Interstate High Speed Rail Progress
America needs massive High Speed Rail progress to complete our Intermodal Transportation Network, each mode optimized for mileage it best serves. By following the best practices of France, we too can have a transformational Interstate HSR System, complimented with great Regional Rail and Rapid Transit to reap desperately needed benefits. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
World Economic Forum’s October 2019 Global Economic Competitiveness Report shows how far America’s infrastructure fell. President Biden decries how sub-par Transportation infrastructure negatively effects our global competitiveness for business, jobs and reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) & smog emissions.
Our highways and hub airports are overtaxed because we lack a comprehensive High Speed Rail system for 75 to 550-mile travel and upgraded Regional Rail for 25 to 150-mile travel. Though our metro areas have bus systems good for short commutes, they lack extensive Rapid Transit systems good for longer commutes and more station transfers that multiply commute options.
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. It’s likely that our Top 70 Metro Areas will have 1+ million population and our Top 250 Metro Areas will have 200,000+ population.
Traffic congestion, declining bridges and demographic growth combined with Global Warming effects do not permit gradual infrastructure modernization. We must accelerate Interstate High Speed Rail (HSR), Regional Rail and Rapid Transit construction and fix Highway bridges to complete our Intermodal Transportation Network by 2045.
Most HSR, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit advocates use 2050 target date to synchronize with the 2050 Paris Climate Agreement date. I choose 2045 to anticipate 5 years of unforeseen delays (economic recession, pandemic, natural disasters, etc.).
Best Practices for Speeds & The 3-Hour Rule
Part 1 of this series established that France is the best nation-model for America to adopt HSR and Regional Rail best practices. Part 5 of this series highlighted Rapid Transit construction projects underway and planned. They need more public funding to efficiently transport more people too. Comprehensive Rapid Transit systems will better compliment HSR and Regional Rail.
French HSR and Regional Rail require more electricity and France is meeting the challenge. Think of France as a mega-region the size of Texas with twice as many people. But unlike Texas (and other nations), France is on pace to generate, transmit and consume the highest percentage of electricity with zero-GHG emissions to power more High Speed Trains, Regional Trains, Rapid Transit and Electric Vehicles by 2040.
The French government railway agency, SNCF, has operated all passenger & freight rail routes since 1938. Most stations and rail routes survived World War II unscathed. Today, SNCF has a comprehensive network of passenger rail between its large (2-11 million pop.), medium (1.0-1.9 million pop.) and small (200K-999K pop.) metro areas.
France also expanded or built Rapid Transit systems in its large, medium and small metro areas after the war. When Japan introduced the first 210 kph (130 mph) HSR route in 1964, it was a wake up call to the rest of the world, but only a competitive nudge to France. SNCF budget was increased to upgrade many legacy rail routes to 220 kph (137 mph) 1st Generation HSR Routes and start R&D on even faster trains.
Initially, France wanted new High Speed Trains (HST) with jet turbines to avoid building electric infrastructure for trains. French train-maker Alstom emerged as leader of that R&D effort. The downside is jet turbines consume oil-based jet fuel. Once the Oil Embargo crippled their economy in 1973, French government recognized the flaw in their thinking. It quickly shifted Energy and Transportation policy to become less dependent on oil.
More nuclear power plants were commissioned to generate electricity. All rapid transit running on electric power would be expanded. Alstom won the national contract to build electric High Speed Trains. SNCF started building Ligne à Grande Vitesse (“High Speed Line”) that people nicknamed “LGV.” Since HSR requires another level of discipline to manage, SNCF spun off a new agency to become the HST Operator called “Train à Grande Vitesse.” Today, everyone nicknames it “TGV.”
In 1981, TGV leapfrogged Japan HSR’s speed when it reached 270 kph (168 mph) on LGV between Paris and Lyon. In 1988, TGV upgraded speed to 300 kph (186 mph) on LGV. In 2007, SNCF introduced the first Nextgen LGV (4th Generation HSR route) from Paris to Strausbourg at the German border.
Nextgen LGV lets HST operate up to 400 kph (249 mph). To quickly exploit some of that speed capability, Alstom & TGV engineers modified existing generation trains to run at 320 kph (199 mph) on Nextgen LGV.
By mastering operational practices for the highest speeds since 1981, France is primary author of the “3-Hour Rule.” It’s a rule-of-thumb that TGV trips of 3 hours of less must deliver time-savings versus regional flights, when destinations are central cities. France, followed by other European nations, now operate High Speed Trains as displayed in this 3-minute video.
