More Interstate High Speed Rail Needed
Beginning 1946, America added highway and commercial aviation infrastructure that became the envy of the world. We could have built world-class Interstate High Speed Rail & Urban Passenger Rail too. Unfortunately, powerful opponents and foreign wars led to underinvestment in passenger rail, placing a congestion & air pollution tax on every American today.
World-class transportation infrastructure helped America become the world’s richest country. We’ve invested over $1.5 trillion in Interstate Highways and $500 billion in airports-aviation. Our 21,400 miles of mostly private railway is great for freight rail. Unfortunately, it sucks for passenger rail. Prior to 2009, the federal government invested only $6.2 billion to partially upgrade the 457-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor, plus an outrageously low $1 billion sprinkled elsewhere for Amtrak routes. Since Amtrak intercity passenger rail is not a good alternative outside the Northeast Corridor, our highways became overburdened with solo-drivers and our airports are congested with excessive regional flights.
America’s overwhelming highway ridership and aviation patronage did not result from normal market demand. They materialized because well-funded opponents influenced Congress, presidents and governors to enact federal and state policy that crippled intercity passenger rail and threw crumbs to urban passenger rail, while lavishly funding highway and airport expansion. Interstate High Speed Rail, the apex of passenger rail infrastructure, has been their largest target. Opponents manipulated news media, politicians and citizens to erroneously believe that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Interstate Highways solves congestion
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail (HSR) today, powerful 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opponents want news media, politicians and citizens to continue believing a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. Understanding HSR enough to pass informed judgment about whether to build a world-class Interstate HSR System requires more than a short video or news article that lacks context and depth. For example, the video below includes many 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.
A narrative journey is required to understand why America should have HSR operating in 19 states by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a comprehensive 20,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2050. The narrative journey begins with glory days when America had the world’s best intercity & urban passenger rail infrastructure. If you are unfamiliar with that backstory, spend three minutes reviewing the American Passenger Rail History link below to understand how and why the USA let its passenger rail atrophy.
Let’s resume with nations who paved the way forward in HSR development. One of them would become America’s HSR nation-model.
Railways, factories and offices in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. After the war ended in 1945, they had to rebuild. Since America’s railways, factories and offices stayed intact during World War II, it remained the only superpower capable of investment at home and abroad. In 1948, America’s $15 billion ($161 billion in 2020 dollars) grant in the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe and built an export market for American goods. In 1952, America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan, another export market for American goods.
Under American-supervised occupation until 1952, post-war Japan entered a future with high gasoline prices and dependence on imported oil. To reduce foreign oil dependence, Japan built nuclear power plants for electricity and rebuilt their electric grid. Electric-powered Intercity Passenger Rail returned to 93-99 mph between its major cities.
Japan was not satisfied rebuilding old passenger rail. Its two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, expanded electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Rail. Japan built over/underpasses at each railroad crossing and some space cleared by World War II bombing was used to ease railway curves between Tokyo and Osaka. Hitachi developed more powerful electric train engines. A high-speed train control system was introduced. Those developments enabled Japan to launch the world’s first HSR line, called “Shinkansen”, by the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Top speed reached 130 mph in the 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka corridor and trains were so dependable, you could set your watch by them. Shinkansen’s 2 hour 40 minute travel time reduced demand for Tokyo-Osaka flights.
At train stations, Shinkansen, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail functioned like an integrated network, enabling most Japanese families to get by with fewer cars per household. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, travelers spent more time in train station cafes and retail shops, generating profits for Central Japan Railway Company who owned the stations.
Though electric passenger rail infrastructure limited imported oil, Japan was not completely wedded to it. Japan also built a 4-lane intercity tollway system with a strict 62 mph speed limit and high tolls. The tollway system connected to narrow 4-6 lane freeways in large cities. Though Shinkansen was a hit, Japan’s hyper-dense population, high oil costs, slow tollways and lower percentage of car ownership were too dissimilar from America for Japan to be a good HSR nation-model.
After World War II, Western Europe rebuilt railroad over/underpasses for diesel-powered intercity passenger rail that ran 93-106 mph. Beginning in 1968, Italian and French railway companies accelerated R&D for their intercity passenger rail to achieve high speeds. In Germany, HSR could not become a priority until West Germany reunited East Germany in 1990, after the Cold War.
Italy had modest population density, modest car ownership and half of America’s Median Household Income. The peninsular nation imported most of its oil. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph speed limit of Autostrade Tollway System. Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line between Rome and Florence in 1979, but it was plagued with maintenance issues until 1986. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had Commuter Rail, but no Metro Rail. Though an Italian company engineered the best tilting train (Pendolino) by 1988, the other factors initially limited HSR patronage and appetite for HSR expansion. Italy would not be a good HSR nation-model for America.
