Administration Releases High-Speed Rail Plan.

Proposal envisions development of both upgraded corridors and very fast high-speed rail

Vision for HSR

Cross-posted on Infrastructurist.com

Today, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood released a vision for high-speed rail in the United States, the first such administration-endorsed rail strategy in American history. The plan attempts to outline a strategy to follow in undertaking the development of rail corridors with the $8 billion included for the effort in the stimulus bill passed earlier this year. The administration has specifically endorsed providing more money in the near future to state and federal rail projects, though those funds have yet to be approved.

The administration’s report on high-speed rail clarifies the direction of the federal government, confirming that the administration will be spending its funds on the existing Congressionally-designated corridors, which include lines in the Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Southeast, the Midwest, Pennsylvania, New York, and Northern New England. The report, unlike previous federal descriptions of high-speed rail lines, actually endorses connecting these corridors with one another, something that had been left out of previous DOT reports. That said, the existing corridors noted on the plan aren’t necessarily the most thought-out: a line from Dallas to Little Rock, Arkansas is envisioned, but there’s no provision for a line from Dallas to Houston, for instance. Those deficiencies in the existing plan are likely to be remedied as the administration selects the most cost efficient and valuable routes for funding.

The plan identifies two types of project – one, very fast high-speed rail running at up to 200 mph, like that in Europe and Asia; and two, upgraded existing lines running at up to 110 mph. High-speed programs would be funded by grants going to individual programs, corridor programs, or planning programs. Initial funding is planned to be allocated at the end of the summer.

What is perhaps most exciting about the high-speed program established by the President is that it wholly endorses the idea of a national rail plan, proposing to draft a proposal by November of this year, rather than simply developing isolated corridors. Its insistance that 150 mph and faster rail services are the ultimate goal also demonstrates the the U.S. government isn’t ignorant about the advances in high-speed rail abroad.

More to come when I get the chance…

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kyle - Boston

    Greatest post ever!

  • Jason

    Good news!

    It is clear to me that this isn’t a new plan for infrastructure, but rather a plan to build infrastructure that has been hypothesized for years.

    The map is no different than the one that has been on the DOT website for years, except that it now has a slightly different graphic design.

    I would expect to see the map modified somewhat in the coming years, as new planning refines the plans.

    For instance, I would expect to see Cleveland to the east connections and Houston to other Texas T-bone cities connections. Boston to Montreal might turn into New York to Montreal.

    The strategic plan is two provide funding for three activities:

    -Ready to go projects that have benefits
    -Entire corridors
    -Planning

    I expect to see projects funding for the NW, SE, upstate NY, and Midwest to be some of the first action we see out of this. CA is likely to fall under the entire corridor program. Hopefully a careful and aggressive planning effort to fix the Chicago bottlenecks and reach the potential of the MWRRI is also in the works.

  • Patrick M

    Check out page 10 of the 28 page report. The following definitions are present:

    HSR-Express: Top speeds of at least 150 mph.
    HSR-Regional: Top speeds of 110-150 mph.
    Emerging HSR: Top speeds of 110 mph.
    Conventional Rail: Top speeds of 79 mph.

    Now you don’t have to use “tin-hsr” anymore.

  • Jason

    It also occurs to me that the administration has (accidentally?) presented this map as their idea, which opens them up to all kind of valid criticism for the map. In reality, this map is the result of the last 18 years of transportation planning and politics.

  • Right. Isn’t it exciting to have certifiable, reliable definitions? I’m glad the feds have finally made this clear. (And hopefully other groups will follow suit and remember these terms.)

    Based on Obama’s speech, it appears that since California’s project is the only HSR-Express project actually under consideration seriously at this time, it will get a significant amount of the funds. The rest will be spread around between HSR-Regional and Emerging HSR.

  • Jason – I agree, very problematic. The idea that these corridors are self-evidently “the” corridors is an issue for the administration, and will give people the idea, for instance, that California is going to have two parallel HSR lines, along the coast and inland, obviously not true. This is the problem with the congressional “designations.”

  • Patrick M

    I don’t think the corridor map is a problem for what is on it. At the national level, remember, the biggest issue in the HSR discussion is whether or not we are building a high speed maglev from Disneyland to Las Vegas.

    This is not on the map. Conservatives can pretend they convinced Obama the Las Vegas line was a stupid idea, and Obama can pretend he listened.

    I predict that the media will mostly ignore the fact that we have a national rail policy for the first time, that there is now a federal matching grant for rail, etc. The most important thing is “did the Republicans force Obama’s hand to remove the LV maglev?!?!?!”

    If this is what the primary discussion is about and implementation proceeds apace, rail advocates everywhere should rejoice.

