Interstate High Speed Rail
Since the 1830s, American private industry and taxpayers have built a seaport-to-freight rail network that lowered America’s shipping costs for economic advantage over every other nation. Since 1955, American taxpayers have funded a $1.6 trillion Interstate Highway System and a $500 billion Federal Aviation System that multiplied leisure travel and moved people & goods more efficiently, continuing our global economic advantage. In the 21st century, most employment in advanced nations has shifted to Knowledge Workers who use mobile devices. Other advanced nations are building high speed rail and rapid transit systems that boost Knowledge Worker productivity and leisure travel. They are also building great airport, highway and seaport-to-freight rail networks. Given our wealth, penchant for leisure travel and high percentage of Knowledge Workers, why has America under-built high speed rail and rapid transit systems?
Entering the 21st century, America had 22,000 miles of intercity rail used by freight companies, transit agencies and Amtrak. Our seaport-to-freight rail and freight truck network using the Interstate Highway System was envied by the world. We graduated the most civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, architects and urban planners to build things. In terms of wealth measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), America was the world’s richest country. Its average Household Income only trailed lightly populated, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
Prior to 2009, our federal government invested only $4.3 billion to partially upgrade the 456-mile Northeast Corridor rail corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere on our rail network. As our passenger rail network became slow and unattractive, the Interstate Highway System became overburdened with solo-drivers and our airports became congested with regional (sub-500 mile) flights. This condition did not wholly result from normal market events. It materialized because well-funded passenger rail opponents misled Congress and Presidents to enact federal policy that disadvantaged passenger rail. It continued because passenger rail opponents misled news media to believe that:
• Upgrading Northeast Corridor to world-class High Speed Rail (HSR) is not cost-justifiable
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough population density to justify HSR
• We don’t need HSR because Americans prefer regional flights
• We don’t need HSR because widening freeways 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 HSR enough to pass informed judgment requires more than TV soundbites or an occasional news article. A brief intellectual journey is required to understand why America should upgrade 7 key mega-regions to HSR-status by 2030 and form an 11,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then 17,000 miles by 2050.
This series focuses on modern passenger rail, yet begins with the glory days of intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars for underlying context. To better understand why modern passenger rail in America sucks compared to other advanced nations, spend a few minutes reviewing the summary of American Passenger Rail History linked below.
Now, let’s resume at HSR development in other parts of the world that influenced America to upgrade a Northeast Corridor passenger route to HSR status.
Highways and railways between the major cities of Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. Other than military bases in Pearl Harbor, no one bombed America. So our infrastructure was intact. In April 1945, the war in Europe ended. In September 1945, the war in Japan ended. By 1946, Japan and Europe started infrastructure rebuilds. The European rebuild was helped by America’s generous Marshall Plan largely to prevent the spread of communism. American military occupation of Japan necessitated the rebuilding of infrastructure and reformation of their government into a democracy.
Which Nation Should Be America’s High Speed Rail Model
Once American Occupation ended in 1952, the densely populated island nation of Japan entered a new energy future with less dependence on oil. Japan focused on nuclear power plants to generate electricity and a system of narrow intercity tollways & intracity freeways whose speed limit became 62 mph (100 kph). Lower speed limits and high gasoline prices discouraged excessive gasoline consumption. Japan rebuilt its freight rail network, but placed more emphasis on intercity passenger rail. It used space cleared by bombing to ease many sharp rail curves. Rapid transit was expanded in Tokyo and Osaka, then added to other large cities. In the 1950s, no electric trains ran faster than 110 mph. Japan’s early R&D investment in electric motors paid off with more powerful engines. when it opened the world’s first electric-powered HSR line during the 1964 Summer Olympics. Top speed reached 130 mph (210 kph) over a distance of 320 miles (515 km) with over/underpasses at each railroad crossing between Tokyo and Osaka.
When intercity passenger rail returned to Europe shortly after World War II, their diesel-powered trains ran up to 112 mph (180 kph), but slowed at railroad crossings. Between 1968-71, Italian, French and West German railway companies started R&D for electric-powered trains to understand technical requirements for higher speeds. Each would have challenges building their first HSR lines. Since Italian, French and West German population density, democratic form of government, labor rights and property rights were more similar to America than Japan, one of them would be a model for Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR.
