Elections Finance High-Speed Rail

What Value for Empirical Claims in the Development of a National Rail Network?

» America 2050 releases a report comparing potential rail investments across the country. But political leadership, not scientific analysis, will be what advances the construction of new infrastructure in the United States.

There is something very appealing about the idea that governmental authorities could go about establishing strict, empirically defined guidelines based on “objectives” or “targets” and thereafter identify and fund the right investments in transportation. The argument made by many reformers is that such a system could allow federal, state, and local governments in the United States to use “objective” measures to compare and contrast potential investments and then fund only those that meet the highest standards.

This, in some ways, is what America 2050 is attempting to do in its most recent publication, High-Speed Rail in America. By analyzing several thousand corridors crisscrossing the nation in respect to such factors as population, employment, connectivity, congestion, and job types, the organization strives to show which corridors would be best for rail investment. The results — which rank highly such connections as Washington-New York, Los Angeles-San Diego, and Chicago-Milwaukee — are reassuring to those who have already identified those corridors as priorities. The report’s conclusion implies that the next step is simply to move forward, funding the links that would be most effective.*

If only it were so simple.

Why are California, Florida, and Illinois investing billions of dollars in rail upgrades today while other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, doing almost nothing? Not because the projects in the former states were more rational investments according to federal government grant-givers; indeed, the America 2050 report gives much higher marks to lines between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and New York and Albany than those between Chicago and St. Louis or Tampa and Orlando, for instance.

Rather, leadership in some states has been lacking; state officials in places like New York have been unwilling to commit the local funds or rights-of-way to their respective rail projects, so they have not received real backing from Washington. Perhaps this would be a problem in a perfect world, but we live in a society in which politics matter. If Florida eventually commits to a high-speed rail line, it will be because previous leadership in the form of Governor Charlie Crist made the deals to make it possible and current Governor Rick Scott agreed.

These are ultimately decisions founded on local support for a project: No matter what a scientific approach may suggest, the only way high-speed rail can advance in this country is by having charismatic leaders promote good projects that appeal to the citizenry. If that sometimes means building projects that are less cost-effective than others, then so be it.

In the American federal system, Washington cannot easily come down from high-up and inform rural states and non-urban jurisdictions that they simply do not qualify for intercity rail funds. Such an approach, like it or not, would not fly in a Congress that is dominated by politicians from rural states and suburban districts. Nor can the government simply announce that it wants to fund one or two lines, like a link between Washington and Boston, because doing so would fly in the face of the idea of a national network, essential for any federal investment. So releasing a report like America 2050’s is inconceivable for the national Department of Transportation unless it wants to have its funding eliminated by the legislature.

There are several conceivable ways to avoid this problem: One, assuming the federal government continues its commitment to the high-speed rail mode, it could simply draw a map of thousands of miles of lines connecting the country and agree to fund every one. This, more or less, was how the Interstate Highway System was conceived and built — and it had nothing to do with the “objective” guidelines that underlie the America 2050 report but everything to do with ensuring that every state in the union got its share.

Two, Washington could fund nothing at all, giving up in face of the insurmountable difficulty of trying to convince legislators from Oklahoma to fund rail projects in Oregon. This could encourage states or groups of states to go about funding projects themselves, a perfectly reasonable possibility, but one that may be difficult in an era in which the idea of state-level government entrepreneurship is absent from the discussion.

Or, finally, the federal government could continue awarding grants to the states that are most enthusiastic about their respective rail projects and hope that members of Congress don’t get too upset about the fact that their states aren’t getting anything. This seems to be the most likely path forward, but it will not likely result in major funding increases for a high-speed rail network since the national consensus in favor of it has yet to be cultivated.

No matter what, the road forward on establishing high-speed rail strategy in the United States is likely to be a bumpy one. While reports like America 2050’s may add to the momentum, helping to demonstrate some of the mode’s advantages, they do not provide the basis for a nationwide system by which to judge and then fund new lines. That will only come from leadership, both in Washington and in the state capitals.

* The High-Speed Rail in America report has its flaws. The report’s authors note the following:

“Instead of evaluating and comparing precise ridership estimates from the states (e.g. X riders in California versus Y riders in Texas) based on inadequate data and varying assumptions, we propose an alternative assessment framework that considers the various factors or parameters that influence ridership without attempting to pinpoint ridership explicitly.”

The fundamental problem with the report is that it has no context: The study lays down a number of parameters for comparison, such as regional population, transit connectivity, and the like, but it does not have any empirical data to show the relatively importance of these criteria in real-world high-speed rail networks. In other words, the authors have set about comparing corridors in a manner that may — or, just as likely, may not — have anything to do with actual ridership. (This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, I admit.)

In the future, such a study should be backed by evidence about the importance of each of these criteria based on ridership on other countries’ systems. It would also be beneficial to include cost evaluations — for instance, if a New York-Boston line would attract twice as many riders per mile as one between Tampa and Orlando, the America 2050 report implies that the former is a better deal than the latter. But what if the Florida line cost less than half as much per mile as the Northeastern one?

Image above: Spanish countryside along AVE route, from Flickr user Laura Padgett (cc)

133 replies on “What Value for Empirical Claims in the Development of a National Rail Network?”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist might have thought he was the Son of God, but he wasn’t. Although I do agree he did make the most of what he was handed in order to get FL HSR this far.

Yonah, good comments. Just to add to it:

You mention that the authors in the American 2050 report “have set about comparing corridors in a manner that may — or, just as likely, may not — have anything to do with actual ridership.” I think it is interesting that even the authors of the America 2050 report acknowledge the difficulty in quantifying which routes are or not the best (see the full post here

Specifically, the latest post outlines that the report did not take into consideration the 50 million tourists to Central Florida each year and the fact that some of them are likely to use the high speed rail. Secondly, the report did not take into consideration that Floria already owns the right-of-way for most of the route and thus, it is more feasible and less expensive than other routes.

There’s always room for fuzziness. Heck, that big gap in the map between Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest has low population, but the Empire Builder runs through it and carries more passengers than any of Amtrak’s other long-distance trains. I wouldn’t plop down a TGV from Fargo to Spokane, but clearly there’s value in the corridor. The region is mostly being ignored by the airlines and has a relatively limited highway network, so the train makes an important link.

You can’t just look at existing trips along highways and in the air when evaluating a corridor — it’s a lot harder to break into a market where the population already has cheap, fast, reliable transportation in other forms. However, the equation changes if you put a line in a gap where the highways never got built or the airlines never quite got going.

welll, people mainly take that train to look at the mountains. the train itself, and the 2 days the trip takes, are part of what people are paying for. at one trip per day, it’s probably easier to take the greyhound, especially for people who live in areas where the train arrives at 3 am.

The passengers aren’t all there to look at the mountains. Most people take it on trips less than a day long — the average is 845 miles (out of more than 2,200).

Then Amtrak/the Federal Gov’t/North Dakota & Montana should look at providing a cheaper bus route or subsidizing a daily Greyhound Service. There’s really no need for a train. As an added bonus a bus could probably be affordable enough to run more than once a day.

Nope. You forget that this is the snow belt. The train keeps running when the expressways are closed. There’s no way you could successfully *actually* run a bus once a day, reliably, in the winter….

…which I suppose is why the towns which have the train fight so tenaciously to keep the train in THEIR town Because you can’t very well drive to the next town to take the train in those conditions either.

That’s only a couple months a year as a risk and a few days at most of actual interruption, it’s more than just snow that keeps towns fighting for train travel. I bet most of them would love (and see huge ridership gains) to get daytime service – it wouldn’t surprise me if the ridership is there with no speed increases. Not everybody wants to take a bus and the train is seen as a step up from that, plus you can get up, get a meal, really walk around on a train, which makes it a lot more enjoyable than the bus (where you are sometimes captive to movies and loud music).

The route of the Empire Builder (and indeed, probably most of the long distance lines) cries out for twice-a-day service each direction. Not only would the places where the train now arrives in the dark of night get to see daylight service, but many small town-to-nearby-small city routes could become day trips, or at worst overnight stays.

One step both small and giant would be to run a second frequency Chicago-Milwaukee-St Paul-Fargo. A morning departure could get to Fargo before midnight, and the return to Chicago could leave Fargo the next morning in daylight. No overnight trips and so no sleepers, only more and better departures and arrivals. A similar second frequency could run Spokane-Seattle/Portland out west.

But of course, at the present, Amtrak doesn’t have enough passenger cars for the routes and frequencies it already operates.

And oh, how the freight lines would cry to find another passenger train interfering with their own schedules on their owned right of way.

