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 bridges are falling apart. Excluding NYC, our Top 50 Metro Areas need two to four times the current rapid transit mileage to prevent a congestion chaos by 2035. Excluding Washington-NYC corridor, none of our intercity passenger trains meet entry-level standards for 125-155 mph speed, frequency and dependability.
We must increase Rapid Transit and High Speed Rail progress and Highway repair to prevent loss of productivity from roadway & airport congestion. We must prevent smog and GHG emissions from getting worse. With that big picture in mind, President Obama set the goal of building an Interstate High Speed Rail System capable of serving 80% of Americans by 2035 and doubling Rapid Transit investment. Though his 2009-10 economic stimulus funding of HSR and Rapid Transit was a jolt forward, the mission only started.
Robert Puentes, a Senior Fellow & Director at the Brookings Institute, studies all modes of transportation and has no inherent bias for one mode over another. He is a credible voice calling us to move surface transportation forward. Puentes has examined Texas Transportation Institute data and other data that forecasts worsening traffic congestion for highways. He 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, with most of it setting in our Top 50 metro areas. He knows that without a viable alternative (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 that have far less resources than America, are successfully addressing these problems with more HSR and Rapid Transit 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 lower cost than buying new rights of way. Building HSR-only track in those routes will simultaneously reserve more track usage for freight rail and commuter rail. 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 more density in our top metro areas and feeds more HSR patronage. He says, when properly executed in combination, they can mitigate roadway and airport congestion from worsening.
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, 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. Federal funding criteria for Rapid Transit and HSR projects should match those for Highway projects. Considering transportation gurus like Robert Puentes, funding applications from many state transportation departments, and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) studies, we can confidently back Obama’s goal to have Interstate HSR System accessible by 80% of Americans by 2035 and double to triple our Rapid Transit infrastructure.
Smarter Criteria For HSR Corridor Decisions
Since 1964, super-dense Japan had demonstrated the technical and demographic feasibility of 130 mph electric train service. The question for every other nation was, did they corridors of sufficient density to merit HSR. For France and Italy, the answer was a resounding Yes! Not sleep at the wheel in 1976-79, Presidents Ford and Carter and several Northeast Congressmen proposed a Washington-NYC (Phase 1) and a NYC-Boston (Phase 2) 125 mph Amtrak HSR project.
The Highway Lobby and congressmen they influenced had other ideas. Knowing that most Americans were lousy at geographical demographics and too cocky to respect areas of Japanese, French and Italian technology leadership in the 1970s, the Highway Lobby propagated a simple counter-argument, “America doesn’t have Europe-like population density for HSR to succeed.”
By failing to do their homework, news media unwittingly helped the Highway Lobby disseminate that junk argument to the public. They kneecapped public outcry for faster, more frequent Amtrak service. The truth to debunk that lie was readily available in libraries. Any Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide edition after 1971, which incorporated 1970 U.S. Census analysis, enabled any investigative journalist to see that in 1970, the 225-mile NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor had denser population than the 276-mile Paris-Lyon HSR corridor and the 360-mile Milan-Florence-Rome HSR corridor, both under construction in 1974-79.
Instead of getting the requested $6 billion in Phase 1 and roughly another $6 billion in Phase 2, Amtrak received less than $1 billion for the entire Boston-NYC-Washington HSR corridor. As a result Washington-NYC only improved to 110 mph and Boston-NYC only improved to 79 mph by the mid-1980s. Both ran infrequent trains.
That lie was cast beyond the Northeast Corridor. The 1992 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 train corridor. Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati, and Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin-Houston were the same population density as Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille train corridor.
When President Bill Clinton announced plans in 1993 for 150 mph Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR, the population density lie persisted and metastasized into two more 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, the Highway Lobby succeeded at underfunding the Northeast Corridor HSR project again. If fully funded work had started in 1976 and we added a few state-of-the-art upgrades along the way, Northeast Corridor HSR would have cost no more than 15-16 $billion to construct. Like France and Japan HSR, it would reach 200 mph, 35-40 daily trains today and 98% schedule dependability today.
Fortunately, America 2050 non-profit organization provides better demographic and case-history 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, followed by the Arizona, Gulf Coast and Front Range mega-regions.
America 2050 Study & Map suffers one inexcusable shortcoming. Its 2050 completion date is 15 years late.
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 80 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 corridor and city-pair ranking criteria. Consequently, many 220 mph city-pairs 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, 160, 180 and 200 mph also matter.
