Interstate High Speed Rail System Needed
American companies built the world’s largest collection of seaports, freight & passenger railway lines and American government added world-class highways & airports. We could have built Interstate High Speed Rail and greatly expanded Rapid Transit too. But powerful opponents and more wars prevented their investment. Excluding two corridors, we are left with a haphazard bundle of slow Amtrak lines that do not maximize ridership between the Top 100 Metro Areas. The results are fewer jobs, more air pollution and a Traffic Congestion Tax on every American. Interstate travel presents special challenges to black travelers as well — Thomas Dorsey
Excellent transportation infrastructure helped America become the world’s richest country. Since early America, the public helped fund seaports for freight & passengers. Those seaports attracted private railway companies whose mileage now reaches 160,000 miles. Other powerful industries convinced Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures and Governors to invest $1.6 trillion of public funds in Interstate Highway and $550 billion in Aviation infrastructure. As a result, automotive and aviation-related industries boomed.
By 1960, private railway remained fast & extensive enough moving very large cargo from seaports to cross-country destinations. Though freight rail industry initially shrank, it could survive competitive threat from freight trucking. There was no savior advantage for intercity passenger rail. It needed major infrastructure investment to compete with fast growing airports and Interstate Highway.
Unfortunately, a powerful coalition of industries influenced Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures and Governors to NOT invest in passenger rail infrastructure. Excluding two corridors in the Northeast, powerful opponents prevented railway from becoming a robust Interstate High Speed Rail System, like other advanced nations enjoy. They manipulated news media, politicians and citizens to erroneously believe that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable in America
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Interstate Highway solves congestion
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Understanding High Speed Rail
The international definition of High Speed Rail (HSR) is electric railway for trains that operate at 124 mph or higher. Though fewer American industries oppose HSR today, remaining opponents want news media, politicians and citizens to continue believing a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Since opponents prevented America from building a comprehensive Interstate HSR System, our Interstate Highways attract too many drivers and our hub airports have excessive regional flights that contribute to flight delay.
Understanding HSR enough to pass informed judgment about our need for a comprehensive Interstate HSR System requires more than a short video or news article. For example, the video below includes truths, but exaggerates when it says America has no HSR. What they mean is, America doesn’t have an Interstate HSR System befitting its global-economic status, geographic scale and 21st century travel demands.
The better approach to inform judgment on this subject is a narrative series in digestible parts. It should include contextual videos, informative charts and relevant photos to make a complex subject simpler. For those who want more depth, the series should include many bolded weblinks to subject experts and related facts. I have attempted to do all those things in this narrative series.
When infrastructure projects are evaluated, the elephant in the room is always, do benefits outweigh costs of construction? In the infrastructure industry, that project evaluation boils down to a “Benefit/Cost Ratio.” Better HSR projects have Benefit/Cost Ratios well above 1.0. No HSR project whose Benefit/Cost Ratio is below 1.0 should be publicly funded. The same evaluation should apply to other infrastructure projects.
Defining HSR Benefit/Cost Ratios is best left to experienced transportation planners and civil engineers. Fortunately for readers of this series, I’ve studied HSR lines and projects with Benefit/Cost Ratios above 1.0 that are welcomed by Amtrak, HSR advocacy groups, and companies that build transportation infrastructure. You’ll see my list on Part 6 of this narrative series.
For a laymen’s understanding of HSR Benefits/Costs, you must be open to comparing many train speeds, frequencies, mileages, capacities and schedule dependability percentages, along with environmental impacts. For good understanding, there is no way around the numbers. But rest assured, the numbers are well organized, interspersed with visuals so your eyes don’t glaze over, and each page is digestible in 7 minutes or less. Part 1 of this narrative series eases into those HSR traits, while Parts 2 and 3 takes a somewhat deeper dive.
Population continues growing. The nation MUST add passenger transportation infrastructure to manage that growth. Consequently, this narrative series weighs Benefits/Costs of new HSR vs. more highway lanes and more airport runways. At the end of this series, you will understand why 21 states should open or have HSR under construction by 2029. The nation should also jump to a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, and a 25,000-mile Interstate HSR System shortly before 2050.
America once had the world’s best rail infrastructure. If you are unfamiliar with that backstory and care to know, spend 6 minutes reviewing American Passenger Rail History to understand how the USA built the greatest railway network after 1828, then let it atrophy by 1993.
