Stopping the Wrong Project Before it Happens

The Obama administration has demonstrated its support for high-speed rail… but does it know which corridors to fund?

The economic stimulus package, as we all know, included $8 billion dedicated to high-speed rail, as well as $1.3 billion for Amtrak, some of which can be spent on upgrades to the Northeast Corridor, which it owns. But after the nonsensical Republican argument that the money had been added simply to benefit a proposed Las Vegas-Los Angeles project because of the power of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Department of Transportation is going to have to decide which specific high-speed rail projects will receive the money. Several weeks ago, I delved deeply into the question of which corridors most merited high-speed rail on the transport politic. But the Federal Railroad Administration has been designating lines for high-speed service for more than a decade now. Below is a map showing those proposed lines overlaying existing Amtrak (and VIA) service, as well as red gradients indicating relative population of America’s metro areas.

Federal Railroad Administration Proposed High Speed Rail Network

Much of the discussion thus far on which corridors will benefit from high-speed rail have focused on the FRA’s designated corridors, with the assumption that most of the money would go to them. Importantly, the bill doesn’t specify that, rather saying that funds can be distributed by the DOT to the designated corridors, but also to lines that have yet to be included in state or federal plans. This is good news, because a high-speed rail network based on that currently proposed by the FRA would be in some ways a poor investment. Below is a map summarizing where the FRA plan fails, both in terms of including low-performing routes and in terms of missing out on a number of excellent opportunities for rail service.

Problems with Federal Railroad Administration Proposed High Speed Rail Network

The clearest problem with the map is that it isn’t up-to-date on California’s high-speed rail plans, and includes a segment along the coast that would be environmentally disasterous, poorly used, and expensive to build. The map also includes a number of lines that simply aren’t well considered: a line from Dallas to Little Rock, through Texarkana, a line from Atlanta to Jacksonville, and one from Raleigh to Columbia, all of which would likely attract disastrously few riders. The FRA also misses out on a number of opportunities that make a lot of sense: connecting Houston to the rest of the Texas network; Jacksonville to Orlando and Tampa to Cape Coral in Florida; Ft. Collins to Pueblo in Colorado; Louisville to Nashville; Cleveland to Pittsburgh; Detroit to Toledo; Savannah to Charleston; and Albany to Montréal. These lines – which would fill a number of gaps – probably aren’t included because FRA’s map does not represent a truly national system. We have $8 billion to use for American high-speed rail, and that money ought to be used most efficiently; to argue that FRA’s high-speed corridor designations are based on considered thought about what would make the best national network would be to pretend that our federal government was thinking nationally. Unfortunately, so far, it hasn’t been doing so. Final decisions about where the high-speed funds will be spent will not be made until May at the earliest; we better hope that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is smart enough to know that his agency’s designations are not necessarily representative of the best policy for investing in American rail.

41 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kyle

    I definitely agree that many of the lines are outdated and wouldn’t provide high ridership, but being from Boston, I am a big proponent of the Boston-Montreal line. Not only will this connect two major NE cities, but will connect parts of New Hampshire and Vermont that currently don’t have any rail service, or very little. One added benefit of this line would be the local train/connector bus service that could be added to different ski mountains in NH and Vermont.

    Concord, NH doesn’t have any train service, nor does Nasua or Manchester, NH. This is a definite added benefit for Granite Staters and Bay Staters to make their way around New England for a day of skiing.

    Also, I think it would be great to get out of work on a Friday and grab a train direct to Montreal and make it there in just enough time to check into a hotel and head out on the town. As far as I know, it would definitely take longer to go all the way to Albany (even on HSR) and transfer to a northbound train from NYC.

  • Kyle –
    The reason I believe the Boston-Montréal route represents a poor investment is that compared to an Albany-Montréal route, it would serve fewer people and cost more.

    Yes, it is true that for Boston-Montréal commuters, a direct route would be faster. But for commuters in Western Massachusettes, New York, and everywhere south, getting to Montréal via Albany makes a lot more sense and would save a lot of relative time.

