Interstate High Speed Rail Lies & Truths
To understand lies & truths about the building Interstate High Speed Rail in America often requires the same nuance as decisions about building freeways and airports. A short list of falsehoods, opinions misrepresented as fact, truths and nuanced answers follows.
1. We don’t need HSR because Americans prefer regional flights
False, opinion misrepresented as fact. Amtrak, with only 105 miles of 125-135 mph track, carried 3X more riders between Washington and NYC than all airlines combined. Amtrak, with only 36 miles of 150 mph track, carried more riders between Boston and NYC than all airlines combined. In total, Amtrak Acela and Northeast Regional trains in Washington-NYC-Boston corridor drew 12 million passengers in 2018 and ridership is climbing.
2. Americans don’t ride trains any more
False, opinion misrepresented as fact. As proven by increasing ridership on Amtrak Northeast Corridor, Americans like traveling a few hundreds miles faster on trains that run every 30 minutes from 5am-8pm, followed by trains every 45-60 minutes from 8pm-12pm.
As also proven by millions of annual riders on 110 mph Amtrak Keystone, 79-90 mph Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and 79 mph Amtrak Capital Corridor lines, significant numbers of Americans will ride conventional speed trains too, provided they offer 12-16 roundtrips per day. To substantially increase ridership, Amtrak plans 110-125 mph speed upgrades, more frequent trains and more passenger cabins for Keystone, Pacific Surfliner, Capital Corridor, Cascade, Hiawatha, Illinois and Michigan lines as funding permits.
3. Upgrading Amtrak Northeast Corridor to 186 mph, more frequent High Speed Rail (HSR) is not cost-justifiable
False, opinion misrepresented as fact. Each time Amtrak Northeast Corridor speed, frequency and capacity increased, ridership increased. That is how Amtrak justifies federal & state funding for more Northeast Corridor upgrades over 2020-25.
4. Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough population density for HSR
False and Misleading. Critics have often said that American regions aren’t as population dense as those in Europe. That is a false and misleading criticism because HSR is designed for population-dense corridors, not regions. Each of these corridors has equal or larger population per mile than the successful TGV Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor:
• San Francisco-San Jose-Gilroy-Fresno-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim
• Las Vegas-Victorville-Palmdale-Burbank-Los Angeles
• Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago-Champaign-Springfield-St. Louis
• Chicago-Gary-Fort Wayne-Toledo-Detroit
• Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach-Orlando-Tampa
• Houston-College Station-Dallas-Fort Worth
5. America doesn’t need HSR because widening freeways solves traffic congestion
False. You don’t need a fancy study to prove it. Anyone who drives frequently in the states of California, Nevada (Las Vegas), Texas, Florida, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan knows that freeways re-congest only 2-4 years after lane widening.
6. HSR always requires a Taxpayer subsidy.
Misleading Half-Truth. HSR requires taxpayer funding to cover 90%-75% of construction cost, like commercial airports. But when an HSR system is built to operate at 150+ mph and 28+ daily roundtrips, it is proven to generate operating profits in countries that have lower Median Incomes than America. The profit motive is why 150+ mph, high frequency HSR lines attract private investors.
7. Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough Rapid Transit riders to feed HSR stations.
Half-truth. Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta and Dallas already have well-developed rapid transit systems that can feed central HSR stations as early as 2025. With more concurrent HSR and Rapid Transit investment over the next 10-15 years, Burbank, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Houston, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Diego, Sacramento, Richmond, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Detroit will feed 2-3X more Rapid Transit riders to HSR stations. Such a timeline is consistent with planned HSR openings between 2025-35.
8. HSR projects take too long to build.
True, but misleading when viewed in isolation. It is true that compared to Europe, America takes longer to build transportation infrastructure, whether it be HSR, Freeways, Rapid Transit or Airports. America is a litigious society that encourages too many nuisance lawsuits that add 1-2 years to most transportation projects. Compared to France, Germany, Spain, UK, Belgium and Italy, America also has an extra layer of federal and state bureaucracy to negotiate. In general, it takes 1-2 years longer to get both federal and state environmental clearances for similar projects. Furthermore, when politics severely differ between federal and state levels, some projects are canceled or delayed years by the incoming President or Governor, as happened in California, Florida and Wisconsin. All Americans should call for a means of streamlining timelines for transportation infrastructure projects.
9. Its faster & more convenient to fly than ride HSR.
Half-True. If your distance is 500 miles or longer, it is generally faster to fly non-stop to the destination than to ride 150-200 mph on HSR. It may also be more convenient to fly 350-500 miles, if your final destination is near the airport. But in nearly all other cases, it faster and more convenient to ride 150-220 mph HSR under 500 miles. Such trains are planned to run every 15 minutes in California HSR.
9. HSR is too expensive to build.
Half-truth and Misleading. All transportation infrastructure is expensive. All transportation infrastructure projects are based on the premise of adding capacity whether building HSR, widening freeways or expanding airports. If the demand for more capacity does not exist in a ground or air corridor, then no transportation infrastructure should be built. But where there is substantial job or traffic growth in a corridor, demand will increase for more rider capacity. That typically happens when a sub-500 mile corridor reaches 12 million population. So the question should be, “what is the most cost & space-efficent mode to transport more riders over a given distance?”
Since 1970, America has added over 120 million residents and is projected to add 200 million by 2045. International tourists are also increasing. Freeways criss-cross the nation and congest easily. Once you exceed 3 lanes per side, their capacity efficiency per lane significantly declines. New freeways also take far more land to pass through and build interchanges than does HSR. Most of our Top 20 Airports have maxed-out land for runway. Some can’t airport terminal space. When American airports can add runway and/or terminal capacity, they generally do it for long distance flights that generate more revenue.
In contrast, HSR and upgraded Commuter Rail can use existing rail rights of way into train stations. A long HSR train can transport as many riders as two jumbo jets. It costs one half to one third as much to build HSR and freeway lanes with the same rider capacity. When traveling between 100-500 miles, HSR is more space-efficient than Freeways and higher capacity efficient Airports.
10. Interstate HSR will damage America’s great freight rail network.
False and Misleading. Around the world, HSR is designed to share track with freight trains after passenger service or built as high speed-only tracks. When intercity passenger service moves to high speed-only tracks, HSR creates more track capacity for freight rail. HSR has also improved freight rail service by building many over/underpasses shared with freight rail companies that could otherwise not afford them. A perfect example is when USODT funded over/underpasses to completely separate roadway from railway in the NYC-Washington corridor segment, freight rail service in the corridor improved.
11. California HSR trains will never do 220 mph.
False. China’s Fuxing trains do 217 mph (350 kph) in commercial operation today on elevated track that has little curvature and is extremely smooth. France, Spain and United Kingdom plan to operate High Speed Trains at 224 mph (360 kph) by 2022-26. When the first segment of California HSR opens in 2027-28, its Central Valley track will have similar elevation, curvature, smoothness and maintenance as the best track in China and Europe. It will also have the benefit of quieter nextgen trains certified for 236-248 mph (380-400 kph) commercial operation. California HSR Authority plans to limit them to 220 mph for lower energy consumption and lower wheel, track & overhead wire wear.