» America 2050’s report produces a long-term, phased rail system proposal.
Over the past six months, there’s been much talk of high-speed rail development in the United States, most of it revolving around how the federal government will choose to award the $8 billion included in the stimulus for the program. The discussion has been frustrating, because it has skirted around the incredibly important issue of which corridors are right for fast trains with under-researched over-the-top plans or out-of-date, politically-motivated proposals; meanwhile, the term high-speed rail is thrown around with gumption whenever any train improvement project, no matter how fast, is mentioned.
As far as I know, perhaps with the exception of the high-speed rail investment scheme I produced in February, there has been no serious attempt to evaluate the nation’s rail corridors using an objective, repeatable standard. Fortunately, America 2050 has done just that in a new study released today. It is a quality product that outlines a future American rail network whose shape and proposed phased implementation are the result of a considered study of the country’s cities and metropolitan areas. It is a report whose methods and conclusions should be examined by the Department of Transportation before it releases its National Rail Plan and begins awarding stimulus funds later this fall.
The report’s authors, Yoav Hagler and Petra Todorovich, evaluated more than 27,000 corridors — that is, every pair of cities with respective populations of more than 50,000 and distanced between 100 and 500 miles apart. The rating system, based on six criteria — city size, distance between cities, transit connections, per capita GDP, traffic congestion, and location in a megaregion — isn’t perfect (I’ll return to it later in this post), but at least it attempts to use relevant information to prioritize corridors. This is far more than can be said for virtually every other organization that has discussed high-speed rail development.
The highlights of the study are summarized in the map at the top of this page. After considering the 27,000 corridors, America 2050 notes that the corridors with the highest ridership potential would be in the Northeast (from Washington to Boston, with a spur through Springfield), in the Midwest (radiating from Chicago to Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Detroit), and in California (from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento). The report advocates their construction first, and I largely agree with the choice of corridors: they’re the most heavily and densely populated areas in the U.S.
In general, the second phase is equally reasonable — proposed are lines between Vancouver and Portland; Los Angeles and San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas; Dallas and Houston; Toledo and Cleveland; Washington and Atlanta; Tampa and Miami; and New York and Albany. All of these lines are currently under consideration by state authorities, and they’re worthy of investment after those suggested in the first phase. Most of the third phase lines deserve to be the last under consideration, though I would suggest that Ohio’s big cities and Pittsburgh get the short shrift here.
The overall reasonableness of route selection presented, however, is what’s important: namely, this study presents an objective manner by which to compare different corridors and it reaches a number of conclusions. We should expect the federal government to present something similar in the National Rail Plan next month.
That said, there are some fundamental problems with the equation used by the report to evaluate city pairs. Most troublesome, it considers 250 miles an “ideal” distance — rating such corridors 2.5 times more valuable than 100 mile routes — and does not consider at all any city pairs less than 100 miles apart. Today, the Philadelphia-New York corridor is the top-ridership route on Amtrak’s Regional and second-highest ridership route on Acela — and yet, because the cities are just under 100 miles apart, travel between them is not considered in the study. This doesn’t diminish the top ranking of the Washington-Boston corridor, but it puts the study’s fundamentals into question.
Was the Florida line delayed to the proposed second phase because travel between Tampa and Orlando wasn’t considered? Was the route between Hampton Roads and Richmond — a potentially high-ridership route — eliminated because travel between those cities was ruled out? Do the study’s authors really think that there would be more traffic between Hartford and Philadelphia than between Hartford and New York, because the latter route is shorter?
Meanwhile, the insistence on rating local transit connections in the equation seems, as I’ve expressed before, superfluous, and it’s unclear to me how congestion on local highways — another criterion — has anything much to do with intercity rail travel.
Nonetheless, these objections are somewhat besides the point, because America 2050’s report isn’t the final U.S. high-speed rail route network. The assessment tools by which the report methodically appraises potential rail corridors are exactly the kind of system the federal government should be using when deciding how to allocate grants. It remains to be seen whether the DOT will make such a commitment to a similar level of objective evaluation.
Image above: America 2050 high-speed rail network phasing map, from America 2050