Just look back at what the freights bid to accept a new long distance route like a revived Pioneer running Denver-Seattle or, god help us, a daily Sunset Limited. They want half a billion for the trouble. So a modest second frequency running Fargo-Chicago for a thousand miles or so on currently used tracks would probably provoke an extortion note from the freights for hundreds of millions of dollars.

AND the minimum time for the Chicago-St Paul leg should be no more than six hours via Milwaukee. A second route though Rockford and along the Mississippi would be useful – there are a lot busy towns which would use service (Galena, etc).

Cleveland (and Louisville and Des Moines and…) is another city crying out for daytime service from Chicago. Filling up all those trains might actually get HSR faster since more people would be clamoring for it.

“…trips that are strictly east of St. Paul, where the Empire Builder is more like a daily corridor service…”

Only in western North Dakota and Montana. Elsewhere it’s like a nightly corridor service.

I don’t have the data for it, but I’d like to know. The only indicator I’m aware of is that there’s one extra coach on the train between St. Paul and Chicago, which increases capacity 20-30%.

How would you identify whether they added one? If you’re not on the train, they don’t let you watch them do it; if you’re on the train, you would have to be at the correct end of it to notice.

They only add it during the peak season, anyway.

While on the topic of the methodological shortcomings of the America 2050 study, the way in which they aggregate scores across corridors seems odd. They take the sum of individual metro scores for all metros on the corridor, normalized by distance. The result is that you can have a corridor that originates in the middle of an empty field but that terminates in an extremely high-scoring nearby metro, and that corridor will be given a high rating.

By only looking at aggregate scores and distances, as opposed to the importance of actual connections, the report allots more importance to, say, Chicago-Beloit than to Cincinnati-Louisville.

Good points. The political situation here in the United States is definitely one of the differences between the US and Europe, and I think a lot of Europeans (and Americans) don’t realize this difference is one of the big reasons why we don’t have a proper rail network instead of money-losing LD trains. If Europe was one big country (which some people think it is :P) and had a federal system similar to ours, I don’t think their high-speed rail network would be as developed as it is. If France wanted funds to build their TGV from Paris to Lyon, it probably wouldn’t go over that well with Poland or another European country who’s getting nothing.
Of course, the same could be said about China, being a big country and all. Yes, the political system is a bit different over there, but the Chinese government definitely wants to built a whole national system. Similar to the Interstate Highway System.
Europe could have made some yellowbook with lines for railroads able to handle speeds up to 200 km/h, as a basis for their high-speed rail network. The railroads can be upgraded by individual European “countries” to handle higher speeds or capacities. Kinda similar to how the basic Interstate is a divided 4 lane highway, but the states can upgrade and widen them for increased traffic loads.
Of course, doing this in America would have only made sense back before the interstates were built, and all the highways were 2-laners with the occasional turnpike. Until the 1990s or so, congestion on the Interstates could only be found in the northeast and Los Angeles. Since then, with NATFA and growing traffic loads, many more stretches of rural Interstate are congested, like I-35 in Texas or I-81 in Virginia. Those regions are the ones actually looking at alternatives like high-speed rail and the like. However, even today, many of the Interstates are greatly below capacity (like in really rural states), and the only reason they exist is because they are part of a nationwide system.
However, there are many interstates that get most of their traffic from trucking, and this is where things get interesting. If a nationwide system of double-tracked, electrified, high-speed (200 km/h) railroads were proposed back in the 1950s or so, there would be much more support for the plan if these railroads could be used by both freight trains and passenger trains.

Good point about lack of context. After reading the report I remarked that it would be interesting, given the context of air traffic used, to see the same sort of report for Spain, before and after a rail line had been built.

The northeastern states in particular are very cozy in their comfortable little bureaucracies. To a lesser extent you see it elsewhere in agencies like the Chicago area’s Metra and CTA and San Francisco’s MUNI and BART or with politicians like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, comfortable with the half-measure they currently have between Chicago and Milwaukee and driven merely by interest in votes especially amongst his party’s base. Either way, you’ve got comfortable, unambitious bureaucracies or leaders that run high-cost, obsolete services and symbolize the attitude “Not Invented Here.” And the Northeast, with fairly frequent and extensive service and agencies that are allowed not to work with each other, thinks it’s sitting pretty in a comfortable spot.

In other words, the same attitudes and turf wars that brought about an unworkable and unusable plan for the Hudson Tunnels brings you contentment with a barely improved version of what Penn Central left behind in the 1970s. It’s more comfortable for the bureaucracies, you see. But when you have reformed leaderships and agencies that sweep away the dividing lines — California outside the Bay Area, or Illinois DOT, or the Pacific Northwest — interesting things can and do happen. It’s more difficult to achieve this kind of reform across divisions among governments which the northeast inherently has because so many of the states are so small. One state fixing itself isn’t enough in the northeast; it requires several in coordination.

So under this logic, it’d be easier for a red state like Texas to change their minds, come together and build high-speed rail than it’d be for the states in the Northeast?

It would indeed. A decision by a Texas Republican Party that is under demographic pressure in another four or eight years that it needs an “economically progressive” signature project to project an image of being “more than just obstructionism”, and a year or two invested in talking points to get the base on board, and you could see an Express HSR breaking ground in Texas while the Northeast is still twiddling their thumbs.

I wouldn’t expect it of the Texas Republican Party, which is
Owned By Big Oil. Would I be surprised to see something like a Texas “Progressive Republican” splinter party arise very suddenly and do it? Not at all.

I’m partial to SNCF’s way of measuring things, i.e. an actual cost-benefit calculation. The ridership estimates have to be based on more than just population and connecting transit – for example, as we’ve recently seen, it matters a lot whether the route parallels a freeway, since in the few cases it does not, such as the service to Lynchburg, ridership is much higher.

But in general, the problem with any of those relative estimates is that we know a priori what the best HSR corridors are. I’m going to be very skeptical of any benefit metric (costs are something else, of course) that didn’t put the NEC at the top, followed probably by California, some Midwestern corridors, and Texas. There’s some wiggle room depending on how much you care about tourist traffic and how much emphasis you put on connecting transit, but the results are still more or less already known in advance. Furthermore, there’s no a priori way to check which methodology is better; for example, exactly how much emphasis should we put on tourist traffic?

I was disappointed that the report never mentioned the impacts of Peak Oil, Greenhouse Gas/air pollution reduction and how smart HSR reduces super-highway lane additions and airport expansion. But the report did offer me some insights:

1. Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit route has enough potential to merit 185 mph, 15 trains daily service, instead of waiting for a 185 mph Chicago-Ft. Wayne-Cleveland-Pittsburgh route. It the future it can connecting with Toledo and Canada HSR. BTW, why hasn’t the proposed 110 mph Chicago-Indy-Cincy route picked up steam as a 1st phase?

2. Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-Eugene merits 185 mph, 15 trains daily service.

3. In the next public release of a planning report Amtrak and Eastern state DOTs should propose a super-regional HSR route linking America’s biggest employment, education, government, transportation, and tourism zones with 185 mph, 15 trains daily service:

Boston-Providence-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philly-Baltimore-DC-Richmond-Raleigh-Greensboro-Charotte-Greenville-Atlanta-J’ville-Orlando-Ft. Lauder-Miami.

The immediate benefits from transportation mode-switch patronage and reduced flight delay would be enormous and the politics should be navigable. This should be a no-brainer.

Detroit is functionally a terminus. There has been serious talk of allowing trucks in the rail tunnel. Rail capacity at the Detroit-Windsor crossing is extremely limited, and neither the Canadian federal government nor the Ontario provincial government is currently serious about HSR in the 401 corridor. There is one other rail crossing, at Port Huron/Sarnia, which is far out of the way. All cross-border talk has been about breaking the functional monopoly of the overloaded and privately-owned Ambassador Bridge. A new rail bridge or tunnel isn’t in play.

The advantage of a comprehensive approach becomes pretty glaring when you look at what we have now, versus SNCF’s analysis of HSR potential in the US. SNCF has suggested an HSR bypass around Chicago, also extending east into Indiana and Ohio as I understand it. If you have trains running at 220 mph in the Great Lakes states, and those trains connect with the East Coast, then you’re looking at HSR taking a big bite of the travel market up to 600 miles or so. Cleveland is minimized in the 2050 proposal, yet Cleveland is crucial for maximizing use of existing resources in the course of building a world-class rail system. You have to get through Cleveland to connect Great Lakes with East Coast. Moreover, you need Cleveland to connect the St Lawrence with the Piedmont and the upper Southeast.

