Interstate High Speed Rail History
Beginning in 1932, the American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Lobby) declared unofficial war on Streetcars. In 1952, that war spilled over to intercity passenger rail.
America’s Rail Legacy Was Undermined
America’s intercity passenger rail began in 1830 as privately-owned railroads and train stations that grew rapidly nationwide. In 1868, NYC built America’s first elevated train (“El train”) for mass transit. Electric-powered Streetcar transit was introduced in 1888 by public utility companies because they were less expensive and less disruptive to build than El Trains. Replacing horse-drawn carriages, Streetcars swiftly blanketed our cities. Chicago, Boston, New York City and Philadelphia discovered had Streetcars and a handful of El trains in NYC were insufficient to move people around before cars. So between 1897-1906 Boston, Chicago, NYC and Philadelphia opened Subway systems for larger mass transit. All mass transportation modes met at train stations.
Though the first car for dependable driving was introduced in 1901, only rich people could afford them until the Ford Model T arrived in 1908 for $825 — equivalent to $23,007 in 2019. Despite the Model T, automobiles would not dominate American lifestyle until dirt roads were converted to paved avenues, boulevards and highways. By 1920, only 1 in 10 adult citizens owned an automobile. So growing automotive companies lobbied Congress, Presidents and Governors to do more. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 provided additional funding for roadway construction. Together, federal and state funding established the tradition of major taxpayer subsidy to America’s highways, which quickly accumulated to 31,000 highway miles by 1924.
Unlike intercity passenger trains that ran on cheap diesel fuel, El trains, Subway trains and Streetcars are electric-powered. In the early 20th century, electricity was mostly produced from coal, with oil and hydroelectric dams contributing smaller percentages. Excluding a few cities where streetcars had access to cheap hydroelectricity, like Buffalo near Niagara Falls, more labor is required to convert coal or oil into electricity than to refine oil into gasoline or diesel fuel. Therefore, cost per unit of energy for electricity was more expensive than cost per unit of energy for gasoline or diesel fuel nationwide. Utility companies charged all customers slightly higher electric rates to subsidize the higher energy cost of streetcars and rapid transit.
In October 1929, the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. By 1931, up to 40% of Americans were unemployed. Relatively few people could afford cars, so they took rapid transit, streetcars and buses. Others walked. In 1932, the American Highway Users Alliance formed with a mission to influence the federal and state governments to continue investing in highways during the Great Depression.
Operating on ever smaller profits during the Great Depression, the fortunes of streetcar and rapid transit companies worsened when the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 made it illegal for a business to provide both transport and electricity to the public. One by one, utility companies divested streetcar lines they could no longer subsidize. Subway & elevated transit trains, being faster, more energy-efficient and transporting more patrons per driver than buses, maintained profits a while longer.
From 1936-41, utility companies sold 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities to National City Lines, company owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies. The consortium made streetcars less desirable by lowering service frequency and maintenance. The consortium also became principle backers of the American_Highway_Users_Alliance (Highway Lobby) that convinced public transit agencies to purchase more buses. Automobile clubs simpatico with the Highway Lobby formed across America.
America’s entry to World War II from December 1941-September 1945 delayed the downward spiral of subway & elevated transit trains and streetcars. America needed oil & natural gas companies to expand refinery capacity to fuel more trains, ships and planes that transported soldiers and materials. Oil, natural gas and metals were rationed in America. As vital public utilities to maintain the economy and support the war effort, subway trains, el trains, streetcars and buses received subsidies and a healthy ration of electricity and diesel fuel. For example, when military personnel arrived by train at Los Angeles Union Station, streetcars transported them to the port for deployment in the Pacific theater of war. The nation’s largest streetcar system also transported 70% of LA residents to defense factories, other workplaces and schools.
After World War II, oil, natural gas and metal rationing ended. Excess oil refinery capacity helped make gasoline and diesel fuel cheap. Unlike Europe, Russia, Japan and China, none of our factories, railroads, bridges and seaports were bombed. By retaining the best transportation infrastructure, cheap gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, huge mining reserves, huge forest reserves, factories and large labor force, America’s manufacturing and transport advantages multiplied over the world. The G.I. Bill coupled with a surging economy enabled veterans to buy their first home. Most desirable new homes were built in the suburbs. That combination produced longer drives to inner city offices, factories, retail centers, hospitals and shipyards. Thus, veterans returning from the war accelerated automobile, tire and gasoline sales.
