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 faster than Rural America population, we must accelerate Rapid Transit, Regional Rail and High Speed Rail projects in tandem. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Rapid Transit Definitions

Electric-powered Rapid Transit is an important compliment to an Interstate High Speed Rail System. Before proceeding, let’s review Rapid Transit definitions to better understand their Benefits over Costs. Depending on naming convention by each municipal 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.”

NYC metro area is an outlier. Its Hyper-dense population, unmatched skyscraper concentration, 24 Metro Heavy Rail lines and 12+ Commuter Rail lines intersect at many stations, forming an extensive mesh network that attracts higher ridership. NYC is the only American metro area where over 50% of commuters use Rapid Transit.

Since we need to build Rapid Transit mesh networks elsewhere in America, ridership and cost figures in the definitions below are pertinent to other metro areas.

Metro Heavy Rail Routes support 62-87 mph Top Speed: Electric trains run on them and draw electric current from a 3rd rail opposite the passenger boarding side; they have complete over/underpasses separating railway from roadway, tunnels and viaducts to support 27-32 mph average speeds despite stop every 1/3 to 1 mile in urban areas; they have higher schedule dependability; stations platforms are level with train floors for faster boarding & unboarding; their trains have 4 to 10-cabins for 380-900 passenger capacity; they run every 3-6 minutes at Peak Hours, every 9-12 minutes Off-peak; Metro Heavy Rail has HIGH Construction Cost Per Mile.

Metro Heavy Rail is a passenger-moving workhorse. A single Metro Heavy Rail line can pack 175 passengers per cabin in an 8-cabin train up to 26 trains per hour to transport up to 36,400 riders/hour. By comparison, a 6-lane Interstate Highway transports up to 8,000 passengers/hour under optimal conditions, but much lower during Rush Hour and accidents. In fact, one NYC Metro Heavy Rail line transports over 1 million daily riders.

Metro Light Rail Routes support 56-62 mph Top Speed: Electric trains run on them by extending pantographs arms to overhead electric wire called “catenary” to draw electric power; Metro Light Rail runs in dedicated routes for to support 20-26 mph average speed; better systems have more over/underpasses for the higher average speeds, better schedule dependability and safety; their stations have platforms level with train floors for faster boarding & unboarding or they have low-floor trains; a typical 2 to 4-cabin train has 140-280 passenger capacity; they typically run every 6 minutes at Peak Hours, every 12-15 minutes Off-peak; a line can transport 30,000-75,000 daily riders; Metro Light Rail has MEDIUM Construction Cost Per Mile.

Los Angeles Metro Light Rail station

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

Commuter Rail Routes support 60-80 mph Top Speed: By using diesel locomotives on legacy rail shared with freight trains and sometimes, Amtrak, these lines cost less to upgrade; they often have long sections of 1-track limiting average speed and train frequency per day; they have schedule reliability issues because autos, people and animals cross tracks at too many places; a line typically transports only 2,000-7,000 daily riders; they typically run every 45 minutes at Peak Hours, every 90-120 minutes Off-peak; Commuter Rail has VERY LOW Construction Cost Per Mile, but many miles per line.

Enhanced Commuter Rail Routes support 80-90 mph Top Speed: They have diesel-electric trains and 2 or 3 tracks; most routes share track with freight trains and some with Amtrak too; they have more over/underpasses, street closures, fencing, better gated railroad crossings and automated train control for more frequent service, 35-40 mph average speeds, higher schedule reliability and safety than Commuter Rail; a line typically transports 15,000-50,000 daily riders; they typically run every 20 minutes at Peak Hours, every 45 minutes Off-peak; Enhanced Commuter Rail has LOW Construction Cost Per Mile, but many miles per line.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Routes support 50-60 mph Top Speed: They run on dedicated busway, but have more roadway crossings and stops per mile than Metro Light Rail; average speed is 18-21 mph; BRT has 75-90 seats; they typically run every 6 minutes at Peak Hours, every 12-15 minutes Off-peak; BRT is best suited to corridors transporting under 15,000 daily riders; by 2030, most BRT lines will transition to electric buses; Bus Rapid Transit has LOW Construction Cost Per Mile.

America Has a Problem That Highway Widenings Can’t Fix

In 2020, America’s America’s Top 48 Metro Areas had at least 1.2 million population. Our Top 35 Metro Areas had at least 2 million population. Our Top 15 Metro Areas had at least 4 million population. Suburban sprawl combined with metro area growth is causing more highway congestion and lower average highway speeds at Peak Hours that sap productivity and increase air pollution.

Our 1.2-1.9 million population metro areas experience traffic congestion on their busiest highways during Peak Hours. Our 2-3.9 million population metro areas are dipping to 22-24 mph average highway speeds at Peak Hours. Drivers in our 4+ million population metro areas slog through 20-21 mph average highway speeds during Peak Hours and longer Peak Hours.

These trends are no surprise to transportation analysts. Widening urban freeways beyond 3 Standard lanes & 1 HOV lane per side does not reduce traffic congestion. Each additional widening is like loosening your belt to treat obesity.