As it stands now, Ohio politics make it all but impossible to see any kind of government intervention to facilitate passenger rail development. For example, consider the reason why there’s not a commuter rail system in Northeast Ohio. It’s not lack of demand; it comes down to two primary factors, one being the lack of cooperation from CSX and NS, the other being a persistent suburban paranoia that their taxes will pay for service in Cuyahoga County. The Feds want to deal with the MPO (NOACA in this case) and its designated transit operator (Cleveland RTA). Ohio law allows for creation of multi-county regional transit authorities, but none are currently multi-county precisely because of the fear that Lorain might pay for Cleveland trains. If you can’t run commuter trains, you have even less chance of building HSR.

Ohio is in marginally better shape than Michigan. The population is static. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and we’re now 35th in per capita income. Per capita income plummets when you leave the largest urban counties. True to our wingnut ways, we currently have a proposal to sell a square mile of a state park for gas leases, and the Cleveland school district is considering various solutions to its fiscal problems, all of which amount to various forms of dismantling the existing district. This isn’t how a first-world country operates. But we also have existing rights of way, in numbers and capacity, whose potential value multiplies into billions of dollars when you look at the potential return on investment.

I understand very well that, right now, there won’t be a comprehensive approach. It will be piecemeal. I’m saying that right now, there’s not even an acknowledgement that HSR has no practical hope of reaching its potential without some identification of critical national corridors. HSR development is going to have an impact on air, trucking and freight rail, and no private interest is going to invest billions of dollars if there’s no way to connect the Great Lakes to the East Coast. If the politics in one state impede commerce or transportation on a national level, there is a compelling national interest in finding ways to circumvent that state’s opposition/intransigence without violating that state’s sovereignty. The current approach is not unlike building airports in Chicago and New York, but having no air traffic control center at Cleveland (Oberlin actually). You have to find a way to create that control center without placing an undue burden on Ohio.

Can you explain the issues with the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, with which I’m not familiar? Is the problem with the tunnel that it’s overused, leading to capacity problems, or underused, leading to proposals to replace it the rails with a roadway?

I’m totally with you about Cleveland’s being the gateway between the eventual Northeastern and Midwestern networks. I also think I agree with SNCF’s proposal to start the Midwestern network with Cleveland and Detroit rather than St. Louis, which is a smaller city. However, I’m skeptical of bringing together the Midwestern and Northeastern networks so soon; instead, the US should aim at developing the NEC and the Midwestern network separately, though with compatible standards, and only build the missing links much later.

Of course a Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh HSR link is critical to a 185-220 mph interstate HSR network. But given the Ohio governor will not change for at least 4 years, I have to agree with Alon, but would add a DC-Charlotte extension.

“US should aim at developing the NEC and the Midwestern network separately, though with compatible standards, and only build the missing links much later.”

Hopefully, higher gasoline prices will lead to a policy change by the Ohio governor before 2014 or a change of governor.

I think you misunderstood. What I’m saying is that the US should think in much longer terms. The plan should be to get the NEC up to speed, literally, and not invest in anything else concurrently except maybe starter lines in other networks, such as California and the Midwest. Apart from select very high-performance lines, the coming decade should be dedicated to improving connecting transit, reforming the FRA, and reforming the procurement and contracting processes. By the time Ohio becomes a good deal, circa 2018, Kasich will be gone.

2018 isn’t long term. For instance one of the things the newly formed MTA was proposing was bringing LIRR trains to the Upper East Side. That might be finished by 2018. They also proposed LIRR service to the Wall Street area around the same time….

Alon and BruceMcF,

Although I don’t know the HSR politics of Indiana and Kentucky, I do know that the cities of Indianapolis and Louisville want HSR from Chicago. I’ve also driven from Milwaukee to Chicago to Indianapolis to verify that when gasoline prices get ugly, demand for HSR service will significantly boost.

Even assuming gasoline prices get ugly by 2013 as projected by oil execs, Ohio and Wisconsin will not be in play for HSR upgrades until January 2015 or January 2019. So aside from Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis 110 mph upgrades underway with 2nd phase 185-200 mph service planned, do you recommend that Midwest HSR focus on these routes:

Chicago-Indy (+ Louisville if politics warrant)

Lastly, I acknowledge a strong case for achieving electric-powered 125 mph Milwaukee-Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit service before aiming for 185-200 mph service. But current plans start at 110 mph diesel-powered service.

I can envision a cost-effective 2 phase upgrade strategy from 110 mph service to 185-200 mph service, but I haven’t seen a cost-effective 3 phase strategy from 110 mph diesel- to 125 mph electric- to 185-200 mph electric-powered service.

Any insights?

The direct upgrade path is 110mph diesel, 110mph electric, 125mph electric.

The cost effective 3-phase strategy is you build a Express HSR corridor and provide junctions with the more capital-efficient and more numerous 125mph Regional HSR corridors bringing all of the origins/destinations served by that network onto the Express HSR corridor by running onto the Express HSR corridor.

The rail corridor alignments that are used for the 110mph/125mph networks are in the mix for consideration for use as Express HSR corridors, but the alignment options for the Express HSR corridor is not limited to existing or slated Regional HSR corridors.

Alon, Ohio is already a good deal for a 110mph network. The sooner that network is built, the sooner that an East/West Express HSR corridor is a good deal.

Since Ohio and Wisconsin block progress until at least January 2015 and no one has clarified what’s delaying Indiana, I see a strategic opportunity to use the timing of increased gasoline prices to sway politics favorably towards HSR. Additional Midwest HSR funds should be focused on two routes 2011-2014 (4 years).

Those 110 mph diesel Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit and Milwaukee-Chicago and Chicago-St. Louis projects should be quickly upgraded to 125 mph electric lines. Simultaneously, Chicago Union Station-Oglive Transportation Center needs underground run-thru tracks and capacity improvements.

If we take Mica at his word (wants true HSR in high-traffic corridors), coupled with support from Obama-LaHood-Senate Demos, these key projects can be prioritized for $7B over 4 years (my estimate) to produce 12 daily train service each for:

Milwaukee-Chicago-Sringfield-St. Louis

Those two 125 mph Regional HSR lines would illustrate significant benefits from near hourly Regional HSR. Those benefits would pressure Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, regardless party, to bypass 110 mph upgrade plans for similar 125 mph electric lines to open by 2019-20:

St. Louis-Kansas City

After these 2nd tier lines open, each could upgrade to 185-200 mph Express HSR service by 2025-27.

The work you have to do for 125 MPH service ( full grade separation mostly ) is the same work you would have to do for higher speeds.

I’ve been reading about British services, and I come increasingly convinced that even NEC investment should take a back seat to improvements in regulation. The West Coast Main Line, a curvy 19th century alignment with a 125 mph speed limit and capacity constraints, achieves average speeds of about 89 mph with tilting trains. (The less curvy East Coast Main Line achieves the same speeds with non-tilting trains.) And as I’ve noted before, Tel Aviv-Haifa express trains topping at 87 mph average 75.

So I’d propose concentrating the next 2-5 years on replacing FRA rules with best industry practice, which means some combination of UIC and Japanese rules, and procuring higher-quality rolling stock than what’s currently available. This is quite behind the scenes, which means it’s less vulnerable to a few Governors returning the money in order to look good to the Republican base. Actual spending should be rolled out as construction costs are brought down to reasonable levels. I’d consider the following schedule very aggressive:

NEC planned 2011-2, construction begins 2013-4, upgraded line opens in stages 2016-20.
Chicago-Detroit/Cleveland planned 2011-3, construction begins 2015, line opens 2020-2.
3C service taking 3:45 planned while Kasich is still in office, construction begins as soon as he’s out, line opens within 1-2 years. (The timetable is achievable with 90 mph top speed.)
Keystone HSR planned after NEC starts opening, construction begins around 2020, line opens 2025-7.

I’d have to check a gazillion sources… With the delivery of SEPTA’s new Silverliners everything on the NEC should be ACSES compatible. Everything on the NEC except for M8s should be 25Hz/60Hz capable. Makes a phased approach to almost anything much easier. Means everything on the NEC has modern signaling, no need for lots of iron. The specs for M9s/N10s is going to be interesting. Arrows too if NJTransit ever ends it’s love affair with locomotives.

There’s life outside of the NEC. But then the market along the NEC and a few branches off of it is big enough that Amtrak could maintain two fleets. … nah then they wouldn’t be able to suck equipment off the NEC

Adirondacker, Arrows can’t switch frequency on the fly, only in the shops, which makes a phased change of electrification on the NEC south of Penn Station problematic; they have to be replaced before I expect to see major electrification changes. But they are next on the list at NJT I think.

