Interstate High Speed Rail Progress
America needs orders of magnitude more High Speed Rail progress to complete our 21st century Transportation System with each mode optimized for mileage it best serves. By following the best practices of France, we too can have a transformational Interstate HSR System, plus great Regional Rail to reap massive benefits like our Global Economic Competitors. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
The World Economic Forum’s October 2019 Global Economic Competitiveness Report shows how far behind America’s transportation infrastructure has fallen. President Biden and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg decry its negative effects on our global economic competitiveness, highways and airports due to an incomplete transportation network. We lack a comprehensive Interstate HSR System with ample Regional Rail extensions for 25- to 550-mile travel. We also lack extensive Rapid Transit systems in large metro areas.
President Biden wants accelerated construction of HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit infrastructure to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) and smog emissions, create millions of jobs and increase access to affordable housing. At the same time, Biden wants Secretary Buttigieg to oversee Highway modernization for Electric Vehicles & bridge fixes, while keeping our Aviation and Freight Rail infrastructure competitive.
Today, America’s Top 48 Metro Areas have 1.2+ million population — a benchmark where highway congestion begins and larger chunks of people fly because good passenger train options don’t exist.
The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts America adding 56 million residents between 2020 to 2050 to reach 389 million. By then, roughly 85% of population will settle in 10 mega-regions that have corridors containing our Top 65 Metro Areas at 1.2+ million population and most of our Top 250 Metro Areas having 200,000+ population.
Global Warming effects and population & urbanization growth do not permit gradual build-out of new infrastructure by 2050. We must prioritize construction of transformative HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit between & within our Top 65 Metro Areas now to connect our Top 250 Metro Areas by 2045. Due to unforeseen delays (recession, pandemic, natural disaster), we might need 5 extra years.
High Speed Rail Best Practices for Speeds & 3-Hour Rule
Part 1 of this series established that France is the primary nation-model for America to adopt HSR best practices. France (and Germany) is also a good model for Regional Rail. Before we examine French HSR and Regional Rail best practices, it’s important to note how those travel modes will receive sufficient electric power.
This decade, France is not only replacing fossil fuel electricity generation with renewable energies, it will be replacing many old nuclear power plants with renewable energies and safer nextgen nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Arguably, France has the world’s most efficient grid to transmit electric current. France is on pace to generate, transmit and consume the highest percentage of electricity from Zero-GHG sources of any advanced nation by 2040. It will be able to power all its planned HSR, Regional Rail, Rapid Transit and Electric Vehicle electricity consumption.
Think of France as a Texas size mega-region. It has comprehensive networks of HSR-Regional Rail, Tollways and Airports between its large (2-11 million pop.), medium (1.0-1.9 million pop.) and small (200K-900K pop.) metro areas. Its medium and large metro areas have extensive Rapid Transit options.
The French government railway agency (SNCF) operates intercity passenger rail & freight rail routes. SNCF has been gradually upgrading legacy rail to 160-170 kph (99-106 mph) Regional Rail routes. Shortly after Japan introduced the first 210 kph (130 mph) 1st Generation HSR route, France started upgrading some Regional Rail routes to 200 kph (124 mph) 1st Generation HSR Routes.
In 1981, SNCF leap-frogged Japan’s evolution to 250 kph (155 mph) HSR route with a 300 kph (186 mph) HSR route. Though officially called “Ligne à Grande Vitesse”, which means “High Speed Rail”, it goes by the acronym LGV. The HST Operator of “Train à Grande Vitesse”, “TGV”, began operations at 270 kph (168 mph), then upgraded to 300 kph in 1988.
In 2007, SNCF introduced Nextgen LGV, a 4th Generation HSR route that supports up to 400 kph (249 mph) from Paris to Strasbourg at the eastern border of France. That year, TGV began commercial operations at 320 kph (199 mph) on Nextgen LGV. Today, the whole of Europe operates High Speed Trains as displayed in this 3-minute video.
The French train builder Alstom developed a Nextgen HST called “Avelia Horizon” that consumes 20% less energy, reduces CO2 emissions by 32% and has lower maintenance costs compared to current TGV at 320 kph (199 mph). TGV plans to introduce Avelia Horizon for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. Though TGV Avelia Horizon is certified to reach 400 kph (249 mph) on Nextgen LGV, its energy costs would be too high at that speed. So TGV management initially targeted 360 kph (224 mph) top speed.
