Interstate High Speed Rail Progress
We know where and how to build High Speed Rail. Many states have vetted HSR projects that will alter travel as they know it, in some corridors. The problem is, states are carrying too much of the load. Federal funding must be doubled immediately, then tripled five years later for America’s surface transportation infrastructure to catch up with Global Economic Competitors.
America is largely stuck on 1980s surface transportation infrastructure. Too many highway and rail bridges are falling apart. Excluding NYC, our Top 50 Metro Areas need 2-4 times current rapid transit mileage to prevent a congestion chaos by 2035. Excluding Washington-NYC corridor, none of our intercity passenger rail meets minimum world standards for HSR speed — and even that corridor needs speed, frequency, on-time performance and safety upgrades.
With that big picture in mind, President Obama set the goals of quadrupling Federal Railroad investment for an Interstate High Speed Rail System that serves 80% of Americans by 2035. Since our Rapid Transit is also underdeveloped, he sought to initially double its investment too. Though his 2009-10 economic stimulus funding of HSR and Rapid Transit was a jolt forward, since 2011, HSR progress is moving at half its intended pace in a few states and stalled in others.
A Senior Fellow & Director at the Brookings Institute, Robert Puentes studies all modes of transportation and has no inherent bias for one mode over another. He is a credible voice begging America’s surface transportation to catch up with the rest of the advanced world. Puentes has examined Texas Transportation Institute data and population data that forecasts traffic congestion chaos for highways and boulevards.
Puentes knows that U.S. Population Density increased by 37% from 1980-2010. He knows that American population is forecast to grow from 310 million in 2010 to over 365 million by 2035, mostly in our Top 50 metro areas. He knows that without well developed Interstate HSR, the Federal Aviation Administration says 8 of our largest metro areas will require additional aviation capacity by 2025. More will join the list by 2035. More importantly, Puentes knows other nations with far less wealth than America, are successfully addressing these problems with more HSR Rapid Transit and Bikeways to balance their transportation infrastructure.
Fortunately, America has 22,000 miles of legacy rail routes. About 12,000 miles can be upgraded to HSR at dramatically lower cost than buying new rights-of-way. Building HSR-only track in those rights-of-way requires more overpasses/underpasses that can be shared with freight rail and commuter rail, thereby improving their service as well. Many old train stations can be transformed into Intermodal Transportation Centers at lower cost than building from scratch.
Those and other factors led Puentes to conclude that America has many corridors that merit HSR investment now, simultaneous with more Rapid Transit projects in large metro areas. Puentes reminds us that additional Rapid Transit encourages density in our large metro areas and feeds more HSR patronage. He says, when properly executed in combination with highway bridge repair and better airport connections, they can mitigate highway and airport traffic congestion.
Puentes also points out, “The rules governing transportation policy continue to favor roads over transit and other alternatives to highway building. Projects using highway dollars are subject to perfunctory review and enjoy a federal funding contribution of 80% or 90% of the project’s cost. In contrast, (rapid) transit projects are subject to a rigorous bureaucratic process and a federal contribution of less than half of the project cost. So, cities have a tendency to favor building new roads over mass transit — which means more pollution and often poor solutions to current economic and social problems.”
The message is clear, but the solution is politically difficult. Federal funding criteria for Rapid Transit and HSR projects should match those for Interstate Highway and International Airport projects. The political difficulty is that a majority of the U.S. Senate represents rural states that only care about federal funding for highways and airports.
Despite that political challenge, the way forward is clear. Follow the advice transportation guru Robert Puentes, HSR funding applications from about 20 state transportation departments, and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) studies backing Obama’s goals for an Interstate HSR System accessible by 80% of Americans and triple our Rapid Transit infrastructure by 2035.
Smarter Criteria For HSR Corridor Decisions
Since 1964, Japan has demonstrated the technical and demographic feasibility of electric-powered HSR service. The question for every other nation was, did they also have sufficient population density to merit HSR. For France and Italy, the 1970s answer was a resounding Yes!
