Interstate High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit

Like High-Speed Rail & Regional Rail, electric-powered Metro Rail and Bus Rapid Transit are space-efficient zero-emission transportation modes to reduce traffic congestion. When those modes are well-designed in a network, expanded, and meet at train stations, their Benefits over Costs multiply. Since our large metro areas are growing fast and denser, we must accelerate Metro Rail and Bus Rapid Transit projects in tandem with High-Speed Rail and Regional Rail projects. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Rapid Transit Definitions

Rapid Transit divides into several types of routes and vehicles whose benefits and costs vary. Depending on the naming convention of each American transit agency, “Metro Rail” means Heavy Rail, Light Rail, or both. Since they have substantially different traits, I differentiate them as “Metro Heavy Rail” and “Metro Light Rail.”

What Americans call “Commuter Rail” is “Suburban Rail” in most of Europe.

Metro Heavy Rail Routes support 62-87 mph Top Speeds & 27-35 mph Average Speeds: Electric trains draw current from a 3rd rail opposite the passenger boarding side; they have subway tunnels and may have aerial viaducts; they have over/underpasses separating railway from the roadway for very high schedule dependability & safety; stops are typically 1/3 mile to 2 miles apart; station platforms are level with train floors for faster onboarding & offboarding; stations are designed for 6 to 10-cabin trains that have 550-900 rider capacity; they run every 2-5 minutes at Peak Hours, every 8-15 minutes Off-Peak; A Metro Heavy Rail line can transport 175 riders per cabin in an 8-cabin train to transport up to 36,400 riders/hour; By comparison, a 6-lane Interstate Highway transports only 8,000 riders/hour under optimal conditions; Metro Heavy Rail Routes have Very High Construction Cost Per Mile, but Medium Operational Cost Per Rider Mile since a driver is required.

Automated Metro Light Rail Routes support 55-62 mph Top Speed & 27-35 mph Average Speeds: Electric trains draw current from a 3rd rail opposite the passenger boarding side or from a linear middle track under trains; they have aerial viaducts and downtown subway tunnels separating railway from roadway for high schedule dependability; stops are typically 1/3 mile to 1 mile apart; station platforms are level with train floors for faster onboarding & offboarding; stations are designed for only 3 or 4-cabin trains with 300-400 rider capacity; they run every 2-5 minutes Peak Hours, every 6-10 minutes Off-Peak; due to smaller stations it’s Construction Cost Per Mile is lower than Metro Heavy Rail; since Automated Metro Heavy Rail is driver-less, it has Low Operational Cost Per Rider Mile and runs as frequently as Metro Heavy Rail.

Metro Light Rail Routes support 55-62 mph Top Speeds & 22-32 mph Average Speeds: Electric trains draw current by extending pantographs up to overhead electric wire called “catenary”; Metro Light Rail requires dedicated lanes; It has fewer stops and larger capacity than Trams, but more over/underpasses and viaducts to achieve average higher speed, frequency, and safety; Some also have tunnels under Central Business Districts (CBD) to avoid roadway traffic; station platforms are level with train floors for faster onboarding/offboarding; stations are designed for 2 to 4-cabin trains with 150-300 rider capacity; They typically run every 5-8 minutes Peak Hours, every 10-15 minutes Off-Peak; one line can transport 40,000-75,000 daily riders; Metro Light Rail Routes have Medium Construction Cost Per Mile and Medium Operational Cost Per Rider Mile.

Los Angeles Metro Light Rail station

Los Angeles Metro Light Rail overpass at Expo-La Cienega Station; (c) Soul Of America

Tram Routes support 40-50 mph Top Speeds & 16-22 mph Average Speeds: Electric trains draw current by extending pantographs up to catenary; Unlike Metro Light Rail, Trams have low-floor cabins to easily step from station curb to cabin; Their low-floor cabins have bumpier rides than Metro Light Rail; Trams have dedicated lanes, some street closures, and fewer stops than Vintage Streetcars; rarely having over/underpasses, the average speed of Trams is lower than Metro Light Rail; Their stations have short platforms for 2 to 3-cabin Trams of 140-210 rider capacity; Trams typically run every 8-10 minutes at Peak Hours, every 12-18 minutes Off-peak; Tram Routes have slightly Higher Construction Cost Per Mile than Bus Rapid Transit, but Lower Operational Cost Per Mile.

