Interstate High-Speed Rail

Why is Interstate High-Speed Rail a big deal for us? credit Andra C Taylor, Jr.

Interstate High Speed Rail Progress

Interstate High-Speed Rail is a big deal for America because it represents an economic boost and convenient high-capacity travel in large regions. High-Speed Rail will anchor Amtrak Regional Rail, enhanced Commuter Rail, Metro Rail & Bus Rapid Transit to complete Sustainable Passenger Transportation infrastructure that helps slow Global Warming. Did I mention that Sustainable Passenger Transportation infrastructure will create several million jobs too? – Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America Travel

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In the 19th Century, America built most of its Seaport and Railroad infrastructure that enabled the world’s largest freight movement in the Industrial Age. To the Railroad industry, Passenger service represented bonus revenue on the same tracks. American cities added large Streetcar systems for workers and students.

In the 20th Century, America became the world’s only superpower after World War II. Our political leaders met the challenge of funding Highway and Aviation infrastructure that expanded suburbs and created millions of automotive, aviation & gasoline-related jobs.

In the 21st Century, Global Warming and other factors are forcing every leading nation to build electric-powered Sustainable Passenger Transportation (Intercity Passenger Rail, Rapid Transit & EVs) coupled with more Sustainable Energy (Wind, Solar, Biofuels, Geothermal) powering electric grids before 2050.

The communist government of China has weak personal property & worker rights. Combined with gargantuan financial commitment, China has built robust Sustainable Passenger Transportation networks and more Sustainable Energy than the rest of the world in 25 years. The democratic governments of Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe have strong personal property and worker rights. They’ve taken 40-60 years to build robust Sustainable Passenger Transportation networks.

Though America is the world’s #2 producer of Sustainable Energy, we must look to advanced democracies for leadership on Sustainable Passenger Transportation. Excluding the section titles below, bolded words link to articles or videos that add insights to our journey.

America’s Big Fail at Sustainable Transportation

Intercity Passenger Rail comprises High-Speed Rail (HSR) and Regional Rail. Anyone who rode HSR and Regional Rail in Japan, South Korea, and/or Western Europe knows that America sucks at those Transportation modes. Their HSR speeds are currently 143-199 mph (230-320 kph) and Regional Rail speeds are 99-137 mph (160-220 kph).

As of 1H 2024, America has only 60 HSR miles capable of 150 mph and less than 500 Regional Rail miles capable of 100 mph. Our fastest train averages only 83 mph over 226 miles in our densest population corridor. How did the world’s richest, technologically advanced country fail at Intercity Passenger Rail?

America 2050 High-Speed Rail Vision Map

America 2050 High-Speed Rail Map; source

After the Vietnam War ended in 1974, it freed up taxpayer funds. If America accelerated HSR & Regional Rail investment then, by 2020 our Interstate HSR System would look like Phase 3 of the America 2050 High-Speed Rail Map (above) combining red, tan, and yellow lines. More grey-colored Regional lines would be upgraded to world-class Regional Rail connected to an Interstate HSR System accessible to 98% of Americans by 2040.

It’s no mystery why we failed. American political leaders invested $2 trillion in Highways and $777 billion in Aviation but only $10 billion in Amtrak and other Passenger Rail projects from 1949 to 2017. Their narrow Transportation vision allowed Intercity Passenger Rail to atrophy.

They equally failed to upgrade & expand Rapid Transit. Less than $300 billion went to Transit, mostly to local buses and school buses. As a result, too many counties shelved or downscaled Metro Heavy Rail projects to lower capacity, slower Metro Light Rail. Too many counties shelved or downscaled Metro Light Rail projects to lower capacity, slower Bus Rapid Transit, and cheap, low-frequency Commuter Rail.

The adverse results are excessive regional flights, lost worker productivity due to highway congestion, more roadway accidents, less access to jobs & affordable housing by people without cars, persistently high smog levels, and more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Only NYC Metro Area has comprehensive HSR, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, and Metro Light Rail with high service frequency. Though the Big Apple needs more Sustainable Passenger Transportation infrastructure, it has less ozone & GHG emissions than 11 metro areas having one-half to 1/25th of its 21 million population size.

Sustainable Energy, Necessary for Sustainable Transportation

There is some good news. America is accelerating Sustainable Energy development. Most power plants fueled by coal and oil have switched to natural gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Wind & solar energy have grown even faster in the last 10 years.

Though electricity consumption in all economic sectors is accelerating, we are not upgrading Sustainable Energy infrastructure fast enough. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, our electric grid loses 65% of its energy and limits the amount of solar energy sent to it from other sectors of the economy. Some mega-regions experience Brown-outs too.

We must upgrade our electric grid to meet those challenges.

America’s geography and population density are more similar to Western Europe than Japan and South Korea. Let’s take a closer look across the Atlantic for aspirational ideas about Sustainable Transportation and Sustainable Energy Infrastructure.

Western Europe 21st Century Transportation & Smart Land Zoning

In 1974, France and Italy accelerated electric-powered Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit investments. In the 1980s-90s, The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands did likewise. Today, their Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit bring multitudes into vibrant train stations without billowing exhaust.