In 1954, abandonment of wars in Southeast Asia allowed France to divert more taxes to nuclear, hydroelectric, power grid and transportation infrastructure. Since France rebuilt legacy passenger rail corridors, trains were still popular with leisure travelers who did not have cars. As previously mentioned, by 1968, the French were developing a diesel-powered High Speed Train (HST). To attract more business travelers with time savings, the HST was intended to operate up to 155 mph (250 kph).
By 1973, France had significant population density in Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, a high-percentage of car ownership and plenty of regional flights. Autoroute Tollway System had 4 to 6 lanes and an 81 mph speed limit that drivers often exceeded. Though dependency on imported oil produced expensive gasoline prices, Parisian families frequently drove 274 miles south to Lyon, then 195 miles further south to Marseilles or even further to French Riviera cities. Autoroute often clogged from Paris and Lyon to Mediterranean cities. That year, the OPEC oil embargo crippled France’s economy and changed it’s infrastructure priorities.
To reduce foreign oil dependence, France made nuclear energy and electric passenger rail investment higher priorities. Two of France’s three largest cities, Paris and Lyon, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. The French railway company re-engineered diesel-powered HST to electric-powered HST. Paris accelerated expansion of its electric-powered Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines headed to train stations. Though one quarter the size of Paris, Lyon upgraded its Commuter Rail system and opened its first Metro Rail line to the train station in 1978, with more planned.
By 1979, France progressed to the testing phase of its electric-powered HST called Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV). To dependably operate at high speed, TGV would run on Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) that have under/overpasses separating every roadway from railway, and more short tunnels & viaducts to run straighter than Italy and Japan HSR. Furthermore, TGV would only run on premium tracks with superlative track maintenance to maintain smooth rides.
In 1981, TGV service started between Paris and Lyon. Though Japan’s Shinkansen climbed to 155 mph by then, TGV captured global imagination as the world’s fastest train, running at 168 mph. In 1988, TGV upgraded to 186 mph, increased train frequency and lowered Coach Fares, inviting more Paris-Lyon travelers to switch from cars and airplanes. Paris and Lyon train stations integrating TGV, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail increased retail, hotel and tourism activity in their Central Business Districts (CBD). TGV success inspired the French to vote for LGV expansion north & west from Paris and south from Lyon. Lyon had a former defense plant with north-south run-thru tracks. By converting the defense plant to a train station, passenger trains no longer had to back out from a dead-end train terminal. That would shave 15-20 minutes from travel time in the populous Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor.
By 1993, LGV routes opened from Paris to Tours, Paris to LeMans, and Paris to Lille, while regional flights in other populous European corridors were congesting airports. A ride to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, origin runway taxi, flight, destination runway taxi, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi or shuttle to CBD ballooned regional flight travel times from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. For drivers, Tollway travel times in non-TGV corridors were also lengthening due to congestion. As alternatives to long drives and regional flights that required long taxi drives from airport to CBD, French travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening in 1994 for Paris-Lille-London HSR service, LGV expansion from Lyon to Valence in 1994 and LGV expansion from Lille to Brussels in 1995.
Combined with a brilliant safety record, French TGV had proven HSR operating success in conditions closer to those in America’s Northeast Corridor. French TGV would be our HSR nation-model.
America’s Lackluster Pursuit of High Speed Rail
When Congress and President Nixon formed government-supported Amtrak in 1971, it was only a life preserver for intercity passenger rail, not growth hormone. Yet by 1973, there were compelling signs that Congress and President Nixon should aggressively developed Northeast Corridor HSR. Its population density and median income levels were higher than any corridor in France, Belgium and Italy. Like the rest of America, Northeast Corridor transportation vulnerability was exposed during the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo. Car-driven tourism, a staple of Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington economies, cratered during the embargo.
Despite those signs, Congress, President Ford and regional governors only invested $1.9 billion in 1976 to modestly upgrade NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington rail corridor segment — work that would not complete until 1984. Since too many 75-100 year bridges & tunnels, major curves, old track switches & power systems remained, Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains could only reach 110 mph in a few stretches, while dipping to 30-60 mph in many others.
In 1978, President Carter proposed additional investment to make the entire Northeast Corridor (Boston-Providence-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington) a world-class HSR route. That could have been accomplished for about $13-14 billion more, when everything was an order of magnitude cheaper than today. Unfortunately, Congress and Northeast governors did not back his vision. Nor did the next Presidents, Reagan and Bush I, have interest in the project.