Sorry Autonomous Vehicle fans. They will not solve highway traffic congestion. 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, 2, 3 and 4+ million population metro areas. How many Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail, Enhanced Commuter Rail, Commuter Rail and BRT lines should a metro area build. There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers to these questions. Instead, there are best practices in Europe we should mimic. Here are some best practices for:

• 7+ million pop. metro areas: 14+ Rapid Transit lines forming a large mesh network placing residents within a 4-block distance of stations.
• 4-6 million pop. metro areas: 8+ Rapid Transit lines forming a small mesh network around 1 to 3 Central Business Districts.
• 1-3 million pop. metro areas: 4+ Rapid Transit lines intersecting in the Central Business District.
• Connect as many Rapid Transit lines as possible to train stations.

Here are 5 samples from dozens of European metro areas that demonstrate Rapid Transit network best practices. When you click on the bolded city names, note that Trams in Europe are similar to Metro Light Rail:

2.3M Lyon metro area – 4 Metro Heavy Rail, 7 Trams, 5 Commuter Rail lines
3.2M Rome metro area – 3 Metro Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 7 Commuter Rail lines
4.9M Milan metro area – 7 Metro Heavy Rail, 9 Commuter Rail lines
6.0M Madrid metro area – 12 Metro Heavy Rail, 3 Trams, 9 Commuter Rail lines
4.7M Berlin metro area – 9 Metro Heavy Rail, 24 Enhanced Commuter Rail lines

Since 1981, America reduced the percentage of federal funding to Rapid Transit. In turn, State DOTs invested less in Rapid Transit, more in Highways. With lesser funding in corridors that justified Metro Heavy Rail, our metro areas cancelled Metro Heavy Rail projects or built Metro Light Rail. In corridors that justified Metro Light Rail, many cancelled Metro Light Rail projects or built less expensive Bus Rapid Transit. In corridors that justified Enhanced Commuter Rail, others built less expensive Commuter Rail.

Today, only 7 American metro areas with Metro Heavy Rail have 8+ Rapid Transit lines and a major intermodal transportation center:

Los Angeles
San Francisco Bay

Though this chart by only covers 2010-19, it’s indicative of America’s Rapid Transit under-investment compared to Highways from 1981-2020.

Excluding NYC, America’s top Rapid Transit networks have relatively poor ridership because we construct more highway lanes and highways connect to boulevards and avenues to go more places. Excessive Highway expansion, more than Uber/Lyft, cheap gasoline prices and more car owners, is why Americans remain addicted to Highway travel despite their average speeds getting slower.

Make Rapid Transit a Funding Priority

Rapid Transit lines take 3-15 years to build, depending on their cost per mile and length, with Metro Heavy Rail taking longest to build. Fortunately, NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Dallas have substantial Rapid Transit network and Intermodal Transportation Center projects underway that prove Benefits outweigh Costs and long build times.

NYC Metro Area best illustrates how decades of Metro Heavy Rail and Regional Rail expansion saved taxpayer money by not having to build more expensive highway bridges & tunnels for cars. In the 1990s, transformed Neo-Gothic Grand Central Terminal into a 750,000 daily rider Intermodal Transportation Center bustling with restaurants, hotel and retail activity from dawn to night.

NYC recently opened Metro Heavy Rail extensions and NYC New York Penn Station features Amtrak-HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Intercity Buses, Tour 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.

Chicago opened America’s first elevated Metro Heavy Rail line in 1892 and shortly afterwards added subway. Later, the city extended Metro Heavy Rail to both airports and created Enhanced Commuter Rail lines from its 4 train stations. Metro Heavy Rail, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail network transport a combined 1.1 million daily riders in Chicagoland. The city is also replacing old Metro trains, restoring stations, 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 90-110 mph from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. Chicago Union Station has been restored. Chicago Union Station and nearby Oglivie Transit Center will eventually connect via underground tunnel will finally enable pass-through Commuter & Amtrak trains in Chicago.

Boston’s rapid transit system began in 1897. By the 1990s, their transit culture pushed back against new Interstate Highway ripping through more 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. As a result, 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 restored and upgraded to a more effective intermodal transportation center for Amtrak, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail. Philadelphia has 575,000 daily rail transit patrons and a Regional Rail line to Atlantic City. Philadelphia is fixing old bridges and power systems and buying new electric trains. It plans a Metro Heavy Rail extension to Philadelphia redeveloping Navy Yard.

Opening its first Metro Heavy Rail line in 1976, Washington executed modern rapid transit expansion better than any American city. Its Metro Heavy Rail lines traverse all high-activity corridors, except Georgetown. Washington Union Station has transformed into an intermodal transportation center connecting High Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, 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 and 2 Metro Light Rail lines. By 2027, Metro Heavy Rail 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 by the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. Some time afterwards, Los Angeles Union Station will host California HSR and Las Vegas-Los Angeles HSR lines.

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. More 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.

Rapid Transit expansion in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Seattle, Baltimore, Denver, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville, Austin, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Kansas City, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Hartford, Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit will significantly improve mobility, if long delayed projects start or accelerate soon.


By 2040, America’s Top 60 Metro Areas will likely have 1.2+ million residents and our Top 45 are heading to 2+ million. Rapid Transit is our best solution to mitigate highway congestion and lower air pollution in these urban areas. We must choose federal & state politicians who prioritize Rapid Transit and Intermodal Transportation Center funding. As the backbone of our economy, those metro areas will be a welcome partner to High Speed Rail and Regional Rail projects underway and recommended in Part 6.

Part 6: Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

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