Commuter Rail Routes support 60-80 mph Top Speed & 30-40 mph Average Speed: Commuter trains run on legacy rail shared with freight trains; Their trains use diesel locomotives but are transitioning to diesel-electric locomotives for lower smog and greenhouse gas emissions; these routes often have 1-track segments that limit the frequency of trains traveling in opposite directions; though routes are adding better gates at railroad crossings and automated train control for safety, they have lower average speeds and schedule dependability issues because autos, people and animals cross tracks at too many places; a Suburban Rail Route typically transports 2,000-7,000 daily riders and runs every 45-60 minutes at Peak Hours, every 2 hours Off-Peak; Suburban Rail has Very Low Construction Cost Per Mile, but many miles per route.

Metro Area Regional Rail Routes support 62-93 mph Top Speeds & 35-50 mph Average Speeds: Their trains run on 2 Main Tracks with intermittent Siding Track for freight trains to pull aside; The begin with diesel-electric locomotives; Over time, they upgrade to electric trains that draw current by extending pantographs up to overhead electric wire called “catenary”; Along with automated train control, they have more overpasses, underpasses and street closures than Commuter Rail for higher speed, frequency, schedule reliability, and safety; a route typically transports 15,000-50,000 daily riders and runs every 15-30 minutes at Peak Hours, every 30-60 minutes Off-peak; Enhanced Suburban Rail has Low Construction Cost Per Mile, but many miles per route; Paris RER in the video below is a great example.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Routes support 50-60 mph Top Speeds & 16-22 mph Average Speeds: They mostly run on Dedicated Busway, but have fewer over/underpasses and street closures; they typically have more stops per mile than Rapid Transit modes; sub-par BRT designs run a portion of their route in mixed traffic like local buses, crippling their average speed; BRT has 75-90 seats; they typically run every 6-8 minutes at Peak Hours, every 12-15 minutes Off-peak; BRT is best suited to corridors transporting under 20,000 daily riders that feed Central Business Districts, train stations, and rapid transit stations; though BRT Routes have the Lowest Construction Cost Per Mile, by 2035, most in America will transition to electric power and better stations, drawing their construction costs closer to Trams; since it requires more drivers per rider, BRT has higher Operating Cost Per Rider Mile than other modes of Rapid Transit.

Vintage Streetcars and Modern Streetcars are not Rapid Transit.

America Has a Problem That Highway Widenings Can’t Fix

NYC metro area has transportation options like most big cities around the world. It’s an American outlier with the highest Construction Cost Per Mile for Rapid Transit routes. But its hyper-dense population supporting 24 Metro Heavy Rail lines, 12+ Commuter Rail lines, and 2 Light Rail lines form an expansive network that attracts very high ridership per mile, particularly in Manhattan, while Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx attract high ridership per mile. NYC is the only American metro area where over 50% of commuters use Rapid Transit and local buses. And yet NYC Metro Heavy Rail System needs more station modernization and new lines crisscrossing Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. NYC Commuter Rail Network needs a faster upgrade to Regional Rail for longer 1-seat rides.

As of 2023, America’s America’s Top 53 Metro Areas have 1+ million population. Our Top 36 Metro Areas have 2+ million population. Our Top 15 Metro Areas have 4+ million population. Our Top 9 Metro Areas have 6+ million population. Our largest metro areas are Chicago (10 million), Los Angeles (19 million), and NYC (21 million).

Los Angeles Metro Area set the standard for high-centric sprawl development. Other metro areas, including Chicago suburbs, embraced similar sprawl development. Metro area sprawl development and population growth are increasing Vehicle Miles Traveled. That, in turn, increases highway & boulevard congestion. The results are lower average speeds at Peak Hours that sap American productivity. Highway and boulevard congestion also maintain high air pollution levels despite newer automobiles with lower emissions per mile.

As a result, America has a Herculean task to build comprehensive Rapid Transit lines that form “mesh” networks in our largest metro areas.

Our large metro areas are dipping to 20-24 mph average highway speeds at Peak Hours and Weekday Peak Hours are getting longer. These trends are no surprise to transportation planners. Widening freeways beyond 3 Standard lanes & 1 HOV lane per side does NOT reduce highway & boulevard congestion.

Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Phoenix, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Denver, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Orlando metro areas have each proven that freeway widening to beyond 3 Standard lanes & 1 HOV lanes per side re-congests 2-3 years later. That means Building 20+ lane freeways like Houston and Dallas is insane on the membrane.

To state it another way, further freeway widening is like loosening your belt to treat obesity.

Sorry, Autonomous Vehicle fans. They will not solve highway congestion in the next 40-50 years. Read this informative article by The Conversation explaining why.