    Second, the time difference between Boston-Montréal and Boston-Albany-Montréal would not be particularly significant…

  • Avi

    Connecting to a bunch of ski mountains would attract users on weekends during ski season. That’s not enough use to justify building a HSR line. And I believe in Yona’s early HSR proposal he discusses the difference between a direct Boston/Motreall line and connecting via Albany. The added distance is roughly 70 miles which at 200mph means 20 minutes. A 20 minute savings isn’t enough to justify adding another line.

  • Kyle

    Good points. But, I believe the proposal for the Boston-Montreal line is for 110mph and possibly up to 125mph. The transit time would be something along the lines of 4h15m or something like that; not exactly “true” high speed. Plus, currently NH is completely cut off from rail, except for the Downeaster which runs along the coast and is very popular, especially stopping at UNH-Durham. There is also continued talk of expanding the MBTA commuter rail on the lowell/amtrak line to Mancherster/Manchester Airport and/or Nashua and possibly Condord in the future. But, unless they really improve the tracks, that will be a very long commute.

    I also question the ability to get trains up to 200mph from Boston-Worcester-Springfield-Pittsfield-Albany. Currently that trip takes a very long time. That routing isn’t exactly a straight shot. I would love to see the whole line drastically improved, which would be great for increased use of the wonderfully revamped Worcester Union Station and the near-future revamped Springfield Union Station. What do you think the fastest reasonable travel time is for Boston-Albany? There would have to be a major overhaul of the entire ROW; hopefully this can happen.

  • Kyle

    Maybe just putting the Boston-Montreal line at a lower priority would be a better idea, rather than completely scrapping it.

  • NikolasM

    There is nothing wrong with Dallas to Memphis, only that it doesn’t go far enough. Memphis should connect to Atlanta and to St. Louis and south to New Orleans via Jackson. Then you have a nice decently populated run from Atlanta to DFW via Memphis (and Birmingham and Little Rock) and a line from Chicago to New Orleans via St Louis and Memphis and Jackson and another good connection from St Louis to Little Rock to Dallas. Also, your missed connection south of Louisville to Nashville should be extended all the way to Atlanta, thereby making the “low priority” from Atlanta to Jacksonville a little more important as it would provide Chicago to Florida service via some decently sized to huge cities in between. The greater the connectivity the greater the use (and the more votes from Congress you can pick up).

  • David Galvan

    Is there any way we can send e-mails to Ray La Hood? Obviously he’s not beholden to communication from the population like elected officials are, but at least we can try to make sure he’s getting the message. It’s important that we get this right the first time, otherwise, national investment in HSR could be viewed as a failed experiment and abandoned.

  • BLambert

    Your map has one incorrect portion: the line through Texarkana to Little Rock does not, according to the FRA, extend to Memphis (if the FRA website is out of date and your information is more recent, please correct me).

    Some of the corridors you’ve marked as not being served are already taken up by regional and state-level interests (e.g., the Texas T-Bone and Ohio Hub plans, both of which you’ve placed maps of on this site before).

    The CA HSR authority’s map doesn’t include the coastal section of which you’re critical.

    When you take these into account, it’s not all that bad. Yes, it’s not a national high speed rail network; but, right now, it doesn’t have to be. As you’ve pointed out in the past, the CA and midwest plans are each more or less equivalent to the French system, which is great for getting around the areas that the TGV serves.

    And, frankly, a national system isn’t absolutely necessary; those regions which need and want to be connected should be connected first. Once that is done, we can start looking at connecting them. I’ve said before (and will say again) that the Chicago hub and Keystone and Southeastern corridors should be built first as a prelude to having a national HSR backbone, but the regional issues should (and are) being addressed first.

    While we’re not getting everything we want right this minute, we’re on the road to getting a great deal more than we were before. And that’s a reason to sit back, take a breath, and be thankful for what’s already been accomplished.

  • BLambert –
    Thanks for your comment. You’re right about Memphis not being included! Mistake fixed.

    In terms of the state-level corridors, you’re absolutely right – state level plans are different! Why is that? You tell me.

    How can we coordinate national funding decisions when our federal government doesn’t have the same concepts for what high-speed lines to fund as do our state governments? Whether we like it or not, the majority of money for these lines is going to come from Washington. Shouldn’t Washington at least be planning for how these lines fit together – and know what’s going on most recently at the state level? This is my principal concern…

  • BLambert

    Well, the only substantive difference that I can see between the FRA corridors and the state-level plans is that the CA coastal line doesn’t exist in state plans.

