High-Speed Rail

A Future Interstate Rail Network – Redux

This is the second, revised, piece on a national rail network. The first is here.


After quite a response to The Transport Politic’s original post on envisioning a new intercity rail network, I’d like to offer up some revisions to the proposal. Most of the alterations have been made to the high-speed network, though there were some minor changes to the standard-speed network as well. In this post, I’ve also delved a bit deeper into how such a rail network could be implemented, described how the routes were chosen and judged, and listed other routes that were considered and rejected because of poor cost-effectiveness.

Proposed North American Intercity Rail Network

Proposed National Rail Route Network – Standard and HSR Routes

High Speed Rail Network Phasing

HSR Route Network – Phasing

High Speed Rail Network Routes

HSR Route Network – Corridors

Implementing the National Intercity Rail Network

The method by which the United States currently funds intercity railroad lines is skewed towards state and region-centric projects without consideration for how the national rail network works as a whole. For instance, states like North Carolina and Michigan pay Amtrak to subsidize routes in their states, and the result is that both states have somewhat better service than many states that don’t spend to join the national system. The problem, however, is that travel on railways is not confined to states – passengers from North Carolina may want to get to Atlanta, but if South Carolina and Georgia don’t put up the funds to participate, passengers in North Carolina lose out. Similarly, the state of Michigan may improve its tracks, but if Illinois and Indiana don’t do the same, passengers traveling from Detroit to Chicago won’t benefit as much as they could.

It is for this reason that a railway system must be planned, financed, and built at the national scale. Our existing dysfunctional national policy suggests that states will be able to coordinate their decision-making, but considering the lack of high-speed rail development since 1991, when federal policy first addressed the issue, I can’t help but be skeptical. The federal government must use an empirical system such as the one presented here to prioritize corridors throughout the nation – without considering state borders – and then designate funds to sponsor them. Relying on states to plan the systems and then provide the majority of funds is simply unrealistic.

the transport politic’s suggestion is that the most appropriate way to get the ball rolling is to separate train operations – Amtrak – from track possession and maintenance by setting up a national infrastructure owner – let’s call it NatTrack. This agency would take hold of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor and begin acquiring and assembling land for future high-speed rail corridors. Through eminent domain, it would also take possession of a large number of the nation’s freight lines, most of which are currently under-maintained and poorly managed, and begin converting them to standard-speed rail operations. NatTrack would manage route creation, not only in buying land and constructing track, but in prioritizing corridors to build new lines, deciding which to implement, and when. Our suggestion for such an implementation order is presented in the table below.

NatTrack would pay for tracks through grants and bonds – similar to the financial model being proposed for the California High-Speed Rail project. The federal government would contribute 50 to 90% of each project’s cost in grants (it currently pays for 80 to 90% of the nation’s roadways). Since the rail system is an interstate one and its creation would provide numerous economic benefits, such as transit-oriented development and decreased travel times, this seems appropriate. The rest of each project’s cost would come from debt-financed bonds released by the private market but backed by Washington. Considering the profitability of high-speed rail lines in countries all over the world (as well as that of the Northeast Corridor), it seems reasonable to suggest that service along American HSR lines would be profitable enough to cover operating costs and some of the debt from the original construction. Upgrades to standard-speed corridors, which would likely not be as profitable, could be sponsored with 80-90% grants from the federal government and from small (10-20%) contributions from affected states.

The creation of NatTrack need not mean the privatization of Amtrak, which would continue to operate the nation’s intercity train service. In fact, in France, for instance, rails are owned by the RFF and trains are run by the SNCF; both organizations are nationalized. We’ve made the argument in the past that national ownership of both tracks and train operation makes sense. Amtrak’s role would be to buy trains and run them; it would pay NatTrack to run trains along the tracks, and NatTrack would use that revenue to pay for maintenance costs along those corridors as well as to pay for debt service on corridor construction.

Existing intercity rail lines and freight lines would be slowly converted to the standard-speed operation (70-120 mph) that we present in the maps above. These corridors would also be absorbed by NatTrack, which, after double-tracking and potentially electrifying them, would then lease back operation rights to both freight services and Amtrak. Allowing freight companies to own the tracks makes little sense and has resulted in Amtrak being treated as the secondary operator; a national owner would weigh the needs of both passenger and freight operations and be fairer and more efficient in scheduling trains.

High-speed rail lines would not be shared with freight trains, but the right-of-way could be shared. In other words, if the corridor were wide enough, NatTrack could allow for the operation of freight trains along parallel tracks.

The fundamental jump that the U.S. government must take is the creation of an organization such as NatTrack. Public ownership of our railways and federal government leadership in the creation of new corridors are rational first steps towards a unified national system that provides competitive and valuable train service throughout the country.