By 1946, National City Lines bought out streetcars in 82 American cities. Transit agencies in new suburban cities purchased buses because they had the same speed, patron capacity and schedule dependability as streetcars, but used cheaper diesel fuel without electric wire & track installation. To further bus purchases, the Highway Lobby supported suburban politicians who favored converting streetcar rights of way into roadway.
New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia Metro Rail systems had tunnels and aerials for speed, safety and on-time performance, plus multi-cabin trains for capacity that buses could never match. City transit agencies saved them. San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Newark and Cleveland transit agencies also saved streetcar routes that included tunnels. Devoted citizens got a few New Orleans streetcars and San Francisco cable cars designated as National Historic Landmarks. They became attractions for tourists who paid a ride premium that spared those historic conveyances from elimination.
Los Angeles is the ultimate example of corporate collusion that prevented Streetcar conversion to Rapid Transit. After World War II, oil refining boomed. Defense weapons plants converted to aerospace and became one of LA’s largest industries. A large percentage of veterans relocated to LA for those jobs and great weather. Since there was lots of open space in the 1940s, new suburban housing tracts spread up to a 40-mile radius from Downtown LA. With such large distances between work, schools, shopping centers and beaches, Angelenos purchased a higher percentage of cars than other cities. Hollywood also influenced people to buy more cars.
The Highway Lobby viewed LA streetcar routes as the big prize because, at well over 400 miles, it had the nation’s largest streetcar rights of way. LA metro area is fragmented into dozens of cities. With Highway Lobby backing, auto-centric politicians rose to power over most of those transit agencies. By building ever larger avenues and boulevards to attract business expansion, they put economic pressure on the City of Los Angeles to widen avenues and boulevards to handle a larger volume of cars, trucks and buses, particularly where streetcar service declined.
A merger of the two national streetcar companies in the consortium and rapidly declining streetcar service nationwide prompted congressional hearings in 1946 to review the intent of the consortium controlled by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. After those powderpuff hearings, General Motors supplied even more buses to transit agencies.
City of Los Angeles officials bravely resisted with a lawsuit they hoped would rescue its ailing streetcars. LA had only one short streetcar tunnel into Downtown and it too, was at risk. 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 Highway Lobby. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.
Legally unfettered, the Highway Lobby stepped up efforts to rip out streetcar tracks, then dismantle or burn streetcars nationwide. In 1949, the Highway Lobby celebrated completion of the 4-Level Stack Interchange between Arroyo Seco and Cahuenga Pass (“Hollywood”) freeways, while severing streetcar service to the Downtown LA tunnel.
The LA streetcar-death-spiral played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for the Highway Lobby to nail the coffins.
Federal Policy Helps One Mode, Cripples Another
The Highway Lobby formed in 1932, expanded membership to freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters and road construction companies by 1949. With cars, trucks and buses multiplying like ant colonies on a food trail and a powerful Highway Lobby influencing the Congress and President, a higher national fuel tax was approved to accelerate paving of national highway. Since gasoline cost under 10 cents per gallon, driving at highway speeds was cheap fun — some of the time.
In 1950, few highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to unbanked curves, insufficient guard rails, poor signage, too many bumps, stop lights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew that better highways were needed to convert America to an auto-centric lifestyle. To achieve that goal, automotive companies marketed cars as “personal freedom.” Oil companies expanded service stations along boulevards and highways. In an era of only three TV networks and a few national radio programs, automotive and oil companies became the biggest program sponsors. Their marketing pitch was to “demand more and better highways to increase your freedom” and “choose better gasoline and tires for higher automotive performance.”
America already had a few limited access, non-stop highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway intersecting Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike. They gave a taste of higher, non-stop highway speeds.
Knowing that an intercity network of limited access, non-stop highways would jolt America into auto-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to get American taxpayers to fund it. In 1950-51, the Highway Lobby convinced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that a network of limited access, non-stop highways and interchanges would boost business productivity, jobs and product distribution. Together, they asked Congress and President Truman to fund a system of intercity limited access, non-stop highways. They won over many in Congress, but President 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.