Italy had modest population density, modest average Household Income, modest car ownership and a fair number of regional flights between Rome and Florence. It had to import most of its oil. It had a Autostrade Tollway System with 81 mph (130 kph) speed limit. People loved Autostrade because that limit is often exceeded when the road expands from 4 to 6 lanes. To begin attracting solo-drivers from Autostrade in 1979, Italy opened the first electric-powered 155 mph (250 kph) HSR line in Europe. Its development between Rome and Florence however, was plagued with cost over-runs and severe maintenance issues until 1986. Airports in Rome and Florence were not as congested at the time. Both factors dampened HSR ability to attract patrons who would otherwise fly between Rome and Florence until 1990 or so. Hence, Italy would not be a good HSR model for America.
West Germany had significant population density, high average Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. It had to import most of its oil. The renown Autobahn Tollway System has Advisory Speeds of 93-99 mph (150-160 kph) in its 4-lane portion — 70% of the system. On the other 30% of Autobahn consisting of 6-lanes, people are known to drive up to 199 mph (320 kph) in the left lane. West Germany’s electric-powered HSR initiatives were promising, but commercial implementation was delayed by public lawsuits and the difficult process leading to West & East Germany Reunification in 1990. Since Germany’s first HSR line opened in 1991, if was not a well proven HSR model for America.
France had significant population density, high average Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. It had to import most of its oil. Autoroute Tollway System permits up to 81 mph (130 kph) on 4 to 6 lanes. In 1954, abandonment of colonial wars in Southeast Asia allowed the French to divert more taxes to infrastructure. That allowed France to build more nuclear power plants for abundant electric energy. Other factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line.
The French absorbed many technical and business lessons from Japanese Shinkansen. Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart without a mountain range that would require lengthy tunneling. Significant demand was present because Autoroute often clogged in the Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor and Paris had a busy train station headed south to Lyon. The French railway system owned substantial straight rights-of-way between Paris and Lyon. Downtown Lyon had a former defense plant with rail yard that was readily convertible to a train station with run-thru tracks to southern and eastern France. Paris had a large Metro system and Lyon opened its Metro system in 1978 – both fed riders to train stations. From Shinkansen and homegrown studies, the French railway engineers knew they would need aerodynamic trains, high-speed signaling, high-voltage power systems, complete fencing, and under/overpasses at every roadway crossing. The French also knew they would need durable overhead wires transmitting electricity to train engines, welded rail for smoother rides, urban sound walls, better track maintenance and better track security.
With that combination of assets, the French railway designed Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) to be dedicated for Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) and similar high speed trains. For higher speeds, LGV would require straiter track for higher speeds, more track leveling to minimize vibration and LGV stations would be further apart than slower trains so they could maintain high speed longer. Only lighter weight, high speed trains would run on LGV and track maintenance would be more stringent to ensure safety and sustain a smooth ride.
In 1981, electric-powered 162 mph (260 kph) TGV service started between Paris and Lyon. Though Shinkansen had climbed to 137 mph (220 kph), the TGV was 25 mph faster and captured global imagination. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, larger crowds in LGV stations invited more restaurants, lounges, coffeehouses, gift shops and business services to create a pleasant experience for passengers and business meetings. Fatigued Autoroute solo-drivers welcomed shorter travel time between Paris and Lyon. Regional flights and solo-drives between Paris and Lyon reduced shortly after TGV opened.
By 1988, large numbers of regional flights in Western Europe were congesting international airports. 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 or shuttle to CBD ballooned travel time for regional flights from 2 hours to 3 hours. At the same time, TGV engine, wheel, braking and signaling systems were upgraded to 186 mph (300 kph) and train frequency increased. LGV expanded north from Paris to Lille and south from Lyon to Valence. TGV Coach Fares lowered. More travelers switched from Autoroute and regional flights in the corridor as people preferred TGV over those shorter distances.
By 1993, LGV routes opened from Paris to Tours, from Paris to LeMans, from Lille to Brussels and from Lyon to Valence. The French and Belgians discovered that Central Business District HSR stations integrated with Metrorail, Trams (Light Rail), tourbuses and taxi depots increased surrounding hotels and tourism. Business and leisure travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening in 1994 for Paris-Lille-London, Paris-Lille-Brussels and London-Lille-Brussels HSR service. LGV construction was underway from Valence to Marseilles on the Mediterranean Coast.
Combined with a spotless safety record, French HSR had proven operating success in conditions more similar to those in America.
Bill Clinton Funded America’s First High Speed Rail
In America by 1993, Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 60-80 mph. Factoring in many toll stations in Boston-Washington corridor, drivers averaged 55-60 mph. Given American preference for driving highways, Amtrak Northeast Corridor would need significantly faster speeds to attract solo-drivers. So the Clinton Administration referenced TGV as the model for Amtrak HSR.