Observing progress in Japan, Italy and France over 1976-80, Presidents Ford and Carter and several Northeast Congressmen proposed a Washington-NYC (Phase 1) and a NYC-Boston (Phase 2) Amtrak HSR project.
The Highway Lobby had other ideas. Knowing that most Americans ignored geographical demographics, the Highway Lobby constructed a simple lie for mass consumption, “America doesn’t have Europe-like population density for HSR to succeed.”
By failing to do simple homework, News Media unwittingly helped the Highway Lobby propagate that lie to the majority of Congress and the public. The truth to easily debunk it was available in any library’s Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide. Any such guide after 1971 illustrated that the 226-mile NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor had larger and denser population than the 276-mile Paris-Lyon HSR corridor and the 360-mile Milan-Florence-Rome HSR corridor — both under construction in 1976-79.
Everything was cheaper in 1976. If Congress started fully-funded HSR then, by 1994 Boston-NYC-Washington corridor would have had world class HSR service for only $18 billion of infrastructure investment. Amtrak would have reached 150-185 mph over most of the route, 35-40 daily trains and 97% on-time performance.
Instead of getting the requested $6 billion in Phase 1 and $12 billion in Phase 2 (due to more bridge replacement and grade separations) from Congress, Amtrak received less than $1 billion for the entire Boston-NYC-Washington HSR corridor. As a result, Washington-NYC corridor only improved to 110 mph and Boston-NYC only improved to 79 mph by 1984 — both with infrequent trains and lackluster on-time performance.
That Lack of Population Density lie hurt other American corridors too. By 1993, French HSR was expanded to Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille. The 1993 Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide revealed that Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis and San Francisco-Los Angeles corridors had more people than Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille corridor. Even Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati, and Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin-Houston were the same population density as Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille train corridor.
By 1993, when newly inaugurated President Clinton announced plans for Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR, the lie metastasized two more powerful, but false Opinions Misrepresented as Fact:
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because Americans prefer short flights
• We don’t need High Speed Rail because widening highways solves traffic congestion
As detailed in Part 1, Highway Lobby-backed think tanks used those deceptive tools to convince enough Congresspersons to underfund the Northeast Corridor HSR project again. More remarkably, they misinformed News Media to believe that a $4 billion investment stretched over 437 Northeast Corridor miles and several dozen bridges and tunnels should be sufficient to achieve world-class HSR standards by 2000. Due to land and labor cost escalating faster than the CPI and more expensive, but better train technology, if Congress started full-funding the Northeast Corridor HSR upgrade by 1993, it would have cost $35-37 billion to complete by 2008. When Amtrak Acela failed to meet lofty misinformed expectations, critics pounced on it like a cat toys with a mouse.
We know from spotless Japan and France safety records, that properly designed HSR prevents deadly accidents. If we upgraded Northeast Corridor like them, it would have had straiter HSR-only tracks and Positive Train Control fully implemented to prevent the 2015 Philadelphia train derailment.
Fortunately, America 2050 non-profit organization provides better demographic tools that enable politicians and transportation officials to precisely identity corridors suitable for HSR and rank them by traffic merit.
America 2050 HSR Study & Map, helps everyone understand primary, secondary and tertiary factors by mega-regions, corridors and city-pairs. By scoring population density, airway traffic and highway traffic in corridors, plus population, office density and transit connectivity in major metro areas, it ranks the Northeast, California-Las Vegas, Chicago-Great Lakes and Texas-Oklahoma mega-regions as having the highest merit. Florida, Atlanta-Piedmont and Cascadia mega-regions rank next. This is where we should focus HSR construction to have the most difference-making impact by 2035.
Communicating The Right HSR Speeds & Construction Timelines
The U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) is attracting worldwide HSR experts to their conferences to discuss best practices for building world-class HSR networks. The current USHSRA map sews together the viewpoints of international experts, many politicians and regional consortiums. Its 220 mph routes spark imagination like our 75-85 mph Interstate Highways did in 1960. It also boasts a 2030 completion date.