Unlike American cities that zone large parking lots or garages around most stations, Western European nations zone hotel, retail, residential, and commercial development in & around stations. In a virtuous cycle, Western Europeans need fewer Cars Per Household yet enjoy better mobility options than Americans.

Western Europe has slightly different, but more accurate descriptions for Rapid Transit modes. Metro Light Rail is called “Trams.” Metro Heavy Rail is called “Metro Rail.” Commuter Rail is called “Suburban Rail.” Western Europe is expanding Trams in 250,000+ population metro areas, expanding Metro Rail in 1+ million population metro areas, and enhancing Suburban Rail in all metro areas.

According to a 2017 Bloomberg report, 40-75% of European metro areas having 1+ million population use Rapid Transit. That 1 million population size is similar to the Tulsa Metro Area in Oklahoma. Suburban Rail, Metro Rail & Tram networks combined with residential, commercial, hotel & retail development in & around stations prompted Western European cities to restore more heritage sites as job-creating tourism attractions.

Western Europe proves that HSR is attractive for 250-900 kilometer (155-559 miles) Trips and Regional Rail is attractive for 50-400 kilometer (31-249 miles) Trips. Western Europe also proved that connecting many corridors of 500,000+ population urban areas every 100-200 kilometers (62-124 miles) with HSR rides significantly increases ridership. They embrace HSR and Regional Rail to reduce short-haul (31-559 mile) regional flights, limit highway widening & roadway accidents, and reduce automotive Smog & GHG emissions.

This High-Speed Rail Alliance chart also illustrates how HSR reduces emissions and energy consumption compared to Highway Travel and Air Travel Modes in the 410-mile Paris-Lyon-Marseille Corridor.

Paris to Marseille Emissions and Energy for HSR vs. Car vs. Airplane

Paris to Marseille Carbon Emissions & Energy Usage for HSR vs. Car vs. Airplane; credit High-Speed Rail Alliance

America Can Still Balance Its Passenger Transportation Infrastructure

In this multi-part series, I illuminate the WHY, HOW and WHERE America needs a bold, yet practical Interstate Plan for Sustainable Passenger Transportation and Sustainable Energy before 2050.

Part 1 of this series summarizes how select industries sabotaged Intercity Passenger Rail and Streetcars since World War II ended. It also touches on the freeway destruction of urban areas.

Part 2 of this series summarizes the outstanding Benefits over Costs that Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, China, and others experience from HSR & Regional Rail investments.

Part 3 of this series summarizes how Transportation and Energy sector smog emissions are serious public health issues. The Takeaway is GHG emissions have reached a tipping point in Global Warming.

Part 4 of this series summarizes the good, the bad & the ugly of regional flights, intercity buses, freight trucks, and our electric grid. It also summarizes the public insanity of widening highways beyond 10 lanes.

Widening more freeways is like an alcoholic trying to get sober by ordering another round

Part 5 of this series summarizes how the acceleration of Rapid Transit projects will bring more space-efficient capacity & green mobility options to our Metro Areas as America grows from 330 million population in 2020 to 390 million by 2050. It’s also the best solution for our metro area highway congestion.

Part 6 of this series, this page, summarizes HOW and WHERE Interstate HSR & Regional Rail lines should begin connecting our Top Metro Areas. Come along for the journey.

High-Speed Rail, Top Dog of Sustainable Passenger Transportation

Electric-powered HSR is the apex of Sustainable Passenger Transportation. It has the highest capacity and the most space-efficient mobility for high-population corridors. One high-speed train can transport as many passengers as six Boeing 737 regional jets each averaging. 170 passengers, without emitting GHG & Smog. Though slower than HSR, electric-powered Regional Rail also represents high-capacity, space-efficient mobility for medium-population corridors.

Since population growth is concentrated in America’s Top 192 Metro Areas of 250,000+ population located in 30-to-600-mile corridors, we have the same HSR & Regional Rail infrastructure opportunity that Western Europe has accelerated since 1974.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) posts Intercity Passenger Rail speeds in kilometers per hour (kph), which I translate to miles per hour (mph). Though UIC recognized 200 kph (124 mph) as the minimum speed for 1st Generation HSR over the majority of a route, it now asserts 250 kph (155 mph) as the minimum speed for 2nd Generation HSR. The UIC also recognizes the growth of 3rd Generation HSR operating up to 300-320 kph (186-199 mph) over a majority of a route.

Amongst HSR advocates, there is debate over the minimum HSR speed America should pursue. Though I prefer 185+ mph HSR routes, that speed is impractical for every route. Our nation has extensive property development in many high-population corridors between large metro areas. Americans’ personal property rights would force longer tunnels and straighter viaducts that make Benefits over Costs difficult to justify.  For reasons explained below, I believe that 145, 155, 165, 175, 185, 195, 205 & 220 mph HSR speeds and 100, 110, 125 & 135 mph Regional Rail speeds have justifiable Benefits over Costs.

To build robust Sustainable Passenger Transportation networks by 2050, we must accelerate Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit projects using best practices mastered by Western Europe.