What should successful Rapid Transit networks look like? How many lines are appropriate for 1, 2, 4, 6, 10, and 20 million population metro areas? For guidance, American metro areas should follow the best practices of European metro areas:

• Do not build BRT lines in corridors likely to draw over 15,000 daily riders, since those corridors are better suited to Metro Light Rail or Trams.

• Upgrade train stations to Intermodal Transportation Centers that host High-Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Enhanced Suburban Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Tram, BRT, Intercity Buses, and Bikes as appropriate for metro area size. Higher foot-traffic Intermodal Transportation Centers attract retail, dining, offices, hotel, and residential development nearby.

• In 1.0-1.9 million population metro areas, build 3-4 Rapid Transit lines with 2 lines intersecting at the Intermodal Transportation Center and 2 lines intersecting at another central station.

• In 2.0-3.9 million population metro areas, build 5-9 Rapid Transit lines with 3 lines intersecting at the Intermodal Transportation Center and 3-6 lines intersecting at other stations.

• In 4.0-5.9 million population metro areas, build 12+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at the Intermodal Transportation Center and multiple other stations that expand the mesh network.

• In 6.0-8.9 million population metro areas, build 16+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at 2-3 Intermodal Transportation Centers and multiple other stations in a comprehensive mesh network.

• In 9.0-13.9 million population metro areas, build 20+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at multiple Intermodal Transportation Centers and multiple other stations in a robust comprehensive mesh network.

• In 14-21 million population metro areas, build 30+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at multiple Intermodal Transportation Centers and multiple other stations in a world-class comprehensive mesh network where most commuters are within a 4-block distance to a network station.

Below are European metro area examples of Rapid Transit networks. When you click on their names, consider these important traits on their maps. Since the 1973 Oil Embargo, they have been gradually converting Suburban Rail to Regional Rail routes with over/underpasses, street closures, 2 Main Tracks, intermittent Siding Track, and electric trains. European nations target completion of electric-powered Regional Rail conversions by 2040.

European metro areas have also been building Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Light Rail, Metro Light Rail, and Trams faster to form Rapid Transit mesh networks that attract very high ridership per mile:

942,000 Nice metro area – 3 Trams, 3 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
2.3M Lyon metro area – 4 Heavy Rail, 7 Trams, 5 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
3.2M Rome metro area – 3 Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 7 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
4.7M Berlin metro area – 9 Heavy Rail, 24 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
4.9M Milan metro area – 7 Heavy Rail, 9 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
6.0M Madrid metro area – 12 Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 9 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines
14.7M London metro area – 11 Heavy Rail, 15+ Enhanced Commuter Rail, 3 Trams lines

After World War II ended in 1945, White Americans developed a preference for larger home lots in the deep suburbs. New suburban developments often leapfrogged roadway, water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure. Their sprawl development required higher state & county taxes to build and produced lower residential densities with random street patterns. Entire suburban communities were designed without rapid transit or thinking of boulevards with pedestrian walkways. America was morphing into an Automobile & Jet-centric nation.

President Kennedy became aware of the implications of that trend. If it continued unabated, auto-centricity would hollow out the CBDs of major cities and dramatically increase taxes for infrastructure rather than consumer spending. So JFK proposed a federal agency to fund rapid transit projects radiating from the CBDs of our major cities. After JFK’s death, President Johnson ushered his vision to reality with the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now called Federal Transit Administration).

Once the Vietnam War escalated in 1965, our leaders maintained a high percentage of Federal Highway funding but reduced federal funding of Rapid Transit projects. Following that federal lead, our state leaders invested more in highway & boulevard expansion, less in Rapid Transit.

This chart by TheTransportPolitic.com only covers 2010-19, but accurately summarizes America’s 1965-2020 over-investment in Highways compared to under-planning and under-investment in Rapid Transit.

U.S. Rapid Transit vs. Highway Building 2010-19

U.S. Rapid Transit vs. Highway Building 2010-19; source TheTransportPolitic

With less federal and state funding in high-activity corridors that justified Metro Heavy Rail, our metro areas canceled Metro Heavy Rail projects or downscaled to Metro Light Rail projects. In medium-activity corridors that justified Metro Light Rail, our metro areas canceled Metro Light Rail projects or downscaled to Tram or Bus Rapid Transit projects. In lengthy medium-activity corridors that justified Enhanced Suburban Rail, our metro areas settled for Suburban Rail.

