Interstate High Speed Rail
Starting in the 1830s, 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, high percentage of Knowledge Workers and penchant for leisure travel, why has America under-built high speed rail and rapid transit systems?
Entering the 21st century, America graduated the most engineers, architects and craftsmen to build things. In terms of wealth measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), America was the world’s richest country. Its Median Household Income only trailed lightly populated, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Our commercial airport network, Interstate Highway System, seaport-to-freight rail network and freight truck network were envied by the world.
America also had 22,000 miles of intercity rail shared by freight companies, transit agencies and Amtrak. But outside the Northeast Corridor, we let our Amtrak passenger rail service decline. Since intercity passenger rail was no longer a viable alternative for most Americans, the Interstate Highway System became overburdened with drivers and our major airports congested with regional flights under 500 miles.
America had the wealth and expertise to build world-class passenger rail, but chose not to do it. Amtrak was never properly funded for good intercity passenger rail service like other advanced nations. 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 rail used by Amtrak. That’s like giving one person a cup of water for the day, then asking 100 other people to sip from one cup of water.
This condition did not result from normal market events. It materialized because well-funded opponents misled Congress and Presidents to enact federal policy that disadvantaged passenger rail in the late 1940s-50s. It continues today because passenger rail opponents still mislead news media, many in Congress and some Presidents to believe that:
• Upgrading Northeast Corridor to 186 mph High Speed Rail (HSR) is not cost-justifiable
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough population density for HSR
• We don’t need HSR because Americans prefer regional flights, despite the hassles
• We don’t need HSR because widening freeways solves highway congestion
Opponents would have Americans 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 have HSR segments operating in 19 states & DC by 2030, form a 12,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a 20,000-mile Interstate HSR system by 2050.
This series focuses on America’s need for modern intercity passenger rail, yet begins with the glory days of intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars for underlying context. To better understand why our passenger rail sucks 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. Highways and railways in Japan and Europe were heavily bombed in World War II. Shortly after the war officially ended in September 1945, Europe and Japan started infrastructure and factory rebuilds. Since our factories and infrastructure remained intact during World War II, America emerged as the world’s only superpower to the rescue. In 1948, America’s $15 billion ($159 billion in 2018 dollars) Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe and built an export market for American goods. In 1952, America also 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 less dependence on oil. The densely-populated island nation focused on nuclear power plants to generate electricity and nurtured an “Electric Culture” more than any other nation. Japan built a narrow intercity tollway & intracity freeway system whose speed limit is 62 mph. Japan rebuilt its freight rail network and converted intercity passenger rail to electric-power enabling 99-106 mph speeds. Rapid transit was expanded in Tokyo and Osaka, then added to other large cities. Those factors combined With high gasoline prices due to imported oil, discouraged excessive gasoline consumption.
Japan also 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 also paid off with more powerful train engines to open the world’s first HSR line during the 1964 Summer Olympics. Top speed reached a then impressive 130 mph over 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka.
When intercity passenger rail returned to Europe shortly after World War II, their diesel-powered trains also ran around 100 mph. Like Japan, Western European nations started building more over/underpasses at railroad crossings 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. Since Italy, France and West Germany had population density, car culture and faster highway speeds like America, one of them would be a better 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. It had a Autostrade Tollway System with 81 mph speed limit. Drivers often exceeded the Autostrade speed limit. 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 HSR 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 renown 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. People often drove 150-200 mph in the left lane. West Germany’s electric-powered HSR initiatives were promising, but implementation 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 proven 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. It had to import most of its oil. Autoroute Tollway System permits up to 81 mph on 4 to 6 lanes. People often exceed the limit by 10-15 mph. In 1954, abandonment of colonial wars in Southeast Asia allowed the French to divert more taxes to domestic transportation infrastructure and build the second most nuclear power plants for electric energy. Other factors gave the French government confidence to invest the 2018 equivalent of $6.2 billion in their first HSR line. Significant demand was present because Autoroute often clogged in the Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor.
Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, are only 274 miles apart without a mountain range that required lengthy tunneling. 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. The French railway system owned mostly straight rights-of-way between Paris and Lyon. Paris had a large Metro system and Lyon opened its Metro system in 1978 — both systems fed riders to train stations. French railway engineers knew their HSR system would need under/overpasses at every railroad crossing, aerodynamic trains, high-speed signaling, high-voltage power systems, durable overhead wires transmitting electricity to train engines, welded rail for smoother rides, and complete fencing.
With that combination of factors, French railway engineers designed & dedicated Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) for Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV). 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 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, faster TGV captured global imagination. Since electric trains do not emit fumes, more people liked waiting for TGV in stations. Large crowds of travelers attracted 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 between Paris and Lyon declined shortly after TGV opened.
By 1988, large numbers of regional flights in Western Europe were congesting commercial 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. At the same time, TGV engine, wheel, braking and signaling systems were upgraded to 186 mph as train frequency and patron capacity increased. LGV track expanded north from Paris to Lille and south from Lyon to Valence. TGV Coach Fares lowered. More travelers switched from Autoroute to ride TGV in the region.
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 also 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 toll stations in Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, drivers averaged 55-60 mph. Given America’s then 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.
Clinton’s USDOT reasoned that given America’s higher Median Household Income than France, existing train ridership and higher population density in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, 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.
Needing to emerge from 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 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, Congress wasn’t feeling it. Some believed Americans preferred to drive, so widen the highways. Others in Congress 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, fearful that it would reduce regional flights, car rentals, Greyhound bus rides, highway widening and oil consumption, lobbied Congress not to fund it. 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 439 miles of Northeast Corridor. An unpleasant surprise was that FRA safety regulators would also limit those 18 Amtrak HSR miles to 150 mph because their tracks were too close to passing freight trains on parallel tracks. Nearly $1 billion was wasted on MagLev studies.
In return for Northeast Corridor HSR funding, Congress forced Amtrak to maintain many 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 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 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 relatively 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 39-59-79 mph speeds
• 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 the compromises, one positive narrative emerged by 2006. Amtrak Northeast Corridor entered operating profit due to shorter travel times, over 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. Riding Amtrak was less hassle than flying in the Northeast Corridor.
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 15 daily round-trips, though limited to 59-79 mph track speeds. Diesel-powered Amtrak Pacific Surfliner increased to 12 daily round-trips, though limited to 59-79 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. Economic stimulus approved by Congress and normal FRA funding was 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 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 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 modestly paid off. Slow Zones were reduced in 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.
By 2009, our 44,000-mile Interstate Highway System cost $1.5 trillion to build & widen, so President Obama knew that $18.5 billion and the previous $4.3 billion Northeast Corridor investment, was insufficient to build a comprehensive Interstate HSR System. He envisioned $53 billion/6 years in federal funding to attract more state, local and private funding for HSR projects. He wanted more streams of USDOT funding to gluing them together in service to 80% of Americans by 2035, by Amtrak and private passenger rail companies. 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 and Rapid Transit, and to repair Interstate Highways. 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 political influence is why:
• 45 million-person DC-NYC-Boston HSR corridor can’t get enough federal funding to fulfill 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 separated from roadway
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 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 lapped us.