Interstate High Speed Rail Benefits to Black Travelers
For African Americans who’ve felt the sting of Driving While Black on highways, an Interstate HSR System means more than good infrastructure. Every adult black driver knows family & friends afraid to leave Interstate & National Highway in parts of the country, particularly at night. Many others driving Interstate & National Highways have been profiled & hassled. They know the drill … 1 to 4 African Americans with dreadlocks or long hair in a nice car. They must be drug dealers or ex-felons. Queue the police sirens, invent a reason to pull them over with guns at the ready.
American policing of roadways is flooded with systemic racism that has too-frequent violation of civil rights and sometimes, lethal encounters. When black people ride Amtrak, you never hear of their civil rights being violated. At worst, an unruly patron is escorted off the train. To me, its no surprise that 19% of Pre-COVID Amtrak riders are African American, despite comprising only 13% of U.S. population. Since it preserves dignity and safety while traveling, a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System will invite black and brown travelers to enjoy far more of this great country.
Now, let’s examine other nations who paved the way for Intercity High Speed Rail that Americans would call Interstate High Speed Rail. For maximum Benefit/Cost Ratios, America’s Interstate HSR System should model after one of them.
Should Japan be America’s Nation-Model for Interstate High Speed Rail?
Railways, roadways, airports and factories in Japan were heavily bombed in World War II. When the war ended in 1945, they had to quickly rebuild that infrastructure. Since America stayed intact during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of investment at home and abroad.
Under American-supervised occupation until 1952, post-war Japan entered a future with high gasoline prices and excessive dependence on imported oil. To reduce foreign oil dependence, Japan built nuclear power plants for electricity and modernized its electric grid. America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan as an export market for American goods.
Once Hitachi developed more powerful electric train engines, Japan would never be satisfied rebuilding 81-99 mph passenger rail. Rail infrastructure for electric trains was upgraded. Over/underpasses were built at each railroad crossing between its four largest metro areas — Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. Some space cleared by World War II bombing was used to ease railway curves for straighter track. Electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Rail systems in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya were expanded, multiplying access to train stations. The historic city of Kyoto upgraded electric Streetcars to a faster service they call “Trams” and Americans call “Light Rail.”
When Japan Central Railway launched the world’s first HSR line (“Shinkansen”) during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, it was celebrated as the fastest train in commercial operation. Top speed was 130 mph in 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka corridor. Shinkansen’s 2 hour 40 minute travel time attracted so many riders it cut flight demand. Shinkansen trains operated so dependably, you could set your watch by them. Most importantly, Shinkansen proved that jets and super-highways did NOT make trains obsolete.
Since electric trains do not emit fumes and more riders went to train stations, patrons spent time in station cafes and shops. Those conditions generated profits for Japan Central Railway, who owned the stations. Equally important, the spider-web network of Shinkansen, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and Trams enabled Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Kyoto residents to get most places with fewer cars per household. Traveling by train became so common that many citizens keep rail maps handy.
Like Americans, Japanese citizens wanted personal freedom to explore more of their nation by car. In the 1950s, Japanese automakers convinced the government to start building a 4-lane national tollway system. To prevent excessive dependence on oil, the tollway system had a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. It connected to 4-6 lane urban freeways. When the Commercial Jet Age began in 1958, Japan modernized and expanded commercial airports too, mostly for international travel.
By 1993, Japan had 2.5 times the population of America’s densest region, the Northeast. Unfortunately, the hyper-dense population of an island nation, high oil costs, full embrace of HSR & rapid transit, slow tollways, narrow urban freeways and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America for Japan to be our HSR nation-model.
Which Country Should Be HSR Nation-Model for America?
Railways, roadways, airports and factories in Europe were also heavily bombed in World War II. In 1948, America invested $15 billion ($161 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Europeas an export market for American goods. Western Europe governments used American funds and their public funds to rebuilt railway and airports, and to build new tollways.
After seeing by Shinkansen success in 1964, European railway industry was no longer satisfied with 81-106 mph passenger trains. So they accelerated R&D for intercity passenger trains to achieve higher speeds. Faster trains would sustain their railroad industry and spin-off transit benefits to Commuter Rail.
European nations were also motivated to better compete for aviation jobs. They did not have an aerospace company as powerful as Boeing, so in 1970-71, a consortium of companies from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and Netherlands formed Airbus consortium to produce competitive passenger jets. They also lobbied for public-funded airport expansion and modernization.
In the 1970s, Italy had modest population density, half of America’s Median Household Income and half of America’s car ownership per capita. The peninsular nation imported most of its oil. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested. Drivers often exceeded Autostrade Tollway’s 81 mph speed limit. Italian sports cars were celebrated and exported worldwide. Trains were not celebrated. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had only Commuter Rail. And yet by 1979, Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line between Rome and Florence. Unfortunately, that first HSR line was plagued with infrastructure issues until 1986. Those issues slowed ridership growth and expansion.
