Interstate High Speed Rail System Needed
American companies built the world’s best rail infrastructure for freight trains, passenger trains and streetcars. Government added world-class seaport, roadway and airport infrastructure that helped America become the world’s largest economy. Powerful opponents limited streetcar conversions to Rapid Transit and passenger rail conversions to High Speed Rail. As a result, high smog & greenhouse gas levels persist, and every American pays a Traffic Congestion Tax. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
America once had over 40,000 miles of Intercity Passenger Rail with trains running 100-112 mph. When you add station stops and slowdowns caused by freight trains on the track, trip speeds averaged 65-70 mph. Passenger train options were plentiful, comfortable, and amenity-rich.
Our cities also teemed with Streetcars. Some big cities also had Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines. They all created high-traffic train stations.
From 1946 onwards, Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures, Governors, City Councils, and Mayors invested over $2 trillion of taxpayer funds in Highways and $700 billion in Aviation. Drivers paid fuel taxes for Highway infrastructure. Airlines paid relatively small fees for Aviation infrastructure. Public bonds and income taxes from all people, even if they did not drive or fly, covered the balance of Highway and Aviation infrastructure costs.
Within the Highway and Aviation industries, automakers, car rental companies, aircraft makers, airlines, tire companies, and oil companies grew richer and created millions of jobs. Corporate law requires that publicly-traded companies maximize shareholder profit by any legal means. To maximize profits, those companies formed political lobbies whose mission was to channel most public transportation funding for Highways and Aviation.
The Highway and Aviation lobbies hired think tanks that placed news articles to reframe perspectives of Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcars as “Obsolete Technology.” For positive articles and broadcasts about Highways and Aviation, they become the largest advertisers on news media. They increased campaign donations to all politicians who wanted more airport & highway jobs in their domain.
In 1952, the Highway lobby convinced Congress and President Truman to introduce federal regulation that limited trains to 79 mph, if rail routes did not have over/underpasses for automobiles to safely cross. That Obsolete Technology perspective convinced most state, county, and city governments to only build a railroad over/underpass when it benefited highways and boulevards. As a result, intercity passenger trains dropped to 45-60 mph average speeds.
Interstate Highway System construction began in 1956. Politicans also funded improvements to older U.S. and state highways. As highways reached 65-80 mph speed limits, driving between cities with a stop or two averaged 55-70 mph — noticeably faster than trains.
When smoother flying commercial jets were introduced in 1958, federal, state, county, and city investment in airport infrastructure ramped up. Passenger trains were destined to lose long-distance ridership to jets, but their prized medium-distance ridership also plummeted because trains could not maintain an average speed faster than cars. Streetcars also lost competitiveness to automobiles.
With well-funded skillcraft, America was pushed from “Train-Transit-Auto Culture” to “Auto-Jet Culture.”
High Speed Rail, A Threat To Select Industries
When Japan introduced High Speed Rail to the world, it sparked jealousy or embarrassment by a nation America conquered in World War II. Congress reached overwhelming agreement with President Johnson to launch a Washington-NYC High Speed Rail project in 1965.
If Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail succeeded, it could spread nationwide and threaten Highway and Aviation domination of public funding for Transportation Infrastructure. In decades since, Highway and Aviation lobbies have misled and confused news media, politicians, and naive citizens to believe opinions misrepresented as facts, half-truths, and lies such as:
1. We don’t have High Speed Rail because Americans won’t ride trains anymore
2. High Speed Rail is a money-loser that doesn’t deliver enough Benefits over Costs
3. We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Highways solves congestion
4. We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail today, remaining opponents want news media, politicians and naive citizens to continue believing a dozen more opinions misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies.
Understanding High Speed Rail (HSR) first requires a consistent speed definition. Since America has so little HSR and our government has no consistent definition it’s best to use official international definitions where HSR and thrives. UIC, the international agency representing Intercity Passenger Rail systems, has precise 1st & 2nd Generation speed definitions which are listed below. It’s also useful to know 3rd & 4th Generation HSR speeds in commercial operation abroad, as measured by kilometers per hour (kph) and miles per hour (mph):
1st Generation HSR: Upgraded railway for passenger trains to reach 200-240 kph (124-149 mph)
2nd Generation HSR: Better upgraded railway for passenger trains to reach 250-290 kph (155-180 mph)
3rd Generation HSR: New railway for passenger trains to reach 300-310 kph (186-193 mph)
4th Generation HSR: New railway for passenger trains to reach 320-400 kph (199-249 mph)
The first two lies were disproven in 2000 when Amtrak began 1st Generation HSR in the Northeast Corridor and in 2006 when Northeast Corridor HSR entered operating profit. Many other nations have proven that 2nd, 3rd & 4th Generation HSR mitigates Highway congestion, cuts regional flights, and delivers many more benefits.