SNCF builds LGV in rural area between large-to-medium and medium-to-medium city-pairs. The SNCF operating strategy is, when travelers leave Paris or Lyon, they must reach their French destination city in 3 hours or less. Called the “3-Hour Rule“, it it ensures that riding TGV always delivers time-savings compared to flying in France.
To accomplish that strategy, original LGV are designed to support TGV running 300 kph and Nextgen LGV are designed to support TGV running 350 kph. By 2035, France will have 14-15 metro areas with 500K+ population. SNCF plans to connect each of them to LGV central train stations or LGV airport stations. A few exceptions will be located 10 miles away.
Each colorband on the chart (left) represents unofficial passenger rail categories of 4th Generation HSR (olive), 3rd Generation HSR (light green), 2nd Generation HSR (very light green), 1st Generation HSR (light grey) and Regional Rail (grey) routes. Percent of Top Speed, Average Speed and 3-Hour Distance are determined by:
• Certified Top Speed of a HSR route
• Certified Top Speed of a HST
• Time Accelerating to & from Top Speed
• Distance between Station Stops
• Number of Station Stops
• Number and length of Slow Zones in a route
• Time dwelling at station platforms to board/unboard
• Amount of electricity a HST Operator plans to consume
As leader of the Paris Climate Agreement, France is right to boast that Avelia Horizon will lower energy consumption by 20% while running at 320 kph (199 mph) — same top speed as today. The flip side is, France can divert more travelers from high-emission Regional Flights to zero-emission TGV by connecting more large city-pairs 1/2 hour faster. TGV also competes with German, Italian, Belgian and Spanish HST Operators for cross-border ridership, so further time-savings matter for business reasons. That’s partly why France is opening more Nextgen LGV this decade. Additionally, France has a Smart Electric Grid that’s getting more efficient and smarter.
I can’t prove how those factors will balance in 2024, but a compromise guess is that TGV management will introduce Avelia Horizon running at 340 kph (211 mph) on Nextgen LGV using 10% less electricity as current TGV at 320 kph. As more wind & solar energy make electricity generation greener and the Smarter Electric Grid lowers Unit Cost Per Watt, anticipate TGV boosting to 350 kph (217 mph) by 2030. The latter top speed and higher average speeds will connect Paris-Toulouse, Paris-Cannes, Paris-Nice and Paris-Frankfurt in 3.5 hours or less to further reduce regional flights.
SNCF management also upgrades legacy rail to 220 kph (137 mph) top speed and 99 mph (160 kph) average speed in 1st Generation HSR routes they call “Classic Lines.” In that manner, Classic Lines deliver time-savings from small cities traveling to medium and large cities in France.
HSR + Regional Rail + Intercity Bus Networks Increase Destination Options
After the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo, SNCF also accelerated conversion of legacy rail and diesel-powered trains to Regional Rail routes that run electric-powered trains.
SNCF Regional Rail routes are not as straight & flat as LGV routes. The average speed of Regional Trains is typically 100-110 kph (62-68 mph). Most run hourly. But they connect many small & medium population cities to larger TGV network cities like Paris, Lyon, Lille and Marseille. When TGV and Regional trains share the same route, TGV plows past small cities. Thus, SNCF Regional Rail is a valuable option for people who don’t have cars, people in wheelchairs and those who prefer not to drive over 40 kilometers (25 miles).
This PDF map of TGV, Classic Lines and Regional Rail routes illustrates the comprehensive passenger train service between large, medium & small metro areas of France . A number of Regional Rail routes will be replaced by LGV routes by 2035.
The French government subsidizes cheap fares on Regional Trains and TGV features low Coach Class fares. Their attractive fares maximize ridership from couples and families that would otherwise drive or fly. By mitigating tollway and airport congestion, there is less public pressure for highway and airport expansion. Consequently, HSR and Regional Rail are major components of Electro-Mobility Commitments in the Paris Climate Accord for 2030.
