Interstate High Speed Rail Progress
America must fix crumbling Highway bridges and modernize Airports and Seaports. Equally important, America must expand Rapid Transit, improve Amtrak Regional Rail and build a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System. We need all those mobility modes optimized in a balanced Intermodal Transportation Network for the 21st Century. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
World Economic Forum’s October 2019 Global Economic Competitiveness Report shows how far America’s infrastructure fell. We have been like a frog in water slowly brought to a boil. Our global competitiveness for business has slipped, while traffic congestion saps our productivity and increases deadly smog and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
American Highways and Hub Airports are overtaxed because our metro areas lack robust Rapid Transit options for 3 to 10-mile commutes, better Regional Rail for 10 to 150-mile intercity travel, and a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System for 75 to 575-mile travel.
83% of U.S. population has settled in 10 mega-regions whose corridors contain our Top 50 Metro Areas having 1+ million population and Top 223 Metro Areas having 200,000+ population.
The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts America growing from 330 million residents in 2020 to 390 million by 2050. Our Top 70 Metro Areas will likely have a 1+ million population and our Top 250 Metro Areas will likely have a 200,000+ population by then.
Population growth, urban densification, traffic congestion, and declining bridges & tunnels combined with Global Warming effects do not permit gradual infrastructure modernization. America has been lax about passenger transportation infrastructure since 1993. If we don’t dramatically accelerate the construction of High Speed Rail (HSR), Regional Rail, Rapid Transit, and new Highway bridges to form a Complete Transportation System, we’re in for a world of hurt.
Best Practices for Passenger Rail Speeds
In Part 1 of this series, I established that France is the best nation model for America to adopt most HSR and Regional Rail best practices. Germany is second. Part 5 of this series highlighted Rapid Transit projects underway and planned in our Top 40 metro areas. But they need more public funding for better systems that attract more ridership and transfer more riders with HSR and Regional Rail.
Think of France as a mega-region the size of Texas with twice as many people. But unlike Texas, France is on pace to generate, transmit and consume the highest percentage of electricity with zero-GHG emissions to power all High Speed Trains (HST), Regional Trains, Rapid Transit and other Electric Vehicles by 2040. Their freight trains will use a mix of electric and battery-diesel hybrid power.
SNCF agency manages passenger & freight rail routes in France. The French company Alstom became its principal train-maker. SNCF spun off an HST Operator agency called “Train à Grande Vitesse”, nicknamed “TGV.”
Since 1964, SNCF has been upgrading legacy rail lines to be better Regional Rail or 1st Generation HSR Routes featuring 200-220 kph (124-137 mph). In 1981, SNCF introduced 3rd Generation HSR Routes called Ligne à Grande Vitesse meaning “High Speed Line”. The French nicknamed these completely new routes “LGV.”
France became famous for introducing the world’s fastest trains when TGV reached 270 kph (168 mph) on LGV. In 1988, TGV increased its top speed to 300 kph (186 mph) on LGV. In 1991, Germany started mastering the process of upgrading legacy rail infrastructure to 2nd Generation HSR Routes featuring 250 kph (155 mph). In Germany, those routes are shared between passenger & freight trains.
In 2007, SNCF introduced a 4th Generation HSR Route on straighter track than 3rd Generation HSR Routes. It’s nicknamed “Nextgen LGV” because it enables Nextgen HST to operate up to 400 kph (249 mph). Alstom & TGV engineers modified the current generation HST to run up to 320 kph (199 mph) on Nextgen LGV for shorter trip times. For higher train and transit ridership, France also expanded or built electric Rapid Transit systems in its metro areas. Today, over 60% SNCF passenger rail network is electrified between its large (2-11 million pop.), medium (1.0-1.9 million pop.), and small (200K-999K pop.) metro areas.
By mastering HSR practices in a country less dense than Japan, France unofficially authored the “3-Hour Rule” for all other nations. To laymen, that rule means TGV trips to central cities of 3 hours or less deliver more time savings than regional flights. When TGV reached 320 kph (199 mph) on Nextgen LGV, TGV and SNCF learned that travelers still prefer 3.5-hour ride times for the train’s productivity and comfort advantages over regional flights.
