» French organization submits detailed proposals for 220 mph train operation.
Last December, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and Representative John Mica (R-FL) announced that the Federal Railroad Administration would begin accepting Expressions of Interest for the development of high-speed lines in the United States. By February, more than 80 groups, including a number of states, train operators, and train constructors, had sent letters describing their interest in being part of the development of American fast train travel. Final responses were due on September 14th.
I’ve obtained documents that show that SNCF, the French national railroad operator made famous by its development of the TGV system, has responded with detailed descriptions of potential operations in four U.S. corridors, all to benefit from train service at speeds of up to 220 mph. The organization refers to this service as HST 220 (220 mph high-speed trains). With the exception of a description of plans by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, SNCF appears to be the only group that submitted a serious, corridor-based response to FRA’s demand, though infrastructure companies Vinci, Spineq, Cintra, Global Via, and Bouygues all sent in letters promoting rather vague interest in involvement.
There is no funding associated with this call for expressions of interest; it is unrelated to the stimulus. Nonetheless, SNCF’s large response — totaling 1,000 pages — exemplifies the degree to which it sees American corridors as a good investment and suggests that the French company is planning an all-out assault on future U.S. rail operations.
The documents indicate that SNCF “Believe[s] the United States is ideally suited for HSR: it features large metropolitan areas that are relatively far apart, a highly mobile population (2.5 times the European average), and a fast-growing awareness of the importance of the environmental challenges HSR can address.” In addition, SNCF’s response was conditioned on viability: it suggests that high-speed rail investment should only occur where operating and maintenance costs would be covered by rider revenue and that socio-economic benefits offset initial public investments in the system. Based on its conclusions, the corridors it has picked for study would meet those guidelines. This is a wholehearted endorsement of U.S. rail investment from the point of view of a very successful European rail company.
SNCF argues that ideal corridors for investment will be up to 600 miles in length, providing service in four hours or less. It contends that the majority of ridership and benefits will come from former road users, though it suggests that up to 90% of mode share could be captured from today’s airline operations on corridors with travel times of less than two hours. Outside of urban cores, tracks would have to be newly constructed to accommodate fast trains that cannot share corridors with freight cars.
The most exciting proposal is the 1,400-mile system it envisions for the Midwest, a network that has never been so fully studied. I’ve detailed SNCF’s proposals for all four of the corridors below.
The first phase of rail investments for the Midwest would extend from Milwaukee to Detroit, via a bypass around Chicago, Fort Wayne, and Toledo, by 2018, with a link to Cleveland opening by 2020. The full system would include new connections from Chicago to St. Louis; Chicago to Cincinnati; and Milwaukee to Minneapolis. SNCF predicts full operation by 2023, though further links along the Ohio 3C corridor and to Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Toronto could be considered for future development.
SNCF expects that the system would more than cover operations costs, allowing the network’s revenues to be used to repay some of the initial construction costs. The public would subsidize 54% of the $68.5 billion total cost of right-of-way, construction, and trainsets. Benefits from reduced car and air travel, however, are expected to make up for 150% of the government investment in construction costs over a period of just 15 years of operation.
New tracks would would be laid near existing lines and high-speed trains would share existing tracks in urban areas, such as through Chicago. That said, a bypass around Chicago would play a very important role here, especially in shuttling passengers to the city’s airports. SNCF envisions the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative as an important feeder system.
Service would be provided to 28 stations, including to new stops at Chicago O’Hare, Chicago Midway, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland airports. City stops would almost all be located in downtown cores. Trains would be standard European high-speed rail trainsets, 200 meters long, with 500 to 550 passengers per unit.
Potential journey times would connect Chicago and St. Louis in 1h44; Minneapolis and Chicago in 2h42; Chicago and Detroit in 1h53; and Indianapolis and Detroit in 2h52. Each journey time is shorter than required today for equivalent air or automobile travel. The first phase would attract 15.8 million passengers a year by 2022; the completed system would serve 42.3 million passengers by 2028.
Travel costs would be in the middle range of fares on peer high-speed systems — from $0.40/mile for trips up to 400 miles to $0.24/mile for trips beyond 600 miles. This is generally lower than equivalent air fares but about a third higher than the cost of non-business automobile travel. Farebox revenue would stabilize at $4.15 billion a year, providing a strong profit source for the operating company, which would more than make up for maintenance costs.
SNCF has an entrenched interest in Texas high-speed rail, having been the majority member of the Texas TGV project of the late 1980s and early 1990s. That proposal collapsed in flames after intense opposition from Southwest Airlines and subsequently state legislators. The company has a sincere interest in moving forward with a new project in the state, and has chosen to focus on a Ft. Worth-Dallas-Austin-San Antonio link, rather than the Dallas-Houston link that’s been much-discussed in recent weeks. The company argues that building the former line first would allow further consideration of the connection to Houston; it is clear that SNCF still considers the Texas Triangle an option, despite recent efforts to promote the T-Bone corridor, portrayed on the map above.
At $13.8 billion in construction costs, SNCF expects benefits to outweigh public infrastructure costs by 170% over a period of 15 years. This project would have the highest rate of return of any of the corridors profiled in the studies presented here. The study projects 12.1 million annual riders by 2026 and 15 million by 2040. After predicting 11.4 million annual riders for the Dallas-Houston corridor last month — far higher than the 1.5 to 3 million economist Ed Glaeser assumed in his study of the line — I feel vindicated.
Dallas and San Antonio would be connected in 1h50, with links between Dallas and Austin in 1h13 non-stop. Seven new stations would be built, five in traditional downtown hubs and two located adjacent to airports in Dallas and San Antonio.
Florida would be well suited to high-speed rail according to SNCF’s analysis. For $20.5 billion, the company proposes a Tampa-Orlando link by 2018 and connections west to St. Petersburg and south to Miami by 2025. These phases are similar to those already advanced by the Florida High-Speed Rail program, which is currently competing for stimulus funding for the first phase. SNCF expects 3.5 million trips between Tampa and Orlando in 2021, with ridership on the statewide system reaching 20 million a year by 2038. Trains would connect Tampa with Orlando-area attractions in 0h30 and Tampa with Miami in 2h30.
Problematically, SNCF follows Florida’s existing plan a bit too closely, choosing not to program center-city stations in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, or Miami, focusing on airport connections instead. Building a line on this corridor without providing access downtown would deprive Florida’s downtowns of significant rail-based redevelopment opportunities.
SNCF’s plans for the California corridor diverge little from those already put forward by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which has $10 billion in voter-approved funds but which will need billions more from the federal government and private sources if a fast rail line in that state is to be built. SNCF proposes an Anaheim-Los Angeles-San Francisco link by 2020, with extensions to Sacramento and San Diego by 2025, with a total cost of $37.5 billion in 2009 dollars. The organization would set fares at 50% of air travel costs, and expects to attract up to 65 million passengers by 2040; that’s about a third lower than the state currently expects. There is little new analysis here because we’ve already seen so much from the state organization, but the SNCF study does reaffirm the project’s economic viability even with lower-than-expected ridership.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority also submitted a respond to the FRA’s request. Its contents are simply a description of that organization’s well-known and publicized plans for the state.