Interstate High Speed Rail and Rapid Transit

High Speed Rail, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit are the most space efficient, high capacity and zero-emission transportation modes to mitigate traffic congestion. When those three transportation modes are well-designed, expanded and meet at train stations, their Benefits over Costs multiply. Since our large metro areas are growing fast, we must accelerate Rapid Transit, Regional Rail and High Speed Rail projects in tandem. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Rapid Transit Definitions

High Speed Rail and Regional Rail require good Rapid Transit connections and frequencies to maximize service that increases ridership. Rapid Transit divides into several types of vehicles with different operating traits. Let’s review some Rapid Transit Definitions to understand their different benefits.

Depending on the naming convention by each transit agency, “Metro Rail” means Heavy Rail, Light Rail, or both. Since they have substantially different Benefits over Costs, I differentiate them as “Metro Heavy Rail” and “Metro Light Rail.” Trams are common in European cities and coming to some U.S. cities. Trams are similar but less expensive than Metro Light Rail. Vintage Streetcars are not Rapid Transit.

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 every railway from the roadway for higher schedule dependability & safety; stops are typically 1/3 mile to 2 miles apart; station platforms are level with train floors for faster boarding & unboarding; stations are designed for 6 to 10-cabin trains that have 550-900 passenger capacity; they run every 2-6 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 passengers/hour under optimal conditions; Metro Heavy Rail Routes have High Construction Cost Per Mile, but medium Operational Cost Per Passenger Mile.

Automated Metro Heavy 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 every roadway to run at very high schedule dependability & safety; stops are typically 1/3 mile to 1 mile apart; station platforms are level with train floors for faster boarding & unboarding; stations are smaller designed for 2 to 3-cabin trains that have 190-275 passenger capacity; they run every 2-4 minutes at Peak Hours, every 6-10 minutes Off-peak; Automated Metro Heavy Rail Routes have High Construction Cost Per Mile, but run without drivers for Low Operational Cost Per Passenger Mile.

Metro Light Rail Routes support 56-62 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, fewer stops and larger capacity to differentiate from Streetcars; Routes with more over/underpasses average higher speeds, schedule dependability and safety; Metro Light Rail stations are smaller than Metro Heavy Rail stations; Metro Light Rail stations have elevated ramps to platforms that are level with high-floor cabins for faster boarding & unboarding and a smoother ride; a typical 2 to 4-cabin train has 140-280 rider capacity; They typically run every 5-8 minutes at 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 Passenger 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-powered Trams draw current by extending pantographs up to catenary; Trams have dedicated lanes, more street closures, and fewer stops than Vintage Streetcars, but rarely have over/underpasses, tunnels and viaducts; better Trams lines have traffic signal priority for slightly higher average speed; Their stations have short platforms for 2-cabin Trams having 140-150 rider capacity; Trams have low-floor cabins to step from station curb to cabin, but low-floor cabins have bumpier rides than Metro Light Rail; Trams typically run every 6-10 minutes at Peak Hours, every 12-18 minutes Off-peak; Tram Routes have Low Construction Cost Per Mile and their Operational Cost Per Mile is lower than Bus Rapid Transit, but higher than Metro Light Rail.

Commuter Rail Routes support 60-80 mph Top Speed & 30-35 mph Average Speed: Commuter trains run on legacy rail shared with freight trains; Both trains use diesel-power locomotives, but are transitioning to biodiesel-electric-power; these routes often have 1-track segments that cause slowdowns by trains traveling in opposite directions; though most routes are adding better gated railroad crossings and automated train control for safety, they have lower average speeds and schedule reliability issues because autos, people and animals cross tracks at too many places; a Commuter Rail Route typically transports 2,000-7,000 daily riders and runs every 45 minutes at Peak Hours, every 2 hours Off-Peak; Commuter trains can not run frequently until 2 Main tracks and intermittent Siding Track is added for freight trains to pull aside; more frequent Commuter Rail has Very Low Construction Cost Per Mile, but many miles per route.