One harsh truth is that Congress, Presidents, State Legislatures, and Governors completely fumbled Intercity Passenger Rail between 1947 and 1993. At best, they funded 110 mph Metroliner trains in the Northeast. Everywhere else Amtrak Regional and Long-distance speeds were far lower.
If the backstory interests you, spend 7 minutes reviewing American Passenger Rail History to understand how we built the world’s greatest railway network, then let it atrophy. Fortunately, Japan and Europe awakened America to High Speed Rail benefits.
Should Japan be Our Nation-Model for High Speed Rail?
By 1993, American politics aligned to begin upgrading one crtical railway corridor to HSR. We could adopt “Best Practices” from the best HSR nation-model for our Northeast Corridor. Let’s start with Japan, who built the first HSR line.
Heavily bombed in World War II, Japan had to quickly rebuild railway, rapid transit, highway, and airport infrastructure to restore their economy and society. America forced Japan to become a Democratic nation with individual property rights. 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 most of its electricity and modernized its electric grid.
Since mainland America was not bombed during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of Infrastructure investment at home and abroad. America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan’s infrastructure in part, to make it an export market for American goods.
By 1949-50, Japan Railway Company started building electric railway infrastructure between its largest metro areas: Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. It also built over/underpasses at every railroad crossing and straitened many curves. Hitachi converted heavy diesel-powered passenger trains to lighter electric-powered passenger trains that accelerate & brake faster. Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka expanded their Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines from train stations.
Japanese citizens and automakers also wanted more personal mobility by car. So, they convinced the Japanese government to start building a national tollway system in 1957. To prevent excessive dependence on foreign oil, however, the tollway system was limited to 4-lanes between cities, a strict 62 mph speed limit, high tolls, and connected to narrow urban freeways.
When the Commercial Jet Age began in 1958, the Japanese government-funded airport modernization. That year, Japan also funded the equivalent of $3.6 billion dollars in a dedicated electric railway for the 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor. It would be the world’s first 130 mph HSR line and called “Shinkansen.”
Shinkansen showed that tech-savvy Japan returned to the world stage at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. It made intermediate stops and attracted so many riders that airlines cut flights between Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka.
By 1993, Shinkansen carried over 2 billion passengers and reached 168 mph, like a passing train in the above video. Despite its grand achievements, Japan is not the best HSR nation model for America.
Japan has 2.5 times the population-density of the Northeast, America’s densest region, . The combination of hyper-dense population, high imported oil costs, full embrace of HSR and Rapid Transit, slow Tollways, and a lower car-ownership percentage were too dissimilar for America to adopt Shinkansen Best Practices.
Which European 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 ($162 billion in 2021 dollars) to help rebuild European infrastructure and revive the continent as an export market for American goods.
In 1965-66, the railway agencies of Italy, West Germany, United Kingdom, France and Belgium were no longer satisfied with passenger trains reaching 99 mph. They accelerated R&D for passenger trains to achieve higher speeds too.
Western Europe also competed in the commercial airplane industry but did not have companies as large & capable as Boeing. So over 1970-71, a consortium of companies from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and Netherlands formed Airbus to produce commercial airplanes competitive with Boeing. Airbus consortium successfully lobbied for public-funded airport expansion across Europe.
In the 1970s, Italy had a modest population density in its large peninsular nation. It had half of America’s Median Household Income and car-ownership percentage. Italy imported most of its oil and its airports were not congested. Many drivers exceeded the 81 mph Autostrade Tollway speed limit. Italian sports cars were celebrated and exported worldwide. Italian trains were not.
Most Italians rode Intercity Passenger Rail. Rome and Florence had small Commuter Rail systems anchoring their train stations. An Italian company introduced the Pendolino, whose tilt-train technology lets trains go faster in curves without upsetting passengers. Those conditions were sufficient for Italy to open an HSR line between Rome and Florence in 1979.
Unfortunately, that first HSR line was plagued with poor management and infrastructure that crippled train speed, frequency, and reliability. Those conditions depressed ridership and slowed expansion for nearly a decade. Though Italy was not a good HSR nation model for America, today, an advanced version of Pendolino technology is embedded in many High Speed Trains (HST).