    The only other state/regional plans that I’ve looked at in detail are the Chicago Hub and the Ohio Connector plans (which, IIRC, would cost about $10bn total to construct, according to the relevant agencies), which are more comprehensive, but overlap the FRA plans. I’d imagine the difference being primarily due to the need for the FRA to prioritize.

    I also seem to remember your mentioning using the FRA as a funding agency, delegating actual responsibility for individual corridors to the regional bodies for actual implementation. I’d agree that that makes sense; states would then be free (although the current economic climate makes it unlikely) to bridge any missing capacity on their own.

    As I said in my previous comment, European-style interlocking regional networks isn’t a wholly unworkable system. I’m just glad to see this issue beginning to be addressed.

  • Why are you adding a line from Tampa to the Everglades as a missed connection?

  • Alon –
    It’s a line from Tampa to the heavily-populated southwestern Florida coast.

    BLambert –
    The California, Texas, and Florida corridors are all different than those proposed by their respective state agencies. My more important concern, though, is that the federal agency hasn’t taken the next step and, for instance, connected Pittsburgh to Cleveland… I think the FRA could play a major role in making sure that all these regional systems interconnect appropriately.

  • BLambert

    I’m not too concerned about the CA portion, as the state seems to be handling that on its own.

    And, while the designated HSR corridor for Texas doesn’t include Houston, it appears to overlap exactly with the state-level plan for the San Antonio-Dallas run.

    The FRA Miami-Orlando-Tampa corridor appears to overlap the state-level plan for FL.

    While making sure that all of the systems east of the Mississippi are connected should be a goal for any system, the combination of federal and state plans do exactly that. While I’m in agreement that the FRA should act as an overall national-level planner, getting the regional networks in place is the first step.

    And, given that these construction projects are going to take years to complete, there’s time in which to do that planning.

  • EJG_luvs_trains

    Thanks for posting this. It’s really informative and helpful for people to have this discussion now. Hopefully DOT and FRA will note that there is room for improvement in the current plan. I agree w/ BLambert that a national system isn’t necessary at this point, Sure some things are missing, some things are extraneous, but what you’re seeing is just how little serious thought this has recieved from the feds up til last week. The stimulus money will go out the door quick, so other than the NE and CA it’s likely to be spent on planning and making these ideas more refined. As for construction, this round of funding will include top priority projects that would be in there anyway. Personally, I can not imagine how Dallas-Houston isn’t a top-tier corridor? but others are there, NE Corridor, SF-LA, Chi-St.Louis, ATL-Charlotte, PacNW, Tampa-Miami…
    One thing to consider going forward is that we shouldn’t really look at HSR in separation from the other passenger rail networks, LSR (low speed rail – under 100mph) and MSR (medium speed rail – 100 – 200mph).
    We need a system that builds on Amtrak’s existing network by improving connectivity and frequency as well as speed. It will take a comprehensive vision that plays out over 50 years. Like the NHS and Interstates… The major corridor-city pair routes deserve HSR, but making the other connections is just as important. Like feeding a light-rail network with bus routes, we need to feed the HSR with other versions of intercity rail.
    At a future point, perhaps the authorization bill, where they are likely to continue HSR funding at ~1 – 1.5b annually, I think it would be nice to have a prioritized list of corridors so available funding gets spent wisely and the effect over a few decades is the creation of good connections and well-used service. An Infrastructure Bank may play a key role in this because it likely needs leveraged private investment – hopefully the bad projects will be weeded out and political influence, kept to a minimum. The best news for HSR in the long term is that this was inserted by Rahm Emmanuel – not Harry Reid as initially reported. It was done so at the behest of the President himself (and probably encouraged by the VP) because he wanted to put something big in the bill to be a “signature issue” that cements his legacy. OMG – have I died and gone to train heaven?

  • Having worked on Cascades Corridor issues a long time ago, I am curious as to what your source was for indicating that the Willamette Valley segment would be a low-performing route. We constantly found ourselves back in the 1970’s being lectured to by Easterners who said that there were not enough people to warrant Light Rail, not enough people to warrant ANY Amtrak service, etc.