Enhanced Commuter Rail Routes support 70-90 mph Top Speeds & 35-45 mph Average Speeds: They begin as diesel-electric trains running on 2 Main Tracks, plus intermittent Siding Track for freight trains; Over time, they are upgraded with electric trains that draw current by extending pantographs up to catenary, more over/underpasses, more crossing street closures and automated train control for higher schedule reliability and safety; a route typically transports 15,000-50,000 daily riders and runs every 15-20 minutes at Peak Hours, every 30-45 minutes Off-peak; Enhanced Commuter 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 typically run on dedicated busway, but have fewer over/underpasses, fewer street closures, and more stops per mile than Metro Light Rail; sub-par BRT runs a portion of its route in mixed traffic like buses; 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; BRT Routes have the Lowest Construction Cost Per Mile, but by 2030, most will transition to electric power infrastructure for construction costs closer to Trams; BRT has a higher operating cost per passenger mile than all other Rapid Transit modes.

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, unmatched skyscraper concentration, 24 Metro Heavy Rail lines, 12+ Enhanced Commuter Rail lines, and intersecting lines form an expansive, high-frequency mesh network that attracts very high ridership-per-mile. One Metro Heavy Rail line in Manhattan can attract 500,000 daily riders. NYC is the only American metro area where over 50% of commuters use Rapid Transit and local buses.

There are downsides. NYC Metro Area deferred rapid transit maintenance too long. As a result, its Metro Heavy Rail system has too many stations that need modernization. NYC also needs a third more Metro Heavy Rail lines to form a better mesh network in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

Since America has a Herculean task to build mesh networks of Rapid Transit elsewhere, ridership and construction cost per mile estimates in these definitions above are pertinent to other metro areas.

In 2020, America’s America’s Top 53 Metro Areas had at least 1 million population. Our Top 35 Metro Areas had at least 2 million population. Our Top 15 Metro Areas had at least 4 million population. Our Top Top 15 Metro Areas had at least 6 million population. Suburban sprawl development pattern combined with metro area population growth is causing longer Vehicle Miles Traveled and more highway congestion. The results are lower average speeds at Peak Hours sap American productivity and maintain high air pollution levels despite automobiles that emit less pollution per mile.

Our 1.0-1.9 million population metro areas experience traffic congestion on their busiest highways during Peak Hours. Our 2.0-3.9 million population metro areas are dipping to 22-24 mph average highway speeds at Peak Hours. Drivers in our 4-20 million population metro areas slog through 20-21 mph average highway speeds during Peak Hours and Peak Hours are getting longer.

These trends are no surprise to multi-modal transportation planners. Widening freeways beyond 3 Standard lanes & 1 HOV lane per side does not reduce traffic congestion. Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, San Francisco Bay Area, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay Area, and San Diego metro areas have all proven that freeway widening to 4-8 Standard lanes & 1-2 HOV lanes per side re-congests 2-3 years later. Building a 20+ lane freeway like Houston is insane on the membrane.

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.

As European metro areas prove, American metro areas need Rapid Transit mesh networks to give drivers better alternatives. It’s the only proven approach to mitigate metro area highway congestion and limit the need for highway expansion. The larger the metro area, the more expansive the Rapid Transit network needed.

What should successful Rapid Transit networks look like? How many lines are appropriate for 1, 2, 4, 6, and 10+ million population metro areas. How many Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Tram, Enhanced Commuter Rail, Commuter Rail, and BRT lines should a metro area build?

American metro areas have enough economic activity and population densities in common with European metro areas to mimic their best practices. But we must adapt some Rapid Transit modes to our sprawl development pattern. Since our sprawl development forces longer commutes, we need the faster speed of Metro Light Rail rather than Trams.

We should build BRT lines where corridor traffic can draw up to 20,000 daily riders, but NOT as a substitute for Metro Rail corridors capable of far higher capacities. Our Rapid Transit projects should follow these European best practices.