If you’d like train-nerd details of how their speed, capacity, frequency, reliability, and safety are achieved, see Interstate Passenger Rail Taxonomy, which can also be called an Intercity Passenger Rail Taxonomy.

France, A Sustainable Passenger Transportation & Smart Electric Grid Model

After Japan introduced a 210 kph (130 mph) electric-powered HSR route in 1964, America, France, West Germany, and Italy realized that significantly better intercity passenger train service was possible. Due to conditions most similar to corridors in America, France should be our primary model for Sustainable Passenger Transportation. HSR, Regional Rail, Suburban Rail (Enhanced Commuter Rail), Metro Rail, Trams, and Electric Buses increased electricity demand in France. Those Transportation modes forced France to begin upgrading to a Smart Electric Grid sooner than most.

France is slightly larger than Texas with twice as many people as the Lone Star State. It has about 40 metro areas of 250,000+ population spaced 50-600 miles apart. French HSR, Regional Rail & Long-Distance trains attracted 1.3 billion passengers.

In 2019, Amtrak’s combination of Northeast Corridor HSR, Regional & Long-Distance trains attracted 33 million passengers. How did a country with 1/6th of America’s population and 11% of its GDP do it?

After World War II, France tasked its SNCF transportation agency to restore railways and repair old train stations in Paris, Lyon, Lille, and Marseille. In 1955, France launched its National Tollway System that’s mostly limited to 4 lanes to minimize land-takings by eminent domain. Since people pay for each usage, a lower percentage of the population rides its National Tollways and tollways are well-maintained. French cities also preserved most Streetcar and Commuter Rail tracks. Thus, France preserved assets for future Rapid Transit and Intercity Passenger Rail.

France modestly increased SNCF’s budget for their first HSR project. SNCF began acquiring Rights-Of-Way (ROW) property for straighter embankments, tunnels, and viaducts to support high-speed passenger trains. SNCF named its High-Speed Line between Paris and its 2nd largest city, Lyon, the “Ligne à Grande Vitesse.” Travelers call it LGV.

SNCF hired Alstom, a private French train maker, to build the world’s fastest passenger trains. Alstom’s initial R&D focused on a high-speed train powered by a jet engine. That approach was sensible because oil-based jet fuel has a high energy density and imported oil was cheap & plentiful.

Jet Train showed promise when it reached 270 kph (168 mph) on the LGV test track. That promise vanished in October 1973.

To the unpleasant surprise of France, Italy, America, and other nations that backed Israel in a Middle East war, OPEC slapped an oil embargo on them. It hit the French economy particularly hard because that nation doesn’t produce much domestic oil.

Though France had one of the world’s Top 5 Automotive industries in the 1970s, its government pivoted to less dependency on imported oil by constructing more nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. Simultaneously, the French National Authority for Health pushed to reduce coal-fueled power plants because they emit dangerous levels of smog that increase lung disease.

In 1974, these French Transportation policies accelerated:

• Conversion of Streetcars to double-capacity Trams in dedicated lanes with traffic signal priority
• Construction of Metro Rail lines in the nation’s Top 7 metro areas
• Conversion of diesel-powered Suburban Rail & Regional Rail to electric-power
• Conversion of High-Speed Train R&D to electric-power

SNCF spun off an agency to manage the Train à Grande Vitesse (High-Speed Train) project commonly called TGV. Once electric-powered TGV demonstrated that it could sustain 270 kph (168 mph) on LGV test track in 1979, a long sequence of Intercity Passenger Rail milestones unfolded:

In 1981, TGV began operating up to 270 kph on LGV in the 391 kilometers (243 miles) between Paris and Lyon.

In 1988, SNCF upgraded the Paris-Lyon LGV, enabling TGV to reach 300 kph (186 mph).

In 1994, France & the UK opened the 51-kilometer (31 miles) English Channel Tunnel, enabling Eurostar HSR in the Paris-Lille-London corridor.

In 1996, SNCF and the National Railway Company of Belgium opened 300 kph Thalys HSR in the Paris-Lille-Brussels corridor.

In 2001, SNCF extended the first LGV to 660 kilometers (410 miles), enabling a 3-hour trip time in the Paris-Lyon-Marseille corridor.

In 2007, SNCF introduced a 400 kph (249 mph) 4th Generation HSR route generically called “Nextgen LGV” and upgraded TGV to reach 320 kph (199 mph) on Nextgen LGV.

By 2016, the Global Warming threat, higher electric train manufacturing, and higher Intercity Passenger Rail & Rapid Transit ridership inspired France to begin Smart Electric Grid upgrades to prevent energy loss and reliably manage higher electricity demand from many sources. Smart Electric Grid completion forecast is 2035. As more low-cost Wind & Solar energy enters the Smart Electric Grid, it will gradually drive Electricity Cost Per Unit lower.

In 2021, Alstom purchased Bombardier and became the world’s 2nd largest train maker. Train-related jobs are as important to the French as Automobile-related jobs to Americans.