The 2030 USHSRA Map is not without issues. The USHSRA has not developed rigorous city-pair and corridor ranking criteria. Consequently, many city-pairs at 220 mph can be questioned, even by HSR advocates. Another blemish is the USHSRA Map only identifies 110 mph and 220 mph Routes. In-between speeds like 125, 150, 165, 185 and 200 mph also matter.
VHST builders Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens and Japan Railway Central are aerodynamically sculpting NextGen trains for less wind resistance and lighter weight parts that lower energy consumption and reduce external noise. VHST have better suspensions and sound-dampening materials. They can tilt and run on smoother tracks to limit cabin noise to 80 db level. That’s equivalent to noise level of First Class seating on commercial jets. VHST trains can run on VHSR tracks at 211 mph, while matching the vibration & noise levels of HST running on HSR tracks at 186 mph. VHST between Germany and Italy can travel under the Alps at 155 mph, which is about 45 mph faster than through older tunnels.
Ferrari, the famed Italian sports carmaker, recently established passenger train operations under the Italo brand. Italo replaced older 186 mph High Speed Trains (HST) on the Turin-Milan-Florence-Rome route with AGV, an aerodynamic lighter weight Very High Speed Train (VHST). Designed by Ferrari and built by French company Alstom, AGV is certified to operate up to 224 mph, which may be useful for emergencies. Travelers love Italo for its sleek exterior, smooth ride, quiet cabins and luxurious appointments. Ferrari loves Italo for faster acceleration & braking, lower energy cost per mph, and ability to support 14-cabin trains for more patrons.
To attract many more patrons per train, Ferrari would like to speed up trains for a Turin-Milan-Florence-Rome-Naples Journey Time that matches today’s Turin-Milan-Florence-Rome Journey Time. The laws of physics however, dictate that the same object in the same path conditions needs 4 times more energy to go twice as fast. Hence, the same train on the same route at 150 mph needs twice as much energy to go 225 mph. For now, Ferrari limits Italo to 186 mph and consumes 20% less energy than older 186 mph trains in the Turin-Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples corridor.
Italy, like many other nations is straightening more HSR track, installing more durable electrical wires and adding wind & solar energy to its power grid to eventually lower electricity cost per unit. Some are building solar tunnels to power HSR trains and stations. Early next decade, Italy’s 4 HSR routes will speed up to attract even more patronage.
As more European and Asian HSR routes upgrade to VHSR status, VHST replace HST, and cheaper wind & solar energy enter electric power grids, anticipate 155-168-186-199-205-211-217 mph commercial operating ranges that adapt to the speed constraints of each corridor segment and the “Energy Consumption-Per-Patron-Mile profile desired by each VHST operator.
America has plenty of flat desert & farm land to support 205-211-217 mph. Terrain with mild curves, like the Northeast, will reach 155-186-199 mph. Mountainous routes, like Western Pennsylvania, require tunnels and have many curves that will likely limit operating speed range to 125-155 mph.
3-Hour Rule & Train Frequency Important To Ridership
European HSR patrons frequently arrive at the station 15-45 minutes before a scheduled train to purchase tickets, shop, dine or drink before riding. Patrons board/deboard 8-16 train cabins via 16-32 doors. Hurried executives often enter train stations with electronic tickets in hand as little as 5 minutes before train departure.
Boarding/deboarding of trains in only 2-4 minutes helps European HSR trains operate at 95-98% on-time performance. Though Europe will continue 112-124 mph trains in some routes, increasingly more patrons prefer 155-168-186-199 mph trains for their 3 hour or less Journey Times. Train operators call it the “3-Hour Rule.” That practice has increased HSR patronage growth in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and the UK, each time they speed up trains. In all cases, trains slow down to 90-110 mph as they approach stations.
Air Time for a 150-500 mile flight is 45-80 minutes. For Journey Time, add roadway time to & from airports, luggage check-in (option), security check-in, boarding time, airplane runway congestion, deboarding time and luggage pick-up (option). If traveling between downtowns, Journey Time lengthens to catch a taxi/Uber/Lyft, catch a shuttle or rent a car. Some airports have airport-to-downtown rapid transit, allowing you to skip roadway congestion. Consequently, total Journey Times for regional flights that have final destinations away from the center city are no less than 3 hour 15 minutes. Since commercial airplanes typically have 70-75% on-time performance, Journey Times are often substantially longer.