By treaty after World War II, Russia controlled East Germany, excluding West Berlin. East Germany was forced to become a Communist nation but received little help from Russia in rebuilding its infrastructure. East Germany’s economy languished.
By the same treaty, America, the United Kingdom, and France controlled West Germany and forced it to become a Democratic nation. America invested in West Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the Netherlands to help rebuild their infrastructure. West Germany’s economy was strong enough to start HSR R&D by 1966 and HSR construction by 1973.
But West Germany had to overcome a decade of lawsuits related to HSR route alignments. That country also had to reunite West Germany and East Germany in 1990. Given those strained conditions, Germany did not open its first HSR line until 1991. Thus, Germany was not a well-proven HSR nation model by 1993. Nor did the United Kingdom, Belgium or Spain satisfy enough conditions to be a good HSR nation model for America.
France, HSR Nation-Model for America
France had a population size similar to America’s Northeast Region. Unlike the rest of Europe, Paris train stations and Metro system were spared from bombing.
France began extensive HSR R&D in 1965. By 1970, the French economy was in good shape and population density was increasing in the Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Avignon-Marseille-Cannes-Nice corridor. That corridor had about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, for relatively high car-ownership percentage that often clogged its Autoroute Tollway.
As leading participants in the Airbus airplane-maker consortium, French aviation companies also convinced their government to expand airports.
To remain competitive with Autoroute Tollway and Commercial Aviation, the French train-maker, Alstom, accelerated R&D on a High Speed Train (HST) that utilized a jet-turbine engine. Like jets, its fuel was based on oil. The early Alstom HST set test speed records between 155-186 mph.
Before Alstom HST could be introduced for commercial operation, events in October 1973 led the French government to transform its Energy and Transportation policy. The 1973-74 OPEC Oil Embargo exposed that France’s economy was too dependent on foreign oil. When oil prices hiked, people cut tollway driving, and airlines jacked-up fares. It crippled their economy.
To reduce oil dependence, the French government prioritized the construction of nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. SNCF accelerated the conversion of passenger railway from diesel-power to electric-power. Alstom re-engineered passenger trains in development for electric power.
Paris and Lyon were only 274 miles apart. Modest distance, large population size, and no mountain range between them made the city-pair ideal for HSR. Between them, SNCF introduced state-of-the-art HSR infrastructure called “Ligne a Grande Vitesse”, which translates to “High Speed Line.” The French call it by the acronym, “LGV.”
For straighter & flatter routes, LGV has under/overpasses at every railroad crossing, tunnels, viaducts, and embankments. It has premium track bedding, high-speed track switches, and precisely shaved tracks for smooth rides. LGV’s electric power system has higher voltage to support higher speeds. Every LGV has complete fencing and electronic track monitors for public safety.
For efficient operations, SNCF spawned a new agency to operate the Alstom HST branded as “Train a Grande Vitesse.” That translates to “High Speed Train”, which the French call by acronym, “TGV.”
In 1981, TGV launched on LGV between Paris and Lyon at 168 mph as the world’s fastest train. For an advanced European nation that never built a substantial automotive export market like Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Sweden, the world’s fastest train evoked French national pride.
By 1988, SNCF and Alstom technical tweaks enabled TGV to reach 186 mph on LGV. TGV frequency increased, Coach Fares lowered, and operating profits jumped. France also expanded Commuter trains (called “Regional Trains” in France), Metro trains and Trams (faster, higher capacity Streetcars) to train stations. Ridership grew for all modes of passenger rail. Foot-traffic caused a retail and tourism boom within and near train stations.
TGV success, train station retail growth and national pride inspired the French to vote for many LGV expansion routes.
Clinton Kickstarts Lackluster High Speed Rail in America
In 1993, America’s northeastern Interstate Highways in NYC-Washington corridor permitted a 70 mph speed limit, but traffic congestion and tollway stops limited drivers to 60-63 mph average speed. Amtrak Metroliner topped 110 mph but averaged 62-64 mph with 4-5 stops between NYC and Washington. That corridor proved Americans would still ride Intercity Passenger Rail if trains had average speeds as fast as driving, arrivals & departures every hour, and affordable fares.
The Northeast Corridor was ready for an HSR upgrade and French HSR Best Practices. It had a higher Household Incomes, more business travel, and higher population density than Brussels-to-France LGV 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) – Marseille (2M) = 15 Million Pop.
With those demographics, President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) reasoned that the Northeast Corridor could produce near-TGV ridership. In 1993, America also needed to rebound from an economic recession. So Congress approved economic stimulus funds for Clinton to quickly deploy. His USDOT only targeted enough funds for a partial HSR infrastructure upgrade and the purchase of 165-mph High Speed Trains (HST).
