Clinton could reference the successful French TGV system as the model for Northeast Corridor HSR. Coming out of recession, Clinton allocated economic stimulus funds to upgrade the Northeast Corridor for HSR service. Unfortunately, Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation followed that wise decision with critical HSR mistakes. When Amtrak Acela service started in 2001, those mistakes limited top speed between NYC and Washington to 135 mph. Factoring in many Slow Zones in the route however, Acela average speed only reached 84 mph in that corridor segment. Acela only averaged 63 mph between NYC and Boston, which has even more Slow Zones.
Since anti-HSR forces did not want a successful Acela spawning an Interstate HSR System, they exploited Clinton Administration mistakes by hiring Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks to disseminate analyst reports, interviews and news articles to amplify the “Amtrak is Social Welfare” false narrative into an anti-HSR political football. Their paid disinformation succeeded to the point where many Americans who traveled abroad never ask, “If HSR is succeeding elsewhere, why not here?
Operating at only 50-60 mph average speed outside the NYC-Washington corridor segment, fewer Americans rode trains. Without higher patronage, Amtrak was forced to beg for federal and state operating subsidies. In return for those tax subsidies, many rural congressmen and governors forced Amtrak to maintain Slow Zone routes through their low-traffic congressional districts and states. Emphasizing those slow routes and social welfare narrative in 2004, President Bush II tried to kill Amtrak.
OPPORTUNITY TO RESTORE & ENHANCE INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL
Fortunately, a fact-based HSR narrative is emerging. Though Acela HSR service has been mediocre by world standards, by mid-2000s it became profitable.
Congressmen and governors funded small Amtrak projects proposed by Departments of Transportation (DOT) in California, Washington and the Northeastern states that reduced Slow Zones to restore speed, increase daily trains and improve punctuality. As a result, their patronage posted significant gains and reduced operating subsidies.
When electric-powered Amtrak Keystone service in NYC-Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph top speed and 6 daily trains to 110 mph top speed and 13 daily trains, it attracted so many additional patrons that its operating budget is approaching break-even. From that evidence, dozens more state DOTs concluded that reducing Slow Zones for faster, more frequent trains serves more constituents.
On the heels of Amtrak patronage growth, the Institute for Civil Engineers and the well-respected Brookings Institution agreed that America needs an Interstate HSR System. Many state DOTs hoped a change in sentiment by the next Congress and President would allocate substantially more federal funds for higher speeds and more trains.
California voters approved a $9.9 billion bond measure to help build an HSR system. State DOTs convinced 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties to support HSR projects. President-elect Obama could measure their support by applications for $75 billion of federal funds for intercity passenger rail projects.
Th $18 billion investment by Obama and several governors in 2009-10 is paying off. Slow Zones were reduced and trains were added in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. Amtrak’s federal subsidy has declined to only 15% of operating budget due to growing patronage on upgraded routes.
Aware that $18 billion would not solve passenger rail issues nationwide, President Obama envisioned an interstate transportation solution that glues the $75 billion in isolated HSR projects together. He wanted to “kick-start an Interstate High Speed Rail System to serve 80% of Americans by 2035.” If successful, President Obama would create a transportation legacy similar to President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.
The planned Interstate Highway System that broke ground in 1956, was completed in 1992. To increase utility, it was augmented with beltways and thruways that would effectively finish construction in 2011. Interstate Highways could therefore, go into Maintenance Mode to repair highways and replace 40 to 50 year old interchanges and bridges.
Since America needed more jobs to emerge from the Great Recession and the 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for renewal in Summer 2010, President Obama believed that timing was right to start building an Interstate HSR System, expand Rapid Transit, and focus Highway funds on eliminating the maintenance backlog, not expansion.
Five corridors outside the Northeast having HSR projects underway represents significant progress towards an Interstate HSR System. Yet when you observe the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program map, ask yourself why more corridors that have tailor-made demographics for HSR are not underway? Why is there no Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinati HSR route underway? Why does HSR construction stop in Charlotte, rather than 3-times larger Atlanta? Why doesn’t fast-growing Texas have HSR under construction? Why did Florida turn down a DisneyWorld-backed 185 mph HSR line to now promote a mostly 79 mph rail line that will be less frequent, less dependable and remove far less cars from highways?
Two powerful anti-HSR forces are still working behind the scenes. More about them in Part 3. Before that, see why nearly every other leading or emerging nation is aggressively building Intercity HSR systems in Part 2.