More Interstate High Speed Rail Needed
Before World War II, American companies built the world’s largest collection of freight & passenger railway lines. After the war, America added highway and airport infrastructure that became the envy of the world. We could have built world-class High Speed Rail and expanded Rapid Transit too. But powerful opponents and more wars prevented the latter investment, placing a traffic congestion and air pollution tax on every American today.
World-class transportation infrastructure helped America become the world’s richest country. We’ve invested over $1.6 trillion in Interstate Highways and over $550 billion in airports-aviation. Our 21,400 miles of mostly private railway is great for freight rail, but sucks for passenger rail due to underinvestment.
A large coalition of industries opposed federal and state investment in passenger rail. They influenced Congress, presidents and governors to enact federal and state policy that crippled intercity & urban passenger rail, while lavishly funding highway and airport expansion. Interstate High Speed Rail, the apex of passenger rail infrastructure, has been their most successful target. Opponents manipulated news media, politicians and citizens to erroneously believe that:
• Interstate High Speed Rail is not cost-justifiable in America
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because widening Interstate Highway solves congestion
• We don’t need Interstate High Speed Rail because Americans prefer regional flights
Though fewer industries oppose High Speed Rail (HSR) today, 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opponents want news media, politicians and citizens to continue believing a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths and lies. As a result, we have only one operational HSR corridor yet to reach its potential. Since America lacks a comprehensive Interstate HSR System, our Interstate Highways attract too many drivers and our large airports have excessive regional flights.
Understanding HSR enough to pass informed judgment about whether to build a comprehensive 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 and 21st century demands.
A narrative journey coupled with many videos and informative charts from credible sources is required to understand why America should build HSR in 18-19 states by 2030, form a 15,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2040, then a comprehensive 25,000-mile Interstate HSR System by 2050. The narrative journey begins when America had the world’s best intercity & urban passenger rail. If you are unfamiliar with that backstory, spend 3 minutes reviewing American Passenger Rail History to understand how and why the USA let its passenger rail atrophy.
Next, let’s quickly examine nations who paved the way forward in HSR development. American HSR should model after one of them.
Would Japan be America’s Nation-Model for Interstate High Speed Rail?
Railways, factories and offices in Japan 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 1952, America invested $2.2 billion ($22 billion in 2020 dollars) to help rebuild Japan as an export market for American goods.
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 electricity and rebuilt their electric grid. Electric-powered passenger rail returned between cities.
Japan was not satisfied rebuilding 81-93 mph (130-150 kph) passenger rail. Over/underpasses were built at each railroad crossing between its three largest cities — Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Some space cleared by World War II bombing was used to ease railway curves for straighter track. All surface track was fenced off. Electric power systems and overhead electric wire for trains were upgraded. Hitachi developed more powerful electric train engines. A high-speed train control system was introduced. Electric-powered Commuter Rail and Metro Rail systems in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya were expanded, in part to multiply access to train stations.
When Japan Central Railway launched the world’s first HSR line, Shinkansen, during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, top speed reached 130 mph (210 kph) in the 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka corridor. Shinkansen’s 2 hour 40 minute travel time cut demand for Tokyo-Osaka and Tokyo-Nagoya flights. Japan Central Railway operated Shinkansen trains so dependably, you could set your watch by them.
Electric trains do not emit fumes and access to train stations was easy, so more travelers spent time in station cafes and shops. Those conditions generated profits for Japan Central Railway, who owned the train stations. Equally important, the combined network of Shinkansen HSR, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail trains enabled Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya residents to get most places with fewer cars per household.
Nevertheless, upwardly-mobile citizens wanted to explore more of their region and nation by car. So Japan built a 4-lane national tollway system with a strict 62 mph (100 kph) speed limit and high tolls, connected to narrow 4-6 lane urban freeways. Citizens also wanted to explore and conduct business in other nations. So Japan modernized airports for jet travel too.
Unfortunately, the hyper-dense population of an island nation, 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.
Which Country Would Become Nation-Model for High Speed Rail in America?
Railways, factories and offices in Europe were heavily bombed in World War II as well. In 1948, America’s $15 billion ($161 billion in 2020 dollars) grant in the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe, a key export market for American goods. Western Europe rebuilt railroad over/underpasses for diesel-powered passenger rail that ran 81-99 mph (130-160 kph) between cities. Sparked by Shinkansen success, in 1965, European national railway companies accelerated R&D for their intercity passenger rail to achieve higher speeds.
