Interstate High Speed Rail Progress
Though far from its potential, Amtrak Acela proves that Interstate High Speed Rail can succeed in America. When it musters enough political willpower, America can build a comprehensive Interstate HSR System that mitigates highway & airport congestion, cuts smog & greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, revitalizes Central Business Districts, increases travel productivity and gives leisure travelers another option to tour America.
In 2021, 82% of American residents live in mega-regions populated with corridors of large and small cities. Highway and airport congestion in those corridors rob productivity, while increasing smog and GHG emissions. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts America adding nearly 80 million residents between 2015 to 2050, with most settling in the corridors of 8 mega-regions.
Airports in America’s Top 20 Metro Areas were shifting more ground & terminal space to larger airplanes that carry more passengers. For higher profit, airlines were replacing many regional flights that use smaller planes with long-distance flights that use larger planes. Airlines were also reducing service to a number of Top 21-50 Metro Area airports. For example two decades ago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati made large airport expansions anticipating they would become hubs, only to discover that airlines have since cancelled many routes to them.
Given the increased priority of large hub airports, longer flights and post-COVID airline staff reductions, many cancelled regional flights will not return. More American travelers will have to drive or take connecting flights to reach destinations less than 500 miles away. If Americans had HSR and Regional Rail options like Europe and Asia, the reduction of regional flights would be a non-issue.
As the second part of this narrative journey emphasized, America has fallen decades behind Global Economic Competitors in HSR and Regional Rail. The third part of this narrative journey shows why U.S. population growth is over-topping highway and airport infrastructure. As the fourth part of narrative journey illuminated, highway congestion of cars & diesel freight trucks and regional flights are the primary reasons Transportation Sector is the largest contributor to dangerous smog and GHG emission levels. The fifth part of this narrative journey unveils the local and state trends towards Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail that with more federal funding, will compliment HSR to combat highway & airport congestion, smog and GHG.
Robert Puentes, a Director and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, has been analyzing transportation modes for well over two decades at home and abroad. He knows that intercity passenger rail technology and practices have advanced in ways that are eco-friendly, safe, comfortable, good for job creation and global economic competitiveness. Those factors led Puentes to conclude that population-dense corridors in America merit substantial HSR investment now, simultaneous with more Commuter Rail, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail investment.
On the rest of this page, observe how best practices will maximize HSR, Regional Rail and Metro Rail benefits to travelers, America and the planet.
3-Hour Rule Drives Most HSR Ridership
Most travelers want to traverse population-dense intercity corridors in under 3 hours. For higher profitability, HSR Builders, HST Builders and HST Operators want to give travelers more 3 Hour or less ride times. Since sub-3-hour travel times by passenger rail generate more economic activity, governments are funding HSR Builders to upgrade many Commuter Rail routes to Regional Rail routes and 1st Generation HSR routes. Governments are also funding less curvy 2nd, 3rd & 4th Generation HSR Routes.
HST Builders (Alstom, Japan Railway, Siemens, China Railway, Bombardier, Talgo) have business models similar to Boeing and Airbus. Over 2018-23, HST Builders are introducing nextgen HST certified for operation up to 236-249 mph on 4th Generation HSR routes. They are very aerodynamic, have lower weight per trainset and brakes that regenerate electricity for onboard lighting, heating and cooling.
HST Operators have business models similar to airlines, but transport most patrons CBD-to-CBD at intermodal transportation centers. As HST Operators increase train speed, frequency and capacity, more people ride HST. Travelers spend more money at intermodal transportation centers than daily commuters. So more retailers and hoteliers enter or adjoin busy intermodal transportation centers, particularly those in CBDs. Some HSR Builders own shopping mall space in intermodal transportation centers that they lease to franchises and small businesses. In a virtuous cycle, more retail spending and foot traffic in intermodal transportation centers is free advertising to HST Operators to attract more travelers.
Each colorband on the chart (left) represents an unofficial, but common passenger rail category from 4th Generation HSR (olive) down to 1st Generation HSR (light grey), then to Regional Rail (grey) routes. Since Business Travelers generate the most revenue and prefer 3 hour or less travel times, HST Operators seek higher Top Speed & Average Speed for higher profits.
HST Operator Percent of Top Speed, Average Speed and 3-Hour Distance, as the chart approximates, are determined by:
• Certified Top Speed of a HSR route
• Certified Top Speed of a HST
• Time Accelerating/Decelerating 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
On 1st Generation HSR routes, most HST Operators run at 124-143 mph Top Speed and 81-100 mph Average Speed because few drivers can sustain 80 mph Average Speed for 3 hours. Despite higher electricity costs, HST Operators prefer higher speeds on 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation HSR routes for even higher profits.
California HSR is a 4th Generation HSR route being constructed to exploit the 3-Hour Rule. Its HST will reach 220 mph in long stretches of rural area and 110 mph in urban area for 184 mph Average Speed. When California HSR Phase 1 completes, HST will cover the 490-mile distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 Hour 40 Minute intercity travel time. Walking, taxi/Uber, wait times, intercity travel, food & rest breaks, Metro Rail/bus and parking times form total “Travel Times” between San Francisco and Los Angeles vary by travel mode. The chart below illustrates why California HSR Travel Time compares favorably to Airplane and Auto.
