Interstate High Speed Rail Progress -- Part 1

America has finally made Interstate High Speed Rail progress. For decades prior to President Obama, the federal government invested only $4 billion to create a 437-mile High Speed Rail line in the Northeast Corridor. Managed by Amtrak, that High Speed Rail service for Washington-Baltimore-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.

By far, $18 billion is the largest federal and state funding of Interstate High Speed Rail. 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. So what’s not to like? 

Plenty, if you believe the 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 always prefer driving highways over HSR
• Americans always prefer flying over HSR
• Unlike HSR, fuel taxes solely pay for Interstate Highways
• Don’t bother with HSR, 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Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and falsehoods.

Understanding HSR well enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or single news article. It takes analysis of transportation modes that we 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 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 passenger rail routes are plagued with “Slow Zones” that do not support high speeds and frequent service due to:

• beat-up tracks, regulation & signaling systems that limiting most Amtrak trains to 59-79 mph
• excessive 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 that top at 49 mph and tolerable for commuter trains that top at 59-79 mph.

EXTERNAL FACTORS WEAKEN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES

From 1830, intercity passenger rail grew and blanketed our nation. From 1888, electric streetcars grew and covrered our major cities. They met at train stations and Americans loved them for it.

The Great Depression assaulted all transportation from 1929-1941. Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a reprieve during World War II (December 1941-August 1945). America needed oil companies to expand refinery capacity, and railroads to transport soldiers, support staff, fuels and materials. Domestically, gasoline, diesel fuel and metals were rationed. A larger percentage of people not shipped off to war found work in weapons plants. So Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a larger ration of fuel to transport more people.

Unlike trains and buses that ran on cheap diesel fuel, subways and streetcars were electric-powered. Excluding energy from hydropower, energy from fossil fuels was more expensive for subways and streetcars. Burning coal or oil to produce electricity added labor cost. After World War II, oil and coal prices went up along with the economy. In a growing economy, higher energy costs are not an sufficient excuse to collapse the world’s best passenger rail network. Higher costs could always be passed along in higher ticket prices. New regulation and collusion proved the undoing of America’s passenger rail network.

Adults fortunate to have jobs during the Great Depression required transportation dominated by privately-owned subways in NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and by streetcars elsewhere. Already operating on razor-thin profit margins, the fortunes of subway and streetcar companies gradually worsened when the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 made it illegal for a business to both provide public transport and supply electricity to other parties.

Prior to that act, most electric subway and streetcar lines were owned by utility companies who subsidized them by charging all customers slightly higher electricity rates. After that 1935 act, streetcar companies reduced service to cut electricity costs. The higher passenger volume of subway lines allowed them to preserve service levels longer.

Though utility companies divested both subway and streetcar lines, most sold their private streetcar lines to one of two national streetcar companies.

From 1936-46, the two national streetcar companies purchased 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities. Turns out, the national streetcar companies were owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies who coveted streetcar tracks in the middle of boulevards to increase road capacity for oil-burning and tire-using cars, buses and trucks. Then they went a step further. By lowering maintenance and schedule frequency, the consortium made streetcars less desirable.

In World War II, intercity passenger rail conveyed soldiers to the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts to depart for war duty. Los Angeles became a defense factory hub and a major oil refinery center. Passenger trains and streetcar lines anchored at bustling Los Angeles Union Station. Before and during the war, LA had the nation’s largest streetcar system and 70% of its population rode streetcars.

In 1944, Congress passed a bill to improve national highways, but did not approve a tax mechanism to fund the work.

After World War II ended in August 1945, rationing ended and America suddenly had excess oil refinery capacity. Consumer income and product demand increased. The G.I. Bill enabled veterans to buy their first house. Many veterans who served in the Pacific relocated to LA, creating a real estate boom for suburban housing tracts. To accommodate rapidly increasing consumer demand, developers opened new housing tracts in the suburbs. Private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding to the suburbs. Hence, the suburbs influenced more people buy cars and the formation of suburban transit agencies who favored bus purchases over streetcar purchases because gasoline was cheaper than electricity and buses did not require track expansion.