Amtrak’s first HST would run slower than 186 mph because, unlike TGV running on the straighter railway, it would need to tilt often on many curvy rail segments. At the time, tilt-train technology only ran up to 165 mph. That top speed would still be a reason to brand Amtrak’s second HST “Acela”, a portmanteau representing “Acceleration” and “Excellence.”
Highway & Aviation Lobbies Increase Attacks on High Speed Rail
America’s Highway Lobby feared that a successful Acela & Metroliner service would spark demand for a robust Interstate HSR System. Should one be built, they feared it would reduce oil consumption from intercity car drives, intercity bus rides, tire purchases, car rentals, concrete & asphalt sales for highways. The Aviation Lobby also feared lower jet sales, regional flights, and airport expansion.
The HSR threat motivated Highway and Aviation lobbies to jointly fund more sophisticated think tanks (Reason, Cato, Heritage) to mislead news media with lies and confusion about HSR. They in turn, misled naive politicians and citizens. A majority of the 1993 Congress and a number of Governors believed those HSR lies or hid behind the confusion.
In that political maelstrom, USDOT expanded the Northeast Corridor HSR project to 457 miles (Washington-NYC-Boston). Despite Amtrak asking for larger HSR project funding, President Clinton invested only $4.3 billion/8 years in Federal Railway funds, which attracted about $1.5 billion in funds from the state, local, and private sources.
Given inflation compared to when France started building HSR in 1973, about $20 billion/8 years of total funding was needed for world-class HSR infrastructure.
Underfunded, Amtrak Acela launched a 165 mph HST on 457 miles of mediocre rail infrastructure in 2000. In its fastest segment, 17 miles between Boston and Providence, parallel tracks remained too close for passing freight trains. For safety, the FRA limited top speed to 150 mph. About 95 miles of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland infrastructure were upgraded to support 125-135 mph. The remaining 345 miles of the Northeast Corridor remained embarrassingly slow.
The partial HSR infrastructure upgrade enabled Amtrak Metroliner to run 125 mph at top speed. It was rebranded as “Amtrak Northeast Regional” to differentiate it as a regional service with more stops in the corridor. With fares about 60% lower than Acela, Northeast Regional was good enough for the heavy concentration of Northeast Corridor college students and others on a tight budget.
Bush II Drops the Ball on High Speed Rail
The second President Bush arrived pounced on Acela’s shortcomings and slow speeds for Amtrak in other corridors. He nearly killed Amtrak federal funding. Then 9-11-2001 Terrorist Event caused travelers to overlook Northeast Corridor HSR shortcomings. When the highway bridges & tunnels to NYC closed, Congress rode Acela in solidarity to survey World Trade Center wreckage.
Longer queues formed in every aspect of air travel. Airport security-check hassle multiplied. To maintain profits, airlines shortened legroom in Coach Class. Airplanes did not have WiFi or electrical outlets.
In contrast, High Speed Train passengers experienced shorter NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel time between Central Business Districts. Acela and Northeast Regional had over 26 combined daily roundtrips to fit travel schedules. High Speed Train passengers also appreciated their 87-90% schedule reliability, fast onboarding & offboarding, wide seats with ample legroom, WiFi, electric outlets, cafe cabin, and any-time restroom access.
When Acela and Northeast Regional entered operating profit in 2006, President Bush should have immediately pushed Congress to complete funding the Northeast Corridor HSR upgrade. As a diehard Oil-Man from Texas, he would not.
Obama Broadens Intercity Passenger Rail Nationwide
During his 2008 Presidential Campaign, Obama promised large Amtrak-HSR funding in his first term. Sensing an opportunity for job-creation success with a progressive President and Congress in 2009, 37 governors adopted Intercity Passenger Rail project plans. President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT grants for Amtrak Regional & HSR projects.
Northeast Corridor and Florida projects were Ready-to-Build. California committed over $11 billion towards its Preliminary-Planned HSR and Amtrak Regional projects. Pacific Northwest, Southeast, and two Chicago-Midwest Amtrak Regional projects were Near-Ready-to-Build. Excluding Florida, the other states would have committed additional billions toward projects.
In February 2009, Congress and President Obama passed the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Since “Amtrak Joe” was his Vice President, Intercity Passenger Rail advocates hoped that President Obama would designate about $52 billion towards Amtrak Regional & HSR projects and $8 billion towards Amtrak maintenance backlog. Transportation planning, communications, and engineering jobs would have accelerated immediately. Each year from 2012 to 2022, Amtrak passengers would experience operational improvements.