With European HSR patronage behavior and Journey Times for American regional flights in mind, a 2011 Siemens Study for Midwest High Speed Rail illustrates Sub-3-Hour Journey Times on 220 mph tracks that would be very attractive to city center-to-city center travelers, for example:
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
We all miss flights. If the next flight is 30 minutes, no problem. If its 60 minutes, manageable. If its 90 minutes, that’s an extra cocktail. If its 2 hours, thats usually a missed-connection. A 3-hour wait can sometimes escalate to airport over-nighter. That’s when you hate flying.
Catering to the “no problem” traveler mentality, the Siemens Study calls for VHSR service beginning at 5 am, and the last train in a 3-hour route leaving by 9 pm with trains every 30 minutes. That works out to 32 weekday trains in each direction.
More Refinements To Rank, Scope, Schedule Dependability & Branding
Although the America 2050 Study establishes criteria to rank corridors, it does not set a population threshold when construction is feasible. Nor does it address the 3-Hour Rule. Back in the 1993, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom and Belgium started constructing their 2nd and 3rd HSR routes. They ramped up because TGV, Thalys and Eurostar success helped them identify a corridor threshold to build HSR routes:
When growth for large metro areas causes 500-mile corridor population to reach 10-15 million, its time to build HSR. Otherwise, you’ll have to widen intercity highways and add airport runways at a higher cost.
America’s 2017 population density is similar to the 500-mile corridors of 1995 Western Europe. By 2020, America will have 16 500-mile corridors having 12+ million people. As everyone knows, traffic congestion robs productivity (while feeding hypertension). When a metro area rises to 1.5 million population, traffic jams occur more often. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts America adding ~60 million residents from 2010 to 2035, with most of our 369 million residents settling in the Top 50 Metro Areas, as listed in corridors on the America 2050 and USHRA maps. That population forecast means we are growing from our Top 35 Metro Areas in 2010 to our Top 50 Metro Areas having 1.5+ million residents by 2035. That also means dense 500-mile corridors are getting denser.
Given the 3-Hour Rule, most nations are motivated to upgrade HSR routes for Very High Speed Rail (VHSR) and Very High Speed Trains (VHST). Eventually, most VHST will operate at 186-199-205-211-217 mph. In commercial operation, average speed for intercity passenger trains are typically 75-80% of top speed due to stops along the route. Average speeds multiplied by 3 Hours yields key insights about when HSR and VHSR distances convert flyers to train patrons:
• 80% x 217 mph = 174 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 521 miles
• 80% x 211 mph = 169 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 506 miles
• 80% x 205 mph = 164 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 492 miles
• 80% x 199 mph = 159 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 480 miles
• 75% x 186 mph = 140 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 416 miles
• 75% x 168 mph = 126 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 378 miles
• 75% x 155 mph = 116 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 349 miles
• 75% x 125 mph = 94 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 281 miles
• 75% x 110 mph = 83 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 249 miles
When a VHST travels 480-521 miles in 3 hours, it connects more city pairs than a HST that travels 349-416 miles in 3 hours. More city pairs per train in 3 hours translates to more patron revenue per day. Europe and Japan have also discovered that a 2 Hour Rule attracts more day-trip business travelers. For example, business travelers between London, Brussels and Paris, appreciate that the new 199 mph Eurostar not only enables quieter sub-2-Hour Journey Times, it adds another 25 minutes of personal time to their day and more trains per day in the routes.
Keep those rules in mind when we compare European HSR travel to Amtrak Acela. You may recall from Part 1, that Amtrak runs Acela Express hourly service up to 135 mph between NYC and Washington, but Slow Zones over those 226 miles limit average speed to 84 mph for a 2:42 minute Journey Time and 92% on-time performance. Though Acela Express reaches 150 mph for 34 miles, the other 177 miles between NYC and Boston have so many Slow Zones it averages only 59 mph for a 3:35 minute Journey Time.