The NEC is all 25Hz between Sunnyside Queens and Washington DC. The Morris and Essex lines in New Jersey are 60Hz. The trains that go from the Morris and Essex lines into Penn Station can’t be Arrows. Reasonable solution in the 90s. I’m sure NJTransit and CDOT are watching what happesn with the new Silverliners – which are supposed to be dual frequency – with interest.

At this point in time, America desperately needs several successful HSR lines to demonstrate transformative benefits from a handful of 185-220 mph lines between 2015-19. Hence, Congress+USDOT must pony up serious bucks over the next 9 years:

* Boston-New Haven-NYC-Philly-Baltimore-DC needs $12B
* SF-San Jose-Bakersfield-LA-Anaheim needs $20B more
* Tampa-Orlando-Miami needs $8B more
* Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis needs $12B
* DC-Richmond-Raleigh needs $8B

Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio are not ready until 2014 but planning should commence for 200-220 mph lines for those states.

The need for political support is also a reality, so we can’t leave out states who want 110 mph Emerging HSR/Feeder lines. Nor should we downgrade five existing lines that already operate near break-even and merit 10-12 trains daily, 125 mph electric service that would plug directly into the 185-220 mph electric backbone. Hence, Congress-USDOT should spread around ~$3B/year on these lines:

* Springfield-Hartford-New Haven (125 mph electric)
* Harrisburg-Philly (125 mph electric)
* Santa Barbara-LA-San Diego (125 mph electric)
* Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit (125 mph electric)
* Richmond-Norfolk (125 mph electric)
* Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver
* Buffalo-Rochester-Albany-NYC
* Chicago-Iowa City-Des Moines-Omaha
* St. Louis-KC-Wichita-OKC-Dallas
* Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta-Birmingham-Jackson
* Chicago-Indianapolis-Louisville-Nashville-Atlanta-Jville
* Salinas-Gilroy-San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento-Reno
* Portland (Maine)-Boston
* Cheyenne-Denver-Alberquerque

At the end of the day, America needs to invest at least $10B/year in 110 mph Emerging HSR, 125 HSR and 185-220 mph Express HSR/VHSR.

ThomasD, the USA needs one or two successful HSR lines at the outset. The California project is worthwhile on its merits. The Florida project may be little more than an amusement park ride, but it could introduce a lot of people to the ease and convenience of HSR. The NEC needs work, but it’s a working example of HSR.

Once these are in service, the next steps should be clearer. In the meantime, higher speed (and higher frequency) rail projects in other areas can help build momentum for better passenger rail in the US. Build the passenger volumes, and it will make sense to spend the money needed to have express HSR in other corridors.

aw wrote: “ThomasD, the USA needs one or two successful HSR lines at the outset.”

I disagree. First, there is money to do this. Its a matter of priorities on how the federal budget is sliced up. Second, to prevent the critics from marginalizing HSR to only NEC and California due to population and to Florida due to lower cost/mile and mega-tourism, it is also critical that 2 “typical” HSR proof points get under way with a high probability of success in Top 40 Metro Area corridors that already have 79 mph Amtrak.

Extending the 185-200 mph upgraded NEC to DC-Richmond-Raleigh and building a 200 mph Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis line would both prove HSR works in typical Top 40 metro area corridors, provided they have one large anchor-point (DC and Chicago).

If its funded quickly like Florida HSR, Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis HSR can line built by 2016. By 2016, Dallas, Houston and St. Louis will have substantial Rail Transit networks, higher gas prices, more crowded interstate freeways and planning studies complete. Those events will spark 200 mph St. Louis-KC HSR extension and be a model for 200 mph OKC-Dallas-Houston HSR to emulate and start. It will also start serious planning for a 200 mph Milwaukee-Chicago-Indy-Louisville-Nashville HSR extension.

By 2018, the DC-Richmond-Raleigh success, Tampa-Orlando-Miami opening, plus high gas prices will have East Coasters begging to close the HSR gap. That growing sentiment will spark extension from Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta-Jville-Orlando. Birmingham, Nashville, Chattanooga will also clamor for extension.


The main problem with the Detroit area border crossings is that the privately owned Ambassador Bridge has a virtual monopoly on truck traffic across the border.

The rail tunnel under the river is very old and cannot accommodate double-stack trains, therefore the idea would be to a) build a new rail tunnel that can take double-stack trains, and b) rehab and convert the old rail tunnel into a truck-specific tunnel to add more cross-border capacity, but to also break Matty Mouron’s monopoly with the Ambassador Bridge.

That’s all well and good, but I believe the current proposal is for just a single-track rail tunnel. If the other tunnel remains as a rail tunnel, that’s also fine – but then you’d need another truck tunnel or bridge as well.

Truck piggyback, anyone? I realize it isn’t the Chunnel, but seriously, what is the main nature of the truck traffic crossing the river? If it’s long-enough-distance, it should be piggybacked.

The context for this report is Washington politics. It has been timed to appear as John Mica is beginning work on the surface transportation reauthorization. The Republican majority in the House has set up rules to create a pincer movement around the reauthorization. On the one hand, money can’t be appropriated for transportation projects outside what’s been authorized in the reauthorization. This gives Mica considerable control over transportation spending. On the other hand, if the reauthorization authorizes more spending than the trust fund can support, the appropriations committee can cut it back. Mica says he has been assured by the House leadership that the appropriations committee will appropriate what’s been authorized if there’s money in the trust fund to cover it. The effect of these rules and assurance is to push Mica to write a reauthorization bill which precisely spends the trust fund receipts. If he does so, he will control transportation spending. If he doesn’t, someone else will.

So a zero-sum game has been set up. What gets spent on HSR won’t be spent on roads or transit. What gets spent on roads won’t be spent on HSR or transit. What gets spent on transit won’t be spent on roads or HSR.

Last week, Mica sat down with Barbara Boxer, who owns the Senate side of the reauthorization, to discuss it. It seems reasonable to assume that Boxer would like to see HSR money in the bill, so that California can get some. Mica has, in the past, spoken favourably of HSR in the NEC. This report is directed at Mica. It tells him that he was right all along that the NEC was the right place to spend HSR money, and that California is the next best. It’s intended to persuade him to include HSR money in the reauthorization.

It’s an early shot in the coming battle. The Washington Post editorial against California HSR yesterday was a shot from the other side.

Your point is right on, with one caveat: you give Boxer too much credit. The Senate is a bit more complicated then that; Boxer is only the chair of the highway portion of reauthorization, which admittedly is the biggest chunk. However, the Banking Committee (formerly Dodd) oversees the transit portion of the bill and the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee oversees other areas of surface transportation and will chime in on the authorization. Mica does have the upper hand as he has full committee control of all of these areas in the House and can set a clearer message of what he wants to do.

Lets hope Senator Boxer, the Demos and a handful of Repub Senators keep the projected rising cost of gasoline and the APTA report in mind to push for modestly higher reauthorization funding.

Even assuming no additional funds for reauthorization, Boxer really supports HSR and Rapid Transit projects. For states/regions like California that prioritize HSR and Rapid Transit, they will get to trade-out some Highway funding for more HSR and Rapid Transit. I don’t see her pushing HSR on states like Indiana, Texas or Kansas.

Since when did the Washington Post editor become a HSR expert?

What seems underemphasized by critics of California HSR, is the system is being built with the long term in mind. In 2008 prior to the vote, the CHSRA clearly communicated 2030 as the target date to have the system complete because Population Growth is projected to be 50%, Peak Oil effects, Global Warming effects and to save the higher costs of more freeway lanes and airport expansion. Then forward-looking Californians voted the biggest commitment to HSR of any state, even by per capita measure.

Easy to criticize California HSR while those WP slackers have 28 trains daily, DC-NYC 135 mph service. Sounds like jealousy to me.

Okay, you got me there.
But the key point is to emphasize that California and hopefully several other 185-220 mph line segments will be operational by 2016-18 to accelerate true HSR investment.

The Washington Post people think they’re experts on everything. When they write on Israel, too, they write with the complete confidence that they’re saying profound things, whereas in reality they’re invariably either wrong or saying things every 17-year-old Israeli knows.

As you know, I’ve been advocating that DC-Raleigh should be in the first phase of 185-200 mph upgrades along with the NEC. My rational was to broaden political support, DC-Richmond is already included in Northeast Region upgrade plans, and Richmond-Charlotte got $691M towards 110 mph upgrades from Virginia state line to Charlotte. Then Adirondacker reminded me “The work you have to do for 125 MPH service (full grade separation mostly ) is the same work you would have to do for higher speeds.” Wheels started spinning …

Critics have little weight critiquing existing NEC service. So I re-thought the patronage/cost in the 1st Phase lines and a possible redeployment of 160 mph Acela Express trains once the new express trains are purchased as part of the 185-200 mph NEC upgrade. Norfolk-Newport News-Virginia Beach is slightly bigger than Raleigh-Durham population.

