In 1945, America had global transportation advantages. Its highways, railways, airports, transit and seaports were best in the world. By 1976, some of those advantages slipped due to funds diverted to the Vietnam War. The slippage was most profound in passenger rail — it has yet to recover. Though America held its leadership in highways, airports, seaports and freight rail, why was transit under-funded and passenger rail snubbed compared to most advanced nations?
Interstate High Speed Rail
America is the world’s richest country and has 21,400 miles of railway shared by freight rail companies, commuter rail agencies and Amtrak. It works very well for freight rail, but comes up short for commuter rail and Amtrak. Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $6.2 billion to partially upgrade the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere. That’s like giving one thirsty person a cup of water, then asking 50 other thirsty people to sip from one cup of water. Since passenger rail is not a “good alternative outside the Northeast Corridor, highways became overburdened with solo-drivers and our large airports are congested with excessive regional flights. Even the Northeast Corridor needs major improvement to become a “great” alternative.
Americans dual-preference for highways and aviation did not result from normal market events. They materialized because well-funded corporate opponents hired think tanks and lobbyists to mislead news media and influence governors, congresspersons and presidents to enact state and federal policy that crippled passenger rail, while lavishly funding highway and airport infrastructure. Those officials erroneously believed that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail across America is not cost-justifiable
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening freeways solves highway congestion
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer American corporations oppose High Speed Rail (HSR) today, remaining opponents are powerful and determined. Opponents would have citizens, news media and politicians believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding HSR enough to pass informed judgment about whether to build a comprehensive Interstate HSR System requires more than a short video or news article that lacks broader context and depth. For example, the video below includes many truths, but exaggerates when it says America has no HSR.
A brief intellectual journey is required to understand why America should have HSR lines operating in 19 states by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a comprehensive 20,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2050. Part 1 of the narrative journey begins with the glory days when America had the world’s greatest passenger rail systems. If you are unfamiliar with that history, spend three minutes reviewing the American Passenger Rail History link below to understand how and why the nation let its passenger rail advantage atrophy.
Let’s resume at conditions leading to HSR development in other nations whose vision paved the way forward.
Railways, factories and offices in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. When the war ended in 1945, their railway, factory and office rebuilds started immediately afterwards. Since America’s railways, factories and offices stayed intact during World War II, it remained the world’s only superpower capable of investing at home and abroad. In 1948, America’s $15 billion ($159 billion in 2018 dollars) grant in the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe and built an export market for American goods. In 1952, America invested $2.2 billion ($21 billion in 2018 dollars) to help rebuild Japan, another export market for American goods.
Japan and Western Europe embraced their urban and intercity passenger rail infrastructure while adding highway and aviation infrastructure. Preserving a culture of passenger rail use enabled their citizens to envision the benefits of improved intercity passenger rail, commuter rail and urban rapid transit meeting in Central Business District (CBD) stations.
Which Nation Should Be America’s High Speed Rail Model
Under American-supervised occupation until 1952, post-war Japan entered a future with high gasoline prices and dependence on imported oil. To reduce that dependence, Japan’s leadership built nuclear power plants to generate electricity to a rebuilt electric grid. In its largest cities, that island nation expanded electric-powered rapid transit and upgraded train stations. By 1956, some space cleared by war bombing was used to ease railway curves and build over/underpasses at each railroad crossing between Tokyo and Osaka. Japan converted most intercity passenger trains from diesel-powered to electric-powered, initially operating at 93-106 mph.
Japan’s largest companies invested R&D in more powerful electric train engines. With new power and rail infrastructure enabling faster passenger trains, Japan opened the world’s first HSR line during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Top speed reached 130 mph over 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka trains stations fed by extensive rapid transit. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, crowds gathered in train station cafes and retail stores, creating a pleasant experience for travelers and commuters. Japan also built a 4-lane intercity tollway system with a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. The tollway system connected to narrow 4-6 lane urban freeways in large cities. Japan also built substantial aviation infrastructure.
Excluding aviation, those factors helped Japan limit imported oil as its population grew. But Japan’s hyper-dense population, high oil costs, slow tollway speeds and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America to be a good model for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor HSR project. So the USDOT examined Italy, West Germany and France HSR too.
When intercity passenger rail returned to Western Europe after World War II, their diesel-powered intercity passenger trains also ran 93-106 mph. Western European nations built more railroad over/underpasses. Beginning in 1968, Italian and French railway companies accelerated R&D for their intercity passenger rail to achieve higher speeds.
Italy had modest population density, half of America’s Median Household Income, modest car ownership and imported most of its oil. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph speed limit of Autostrade Tollway System. Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line between Rome and Florence in 1979, but it was plagued with maintenance issues until 1986. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested by regional flights between them. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had no Metro Rail. Those factors initially limited HSR patronage success and Italian appetite for HSR expansion. Though Italy engineered the best tilting train by 1988, the Pendolino, Italian HSR would not be a good model for America’s first HSR project.
France had significant population density, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. Autoroute Tollway System permitted 81 mph on 4 to 6 lanes that drivers often exceeded. Though greatly dependent on imported oil and expensive gasoline, Parisian families frequently drove over 400 miles south through Lyon and Valence to the Mediterranean. More factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line.