Passenger trains would have to compete against the interests representing Airbus airplanes, a 1970-71 consortium of aerospace companies from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and Netherlands. Passenger trains would also have to compete automotive companies demanding national tollway systems in each nation. Those Aviation and Automotive interests convinced the governments of Western Europe to prioritize airport and highway funding.
Italy had modest population density, modest car ownership and half of America’s Median Household Income. The peninsular nation imported most of its oil. Rome and Florence airports were not very congested. Drivers often exceeded the 81 mph (130 kph) speed limit of Autostrade Tollway System. Italy exported Fiat, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati sports cars and were celebrated in Italian culture. Trains were not. Rome had small Metro Rail and Commuter Rail systems, while Florence had Commuter Rail, but no Metro Rail. And yet by 1979, Italy opened Europe’s first electric-powered 155 mph HSR line. Unfortunately, Rome-Florence HSR was plagued with infrastructure issues until 1986, slowing ridership growth and expansion.
Italy would not be a good HSR nation-model for America, but an Italian company introduced the Pendolino, whose tilt-train technology lets trains go faster in curves. Today, its tilt-train technology has advanced in many high speed trains.
Given Germany had high Median Household Incomes, a speed engineering culture developed by its sports car and “No Speed Limit” Autobahn, and large Commuter Rail network, its easy to imagine that Germany would build a successful HSR system before its European neighbors. Not so fast. Although West Germany conducted High Speed Rail R&D in the 1970s, lawsuits over property acquisition halted construction for a decade. By 1989, that nation’s leaders also had to prepare for reunification of West Germany & East Germany in 1990. Hence, unified Germany did not open its first electric-powered 155 mph (250 kph) HSR line until 1991.
Given those conditions, Germany would not be a good HSR nation-model for America. Neither did the United Kingdom or Spain satisfy enough conditions to be a good HSR nation-model for America.
France Becomes the Nation-Model for High Speed Rail
Like the rest of Western Europe after World War II, France prioritized building a national Autoroute freeway-tollway system and international airports. Since France rebuilt rail infrastructure and its Parisian train stations were not bombed, 81-99 mph passenger trains retained some popularity. In 1970, French R&D for a gasoline-powered High Speed Train (HST) showed promise operating above 130 mph (210 kph).
By 1973, France had significant population density in Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles corridor, about 70% of America’s Median Household Income, a high percentage of car-ownership and plenty of regional flights. Many Autoroute Tollways had an 81 mph (130 kph) speed limit. Though higher dependency on imported oil produced more expensive gasoline than in America, Parisian families frequently drove 274 miles south to Lyon, then further south to Marseilles or other Mediterranean cities. Autoroute clogged on holidays. That year, the OPEC oil embargo crippled France’s economy and changed how the French would prioritize transportation and energy infrastructure.
To reduce foreign oil dependence, France prioritized nuclear power plants and electric-powered passenger rail. Two of France’s three largest cities, Paris and Lyon, were only 274 miles apart without a large mountain range between them. SNCF, the French railway company developing a gasoline-powered HST, was persuaded to re-engineer it as an electric-powered HST. Paris expansion of electric-powered Metro Rail and Commuter Rail lines headed to train stations. Lyon upgraded its Commuter Rail system and opened its first Metro Rail line to the train station in 1978, with more lines planned.
France pursued state-of-art advancements for HSR trains and infrastructure. Its HST, called Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), would run on Ligne a Grande Vitesse (LGV) that has under/overpasses at every railroad crossing. It had more short tunnels and aerial viaducts to run straighter than HSR in Japan and Italy. LGV would have premium track bedding and precisely shaved tracks for smooth TGV rides. TGV would use a new 25 kV power system for higher speed than 1.5 kV and 3 kV power systems employed elsewhere in Europe. Equally important, LGV would use an advanced train control system and superlative track maintenance for dependability and safety.
In 1981, TGV launched between Paris and Lyon, capturing global accolades as the world’s fastest train — 168 mph. TGV sparked national pride in French citizenry and government. That was meaningful in a European nation that never built a substantial automotive export market, like Germany, Italy and United Kingdom.