Two other factors weighed in SNCF and TGV strategic planning — population and urbanization growth. France will have over 50 metro areas with 200K+ population in more corridors by 2040. For more rider capacity, France plans to operate more High Speed Trains, as displayed in this 3-minute video.
Considering those factors, SNCF & TGV have a joint goal to connect France’s Top 50 Metro Areas and select international cities to Paris, Lyon, or Marseille in 3.5 hours or less. Consistent with that strategy, Alstom’s Nextgen HST, called “Avelia Horizon”, consumes 20% less energy, reduces CO2 emissions by 32%, and weighs less on tracks.
TGV plans to introduce Avelia Horizon shortly before the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. Though Avelia Horizon is certified to match Nextgen LGV’s 400 kph (249 mph) top speed, TGV management initially planned to introduce it at 360 kph (224 mph) to limit energy consumption and maintenance costs while attracting more travelers.
By 2040, 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 an HSR route
• Certified Top Speed of an 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 onboard/offboard
• Amount of electricity an HST Operator plans to consume
France recently highlighted Avelia Horizon’s lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions at 320 kph (199 mph). As the leader of the Paris Climate Agreement, it made sense for France to set an energy conservation PR example.
Given the Total Benefits/Costs for higher train ridership, however, I doubt TGV Avelia Horizon will be limited to 320 kph for several reasons:
• Over 2023-35, more & cheaper wind, solar & geothermal-sourced power enter Western Europe’s electric grids
• Over 2023-35, significantly more High Speed Lines open in Europe
• Long stretches at 320-360 kph (199-224 mph) trains will divert more people from sub-600 mile flights
• Long stretches at 320-360 kph increase Roundtrips/Day with the same # of trains & staff for higher profits
• TGV profits help subsidize SNCF Regional Rail trains
• TGV competes with German, Italian, Belgian & Spanish HST Operators for cross-border ridership
There’s also a matter of lost national pride. Last decade Japan matched France with a 320 kph (199 mph) service and South Korea introduced a 330 kph (205 mph) service. In 2017, China became the world leader, operating trains at 350 kph (217 mph). The UK and California will introduce 354 kph (220 mph) trains later this decade.
Though France continues building Nextgen LGV, no one speaks of TGV having the world’s fastest trains anymore. For all those collective reasons, I estimate that TGV Avelia Horizon will be introduced at 340 kph (211 mph) on Nextgen LGV using 10% less energy than the current TGV. By 2030, anticipate TGV reaching 350 kph (217 mph) on Nextgen LGV as more low-cost wind and solar energy enter the electric grid.
Running 350 kph on Nextgen LGV will shift more Paris-Toulouse, Paris-Cannes, Lyon-Barcelona, and Paris-Milan travelers from regional flights to TGV rides of 3.5 hours or less.
Here’s another business case for higher train speeds. TGV and ICE trains currently have best 3 hour 39 minute TGV ride time between Paris and Frankfurt. As part of their Paris Climate Agreement, France and Germany want to eliminate popular regional flights like the one between Frankfurt and Paris. French and German airlines would rather use those take-off & landing slots for more profitable flights over 600 miles.
Germany currently uses a combination of 200-250 kph routes in many corridors. By 2035, a mix of 250-300 kph HSR routes will complete upgrades or open. Nextgen ICE and TGV trains will run 250-300 kph in Germany and 350 kph in France for an attractive 3-hour 15-minute Frankfurt-Paris trip time among others.
By 2035 or so, SNCF will eliminate all diesel-powered locomotives and SNCF will continue expanding Nextgen LGV and Regional Rail infrastructure.
Lastly, note that HSR agencies in France and Germany aim for 220-230 kph (137-143 mph) top speed and 155-161 kph (96-100 mph) average speed, at minimum, because very few drivers can sustain those speeds over 2-3 hours.