Alstom, SNCF, and transit agencies in France are on pace for 100% electric HSR, Regional Rail, Suburban Rail, Metro Rail & Trams between and within Large (3-12 million pop.), Medium (1.0-2.99 million pop.), and Small (250K-999K pop.) metro areas by 2040.

Higher Speeds Lengthen Intercity Passenger Rail Distances

Excluding the shrinking mileage of “No Speed Limit” sections on Germany’s Autobahn, tollway speed limits in Western Europe have stabilized at 120-130 kph (75-81 mph) to cut accidents and reduce emissions. European passenger rail agencies are keeping fares relatively cheap even as Regional Rail upgrades boost train speeds and frequencies.

Several pundits suggest that HSR is only viable in corridors where HSR Travel is faster than Air Travel up to 400 miles in 3 hours from city center to city center. That line of thinking is incomplete because it does not account for recent HSR speed boosts and that most European (& Asian) travelers prefer 1-seat HSR Travel vs. Air Travel for journeys up to 3.5 hours.

The chart below approximates Average Speeds from HSR & Regional Rail Top Speeds for 3-hour and 3.5-hour 1-seat Trip Distances. Average Speeds include “Rule-of-Thumb” distances between stops, brief slowdowns in long tunnels, brief slowdowns in significant curves, and slower speeds entering & exiting stations.

3-Hour Rule for Intercity Passenger Rail Distances

3.5 Hour Rules for Intercity Passenger Rail Distances; (c) Soul Of America

Total Air Travel Time equals time to airport, airport queues, flight time, airport queues, and time from the airport to metro area destinations. In Europe, HSR attracts high ridership in high population-density corridors when Average Speeds of up to 3.5 Hours produce shorter trip times than Total Air Travel Time. Regional Rail attracts high ridership in medium population-density corridors when it matches or saves trip time up to 3.5 hours and costs are equal to or less than gas & parking fees for Highway Travel. Consequently, passenger rail agencies, transit agencies, and train operators are:

• upgrading more 160-180 kph (99-112 mph) Regional Rail routes to 180-220 kph (112-137 mph)
• upgrading most  230-250 kph (143-155 mph) HSR routes to 250-270 kph (155-168 mph)
• building new HSR routes having dedicated tracks for trains to reach 280-320 kph (174-199 mph)
• introducing cheaper HSR & Regional Rail fares to better compete with cheap regional flights & intercity drives
• expanding 3+ Rapid Transit lines to train stations in most 500K+ population Metro Areas

Though Europeans patronize HSR routes with 100-104 mph Average Speeds, ridership is higher for routes with 113-149 mph Average Speeds. Though Europeans patronize Regional Rail routes with 73-77 mph Average Speeds, ridership is higher for routes with 81-96 mph Average Speeds. Transit agencies are also introducing airport-to-city center rapid transit lines designed to carry passengers with luggage far cheaper than taxi & Uber rides. These European best practices are the “Cheat Code” for American HSR & Regional Rail development.

Since Paris is one of the world’s most attractive tourist destinations, Paris CDG Airport will always be busy. Tourism in France’s second-largest metro area, Lyon, is also growing via frequent TGV service and its east-central location. Both cities feature world-class Rapid Transit between train stations, hotels, and attractions.

Eiffel Tower view from Paris Metro Line 6

Eiffel Tower view from a Paris Metro Line 6 train crossing the Seine River; (c) Soul Of America

The French government and tourism bureau want to spread more international tourism around France. To help meet that goal, France is spending 100 billion Euros on web-like Regional Rail upgrades before 2040.

At the same time, France is committed to eliminating regional flights between its 50 largest metro areas reaching 250K+ population by 2040. By 2035, France will blanket its nation with 2700 LGV miles connecting with thousands of Regional Rail miles to smaller cities. SNCF and TGV management also know that high ridership continues in routes that take up to 4 hours to complete because most journeys have different origins & endpoints that last only 1 to 3.5 hours.

With insights from Speed-Distance Charts, the Alstom, TGV & SNCF trio reasoned that next-generation high-speed trains operating up to 360 kph (224 mph) Top Speed and 290 kph (180 mph) Average Speed on more LGV should further reduce regional flights.

Like testing delays experienced by Boeing and Airbus next-gen jets, however, testing delay hit Alstom’s next-gen TGV. Consequently, they will introduce it to commercial operation after the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. Though branded TGV M in France, it’s marketed as Avelia Horizon for global sales. TGV M weighs 30% less and is 20% more energy efficient than current TGV. Maintenance costs will be lower as well.

TGV M combined with web-like LGV & Regional Rail expansion will connect Paris and Lyon to the Top 25 Destinations in France in under 3.5 hours by 2035.

The Eco-Travel Market also prefers 1-seat TGV rides up to 4 hours (up to 1000 kilometers) for greater reduction of GHG & Smog emissions than Air Travel.

Total Benefits Over Costs Point to Higher TGV M Speeds

TGV M has a certified top speed of 400 kph (249 mph) to match Nextgen LGV certified top speed, but TGV management planned commercial operation 10% slower at 360 kph (224 mph) for lower energy & maintenance costs. France would still reclaim the world title for “Fastest conventional-wheel train in commercial operation.”