Italy would not be a good HSR nation-model for America, but an Italian company introduced the Pendolino, whose tilt-train technology lets trains go faster in curves. Today, an advanced version its tilt-train technology is embedded in some High Speed Trains (HST).
Germany started building its “No Speed Limit” Autobahn Tollway in the late 1930s. After World War II ended in 1945, West Germany rebounded to high Median Household Incomes and rebuilt passenger rail in and around its large cities. The speed engineering from its sports car industry and Autobahn culture helped Germany market cars for export. In 1958, West Germany started enlarging & modernizing airports for the Jet Age too.
Although West Germany conducted High Speed Rail R&D in the mid-1970s, lawsuits over property acquisition halted construction for a decade. To prep for reunification of East Germany and West Germany after 1989, that nation’s leaders had to slice infrastructure funding many ways. As a result, unified Germany did not open its first HSR line until 1991. Given those conditions, Germany would not be a good HSR nation-model for America.
Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Spain did not satisfy enough conditions to be a good HSR nation-model either.
France Becomes the Nation-Model for High Speed Rail in America
Unlike the rest of Europe, Paris train stations and railway between Paris and Lyon were spared from bombing. That helped its government-funded French National Railway company (SNCF) rebuild its 81-106 mph passenger rail & ridership levels quicker. France also had a population size similar to America’s Northeast Region.
France’s automotive companies influenced their government to fund a comprehensive Autoroute Tollway System. For safety, it has an 81 mph speed limit. When jet travel debuted in 1958, French aerospace companies influenced their government to enlarge & modernize airports.
To remain competitive with Autoroute Tollway and airports after 1965, SNCF and its French train-building partner, Alstom, launched R&D investment for test track and faster trains. By 1970, Alstom developed a gasoline-powered HST that showed promise above 140 mph.
By 1973, France had significant population density in Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, a high percentage of car-ownership, many commercial airports and plenty of regional flights. Though higher dependency on imported oil produced more expensive gasoline than in America, Parisians frequently drove south to Lyon. Others drove further south to Valence, Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes and Nice, causing Autoroute to clog on holidays. That year, the OPEC oil embargo crippled France’s economy, cut intercity driving and changed how the French would prioritize energy and passenger rail infrastructure.
To reduce foreign oil dependence, France built more nuclear power plants. Alstom and SNCF were persuaded to re-engineer the gasoline-powered HST to an electric-powered HST for electric railway. Paris and Lyon, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. By 1978, Paris expanded more electric-powered Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines to train stations. Lyon upgraded Commuter Rail lines and opened its first of several Metro Rail lines to the train station.
SNCF developed state-of-art HSR infrastructure called Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV). LGV has under/overpasses at every railroad crossing for train dependability and safety. It has premium track bedding for flatter rides and precisely shaved tracks for smooth rides. Unlike Japanese HSR, LGV had more short tunnels and more aerial viaducts for straighter route. Unlike European intercity trains using 1.5 kV and 3 kV from old electric power systems, a new 25 kV power system was built for LGV.
Alstom developed a state-of-art HST for a new government agency to operate on LGV. Since the HST was called “Train a Grande Vitesse”, the HST Operator became known as TGV. SNCF, Alstom & TGV designed an advanced train control system and a premium maintenance regimen to make TGV run safer and more dependable than flying or driving.
In 1981, 168 mph TGV service launched on LGV between Paris and Lyon. TGV immediately captured accolades as the world’s fastest train. For an advanced European nation that never built a substantial export market for cars, like Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Sweden did, the world’s fastest train evoked national pride in French citizens.
By 1988, Alstom upgraded engines for TGV to run at 186 mph, matching the speed rating of 1st Generation LGV. TGV frequency increased and Coach Fares lowered, inviting more travelers to switch from driving and flying. Paris and Lyon train stations that integrated TGV, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and Trams increased retail, hotel and tourism in their cities.
TGV success and national pride inspired French citizens to vote for LGV expansion. LGV expanded from Paris to LeMans and Paris to Tours in 1990 and from Paris to Lille in 1993. Travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening for Paris-Lille-London HSR service and LGV expansion south from Lyon to Valence in 1994. Paris-Lille-Brussels HSR service was on pace to open in 1995.
By 1993, the LGV System enabled TGV to achieve success in conditions most similar to Northeast America. French HSR was clearly the best HSR nation-model for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor HSR project.