In 1988, TGV upgraded to 186 mph, matching the speed limit of its early LGV. TGV frequency increased and Coach Fares lowered, inviting more Paris-Lyon travelers to switch from driving and flying. Paris and Lyon train stations integrating TGV, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail increased retail, hotel and tourism activity in their cities.
TGV success and national pride 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 1993, the ride to a Paris 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 travel times by airplane mode from 2.5 hours to 3.5 hours. Also by then, Autoroute Tollway times and airport queues in non-TGV corridors were lengthening due to population growth.
As alternatives to long drives and regional flights, LGV expanded from Paris to LeMans and Paris to Tours in 1990, and from Paris to Lille in 1993. In 1994, French travelers anxiously awaited the Channel Tunnel opening for Paris-Lille-London HSR service and LGV expansion from Lyon to Valence. LGV expansion was also on target for Paris-Lille-Brussels service in 1995.
French TGV had proven HSR operating success in many conditions similar to America. It would become the HSR nation-model for Amtrak Northeast Corridor.
President Clinton’s Lackluster Initiation of High Speed Rail
After World War II, America viewed trains quite different than Japan and France. America’s economy and mobile lifestyles advanced with better highways and airport infrastructure. Intercity passenger rail was viewed as old technology and many train stations were closing or demolished. As explained in American Passenger Rail History, intercity passenger rail was slow and going bankrupt in America. The sole exception was 100 mph Metroliner service between Washington and NYC, introduced in 1969.
In 1971, Congress and President Nixon formed government-supported Amtrak to consolidate all intercity passenger rail and provide annual operating subsidies. Outside minor improvements to Metroliner service, they did not include federal funding to modernize Amtrak infrastructure.
Skip forward to 1993 America. Interstate Highways 95 and 295 returned to 75 mph, but traffic congestion and tollway stations in NYC-Washington corridor segment limited drivers to 60 mph Average Speed. A modest infrastructure upgrade to 110 mph helped Amtrak Metroliner remain competitive in the corridor, but not enough to significantly boost ridership.
Referencing the French TGV nation-model, the Clinton Administration U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) revisited opportunity for a successful HSR route. Since Amtrak Metroliner was slightly profitable, his USDOT reasoned that Northeast Corridor HSR should attract high ridership and larger operating profit. Afterall, the corridor had a higher Median Household Income and a higher percentage of business flyers than Brussels-Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseille corridor. Northeast Corridor also had higher population density than the French-Belgian corridor 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) – Philly (6M) – Baltimore (2M) – DC (4M) = 34 Million Pop.
To accelerate recovery from economic recession, in 1993, Clinton’s USDOT announced that federal stimulus funds would upgrade Northeast Corridor railway and feature electric-powered, tilt-trains capable of 165 mph. That speed was lower than 186 mph TGV because Amtrak Northeast Corridor HST would need to tilt often on curvy New York and Connecticut railway. And yet, there was hope and hoopla for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor 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 sales for highway widening. The Aviation Lobby also feared loss of regional flights and diminished airport construction. That competitive threat motivated Aviation and Highway lobbies to weld their influence with Congress. Northeast Corridor HSR funding was limited to a petty fraction of its infrastructure need.
Clinton’s USDOT mistakenly spread that petty funding over the 457-mile Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington corridor, instead of concentrating on 262-mile Stamford-NYC-Washington segment as Phase 1. That segment had America’s highest concentration of regional passenger rail ridership and could draw political support from 6 states and Washington DC. Early success there would attract more funding for Phase 2 -in Stamford-New Haven-Providence-Boston segment. The other shortcoming was that President Clinton did not fight for more Acela HSR funds when the economy improved over his 8-year tenure.
Opposing HSR success, the Highway Lobby hired think tanks to mislead news media, Congress, governors and citizens to believe that under-funded Acela should still deliver 186 mph TGV-like results. When Acela launched in 2000, its trains were capable of 165 mph, but crippled by 440 miles of inadequate infrastructure. Due to close proximity between tracks, even its Top Speed was limited to 150 mph on 17 miles between Boston and Providence. Top Speed was a disappointing 30-135 mph elsewhere. When Acela failed to deliver Champagne Taste on Beer Money, uninformed Amtrak critics multiplied.