As leader of the Paris Climate Agreement since 2016, France has practically replaced coal-fueling electric power plants with nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, geothermal, wind & solar energy. That bold accomplishment helped produce one of the smallest per-capita GHG & Smog emission footprints of any advanced nation. A byproduct of the Russia-Ukraine War is limiting natural gas supplies to Europe. That war is inspiring France to build wind, solar & geothermal projects faster and complete its Smart Electric Grid by 2035. That year, France will also ban new car sales that burn gasoline or diesel fuel.

Given world events and the time needed to substantially complete its Smart Electric Grid, France wants to demonstrate even lower emissions and higher energy efficiency per mile in the short term. Hence, TGV and SNCF revised TGV M’s planned introduction for commercial operation down to 320 kph (199 mph).

The UIC has calculated Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions of TGV vs. Car and Airplane in France. Their analysis concludes that the life-cycle CO2 footprint of LGV (HSR) track construction, train construction, and operation is 14 to 16 times lower than by automobile or airplane.

Given France’s leadership in lowering fossil fuel consumption, lowering GHG emissions, and accelerating Sustainable Energy projects, I “guesstimate” that nation will eliminate more regional flights by 2028 by increasing TGV M to 340 kph (211 mph) Top Speed on Next-gen LGV.

TGV in southern France is being upgraded to the Spanish border. Germany is upgrading HSR route speeds from Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, and Mannheim to meet Nextgen LGV at two French borders. The Netherlands and Belgium are upgrading HSR speeds in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Brussels corridor. Higher speeds in 1-seat rides up to 3.5 hours will enable TGV, Eurostar, and ICE to complete more daily round trips with the same staff for higher profits.

Those upgrades over 2027-2035 will enhance the case to operate TGV M up to 360 kph (224 mph) to convert even more travelers in France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands to 1-seat HSR rides up to 3.5 hours, particularly for business travel.

By further cutting regional flights, France will meet more of the Paris Climate Agreement and French National Authority for Health goals by 2035. Making TGV M the world’s fastest conventional wheel train would also be good PR for Alstom’s global sales.

There’s a matter of national pride too. France introduced the first trains certified for commercial operation at 300 kph (186 mph) and 360 kph (224 mph), and the first HSR route certified for 400 kph (249 mph) in commercial operation. But no one speaks of France as having the world’s fastest trains anymore.

Last decade Japan matched France with 320 kph (199 mph) trains in commercial operation. In 2017, China became the world speed leader with 350 kph (217 mph) of conventional wheel trains in commercial operation. Japan, California, and the United Kingdom are building HSR routes whose trains will run up to 350-354 kph (217-220 mph) in commercial operation when they debut over 2029-2031.

The French and British maintain a long rivalry of bragging rights over things large and small. Given intense national pride in TGV and lower electricity costs from its Smart Electric Grid, I can’t imagine France allowing the United Kingdom to boast that it has a faster train.

Anticipate TGV M being unleashed up to 360 kph (224 mph) on Nextgen LGV by 2032. Only time will tell if I guesstimate correctly.

More Best Practices from German, Italian, Swiss & Spanish HSR

Since Germany has a denser population than France, it prioritized building a web-like network of Regional Rail & HSR mileage which attracts more passengers than the hub & spoke network of French Regional Rail & HSR, per the European Union. Germany is now upgrading some HSR routes to 250-260 kph, building new 280 & 300 kph HSR routes, and working on faster border connections to French, Belgian, Netherlander, Swiss, Danish & Swedish Passenger Rail.

To connect more cities to Rome in under 3.5 hours, Trenitalia rail agency is upgrading its core Rome-Florence HSR segment to 270 kph (168 mph). In Italy, privately owned Italo high-speed trains compete with state-owned Trenitalia high-speed trains.

Switzerland built 15-, 22- & 35-mile rail tunnels under the Alps that are certified for electric passenger trains to operate commercially at 220-230 kph (137-143 mph).

The Spanish government prioritizes Intercity Passenger Rail expansion over Highway expansion. For faster construction, Spain keeps most HSR & Regional Rail project engineering within its Renfe rail agency and builds some stations outside the center of small cities. Combined with grants from the European Union Transportation Fund, Spain has built the most HSR mileage in Europe.

HSR Train Frequency & Schedule Reliability Impact Ridership

Switzerland is only 22% larger than Maryland and its 6 largest cities are 20-60 miles apart in a single 170-mile zig-zag corridor. That small Alpine country doesn’t need super-fast trains for high ridership.

Switzerland achieved ridership success by upgrading Intercity Passenger Rail to 180-230 kph (112-143 mph) top speeds combined with high train frequency on 98% reliable Clock-Face Scheduling. Patrons have no “Wait Anxiety” because the next train comes every 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes from 5:00 am to Midnight between its largest cities: Zurich, Basel, Bern, Lausanne, Lucerne, and Geneva.