    For that matter, when I worked for Edmonton Transit there were people in both the U.S. and Canada who said that we did not have enough population to warrant a rail transit line. When I came to Denver, there were people saying we did not have enough population to warrant a rail transit line.

    There are a lot of factors to be considered in an actual project. For example, in the Willamette Valley the largest number of state university students are concentrated. The state capitol and other state institutions are located in Salem. These generate trips beyond their population figures.

    Also, I detect in most high-speed rail projects a certain amount of scorn for integration with other forms of transportation. Proponents come up with really cool ideas that don’t permit trains to run through onto lower speed lines in areas where they might be integrated with commuter rail — unlike the European systems that they often refer to. A Cascades Corridor high-speed line that dead-ends at Portland will be missing a useful element, whether the train runs at defined high speeds or not.

    Much of the medium-density country could similarly be linked together with lower-speed extensions of the high-speed corridors. After consultants have blown through the stimulus money, some states will realize that sound projects can begin to move with broad support beyond the narrow corridor boundaries. Other states will just keep doing studies.

  • Robert –
    I think you make some good points. The maps above are simply demonstrating which corridors deserve actual high-speed investment in my point of view. In my interstate rail plan, I try to emphasize the fact that the system should, as you say, work so that it allows high-speed trains to continue on other railways, at slower speeds, to destinations off high-speed tracks. This is why using conventional rail, not maglev, is so important, and why I’m usually so much against maglev.

    High-speed rail systems work in Europe so well specifically because they allow for good integration. I see no reason why a train couldn’t run at 200 mph between Seattle and Portland, and then slow to 100 mph to complete the journey to Eugene…

  • Zig

    “includes a segment along the coast that would be environmentally disastrous, poorly used, and expensive to build”

    We don’t need High Speed rail on the Coast in California at all. We just need some investment in the restoration of the Coast Daylight. The tracks are already existing and it only takes an agreement with Caltrain I believe.

    There could then be transfer to HSR at San Jose and LA

    My grandparents could take this trip in 8.5 hours, SF to LA. Its a shame that I can’t.

    Already the Surfliner from San Luis Obispo to San Diego is very busy despite many stretches restricted to 50 mph because of old single tracking as well as conflicts with freight. Its also a beautiful ride if anyone has a chance to take it.

  • Why would the Designated Corridor map be conceived of as a National System map? Its a map of corridors that have been put forward by states and groups of states and have succeeded in winning designation.

    Given that the normal procedure for the majority of the corridors … which are 110mph Rapid Rail corridors, not bullet train systems like in California … will be to complete a corridor, launch a service, and use the success of that service to generate political and, ideally, financial support for extension of the system.

    So, for the Great Lakes portion of the corridor network, completing Pittsburgh to Chicago via Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, and Fort Wayne, together with Toledo to Detroit, would provide a foundation upon which Ohio could pursue the Triple-C, Michigan could pursue its share of the Midwest Hub, and Indiana could pursue the Cincinnati to Chicago via Indianapolis corridor.

    That would cost somewhere around $2b to 2.5b all up, trains and maintenance base included.

  • Having ridden the Acela and Japan’s bullet trains — both systems of which are electric — I am delighted by the injection of some significant funding into HSR.

    I am admittedly new to all this discussion, but am curious about how you envision the HSR portion of the stimulus bill be spent. Clearly it isn’t enough to build California’s HSR, nor not enough to even extend the Acela line south to Charlotte. I imagine that much of it will be used for system improvements and modest extensions.

    If that is the case, where might this happen and how? Will track system be upgraded to allow higher speeds? Will more lines be electrified? Who will be the key players in this?

  • David Galvan


    Well the head of the California HSR system is applying for about $2B of the $8B, to be used for grade separation in some of the more heavily populated areas, grading for a train maintanence center in the central valley, and electrification of some of the existing rail lines (along which the HSR will travel) in San Jose.

    As for the rest of the federal money, other programs will have to apply for it. As I understand it, Ray La Hood will come up with a plan for the transportation funding distribution within 60 days of the President’s signing of the bill last week. So we’ll have to wait and see. I expect that some money will go to the Acela system for various improvements, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the supporters of the Midwest system applied for some of that money to be used for planning purposes.