By world standards, underinvestment in America’s most important rail corridor limits Acela performance to that of a regional train.
Amtrak officials are not blind to those shortcomings. To shorten Journey Times, increase patronage and boost revenue in the next 8-9 years, Amtrak wants:
• a 2-hour Washington-NYC Journey Time, 113 mph average speed
• a 3-hour Boston-NYC Journey Time, 70 mph average speed
• Express trains every 15-20 minutes
• 95% on-tim performance for the Northeast Corridor
• Acela Express-level service between Washington and Richmond
A logical deduction is that once Amtrak and other HSR lines are funded for 155-217 mph projects, the USDOT should brand rail routes according to top speed, train frequency and on-time performance standards similar to these international categories:
• VHSR: 200-225 mph; every 15-30 minutes, 97-98% on-time
• HSR: 155-185 mph; every 30 minutes, 95% on-time
• Emerging HSR: 110 mph; every 60 minutes, 85-90% on-time
• Scenic Rail: 90-110 mph; twice daily
A $10 billion 205 mph HSR project funded by a private company (Texas Central Railway) proposes to connect Houston to Dallas by 2021. Per current plans, Texas Central Railway wants to build the Dallas HSR Station in Southeast Dallas where they can Value Capture development on adjacent land. Officials representing downtown Dallas, DFW Airport and downtown Fort Worth are gravely concerned that Texas Central Railway may not extend HSR stations in those logical places to maximize patronage and transit connectivity that reduces airport and highway congestion.
With proper funding, the Federal Railroad Administration can address both public and private interests by purchasing adjacent land and issuing tax credits to Texas Central Railway to extend the project to downtown Dallas, DFW Airport and downtown Fort Worth. In that manner, the HSR Division can orchestrate financial arrangements to satisfy Texas Central Railway’s Value Capture objectives and better serve public interests.
Accelerate Construction Of Priority Projects
Even in the state most famous for auto culture, Californians voted for a VHSR project with a $9.9 billion bond measure in 2008. In 2010, Obama also committed $4 billion in federal funding to California HSR and improve three Amtrak California routes that will feed patrons to California HSR. Despite the naysayers, the first 112 miles of HSR construction in California Central Valley are near completion.
Observing California HSR progress, a private company called XpressWest, using $1.5 billion from Las Vegas builders and casino interests for a project approved by Nevada DOT, has acquired political backing from Republican and Democratic Nevada Senators and federal approval to build HSR from Las Vegas to Victorville, California. The project is now focused on meeting federal Buy America Requirements to receive a $5.5 billion federal loan needed to complete the $7 billion project.
At first glance, XpressWest stopping in the small city of Victorville seems unsound. That’s 50 miles from the planned California HSR Palmdale Station. Since all California HSR bond money is legally bound to the voter-approved HSR route and there is still a funding shortfall, no one will propose that California HSR extend 50 miles from Palmdale to meet XpressWest in Victorville.
Though XpressWest backers are tight-lipped about specifics, their expansion map showing an extension from Victorville to Palmdale implies clear intent that XpressWest connect to California HSR. XpressWest backers are hoping that federal funding closes the Victorville-Palmdale gap.
Political Hurdles Have Been Overcome Before
Interstate High Speed Rail Progress will help airlines switch to more efficient flights. It will limit highway and airport expansion, while preventing intercity traffic congestion from getting worse. By 2035, those objectives can reduce 0.5 billion barrels oil/year and significantly cut GHG & smog emissions. Like the European Union, we too can “grow out of oil for transport“, if we can jump over the current political hurdles.
U.S. Surface Transportation Bill has been paralyzed by partisan politics since 2011, stalling Interstate High Speed Rail Progress. Based on the uncertainty of when federal funding will increase, flexible 2022, 2026 and 2028 milestones for California HSR have delay factored in. Northeast Corridor, XpressWest, Texas, Midwest and Southeast HSR have similar delay factored into their project milestones and cost projections.
To get a sense of whether politics will speed up construction, Interstate High Speed Rail Funding is a must read.