  • David Galvan

    Other than the clear definitions of types of HSR, this doesn’t tell us all that much in terms of details. But still, it gets me excited and it makes abundantly clear: Obama is indeed going to try and make HSR development a signature policy in his administration.

    Patrick: You’re probably right. If this gets any mention on the cable news talk shows, it will probably be all focussed on the Las Vegas-Anaheim talk. So ridiculous how things get processed and distorted by the competitive news outlets. Makes you wonder how true the other bits of news are, on topics that we aren’t already keeping up on.

  • David Galvan

    Other political nonsense I predict will be shouted from Fox News when much of the stimulus money gets sent to the midwest and CA:

    “Oh, what do you know. He’s building new HSR systems in California and Chicago. How’s that for rewarding the states that put you in office and punishing those that voted against you?”
    ;)

  • USDOT cannot change the map on a whim, it takes an act of Congress to do that. It hasn’t been updated since 2002 and is obviously out of date in some respects, e.g. on the routes in California. Now that there is a bona fide policy and actual money on the table, expect Congress to not juist correct but expand the map.

    I just hope they’re smart enough to make Las Vegas a new destination on the California steel wheels network (renamed Cal-Neva or some such) rather than endorse an incompatible maglev link to either LA or Anaheim. Conversely, I hope they don’t go overboard and start pencilling in routes like Sacramento-Eugene (OR) where HSR makes no economic sense. The concept of corridors has a lot of merit, even if some corrections are needed.

    I’d add cross-border service to Canada (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) to the wish list. Eurostar is a good model, its trains only stop at a very limited number of stations that act as points of entry – the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen convention.

    Finally, there would be huge value in a national R&D program for terrestrial broadband internet access on board all high speed trains. It doesn’t have to be free, but it does have to be fast, reliable and support low-latency applications like VoIP, Skype-grade videoconferencing, virtual whiteboards etc.

  • Tom

    I really hope that the line in Pennsylvania runs through Penn State. It won’t, but god I hope they have enough sense to run it through there. With 70 – 80,000 students, of which large percentages are coming from Philly and Pitt and Harrisburg, You hope thye would think of all the weekend and holiday traffic.

  • Woody

    David thinks the wingnuts will be crying about “rewarding the states that put you in office and punishing those that voted against you.”

    Oh, how I wish Obama would do that in this case.

    We could prune down the weakest links in the mapped HSR system — that stuff through Deepest Dixie, in other words. Once you get south of Atlanta, the city populations and likely ridership drop off dramatically until you get to Houston/Dallas/Austin/San Antonio.

    So let’s indefinitely postpone work on those corridors through Little Rock, Tulsa, and Mobile, and just redistribute their share of the funds to places that need it more and can use it faster. And indefinitely postpone work on HSR in Texas, too, until we get clear agreement that it will not secede. No point is making HSR spending some kind of foreign aid program for secessionist states.

  • Patrick M

    Woody, don’t worry. The fact that this program requires states to participate in funding (unlike the Amtrak long distance train network) ensures that GA, SC, AL, etc. are not going to receive much money in this program because their antediluvian state legislatures will not put up matching funds.

    Most of this money is going to be spent exactly where it needs to be. Some small dollar amounts (probably less than $250-500 million total) will be spent on isolated improvements to 79 mph conventional rail services that will never be part of any of the HSR tiers listed above.

  • BLambert

    “Once you get south of Atlanta, the city populations and likely ridership drop off dramatically until you get to Houston/Dallas/Austin/San Antonio.”

    It might drop off, but it’s not completely non-existent; it’s really a chicken-and-egg problem, as is rail ridership in general i n the US. A GDOT study[1] found that there were potential passenger rail lines between cities in GA that would turn a profit once in place.

    The most striking example is the Atlanta-Macon-Savannah line, which would, depending on route and pricing, turn up to $8 million/year in profit.

    [1] http://www.garail.com/Pages/grpplegupdate.htm

  • Chris

    Um, apologies if this is a dumb question, but WHERE THE HELL IS BALTIMORE? We were on the 2005 map; now we’re not.

    This had better be a typo.

  • BLambert

    Chris – this is Baltimore’s punishment for vomiting forth Regis Philbin ;)

  • Allan

    Baltimore is a part of the NEC. It would not lose service just because they could not fit the name on the map. Relax.

  • Jake

    I’m all for the Chicago Hub Network! It connects so many mid to major sized cities. Plus, I live in the Midwest haha.

    These are going to be ACTUAL high speed rail, right? Are they going to have their own tracks and whatnot? Because the freight tracks are already clogged enough, they don’t need more traffic

  • Jason

    Jake,

    The MWRRI lines are generally mixed with freight, but on low freight traffic corridors. Madison to the twin cities may be one case where there is more freight congestion, and more new tracks will be needed, but it will follow existing rights-of-way.

