Interstate High Speed Rail
Taxpayers funded an Interstate Highway System, aviation and seaport network. Private industry built a comprehensive freight rail network, partially shared with Amtrak and commuter rail. Together, they established America’s global transportation advantage last century. Today, jobs in advanced nations are shifting to Knowledge Workers who need shorter, more productive use of travel times within & between cities. Recognizing the importance of Knowledge Workers, why has America under-built rapid transit and intercity passenger rail compared to other advanced nations?
America is still the world’s richest country and has 22,000 miles of intercity rail shared by freight rail companies, commuter rail agencies and Amtrak that can be improved at lower cost than new railway. But unlike other advanced nations, railway used by Amtrak was never properly funded for good passenger service. Prior to 2009, our federal government invested only $4.3 billion to partially upgrade the 457-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere on railway used by Amtrak. That’s like giving one thirsty person a small cup of water, then asking 100 other thirsty people to sip from one cup of water.
Since Amtrak travel times and train frequency are not a viable alternative for most Americans, the Interstate Highway System became overburdened with drivers and our large airports are congested due to excessive regional flights.
American travel mode preferences did not result from normal market events. They materialized because well-funded opponents misled news media, citizens, Congress and Presidents to enact federal policy that crippled all passenger rail. Opposition began in 1932 with the American Highway Users Alliance. Passenger rail opponents still mislead news media, citizens, governors, many in Congress and some Presidents to believe that:
• High Speed Rail (HSR) is not cost-justifiable in America
• We don’t need HSR because Americans prefer regional flights
• We don’t need HSR because widening freeways solves highway congestion
Though fewer industries oppose HSR today, remaining opponents are powerful and determined. Opponents would have news media, citizens and politicians believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. The following video exaggerates when it suggests the U.S. has no High Speed Rail, but includes many important truths.
Understanding Interstate HSR enough to pass informed judgment requires more than short TV videos or occasional news articles that lack context. A brief intellectual journey is required to understand why America should have HSR operating in 19 states & DC by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a 20,000-mile Interstate HSR system by 2050. Better Rapid Transit and Conventional Rail must connect to HSR at train stations.
To better appreciate the work ahead, this narrative series begins with the glory days of train stations, intercity passenger rail, el-trains, subways and streetcars. That underlying context helps readers understand why America’s passenger rail service, once the world’s greatest, is now lame compared to other advanced nations. Spend a minute reviewing the American Passenger Rail History link below.
Let’s resume at conditions leading to HSR development in other advanced nations. Railways, factories and offices in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. The war ended April 1945 in Europe and September 1945 in Japan and China. 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 elsewhere. 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.
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 due to near complete dependence on imported oil. Leaders of that densely-populated island nation focused on nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Its large cities expanded electric-powered rapid transit and streetcar systems. Japan leaders also built a tollway & freeway system that is narrow with a 62 mph speed limit. It discouraged excessive driving.
Japan also converted most diesel-powered trains in its intercity passenger rail system to electric-powered 90-100 mph trains. Japan used space cleared by bombing to ease sharp curves and build over/underpasses at each railroad crossing between its two megacities, Tokyo and Osaka. Japan’s R&D investment in electric motors paid off with more powerful train engines to open the world’s first HSR line during the 1964 Summer Olympics. Top speed reached 130 mph over 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka.
When intercity passenger rail returned to Europe after World War II, their diesel-powered trains also ran 90-100 mph. Like Japan, Western European nations started building more railroad over/underpasses and paid higher prices for gasoline. Between 1968-71, Italian, French and West German railway companies started R&D for their electric-powered trains to achieve higher speeds.
Japan’s ultra-population density, rapid transit & passenger train culture, lower percentage of oil consumption and slower highway speeds were too dissimilar from America to be a planning model for Amtrak’s HSR project. So the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) examined Italy, West Germany and France to determine which of them would be a model for Amtrak’s HSR project in the Northeast Corridor.
Italy had modest population density, half of America’s Median Household Income, modest car ownership and a fair number of regional flights between Rome and Florence. It had to import most of its oil. Italy had a Autostrade Tollway System with 81 mph speed limit that drivers often exceeded. To begin attracting solo-drivers from Autostrade in 1979, Italy opened the first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line in Europe. Unfortunately, the line between Rome and Florence was plagued with cost over-runs and maintenance issues until 1986. Airports in Rome and Florence were not as congested at the time. Both factors dampened Italian HSR’s ability to attract patrons who would otherwise fly. Hence, Italian HSR would not be a good HSR model for America.