Though France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium & The Netherlands HSR easily beat the schedule reliability of flights, they are striving for 97-98% reliability and 42-110 daily roundtrips in high-population corridors and 24-34 daily roundtrips in medium-population corridors by 2035.

Western European nations are also reducing demand for regional flights while incentivizing airlines to focus on more 1000+ Kilometer flights demanded by travelers.

America Should Prioritize 2029-38 HSR Project Completions

In contrast to Western Europe since 1974, American politicians ignored early opportunities to balance Transportation Infrastructure between Highways, Intercity Passenger Rail, Airports, Rapid Transit, and Local Buses. They let most train stations decay while expanding an Interstate Highway System dominated by freeways rather than well-maintained tollways. Since we keep widening freeways, a higher percentage of residents and travelers crowd them.

Freeways and their bridges last 35-40 years without major repairs. Since our politicians would not increase the federal gas tax after 1993, America did not properly maintain them. By 2000-05 the under-maintenance bill came due. Due to slow Intercity Passenger Rail, our 30 busiest Hub Airports often over-crowd too.

One silver lining is America has the “Cheat Code” from Western Europe to build modern HSR & Regional Rail routes that attract high ridership. Let’s examine the most critical Interstate HSR routes that are Amtrak-owned, state-owned, or private-owned.

1st Public HSR Funding Priority

The Northeast Region of America has 45 million residents and attracts the most domestic and international visitors. It has the most Rapid Transit lines connecting to Northeast Corridor train stations that are also being upgraded. Nextgen Acela trains debut in late 2024. That partly explains why Amtrak Northeast Corridor has already received $16 billion in 2023 of a $30 billion USDOT commitment for its Phase 1 Upgrade.

Amtrak is upgrading 36 miles in the Boston-Southeastern Connecticut segment and 24 miles in New Brunswick-Trenton segment for Nextgen Acela to reach 160 mph. Nextgen Acela’s title feature will also enable 10-12 mph speed boosts over some mileage currently limited to 120-125 mph Top Speed. The Acela Washington-NYC 2-hour 51-minute Trip Time posted in 1Q 2024 should be reduced to 2 hours 41 minutes. Acela Boston-NYC’s 3-hour 35-minute Trip Time should be reduced to 3 hours 29 minutes.

I’m underwhelmed by the Top Speed of this Phase 1 upgrade in 2024. Travelers will, however, appreciate shorter Trip Times, higher train frequencies, smoother rides, and a better onboard experience. Amtrak also plans to add more cabins per Acela train for lower-cost Coach fares too.

By 2035, completed tunnels, bridges, track, and electricity upgrades will improve speeds, schedule reliability, and adapt more infrastructure for sea level rise. By then, the Acela NYC-Washington Trip Time will be reduced to 2 hours 29 minutes. Acela Boston-NYC Trip Time will likely reduce to 3 hours 10 minutes. The corridor should also reach 15-20 minute train frequencies and 94% schedule reliability.

Amtrak’s Phase 2 goal is for most mileage in the 457-mile corridor to support 165-175-185-195-205 mph speeds, 10-15 minute train frequencies, and 96% schedule reliability. Thus, Northeast Corridor Phase 2 calls for two 205 mph bypasses, more curve straightening, another railway bridge and railroad underpass to relieve chokepoints, and a complete upgrade to the HSR electrical standard (25 kiloVolts). Those upgrades should produce an attractive 1-hour 50-minute Acela Washington-NYC Trip Time and a 2-hour 15-minute NYC-Boston Trip Time.

We’ve been working on Amtrak Northeast Corridor since 1993. Perhaps our new generation of federal & state leaders will accelerate funding in 2025 for Northeast Corridor Phase 2 completion by 2038.

2nd Public HSR Funding Priority

The 500-mile California HSR Phase 1 project covers the San Francisco-Anaheim corridor with a northern spur to Merced. When complete, it will showcase 220 mph from Merced to Palmdale segment and up to 110 mph in urban areas for a San Francisco-Los Angeles 2 hour 40 minute Express trip time. Regional flight delays in California are increasing. For those reasons, California HSR should attract 31 million annual riders by 2040 as the state reaches 40 million population and more visitors come to the state.

To date, USDOT has only granted $6.7 billion, a little over 6% towards the $105 billion project. Given that USDOT funded 90-80% of the Interstate Highway System cost for 3 decades, critics should pen their venom at the lack of sufficient federal funding for the California HSR project.

The 171-mile Merced-Bakersfield HSR segment in Central California is on pace to begin commercial operation in 2030. Many Amtrak San Joaquin riders from Oakland and Sacramento will transfer at California HSR Merced Station for high-speed rides south to Fresno, Kings/Tulare, and Bakersfield. Recently, USDOT granted lead funding to build the passenger rail tunnel into downtown San Francisco.

Unfortunately, I can’t predict when federal funding will arrive to spark increased state & county funding to extend from Central California via tunnels to Gilroy and build 40+ railroad overpasses in the Gilroy-San Jose-San Francisco segment.