• Upgrade train stations to Intermodal Transportation Centers that host High Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Tram, BRT, Intercity Buses, and Bikes, as appropriate for the size of the metro area. The higher foot traffic of Intermodal Transportation Centers will attract interior dining & retail establishments, plus nearby offices and hotels.

• 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 city station.

• In 2.0-3.9 million population metro areas, build 7-9 Rapid Transit lines with 3 lines intersecting at the Intermodal Transportation Center and 4-6 lines intersecting at other stations in a network.

• 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 form a mesh network.

• In 6.0-9.9 million population metro areas, build 16+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at 2-3 Intermodal Transportation Centers and multiple other stations in a large mesh network.

• In 10+ million population metro areas, build 24+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting at multiple Intermodal Transportation Centers and multiple other stations in a comprehensive mesh network.

Below are European metro area examples of Rapid Transit network best practices. When you click on their names, consider these important traits. On most Rapid Transit maps, their Commuter Rail & Regional Rail routes are called “Suburban Rail.” Since the 1973 Oil Embargo, European metro areas have been gradually enhancing Commuter Rail to Regional Rail routes with over/underpasses, street closures, 2nd Main Track, and electric trains. Most European nations now target completion of Commuter Rail conversions to Regional Rail by 2040.

Since 1973, they have been building Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Heavy Rail and Trams faster than America & Canada to form Rapid Transit Mesh Networks with intersecting stations that mulitply journies for commuters:

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

America used to have the world’s best streetcar infrastructure on lines that went through all high-activity corridors of a city. Streetcar lines could have been upgraded to Trams and Metro Light Rail lines at Low Construction Cost Per Mile. Why didn’t that happen?

Federal funding of Rapid Transit projects began in 1964. Once the Vietnam War escalated in 1965, our leaders maintained a high percentage of Federal Highway funding but reduced Federal funding for Rapid Transit projects. Following that federal lead, our state leaders invested more in Highway expansion, less in Rapid Transit projects. This chart by only covers 2010-19, but is quite indicative of America’s 1965-2020 over-investment in Highways compared to under-investment in Rapid Transit.

With less federal & 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 Commuter Rail, our metro areas downscaled to Commuter Rail that runs infrequently.

The results are starkly evident in America’s Top 35 Metro Areas at present, more in decades ahead. Excluding NYC Metro Area, only 6 metro areas have 8+ lines of Rapid Transit that form partial mesh networks for their population size:

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, and San Francisco Bay metro areas are modernizing rapid transit infrastructure, but need 50% more rapid transit mileage to form mesh networks. Due to its late start building rapid transit and 19 million residents, Los Angeles Metro Area needs 5x more rapid transit infrastructure than today.

Like Los Angeles, the rest of America’s Top 35 metro areas overbuilt freeways and delayed enlarging or building rapid transit networks. As a result, they need 3x to 5x more rapid transit mileage to form mesh networks. Since their freeway networks encouraged a Sprawl Development Pattern that forces longer commutes, those metro areas need the higher speed & rider capacities of Metro Heavy Rail, Automated Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, and Regional Rail far more than Commuter Rail, Trams, and BRT.

Make Rapid Transit a Funding Priority

In America, Metro Heavy 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 lengthy viaducts that completely separate tracks from roadways.

Opened in 2003, AirTrain JFK in NYC is America’s first Automated Metro Heavy Rail Line. Honolulu is opening America’s second Automated Metro Heavy Rail Line in 2022. Vancouver and Montreal also have Automated Metro Heavy Rail lines.

NYC Metro Area best illustrates how decades of Metro Heavy Rail and Regional Rail saved taxpayer money by avoiding demand to build more expensive Highway bridges & tunnels.

In the 1990s, Grand Central Terminal’s the 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 Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Tour Buses, local buses, Uber/Lyft and 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.