Western High Speed Rail Network


Midwest High Speed Rail Network


Northeast High Speed Rail Network


Texas High Speed Rail Network


Southeast High Speed Rail Network


How Routes Were Chosen and Judged

the transport politic’s proposal was informed by an analysis of potential travel between metro regions of populations greater than 100,000 and between 50 and 500 miles apart. The system proposed here would represent a massive change from the service provided by Amtrak today. It would emphasize train travel that’s competitive with airlines in time, rather than the day or days-long travel that is the hallmark of Amtrak today. The vast majority of train travel would occur on trains running at 150 mph or above on routes of 500 miles or less. Roads and airports along these corridors would be significantly decongested as more people choose to take the train instead of a car for short to medium distances (50-200 miles) and the train instead of the airplane for long distance (300-500 miles) travel.

There is no transcontinental high-speed railroad proposed here because high-speed rail simply doesn’t attract particularly high ridership above the 500 mile travel distance; the best way to get from the East Coast to the West Coast will – and should, barring some unforeseen technological advance – remain via airplane.

Though we’ve separated the routes described here into a set of named corridors, users, being able to travel from one to another seamlessly, wouldn’t necessarily perceive where one corridor ends and another begins. Train operations would be scheduled by Amtrak depending on ridership; the corridor scores in the table below provide a basic estimate for travel demand along each of the lines.

Some standard-speed corridors would act as extensions of the high-speed services and allow for trains to run on both types of track; this would allow people living in an area without direct access to high-speed lines to still be able to travel on high-speed trains to other destinations. Other standard-speed corridors with lower ridership would operate with their own train sets and require passengers to transfer at high-speed stations to get onto high-speed lines.

The system does not emphasize airport connections, because the high-speed system is meant to serve as an economic generator for the nation’s inner cities, as well as provide for regional inter-connectivity. Cities and states would have an incentive to prop up their local transit systems if there were a well-used rail hub at the center of each metropolitan area. There could be some service to airports, of course, especially to those that happen to be well positioned along the rail lines, such as SFO, Newark, BWI, and DFW. But most airports should be connected to city centers via local transit and commuter rail.

In order to calculate the cost effectiveness of each route on the high-speed system, the transport politic used a relatively simple methodology based on travel between city pairs 50 to 500 miles apart. The calculations assume the following: that a big city to big city route attracts more passengers than a small city to small city route; that a big city to small city route attracts more passengers than a small city to small city route; that as distances increase, ridership decreases, though not proportionately. I recognize that these assumptions may be incorrect in many cases, but they provide a reasonable start for further research on this subject.

These calculations do not take into account regional economic integration nor current air or road corridor travel – adding this information to the metric in the future would be a useful improvement. The assumption that as distances increase, ridership decreases is based on the obvious truth that there is simply more overall travel between cities that are close to one another than cities that are far apart. A commenter suggested that in fact high-speed rail market share increases as distance increases – this is true, because people are less likely to drive as a journey’s distance increases. However, the overall travel market does decrease as the distance increases, meaning that even with a higher market share, there will be fewer high-speed rail journeys. The metric recognizes that.

But I recognize that the proposal presented here is no magic bullet, and the calculations used to support it are certainly not exhaustive.

That said, this is simply the beginning of what should be a years-long process to establish a national track owner, to plan a series of national rail corridors, to build them, and, finally, to operate them. Starting with a big vision, just as we did with the Interstate highways system fifty years ago, is an important first step.

Alterations in the High-Speed Rail Network from the First Proposal

  • The Crescent Route would now run from Birmingham south to Montgomery and Pensacola, then west to New Orleans, before continuing on to Houston. This change would, according to our calculations, increase travel about two-fold by serving the Gulf Coast’s relatively populated areas.
  • The SouthEastern Route would now end in Macon, rather than continuing on to Jacksonville – the route from Macon to Savannah was extremely low-performing. A new route, however, from Charlotte through Columbia, Charleston, and Savannah to Jacksonville, would be better-performing and improve access to South Carolina’s biggest cities.
  • The Texas CrossState Route, which was rightfully criticized before, has been reconsidered along the lines of the Texas T-Bone proposal, with a line from Dallas directly to San Antonio and another from Temple to Houston. This would be more cost effective per mile and decrease travel times for more routes.
  • A Norfolk Connection is added, providing service from Norfolk/Virginia Beach to Richmond, a potentially very high travel market.
  • The Colorado CrossState Route is also added, thanks to a commenter’s suggestion; this route would perform relatively poorly overall, but better than other routes in the system, so I’ve included it.
  • The CrossCanada Lines were changed slightly – Toronto has been added to CC1 and Hamilton removed from CC2; this improves the performance of the CC1 line and Toronto serves as a more logical terminus than relatively small Hamilton;
  • I’ve also included two possible connections to Mexico: south from San Diego to Tijuana and south from San Antonio, through Corpus Christi, Brownsville, and McAllen, to Monterrey. These would make sense in the future if and when U.S./Mexico border relations improve significantly.

Total high-speed rail system mileage increased to 10,669 miles. (New rankings, based on the changes presented above, are at the bottom of the post.)

