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-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.

By far, $18 billion is the largest federal and state funding of Intercity Passenger 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 Intercity 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Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and complete falsehoods.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 single 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 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
• 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 with some tracks in subways and other portions 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, rail rapid transit and streetcars were electric-powered. Most electric rail rapid transit and streetcar lines were owned by utility companies who subsidized them by charging all customers slightly higher electricity rates. More labor is required to convert fossil fuels into electricity. That means energy costs for electricity was somewhat more expensive, except where rail rapid transit and streetcars had access to cheap electricity from hydropower.

Beginning in 1929, The Great Depression assaulted the economy. Most adults fortunate to have jobs used privately-owned streetcars and subways. Operating on razor-thin profit margins 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. Afterwards, 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 rail rapid transit and streetcar lines, most sold their streetcar lines to one of two national streetcar companies. The national streetcar companies were owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies. From 1936-45, the two national streetcar companies purchased 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities. The consortium gradually made streetcars less desirable by lowering maintenance frequency.

Intercity passenger trains, streetcars and subways got a reprieve during World War II (December 1941-August 1945). America needed oil companies to expand refinery capacity and railroads to transport soldiers, materials and weapons. People not shipped off to battle worked domestically to maintain economy and support the war effort. Gasoline and metals were rationed, but streetcars and subways got a larger ration to transport more people.

Intercity passenger trains conveyed soldiers to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for war duty. Los Angeles became a defense factory hub and oil refinery center. Intercity passenger rail and streetcar lines anchored at Los Angeles Union Station. LA had the nation’s largest streetcar system and 70% of its population rode streetcars.

When the war ended in August 1945, rationing ended. America suddenly had excess oil refinery capacity. Consumer income and Gross Domestic Product 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. Private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding to the suburbs. Suburban growth influenced more people buy cars and suburban cities to form transit agencies that favored buses over streetcars because gasoline was cheaper than electricity and buses did not require expensive track expansion.

Under those conditions, 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 rail rapid transit tunnels and elevated tracks like New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia to maintain speed and dependability advantages over buses. Abundant streetcar track rights of way were coveted by the consortium to increase road capacity for oil-burning cars, buses, trucks and tire sales in LA and nationwide.

A merger of the two national streetcar companies and declining streetcar service nationwide prompted an investigation 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 more buses to urban transit agencies as well.

NYC, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia transit agencies survived by purchasing ailing subway lines from private companies at a discount, then supplementing passenger fares with taxpayer subsidy to cover operations. Though San Francisco to Oakland streetcar service across the Bay Bridge ended, San Francisco transit agency spared a couple streetcar lines through tunnels in the city that allowed faster commutes than buses.

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

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

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 that better, faster 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 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 personal 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 non-stop driving. Knowing that intercity non-stop highways would be a business productivity and lifestyle game-changer, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to convince the President and Congress to fund the majority of it. By interconnecting more cities, a more ambitious Highway Lobby would add railroads to its crosshairs.

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 non-stop highways to boost business productivity. They won over many in Congress, but Truman wasn’t too impressed 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 110-125 mph with stops every 40-70 miles, producing 80-90 mph average speeds. Thus, intercity passenger trains had significantly 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. 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 were thin, few could afford 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 overpasses and siding tracks for private railroad companies. Tilting at windmills, 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 all trains to 79 mph top speed. Factoring in stops reduced intercity passenger trains to 55-65 mph average speed.

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 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, General Eisenhower admired how the German Autobahn network of straighter, non-stop highways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops nationwide. When the Highway Lobby called on him, as President Eisenhower, about non-stop highways for America, he noted that they could also be used for national defense and emergencies. In that manner he 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 a network of non-stop freeways like the Arroyo Seco Parkway. 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 also take funding from general taxes to combine with fuel taxes to build interstate highways.

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 muscle in Congress. In 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the combination of fuel tax and general tax to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of the officially named “Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.”

Though the federal government paid for 85% of the Interstate Highway System, with few exceptions, states own each interstate highway. Thus, each state posts speed limits as they judge safe for a given stretch of highway based on degree straightness and elevation. The fastest speed, 85 mph, was posted in straighter, flatter areas of the 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 — faster than intercity passenger trains. 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 infrastructure cost advantages, intercity bus lines passed along savings as lower fares than intercity passenger rail. Fuel costs to transport three or more people by personal car was also cheaper than train fare. Freight trucking also 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 300-400 miles, jets permitted travelers to shave at least 2 hours Journey Time compared to intercity passenger trains, buses and cars. Business travelers also loved traveling 1000-3000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days. From that year forward, long-distance business travelers rapidly switched from trains to jets.