Under those conditions, its no surprise that streetcar patronage declined, while bus patronage ascended.

No city was more vulnerable to a drop in streetcar service than Los Angeles. That sprawling metropolis did not have many Metro subway tunnels like New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia or San Francisco to maintain speed and dependability advantages over buses. Thus, LA’s abundant streetcar rights of way were coveted by the consortium to increase demand for cars, buses, trucks, oil and tires.

A merger of the two national streetcar companies as streetcar service declined prompted a Look-See by Congress. In 1946, congressional hearings reviewed the intent of the national streetcar company owned by the consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. No change of consortium behavior resulted from those powderpuff hearings. Quite the contrary happened. General Motors supplied even more buses to public transit routes where streetcar service weakened.

NYC, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia transit agencies expanded by purchasing ailing subway lines from private companies at a discount. Though San Francisco to Oakland streetcar service across the Bay Bridge ended, San Francisco transit agency maintained several streetcar lines due to several streetcar tunnels that allowed faster commute times than driving.

A healthy portion of LA’s streetcar infrastructure could have survived too, but its transit agency lost a high stakes gamble. Los Angeles city officials bet that a lawsuit would rescue its ailing private 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 defendants. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.

Unfettered, the consortium stepped up efforts to convince cities nationwide to rip out streetcar tracks for more automotive rights of way and then dismantle or burn streetcars.

FEDERAL POLICY AND MORE REGULATION WEAKEN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES

Though consortium companies formed a Highway Lobby in 1932, by 1949 the lobby expanded membership with other industries, particularly freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters and road construction companies. A larger, more ambitious Highway Lobby added private railroads to its crosshairs.

In 1950, few National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to bumps, major curves, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew better highways were needed to make the auto-highway lifestyle essential for Americans. 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 highways. In an era of only three TV networks with automotive and oil industries as the biggest TV program sponsors, their marketing pitch was essentially, “demand more and better highways to increase your personal freedom and choose better gasoline for higher automotive performance.”

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, even with fuel tax, driving at highway speeds was cheap fun — until the next stoplight or stop sign.

America already had a few highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste of non-stop driving. Knowing that a network of non-stop highways would be a business productivity and lifestyle game-changer, the Highway Lobby wanted drivers to fully indulge.

Asking for taxpayer funds to change American lifestyle is a non-starter. So in 1951, the Highway Lobby approached President Truman and Congress about funding a network of non-stop highways to boost business productivity. They won over many in Congress, but Truman wasn’t too impressed by their pitch or pre-occupied funding the Korean War. He only authorized $50 million in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1952. Truman did however, address another concern amplified by the Highway Lobby.

Intercity passenger trains used to reach up to 110 mph with stops every 40-70 miles, producing 80-85 mph average speeds and shorter journey times than automobiles. Then a horrific train-ramming-train accident killed 25 people due to inadequate signaling to slow down and lack of siding track for the malfunctioning train to pull aside. The Highway Lobby licked its chops.

Sprawling suburbs and growing towns created busier roads crossing tracks. Too many people took chances crossing in front of oncoming trains. Some committed suicide parking on tracks. The Highway Lobby reminded President Truman, Congress and news media of every such accident to escalate public outcry for government action.

Since railroad company profit margins thinned again after World War II, few could afford a train control system and enough siding tracks. None could afford to build railroad overpasses. The sordid pre-1929 history of privately-owned railroad company anti-trust behavior also worked against them.

Given that backstory, Congress and Truman would not help fund the building of overpasses, a train control system and siding tracks for private railroad companies. Railroad companies fought against safety regulation as long as they could, but Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation on 31 December 1951, that effectively limited passenger trains to 79 mph. Factoring in stops reduced intercity trains to 60-70 mph average speed.