Something more happened. The goal to interconnect cities with limited-access, non-stop highways added railroads to the Highway Lobby’s crosshairs.
America’s intercity passenger trains used to reach 100-110 mph top speed with stops every 25-75 miles, producing 80-90 mph average speeds over long distances. In those times, horrific train-ramming-train accidents occurred due to inadequate signaling and lack of parallel siding track for malfunctioning trains to pull aside. Such accidents were rare until sprawling suburbs and growing towns built more roads crossing tracks. With more road crossings, more people also took deadly risks or committed suicide. The Highway Lobby reminded news media of every accident to escalate public outcry for federal railroad regulation.
The safest way to preserve train speed was to improve train signaling, build parallel siding tracks where slower trains could pull over, and to build more railroad overpasses & underpasses in and approaching cities. Since railroad profits were thin, they could only afford parallel siding track — and then not enough.
Given the sordid pre-1929 history of railroad company anti-trust behavior, Congress and President Truman had no predisposition to fund those upgrades. Instead, Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation in 1952 that effectively limited intercity passenger trains to 79 mph in order to shorten stopping distances.
Federal regulation also decreed that passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains must have heavy locomotives, like freight trains, for train-ramming-train crash safety. An unintended consequence is that heavy locomotives do not accelerate or stop as fast. Given suburban growth built more roadways crossing tracks, intercity passenger trains delayed acceleration leaving and slowed down earlier when approaching more cities. Results were predictable. Intercity passenger trains fell to average speed of 50-60 mph.
Eisenhower Administration Launches Interstate Highway System
In January 1953, General Eisenhower was sworn in as President. He named the former CEO of General Motors to be Secretary of Defense. DuPont Family was the largest shareholder of General Motors. Eisenhower named a DuPont Family elder to head the Federal Highway Administration. In July 1953, the Korean War ended, but income tax rates on the wealthy remained high. The Eisenhower Administration and Congress were anxious to use those taxes on infrastructure projects to increase automotive-related jobs and business productivity in general. Those conditions and a former 5-star general’s transportation perspective caused Eisenhower to go all in for super-highways.
During World War II, General Eisenhower admired how the Autobahn network of limited access, non-stop freeways throughout Germany enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops. When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby called on him as President Eisenhower about similar highways, he planned their use for national defense and emergencies as well. In that manner, President Eisenhower unified three powerful allies (Highway Lobby, Department of Defense, U.S. Chamber of Commerce) in his funding pitch to Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, GM and Ford produced films and reports that convinced Congress to plan an interstate network of freeways like Arroyo Seco Parkway and Hollywood Freeway, rather than tollways like Pennsylvania Turnpike. Oil companies assured President Eisenhower that America had enough oil to be self-sufficient deep into the 21st Century. The Highway Lobby said that faster autos driving more miles on freeways would consume more gasoline, thereby producing more fuel tax to fund Interstate Highways. The heavy construction industry said more jobs in every state would create a virtuous cycle of additional taxes to pay for interstate highways.
The truth was more opaque. Higher fuel tax was insufficient to build the Interstate Highway System and no one had an appetite for higher taxes. So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby helped Eisenhower convince Congress to transfer general taxes towards the Highway Trust Fund, rather than lower income taxes. Only then could we fund the Interstate Highway System.
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 U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby marketed the plan, while the Department of Defense added backroom influence with Congressmen in states having or wanting military bases. In 1956, President Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the combination of fuel and general taxes to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 44,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.”
That $25 billion investment has the same buying power as $226 billion in 2017. Initially, the federal government paid for 85-90% of Interstate Highway construction. States, counties and cities paid the balance. In contrast, railroad companies paid for 100% of rail route construction and maintenance.
With few exceptions, the federal government allowed states to own each Interstate Highway. Each state posts speed limits they judged safe for a stretch of highway. The fastest legal speed, 85 mph, was posted in the straight & flat areas of western states and Maine. States took pride of ownership for highways, not railroads owned by private companies.