Other Routes Evaluated and Rejected

Alternative routings for high-speed rail were considered, but rejected because of lower scores than the final routes chosen:

  • LA-Phoenix-Tucson scored higher than the rejected LA-Flagstaff-Prescott-Phoenix;
  • Extensions of the Colorado CrossState proposal south from Pueblo scored too low to be included; a connection from Santa Fe to El Paso via Albuquerque also scored too low;
  • An extension of the NorthWestern south from Porland to Eugene is not cost-effective;
  • Connections from Vancouver east to Calgary and from Calgary north to Edmonton scored too low to be included;
  • The Lakes 2 routing from Chicago to Cleveland was chosen over a routing through Michigan (Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, etc); the former had a higher Overall Score;
  • A route from Oklahoma City to Kansas City through Wichita scored lower than the route through Tulsa presented here;
  • The original alignment through Texas, from Dallas to Austin to Houston, was rejected in favor of the T-Bone Corridor shown here;
  • The original Crescent 4 and 5 alignments, from Birmingham to Dallas, via Jackson, and with a spur to New Orleans, scored significantly lower than the new alignment from Birmingham south to Mobile and then west to New Orleans and Houston;
  • A shorter line directly from Raleigh to Charlotte in North Carolina was rejected in favor of the more populated routing through Durham, Burlington, and Greensboro;
  • Various routings from Knoxville to Little Rock, via Nashville and Memphis, scored too low to be included;
  • A routing from St. Louis south to New Orleans through Memphis and Jackson scored too low to be included;
  • The Macon-Savannah-Jacksonville alignment scored considerably lower than the Charlotte-Columbia-Charleston-Savannah-Jacksonville alignment presented here.

Phase 1 Corridors – 2,724 miles
Route Order Mileage Corridor Score Overall Score
NEC / Boston-NYC-Philadelphia-DC 1 454 2,486 3,535
California CrossState 1 / San Francisco-Fresno-LA 2 500 516 1,091
CrossCanada 1 / Detroit-Hamilton-Toronto 3 239 745 2,163
New York CrossState 1/ NYC-Albany 4 141 781 3,619
NorthEastern / Boston-Albany-Buffalo-Hamilton 5 499 829 2,119
Lakes 1 / Detroit-Toledo 6 57 454 3,136
MidWestern 1 / Cincinnati-Columbus-Akron 7 258 553 1,800
Crescent 1 / DC-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte 8 409 556 1,496
California CrossState 2 / LA-San Diego 9 167 1,408 1,877
Phase 2 Corridors – 2,466 miles
Route Order Mileage Corridor Score Overall Score
Lakes 2 / Chicago-Ft. Wayne-Toledo-Cleveland 10 371 477 1,879
MidWestern 2 / Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati-Louisville 11 350 557 1,456
Florida CrossState / Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa-Miami 12 498 878 926
Texas CrossState / Dallas-Austin-San Antonio-Houston 13 476 660 797
California CrossState 3 / (Fresno)-Sacramento 14 120 636 1,342
Crescent 2 / Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta 15 252 489 1,198
Keystone / Philadelphia-Harrisburg 16 98 198 1,488
NorthWestern / Portland-Seattle-Vancouver 17 301 564 564
Phase 3 Corridors – 2,534 miles
Route Order Mileage Corridor Score Overall Score
Lakes 3 / Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Akron-Cleveland 18 357 396 1,277
CrossCanada 2 / Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal 19 392 281 607
MidWestern 3 / Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis 20 438 429 655
Norfolk Connection / (Richmond)-Norfolk 21 75 256 926
Crescent 3 / Atlanta-Birmingham 22 142 268 754
New York CrossState 2 / Albany-Montréal 23 205 128 1,302
Crescent 4 / Houston-Baton Rouge-New Orleans 24 344 359 558
MidAmerican 1 / Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis 25 290 271 579
SouthEastern 1 / Louisville-Nashville-Chattanooga 26 291 217 701
Phase 4 Corridors – 2,945  miles
Route Order Mileage Corridor Score Overall Score
SouthEastern 2 /Chattanooga-Atlanta-Macon 27 193 233 686
Crescent 5 / Birmingham-Montgomery-Mobile-New Orleans 28 456 248 396
SouthEastern 3 / Charlotte-Columbia-Savannah-Jacksonville 29 458 198 431
Colorado CrossState / Ft. Collins-Denver-Pueblo 30 177 301 301
SouthWestern 1 / LA-Phoenix-Tucson 31 434 186 366
CrossCanada 3 / Montréal-Québec 32 168 161 338
MidAmerican 2 / Dallas-Oklahoma City 33 217 169 309
MidAmerican 3 / St. Louis-Kansas City-Tulsa-Oklahoma City 34 615 189 224
SouthWestern 2 / LA-Las Vegas 35 227 113 294

Note: the order presented above does not always correspond to the scores presented, notably in the case of California CrossState 1. That corridor is emphasized because it is further ahead in planning than any other of the nation’s high-speed lines. Other corridors are rearranged depending on the needs of the overall system. For instance, CrossCanada 1 is placed ahead of New York CrossState 1 because of the value it would bring to Midwest-to-Northeast travel.

High-speed lines to Mexico (from San Diego to Tijuana and from San Antonio to Monterrey via Corpus Christi, Brownsville, McAllen, and Juarez) are not calculated because of the currently tenuous border situation.

Computations taking into account the changes to the lines are here (PDF). An overview of how each line affects the other is here (PDF).