So for planning, functional and strategic reasons, the line between Springfield-Hartford-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philly-Wilmington-Baltimore-DC-Richmond-Norfolk (new alignment) can be rolled into NEC upgrades for HS electrification, high platforms, PTC, full grade separation, bridges, curve easing, superelevation, fencing and new interlockings to win over Virginians with true HSR service. The remaining Southeast I-85 corridor from Richmond to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama can be upgraded for $2B to 110 mph, 12 train daily service to whet their appetites for true HSR like their southern comrade Virginia.

Thats also a politically astute way to establish complete East Coast support for HSR support by 2015-16 when gas prices are a lot higher and roads are more clogged. Count the states ME, NH, VT, MA, CT, RI, NY, NJ, DE, PA, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, GA, AL, FL.

Of course, I’ve also noted that Rep Mica wants world-class HSR, not 110 mph lines, even though the politics and funding of this scheme are sound for a 2 phase upgrade to 185-200 mph from DC-Miami.

The basic problem, politically, is as follows: north of Washington, the cost of HSR is remarkably low, and the benefits are very high; south of DC, the cost of HSR is higher, and the benefits drop like a stone. As a result, Mica is a lot more interested in the NEC, which creates a political factor to consider other than Amtrak’s traditional method of serving as many states and Congressional districts as possible.

If this gets rolled into the next transportation bill, it could be balanced by proportional non-HSR spending on nearby regions. Not everything has to be shoehorned into one major project; best would be to have a grant process. It doesn’t matter how that sausage is made – the second line will get all the money it will need.

Let me nuance Alon’s reply slightly. The cost of upgrading DC-NY to support 200+mph is relatively trivial — straighten some curves, add some track to avoid bumping into MARC, SEPTA or NJT, replace the catenary, BUY MODERN ROLLING STOCK — and the benefits are huge: NYC, Philly, DC — and Baltimore for free. The benefits of upgrading Boston-NY are substantial, but the cost is a lot greater and the timeline a lot longer. While I’m a fan of upgrading the Shore Line, the Amtrak report has put the inland route in play and the Penn Studio study put the Long Island route in play, so I don’t see how a Program EIR can be avoided. The benefits of Washington-Raleigh are a lot less — Richmond and Raleigh aren’t Boston — but the cost and timeline aren’t as bad. The S-Line route has been EISed. Straightening it requires a fair amount of land acquisition, but it’s all been identified and it’s all rural, so it won’t cost much. Double tracking with high speed track and electrifying will require another EIS, but that can be run in parallel with the civil engineering.

So it’s worth thinking in terms of Boston-Raleigh, simply because the southern section is more doable. I wouldn’t put Acela I trainsets on it, though. There’s going to have to be aerial sections and bridges. It’s cheaper and faster to build them to 17 tonne/axle specs. If it’s worth keeping the Acela Is (and the maintenance issues might make it not worth it), then use them on, say, Keystone East.

Jim wrote
“Richmond and Raleigh aren’t Boston — but the cost and timeline aren’t as bad. The S-Line route has been EISed. Straightening it requires a fair amount of land acquisition, but it’s all been identified and it’s all rural, so it won’t cost much”

When I read the comment above, it sounds patronage/cost doable between Richmond, Norfolk and Raleigh, three growing metro areas who would otherwise have to widen I-95 and I-64 in the near future.

It repeats a prior posting comment from Alon, current Acela trains should be recommissioned to Amtrak Keystone service after the NEC is upgraded. Though in that case, I argue the Keystone’s 125 mph electric service should be upgraded to 160 mph in an extended alignment complimenting the NEC: Harrisburg-Philly-Newark-NYC-New Haven-Hartford-Springfield.

It still makes sense to roll Virginia HSR upgrade with the NEC upgrade. Richmond-DC is only 110 mostly rural miles, DC-Richmond-Norfolk freeways are choked and citizens in Richmond and Hampton Roads already know that trains work, but want them faster, more frequent and more dependable. Though America 2050 Report has its flaws, it got the relative ranking for DC-Richmond Express HSR right. And since Hampton Roads is even bigger than Richmond with inadequate flights for Norfolk Airport yet high population growth, you have to strongly consider DC-Richmond-Norfolk in the 185-200 mph Northeast upgrade.

Also, North Carolina would love to have more HSR funding to radically improve Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh-Richmond service. But we know a lot of other corridors want their slice of funding dollars as well. That leaves a tough choicees for Amtrak+LaHood+NC & VA DOTs to negotiate with Mica:

A. 185-200 mph upgrade Boston-Richmond, plus funding for more 110 mph Richmond-Newport News and Richmond-Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte work


B. 185-200 mph upgrade Boston to Raleigh


C. 185-200 mph upgrade Boston to Richmond-Norfolk, plus funding for more 110 mph Richmond-Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte work


D. 185-200 mph upgrades for Boston to Raleigh and Richmond-Norfolk

If HSR funding is only $4B/year, my choice would be B. If HSR funding reaches $6-10B/year, my choice would be D.

1) I have seen a number of proposed maps for a US HSR system and there is not a ton of deviation from map to map. Everyone agrees generally what the highest priority routes are (NEC + branches, Chicago hub, Cascadia, California, Southeast, Florida) and most people’s fantasy systems top out at around 10,000± miles, which would connect all the biggest cities to their neighbors and give us a system comparable to Europe or China. Add in just a few additional routes to get other states on board (Nashville to Atlanta, Texas T route, Phoenix to Tucson, Denver to Albuquerque, Birmingham-Jackson-New Orleans) and you’ve grabbed 16 more Senators in addition to the Midwest, Southeast, Northeast, and west coast legislators. What the federal government has to do is to present only the full build out system to the public (not the phasing) with pretty pictures and promise an 80-20 funding ratio for any state that wants to build along one of the designated corridors. As Democrat (or center-right Republican) governors come and go, eventually every corridor will take shape. This isn’t that different from how the interstate system was built.

2) The highway system was not random. It went to every city that had a population over a certain number. 50,000 I think. Of course, nothing in America happens without compromise. I think that’s OK, so long as you keep the big picture in mind. A few modifications to please politically connected locals won’t kill the system.

3) If states go about building all their own systems, then trains could have trouble crossing state lines due to technical differences. This could be a big problem in areas like the Northeast with many state boundaries. The Northeast Corridor already has to have trains that are powered in at least three different ways. Think of how nice it is to be on an interstate and have consistent lane widths, signage, minimum turning radii, predictable on/off ramps, no traffic lights whatsoever, etc. An interstate HSR system should be built by the feds.

4) If you promise a big, impressive system like this, America will get on board. We don’t like small ideas, and will even put up with a higher gas tax if we believe in something. Finishing the starter lines in California and Florida would be a big boost.

You’re right about point #1, but point #3 is a problem that’s being solved right now, using international standards. Greenfield HSR implementations around the world tend to use the same electrification (25 kV, 50 or 60 Hz), the same signaling (ETCS), similar enough track standards (UIC/Japanese MOR) that trains can cross, and even similar boarding heights (about 1,220 mm, give or take). The most important of these standards, boarding height, is already NEC-compatible; the rest are relatively cheap to upgrade since there’s very little legacy electrified rail in the US.

The electrification is already being slowly standardized on the NEC. The track standards are actually not that different from UIC to FRA. Signalling is the big one which the US is getting wrong by not copying ETCS.

In regards to electrification it would end a great deal of trouble if Newark Penn – New York Penn – Hell Gate Bridge were switched to the standard instead of the low-frequency system.

The track standards don’t really exist – there are a lot of legacies plus what California’s paying consultants to write. Fortunately, the consultants are just cribbing UIC rules.

Heh. You have a point there. I meant simply that the standards for actually manufacturing track and ties, for the wheel-rail interface, rail profile and all that, are pretty much the same.

Since so little new build has been done in the US since the 50s, there really aren’t any standards for how lines should be laid out.

Since the NEC as we know it, between DC and NY anyway, has been there more or less unchanged since the 30s…. doesn’t that make the LGV NEC-like?

My thoughts echo most of yours. Obama-LaHood-Mica-Senate transportation leadership need to present the complete Interstate HSR Network vision map in 2011.