When you include California HSR from Los Angeles to Anaheim, Phase 1 total distance is 520 miles for more city pairs (LA-Bakersfield, SF-Bakersfield, San Jose-LA, SF-Anaheim, San Jose-Burbank Airport, LA-Fresno, LA-Merced, SF-Palmdale) to generate higher profit per crew shift. For more information about this transformative mega-project, see California HSR.
2-Hour Rule Boosts Business Travel
The 2-Hour Rule is another profit motivator. Many business travelers in 200-350 mile corridors prefer to return home the same night. Their company will pay premium train fares for a Sub-2-Hour morning ride and Sub-2-Hour evening return that avoids hotel expenses, otherwise paid by the company.
In response, HSR Builders, HST Builders and HST Operators are delivering more routes and HST capable of 186-199-205-217-224 mph to attract premium-fare business travelers who want day-trips. France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, South Korea, China and Japan have many examples of these HSR routes operational and under construction.
Low-Cost 4-Hour Rule Boosts Budget Travel
France has introduced low-fare TGV trains in more corridors like Toulouse-Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Lyon-Aix en Provence-Cannes-Nice. Their ridership success proves that budget travelers will ride HST more often and longer when Coach Fares are competitive with most airlines.
Many travelers prefer CBD-to-CBD travel on HST to eliminate the cost of getting to/from Airport to CBD. Many budget travelers prefer riding HST 4 hours up to 600 miles. This is particularly true when a patron buys a ticket for HST that runs 99-112 mph on Regional Rail route, then increases to high speeds on 2nd, 3rd or 4th Generation HSR route.
More Train Frequency Boosts All Passenger Rail Ridership
People value travel frequency as much as higher speed. We all miss flights. If the next flight is 20-30 minutes, no problem. If 45-60 minutes, its manageable. If 2 hours, its a missed-connection and hassle. If its a missed late night flight, it could be an airport sleep-over.
Respectful of that traveler concern and depending on corridor population density, European HST Operators know that travelers prefer 20-30 minute train frequency from 5:30am to 8pm and comfortably accept 40-60 minute train frequency from 8pm-12pm.
Symbiosis of HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail & Intermodal Transportation Centers
HSR, Regional Rail and Commuter Rail have a symbiotic relationship because they share portions of the same track. Designed for workers, Commuter Rail is generally characterized by 70-80 mph Top Speed, 5:30am-8:30am morning service, 4pm-7pm evening service and many railroad crossings. Regional Rail is generally characterized by 99-112 mph Top Speed, 30-60 minute train frequency over 5:30am-10pm and fewer railroad crossings per mile. The higher service level of Regional Rail enables more convenient transfers to HSR, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail for expanded travel options.
Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail gather thousands of daily riders from across metro areas. Every Metro Rail system has one or more routes to the intermodal transportation center hosting passenger trains. Some time ago a Swiss study of passenger rail ridership discovered that synchronized schedules for HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail/Trams increased ridership for all travel modes. As a result, most European HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Trams and intercity buses synchronize schedules for expanded travel options.
Amtrak and its state transportation partners have been gradually upgrading Commuter Rail routes shared with Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor, Keystone Corridor, Hiawatha, Lincoln, Wolverine, Hartford and Carolinian to Regional Rail status. We should emphasize “gradually upgrading” because to date, only one (Keystone) is electric-powered, 110 mph Top Speed and hourly service before COVID-19. Those limitations aside, Amtrak Regional Rail routes include low-emission diesel-electric trains, comfortable seating, seat tables, a cafe car, restrooms, ample luggage space, WiFi and power outlets at each seat.
At present, only Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington have HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and intercity buses working symbiotically. From smallest to largest metro area, their combined train frequency carries 40,000 to 650,000 riders per day at intermodal transportation centers — enough to dent Northeast traffic congestion.
Over 2023-28, some combination of HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and intercity buses will meet at intermodal transportation centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Anaheim, San Jose, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Seattle and Portland as well.
Prioritizing HSR Corridors for Transformative Benefits
Over 2021-22, Amtrak Acela transitions to nextgen HST and modest upgrades complete to railway in 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Nextgen Acela will run 10 mph faster through curves and reach 160 mph Top Speed. The on-board experience gains smoother rides and better passenger amenities. NYC has an awesome new station experience, with a roomier station experience coming soon to Washington and station upgrades planned for Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Newark as well.
Nevertheless, Acela remains hamstrung by nearly 350 miles that need new tunnels & bridges, more over/underpasses and other infrastructure work to expand more mileage at 160 mph, then upgrade to 185 mph by 2040. For insights about Amtrak Acela’s quest for 1 hour 45 minute NYC-Washington travel time and and 2 hour 45 minute Boston-NYC travel time to triple ridership by 2040, see Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Progress.