Since most Interstate Highway was built as limited access non-stop freeways, drivers perceived that they only paid for gasoline, when in fact they pay for embedded fuel tax and vehicle depreciation per mile. Given that every driver, whether they rode Interstate Highways or not, paid fuel taxes and general taxes to build Interstate Highway, they subsidized freight truckers, intercity bus lines and car renters to enjoy lower operating costs than freight and passenger train companies. Federal Highways were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, Railroads were not.
You could win a debate that new Interstate Highways and upgraded National Highways were good for America. Oil was cheap and plentiful. Highway construction spurred growth in automobile, tire, oil, concrete, asphalt, construction, freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car rentals, hotel and tourism industries. Those jobs led Unemployment Rate to 4% or less during much of the Eisenhower Administration. The hey-day 1950s led General Motors to justifiably boast, “What’s good for GM is good for the nation.”
Funding International Airports Kills Intercity Passenger Rail
Even in long distance routes where intercity passenger trains sustained 79 mph for long distances, business travelers wanted to reach destinations faster. Their wish came true in October 1958, when Boeing launched the Commercial Jet Age. Boeing 707 jets reached cruising speeds up to 550 mph, flew longer and pressurized to exceed 25,000 feet altitude above most turbulence. As soon as airports offered more airline routes, business travelers switched from long distance trains to jets. Travelers loved flying 150-3500 miles across North America, Hawaii and the Caribbean in 1 to 7 hours.
Promising more aviation-related jobs, Chambers of Commerce influenced federal, state and local politicians to help fund International Airport construction via land annexations, special tax assessments and bonds. The Highway Lobby backed them because highways to International Airports, rental cars and oil-based jet fuel consumption would expand as well.
Taxpayer aid to commercial airports robbed railroad companies of their lifeblood — premium-fare, long distance travelers. Evaporating profits forced most intercity passenger trains to cease operations. The few surviving railroad companies focused on heavy cargo that would be uneconomical or impractical for freight trucks.
With the railroad industry collapsing, many intercity passenger rail routes were sold to transit agencies in NYC, Chicago, Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and San Francisco. Taxpayers could partially subsidize their operation as commuter rail radiating from central business districts to deep suburbs.
As the economy grew, freight rail and freight trucking increased. More freight revenue enabled railroad companies to add parallel siding track in some places. Railroad companies let larger chunks of track slip to 59 mph and 79 mph top speed status for passenger rail.
In 1963, America felt better about the economy, President Kennedy lowering taxes and avoiding war with Russia and Cuba. Shortly before his November 1963 assassination, Kennedy pushed for more Interstate Highway, International Airport and Rapid Transit funding. President Johnson followed through on Kennedy’s plan by announcing that the Great Society Program would allocate substantial funding for rapid transit.
In July 1964, President Johnson started the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with a $375 million federal allocation. He promised larger UMTA funding for 50-80% of Rapid Transit projects. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War started in August 1964.
By mid-1965, Vietnam War escalation was sucking away larger than expected federal funds. That meant less funding for transportation projects. The powerful Highway and Aviation lobbies helped Interstate Highway and International Airport projects command the lion’s share of a smaller transportation budget.
By 1966, large chunks of the Interstate Highway System opened, enabling more drivers to average 65-75 mph for 2 to 5 hours. That was 10-15 mph faster than most intercity passenger trains. Having lost most long distance customers to jets, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling slow speed scenery and comfort over long journeys to the retiree market, like the California Zephyr service.
America’s transportation mode change was profound. In 1950, there were 9,000 trains carrying 50% of intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were only 450 trains carrying 7% of intercity passenger traffic. Though busy as Times Square during World War II, Los Angeles Union Station was nearly a ghost town. Even streetcar tracks to the station were removed. Following LA’s lead, old train stations nationwide were diminished, closed, demolished or converted to non-transportation use.
Low passenger volume also killed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once the largest union of black employees, the BSCP became the unfortunate answer to a trivia question.
Conversely by 1970, LA had a spiderweb of Interstate Highways interchanging with upgraded national and state highways. LA upgraded its municipal airport to a thriving world-class airport. With Hollywood marketing LA’s freeway and airport transportation model in movies and national TV programs, America built the world’s most comprehensive freeway system and most international airports.