PRESIDENT EISENHOWER EMBRACES INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM POLICY

In 1953, President Eisenhower arrived with a different take on National Highways. In July 1953, the Korean War ended and high income tax rates were reducing the 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 in Germany, General Eisenhower admired how the Autobahn network of straighter, non-stop highways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops. So when the Highway Lobby called on him as President Eisenhower about a similar network of non-stop highways for America, he noted that it could also be used for national defense and emergencies.

Unlike the Pennsylvania Turnpike (tollway), the Highway Lobby produced videos and other data that influenced Eisenhower and Congress to plan a network of non-stop freeways like the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles. Automotive companies assured Congress and President Eisenhower that higher power autos driving more miles would consume more gasoline, thereby producing more national fuel tax to fund federal highways.

Without a significantly higher fuel tax, funds to build the network of freeways would face a shortfall. America was still paying down Gross National Debt from World War II and the Korean War. No one had an appetite for higher taxes. So the Highway Lobby exerted more influence with Congress to increase federal highway funding from a combination of general taxes and fuel taxes.

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 and America bought it. In 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the combination of national fuel tax and general tax to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of Interstate Highway System that today, links 90% of all cities having 50,000 or greater population.

Though the federal government paid for 90% of the Interstate Highway System, with few exceptions, the states own each interstate highway. Thus, each state posts speed limits as they judged safe for a given stretch of Interstate Highway based on straightness, curves and elevations. The fastest speed, 85 mph, were posted in the straighter wide-open areas of western states. Under good weather conditions and light traffic, cops let people drive 5-10 mph over speed limits.

By the early 1960s, above-the-speed-limit driver behavior for 4, 5 or 6 hours with one stop in between often enabled 65-75 mph average speed between destinations — faster than intercity passenger rail. Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeways, drivers only had to pay for cheap gasoline and oil. Given a large percentage of 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 and signal maintenance.

Enjoying a cost advantage, intercity bus lines passed along savings as lower fares than intercity passenger rail. Fuel and maintenance costs to transport three or more people by personal car was also cheaper than train fare. Additionally, freight trucking narrowed the shipping cost gap with freight rail.

Few could argue that the Interstate Highway System was not good for America. Its 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

In 1958, the Commercial Jet Age began in America. Boeing 707 jets were pressurized to fly above 30,000 feet to avoid the biggest hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. Jets also flew faster (500-550 mph) and longer than turbo-propeller airplanes. For distances of 300 miles or longer, jets permitted travelers to shave at least 2 hours Journey Time compared to intercity passenger trains, buses and cars. Business travelers loved traveling 1000-3000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days. From that year forward, long-distance business travelers rapidly switched from trains to jets.

With more people getting airline and airport jobs, chambers of commerce influenced state and federal politicians to fund airport expansion via a mix of publicly-issued bonds and general taxes. This public benefit aided private airline companies, while stacking the deck against private railroad companies.

Most railroad companies only survived by mothballing passenger trains to focus on high-volume freight material unfeasible for freight trucks. As the economy grew, such freight rail shipments increased. Freight rail companies added siding track in more places, but let larger chunks of their track slip into Slow Zone status — still perfect for freight rail. As a result, average speeds for remaining intercity passenger trains fell to 50-60 mph.

By early 1964, national population was growing and 80-85% of costs for Interstate Highways and major airport construction were paid by federal funding, with the remainder paid by state funding. Following up on a promise by President Kennedy, President Johnson announced that his Great Society Program would increase funding for rapid transit infrastructure in our large cities.

In July 1964, President Johnson started the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with $375 million. He also announced plans that UMTA funding would later increase to anchor 50% of rapid transit projects in larger cities. 

Unfortunately, Vietnam War ramp-up in August 1964 limited the transportation budget, while Interstate Highway and airport projects maintained strong first and second divs on the budget. Only a few cities received UMTA funds and most of those funds went to NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, who already had rail transit systems.

Federal investment railroading was an afterthought. Having lost speed and cost advantages, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling the benefits of scenery and comfort over long journeys, like the California Zephyr. A few other passenger trains continued service to smaller cities until their municipal airport was upgraded.