If the backstory interests you, see Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail Progress
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 state commuter rail agencies lease track access to Amtrak at low fees. At usually less than 3 daily round trips per route, freight trains safely travel on 1 or 2 tracks at 30-60 mph Top Speed. Where freight rail shares track with American commuter rail, most of the latter operates at 50-80 mph Top Speed.
Freight rail companies operate well under those conditions, so they have little incentive to upgrade. Commuter transit agencies want upgrades for railway over/underpasses, high schedule dependability and safety, but don’t have extra funds lying around. Consequently, there are many places where autos, people and animals cross tracks. Excluding Metroliner, those conditions forced Amtrak trains to run at 30-80 mph Top Speed with infrequent service and undependable schedules.
Not long after President Bush II took over, he pounced on Amtrak’s slow speeds and undependable schedules. He nearly killed its funding outside the Northeast Corridor. Fortunately, governors and congresspersons fought to preserve Amtrak. But once America entered the Afghanistan & Iraq Wars, USDOT budget percentage for passenger rail infrastructure dropped again.
Despite all odds, a positive HSR narrative emerged after the 9-11-2001 terrorist event. All Northeast Corridor 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-Washington travel time savings and higher dependability than flying. All travelers appreciated more legroom, wide tray tables, electric outlets at each seat, a cafe cabin and restroom access. Acela and its sibling Northeast Regional HST with more intermediate stops, had combined for high train frequency from 6am-8pm. Acela and Northeast Regional patrons avoided parking fees and long taxi rides from airport to CBD.
Those factors made Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR more time-saving, productive, comfortable and cost-effective than other regional travel modes. Another positive narrative emerged by 2006. Ridership growth enabled Amtrak Northeast Corridor services to enter operating profit that year.
Another Amtrak lines improved its narratives after 2006. Amtrak Keystone in Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor was upgraded from 80 mph Top Speed and 6 daily diesel-powered trains to 110 mph Top Speed and 13 daily electric-powered trains. Keystone attracted so many new patrons that its operating budget is near break-even and plans are advancing to enable 125 mph, more daily trains and extension to Pittsburgh.
President Obama Kickstarts Interstate High Speed Rail Beyond Northeast Corridor
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 federal investment in intercity passenger rail ever. 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 by then, 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. Obama envisioned a comprehensive HSR system to serve 80% of American population. So in 2011, he proposed another $53 billion/6 years of federal funding to attract more state, local and private funding to HSR projects to 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 2025-40. If that scale of funding was authorized, 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. Most airlines and big construction companies stopped their public opposition to HSR. The automotive industry stopped its opposition, assuming the next U.S. Surface Transportation Bill would also fix highways and bridges.
Since the multi-year U.S. 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 Highways and expanding electric charging stations. Unfortunately, additional funding for HSR and Rapid Transit was never approved by Congress for President Obama to sign-off. What happened?
HSR and Regional Rail are the most prominent forms of electric-powered Intercity Passenger Rail because they are proven to reduce regional driving and flying. Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail are the most prominent forms of electric-powered Rapid Transit because they are proven reduce metro area driving. More cities and states are committing to power Rapid Transit systems from wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power.
For those reasons, the powerful oil & gas industry recognizes electric-powered mass transportation as an existential threat. So they redoubled federal influence to limit electric Rapid Transit growth and stop Amtrak-HSR projects. Despite Obama’s yearly proposals to advance Amtrak-HSR after the 2010 election, a Congressional majority would not approve sufficient funding for HSR.
There was some good news. The 2009-2010 kickstart investments 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 loan for new Acela trains and a small grant to upgrade 24 miles of HSR route. In February 2020, Amtrak operating budget was approaching breakeven before COVID cratered the economy. In spring 2021, Northeast Corridor HSR will feature new Acela trains running 160 mph over those 24 upgraded miles.
Government & Highway Lobby Crippled America’s Transportation Alternatives
In summary, Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced federal, state and local governments to lavishly fund highways and airports after World War II. Those lobbies convinced federal, state and local governments to cripple intercity passenger rail. Congress failed Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama, who envisioned world-class HSR in America. By limiting high speed to small portions of the Northeast Corridor, America’s airport and highway congestion reduces productivity and leisure time, while increasing green house gases and air pollutants.
In the next part of this narrative journey, see how and why Global Economic Competitors aggressively develop HSR for many advantages in the 21st century.