For example, 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 route with AGV, a Very High Speed Train (VHST). Designed by Ferrari and built by French company Alstom, AGV is certified to safely operate up to 224 mph. Travelers love Italo for its sleek aerodynamic exterior, smooth ride, quieter cabins and luxurious appointments. Ferrari loves Italo for faster acceleration, faster braking, lower external noise per unit of speed, ability to support 14-cabin trains.
For now, Ferrari limits Italo to 186 mph and it consumes 20% less energy than older 186 mph trains in the Turin-Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples corridor. Italy is upgrading track and catenary (electrical wires) in the route to support 224 mph and shorter Journey Times by 2020. To maintain profits, Ferrari must keep energy costs under control because the laws of physics dictate that the same object needs 4 times more energy to go twice as fast. Stated simply, a train that goes 150 mph, needs twice as much energy to go 225 mph.
To approach 224 mph for shorter Journey Times, while containing electricity costs, VHSR nations are implementing wind and solar energy to their power grid that will ultimately cost less per unit of electricity. Some are building solar tunnels to power HSR trains and stations. 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 per mph and reduce external noise.
VHST have better suspensions and sound-dampening materials and run on smoother tracks to limit cabin noise level to 80 db, like First Class on an airplane. VHST trains can run on VHSR tracks at 211-217 mph, while matching the vibration levels of HST running on HSR tracks at 186 mph.
VHST between France and Italy will soon travel under the Alps at 155 mph, which is about 45 mph faster than speed through older tunnels. As more routes outside tunnels are VHSR upgraded and VHST replace HST, anticipate a 155-168-186-199-205-211-217-224 mph speed range that adapts to each corridor constraint.
There is no technical limitation preventing America from similar speeds. America has plenty of flat desert to support 220 mph. Terrain with mild curves, like the Northeast, is likely to vary speeds between 180-200 mph. Mountainous routes that require tunnels will limit speed to 150-155 mph in America, like new tunnels under the Alps.
Lastly, due to severe political headwinds between 2011-16, the 2030 completion date is unrealistically aggressive by 5 years.
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. Fast boarding/deboarding of trains in 2-4 minutes helps European HSR trains operate at 95-99% schedule dependability. Though Europe continues having 112-125 mph trains, patrons riding 155-168-186-199 mph trains experience 3 hour Journey Times or less. Train operators have seen this practice so often that its nicknamed 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 America, actual flight time for a 150-500 mile flight is usually 45-90 minutes, sandwiched by costly time from roadway congestion, luggage check-in (option), security check-in, flight delays, boarding, runway taxi congestion, deboarding and luggage pick-up (option). If traveling between downtowns, add time to catch a taxi/Uber, wait for a shuttle, get a car rental and sit in roadway congestion. A handful of 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 typically 3 hour 15 minutes to 4 hours.
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 corridors up to 500-mile length having 12+ million people. As everyone knows, traffic congestion robs productivity and increases 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.
Most Japanese and European high speed trains operate at 155-186 mph. Given the 3-Hour Rule, several nations are upgrading key HSR routes for Very High Speed Rail (VHSR) and Very High Speed Trains (VHST). Their VHST are limited to 199 mph until more signaling & track upgrades complete. Eventually VHSR will operate at 199, 211, 217 or 224 mph, depending on track and signaling capability of a given route. In commercial operation, average speed for HST & VHST 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 224 mph = 179 mph avg. speed x 3 hours = 540 miles
• 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 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 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 HSR line can travel 480-540 miles in 3 hours, it has more revenue potential than a HSR line that travels 416 miles in 3 hours. Business travelers are also attracted to a 2-Hour Rule. For example, business travelers between London, Brussels and Paris really appreciate that recently upgraded 199 mph Eurostar enables sub-2-Hour Journey times between central business districts early morning, a full workday and returns home by 7-7:30pm for dinner and more time with family.
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 only 92% schedule dependability. Though Acela Express reaches 150 mph for 18 miles, the other 193 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, at best.
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% schedule dependability 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 155-220 mph projects, the USDOT should brand rail routes according to top speed, train frequency and punctuality 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 runway 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
The California-Las Vegas, Northeast, Midwest, Texas and Southeast have HSR projects either underway or shovel-ready. By jointly designating them as Priority Projects, the President and Congress can complete them faster and cheaper. 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 also feed California HSR more patrons.
In September 2013, the first chunk of HSR construction began in California’s Central Valley. It can’t arrive a day too soon. California HSR corridor already has double the population of Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseilles HSR corridor.
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.
Given U.S. Surface Transportation Bill has been paralyzed by hyper-partisan politics since 2011, Interstate High Speed Rail Progress has stalled. 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.
To get a sense of whether politics will speed up construction, Interstate High Speed Rail Funding is a must read.