Here’s another insight. Major Highway, Airport, HSR, and Rapid Transit projects take a long time to build in litigious America. For example, California is a well-oiled machine in terms of Highway projects. But even a 7-mile I-5 Highway Widening project in Los Angeles took 11 years to complete. We should not be surprised that a 500-mile HSR Phase 1 project with new tunnels & viaducts through farmland, mountains, and fault zones may take 30 years to complete.

1st Private-Public HSR Project Priority

Los Angeles-Las Vegas corridor has the most regional flights in America. Brightline West received a $3 billion federal grant to combine with over $8 billion private funding for its planned 185 mph train service from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, a suburb 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Brightline West plans to construct the 218-mile Las Vegas-Victor Valley-Rancho Cucamonga HSR corridor in 4 years by mostly using I-15 Freeway median.

Brightline West has several years of planning and California HSR insights to minimize mistakes on this mega-project. Despite the best planning, unexpected things may or may not add 1 year to construction time. Afterward, 9 months of systems testing is typically required for public utility certification. Therefore, I anticipate Brightline West opening in late 2029. That’s still fast.

It will draw ridership from nearly 7 million residents in eastern Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and northern Orange County. For most, Total Trip Time (including drives to/from Rancho Cucamonga) to the Las Vegas Strip will be 3 hours or less.

Later in the 2030s, Brightline West would like to extend HSR tracks from Victor Valley to Palmdale, then switch to California HSR tracks for 1-seat train rides into Burbank Airport Intermodal Station and Los Angeles Union Station in less than 3 hours.

3rd Public HSR-Regional Rail Funding Priority

Chicago is the hub of five major passenger rail corridors. The three largest corridors connect 24 million people in Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Milwaukee corridors have ideal spacing for HSR service. Though small Amtrak Regional upgrades were completed in the 2010s, their train speeds & frequencies remain too low to attract high ridership.

Amtrak Hiawatha trains from Milwaukee only reach 79 mph in the 86 miles to Chicago with 7 weekday roundtrips that terminate at the north concourse of Chicago Union Station.

Amtrak Wolverine trains from Detroit only reach 110 mph in part of the 237 miles to Chicago with 3 weekday roundtrips terminating at the south concourse of Chicago Union Station.

Amtrak Lincoln & Missouri Runner trains from St. Louis only reach 110 mph in part of the 284 miles to Chicago with 5 weekday roundtrips terminating at the south concourse of Chicago Union Station.

The main concourse of Chicago Union Station has cramped boarding platforms. Oglivie Transit Station hosts Chicago Metro Rail and some Chicago Metra Commuter Rail trains 2 blocks north. The two stations do not connect tracks & platforms for easy transfers. South of Chicago Union Station, Amtrak, and commuter trains cross a maze of freight rail tracks that slow speeds and frequencies for passengers and delay freight movements.

The Chicago Hub Improvement Program (CHIP) just received a $900 million USDOT grant to combine with state, county & city funding to fix Chicago Union Station and better connect with Oglivie Transit Station. In the next round of USDOT funding, the railway maze of the south of Chicago Union Station should receive a USDOT grant for a Crosstown Connector and more miles of 100-110 mph passenger track between O’Hare Airport, downtown Chicago, and all points south. Train frequencies to Detroit and St. Louis will rise to 8-10 daily round trips, like the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

That’s nowhere close to the infrastructure needed for 3 HSR corridors over flat land with ideal spacing between metro areas. Nor does it extend from Milwaukee to Madison and Minneapolis and extend from St. Louis to Kansas City. Chicago Hub needs $60-70 billion to upgrade the 284-mile Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Ann Arbor-Detroit corridor, 354-mile Minneapolis-Madsion-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor, and 412-mile Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis-Kansas City corridor.

Due to well-developed property in its corridors, track curvature affecting speed limits will substantially vary. Fortunately, the Benefits over Costs still justify 145-155-165-175-185-195-205 mph HSR speeds, 110-125 mph Regional Rail speeds, and high train frequencies in the Chicago-Midwest region for ridership like HSR & Regional Rail in France.

4th Public HSR Funding Priority

Southeast HSR in the Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta corridor has over 20 million population in the nation’s fastest-growing mega-region. In 2023, the Washington-Richmond-Raleigh segment received $1.8 billion in federal grants to combine with a couple billion more from Amtrak, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Highlights of this funding cycle are a second railway bridge across the Potomac River, mild curve-straitening between Washington DC and Richmond, and the purchase of S-Line freight rail corridor (below) to create a straighter Passenger Rail route between Richmond and Raleigh.

Raleigh-Richmond S-Line Map

Raleigh-Richmond S-Line Map; source North Carolina Department of Transportation

When the project is completed, Amtrak plans commercial operation up to 110 mph and 10-12 daily roundtrips in the corridor. Compared to Intercity Passenger Rail in Western Europe, this project is another disappointment.

Given the corridor’s population size, growth rate, and spacing between large metro areas, it’s ideal for 165-175-185-195-205 mph HSR speeds and 36 daily roundtrip services to cut highway congestion and regional flights. To accommodate such speeds, more property acquisition is needed before more development jacks up ROW costs.