HSR + Regional Rail + Intercity Buses Increase Intercity Options
SNCF is also upgrading electric-powered Regional Rail trains called SNCF RER. They are capable of 180 kph (112 mph). Outside Paris Metro Area, RER serves commuter stations that are 8-15 miles apart. Its top speeds are limited to 130-160 kph (81-99 mph). When TGV and RER trains share the same route, RER stops at smaller cities that TGV passes by.
In a manner similar to this Integrated Rail-Air-Bus Network Map, transfers between Airports, HSR, Regional Rail & Intercity Buses provide good mobility to 500 cities and 70% of the French population.
In 2019, RER & TGV 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 330 million population, but only 36 rail miles capable of 150-160 mph.
More Train Frequency Best Practices for High Ridership
In 2020, America had 50 metro areas with 1+ million population. Automotive volume is expected to continue growing. The 2022-35 transition to Electric Vehicles (EV) will reduce point-of-consumption smog and GHG emissions. But population growth and middle-class lifestyles trigger more auto purchases and increase highway congestion.
Our 20 million college students are low hanging fruit to reduce highway congestion. Most don’t have cars and little money for parking. We have evidence. In the Northeast Corridor, where HSR, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit options are better (not great), students ride trains at a higher percentage than residents.
Since most of the largest colleges in our Top 250 Metro Areas are outside the Northeast Corridor, that evidence suggests significant college student demand for better HSR, Regional Rail, and Rapid Transit service in other mega-regions too.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 2045, America must accelerate HSR and Regional Rail projects, like the diagram at left.
Our 5-9 million Population Corridors, like San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento-Auburn should feature 34 daily HSR roundtrips in an 18-hour operating day.
Our 10-19 million Population Corridors, like Nashville-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando and Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit should feature 36-42 daily HSR roundtrips in a 19-hour operating day.
Our 20+ million Population Corridors, like Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis, Boston-NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington and San Francisco-San Jose-Los Angeles-Anaheim should feature 54-72 daily HSR roundtrips in a 19-hour operating day.
Prioritizing Corridors for Transformative HSR Benefits
“High Speed Rail is the only viable transport solution capable of reducing carbon, congestion, transportation 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 3-Hour Rule over 490 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus 30 miles further southeast to Anaheim — home of Disneyland.
By 2037, California HSR will run trains up to 110 mph in urban corridors mostly sealed with railroad over/underpasses, pedestrian-bicycle underpasses, and street closures. By then, San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area will have more robust Regional Rail and Rapid Transit networks. They will multiply access to California HSR stations better thought of as Intermodal Transit Centers or Multimodal Transportation Centers. For more information about this transformative HSR project, see California High Speed Rail.
With the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Northeast Corridor will receive funding to complete most Phase 1 upgrades by 2030 and all Phase 1 upgrades by 2035. Increasing ridership demand will justify more funding to complete Phase 2 upgrades by 2040. For details, see Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Progress.
Along with proving that 199 mph top speed and 160 mph average speed create a 3.5-Hour Rule for patronage, France has also proven that when TGV discounts Off-peak fares, higher ridership decongests parallel highways and cuts more regional flights. That is why France plans to boost top speed with Nextgen tgV running on Nextgen LGV.
America 2045 will have nearly 250 metro areas with a 200,000+ population that many viable 300-mile, 400-mile, and 550-mile HSR corridors to connect as an Integrated Network. If we design for a 3.5-Hour Rule in each corridor of the network, then, in my opinion, the Interstate HSR System should feature 160, 190, and 220 mph speeds. Each 20 mph average speed boost represents 70 extra miles covered in 3.5 hours to connect more metro areas. Top speed would depend on corridor population density and terrain.
At those speeds, time & cost-sensitive travelers will find HSR far more attractive than driving Single Occupancy Vehicles at 80 mph top speed and 65 mph average speed with a stop(s), plus refueling. Airlines will focus on routes that require over 110 minutes of flight time where they out-compete HSR in popular corridors.
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 the Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit corridor.
Larger federal funds can be a game-changer if deployed in the right concentration for difference-making projects. First, many Preliminary Plans should be upgraded from 90 mph Amtrak Regional Rail to a category of HSR speed similar to those I recommend above. Second, if they start Environmental Reviews in 2022, most projects can be “Ready to Build” by 2025.