The results are starkly evident in America’s Top 35 Metro Areas. Excluding NYC Metro Area, only 6 metro areas have 8+ Rapid Transit lines that form partial mesh networks:

9.5M Chicago Metro Area – 8 Heavy Rail, 12 Commuter Rail lines
4.9M Boston Metro Area – 3 Heavy Rail, 11 Commuter Rail, 5 Metro Light Rail lines
6.1M Philadelphia Metro Area – 3 Heavy Rail, 12 Commuter Rail, 4 Light Rail
6.3M Washington Metro Area – 6 Metro Heavy Rail, 4 Commuter Rail, 1 Light Rail
18.8M Los Angeles Metro Area – 2 Heavy Rail, 7 Commuter Rail, 4 Light Rail
9.7M San Francisco Bay Area 5 Heavy Rail, 1 Regional Rail, 2 Commuter Rail, 8 Light Rail

Washington, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay, and Atlanta metro areas are modernizing rapid transit infrastructure, but need 50% more mileage to form mesh networks. Miami, Baltimore, and Cleveland stunted Metro Heavy Rail expansion due to federal, state & local under-funding. Due to its late start building rapid transit and 19 million residents, Los Angeles Metro Area needs 5x more rapid transit infrastructure than today.

The rest of America’s large metro areas overbuilt highways and delayed rapid transit construction. As a result, they need 3x to 5x more Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Light Rail, Metro Light Rail, and BRT to form Rapid Transit mesh networks. Though BRT has a valuable place in Rapid Transit networks, they should not be a substitute for Metro Light Rail or Automated Metro Light Rail in dense urban areas.

Make Rapid Transit a Funding Priority

In America, Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Light Rail, Metro Light Rail, and Regional Rail projects take 6-15 years to build. Metro Heavy Rail takes the longest to build due to longer tunnels, larger underground stations and lengthier viaducts.

Opened in 2003, AirTrain JFK in NYC is America’s first Automated Metro Light Rail Line. Honolulu is opening America’s second Automated Metro Heavy Rail Line in 2023. Across from Manhattan, Northern New Jersey has two expanding Metro Light Rail lines. NYC Metro Area best illustrates how decades of Enhanced Suburban Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Light Rail and Metro Light Rail saved taxpayer money by avoiding more expensive highway bridges and tunnels.

In the 1990s, Grand Central Terminal’s Neo-Gothic architecture transformed into a 750,000-daily rider Intermodal Transportation Center bustling with restaurants, hotel and retail activity from dawn to late night. NYC recently opened Metro Heavy Rail extensions and NYC New York Penn Station features Amtrak-HSR, Enhanced Suburban Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Tour Buses, local buses, and Uber/Lyft/taxis that attract 650,000 daily riders. The grand Moynahan Hall expanded New York Penn Station capacity in January 2021. Awe-inspiring World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the vibrance of transit-oriented Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens enable NYC to be the most visited international destination in North & South America.

Our largest metro areas have substantial transportation projects underway with new, upgraded, or planned connections to High-Speed Rail and Amtrak Regional Rail that will boost Rapid Transit ridership.

Chicago opened America’s first elevated Metro Heavy Rail line on a viaduct in 1892 and shortly afterward added the subway. Later, the city extended Metro Heavy Rail to both airports and Commuter Rail lines from its 4 train stations. Chicago’s pre-pandemic Metro Heavy Rail and Commuter Rail network transported 1.1 million daily riders. Chicago is upgrading old Metro stations, buying new Metro trains, expanding three Metro Heavy Rail lines and building a BRT circulator connecting Amtrak, Metro Heavy Rail, and Suburban Rail lines. Two Amtrak lines are being upgraded to 90 mph from Chicago to St. Louis and to 110 mph from Chicago to Detroit. Chicago Union Station has been restored. Eventually, Chicago Union Station and nearby Oglivie Transit Center will connect via an underground tunnel to enable pass-through Amtrak and Regional Rail trains.

Boston’s rapid transit system began in 1897. By 1990, their rapid transit culture pushed back against more Interstate Highway ripping through communities. Instead, Boston chose to build or enhance Amtrak HSR, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Commuter Rail, and BRT anchored to three train stations. Pre-pandemic Boston enjoyed 750,000 daily rapid transit patrons, more Amtrak Northeast Corridor visitors, and a more vibrant CBD. Now Boston is extending two Metro Light Rail lines, planning Commuter Rail Rail conversion to Regional Rail, and upgrading train stations.