In 1950, there were 9,000 passenger trains in service, which carried just under 50% of intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were only 450 trains in operation, carrying only 7% of intercity passenger traffic. Niche-level 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.

Los Angeles was the best example of how our two passenger rail legacies were devastated. By 1970, Los Angeles Union Station was practically a ghost town. Young drivers wondered when unused streetcar tracks would be removed to widen boulevards that complimented America’s most comprehensive freeway system and LAX became a world-class airport.

LA’s auto-highway-airport lifestyle marketed in movies and TV programs, inspired the transportation model for America. Seattle, Atlanta, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati and other large cities raced to build freeways. As older generations died, youngsters who never rode 110 mph trains were manipulated to think “Americans always prefer highways or flights, so don’t bother upgrading passenger rail.”

The narrative was complete. Corporate collusion, federal regulation and public investment in boulevards, highways and airports made streetcars and intercity passenger rail collateral damage and limited rapid transit to a handful of cities.

FLICKERS OF HOPE FOR INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL IN AMERICA

In 1971, President Nixon was still consumed by the Vietnam War, but understood that cities and suburbs were growing into large metro areas. Congested commuting from the suburbs to central business districts was reducing business productivity. So he convinced Congress to boost UMTA funding, particularly for NYC, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nixon and Congress were also embarrassed that America’s heritage of privately-owned intercity passenger rail was killed by a combination of factors that included federal regulation. So Nixon and Congress formed Amtrak to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies and the Federal Railroad Administration would partially subsidize their operation.

Since the Vietnam War was still gobbling the lion’s share of federal funds and Highway and Aviation were dominating any remaining funds for transportation, Nixon and Congress didn’t authorize funding for railroad overpasses, track upgrades and a better train control system. 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 urban mass transit funding and enact the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit to conserve gasoline in 1974. In defiance, people commonly drove 60-65 mph on highways. In 1976, Ford authorized funding a new train control system and safety improvements for Amtrak to reach 90 mph in the NYC-Washington corridor.

In 1977-78, President Carter authorized funding for projects that would eventually eliminate road crossings in NYC-Washington rail corridor segment. Also in 1978, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel, sparking lower airfares, dramatically more regional flights and more airport funding.

Suddenly in December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Overnight, there were long lines to refill gasoline tanks. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. To conserve domestic oil, President Carter ordered strict enforcement of the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. Considering re-fueling hassles and slower speeds, most people refused to drive long distances, thereby crippling tourism while we were still caught in the Stagflation Era.

Line at a typical American gas station in June 1979

Line at a typical American gas station in June 1979; credit US News & World Report

The downtick in economic activity alerted President Carter and some in Congress to consider funding a project to speed-up passenger trains, first in the Northeast Corridor. In early 1980, Amtrak was attracting more passengers in the NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor. Intercity passenger rail was no longer moribund technology. Japan and Italy were enjoying success with electric-powered 155 mph HSR. France was feverishly building an electric-powered 168 mph HSR line.

When searching for analogous HSR success in America, Carter and Congress quickly learned that many billions of dollars would be required to achieve 155-165 mph throughout the Northeast. So Carter narrowed his HSR proposal to the Washington-NYC corridor segment.

Competition for federal transportation funds did not sit well with the Oil, Highway and Aviation lobbies who convinced Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before a decision was made about Carter’s project.

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, the resolve of President Carter to fight for more HSR funding wilted. At best he ensured that overpass construction for NYC-Washington corridor segment commenced. When the overpasses completed in 1984, passenger trains returned to 110 mph in that segment. Carter also deregulated freight rail in 1980, restoring some of their competitive edge vs. freight trucking.

From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I turned their back on Amtrak and rapid transit. On their watch, railroads and rapid transit got scraps, while Interstate Highways and Federal Aviation received princely funding. The National Highway Speed Limit returned to 65 mph, plus 10 mph above-the-limit behavior.

WHICH HIGH SPEED RAIL SUCCESS MODEL FITS AMERICA?