The Harrisburg-Philadelphia segment is a good example. It’s flat enough for a 160 mph Pittsburgh-Harrisburg segment through mountain tunnels. After leaving the Western Pennsylvania mountains, the terrain flattens straight enough to support 190 mph in the Akron-Cleveland-Toledo segment. The 58-mile Toledo-Detroit segment is flat 7 straight enough for a 190 mph top speed upgrade. Once complete, the route would feature both a 3-Hour Pittsburgh-Harrisburg-Philadelphia ride time and a 3-hour Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit ride time that expand travel options.
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 for 90 mph and 281-mile Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Detroit regional lines for 110 mph. Yet today, there is no Amtrak time savings compared to driving. Since freight rail takes priority over most of their 1-2 track routes, Amtrak is restricted to only 3-4 daily roundtrips. It’s no surprise that ridership is low.
In 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) updated its Midwest Regional Rail Network Plan to include Core Express (160+ mph) HSR lines. The flaw in its plan is thinking too small.
First, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, and St. Louis international airports are allocating more runway slots to flights of 600+ miles. So the sub-600-mile ridership opportunity for HSR service is expanding. Second, green, red, and yellow-colored Regional & Emerging Line segments on the map below should feature (my suggested) 160, 190 & 220 mph speeds to connect more city pairs in 3.5 hours. Private HSR systems can, of course, certify their own top speeds within 160-220 mph.
160-220 mph lines can be justified in a dozen 10+ million population corridors that America is on pace to have by 2050.
Travelers prefer 1-seat rides to destinations or at least convenient transfers in temperature-controlled stations. Yet today, most Midwest passenger trains terminate at Union Station and 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 time savings.
High Speed Train rides between Las Vegas and Los Angeles are an age-old dream. A private company named Brightline raised funds to make that dream a reality. Due to pandemic-related delays, construction starts in 2023. Initial service is planned to feature 200 mph trains running between Las Vegas and Victor Valley, California. Service is slated to begin in 2026, but will more likely be by late 2027.
The long-term goals of Brightline West HSR are an extension from Victor Valley to Palmdale, then switch to California HSR tracks for 1-seat rides into Burbank Airport and 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 planned stations are where they can build Transportation-Oriented Development on adjacent land they own.
The Southeast is America’s fastest-growing mega-region. It has many 1 to 7 million population metro areas that need a 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 network similar to this Southeast Regional Rail Planning Study Map.
Recommended Interstate HSR System Phase 1 Projects
My HSR Projects list is anchored by Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR in operation, California HSR under construction, and 11 Amtrak Regional lines that need consolidation & upgrade to 6 HSR lines. With adequate federal funding, these HSR projects can open 160-190-220 mph segments over 2027-31. Their success in generating positive Benefit/Cost Ratios will accelerate 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-White River Junction
More Departments of Transportation in states are completing Preliminary Plans for HSR project funding.
• Las Vegas-Victor Valley-Palmdale and Victor Valley-Rancho Cucamonga
• Houston-Brazos Valley-Dallas
Two private companies have “Ready-to-Build” HSR projects in Las Vegas-Southern California and Dallas-Houston corridors. They will meet Federal Railroad Administration standards for interoperability with the Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR and California HSR Systems. More Private HSR projects are likely to emerge.
Amtrak Regional Rail & Long-Distance Route Upgrades
There is a worldwide shift to electric trains for faster acceleration, faster braking, lower energy requirements, lower emissions, and lower maintenance costs. For example, Caltrain commuter rail running 52-miles between San Francisco and San Jose is receiving a Regional Rail upgrade. In 2024, it will convert from diesel-electric to electric trains. When the new rail tunnel opens in San Francisco by late 2029, Caltrain will reach Salesforce Transit Center. California HSR trains will arrive a few years later.
In 2019, most of 25 state-supported Amtrak Regional lines slightly increased train frequencies and ridership. Yet, their train speeds and frequencies remain far too low. Amtrak’s third most popular route, Pacific Surfliner, is an example. The southern portion runs 111 miles between the 19M population Los Angeles Metro Area and 3.5M population San Diego Metro Area.