West Germany had significant population density, about 80% of America’s Median Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. It had to import most of its oil. The Autobahn Tollway System has Advisory Speeds of 93-99 mph in its 4-lane portion, which is 70% of the system. The other 30% of Autobahn consisting of 6-lanes, does not have a speed limit in the left lane. Hamburg, Munich and Nuremberg had rapid transit systems to trains stations. West Germany’s electric-powered HSR initiatives were promising. Implementation however, was delayed by public lawsuits and the difficult political process leading to reunification of West & East Germany in 1990. Since Germany’s first HSR line opened in 1991, it was not a well-proven commercial HSR model for America.
France had significant population density, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, high car ownership and plenty of regional flights. In 1954, abandonment of colonial wars in Southeast Asia allowed the French to divert more taxes to domestic transportation infrastructure and build more nuclear power plants for electric energy — which powered passenger rail. Autoroute Tollway System permitted 81 mph on 4 to 6 lanes that drivers often exceeded. The only challenges to overcome were its thriving automotive and commercial aviation industry.
Other factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line. A preponderance of imported oil made gasoline prices high and solo-driving more expensive. Autoroute often clogged in the Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor. The was already intercity passenger rail between Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, only 274 miles apart. Without a mountain range between Paris and Lyon, lengthy and expensive railway tunneling was not required. Paris had a busy train station headed south to Lyon. Lyon had a former defense plant with rail yard convertible to a train station with run-thru tracks to southern France. Paris had large & popular Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems. Lyon had popular Commuter Rail and Tram systems, and Metro Rail system that began in 1978. Expansive bus and rapid transit systems in both metro areas fed riders to train stations.
With that combination of factors, French railway engineers designed and craftsmen built Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) for Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) that had all railway separated from roadway via under/overpasses. For higher speeds, LGV routes would require even straiter track, more track leveling to minimize vibration and smooth rides. LGV stations would be further apart for higher average speed between cities. Only light weight, high speed trains would run on LGV and track maintenance regimen would be more stringent.
In 1981, electric-powered 168 mph TGV service started between Paris and Lyon. Though Japan’s Shinkansen climbed to 155 mph by then, the faster TGV captured global imagination. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, crowds gathered in train station restaurants, lounges, coffeehouses, gift shops and conference rooms, creating a pleasant experience for travelers and business meetings. Regional flights between Paris and Lyon dropped shortly after TGV opened. A number of Autoroute solo-drivers welcomed shorter travel time between Paris and Lyon too.
By 1988, increasing regional flights in other corridors of Western Europe were congesting large 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 Central Business District ballooned regional flight travel times from 2 hours to 3 hours. TGV engine, wheel and signaling systems were upgraded to support 186 mph and higher train frequency. LGV track expanded north from Paris to Lille and south from Lyon to Valence. TGV Coach Fares lowered. Noticeably more drivers switched from Autoroute to TGV in the corridor.
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 Metro Rail, Light Rail, tourbuses and taxi depots increased surrounding hotels and tourism. Business and leisure travelers anxiously awaited 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 brilliant safety record, French HSR had proven operating success in conditions closer 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 toll stations in Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, drivers averaged 55-60 mph. Given America’s preference for driving highways, Amtrak Northeast Corridor would need significantly faster speeds to attract solo-drivers. So the Clinton Administration referenced French TGV as the model for Amtrak HSR.
Given America’s higher Median Household Income than France, existing train ridership and higher population density in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that the first Amtrak HSR project would attract substantial ridership:
Corridor Distances & 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.
To speed emergence from economic recession, in 1993, Clinton Administration announced that stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR from 110 mph to 165 mph. The latter speed was lower than 186 mph TGV because Amtrak trains would need to tilt often in the NYC-Boston corridor segment.