Federal funding of the Interstate HSR System should consist of three phases. The first phase should build transformative HSR projects in our busiest corridors of 18-19 states by 2030-33. Here’s a summary of Interstate HSR Phase 1 projects that should be built or upgraded for 150-220 mph speeds:
• San Francisco-San Jose-Gilrot-Fresno-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank Airport-LA-Anaheim
• Las Vegas-Victorville-Palmdale
• Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington
• Houston-Brazos Valley-Dallas-Fort Worth
• Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago-Champaign-Springfield-St. Louis
• Detroit-Toledo-Fort Wayne-Gary-Chicago
• Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach-Orlando-Disney Springs-Tampa
Here are Interstate HSR Phase 2 corridors that should glue together for 15,000 miles of 125-220 mph Interstate HSR System by 2040.
• Los Angeles-Riverside-Escondido-San Diego
• Riverside-Palm Springs-Phoenix-Tucson
• St. Louis-Kansas City-OKC-Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin-San Antonio
• Anaheim-Irvine-Oceanside-San Diego
• San Jose-Oakland-Fairfield-Sacramento-Auburn-Reno
• Cheyenne-Denver-Colorado Springs-Santa Fe-Albuquerque
• New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-Burlington
• Nashville-Memphis-Jackson-Baton Rouge
• Birmingham-Montgomery-Mobile-Gulfport-New Orleans-Baton Rouge
• New Orleans-Baton Rouge-Beaumont-Houston-San Antonio
When more Americans see Interstate HSR Phase 1 success and Interstate HSR Phase 2 under construction, popular demand will flesh out Interstate HSR Phase 3 plans to achieve a 25,000-miles of 125-220 mph Interstate HSR System by 2050.
Insights from Transformative HSR Projects
Aside from California HSR and Northeast Corridor HSR projects, three other transformative projects merit a closer look.
HSR between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is an age-old dream. In 2019, Brightline raised funds and entered private partnership Virgin Trains to make that dream a reality. Though the partners split and the project is rebranded “Brightline West”, construction starts in 2Q 2021. Service featuring 200 mph HSR between Las Vegas and Victorville is anticipated to begin 2024-25.
The animating goal of Brightline West is extension to Los Angeles Union Station. Aside from more funding required, the open question is will Brightline West extend from Victorville to LA Union Station via Palmdale or via Rancho Cucamonga, a route from the east (not pictured). Most people would bet on Palmdale, since that would attract millions of Northern Californians as well.
Dotted lines on the map indicate Environmental Documents Underway before project development can start. By 2021-end, all Environmental Documents will clear for project development. Stated another way, every corridor connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas will be under construction or shovel-ready. They just need completion funding.
Chicago is already America’s freight rail and long-distance passenger rail hub. As improvement towards 110 mph completes and more daily trains are added, Amtrak ridership in Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis and Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit corridors continues to rise. Excluding COVID timeframe, more Midwesterners ride those trains as service improves.
Knowing that 110 mph only scratches the surface of intercity passenger rail benefits, High Speed Rail Alliance has studied and promotes a 220 mph Chicago-Midwest HSR network that would make German HSR fans blush with envy.
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
Along with this transformative 220 mph network, Chicago-Midwest region needs connecting underground tracks between Chicago Union Station and Thompson Transit Center for pass-thru trains, Chicago Union Station upgrade and it must untangle the web of tracks that force freight & passenger rail to criss-cross Chicago at snail’s pace.
In another private venture, Texas Central Railway proposes a $10 billion HSR project to connect Houston to Dallas at 205 mph. Texas Central Railway funds limit the Dallas HSR Station just southeast of downtown, where they can build Transportation Oriented Development on adjacent land they own. Officials representing DFW Airport, Fort Worth and downtown Houston are concerned that Texas Central Railway may not extend the HSR system to them, thereby missing substantial ridership.
If more federal funding is granted to Texas DOT, existing Dallas-DFW-Fort Worth rail corridor can be upgraded for Texas Central Railway HSR and instead of terminating at the planned North Houston Station, Texas Central Railway HSR can extend to downtown Houston, where a new intermodal transportation center would connect to Amtrak, Houston Metro Rail and Bus Rapid Transit. If more funding is secured, USDOT can help Texas Central Railway enhance its Transportation Oriented Development objectives, while expanding HSR service to more destinations. That helps Texas DOT mitigate highway congestion.
Will America Catch Up in 21st Century Transportation Infrastructure?
In the 20th century, America built a comprehensive highway system and airports that helped fuel its growth to superpower status. The rest of world envied our transportation infrastructure. In the 21st century, Global Economic Competitors have comprehensive highway systems and modern airports. But they’ve vaulted 20-30 years ahead with comprehensive HSR networks and popular Rapid Transit systems. Americans now envy their transportation infrastructure.
This narrative journey explained why we need a world-class Interstate HSR System and more Rapid Transit in the 21st century. By 2050, America must close the electric passenger rail gap with our Global Economic Competitors. And in the process, we’ll be respected as a leading partner in humankind’s quest to slow Climate Change and reduce smog.
Despite the clear majority of Americans wanting to achieve those noble goals, HSR and Rapid Transit project funding are paralyzed by federal politics. For a sense of whether we can overcome those political hurdles, Interstate High Speed Rail Funding page is a must read.