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

Most railroad companies survived by mothballing passenger trains to focus on transporting high-volume, heavy cargo unfeasible for freight trucks — coal and wood in particular. 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.

In 1962, America narrowly avoided a war with Russia and Cuba. In 1963, America felt better about itself. The economy was growing. President Kennedy lowered taxes, while planning to invest more in highways, airports and rail rapid transit lines. Like Interstate Highways, federal taxes anchored funding for most major airport construction. 

In early 1964, President Johnson announced that his 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 $375 million. He also announced that UMTA funding would later increase to anchor 50% of rail rapid transit projects in larger cities. 

Unfortunately in August 1964, Vietnam War ramp-up reduced the transportation budget. Interstate Highway and airport projects ate first and second, respectively, at the smaller budget table. Aside from NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland (opened a line in 1955) who already had rail rapid transit, only UMTA projects in Washington and San Francisco-Oakland received enough funding to open rail rapid transit lines in 1972-76.

Federal investment in railroading was only sufficient to add crossing arms and upgrade signaling in a few areas. 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.

Like the decimation of streetcars between 1945-62, the decimation of intercity passenger trains was complete. 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. 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, most streetcar tracks were removed to widen boulevards that fed America’s most comprehensive freeway system in Los Angeles. LAX became a world-class airport. In contrast, Los Angeles Union Station was practically a ghost town.

LA’s auto-highway-airport lifestyle, 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 were demolished when they could have been restored. As older generations died, youngsters who never rode 110 mph trains were, by default, developed a narrative that “Trains are slow, so Americans prefer highways and flights.”

The national narrative was complete. Illegal corporate collusion, federal regulation 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 the 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 rail rapid transit projects.

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.

The Vietnam War was still gobbling the lion’s share of federal funds, so the transportation budget was constrained. Since driving and flying dominated American lifestyles, Congress and Nixon authorized most remaining Federal Transportation funds for Highway and Aviation. They didn’t authorize enough funding for railroad overpasses, track upgrades and a faster 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 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 other small safety improvements for Amtrak to reach 90 mph in the NYC-Washington rail corridor.

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

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 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 in the midst of 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

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 and Congress learned that many billion dollars were required to reach 150-160 mph in Boston-NYC-Washington rail corridor. So Carter narrowed his Intercity HSR proposal to Washington-NYC corridor segment.

Competition for federal transportation funds did not sit well with the Highway and Aviation lobbies. Nor did the prospect of electric-powered trains becoming popular appeal to the Oil Lobby. Collectively, those lobbies convinced Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before a deciding to vote 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, support from Congress wilted. Without Congressional support on the matter, President Carter did not fight for additional Intercity HSR funding. He did however, ensure that the previously committed funding continued railroad overpass construction and fencing for NYC-Washington corridor segment. Carter also deregulated freight rail in 1980, restoring some of their competitive edge versus freight trucking. When the railroad overpasses completed in 1984, intercity passenger trains (now Amtrak) returned to 110 mph in Washington-NYC corridor segment.

From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I turned their back on Amtrak and UMTA. 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 and regional flights exploded.

WHICH HIGH SPEED RAIL SUCCESS MODEL FITS AMERICA?

By January 1993 when President Clinton took office, the commerical flight experience was showing signs of 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 from 2 hours to 3 hours.

Japan, France, Italy and Germany experienced the same 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 would have a say in land-takings for intercity HSR and 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 rail corridor between them held less than 25% of French population.

France also had large automotive, aviation and freight trucking lobbies prodding government to expand airports and the 81 mph Autoroute of 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, Lyon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

When electric-powered 168 mph 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. Many 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 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. The TGV was next 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 the 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 100 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 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 many 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 “Trains are slow, so Americans prefer highways and flights” 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 many other places, why not here?

Operating at only 50-63 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 Zone routes in 2004, President Bush II tried to kill Amtrak.

OPPORTUNITY TO RESTORE & ENHANCE INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL

Fortunately, a fact-based counter-narrative is emerging. Though Acela HSR service has been from the start, by mid-2000s, it became a financial success that helps fund operations for other Amtrak lines.

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, increased daily trains and improved 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 speed and more frequent trains would serve 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.

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.

Th $18 billion investment by Obama and several governors in 2009-10 is paying off. The number of Slow Zones was reduced and more daily trains were added in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. Now, Amtrak’s federal subsidy has declining to only 15% of operating budget due to growing patronage.

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, Obama would create 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 in every metro area. The “Augmented Interstate Highway System” would effectively finish construction in 2011. It 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 maintenance, not expansion.

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 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 don’t fast-growing Texas and Florida have HSR construction projects underway?

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.