At small cities and national attractions where Regional Trains don’t go or stop infrequently, private and SNCF Intercity Buses fill the gap. In a manner similar to this Integrated Rail-Air-Bus Network Map, transfers between Airports, HSR, Regional Rail & Intercity Buses provide good public mobility to 500 cities and 70% of the French population.
TGV helped popularize train frequencies that boost ridership. Pre-pandemic, there were 37 daily TGV and other HST roundtrips between Paris and Lyon with 15 minute Peak frequency, 25 minutes Off-peak. TGV from Paris to medium metro areas averaged 30 minutes Peak frequency, 60 minutes Off-peak. Regional Trains not sharing route with TGV typically run hourly. SNCF stops TGV and Regional Rail operations 5 to 6 hours every night for maintenance.
In 2019, SNCF trains reached 1.3 billion passengers/year in a country of 67 million population. Within that passenger metric, TGV attracted 119 million passengers/year with only 1740 LGV miles. Contrast those numbers with 33 million Amtrak passengers in 2019, in a nation of 332 million population.
More HSR & Regional Rail Best Practices to Adopt
In 2020, America had 48 metro areas with 1.2+ million population. Many people drive rural highway between our small (200-900K pop.), medium (1.0-1.9 million pop.) and larger metro areas. On weekends and holidays they generate traffic congestion.
America is on pace for 64 metro areas having 1.2+ million population and 225 metro areas having 200,000+ population by 2040. Automotive volume is expected to continue growing. The gradual transition to Electric Vehicles (EV) and low-emission Freight Trucks is anticipated to reduce smog and GHG, but not urban or rural highway congestion.
Most college students don’t have cars. In the Northeast, where Intercity Passenger Rail is better, students ride trains to/from college at a higher percentage than the average resident. Most of the largest colleges in our Top 225 Metro Areas are already outside the Northeast.
More population & urbanization growth, ongoing highway congestion, and large colleges strongly suggest high demand for 25-550 mile travel in our mega-regions.Congestion-related productivity loss could get worse because more cities are stopping highway expansion that removes residences and businesses.
To avoid worse highway & airport traffic congestion by 2040, America must accelerate 1st Generation HSR and Regional Rail projects, like the diagram at left. To maximize ridership, most routes combining HSR & Regional Rail service should run 24-42 daily roundtrips in a 19-hour operating day. To riders, 24 daily roundtrips represents 30-minute Peak Hour frequency, 60-minute Off-peak. Our Regional Rail-only routes should run 16-24 daily roundtrips in a 18-hour operating day.
Routes in our population-densest corridors can attract over 100,000 daily riders. In such routes, combined HSR & Regional Rail service may reach 80-100 daily roundtrips, with trains every 10-15 minutes. Such high frequencies induce more ridership because patrons don’t worry about missing a train.
Prioritizing Corridors for Transformative HSR Benefits
“High Speed Rail is the only viable transport solution capable of reducing carbon, congestion, costs, accidents, and energy consumption at the same time – U.S. High Speed Rail Association”
California High Speed Rail is a 4th Generation HSR route that will showcase a 3-Hour Rule over 490 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus 30 miles further south to Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. Nextgen HST will run up to 220 mph in rural area and 110 mph in urban area. California HSR Authority plans to initially schedule trains every 20 minutes and feature a limited-stop 2 Hour 40 Minute San Francisco CBD-Los Angeles CBD service that will be over 1 hour shorter than Total Air Travel Time with Taxi/Uber/Lyft included for both options.
For more information about this transformative mega-project, see California High Speed Rail.
With President “Amtrak Joe” Biden and Congressional agreement, the 457-mile Northeast Corridor will complete major upgrades in milestones by 2025, 2030, 2035 and 2040. For details, see Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Progress. America must also open large segments of HSR in 2025, 2030, 2035 and 2040 in other mega-regions.
2040 America will continue having 6-7 times more large and medium size metro areas than France. If we strategically design for a 3-Hour Rule in corridors between those metro areas, American HSR should feature 160 mph minimum top speed and 120 mph average speed. That best practice will ensure that American HSR service is always 40-50 mph faster than non-stop driving 2, 3 or 4 straight hours. That practice will ensure high ridership and operating profit.
