Interstate High Speed Rail
Since 1955, American taxpayers have funded a $1.5 trillion Interstate Highway System and a $500 billion Federal Aviation System. Despite our railroad legacy and status as the richest nation on Earth, America has not built an Interstate High Speed Rail System and we’ve under-built rail-based Rapid Transit systems in large cities. Since 1993, most advanced nations are building or optimizing airport, highway, high speed rail, rapid transit, buses and bike paths in a balanced transportation network. Why hasn’t America added a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System?
It is no accident that America lacks a world-class Interstate High Speed Rail System. Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $4.3 billion to partially upgrade 456-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor to a mediocre combination of Conventional Rail and High Speed Rail. For the other 22,000 miles used by Amtrak, an outrageously low $1 billion was invested because HSR opponents mislead news media, Congress and some Presidents to believe that:
• Upgrading Northeast Corridor to world-class High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable
• Outside the Northeast, America doesn’t have enough population density to justify High Speed Rail
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans prefer short flights
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening Interstate & State Highways solves highway congestion
Opponents would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding Interstate High Speed Rail enough to pass informed judgment requires more than TV soundbites or an occasional news article. A brief intellectual journey is required to understand why we should build at least 11,000 miles of Interstate High Speed Rail.
This series examines High Speed Rail (HSR) and complimentary Rapid Transit, yet begins with the glory days of intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars. To better understand why our passenger rail infrastructure sucks compared to other advanced nations, spend a few minutes reviewing this summary of American passenger rail history.
Assuming you read the summary or know that part of American history, which produced anti-passenger rail forces, let’s resume at the development of European HSR, leading to President Clinton’s decision to build a HSR line.
Which Nation Should Be America’s High Speed Rail Model
Railroad bridges between the major cities of Europe were bombed and sabotaged during World War II or simply inadequate for higher speeds. When the European theater of World War II ended in May 1945, they started highway & bridge rebuilds and returned citizen land rights. Though infrequent, European passenger rail returned. Having too many road crossings, curves and station stops, their average speed was no match for personal driving 2-4 hours on European highways. To combat highway congestion, Italy, France and Germany started HSR initiatives in the 1970s, like Japan HSR opened in 1964.
France and West Germany (before Germany reunification) had a democratic government, population density, strong citizen land rights, economic and terrain conditions most similar to America. Though Germany’s HSR initiatives were promising, they were delayed nearly a decade by lawsuits. Hence, French HSR earns closer examination.
Paris dominates France, like New York City dominates the Northeast. Though France never owned vast oil fields for cheap gasoline & diesel fuel, it obtained North Africa/Middle East oil and built many nuclear power plants. Abundant energy allowed French industry and commerce to produce good average income levels by 1970. French “Car Culture” was amplified by automotive industries prodding government to expand the 81 mph-Autoroute tollway system across a country the size of Texas. France also had a large aerospace industry urging government to expand international airports.
When French HSR planning started in 1971, 54 million French citizens had a strong say in land-takings. A large group of protesters could overturn Imminent Domain for any transportation project. Pressure was on to make the first HSR route a success because future HSR routes were at stake. In 1971, several factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line, despite Paris-Lyon corridor not having the population density of Tokyo-Osaka corridor.
Sparked by Japan introducing 130 mph (210 kph) HSR in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, French and German railway companies started experimenting with 130 mph and higher rail lines to understand the technical requirements for higher speed. Once German railway companies got to public outreach and environmental studies, major lawsuits held them back.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart without a mountain range that would require expensive tunnels. France learned many technical and business details studying Japan’s HSR system before designing Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) to support Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) trains. Autoroute has toll roads between most large cities in France, including the curvy Paris-Lyon Autoroute corridor. As an alternative to the toll & fuel costs of driving, a large percentage of French travelers rode 99 mph (160 kph) intercity passenger rail at competitive fares. Paris has several train stations, including one for southbound trains to Lyon. Lyon had a former Defense plant convertible to a central train station with run-thru tracks to southern and eastern France. Paris had a very large Metro system. Lyon opened its Metro system in 1978. Both would compliment TGV ridership by feeding Metro Rail riders to train stations.