By January 1993 when President Clinton took office, the commerical flight experience was showing airport congestion 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 to nearly 3 hours.

Other leading nations experienced the same airport congestion in high-traffic corridors, yet chose to expand consumer options: fly, drive or ride HSR. In Japan, Italy, Germany and France, HSR trains were reaching 168-186 mph. Which nation among them had conditions most analogous to America’s Northeast that we could model for successful HSR?

Though it never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline, France best resembled conditions in America’s Northeast.

After World War II, France added or rebuilt railroad overpasses and upgraded its train control systems to maintain a 106-112 mph intercity passenger rail network. Its democratic-market economy produced household income and strong citizen rights similar to ours. When HSR planning started in 1971, France’s 54 million residents would have a say in land-takings for HSR or intercity highway routes. Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, had Metrorail systems feeding train stations. The cities are only 274 miles apart and the railway corridor between them held less than 25% of French population. The Mediterranean Sea, 296 miles south of Lyon, was close enough to attract frequent vacation drivers from Lyon and Paris.

France also had large auto, aviation and freight trucking lobbies prodding government to expand airports and the Autoroute network of freeways within cities and 81 mph intercity tollways spread across a country the size of Texas. Prior to the French HSR (called “TGV”) opening, Autoroute often clogged from the Belgian border through Paris and Lyon, then down to Marseilles at the Mediterranean Sea.

When electric-powered 168 mph TGV opened on Paris-Lyon HSR-only tracks in 1981, the 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 travelers to the time and cost savings of TGV versus driving and flying.

By 1993, the TGV-Metrorail stations of Paris and Lyon hosted as many restaurants, cafes, gift shops, shuttles, taxis and nearby hotels as an international airport. New HSR routes sprang 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. Wherever a TGV station integrated a 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 the route and increased tax revenue from international tourists.

Freight truckers appreciated less congestion on Autoroute as well.

CLINTON FUNDED OUR FIRST, POORLY EXECUTED HIGH SPEED RAIL ROUTE

By 1993, President Clinton could reference the successful French TGV system as the model for Northeast Corridor HSR. Coming out of a recession, Clinton used 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. Those mistakes limited Amtrak Acela speed between NYC and DC to 135 mph. Factoring in stops on Acela, average speed only reached 84 mph for a 2:42 minute Journey Time.

Despite 18 miles topping at 150 mph between Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, average speed is a sluggish 63 mph between NYC and Boston because there are 193 miles of 60-125 mph service. Hence, NYC-Boston Journey Time is still a lousy 3:40 minutes.

Meanwhile, posted Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 65-80 mph, which meant people often drove 70-85 mph top speed. Factoring in stops and toll stations driving from NYC to Washington and NYC to Boston, people average 55-65 mph in the comforts other own vehicle.

Based on evidence around the world, HSR requires at least 100 mph average speed to entice dramatically more people to switch from driving.

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, TV interviews and newspaper articles to ensure that a HSR-naysayer narrative prevailed in the media.

Paid disinformation from think tanks to news media increased naysaying to the point that many citizens never think to ask, “If HSR is succeeding everywhere else, why not here“? Whenever HSR is mentioned on TV or newspapers, most TV personalities and news journalists latch onto a anti-HSR soundbites not realizing where they originated. With anti-HSR forces doping American sentiment, President Bush II would not fund upgrades. Operating at 59-79 mph top speed in most places, 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 routes through their slow, low-traffic districts. Emphasizing those Slow Zone routes in 2004, President Bush II tried to kill Amtrak.

OPPORTUNITY TO RESTORE & ENHANCE INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL

Fortunately, other congressmen and governors saw the glass half full with Amtrak-HSR. Aside from the Northeast Corridor posting patronage and financial gains, Departments of Transportation (DOT) in California, Washington and the Northeastern states helped Amtrak complete small projects that reduced Slow Zones to restore 79 mph top speed, increased daily trains and improved punctuality. As a result, their ridership posted significant gains as well.

From that evidence, dozens of state DOTs concluded that reducing Slow Zones for faster speed, more daily trains and nicer train cabins would provide services to more constituents.