When TGV average speed reached 248 kph (154 mph) on Nextgen LGV, TGV and SNCF learned that most business travelers still prefer 3.5 hour ride times for productivity and comfort advantages over regional flights. Another factor weighed in their strategic planning — population & urbanization growth. France will have over 50 metro areas with 200K+ population in more corridors by 2040.
Considering those factors, SNCF modified its strategy to connect France’s Top 50 Metro Areas and select international cities to Paris or Lyon via TGV in 3.5 hours or less. Consistent with that strategy, Alstom developed a Nextgen HST, called “Avelia Horizon.” It weighs less, 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 Avelia Horizon is certified to match Nextgen LGV 400 kph (249 mph) top speed, TGV management initially planned to introduce it at 360 kph (224 mph) to strike a balance between higher energy costs and more time-savings to divert more business travelers from 500-mile regional flights.
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 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
France recently highlighted Avelia Horizon’s lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions at the current TGV top speed of 320 kph. As leader of the Paris Climate Agreement, it made sense for France to set a PR example of energy conservation. I don’t however, think that strict energy conservation should limit TGV Avelia Horizon to 320 kph.
France can divert more travelers from high-emission regional flights to zero-emission Avelia Horizon by running at higher speeds. TGV also competes with German, Italian, Belgian and Spanish HST Operators for cross-border ridership on High Speed Rail lines. For example, if TGV shaves 15 minutes off the 3 hour 39 minute TGV ride time between Paris and Frankfurt, it will attract more business travelers than German ICE trains running slower at the same ticket fares.
There’s also a matter of national pride. The French were proud of having the fastest trains in commercial operation since 1981. Then in 2017, China became the world leader operating trains at 350 kph (217 mph). Shortly afterwards, Japan matched France with 320 kph (199 mph) service and South Korea introduced 330 kph (205 mph) service. United Kingdom and California plan to introduce 355 kph (220 mph) trains later this decade. Though France built the world’s first 4th Generation HSR routes, no speaks of TGV operating the fastest trains any more.
My guess is TGV will introduce Avelia Horizon at 340 kph (211 mph) using 10% less energy and emitting 15% lower GHG on Nextgen LGV. Higher speed will mode-shift more Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Toulouse, Paris-Cannes, Paris-Nice and Lyon-Barcelona travelers from regional flights to TGV rides of 3.5 hours or less. As more wind & solar energy cut French electricity costs by 2030 or so, anticipate TGV boosting to 350 kph (217 mph).
HSR + Regional Rail + Intercity Buses Increase Destination Options
SNCF also accelerated conversion of diesel-powered legacy rail to electric-powered Regional Rail. Average speed of SNCF Regional Trains is typically 110 kph (68 mph), though capable of 170 kph (106 mph). They are optimized to connect small & medium cities to TGV hub cities. When TGV and SNCF Regional Rail trains share the same route, SNCF Regional Rail stops at small cities that TGV passes.
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, SNCF & 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 miles capable of 150 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 gradual transition to Electric Vehicles (EV) and low-emission Freight Trucks 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 demographic and ridership evidence strongly suggests college student demand for good train travel 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 2nd Generation HSR and Regional Rail projects, like the diagram at left.
Our 10-19 million Population Corridors, like Nashville-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando and Fort Worth-Dallas-Houston, should initially feature 28 daily HSR roundtrips for 30 minute Peak Frequency, 60 minute Off-Peak in a 19-hour service day. As ridership builds, those corridors should improve to 20 minute Peak Frequency, 40 minute Off-peak.
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 48-84 combined HSR & Regional daily roundtrips. To riders, that represents 10-20 minute train frequency. Riders like knowing that another train is coming in 10, 15, 20, 30, 45 or 60 minutes.
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 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. By 2035, robust Rapid Transit networks in San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area will multiply access to California HSR.
For more information about this transformative HSR project, see California High Speed Rail.
With the new Infrastructure Bill, Northeast Corridor will receive funding to complete most Phase 1 upgrades by 2030. Ridership demand will justify more funding to complete Phase 2 upgrades by 2040. For details, see Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Progress.