When will the Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta corridor receive enough federal & state funding to become a ridership difference-maker that cuts highway congestion and regional flights?

2nd Private HSR Project Priority

Another private company, Texas Central Railway wants to break ground on a 205 mph Dallas-Houston HSR route serving the fast-growing 16+ million-person 240-mile corridor. Stations are currently planned a few blocks south of downtown Dallas and in North Houston. Texas Central plans to build Transportation-Oriented Development on land it owns next to stations.

When complete, this project will anchor extensions from Dallas to Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.

Until Texas Central overcomes local NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) obstacles preventing Environmental Clearance and ROW Acquisition, Engineering Design, and Construction Start are delayed. Perhaps its recent Amtrak partnership will help break the logjam.

Accelerate More HSR Projects To Enter Construction

The Federal Railroad Administration has been studying HSR projects in growing corridors outside the Northeast Corridor and California-Las Vegas since the 2000s. Many HSR routes planned for 110 & 125 mph Top Speeds with less than 10 daily roundtrips need 145+ mph Top Speed with 26+ daily roundtrips. If federal leaders get funding priorities in order, more states, counties, cities, and private investors will also join in for these HSR projects to Enter Construction over 2026-29:

• Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo
• Gary-Fort Wayne-Toledo-Detroit
• Gary-Indianapolis-Louisville-Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta
• Portland-Seattle-Vancouver
• Cheyenne-Fort Collins-Denver-Colorado Springs

Combined with HSR projects named earlier for 13 HSR projects in 9 mega-regions, the majority of Americans would believe that a robust Interstate HSR System is underway.

Upgrades for Public & Private Regional Rail

Pre-COVID, most of the 25 state-supported Amtrak Regional routes increased annual ridership. Several routes merit the HSR upgrades. The remainder running in sub-250-mile corridors merit Western Europe-style Regional Rail upgrades.

Amtrak’s 3rd highest ridership Regional Rail route (LA-Norwalk-Anaheim-Irvine-Oceanside-San Diego) is a prime example. With only 128 miles between the 19 million population Los Angeles Metro Area and the 3.4 million population San Diego Metro Area, the corridor has massive rail ridership potential.

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink commuter rail, COASTER commuter rail, and freight rail share that corridor. Some freight rail goes from San Diego Seaport to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in northern San Diego County. Later this decade, Los Angeles Union Station will have run-thru tracks that shave several minutes from train schedules.

Though Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink, and COASTER have low-emission diesel-electric locomotives, corridor mileage has too much Single Track limiting train speeds & frequencies. Since coastal bluffs are eroding, nearby tracks often close during winter storms for emergency repairs.

At the current funding pace, the corridor’s Regional Rail upgrade would likely be completed over 2042-44. Exhausted LA-San Diego commuters, travelers, and freight rail companies can’t wait that long.

The State of California, the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego, and a freight rail company recently committed more funds to this rail corridor. The corridor still needs large federal funding to remain open while upgrading to Regional Rail status that features electric trains, complete railroad over/underpasses, 3 tunnels away from coastal bluffs, and a new University of California San Diego Station by 2036.

Once the corridor reaches Regional Rail status, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink, and COASTER trains can sustain 110 mph and 76 daily roundtrips for 5X ridership compared to 2019. That will make a huge dent in traffic congestion Smog & GHG emissions on the adjacent I-5 Freeway.

Florida is fortunate to have the private-owned Brightline Florida Regional Rail operator between Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, and Orlando Airport with 16 daily round trips. Their station & onboard experience, and low-emission diesel-electric trains are top-shelf. Brightline fares are mostly competitive with many airlines too. Later this decade, Brightline Florida will benefit from a new St. Lucie River Bridge and may expand to Disney Springs.

Brightline Florida can not, however, approach its ridership potential until it elevates from the current 79 mph speed through urban areas and reaches 36 daily roundtrips. To safely reach higher speeds and frequency, another river bridge must be replaced, about 50 railroad overpasses must be built, 70-80 streets must be closed, and the entire route must be fenced.

Street closures are inexpensive, but nearly all railroad overpasses are public-owned and cost $80-125 million each. When more railroad overpasses and street closures are implemented, Brightline Florida can fence off tracks. Operating speeds can safely reach 110 mph in urban areas and 125 mph elsewhere.

Like other states, Florida must commit massive funding for railroad overpasses. Only then can Brightline Florida reach its speed, frequency, safety, schedule reliability, and ridership potential in the Disney Springs-Orlando Airport-West Palm Beach-Baca Raton-Fort Lauderdale-Aventura-Miami corridor.

A New Era for Sustainable Passenger Transportation?

In November 2021, the 5-year Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) was signed. In 2022, the USDOT’s annual budget for Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit projects expanded too. Infrastructure Week was no longer a running joke. The larger USDOT budget for federal grants triggered states, counties, cities & private companies to announce more Intercity Passenger Rail and Rapid Transit projects.

My conclusion in Part 7 summarizes HOW much public & private funding is needed for robust Interstate High-Speed Rail progress and upgraded Regional Rail.

Part 7: Interstate High Speed Rail Funding

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