Average American income levels were about 40% higher than France. Clinton’s USDOT further reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR would attract substantial ridership due to its favorable population density:
Corridor Distances & Major Metro Area Populations (millions) When HSR Began
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.
Emerging from economic recession in 1993, President Clinton announced economic stimulus funds to upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR from 110 mph to 165 mph. The latter speed was lower than 186 mph French TGV because Amtrak trains would need to tilt slightly and often in the NYC-Boston corridor.
In an Auto & Jet Age when oil was cheap & plentiful in America, a majority of Congress wasn’t feeling it. Some believed Americans preferred to drive, so widen the highways. Others in Congress believed Americans preferred regional flights, so expand airports. Others in Congress perceived it to be another federal-funded Northeast-only initiative, like the over-budget “Big Dig” in Boston. Powerful opponents, fearful that it would reduce flights, car rentals, Greyhound bus rides, highway widening and oil consumption, lobbied Congress not to fund it. For those and other reasons, Congress approved a petty fraction of what Northeast Corridor needed for world-class HSR.
Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments about how Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) funding would be dispersed. The limited funds were spent on 18 HSR miles south of Boston to Rhode Island, with the rest sprinkled across the other 438 miles of Northeast Corridor. More money was also wasted on expensive MagLev studies. An unpleasant surprise was that FRA safety regulators would also limit those 18 miles to 150 mph because their parallel tracks were too close when freight trains passed Amtrak trains.
In return for Northeast Corridor HSR funding, Congress forced Amtrak to maintain once-daily slow trains through rural districts and states at an operating loss. In 2005, President George W. Bush pounced on those mistakes and tried to kill most Amtrak funding. Only Acela and other Northeast passenger trains were spared from his threat. Read the backstory on Acela by clicking on the link below.
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 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 is plagued with Slow Zones that limit Amtrak to:
• old bridges, tunnels, track and signaling systems designed for 59-79 mph top speed
• excessively curvy & bumpy tracks shared with freight and commuter trains
• federal regulation requiring heavy locomotives that slow acceleration and stopping
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track for many routes
• Only 1 to 7 daily trains
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
Despite all the speed & frequency-limiting compromises, a positive narrative emerged by 2006. Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains entered operating profit due to shorter travel times, over 20 round-trip trains per day, better on-time performance than flights, comfortable seats, city center-to-city center convenience and electric outlets that enhanced knowledge worker productivity. Observing that financial milestone, Congress and governors funded small Amtrak projects proposed by Pennsylvania and California Departments of Transportation to improve their Conventional Rail routes.
Electric-powered Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 79 mph and 6 daily trains to 110 mph and 13 daily trains. The speed and frequency boost attracted so many new patrons that Keystone operating budget is approaching break-even. Diesel-powered Amtrak Capital Corridor between San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento increased to 16 daily trains and log stretches of 90 mph. More 90-110 mph, train frequency and safety upgrades are coming that will also drive Amtrak Pacific Surfliner ridership upwards too.
On the heels of patronage growth in Amtrak California routes, California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to 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 FRA funding was far smaller than hoped, so governors and mayors would be underwhelmed or disappointed.
To his credit, President Obama directed $8 billion of economic stimulus funds and Congress added $2.5 billion of FRA funding towards passenger rail projects. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog and need for more trains to increase schedule frequencies, Obama directed another $5 billion of economic stimulus funds over 5 years. Over 2009-11, 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 several governors is modestly paying off. Slow Zones were reduced in the New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. More daily trains were added. Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy declined.
An inflation-adjusted $226 billion was required to kickstart the 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System, so President Obama knew that $18.5 billion, plus the previous $4.3 billion Northeast Corridor investment, was insufficient to build an Interstate HSR System. He envisioned larger federal funding to attract more state, local and private funding for HSR projects. He wanted 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 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 industry 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 the expansion of Interstate High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit and the repair of Interstate Highways. What happened?
Oil & natural gas, tire, Greyhound and car rental companies in the Highway Lobby remained mortal enemies to electric-powered HSR and Rapid Transit. Their powerful political influence is why:
• Intercity/Interstate High Speed Rail projects can’t get federal funding levels like highways & airports
• Though Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati is a 20-million person corridor, it has no HSR construction
• Florida turned down federal grants and private funds for an electric-powered 186 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 and Losers
Considering that federal, state and local governments ripped out Streetcars instead of conversion to Rapid Transit, lavishly funded International Airports and Interstate Highways, and over-regulated Intercity Passenger Rail without upgrading it, the failures to fund HSR before 2009 and after 2011 were predictable. Our Global Economic Competitors made High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit a multi-generational commitment. See how far behind America has fallen in the next article.