Successful pre-pandemic ridership response to 110 mph Amtrak Keystone upgrades sparked demand for 125 mph upgrade and extension to Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan DOTs have all started Preliminary Plans and requested public input for better Amtrak service in Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit corridor. Hamstrung by the lack of Federal HSR funding, they’ve been forced to preliminary plan 90-110 mph Amtrak upgrades with infrequent service. Additional federal funds can be a game-changer for the corridor.
First, their preliminary plans must be HSR-upgraded, then obtain Environmental Clearance — hopefully before 2024. Harrisburg-Philadelphia segment is mild terrain, but flat enough for cost-effective upgrade to 160 mph. The mountainous Pittsburgh-Harrisburg segment will need 150-155 mph tunnels and viaducts, like those in Europe and Japan. After leaving mountainous area west of Pittsburgh, the route flattens, making it suitable for a 180-200 mph segment to Cleveland. A 200-220 mph segment should be built in flatland between Cleveland and Toledo. The 58-mile Toledo-Detroit is flat enough for a 160-180 mph upgrade.
Once complete, the route would create both a 3-Hour Pittsburgh-Harrisburg-Philadelphia ride time and a 3-hour Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit ride time.
Chicago-Midwest is America’s 3rd largest mega-region. In 2009, President Obama’s economic stimulus started upgrading Amtrak’s 284-mile Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis and 281-mile Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Detroit regional lines for 90-110 mph top speed and 6-8 daily roundtrips. Even today, there are no Amtrak time-savings compared to driving and pre-pandemic service was too infrequent to attract high ridership.
A visionary Chicago-Midwest HSR network was studied by Siemens to highlight the advantage of 220 mph ride times vs. 110 mph ride times. The time-savings would impress any traveler:
Chicago-St. Louis 110 mph 4:10 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
Chicago-Cincinnati 110 mph 4:27 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
Chicago-Detroit 110 mph 4:24 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
Chicago-Cleveland 110 mph 4:48 minutes, 220 mph 2:15 minutes
Chicago-St. Paul 110 mph 5:31 minutes, 220 mph 2:40 minutes
In a mild deviation from the Siemens Study, I recommend that HSR route segments be cost-effectively designed for 160-180-200-220 mph speeds connecting those city-pairs in under 3 hours.
Travelers prefer 1-seat rides to most destinations. Yet today, trains terminate at Union Station and at nearby Thompson Transit Center in Chicago. That forces an inconvenient 2-block walk for transfers between passenger trains. Shared underground tracks & platforms are needed between the two train stations. HST & Regional Trains also need to pass through Chicago to other destinations for significant time-savings. The High Speed Rail Alliance best explains HSR, Regional Rail and station upgrade projects needed for Chicago-Midwest.
HST rides between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is an age-old dream. A private company named Brightline raised funds to make that dream a reality. Construction starts in 1Q 2022. Initial service is planned to feature 200 mph trains between Las Vegas and Victorville, California that is hoped to begin in 2025. The long term goal of Brightline is extension from Victorville to Palmdale, then switch to California HSR tracks for 1-seat rides into Los Angeles Union Station.
In another private venture, Texas Central Railway proposes a $10 billion HSR project to connect Houston to Dallas at 205 mph. Texas Central Railway plans to build the Dallas HSR Station just southeast of downtown and the Houston HSR Station in North Houston, both where they can build Transportation-Oriented Development on adjacent land they own.
The Southeast is America’s faster growing mega-region. It has many 1.2 to 7 million population metro areas that need connection to the Interstate HSR System. Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta-Birmingham Corridor and Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Daytona Beach-Orlando Corridor in particular, are overburdened with regional flights and highway congestion. That mega-region needs a web-like HSR-Regional Rail similar to this Southeast Regional Rail Planning Study Map below.