I rebut anyone who falsely claims “America is not ready for a HSR vision map because we are starting from scratch.” NEC, 2 California lines, Cascades and Milwaukee-Chicago operating profitably or at break even. Today, 79 mph Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Detroit and DC-Richmond are nearing operational break even. Once 110-125 mph upgrades and Chicago Union Station/Oglive Transportation Center connect underground for run-thru service, Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit and Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis lines will also be a success. Ditto for Virginia and North Carolina upgrades underway for 110 mph. And barring unforeseen stupidity by an otherwise savvy governor, Florida HSR breaks ground in 2011.

I can also make a strong case for 2030 Interstate HSR Network completion being on the map. But at the moment, 2035 is a more feasible date for political consensus building.

Methodology problems aside, I think it’s worth pressing for a less political method of choosing routes. Just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean advocating it is wrong. Cost-benefit should be the way to go; if Florida HSR costs half as much as NEC HSR and serves more people per dollar spent then prioritize Florida. The fact that the US system prioritizes based on politics rather than benefit suggests to me that we need to reform the system, not that we should just go along with it.

The way we did it in the late 1910’s was to have someone from the Army draw up a map of what routes ought to be paved to improve military logistics.

That seems likely easier to get done for a backbone of 100mph electric freight rail corridors than for 100 mile to 500 mile passenger rail corridors of various maximum speeds.

We can do both at once, can’t we?

I think it’s sane to advocate for a technocratic system of route creation, but in the meantime, let’s latch onto whatever halfway-decent routes look like they’re getting political traction. (Only the halfway-decent ones, mind you.)

Another flaw in the study is when I looked at their map of potential routes (particularly in Texas), I found they only included active railroads. I would’ve included abandoned railroads and Interstate-grade highways as well.

Another potential source of right-of-way could be power transmission lines. Because these can span undulating terrain, they would tend to be straighter thatn rail rights-of-way, but may be suitable for HSR because of better grade handling or more acceptance of bridging and tunneling than in the 19th century. Also handy for tapping into for an electrified rail line.

I’ve wondered about that too, since high tension power lines tend to be pretty straight shots. There must be some EM interference issues though…

And a lot of HV transmission lines negotiate grades far too great for HSR. This can generally be solved by using tunnels and viaducts, but that’s difficult to build when there’s already existing HV lines and towers.
Of course, the EM interference would require a hardened signaling system, and there would have to be tests and studies to see what systems can safely and reliably operate with trains traveling at 300 km/h or faster.

Electrons, besides being able to climb steep grades, don’t have minimum curve radii. Many power lines go in realllly reallly straight lines until they make tight radius turns.

> … draw a map of thousands of miles of lines connecting the country and agree to fund every one. … Interstate Highway System … ensuring that every state in the union got its share.
> The highway system was not random. It went to every city that had a population over a certain number.

Bear in mind that the Interstate Highway System had a defense component – Eisenhower was big on logistics. And every (non-urban) underpass had to be 18 foot clearance, or have a “trumpet” bypass. This was the height of a Minuteman missile transporter.

With the idea of every state “getting its share”, one strategy might be to plan at least Intermediate Speed Rail “everywhere”. This would form a grid of 110 mph tracks that would link the entire country. It would have grade crossings, class 6 track on ties, and cost in the $5 million a mile range. A good percentage would be single track with passing sidings, and a good percentage would not be electrified. Much of it could be shared with existing railroads, where they could run their fast intermodal and food trains.

As each line warranted, double and triple tracks. at class 9 (200 mph), as well as electrification would be specified. The whole system would be designed beforehand, such that shovel ready segments could be built and upgraded during periods of high unemployment.

Yes, I’d like to see most of the U.S. passenger network running at least 90-110 mph, with upgrades to faster speeds in more crowded corridors. The country was working in that direction back in the 1940s, but some of the signaling systems had not been properly upgraded to handle faster speeds. There was a bad crash in 1947 which basically happened because the engineer of the trailing train didn’t get a signal to stop until the two trains were too close for the brakes to have a chance of doing the job. After that, the government got pretty draconian about signaling, so most trains got stuck with the 79 mph top speed — basically just slow enough to make train travel impractical for many car owners in the Interstate age.

We’re a long way from 1947. The country is blanketed with optical and radio networks making information transfer cheap and easy. Train signaling remains enormously expensive — it should be many times less expensive than it currently is. It’s so expensive that many railroads continue to just use checklists combined with radio (voice) communication. There was a head-on collision between two iron ore trains in northern Minnesota just a few months ago because an engineer-in-training got confused. There’s no excuse for that. Absolutely none. There should be automatic systems on every train.

Would you have any details on that crash? I know that the government did impose these speed limits for whatever reason and now that you mention this accident it might be interesting to know more about this. Not that I want to beat a dead horse here but it’s always good to get any historical prospective that might do our present cause some good.

The fact that the Federal Government didn’t bother to provide any financial assistance to the railroads to install ATS signaling systems just shows so much about why passenger rail almost died in the United States. (Yeah, you can say GM was bribing, blah blah blah)
If the government helped the Class I railroads build ATS on the nation’s railroads, then passenger rail might have never died. Partially due to keeping a competitive edge over automobiles (like others have said), but mostly due to the fact that it would set the precedent for the Feds to be supportive and involved in passenger rail. This could have laid the foundation for a later plan of “improved” high-speed rail corridors during the 1950s, possibly passed along with the Interstate Highway System or even in the same bill.
If that was the case, liberals would have a lot more to like about the 1950s. :P

Yes, but given the long fight of progressives to wrest control of the Senate from the western rail barons, through the fight for direct election of the Senate, and the long fight to regulate oligopoly and local monopoly profiteering by the bigger railroads, when Roosevelt won the Progressive vote over to the Democratic Party, it came with a lot of built up animosity to rail and a substantial institutional support base in the Good Roads movement.

And of course, that included outbidding the Republicans, spending about twice as much as they had been doing on Federal Aid for Highways. Eisenhower’s Interstate System was a wedge, entrenching the cross-subsidy of rural highways by urban residents, to make a bid to win the more socially conservative but economically populist rural vote back to the Republican party.

The government is mandating new signaling again now. Positive train control (PTC) is supposed to be deployed 2015, and estimates are that it’s going to cost several billion dollars to add PTC to nearly 75,000 miles of track across the country.

I once had a Mn/DOT official tell me that PTC alone could meet the FRA requirements and allow trains to go faster than 79 mph (with appropriate track, of course), but some other sources have said that CTC or other expensive signaling is still required.

If the Mn/DOT guy was right, it makes me optimistic that PTC would be a boon to passenger rail in the U.S. If you’ve already got sufficient signaling, the concerns surrounding upgrades to class 5 or class 6 track are dramatically reduced.

The railroads generally don’t like PTC and think it will slow them down and reduce capacity, but I’m suspicious that it’s just their equivalent of a NIMBY reaction. Better signaling almost always increases capacity, and if they’re going to spend billions on the technology, I’d have to think that they’d be working as hard as possible to tweak it to make their lives easier rather than harder.

From a quick glance at the different approaches different Class 1’s are taking to PTC, BNSF seems to be the railroad that is looking to leverage the roll-out of PTC into an improved ability to manage their system.

I think all modern approaches to PTC pretty much require CTC. Luckily CTC is actually fairly cheap at this point, thanks to computers and Internet being cheap.

I think you make a crucial point; we need 90 MPH conventional service at convenient times before HSR (think daytime trains to Cleveland from Chicago, etc) in most places.

It seems that the failure of passenger rail was hugely complex (too much competition & inefficiency in routes/corrdiors, loss of mail service revenue, etc, etc, etc) – I have the feeling that rail is a natural for monopoly.

I could not disagree more. Settling for 90 mph upgrades is a 40 year build out that falls horribly short of whats needed in the Peak Oil and Global Warming Eras when we add 100 million people by the 2040s. Averaging 65 mph on trains that run 5-6 times daily with sub-75% dependability will not pull people from autos or short flights.

The minimum standard for trains connecting Top 41-100 Metro Areas (under 1 million pop.) needs to be 110 mph trains averaging 75 mph, 10 times daily, with 80% on-time performance.

The minimum standard for trains connecting Top 1-40 Metro Areas needs to be 110 mph trains averaging 80 mph, 12 times daily, with 85% on-time performance AND a firm upgrade plan for 185-200 mph.

For areas where patronage/$ mile spent does not warrant Emerging HSR or HSR, let Greyhound, BoltBus and Megabus address that market.

You’re talking about multiple different things – frequency, reliability, speed – as if they were the same. To bring up one stupid example, subways are very frequent, and are also limited to a top speed of about 30 mph and an average speed of 20 mph; if they’re in Japan, they also have close to perfect reliability.

Standard practice in many developed countries is that all intercity trains are hourly or at worst bi-hourly; reliability should be higher than 90% of passengers (not 90% of trains – busier trains tend to be less punctual), measured by strict standards which account for missed connections. This occurs across all speed classes.