America 2045 will have nearly 250 metro areas with 200,000+ population in many Sub-500-mile corridors. We must open HSR segments in those corridors too. If we design for 3-Hour Rule in those corridors, Interstate HSR should feature 160 mph top speed and 120 mph average speed, at minimum. Corridors supporting 200-220 mph top speed and 160+ mph average speed will stretch that patronage rule to 3.5 hours. If our HST Operators also implement Off-peak Discounted Fares, those routes will surely attract high ridership along with 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 only discussed 110 mph Amtrak upgrades with low frequency service. Additional federal funds can be a game-changer for the corridor.
First, Preliminary Plans should be HSR-upgraded, then start Environmental Review to obtain “Ready to Build” status by 2024-25. 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 200 mph segment to Cleveland. A 220 mph segment should be built in flatland between Cleveland and Toledo. The 58-mile Toledo-Detroit is flat enough for a 180 mph 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.
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 are 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 October 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, major airports in Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit and St. Louis are allocating more runway slots to flights over 500 miles. So opportunity for HSR service is expanding. Second, green, red and yellow-colored Regional & Emerging Line segments on the map (below) should ALL feature 160, 180, 200 or 220 mph to connect more city-pairs in 3 hours. Frequency should be 24-48 daily roundtrips for these Core Express lines because 20 Metro Areas will have over 1 million population and they will form six 15+ million population corridors by 2050.
Travelers prefer 1-seat rides to most destinations. 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. The High Speed Rail Alliance best explains HSR, Regional Rail and station upgrade projects needed for Chicago-Midwest Mega-region.
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 Victor Valley, California that is hoped to begin in 2025. The long term goals of Brightline are extension from Victor Valley to Palmdale, then switch to California HSR tracks for 1-seat rides into Los Angeles Union Station and extend from Victor Valley to Rancho Cucamonga, the Inland Empire of San Bernardino County.
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 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 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 160-180-200-220 mph segments over 2025-30. Their success 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-Mount Albans
• NYC-Albany-Schenectady-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo-Niagara Falls
More State Departments of Transportation are conducting Preliminary Project Plans for Interstate HSR System Phase 2 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 Interstate HSR System. More Private HSR groups will emerge as well.
Amtrak Regional & Long-Distance Route Upgrades
There is a worldwide shift to electric trains for faster acceleration, faster braking and lower maintenance cost. For example, Caltrain commuter rail running 52-miles between San Francisco and San Jose is receiving at Regional Rail upgrade. In 2024, it will convert from diesel-electric to electric trains. Assuming a new tunnel opens in San Francisco by 2028-29, Caltrain will reach Salesforce Transit Center before California HSR.
In 2019, most of 25 state-supported Amtrak Regional lines slightly increased train frequencies and ridership. Yet, their train speeds and frequencies are far too low.
Amtrak’s third most popular route is Pacific Surfliner. The southern portion of that route runs 111 miles between 19M population Los Angeles Metro Area and 3.5M population San Diego Metro Area. Pre-pandemic, its 13 daily roundtrips attracted 2.9 million annual riders. Using mostly state and county funds, a 2nd Main Track is slowly being added. At current construction pace, speed will only reach 90 mph over half the route and 110 mph on 10% of the route by 2035.
That segment of Amtrak Pacific Surfliner merits a Regional Rail-HSR upgrade with complete 2nd Main Track, over/underpasses, tunnels and electric trains for 110-125 mph and 28 daily roundtrips by 2035. I also suggest that 10 Amtrak Regional routes (Keystone & Pennsylvanian, Hiawatha & Lincoln, Vermonter, Hartford, Valley Flyer & Northeast Regional, Carolinian & Piedmont) be combined into 4 Amtrak 160 mph HSR upgrades (listed above) and that 6 more routes be upgraded to Regional Rail-HSR routes.
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 late at night
On that basis, 6 scenic Amtrak Long-Distance routes should reduce to 24-30 hours and 1 crew shift, if possible. Selectively add 2nd track to remove Amtrak-freight train bottlenecks. Increase from 1 to 2 daily roundtrips so a train arrives at every station during daylight. HSR and Regional Rail transfers to twice as many Amtrak Long-Distance trains will also boost ridership.
As a 25-year travel publisher, experience informs me that tourists pay 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 enhance a Bucket List experience.
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.
It’s a milestone that Rapid Transit and HSR-Regional Rail funding are in the new Infrastructure Bill. Unfortunately, it’s completely inadequate to meet America’s Transportation infrastructure needs outside the Northeast Corridor. Hence, the remaining question is, will Congress approve Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Proposal? Additional HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit project funding, that I and other transportation advocates have long proposed, can put America back on track.
For a sense of whether Congress will do it, see my conclusion on the next page.