Skip forward to 1993. Interstate Highways returned to 65-75 mph speed limits, but traffic congestion and tollway stations in NYC-Washington corridor segment limited drivers to 60 mph average speed. Such low average speed helped Amtrak Metroliner remain time-competitive while averaging only 70 mph.
Referencing the French TGV nation-model, the Clinton Administration U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) revisited opportunity for world-class HSR route. His USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR should attract high ridership and sustain its own operating budget in less than a decade. That reasoning was based on sound evidence. Amtrak Metroliner had proven leisure travel demand in the corridor. The Northeast Corridor had a higher Median Household Income and a higher Percentage of Business Flights than Brussels-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseille corridor. The Northeast Corridor also had higher population density in 1993:
523 Miles: Brussels (1M) – Lille (1M) – Paris (9M) – Lyon (2M) – Valence (1M) – Marseilles (2M) = 15 Million Pop.
457 Miles: Boston (5M) – New Haven (500K) – NYC (17M) – Philadelphia (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – Washington (4M) = 34 Million Pop.
To speed recovery from economic recession, in 1993, Clinton’s USDOT announced that federal stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor HSR and feature trains capable of 165 mph. That speed was lower than TGV’s 186 mph because High Speed Trains (HST) would need to tilt often in ultra-curvy segments in Connecticut. For safety, Pendolino-like tilt trains do not run as fast as TGV-like non-tilt trains. The electric-powered Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR project featured an HST branded as Acela.
The American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Lobby), feared that a successful Acela would spark demand for a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. Should the latter occur, it would reduce oil consumption, tire purchases, regional flights, car rentals, intercity bus rides, concrete & asphalt for highway widening nationwide. So the Aviation and Highway lobbies welded powerful influence with Congress to approve a meager fraction of needed Northeast Corridor HSR funding. Clinton’s USDOT mistakenly spread that meager funding over the 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, instead of concentrating on 262-mile Stamform-NYC-Washington corridor segment as Phase 1. By spreading the funds too thin, Acela trains were limited to 150 mph on only 18 miles of HSR between Boston and Providence, with 30-135 mph everywhere else. At the end of the day, 165 mph Acela trains were crippled by 439 miles of lame rail infrastructure.
If the backstory interests you, click on the Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail link below.
New Opportunity For Interstate High Speed Rail in America
American rail routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies and to lesser degree, by commuter transit agencies. By law and contractual agreements, freight rail companies and commuter transit agencies lease track access to Amtrak at low fees. At usually less than 3 daily runs per route, freight trains often travel in opposite directions on the same track at 30-60 mph. Freight rail companies operate well under those conditions, so they have little incentive to upgrade. Most American commuter rail operates at 60-80 mph on 1-2 tracks. There are many places where autos, people and other animals cross tracks, forcing commuter & Amtrak trains to slow. Commuter transit agencies want upgrades for railway over/underpasses and more parallel track to increase average speed, schedule dependability and safety, but they don’t have extra funds lying around.
When Acela launched in 2000, it was hamstrung by inadequate top speeds and by intermittent Slow Zones (railway crossings without over/underpasses, old bridges & tunnels, S-shaped curves the slow trains, old track switches & electric power systems). Opposing any notion of HSR success, the Highway Lobby hired think tanks to mislead news media, politicians and citizens to believe that under-funded Acela should still deliver 186 mph TGV & LGV-scale benefits — expect Champagne Taste on Beer Money. Acela and Amtrak critics multiplied.
Not long after President Bush II took over, he pounced on Amtrak’s other shortcomings and nearly killed its funding outside the Northeast Corridor. Fortunately, governors and congresspersons fought back to preserve their Amtrak lines. But once America entered the Afghanistan & Iraq Wars, the USDOT budget percentage for all passenger rail infrastructure dropped again.
Despite near-starvation funding, a positive Northeast Corridor HSR narrative emerged after the 9-11-2001 terrorist event. All travelers placed greater value on the absence of security-check hassle at train stations and faster boarding/unboarding than airplanes. More Business Travelers noticed Acela’s NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington travel time savings, higher schedule dependability than flying and wide leather seats in First Class. All travelers appreciated more legroom, wide tray tables, electric outlets at each seat, and a cafe cabin. Acela and its sibling Northeast Regional, the other HST with more intermediate stops, had combined train frequency of every 30 minutes from 6am to 7pm. Acela and Northeast Regional patrons avoided pay for parking and long taxi rides from airport to Central Business District (CBD). Those factors made Northeast Corridor HSR more time-saving, productive, comfortable and cost-effective than other regional travel modes.