San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles have substantial transportation projects underway. Once new or upgraded connections to High Speed Rail and Regional Rail complete, they will boost Rapid Transit ridership to deliver benefits well worth the construction times.

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

Boston’s rapid transit system began in 1897. By 1990, their 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, Enhanced Commuter 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 rapid transit lines and upgrading train stations.

Philadelphia’s rapid transit system began in 1907. Today, 30th Street Station has been upgraded to an Intermodal Transportation Center hosting Amtrak, Regional Rail, 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 for Enhanced Commuter Rail. 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 expanded modern rapid transit better than any American city. Its Metro Heavy Rail lines form a mesh network and several lines go to the train station. Washington Union Station has transformed from train station to Intermodal Transportation Center for High Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Enhanced Commuter Rail, Intercity Buses, Uber/Lyft and taxis. Dramatic public space, a shopping center, food court, and location near the U.S. Capitol have made it a tourist attraction. Metro Heavy Rail expansion to Dulles International Airport opens in 2022. By 2024-25, Washington Union Station waiting area expands and more Transit-Oriented Development will be built over its tracks.

In 1972, San Francisco-Oakland metro area opened their first Metro Heavy Rail line called Bay Area Rapid Transit or more commonly “BART.” In 1972, BART connected both cities via a tube under the San Francisco Bay. In 1980, San Francisco converted 4 Streetcar lines to Metro Light Rail. In 1987, Commuter 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, Commuter Rail, 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 Metro Light Rail to Chinatown. In 2024, San Francisco-San Jose corridor upgrades from Commuter Rail to electric-powered Regional Rail. By 2028, San Francisco plans 1.4-mile Regional Rail extension into Salesforce Transit Center via a new tunnel. By 2029, 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 2022, 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 2023, a Metro Light Rail line connects to 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 & Amtrak enhancements, and more BRT lines will complete before the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. Some time afterwards, Los Angeles Union Station will host California HSR and Las Vegas-Los Angeles HSR lines. As more federal and state infrastructure investment comes, Los Angeles Metro Area could have a network similar to this 2050 LA 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 Commuter 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 an Enhanced 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 expansion and start new Metro Light Rail and Enhanced Commuter Rail construction that forms a Rapid Transit mesh network.

Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Sacramento, Phoenix, Denver, Houston, Austin, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Newark, Buffalo and Hartford must accelerate Metro Light Rail and Enhanced Commuter Rail expansion.

Las Vegas, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, San Antonio, Milwaukee and Richmond should graduate from 1-2 Tram or BRT lines to 3-4 intersecting Metro Light Rail lines that form a rapid transit mesh network. New Orleans and Memphis are content with Vintage Streetcar lines for tourism, but fast-growth Tampa needs more one Vintage Streetcar line. It needs a large Metro Light Rail network anchored at the train station.


Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute studied the importance of expanding Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Enhanced Commuter Rail and Bus Rapid Transit lines and increasing standard bus frequency in 100,000+ population urban areas. His study reveals a strong correlation between people with no Rapid Transit access & low standard bus frequency to higher unemployment levels.

Rapid Transit connected to more frequent electric bus service with amenities like WiFi, is our best solution to mitigate highway congestion and lower air pollution in urban areas. It’s also our best solution to increase job, college and school access for people without cars. Consider what that means as our 250 Metro Areas head to 200,000+ population and our Top 60 Metro Areas head to 2+ million by 2050. We can lower unemployment and increase college access with better Rapid Transit and better standard bus service.

Based on their estimated project costs and the number of projects ready to build, Federal Transit Administration needs a a big shot in the arm from the federal Infrastructure Bill and Build Back Better Bill. to invite more state & local matching funds. If our federal & state politicians prioritize Rapid Transit and Intermodal Transportation Center project funding while improving standard bus service, our Top 250 Metro Areas will be a two-way partner to High Speed Rail and Regional Rail projects discussed in Part 6.

Part 6: Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

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