  • Michael Witzel

    It is good to see that the rails haven’t been forgotten.

  • We’re coming up on the 60 day reporting period. Any word on allocations?

    Also, read last week that French rail system operator has expressed interest in running future HSR system here in America. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    Finally, if you were looking for a good investment opportunity in future of rail, where might it be? I was thinking railroad ties?


  • gsdali

    To belatedly add to this, the big omission seems to be DC-Pittsburgh-Cleveland. DC Pittsburgh is perfect highspeed rail territory. It takes about 5 hours and a modestly fast railway would be able to beet this and be able to compete, city centre to city centre with air. Frederick and Cumberland would make suitable intermediate stops both having good catchment areas for a “parkway” park and ride station.

  • Andrew Dawson

    There needs to be a return of train service between Salt Lake City & Portland.

  • Mark Barker

    I think they should model the high speed network after the airplane hub and spoke system, with Chicago, Philly or New York, and Atlanta being the 3 primary hubs. They are all close enough to each other so that you could run an overnight high speed train so that you could hop on a sleeper train in say Chicago at say 10 pm and be in NYC by 7 am with connectors to cities like Boston and Albany. It seems this approach will give you the most connects at times that would be attractive to travelers while having to run the least amount of high speed rail. They also need to think of an integraged approach to development with only one Transportaion Fund instead of separte funds for Rail and Highways and Airports. Rail also needs to be thought of in terms of passenger and freight needs. Some of these lines if done for just passenger probably don’t make economical sense. Both if you have both freight and passenger traffic, they vary will might. In other words, how could you build a network that is profitable and makes economical since if Amtrak was in the overnight express freight business as well as the passenger rail business.

  • Nathanael

    If NH would be willing to put in *any* state/local government effort towards rail, I’d certainly support the long-proposed Concord-Manchester-Nashua-Boston commuter rail line.

    At that pont the case for the Montreal-Boston direct line becomes very weak. It’s clear that we need a rerouted Adironadack/Ethan Allen Express running east of Lake Champlaign via Burlington, which provides the best Montreal-Albany HSR corridor. The Vermonter would remain, imrpoved, running from Burlington along the east side of Vermont — this provides Boston-Springfield-Montreal travel without going all the way to Albany.

    At that point a connector from Concord to White River Junction would likely make sense as conventional rail, but not as HSR.

    Major overhaul of Boston-Albany is totally worth it. I can’t imagine how to get the new ROW past the NIMBYs though, and the current route is quite absudly twisty. This might be a case for trying to get some of the I-90 ROW.

  • Ted S

    This is all very interesting and I hope some of it will happen in my lifetime; I’m 70. I used to work for the NYCS and have ridden Amtrak every year but two, since May 1971. One subject that has not been brought up is the freight railroads. If the first phase is the upgrade of existing Amtrak lines, the freight railroads want no part of it; they got rid of their passenger business to Amtrak. Therefore,most lines discussed here would have to be from scratch–not much of a chance in this day and age. The NIMBY group would also tie up expansion in court, ala as happened with the ACELA electrification from New Haven to Boston. Good Luck!

    • Ocean Railroader

      I think at this point any new high speed rail line will have to follow one of the older rail beds that where closed down or rail lines owned by fright railroads do to the fact that clearing a new path would be impossible with all the studies that would have to be done and everyone owning a lawyer or getting mad at the rail line in general.

      In China their goverment draws a line on a map and no mater who or what is in the way they go right though it.

  • Regarding the New England/New York lines to Montréal, I wonder if the author has considered in his cost/benefit analysis the fact that the (current) Government of Québec has offered to pay a substantial part of the line in US territory?

    • Kevin

      I’m with Yonah on this one. Bostonians might believe they are at the Hub of the Universe, but but a hub focused on NYC makes more sense and more connections…

      Boston and Montreal would be better served by each getting a 180mph route to Albany (an L shaped route…with service onward to ROC, NYC and PHL) than trying to build a Delta-shaped route at 110mph.

  • Kevin

    Ever since the Texas Triangle (a delta shaped routing) was reduce to the Texas Star (a 3 legged route)…reducing the land and track-miles by 60%…I’ve seen the virtue of trimming redundant pathways.