Obama Miscalculates Political Timing for Infrastructure
Unfortunately, President Obama thought he could focus on other campaign priorities, then address bigger Infrastructure funding in the last 2 years of his first term. He only allocated $8.5 billion to Amtrak Regional & HSR projects and $5 billion to Amtrak maintenance backlog. For political reasons new Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio governors rejected their economic stimulus grants for Amtrak Regional & HSR projects. Their funds were redirected to other states.
Though Northeast Corridor had the most “Ready-to-Build” HSR projects it received less than $1 billion. California HSR received $3.5 billion but was not Ready-to-Build until 2015. Equally important, the federal grant did not match California HSR’s $11 billion needed to open the Initial Operating Segment by 2022.
When the two Chicago-Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Southeast projects split the remaining $4 billion in federal grants, their routes could only be upgraded to 90 mph in some segments.
Despite grossly underfunding Amtrak Regional & HSR projects, positive circumstances emerged by late 2010. Labor unions, Chambers of Commerce, and infrastructure builders warmed to HSR. President Obama’s economic stimulus saved the automotive industry. Since Obama promised that his upcoming Transportation Proposal to Congress would repair more highways, the automotive industry stopped their public opposition to Amtrak Regional & HSR projects.
Unemployment from May-October 2010 of the Great Recession was stagnant at 9.6%. Nearly 15 million Americans needed jobs and big Transportation Infrastructure projects could employ many of them. Those circumstances led Obama to request $53 billion/6 years for Amtrak Regional & HSR projects within his larger 2011 Transportation Proposal for Congressional consideration.
President Obama believed the 2011 Congress would send back a Transportation Proposal with significantly more funds for Highway, Aviation, Intercity Passenger & Freight Rail, Rapid Transit, and Electric Energy projects as best suited to each state. If he succeeded, millions of Infrastructure jobs would have been created.
More specifically, larger federal funding for Amtrak Regional & HSR projects would attract matching funds from states. Northeast Corridor, California, Southeast, Chicago-Midwest, and Pacific Northwest Amtrak Regional & HSR projects would have received $85-90 billion/8 years total investment. Train passengers could experience increasingly larger operational benefits from 2012 to 2023.
Obama underestimated how Fossil Fuel’s influence and House of Representative politics would drastically change after the November 2010 Mid-Term Election.
Most mid-term voters were conservative, rural, and cared more about immediate jobs and fixing Highways. Conservative media also misrepresented Obamacare’s benefits as a waste of taxpayer funds. A lower percentage of progressive, urban voters who care about Obamacare, Intercity Passenger & Freight Rail, Rapid Transit, Aviation, and Electric Energy infrastructure turned out.
In January 2011, a new conservative majority led the House of Representatives and moved closer to power in the Senate. They vowed to make Obama a one-term President. Committed to their goal and backed by Highway and Aviation lobbies, they would not negotiate higher Amtrak-HSR and Rapid Transit project funding.
They were willing to keep Highway and Aviation projects underfunded and unemployment high during the Obama Administration, in part because, the fossil fuel industry makes more money with commuters stuck in highway traffic, more fuel burned for short flights, and longer lifespan coal-sourced power plants.
Each budget cycle from 2011 to 2016, the House of Representatives sent “Same-Level-of-Funding” proposals back to the Senate and Obama for Federal Highway, Aviation, Transit, and Railroad grants. Amtrak received a pittance for operations and nothing for HSR, Amtrak Regional and Electric Energy projects.
If the Senate and President Obama did not sign House budget proposals, high unemployment would persist. With no better alternatives, they signed. Fortunately, unemployment dropped by half during the Obama Administration.
Auto-Jet Culture, Inadequate for the 21st Century
By over depending on Highways and Aviation since the 1950s, we’re wearing that infrastructure out faster than we repair. Falling further behind European and Asian Transportation Infrastructure has terrible economic and environmental consequences.
Our Global Economic Competitors have expanded and balanced Highway, Aviation, Intercity Passenger Rail, and Rapid Transit infrastructure since the 1950s. Today, they reap greater benefits from Auto-Transit-Train-Jet Culture. Their Transportation Infrastructure is more advanced. This 7-part series focuses on why America needs better Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit while fixing Highways and modernizing Aviation for similar culture and benefits.
Before reading Part 2, I recommend a 5-minute review of Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy page. It explains Intercity Passenger Rail categories and trains to help you better understand HSR benefits.