For intercity passenger rail faster than conventional speeds, the French railway company knew LGV would require straighter tracks, grade separations from every road, complete fencing, new overhead electrical wires, and high-speed signaling. The French railway system also owned substantial track rights-of-way between both cities and most of it was straight enough to support higher top speeds. They made operational decisions to only run lighter weight, high speed trains on LGV and that most TGV stations would be at least 70 miles apart for higher average speed. By 1980, there was pent-up demand for faster intercity passenger rail because Autoroute clogged in the Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor during summer, weekends and holidays.
When electric-powered 162 mph (260 kph) TGV opened between Paris and Lyon in 1981, the world took notice. Threatened by that TGV success story, Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured French government to make TGV prove operating success before LGV expansion. Success came quickly. The absence of diesel fumes from electric-powered trains in TGV stations invited restaurants, cafes, gift shops and service providers to create a pleasant all-season station experience. Fatigued Autoroute drivers welcomed the comfortable travel experiences, coupled with shorter travel time between central Paris and central Lyon. Regional flights between Paris and Lyon reduced.
By 1988, TGV engines, wheels, electrical and signaling systems were upgraded to support 186 mph (300 kph) top speed, thereby producing 120 mph average speed. Train frequency increased and LGV construction expanded north from Paris and south from Lyon. TGV Coach fares lowered, enticing more leisure travelers to switch from Autoroute and Paris-Lyon flights. Other regional (sub-500 mile) flights congested international airports more than long-distance flights. A drive to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, runway taxi, flight, runway taxi, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi to local destinations ballooned total travel time for regional flights from 2 hours to 3 hours.
To combat Autoroute and airport congestion by 1993, TGV routes opened north from Paris to Lille, Tours, LeMans and Brussels and south from Lyon to Valence, with LGV pre-construction work to Marseilles underway. The French and Belgians discovered that Central Business District HSR stations integrated with Metrorail, Trams (Light Rail), tourbuses and new/upgraded hotels surrounding HSR stations helped tourism in most HSR station cities. Business and leisure travel anticipation was building for the Channel Tunnel enabling Paris-Lille-London and London-Lille-Brussels HSR service to begin in 1994.
Bill Clinton Funded America’s First Interstate High Speed Rail Route
By 1993, U.S. Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph. Factoring in stops and toll stations in Boston-Washington corridor, drivers averaged 60 mph. Given American preference for intercity driving up to 3-4 hours, Amtrak Northeast Corridor would need significantly faster speeds to attract more passengers. President Clinton’s U.S. Department Of Transportation (USDOT) reasoned that 165 mph top speed was needed to impress the news media, public and Congress. For marketing purposes, the Clinton Administration referenced TGV as the model for Amtrak High Speed Rail.
Compared to the French-Belgian HSR corridor in 1993, population size, density and income was higher in the Northeast Corridor. Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR ridership forecasts could perform well, despite Americans being auto-centric:
523 Miles: Brussels (<1M) - Lille (<1M) - Paris (9M) - Lyon (<2M) - Valence (<1M) - Marseilles (2M)
456 Miles: Boston (5M) – NYC/Newark (17M) – Philadelphia (6M) – Baltimore (2.5M) – Washington (4M)
Emerging from economic recession, President Clinton would allocate economic stimulus funds to upgrade Northeast Corridor for 165 mph top speed. Unfortunately, Congress approved a fraction of what 456-mile Northeast Corridor needed. Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments with that funding. Instead of focusing the reduced funding on 150 miles of cheaper-to-upgrade Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore segment for an exciting 165 mph proof-point, funds were spent on 18 miles of HSR south of Boston, with the rest sprinkled across the other 438 miles of Northeast Corridor and wasted on expensive MagLev studies. Safety regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration also had to reduce those 18 miles to 150 mph top speed because parallel tracks in that part of the Northeast Corridor were too close for passing freight trains.
In return for Northeast Corridor HSR funding, Congress forced Amtrak to maintain once-daily slow trains through more rural districts and states. They of course, ran at an operating loss, further crippling Amtrak’s finances and desire for a brand emphasizing faster speed. President George W. Bush pounced on those mistakes and tried to kill all Amtrak lines outside the Northeast Corridor. Read the backstory of how Amtrak Acela became a political football and remained a federal funding orphan at:
NET: Amtrak Acela was too underfunded to meet TGV speed and frequency expectations.