Philadelphia’s Metro Heavy Rail system began in 1907. Today, 30th Street Station has been upgraded to an Intermodal Transportation Center hosting Amtrak HSR, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, and Intercity Buses. Philadelphia has 575,000 daily rail transit patrons and a Regional Rail line to Atlantic City. Philadelphia is fixing old bridges, updating power systems, and buying new electric trains as part of Regional Rail upgrades. In the years ahead, more office residential and retail space is being built around 30th Street Station. At long last, Philadelphia plans a Metro Heavy Rail extension to Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Opening its first Metro Heavy Rail line in 1976, Washington has expanded more lines form a mesh network and several lines go to Washington Union Station. That train station is a now a intermodal transportation center for Amtrak HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Uber, Lyft & Taxis. Dramatic public space, a retail center, a food court, and a location near the U.S. Capitol made it a tourist attraction. In 2022, Metro Heavy Rail expanded to Dulles International Airport. By 2026, Washington Union Station waiting area expands and more Transit-Oriented Development will be built over its tracks. A Metro Light Rail line is under construction that will ring the Maryland side of the Washington Metro Area and connect with several Washington Metro Heavy Rail stations.

In 1972, the San Francisco-Oakland metro area opened its first Metro Heavy Rail line called Bay Area Rapid Transit or just “BART.” In 1972, BART connected both cities via a tube under the San Francisco Bay. In 1980, San Francisco converted 4 Streetcar lines into Metro Light Rail. In 1987, Suburban Rail service began in the 49-mile San Francisco-San Jose corridor. BART and Metro Light Rail systems expanded. In 2019, BART, Metro Light Rail, Suburban Rail, Vintage Streetcars, Cable Cars, and Ferries attracted over 650,000 daily patrons. Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco CBD re-opened for BRT, Greyhound, Megabus, shuttles, taxis, and Uber/Lyft. In 2022, San Francisco expands a Metro Light Rail line to Chinatown. In 2024, the San Francisco-San Jose corridor upgrades from Suburban Rail to Enhanced Suburban Rail with more over/underpasses to follow. By 2028, a 1.4-mile tunnel is planned to open for Metro Area Regional Rail extension into Salesforce Transit Center located in San Francisco CBD. By 2030-31, BART reaches San Jose CBD and San Jose Intermodal Transportation Center.

In 2008 and 2016, Los Angeles County voted for 50 years of sales tax increase, primarily to accelerate Rapid Transit projects. In 2023, Los Angeles Union Station will host 3 Amtrak lines, 2 Metro Heavy Rail lines, 2 Metro Light Rail lines, 6 Commuter Rail lines, and several BRT lines. In 2024, a Metro Light Rail line connects to a new LAX Airport People Mover. By 2027, a Metro Heavy Rail line extends to the Museum District, Beverly Hills, Century City, and Westwood/UCLA. A major upgrade to Los Angeles Union Station, more Metro Light Rail lines, Commuter Rail and Amtrak Regional Rail enhancements, and more BRT lines will complete before the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. In the 2030s, Los Angeles Union Station will host California HSR and Las Vegas-Los Angeles HSR lines. Los Angeles Metro Area is building a network similar to this 2050 Los Angeles Rapid Transit Vision Map.

Dallas opened its first Metro Light Rail line in 1996 and upgraded Dallas Union Station to intermodal transportation center status for Amtrak, Metro Light Rail, and Suburban Rail. Its Metro Light Rail system connects Dallas CBD and its 2nd largest business center to DFW Airport and Love Field Airport. Dallas Metro Light Rail extensions are coming. Nearby Fort Worth opened a Commuter Rail line to DFW airport. groundbreaking approaches for a privately-built Texas HSR line connecting Dallas to North Houston.

Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, and Cleveland need to resume Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail expansions to form mesh networks that expand transit options and invite more Transit-Oriented Development. Seattle, San Diego, Baltimore-Washington, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale need better Commuter Rail upgrades to Regional Rail.

Seattle, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Norfolk, St. Louis, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Newark, Buffalo, and Hartford need to accelerate Metro Light Rail expansion and Regional Rail conversions to form Rapid Transit mesh networks that invite more Transit-Oriented Development.

Austin, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Tucson need Metro Light Rail expansion in the worst way. Even Detroit, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Louisville, and Richmond Modern Streetcar need conversion to Metro Light Rail and expansion of their BRT systems.

Summary

Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute studied the importance of Rapid Transit and increasing bus frequency in 100,000+ population urban areas. His study reveals a strong correlation between people with no Rapid Transit access and low-frequency bus service to higher unemployment levels. Consider those benefits as our Top 250 Metro Areas head to 200,000+ population and our Top 60 Metro Areas head to 2+ million by 2050.

If they don’t expand Rapid Transit faster, public pressure will increase to further widen highways. That is why America needs 4 times more Rapid Transit projects funded simultaneously than at present. In that manner Rapid Transit systems can be strong partners to High-Speed Rail and Regional Rail discussed in Part 6.

Part 6: Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

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