On the heels of Amtrak ridership 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 more federal funds for higher speeds and more trains.

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. California voters also approved a $9.9 billion bond measure to help build an HSR system.

Aware that $18 billion invested in 2009-10 and $75 billion in isolated HSR projects would not solve systemic passenger rail issues, President Obama envisioned a bigger transportation solution like President Eisenhower. He called those funds, the “Kick-start to an Interstate High Speed Rail System to serve 80% of Americans by 2035.”

With the 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill up for renewal in Summer 2010, President Obama had other reasons to believe the timing was right to repair highways, expand transit, build Interstate HSR and increase construction-manufacturing jobs. American auto and airline industries finally began to recognize that Green Transportation is unstoppable and helpful to their long term interests. So Obama also benefited from fewer anti-HSR forces than Clinton and Carter faced.

The planned Interstate Highway System that broke ground in 1956, was completed in 1992. To increase utility, it was augmented with beltways and thruways in every metro area. The “Augmented Interstate Highway System” effectively finished construction in 2011. Now our Interstate Highway System is in maintenance mode to replace 40-50 year old interchanges, bridges and tunnels. The system also needs re-paving, sound walls, and traffic information displays. Thats less expensive than building new super-highways.

Since the Interstate Highway System is in maintenance mode, its time to divert a larger percentage of federal and state transportation funding to HSR.

AMTRAK PROVING INTERNATIONAL HIGH SPEED RAIL OPERATING PRINCIPLES

HSR has construction principles like Interstate Highways, then like Asia and Europe, its operating principles evolve similar to the relationship between airports and airlines:

1. Upgrade infrequent Slow Zone routes to 110 mph routes and hourly trains from 6am to 8pm. At that faster speed and frequency, enough patrons mode-switch from automobiles to reduce tax subsidy to the route.

2. Upgrade high-traffic 110 mph routes to 155-200 mph routes and trains every 10-30 minutes from 6am to 10pm. At those speeds and train frequency, more patrons switch from autos and regional flights to generate significant operating profit for the route.

3. Operating profits repay construction costs in 8-15 years OR help pay for HSR system expansion OR both. Private companies pay operating fees to run their passenger trains on HSR stations to HSR stations. Those hefty operating fees help pay for construction of more 155-200 mph HSR routes in the system.

Skeptics not tracking Amtrak’s progress might argue that America has developed such a preference for driving and flying that HSR can’t possibly succeed in America because its only been successful in the NYC-Washington Corridor Segment. What proof points illustrate that international HSR operating principles will succeed elsewhere in America?

The first proof point is the Northeast Corridor has yet to be upgraded to the international standard of HSR-only track for higher speeds and train frequency, yet transports 12 million annual passengers at a substantial profit. That’s more people than fly between Boston, New Haven, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Imagine the patronage and profit Acela could achieve with safer 200 mph trains every 10 minutes and lower fares due to higher volume.

The second proof point is when Amtrak Keystone 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. Amtrak and Pennsylvania DOT are now planning to upgrade the route for 125 mph top speed, more daily trains and extension to Pittsburgh.

The third and biggest proof point is Amtrak tax subsidy is declining due to booming ridership nationwide. Since 2009 and aside from the Boston-NYC-Washington Corridor, more Slow Zone reduction and more daily trains are paying off in Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. In 2014, Amtrak requested LESS tax subsidy than Congress was prepared to offer and now only 15% of their operating budget.

So much for skeptic opinion, “Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans won’t ride trains“, misrepresented as fact.

US High Speed Rail Investments map, 2014

US High Speed Rail Investments map, 2014; credit USDOT

Five corridors outside the Northeast having HSR projects underway represents significant progress. 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 don’t fast-growing Texas and Florida have a HSR construction projects underway?

Unfortunately, two powerful anti-HSR forces are working behind the scenes. More about them in Part 3. See why Japan, Italy, France and every other leading/emerging nation is aggressively building Intercity HSR systems in Part 2.