New Opportunity To Build An Interstate High Speed Rail System
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. Outside the Northeast Corridor, intercity passenger rail was plagued with “Slow Zones” that limit Amtrak to:
• old bridges, tunnels, track & signaling systems designed for 59-110 mph top speed
• excessively curvy & bumpy tracks shared with freight and commuter trains
• federal regulation requiring heavy locomotives that slow acceleration & stopping
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track for many routes
• 1 to 6 daily trains
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
Though Northeast Corridor HSR is mediocre by world standards, a positive narrative emerged in 2006. Northeast Corridor trains entered operating profit. Congressmen and governors funded small, but important Amtrak projects proposed by Pennsylvania and California Departments of Transportation (DOT) to increase speed and train frequency of Conventional Rail routes serving Amtrak patrons.
Electric-powered Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph & 6 daily trains to 110 mph and 13 daily trains. The speed and frequency boost attracted so many new patrons that operating budget is approaching break-even. Diesel-powered Amtrak Surfliner in Los Angeles-San Diego route reached 90 mph in some places and 16 daily trains, with more speed upgrades that will drive it to operating profit.
On the heels of patronage growth in three Amtrak California corridors, California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to help kickstart a world-class HSR system. The Institute for Civil Engineers and the well-respected Brookings Institution also agreed that America needs an Interstate High Speed Rail System.
President Obama Energizes Interstate High Speed Rail
Sensing opportunity for a transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted HSR and Conventional Rail upgrade projects. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications for $57 billion of federal funds for intercity passenger rail projects. Economic stimulus approved by Congress and normal Federal Railroad funding was far smaller than hoped, so most governors and mayors would be underwhelmed or disappointed.
To his credit however, President Obama directed $8 billion and Congress added $2.5 billion towards HSR and Conventional Rail upgrade projects. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog and need for new trains to increase service frequency, Obama directed another $5 billion over 5 years. Over 2009-10, several states added $3 billion towards Amtrak and California HSR projects. America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, energized the building of 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.
The $18.5 billion investment by Obama, Congress and governors is modestly paying off. Slow Zones were reduced in the Northeast Corridor, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine. Due to growing patronage on upgraded routes and trains, Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy declined.
An inflation-adjusted $226 billion only kickstarted the 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System, so President Obama was knew that $18.5 billion (plus previous $4.3 billion Northeast Corridor investment) was insufficient build a robust Interstate HSR System. He envisioned larger federal funding to attract larger state funding for more HSR projects with a USDOT plan gluing them together in service to 80% of Americans by 2035. If successful, President Obama would create a transportation legacy similar to President Eisenhower — who deserves most credit for the Interstate Highway System.
More important than legacy vanities, America desperately needed jobs emerging from the Great Recession. U.S. and state Chambers of Commerce warmed to High Speed Rail. Automotive and most airline companies stopped their vocal opposition to HSR. The multi-year Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for vote in summer 2010. President Obama believed timing was right to fund expand Interstate High Speed Rail, expand Rapid Transit and repair Interstate Highways. What happened?
Oil, natural gas, Greyhound and car rental companies in the Highway Lobby remain arch-rivals to electric-powered HSR and Rapid Transit. Their powerful political influence is why:
• California HSR and Northeast Corridor HSR projects can’t get federal funding like highways or airports
• Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit Amtrak projects are under-scoped to 110 mph
• No Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati HSR construction is underway
• No Houston-Dallas-Fort Worth HSR construction is underway
• Florida turned down federal grants & private funds for a 185 mph HSR system
There’s more insight about the political obstacles of future HSR and Rapid Transit funding at the end of this series.
SUMMARY: Our Government Picked Winners & Losers
At this juncture, its sufficient to know that an insidious timeline of passenger rail destruction was complete by 1964. Federal and state governments lavishly funded International Airports and Interstate Highways, but no funding for Streetcar conversions to Rapid Transit, nor for railroad underpasses/overpasses that would let passenger trains safely retain higher speeds. The absence of good intercity passenger rail and complimentary rapid transit, not “Car Culture”, is why most Americans drive between big cities in dense population corridors.
Though President Obama energized Interstate High Speed Rail for a few years, our Global Economic Competitors made High Speed Rail and complimentary Rapid Transit a continuous priority for decades.