    In most cases, the railroads used to have 2 tracks, but now they have only one, with occasional passing sidings. Putting back the second track creates the needed capacity to avoid freight.

    There is congestion in some of the large cities, especially Chicago, and that will have to be dealt with as well. Look up the CREATE program for Chicago’s plan.

  • jon

    no, money has to be spent in red states. the worst thing is for high speed rail to be something only for democrats or rewards for blue states. it is essential that they reach out to the south and try to make high speed rail and rail in general, less political not more political. its people like pat mccrory the republican mayor of charlotte (who is very pro-transit) who has helped greatly to introduce transit and rail to traditionally conservative areas that are big on highways. rail does not need to be made into another politically divisive issue.

    a perfect candidate for HSR in the south is Atlanta-Charlotte as is the texas triangle.

    i live in the pac nw and i dont care whether a line is built near me or not, i just want to see high speed rail play a large role in the transportation system of america, so where ever this starter money does the most good for getting a national system that all i care about.

  • Woody

    Ha ha ha ha. I was mostly kidding about not spending on HSR in Deep Dixie. I grew up in Texas and I have roots in half the former Confederacy. But I did not vote for Rick Perry, or for secession.

    That said, the route map shows as much politics as population. I mean, Little Rock to Dallas via Hope, Arkansas? That was put on the map under what President? And HSR from Boston to Montreal, but not from NYC to Montreal? Meanwhile there’s no connection between Pittsburgh and Youngstown and Cleveland, or Buffalo and Cleveland. I know those old cities are rusting away, but come on.

    And I was glad to see this in the AP story on the Yahoo front page:
    “We are very jazzed about it,” said Karen Parsons, executive director of the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission. She said preliminary numbers showed that they could increase capacity and speed on the existing New Orleans-Baton Rouge line for about $150 million to $200 million, and for $500 million they could expand service from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala.

    I’m ready to drop $200 million on Baton Rouge right now. Half a billion on Mobile? Get in line with the others.

  • Mad Park

    Before the excitement levels get to a fever pitch here…
    A reality check: US$8B will be barely enough money to buy some new equipment for a corridor or two and do ROW work to raise speeds to 80-90 MPH over some stretches of some corridors. NO high speed “system” will built for US$8B or even US$80B, and no system will be completed even in an 8 year Obama Administration. Remember, Japan started in the 1960s, France in the 1970s, other European nations even later. Only Spain has pushed so hard to have a more or less complete system built in about 15 years. It will require a major change of national will and investment priorities, and, say, a trillion dollars over 20 years or more to develop true high speed with hourly frequencies on all the routes on the map.

  • “Those deficiencies in the existing plan are likely to be remedied as the administration selects the most cost efficient and valuable routes for funding.”

    Which, of course, will happen as soon as it snows in hell. Instead, of course, what the administration will wind up doing is selecting the routes that win the votes of key congressman and please major campaign contributors and lobbyists.

  • Da Moose

    Where do these people live? Fantasyland? How do the Obama cronies plan to pay for this. Oh that’s right ,there’s always the tax payers. Oh and if we run out of funds we can always borrow more. The Deficit doesn’t matter cause it will just magically disappear right?

  • liam

    how come houston is only connected with new orlens and not san antonio?

  • Woody

    liam — Don’t worry. The map is obsolete.

    But this fact is still current: Neither Louisiana nor Texas is planning to spend any matching funds on HSR, so lines on the map, or the absence of lines, make no difference at all. Houston will have to wait for Govs Perry and Jindal to grow up – not likely any time soon, is it?

  • Houston will have to wait for Dallas-San Antonio HSR, which is a more sensible starter line for Texas than Dallas-Houston.

  • Can you say “Boon-doggle”, children?
    You will find that 8 billion dollars of federal money has already been wasted on high speed rail projects since 1965. Nobody wants to use it. The feds will run it. Cf: Amtrak & the USPS. The best excuse Durbin & Quinn could up with is that it will save Cub fans one whole hour when they’re wasting a whole day anyways going to St. Louis to see a ball game.
    South Spur Rail Services

    • Woody

      Can you say Arrogant Swell Head? Thanks for dropping in from nowhere to share the views of newbies to this discussion who are undeterred by facts or experience. Now please go back where you came from. Your contribution exemplifies the maxim that Less is More.

  • John Bredin

    If I were emperor of the world, I would decree that no person can argue that nobody will ride trains unless they first actually ride a passenger train or at least go to Chicago Union Station. If they can still say nobody will ride with a straight face (or without their nose growing like Pinocchio) then they may say it.

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