Pre-pandemic, 10% of its route reached 90 mph and the rest was limited to 32-80 mph and 13 daily roundtrips. Under those conditions, Pacific Surfliner attracted a paltry 2.8 million annual riders. Using higher levels of federal, state and local funding, speed should reach 90 mph over 85-90% of the route by the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
Given the high metro area populations, level of traffic, and relatively short distance in Amtrak’s Los Angeles-San Diego corridor, it merits a electic-powered Regional Rail-HSR upgrade with complete 2nd Main Track, over/underpasses, tunnels, viaduct, street closures, and electric trains for 90% of the route 110 mph and 34 daily roundtrips by 2033.
I also suggest that 10 Amtrak Regional routes (Keystone & Pennsylvanian, Hiawatha & Lincoln, Vermonter, Hartford, Valley Flyer & Northeast Regional, Carolinian & Piedmont) be combined into 4 upgraded Amtrak 160 mph routes (listed above). There is also a good case for upgrading 6 more Amtrak Regional routes to Regional Rail status.
The 15 Amtrak Long-Distance routes however, lost ridership and required larger taxpayer subsidy. Key reasons for ridership loss are:
(1) Fewer travelers want to spend over 1 night on a train
(2) Very Long-Distance routes require larger crews, 2 crew shifts & more equipment
(3) Travelers dislike frequent Amtrak schedule delays caused by freight trains
(4) Travelers dislike waiting for trains after 11 pm
This decade Amtrak and freight rail companies are adding more 2nd track in Long Distance routes to remove 30-40 mph bottlenecks and upgrading gated railroad crossings for more 60-80 mph speeds. Several Amtrak Long Distance trains will gain speed boosts where Amtrak Regional Rail track & signaling is upgraded for 90-110 mph. Amtrak plans to increase Long-Distance routes from 1 to 2 daily roundtrips so a train arrives at every station during daylight.
I would like Amtrak to go an important step further. Reduce two scenic Long-Distance routes to 12-18 hours and 1 crew shift and four other scenic Long-Distance routes to 24-30 hours and 2 crew shifts. Those changes will increase schedule reliability and boost ridership.
As a 25-year travel publisher, experience informs me that tourists pay premiums for extraordinary experiences. So I’m happy that Amtrak is enhancing long-distance train cabins. Patrons should pay extra for linen-covered dining tables with china, silverware, and enhanced menus prepared by onboard chefs. Better cocktail, wine, and beer options will also enhance the journey experience.
As Europe discovered pre-pandemic, there is pent-up demand for one-way, long-distance travel in scenic routes or overnight train rides that complete in 12-24 hours. If the scenery and service are grand enough, that can stretch to 32 hours before they fly back. That evidence leads me to believe that Amtrak Long-Distance routes should be partially upgraded, reduced and reorganized to:
• Los Angeles to Sacramento 12 hours
• Sacramento to Seattle, 19 hours
• Chicago to New Orleans, 19 hours
• Oakland to Denver, 30 hours
• Denver to Los Angeles 30 hours
• St. Paul to Seattle, 32 hours
Eventually, the Denver-Kansas City-St Louis-Chicago route should become a 190-220 mph HSR corridor. Amtrak Long-Distance routes from New York City to Florida should be replaced with a 190 mph Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville/Spartanburg-Atlanta-Macon-Jacksonville-Orlando HSR corridor, plus Regional Rail extensions to many Southeastern metro areas.
We Can Get There by 2045, Worst Case 2050, If …
When more Americans see Interstate HSR System Phase 1 operating and Phase 2 under construction, popular demand will flesh out Phase 3 plans. 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 add 1 billion passengers/year. We’re going to need that level of ridership when urbanized America reaches 390 million population by 2050.
Unfortunately, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is completely inadequate to meet Interstate HSR, Regional Rail, and Rapid Transit needs outside the Northeast Corridor. President Biden recently submitted a proposal to Congress for higher HSR, Regional Rail, and Rapid Transit funding as part of the annual USDOT budget. For a sense of whether Congress will approve it, see my conclusion on the next page.