    Why does the FRA run a line from CHI to both Toledo and Detroit? Seems like 2x more trackage than needed: a single inverted T-shaped route with the arms intersecting at TOL. or a Z shaped route running CHI-DTW-TOL-CLE would seem to be the way to load the most demand on to the least track.

  • Brandon

    Ive been of the opinion for a long time that the California HSR should build the Sacramento to San Francisco route first. Its the only route with real proven ridership, presently one of the top lines in the country. If you could get there in 1/3 to 1/2 the time, it wouldnt make sense to drive. It would change everything. The SF to LA route on the other hand will have a tough time competing with shuttle flights, though i sure as hell would ride it.

  • Peter

    Does anyone know why Toronto is not linked in to the FRA system, while Montreal and Vancouver are? The Cascadia route and Montreal-Albany or Montreal-Boston may provide more direct connections to major US cities, but Toronto is much larger than Montreal and Vancouver. In fact, Toronto is the 4th largest urban area in North America, and yet still somehow falls off the map.

    The Province of Quebec has been proactively working with their American partners to get the connection to Montreal. Is the Province of Ontario waiting for HSR to Buffalo or up to Montreal to connect to the system? Why are they not working proactively like Quebec? Is there a technical issue I’m missing, or is this just a case of lack of political leadership?

    • It’s 100% lack of political concern – connecting Toronto to New York is easier than connecting Montreal, as would be confirmed by looking at a topographic map. The reason Montreal is so gung ho about HSR to New York is that it lost its financial base once Toronto became larger, and is trying to use a megaproject to get back. Toronto doesn’t care, because there’s no prestige for it in an HSR connection.

    • John W

      It could also have something to do with likely border formalities. For HSR, both Vancouver and Montreal would be linked to the US border without intermediate stops. In the case of Toronto, there’d be a number of stops before the border (though then again, there’s no reason HSR trains would have to stop at intermediate stops). It might also be that a line from Toronto to the US border would be a branch line from the main Corridor route, whereas the sole purpose of the lines running south from Vancouver and Montreal would be to link to destinations in the US.

      @Alon – not sure how Canadian political attitudes would factor in to the FRA’s decisions. In any event, the focus in Canada is much more about connecting Canadian cities to each other. The Montreal-US link keeps getting mooted while study after study goes nowhere on upgrading the Corridor service. There’s also some of the chip on the shoulder thing but the main reason for Montreal would be economic – increasing tourism and trade with Boston and NYC, which is a huge population. And some historical reasons as well – after all, they spent a load of money on the Victoria Bridge in the mid-19th century to link to Portland, ME.

      • The Boston-Montreal bit on the map is New Hampshire and Vermont trying to hog federal funds. The Quebecois want NY-Montreal.

        The federal focus in Canada is on performing more and more studies about connecting Montreal and Toronto, but in Montreal they have a separate effort to connect Montreal to NYC. Toronto-Montreal cements Toronto’s status as the leading city and Montreal’s as the second city; Montreal-NYC gives the ribbon cutters of Montreal something to brag about independently.

  • Akiva

    In response to why Toronto isnt included, could be because Montreal is at the end of the popular Nyc-Albany route as opposed to Toronto is at th end of the less-used Nyc-Buffalo route

    • aw

      Montreal is still quite a long way from the end of the NYC-Albany route. In addition, NYC-Buffalo includes all of the NYC-Albany route, so it makes sense that it would have lower ridership end to end.

      Montreal as a destination helps to fluff up the Albany-Springfield MA corridor, while Toronto as a destination helps Chicago-Cleveland-Buffalo. Which would NY state prefer to have happen?

  • Isaac Fischer

    It seems that the “missed connection” between Detroit and Toledo is not long enough to merit a true “high speed” line, as higher speeds would save little time. Rather, a regional rail line would be more convenient, as it would only take maybe half an hour longer, could serve smaller stops on the route, and would save the passengers ticket money.

    Also, due to a “low performing route” omission, you completely separated the Georgia-Florida system from the rest of the East Coast system. What would make sense would be a connection from Columbia to Raleigh, as that is a short connection and would probably have high ridership. I also think that a connection from Buffalo to Clevelaned would work well, so that a passenger would not have to go all the way through both New York and Pennsylvania.

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