France maintained a Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles passenger rail corridor after World War II. In 1954, abandonment of Southeast Asian wars allowed the French to divert more taxes to transportation infrastructure and nuclear power plants generating electricity. In the 1970s, Autoroute often clogged in the Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor to the Mediterranean. Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. Lyon had a former defense plant convertible to a train station with run-thru tracks to southern France. Paris had large Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems. Lyon had popular Commuter Rail and Tram systems and its Metro Rail system opened in 1978.
Emboldened by those factors, the French designed Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) for Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), a light-weight High Speed Train (HST). All LGV require under/overpasses to completely separate railway from roadway. Outside urban areas, LGV routes were made straiter with short tunnels and viaduct as needed. LGV was engineered to have premium tracks for smooth rides. LGV stations were spaced further apart for higher speed between cities. Only well-maintained TGV would run on them and track maintenance would be stringent.
In 1981, electric-powered 168 mph TGV started between Paris and Lyon. Though Japan’s HSR climbed to 155 mph by then, the faster TGV captured global imagination. A few years later, TGV was upgraded to 186 mph and higher train frequency. Coach Fares lowered. More Paris-Lyon travelers switched to TGV. French CBD train stations integrating TGV, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and Trams increased retail, hotel and tourism activity. TGV success inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion north & west from Paris and south from Lyon.
By 1993, LGV routes opened from Paris to Tours, Paris to LeMans, and Paris to Lille. Outside though corridors, regional flights to the rest of Europe was congesting large airports, lengthening travel times. A ride to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, origin runway taxi, flight, destination runway taxi, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi or shuttle to CBD ballooned regional flight travel times from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. As alternatives to flying, travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening in 1994 for Paris-Lille-London HSR service and LGV expansion from Lille to Brussels in 1995. Combined with a brilliant safety record, French TGV had proven HSR operating success in conditions closer to those in America’s Northeast Corridor.
America’s Lackluster Adoption of High Speed Rail
There were early signs that HSR should be developed in the Northeast Corridor. Its population density was higher than any similar corridor in France, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany. Though Northeast Corridor contained the wealthiest string of cities in America, its transportation vulnerability was exposed during the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo. Tourism, a staple of NYC, Washington and Philadelphia economies, cratered during the embargo. Those signs convinced President Ford, Congress governors to invest $1.9 billion to upgrade NYC-Washington rail corridor in 1976. In 1978, President Carter had a larger vision. He proposed that the Northeast Corridor become a High Speed Rail route like those operating in Japan and under construction in Italy and France. Unfortunately, Congress did not back his vision when a world-class HSR line could have been built for a fraction of today’s cost. Nor did Presidents Reagan and Bush I have interest in the project.
Skip forward to 1993. Interstate Highways returned to 65-75 mph speed limits, traffic congestion and highway toll stations in NYC-Washington corridor limited drivers to 60 mph average speed. Such low speeds helped Amtrak Metroliner survive while averaging about 70 mph in NYC-Washington corridor.
The Clinton Administration’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) referenced French TGV as the model for Amtrak HSR. Given Northeast Corridor’s higher Median Household Income and higher population density per mile than France, Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR could attract high ridership, despite America’s lower oil prices and strong car culture:
Corridor Distances & Metro Area Populations (millions) When Amtrak HSR Project Began, 1993
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseilles (2M) = 15M Pop.
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – NYC/Newark (17M) – Philadelphia (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – Washington (4M) = 34M Pop.
To help emerge from economic recession faster in 1993, Clinton Administration announced that stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR to 165 mph top speed. That was lower than TGV’s 186 mph top speed because Amtrak high speed trains would need to safely tilt and slow often in ultra-curvy segment between southeastern Connecticut and NYC.
In an age when cheap oil, car & jet cultures dominated America, most Americans preferred to drive and take regional flights. Many in Congress perceived Northeast Corridor HSR project to be another federal-funded Northeast-only initiative, like the over-budget “Big Dig” in Boston. Powerful opponents in the American Highway Users Alliance lobbied Congress to starve the HSR project, fearful that it would reduce oil consumption, regional flights, car rentals, Greyhound bus rides, tire purchases and highway widening nationwide, if it became wildly successful. As opponents convinced Congress to only approve a petty fraction of needed Northeast Corridor funding, uninformed news media developed a fairy-tale belief that the HSR project would deliver TGV-like service when it opened. They conditioned the public and politicians to expect “Champagne Taste on Beer Money.” When the Amtrak project fell short, critics multiplied.
Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments about how HSR project funding would be allocated. President George W. Bush (Bush II) pounced on those mistakes and nearly killed Amtrak funding outside the Northeast. If the backstory interests you, click on the Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail link below.