President Clinton’s Lackluster Initiation of High Speed Rail
In 1993 Northeastern America, Interstate Highways 95 and 295 returned to 75 mph, but traffic congestion and tollway stations in NYC-Washington corridor segment limited drivers to 60 mph Average Speed. Even with 4 stops between NYC and Washington, Amtrak Metroliner averaged nearly 70 mph. That speed was competitive enough to prove that Americans would still ride intercity trains.
The Northeast region had higher Median Household Income and more business flyers than France. The Northeast Corridor had higher population density than Brussels-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseille corridor:
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – New Haven (500K) – NYC (17M) – Philly (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – DC (4M) = 34 Million Pop.
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseilles (2M) = 15 Million Pop.
President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reasoned that Northeast Corridor demographics were strong enough to produce a TGV-like success. To accelerate economic recovery in 1993, Clinton intended that a portion of stimulus funds upgrade the corridor for 165 mph HST. Amtrak’s first HST would run slower than 186 mph because unlike non-tilting TGV, it would tilt often on curvy New York and Connecticut railway. At the time, tilt-train technology was only certified up to 165 mph.
That top speed would still be reason for marketing hoopla in America. Amtrak HST was branded “Acela”, a portmanteau representing “Acceleration” and “Excellence.”
The American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Lobby), feared that successful Acela service would spark nationwide demand for HSR. Should a comprehensive Interstate HSR system be built, it would reduce oil consumption from intercity car drives, intercity bus rides, tire purchases, car rentals, concrete & asphalt sales for highway widening. The Aviation Lobby also feared loss of regional flights and less public funding for airport expansion.
The HSR threat motivated Aviation and Highway lobbies to fund think tanks whose editorial slant misled news media, Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures, Governors and citizens to believe that HSR projects cost too much. They convinced enough politicians that intercity passenger rail should be evaluated as for-profit ventures, rather than as infrastructure. As such, they wanted no further public funding for Amtrak infrastructure. Since the two lobbies prevented highways and airports from being evaluated as for-profit ventures, they wreaked with hypocrisy.
When negotiation dust settled between President Clinton and Congress, public funding Northeast Corridor HSR was limited to a fraction of its infrastructure need. Clinton’s USDOT mistakenly spread that funding over the 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor. Nor did President Clinton fight for more Northeast Corridor HSR funds when the economy improved over his 8-year administration.
When Acela launched in 2000, its 165 mph trains were hamstrung by inadequate infrastructure. In 17 miles of rural railway between Boston and Providence, parallel tracks remained too close for passing trains. For safety, speed there was limited to 150 mph. Another 60 miles in New Jersey and Maryland were partially upgraded to 135 mph. The remaining 365 miles of Northeast Corridor was well below the 124 mph international requirement for High Speed Rail.
Highway and Aviation lobbies called on think tanks to exploit Acela’s PR vulnerability. They issued a stream of articles and TV appearances to convince news media, politicians and citizens that no further Amtrak infrastructure should be public-funded. The result was predictable. News media complained that Acela failed to reach its speed promise without criticizing Congress for underfunding HSR infrastructure.
American railway is primarily owned by freight rail companies and to lesser degree by commuter transit agencies. Only the Northeast had two corridors owned by Amtrak. By federal law and contracts, freight rail companies and transit agencies lease track to Amtrak at low fees. In the Northeast, Amtrak does the same for freight rail companies and transit agencies. Much of Northeast Corridor has 4 tracks to make the separate bi-directional freight & commuter trains from bi-directional Amtrak trains. Amtrak was not funded to make Northeast Corridor completely 4-track for sustained higher speeds, more frequent trains and schedule dependability.
American railway is far worse outside the Northeast. Freight trains safely travel on 1 or 2 tracks in rural area at 60-80 mph. In urban areas, there are many places where autos, people and animals cross tracks, so freight trains slow to 30-40 mph. Freight rail operates well under those conditions. Commuter transit agencies want at least 2-tracks and more railway over/underpasses for higher speeds, dependability and safety. But they don’t have extra funds lying around.
Excluding Northeast Corridor, those shared railway infrastructure conditions limit Amtrak to 80, 60, 40 & 30 mph speeds, 1-4 roundtrip daily trains and undependable schedules.
New Opportunity For Interstate High Speed Rail in America
Not long after President Bush II arrived, he pounced on Amtrak’s slow speeds, infrequent trains and undependable schedules. He nearly killed Amtrak funding outside the Northeast.