Recommended Interstate HSR System Phase 1 Projects
My HSR Projects list is based on Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR being upgraded, 6 Amtrak Regional lines in operation, but need environmental clearance for HSR upgrade, California HSR under construction, and two more private HSR lines that have environmental clearance to break ground. From my research, I can confidently state that, with adequate federal funding or federal loan guarantees, these HSR projects can open 160-180-200-220 mph segments over 2026-35 and generate positive Benefit/Cost Ratios. Their success will accelerate public demand for Interstate HSR System expansion:
Amtrak or State Operated
• Boston-Providence and Old Saybrook-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington
• San Francisco-San Jose-Gilroy-Fresno-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-LA-Anaheim + Merced spur
• Milwaukee-Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis
• Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Ann Arbor-Detroit
• New Haven-Hartford-Springfield
• Las Vegas-Victorville-Palmdale
• Houston-Brazos Valley-Dallas
* Privately-owned Brightline Florida is expanding its hybrid HSR-Regional Rail service via diesel-electric trains. In 2022, service extends from in Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach corridor to Cocoa and Orlando International Airport. Brightline Florida also plans to extend 125 mph service from Orlando International Airport to Disney Springs and Tampa this decade. Lacking railroad over/underpasses, top speeds in urban areas are currently 80 mph. The new segments include more railroad over/underpasses and viaduct to run at 110-125 mph. Brightline Florida does however, offer HSR level train frequencies and passenger amenities.
Private HST Operators plan to meet Federal Railroad Administration standards for interoperability with the Interstate HSR System. In the next 4-5 years, more State and Private HSR groups will upgrade preliminary plans and obtain environmental clearance for a larger set of projects to be funded by Interstate HSR System Phase 2.
Amtrak Regional & Long-Distance Route Upgrades
In 2019, Amtrak ridership grew to a record 33 million passengers due to Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR and state-supported Amtrak Regional lines that slightly increased frequencies and speeds. It’s clear that Amtrak Regional lines merit upgrade to 110 mph Regional Rail in Phase 1 to boost their ridership too. In America’s third busiest intercity passenger train service, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner runs 111 miles between Los Angeles and San Diego. It’s the perfect example of a 110 mph Regional Rail upgrade project completion that needs acceleration from 2040 to 2030. The Amtrak Downeaster running 145 miles between Boston and Portland, Maine is another.
The 15 Amtrak Long-Distance routes however, lost ridership and required larger taxpayer subsidy. Amtrak Long-Distance trains because the main reasons for their ridership loss are:
(1) Fewer travelers want to spend over 1 night on a train
(2) Long-Distance routes require larger crews, more crew shifts & more equipment
(3) Travelers dislike frequent Amtrak schedule delays caused by freight trains
On that basis, nine Amtrak Long-Distance routes need partitioning & upgrade to shorter HSR or Regional Rail routes, where the demographics also merit frequent service. Six scenic Amtrak Long-Distance routes should reduce to 30 hours or only 1 overnight ride, while increasing to twice daily roundtrips and adding 2nd track for longer stretches of 80 mph. The scenic California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans routes need this modification. As you might guess, I’m for rebranding them “Amtrak Scenic Rail.”
As a 25-year travel publisher, experience informs me that tourists pay ticket premiums for extraordinary Bucket List experiences. So I’m happy that Amtrak is enhancing long-distance train cabins. Patrons will pay extra for linen-covered dining tables with china, silverware and enhanced menus prepared by on-board chefs. Better cocktail, wine and beer options also enhances a Bucket List experience.
Lastly, more HST and Regional Train transfers to twice as many Amtrak Scenic trains will boost their ridership per train and reduce operating subsidy.
We Can Get There by 2045, If …
When more Americans see Interstate HSR System Phase 1 operating and Phase 2 under construction, popular demand will flesh out Phase 3. If we start big now, America can hit 20,000 HSR and 20,000 Regional Rail miles by 2045. With that scale of mileage, HSR can achieve 1 billion HSR passengers/year and Regional Rail can achieve 2 billion passengers/year. We’re going to need that level of ridership when urbanized America reaches 389 million population.
You’ve probably read that HSR-Regional Rail, Freight Rail, Rapid Transit, Highway and Aviation funding are in the U.S. Infrastructure proposals. The easy part is getting Congressional agreement to fund Highway bridge repairs, continue modernizing Airports and fix Freight Rail bottlenecks.
The hard part is convincing a Congressional majority to go big on HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit funding. For a sense of whether we can achieve the hard part, see my conclusion on the next page.