New Opportunity For An Interstate High Speed Rail System
American rail routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies and to lesser degree, by commuter transit agencies. By law and contractual agreements, freight rail companies and commuter transit agencies lease track access to Amtrak at low fees. At less than few daily runs per route, freight trains can often travel in opposite directions on the same track at 30-50 mph in urban areas and 50-60 mph in rural areas. Freight rail operates well under those conditions, so they have no direct incentive to upgrade railway for higher speed. Most commuter rail operates at 60-80 mph speeds on 1 or 2 tracks in urban-to-suburban corridors at 4-12 roundtrips per day. There are many places where autos, people and other animals cross tracks, so commuter and Amtrak trains slow down there. Commuter transit agencies want upgrades to prevent that, but don’t have extra funds lying around.
By 2000, Amtrak only owned about 300 miles of track in part of the Northeast where over/underpasses, bridges and tunnels completely separate from autos, people and other animals. Without funding for large upgrade projects, the rest of Amtrak’s operating conditions are plagued with repetitive Slow Zones.
Despite operational shortcomings, a positive narrative emerged after the 9-11-2001 terrorist event. Amtrak Acela HSR produced shorter Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel times without security-check hassle. Boarding/unboarding was faster. Amtrak had better on-time performance than flying between those cities. Wider seats, increased legroom, electric outlets at each seat and WiFi well before airplanes made Amtrak Acela more comfortable and productive than flying. A second positive narrative emerged by 2006. Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR entered operating profit by increasing to more than 30 round-trips per day and a higher number of patrons per train.
Three more Amtrak lines built successful narratives. Amtrak Keystone line in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 80 mph top speed and 6 daily diesel-powered trains to 110 mph and 13 daily electric-powered trains. Keystone attracted so many new patrons that its operating budget is near break-even and plans are underway for 125 mph top speed, more frequent trains and extension to Pittsburgh.
In California, patronage significantly grew when diesel-powered Amtrak Capital Corridor in San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento corridor increased to 15 daily round-trips and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner line in Los Angeles-Anaheim-San Diego corridor increased to 12 daily round-trips despite only 80-90 mph top speeds. Their patronage growth encouraged politicians to place a nearly $10 billion bond measure before California voters in 2008. Voters approved the building of a world-class HSR system. State transportation funds were invested to further improve the aforementioned Amtrak California routes as well.
President Obama Kickstarts More Interstate High Speed Rail
Sensing opportunity for similar transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted HSR and Amtrak upgrade projects. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds to anchor intercity passenger rail projects. Unfortunately, the Congressionally-approved economic stimulus apportioned to the USDOT was smaller than they hoped.
To his credit, President Obama directed $13 billion of economic stimulus funds and $2.5 billion of normal USDOT funds towards intercity passenger rail projects over 2009-10. It was the largest ever federal investment in intercity passenger rail. California also committed over $11 billion towards HSR and Amtrak projects. Several other states added $3 billion towards Amtrak projects. America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, kickstarted Interstate High Speed Rail amidst two Middle East wars and the Great Recession. His actions suggested a poetic bookend to President Lincoln who authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad amidst the Civil War.
Since our 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost $1.5 trillion, President Obama knew that $6.2 billion of previous Northeast Corridor investment and $30 billion of new federal & state investment was only the kickstart to a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. In 2011, Obama envisioned another $53 billion over 6 years of FRA funding to attract more state, local and private funding to HSR projects that could open between 2015-25. Initial successes would make it an easier decision for the next Congress and President to increase funding for HSR projects to open between 2025-35. If successful, President Obama would create a Interstate HSR System legacy similar to President Eisenhower for the Interstate Highway System.
More important than legacy vanities, Americans desperately needed jobs to emerge from the Great Recession. Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. Automotive industry and most airline companies stopped their public opposition to HSR. Since the multi-year Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for congressional vote, Obama believed timing was right to expand Interstate HSR and Rapid Transit, while repairing Interstate Highways & Bridges.
Unfortunately, the additional funding for HSR, rapid transit and highways was never approved by Congress for sign-off by President Obama. What happened?
Other companies in the Highway Lobby remained arch-enemies to electric-powered HSR and rapid transit. They influenced a majority of Congress to refrain support for that infrastructure. The Highway Lobby’s powerful influence is why the Northeast HSR corridor serving 56 million people did’t get enough federal funding to reach its potential for 186 mph and more frequent trains. Though California broke ground on 119 miles of construction towards a 220 mph HSR system, it has not received more federal funds since 2011.
There is some good news. Though modest in sum, federal and state investment paid off. Outside the Northeast, Amtrak Slow Zones were reduced in California, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin and more daily trains were added. To the dismay of passenger rail critics, Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy is also declining.
SUMMARY: Our Government Picked Winners and Losers
The same time federal, state and local governments lavishly funded airports and new highways, the federal government over-regulated passenger rail speeds without funding needed improvements. Local governments ripped out streetcar tracks that could have converted to rapid transit. Since the mid-1990s, America has under-funded maintenance of transit and highway bridges. That complex set of events has overstressed American airports and highways, while allowing many bridges to decay. Only America’s freight rail-to-seaport network remains world-class.
In contrast, Global Economic Competitors balanced the funding priority of Airports, HSR, Highways, Transit and Seaports. In the next part of this series, see how those competitors have overtaken America’s passenger transportation infrastructure.