Another positive narrative emerged by 2006. Consumer adoption of both HST enabled Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR to enter operating profit that year. In 2010, Acela added WiFi well before before airplanes.
Three more Amtrak lines built successful narratives. Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 80 mph top speed and 6 daily diesel-powered trains to 110 mph and 13 daily electric-powered trains. Keystone attracted so many new patrons that its operating budget is near break-even and plans are advancing for 125 mph upgrade, more daily trains and extension to Pittsburgh.
In California, patronage grew when diesel-powered Amtrak Capital Corridor in San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento corridor increased to 15 daily round-trips and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Los Angeles-Anaheim-San Diego corridor increased to 12 daily round-trips. Their patronage growth, despite only 80 mph top speed, encouraged politicians to place a $10 billion HSR bond measure on the ballot that was approved by California voters in 2008.
President Obama Kickstarts More Interstate High Speed Rail
Sensing opportunity for similar transportation success, 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties adopted Amtrak-HSR upgrade plans. In 2009, President Obama received 259 state applications requesting $57 billion of USDOT funds for intercity passenger rail projects. Again, Congress only authorized a fraction of that amount.
President Obama doubled Metro Rail & Commuter Rail investment and directed $13 billion of economic stimulus funds and $2.5 billion of normal USDOT funds towards HSR and other Amtrak projects over 2009-10. It was the largest ever federal investment in intercity passenger rail. California also committed over $11 billion towards California HSR and California Amtrak projects. Several other states added $3 billion towards Amtrak projects. At the urging of Vice President Biden, America’s first black president kick-started 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 our 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost over $1.5 trillion to build, President Obama knew that $6.2 billion of previous Northeast Corridor investment and $30 billion of new federal & state investment was only a kickstart towards a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. In 2011, he envisioned another $53 billion/6 years of federal funding to attract more state, local and private funding to HSR projects that could open between 2015-25. Initial successes would make it easier for the next Congress, presidents and governors to increase funding for more HSR projects to open between 2025-35. If successful, the Interstate HSR System would create a legacy for President Obama similar to the Interstate Highway System for President Eisenhower.
More important than legacy vanities, Americans desperately needed jobs to emerge faster from the 2008-2012 Great Recession. Governors, mayors, labor unions, infrastructure builders and Chambers of Commerce warmed to HSR. Automotive industry, most airlines, big construction and concrete companies stopped their public opposition to HSR. Intercity buses could plan for gradual conversion to eco-friendly biofuel engines over 10-12 years. Rental car agencies could introduce more hybrid cars in the 2010s and electric cars in the 2020s. Since the multi-year Surface Transportation Bill was coming up for congressional vote, Obama believed timing was right to expand the Interstate HSR System and Rapid Transit, while repairing Interstate Highway and rapidly expanding electric charging stations for cars.
Unfortunately, additional funding for HSR and Rapid Transit was never approved by Congress for President Obama to sign-off. What happened?
Since electric transportation will increasingly draw energy from wind, solar and nuclear power, the powerful oil & gas industry recognizes that transportation infrastructure as an existential threat to profits. So the oil & gas industry redoubled their federal influence to limit electric Rapid Transit growth and stop Amtrak-HSR projects. Despite Obama’s proposals to advance HSR, after the 2010 election, a Congressional majority would not approve needed federal funding for Northeast Corridor HSR, California HSR or any other HSR project.
There was some good news. The kickstart investment by Obama and several governors modestly paid off. A number of Slow Zones reduced and more daily Amtrak trains were added in the Northeast, California, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon. Before leaving office in 2017, Obama squeezed out a notch of funding for new Acela trains and a short track upgrade. By summer 2021, Northeast Corridor will have 120 miles where trains can go 135-160 mph. In February 2020, Amtrak operating budget was approaching breakeven before COVID-19 cratered the economy.
Government & Highway Lobby Crippled America’s Transportation Alternatives
In summary, the Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced federal, state and local governments to lavishly fund highways and airports and after World War II. At the same, they convinced federal, state and local governments to slow intercity passenger rail and underinvest in urban passenger rail. By limited true HSR to small portions of the Northeast Corridor, America’s airport and highway congestion reduces business productivity and leisure time, while increasing green house gases and lung-damaging air pollutants.
In the next part of this series, see how and why Global Economic Competitors aggressively develop electric passenger rail for transportation advantages in the 21st century.