In an age when oil was cheap & plentiful in America, most news media, citizens and a majority of Congress weren’t feeling it. Some believed Americans preferred to drive, so widen the highways. Others believed Americans preferred regional flights. Many in Congress perceived it to be another federal-funded Northeast-only initiative, like the over-budget “Big Dig” in Boston. Powerful opponents in the American Highway Users Alliance, fearful that it would reduce oil consumption, regional flights, car rentals, Greyhound bus rides, tire purchases and highway widening, lobbied Congress not to fund it. Congress approved a petty fraction of what Northeast Corridor needed.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in Clinton’s USDOT also made critical misjudgments about how its funding would be dispersed. The limited funds were spent building only 18 high-speed miles south of Boston to Rhode Island, with the rest sprinkled across 439 miles of Northeast Corridor. An unpleasant surprise was that FRA safety regulators would reduce those 18 miles from 165 mph down to 150 mph because their tracks were too close to parallel tracks used by freight trains. Furthermore during 8 years of the Clinton ASAdministration, nearly $1 billion was wasted studying MagLev — a technology unproven in commercial operation.
In return for Northeast Corridor HSR funding, Congress forced Amtrak to maintain 1 or 2 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 the Northeast Corridor was 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 rail companies and to a lesser degree, by commuter transit agencies. By law, freight rail companies and commuter transit agencies lease Amtrak access to their tracks. Since leasing fees are relatively low and freight trains rarely exceed 59 mph and never exceed 79 mph, freight rail companies have no incentive to upgrade railway for high speed. Nor do commuter 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 49-59-79 mph
• excessively curvy & bumpy tracks shared with freight and commuter trains
• federal regulation requiring heavy locomotives that slow acceleration & deceleration
• trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track for many routes
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
Despite shortcomings, one positive narrative emerged by 2006. Amtrak Northeast Corridor entered operating profit due to shorter travel times, 30 round-trip trains per day, better on-time performance than flights, comfortable seats, city center-to-city center convenience, electric outlets and WiFi that enhanced Knowledge Worker productivity and travel comfort. Riding Amtrak was less hassle than flying in the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 79 mph and 6 daily diesel-powered trains to 110 mph and 13 daily electric-powered 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 15 daily round-trips, though limited to 49-79 mph speeds. Diesel-powered Amtrak Pacific Surfliner increased to 12 daily round-trips, though limited to 49-90 mph speeds.
On the heels of patronage growth in Amtrak California routes, California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure to kickstart a world-class HSR system and improve California Amtrak.
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. Unfortunately, Congressionally approved economic stimulus funding for the FRA was smaller than hoped.
To his credit, President Obama directed $8 billion of economic stimulus funds and Congress added $2.5 billion of FRA funding towards intercity passenger rail projects. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, increase train frequency and capacity, Obama directed another $5 billion of economic stimulus funds over 5 years. Over 2009-10, several states added $3 billion towards Amtrak 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 combined $18.5 billion federal and state investment modestly paid off. Slow Zones were reduced in California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine. More daily trains were added and Amtrak’s federal operating subsidy declined.
By 2009, our 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost $1.5 trillion, so President Obama knew that previous $4.3 billion Northeast Corridor investment, $18.5 billion and the coming $9.95 billion California HSR investment was insufficient to build an Interstate HSR System. That is why, Obama envisioned another $53 billion/6 years of FRA funding to attract more state, local and private funding to HSR projects that could open between 2015-25. Initial successes by 2015-16 would make it easier for the next President and Congress to increase FRA funding for many HSR projects that would glue together by 2035. If successful, President Obama would create a transportation legacy similar to President Eisenhower for the Interstate Highway System of freeways and tollways.
More important than legacy vanities, America desperately needed jobs to emerge stronger from the Great Recession. U.S. and state Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. 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, Rapid Transit, and to repair Interstate Highways.
Unfortunately, the additional funding was never approved by Congress. What happened?
Oil & gas, tire, Greyhound and car rental companies in the Highway Lobby remained arch-enemies to electric-powered HSR and Rapid Transit. They influenced Congressional Republicans and some Congressional Democrats to refrain from support of that infrastructure. The Highway Lobby’s powerful influence is why:
• 45 million-person DC-NYC-Boston HSR corridor can’t get enough federal funding to reach its potential
• 40 million-person California has not received additional federal HSR funds since 2011
• 20 million-person Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati corridor has no HSR construction
• 20 million-person Florida turned down federal grants & private funds for a 186 mph HSR system
SUMMARY: Our Government Picked Winners and Losers
Considering that federal, state and local governments lavishly funded commercial airports and Interstate Highways, while ripping out Streetcars instead of conversion to Rapid Transit, and over-regulating Intercity Passenger Rail without funding improvements, the shortcomings of Interstate HSR were predictable. In contrast, America’s Global Economic Competitors made High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit a multi-generational priority. In the next part, see how those competitors have already lapped us in the 21st century.