The Amtrak-plus paradigm of the Midwest happens to do poorly on all metrics – low frequency, low speed, and no reliability – on account of the reliance on FRA rules and freight-primary lines. But well-run low-speed rail, running on passenger-primary lines, can achieve high reliability, as much frequency as there’s demand for (easily 2-3 trains per hour, or much more if it’s the West Coast Main Line), and high average speed (70-75 mph at least, with a top speed of about 90-100 mph).

Average speed of 70 mph doesn’t motivate many people in Western, Southern and Midwestern states where we can drive for example, 70-75 mph from Chicago to St. Louis and LA-Las Vegas. I also don’t see how On-time performance can top 90% without two passenger-only track,s stops averaging 25-30 miles apart and long stretches without crossing arms. And yes several FRA rules and train control system can be improved too.

All the state sponsored additional in-state trains in Illinois have had huge ridership increases just by adding more runs. People take Megabus et al not just because they are cheap, but because they are the only option or the trains have insane hours of arrival. HSR doesn’t do much good if people still prefer Megabus or there are no feeder routes and cheaper/slower train service (perhaps with more local stops) – anyways, if we’re nearing peak oil then we’ll need local trains since gas will price bus service out of the market.

Obviously it’s a huge and complex issue, but we still need drastically improved basic service, not just HSR.

I agree that frequency and average speed faster than driving are equally important to HSR, followed closely by on-time performance and safety.

But I conclude more public investment in Commuter Rail and slightly faster Amtrak should not become dumbed-down HSR that takes money away from 110 mph Emerging HSR and HSR projects.

In this decade more private investment in Megabus and Boltbus coupled with FTA funding for 79-90 mph “Commuter Rail” projects should play a larger role with HRT, LRT and BRT as basic feeder services.

75 mph should not be the eventual target average speed for main lines, like Chicago-St. Louis or LA-Vegas, but for lines that don’t justify full HSR, it’s fine.

To maintain high reliability, tracks need to be passenger-primary, but not passenger-dedicated. Freight trains routinely run on high-speed track in Germany and through the Swiss base tunnels – in fact, in Switzerland the base tunnels are built both to raise passenger train speeds and to lower the ruling grade for freight trains. Shared track is fine as long as the freight trains are reasonably punctual, and the dispatchers don’t force passenger trains to sit at a siding every time a hot intermodal freight train is late.

Station spacing isn’t an issue for reliability, when boarding is level. Measured in dollars spent per minute saved, level boarding is the most cost-effective way to increase speeds: once people can board the entire train unaided, dwell times can drop from 5 minutes to 1 minute, and the schedule risk coming from passengers in wheelchairs or who otherwise need assistance drops to zero. See for example the reliability of Shinkansen commuter runs.

75 mph average is not thaaat bad for conventional trains, particularly if there are several intermediate stops. Reaching that by car (in the US) is not possible (if driving at legal speeds and safely, with stops every 2 to 3 hours).

Concerning the Swiss network, according to some studies I recently read, the Swiss network has the highest load worldwide, which means that punctuality is crucial. In fact, the dispatching rule is that if a train (no matter what kind of) is delayed by more than 10 minutes or so, it loses all priority it may have, and any on time train will overtake it. This can mean that the (in)famous Railjets from Austria may lose 30 minutes between the Swiss border and Zürich (scheduled for 80 minutes). The same rules count for freight trains: be on time, and you get through on time. Be delayed, you get there when you get there.

Actually, such a rule can be considered to be a direct consequence of the non-discriminatory access enforced by EU regulations.

Actually, it is an old rule in moving technology (meaning technology where you move things or people around), that you lose most time in slow moves. That means for passenger trains, to keep the distances (and therefore the time) when a train moves slowly as short as possible. This is also a reason why bi-level trains are more efficient, because they are shorter for the same number of passenger. In fact, it is moot to discuss about increasing maximum speed on short stretches from 110 mph to 125 mph, when long stretches are limited to 25 mph, and could be sped up to 35 mph.

ThomasD, don’t make the “top speed error”. It’s impossible to legally hit an average speed of 80 mph while driving in most of the country, and it’s certainly dangerous.

*Average* speeds of 70 mph for trains are time-competitive with driving in pratically all of the country. This does imply top speeds of more than 70 mph, but mostly it’s done by eliminating low-speed stretches. Having a uniform 79 mph speed from Chicago to Gary, Indiana could easily cut half an hour off times from Chicago to New York. (Instead, most of this section runs at 50 mph, with slow sections around various freight yards, some VERY slow sections over the Dan Ryan and the Chicago River, and a dead stop at Englewood Crossing. They’re fixing that last one, very expensively, but the rest of it really needs to be sped up too.)

A couple of minutes could be cut out by replacement of a single speed-limited bridge in Toledo; there are also major “wastes of time” within New York City and near Albany and Syracuse. (The latter is being partly addressed.)

Note that the highways paralleling NY-Chicago generally have 65 mph speed limits, and are extremely slow within NY and Chicago. Cut out the bottlenecks and the train starts easily beating any road route.

Quite ~ its a commonplace observation but important that its not an equal length of 40mph and 110mph transit that has an average speed of 75mph but a 40:110 ratio of 40mph:110mph transit that has an average speed of 75mph.

In upgrading from de jure priority on freight single track with widely space sidings, some of them too short for the longest bulk freight and long container cars to lay over, 10mi:50mi passing track is a substantial upgrade on lightly used freight lines, and a single dedicated de facto as well as de jure passenger priority Express track is a substantial upgrade again.

The dedicated passenger priority Express Track is also a categorical upgrade when it is electrified, since that allows Express HSR to run onto the Regional HSR network for cities that are not directly on an HSR corridor.

Considering the Midwest Hub and Ohio Hub plans, upgrading the corridors to that level allows a single NYC / Chicago Express HSR corridor along a general I-80 alignment through Pennsylvania and then northern Ohio and northern Indiana to Chicago to connect to St. Louis, Des Moines, Minn/StPaul, Indianapolis, Detroit, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, among others.

I acknowledge Bruce’s point to not have 110 mph top speed with substantial portions of say 40 mph to average 75 mph over say 100-150 miles.

But I strongly believe that even 110 mph Emerging HSR must be 75-80 mph average speed over 200 miles and 10-12 trains daily each direction with 80+% on-time performance to have the best impact.

Bruce, there’s a whole lot of nothing along I-80 in Pennsylvania. There’s a reason for that. There’s a whole lot of mountains. It’s expensive to run trains over or through mountains. I’d have to find Ye Olde Railroade Map, I don’t think there’s a rail route between Wilkes-Barre and Youngstown-ish. Cleveland-Buffalo gets you Toronto and the cities between Buffalo and Albany. Maybe even Montreal or Boston. Cleveland-Pittsburgh gets everything on the NEC between New York and DC. Cleveland-Scranton gets you Williamsport.

“I’d have to find Ye Olde Railroade Map, I don’t think there’s a rail route between Wilkes-Barre and Youngstown-ish.”

Via Binghamton, NY, and then west along a not-very-straight route to Erie, with no population to speak of. It’s not a good route. Or south to Harrisburg and west on the existing Pennsylvanian route. Better, but not so great either. Or west via an endless series of twisty shortlines and no population at all; a terrible route.

As for an express new-build route along I-80, there is as Adirondacker says nothing there, and by the time we have enough demand to build such an expensive express bypass NYC will be underwater due to sea level rise, so it’s not worth considering.

First go for the route which hits the most intermediate population centers and is fairly easy to build (and well above sea level ;-) ) — the NY Central route. Harrisburg-Pittsburgh via State College might be worth considering if Pennsylvania is more interested in construction than NYS is.

Also the America2050 Report uses out-of-date data. Check out any of the maps for metro areas in that report. They have datasets for density, but the 2010 Census isn’t out yet, so they can’t be using anything newer than 10 years old. And the transit line overlay doesn’t even reflect the extension of the DC Metro to Largo that was finished in 2004.

The fact of the matter is that governments won’t fork out the money to provide us with cheaper transportation methods unless we demand it. The power to do these things is in the hands of our politicians, but the control lies with the people. If we want it done, let’s make them do it.

If we actually had any real control over our government, they wouldn’t be doing half the things they’re doing right now.

“These are ultimately decisions founded on local support for a project: No matter what a scientific approach may suggest, the only way high-speed rail can advance in this country is by having charismatic leaders promote good projects that appeal to the citizenry. If that sometimes means building projects that are less cost-effective than others, then so be it.”