Then, one global event caused business travelers to overlook Amtrak Acela’s shortcomings. After 9-11-2001, more travelers became irritated with security-check hassle for air travel. Amtrak did not hassle people before boarding trains. Business travelers appreciated Acela’s, legroom, wide seats & wide tray tables like First Class flights, but the fast boarding & unboarding, electric outlets, cafe cabin and any-time restroom access were better than flying. They also liked slightly shorter NYC-Washington travel time and higher schedule dependability without long taxi rides from airports to Central Business Districts.
Other non-business travelers also benefitted from less expensive train rides on the Northeast Corridor. Acela has a sibling HST with more intermediate stops called “Northeast Regional” that mostly travels 90-125 mph. Northeast Regional fares cost one half as much as Acela, making it perfect for Northeast college students and others on a tight budget.
Acela became so popular by 2006, that Amtrak increased Acela Business Class fares to match airline Business Class fares in the corridor. Northeast Regional fares remained competitive with airline Coach Class fares. To the surprise of critics, Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR services entered operating profit the same year.
By 2008, Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor upgraded from diesel-power to electric-power and from 80 mph and 6 daily roundtrips to 110 mph and 13 daily roundtrips. Keystone doubled ridership.
President Obama Kickstarts Interstate High Speed Rail Beyond Northeast Corridor
Sensing opportunity for similar success, 37 governors and more mayors adopted Amtrak-HSR upgrade plans. In his first months of office, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds for intercity passenger rail projects. States promised to commit smaller matching funds to complete projects. There was indisputable demand for better Amtrak-HSR service.
Over 2009-10, Obama could not convince Congress to meet that level of demand from states, but he was able to direct $15.5 billion of economic stimulus and normal USDOT funds towards Amtrak-HSR projects. California committed over $11 billion towards California HSR and Amtrak California projects. Several other states added $3 billion towards Amtrak projects. That $29.5 billion was America’s largest ever federal and state investment to intercity passenger rail.
America’s first black president was expanding the Interstate High Speed Rail System 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 the 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost taxpayers over $1.5 trillion, President Obama knew that $6.2 billion of previous Northeast Corridor investment and $29.5 billion of new investment was only a kickstart. He needed more help. By 2010, labor unions, infrastructure builders and Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. Since President Obama promised that his U.S. Transportation Proposal to Congress would also fix highways, automotive and freight trucking industries stopped their opposition. His USDOT would also fund HSR infrastructure for non-Amtrak projects that lease operations to private passenger train companies. That pleased some critics who want private companies to run trains.
In 2011, Obama U.S. Transportation Proposal included $53 billion/6 years for Amtrak-HSR projects. Based on previous interactions with state DOTs, Obama’s USDOT believed it would attract roughly $20 billion/6 years in state funding to Amtrak-HSR projects. By 2021, that $73 billion investment on top of $29.5 billion would open enough HSR lines for a broad swath of citizens to appreciate fast & frequent trains. Greater citizen demand would make it politically easier to increase federal funding to more Amtrak-HSR projects.
If that scale of federal funding was authorized, it would trigger 30-40% in matching state funds for more HSR projects across the country. Interstate HSR would create a legacy for President Obama similar to Interstate Highway for President Eisenhower. More important than legacy vanities, Americans needed jobs to emerge faster from the 2008 Great Recession. Since the U.S. Transportation Bill was coming up for congressional vote on funding, Obama believed timing was right to expand a comprehensive world-class Interstate HSR System. Unfortunately, he underestimated the power & influence of Coal, Oil & Gas industries.
Though coal was the largest fuel source to electric power plants, it is being replaced by natural gas, wind and solar fuel sources. Eight U.S. Senators hailed from the Coal States of Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming and Pennsylvania. To preserve coal-related jobs in their states, those senators are delaying the inevitable death of coal as long as possible.
Electric-powered transportation reduces oil consumption, but Oil & Gas is the richest industry in America. That industry uses its jobs, financial might and campaign funding for outsized influence with Congressmen in oil producing states. The quickest way for Congressman in those states to face stiff opposition next election, is to fund electric transportation infrastructure.
As they have for many decades, Coal, Oil & Gas industries colluded to maintain pressure on Congress to prevent/delay funding HSR and Rapid Transit projects. Despite President Obama’s annual proposals to expand Amtrak-HSR project funding, a majority of Congress would not budge.
Government & Highway Lobby Crippled America’s Transportation Alternatives
In summary, Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced federal & state governments to lavishly fund highway and airports. The same lobbies convinced Congress to cripple Amtrak funding, despite Presidents Carter, Clinton & Obama wanting to build a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System. As a result, America’s airports and interstate highways are overstressed, producing more air pollution and a Traffic Congestion Tax on every American.
In the next part of this narrative series, see how Global Competitors are developing HSR for massive 21st century benefits that America misses.