Amtrak Becomes A Flicker Of Hope For Intercity Passenger Trains
In 1971, President Nixon was consumed by the Vietnam War, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped him understand that population expansion to suburbs was increasing suburb-to-downtown drives. They in turn, were generating traffic congestion that constrained the flow of goods & services in big cities and crippled most Central Business District real estates values. Before the Watergate Hearings in 1973, the first OPEC Oil Embargo increased President Nixon’s influence with Congress to boost UMTA funding. That sped up construction of rapid transit projects in a handful of cities. Nixon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also convinced Congress to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies as one public-private entity, Amtrak.
Though Nixon wanted faster intercity passenger rail and more rapid transit projects, Congress continued stipulating that the lion’s share of transportation grants go to Interstate Highways, National Highway upgrades and International Airports. Amtrak remained a funding orphan. Without federal grants for railroad overpasses/underpasses, track & signal upgrades, a faster signaling system and fencing, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving American heritage.
To begin conserving gasoline in 1974, President Ford signed an Executive Order to enact the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. In defiance, people commonly drove 65 mph.
In 1976, President Ford convinced Congress to fund a faster train signaling system, track repairs and better crossing arms in the Boston-NYC-Washington rail corridor. Those modest upgrades enabled Amtrak to reach up to 90 mph top speed in the corridor again.
In 1978, President Carter proposed that we fund overpasses & underpasses, new trains and fencing in the Boston-NYC-Washington rail corridor to enable 150 mph top speed similar to Japan’s 155 mph high speed rail system by then. But Congress tabled his proposal. Also that year, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel — sparking lower airfares, more regional flights and more taxpayer-funded airport expansion.
In December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. Overnight, long lines formed to refill gasoline tanks. To conserve oil, President Carter ordered enforcement of the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. Due to re-fueling hassles and slower highway speeds, most people refused to drive over 2-3 hours. The unintended side-effect crippled tourism in the Stagflation Era.
The downtick in economic activity chastened President Carter and Congress to boost UMTA funding for rapid transit projects and conversion of 6 surviving streetcar systems to faster, higher capacity Light Rail.
Again, Carter proposed a Boston-NYC-Washington High Speed Rail project. If successful, it would spark an Interstate High Speed Rail System. A new competitor for large federal and state transportation grants did not sit well with the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. They 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 America 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 commonly exceeded it by 10-15 mph.
Under those conditions, congressional willpower to build a high speed rail corridor wilted. In 1980 however, President Carter obtained paltry funding to upgrade Boston-NYC-Washington rail corridor with more overpasses/underpasses, new electric overhead wires and complete fencing. Carter also deregulated freight rail to restore some of its competitive edge versus freight trucking. Budd Corporation of Philadelphia proved that they could make a 150 mph train, but it needed straighter, leveler, welded high speed-only tracks.
Congressmen outside the Northeast knew that Amtrak and UMTA funding did not resonate with their constituency. Once President Reagan arrived in 1981, those congressmen, aided by Highway and Aviation lobbies, started a false narrative that Amtrak and UMTA funding represent “Social Welfare for the Poor“, while they hypocritically promoted rural Highways and Airports to be “Vital Public Utilities” deserving of taxpayer subsidy. Another false narrative was to portray 10 mph average speed public buses as a viable alternative to 25-45 mph average speed Rapid Transit.
When Carter-funded upgrades completed by 1984, Amtrak could only return to 110 mph top speed in the NYC-Washington corridor segment and 79 mph top speed in the Boston-NYC corridor segment. America blew its chance to build an Interstate High Speed Rail System when costs to acquire rights of way and build infrastructure, that inflation-adjusted, would have been 2-3 times less than today due to faster than inflation real estate and worker health care costs.
From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I are most responsible for creating a political climate that treated Amtrak and Rapid Transit as Social Welfare. Reagan and Bush I convinced a majority of Congress to cripple Amtrak funding and subsidize slow buses as a substitute for Rapid Transit projects.
In contrast, they awarded princely federal grants to Interstate Highway and International Airport expansion. For example, $4.8 billion of taxpayer money was spent on Denver International Airport. Over the same 12 years of Reagan-Bush Administrations, Japan, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Spain leaped ahead building 155-186 mph HSR lines. The Clinton Administration took a different approach to Amtrak HSR, beginning in January 1993.