This pretty much sums up this blog, unfortunately. Your enthusiasm for one particular transportation technology has caused you to lose sight of the fundamental purpose of transportation. HSR is now an ideology. It doesn’t matter whether a project improves mobility (the fundamental reason for transportation), benefits the environment (a reason for chosing one technology over another), or is financially viable (another reason for chosing one technology over another). You are convinced that HSR is the answer. Anyone that disagrees just hasn’t been sold yet. Any analysis that suggests otherwise is flawed.

There’s nothing wrong with a fact-based, good for the most citizens, forward-looking transportation ideology that good for our nation and the world.

If this and similar forums don’t advocate for the right transportation modes and investment levels, who should the average Joe look to for insight — Cato and Reason?

HSR funding- and any rail funding- should be subject to compliance with rate of return on investment criteria, like transit grants are. States could apply as much as they wanted, but would receive funds only if their proposed projects would be projected to meet strict cost/benefit criteria. Otherwise some HSR grants will be wasted.

I take it that the same applies to all capital grants for intercity transport ~ interstate highways, intercity trains, and airport capital improvements.

It would be bizarre to single out one mode of intercity transport for this requirement while allowing for investment in rival intercity transport capacity without requiring it to show the same net benefit.

Do you think the interstate would have ever been built anywhere other then the coastal regions on that logic alone? That everybody would have access to electricity? You think parts of Dakota’s, Montana and Idaho can support air travel? They don’t, Federal investment and subsidies is a big big reason why UPS can deliver a package from Amazon to someone’s house in the middle of ND. That being said, I wish a more targeted effort as you suggest would be made if Congress had the political will to provide funding five or ten years out for those projects/corridors that would provide the biggest bang for the buck.

Lets just go back to the drawing board, and divvy out the exact amount of funding to each state that they pay in federal gas taxes. Then lets let each state decide how they want to spend that money on transportation projects. TX can spend every penny on roads if they want to, and CA can use most of it for transit and HSR. If NY and CT want to partner to improve their rail corridor they are free to do so. And there are no more donor states and we are no longer telling each other what to do.

IF all the federal government is doing is sending the exact same amount collected back to each state, just get rid of the federal gas tax. States can then raise their own gas taxes to meet their needs.

Exactly. By putting this on the states, this would (1) save a ton of overhead that the feds currently take off of the top, (2) completely eliminate federal level politics from the equation, and (3) probably cut the time it takes to build projects down by 1/4, since you would eliminate the feds from the equation.

Remind me why we have a federal gas tax again? Why is the federal govt involved in building transportation infrastructure? The interstate highway system is already complete. Let the states figure it out from here on out. If one state goes down in flames because they don’t or can’t upgrade their roads, then maybe there shouldn’t have been a road there in the first place – let nature reclaim that area.

Remind me why we have a federal gas tax again?

Because rich people on the coasts are willing to subsidize the poor people between the coasts. Or alternately the poor people between the coasts are willing to be subsidized by the rich people on the coasts while whining about how high their taxes are.

There are plenty of rich people between the coasts doing the subsidizing too ~ you are looking at state data on a cross-subsidy where urban and inner suburban residents subsidize outer suburban and rural residents, so the state level data are a mostly measure of relative shares of urban populations in a state.

Ok, so isn’t this one of those practices that should be abolished, just like the mortgage interest deduction and other antiquated laws? The only ones who should really support this are the recipient states. I would appreciate it if someone here had a reason for why the federal gas tax still exists.

The only reasons I could possibly think of would be to maintain a cohesive national transportation agenda, to ensure that all states actually spend money on transportation, or to discourage the use of gasoline by taxing it. Reasons 1 and 2 are dumb, reason 3 might have some merit to it.

But as I’ve argued here before, by not raising the federal gas tax in 20 years, we are effectively making the federal gas tax irrelevant and putting it on the states.

The Federal gas tax still exists because too many state borders are too close to too many people, and a purely state based gas tax system would result in too many races to the bottom in too many places.

The majority of states already exempt gasoline from sales tax, making a substantial portion of their gas tax equivalent to a diversion of general fund revenue to road works away from things like, say, state and local policing of the private motor vehicle transport system.

I appreciate all the commitment the posters on this board have to HSR, but it simply is not going to occur in the US anywhere outside the NEC.

The train has left the station. We’ve spent the past twenty years wasting our accumulated patrimony on vanity wars, vanity stocks and vanity houses. There is simply insufficient money left in the US to fund the stupendous need for education overhaul and the energy and transportation infrastructure that we need. Severe poverty for most Americans is baked in the cake; the only folks who will escape are the upper ten to fifteen percent with large foreign investments in their portfolios.

In any case, Rush Limbaugh and the like have dominated the conversation for so long that intelligent Republicans like John Mica simply can NOT legislate seriously even when they want to do the right thing.

You are confusing money and resources. Its often been remarked that as soon as there is political will to do something, the money magically appears, whether for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, or for Medicare Part D, or for any other hundreds of billions and trillion dollar spending plans that have been pursued in the past thirty years.

As far as resources, we obviously have ample labor resource, still have equipment resources and, despite thirty years of de-industrialization, the capital goods industries to make more equipment. The difficulty is material and especially energy resources, but since we are talking about a mode of intercity transport that is more material and energy efficient than the alternatives, it economizes on material and energy resources rather than being a net consumer.

So the argument that “the train has left the station” and that the country that spend as much on its military as the rest of the world combined somehow lacks sufficient resources to build Express HSR corridors is patent nonsense.

Obviously the Republican party, partly bought and paid for by the Oil Industry, will not pursue it until after one or several more oil price shocks. However, since those oil price shocks are guaranteed, that means that Republican support is only a matter of time.

“Obviously the Republican party, partly bought and paid for by the Oil Industry, will not pursue it until after one or several more oil price shocks. However, since those oil price shocks are guaranteed, that means that Republican support is only a matter of time.”

Yeah, but most Repubs may not wake up until 2020. If enough Demos, Indies and thoughtful Repubs don’t prevent them, U.S. passenger transportation infrastructure will be even further behind our mercantile competitors in Asia and Europe. The “cherry on top” for oil companies is we’ll also be 92% dependent on foreign oil and 7% dependent on risky deep sea oil and ‘fracking oil. That’s a charge anything they want market.

There’ll be several oil price shocks between now and 2020 ~ the decade ahead will not exactly set any records for tranquility.

More worrying is the point, as pointed out by both Steven Keen of Australia and Randy Wray of UKMC, that we go into the decade ahead with all of our major banks insolvent and propped up by the Fed. Since the Hedge Funds own shares of both the Republicans and Democrats, there’s nobody in a position to tackle that problem at all.


I think you express the consensus view of mainstream economists and analysts very cogently. But we’re rapidly approaching a “Black Swan” event much more severe than the 2008 melt-down. Even if good sense persuades the Republican leadership in Congress to raise the debt limit, on some near future afternoon, the bi-weekly sale of Federal bonds will end with a large tranche of bonds unsold.

Of course the Treasury department has many ways to finesse a temporary shortfall. And “supporters” of the Incredible Shrinking Buck will probably crowd into the next auction and “oversubscribe”. The financial world will heave one of it’s asthmatic sighs of “relief” and go on its merry way.

But a couple of auctions later the same thing will happen and fewer supporters will stump up the next meeting. How many cycles will it take before there are two auctions in a row which fail?

At that point the bottom will fall out.

We really don’t need exogenous shocks from OPEC to bring about financial chaos. It will happen because clueless, self-indulgent Americans refuse to pay our way in the world. SOMEbody else has to pay for us.

Unfortunately for us self-indulgent Americans, as Herbert Stein said (and doubtless many others before him in one way or another), “If something can’t go on forever it will stop.”

The fact that all of the major banks in the United States are insolvent is quite definitely not the consensus view. The consensus view is that we have avoided the meltdown, rather than, as Steve Keen and Randy Wray argue, that we have merely postponed it.

I don’t think failed T-bond auctions are the way this is going to go down. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of other recipes for financial collapse for the rickety US finance systems.

I posit capital flight, due the foreclosure fraud crisis showing to world investors that the US is unreliable at guaranteeing property rights. This will lead to bank runs on the megabanks, which will be large enough that they cannot politically be bailed out (with people remembering the criminal no-accountability bailouts of Bush 2008).

Note that if the US government was to step in as they should have done the first time, put the banks into receivership, shuffle the accounts we want to protect along with as many sound assets as are necessary to protect them into a “good bank”, and then release the balance to go through ordinary bankruptcy, once their bankruptcy is no longer a pistol holding the US economy hostage …

… and we combined that with a hefty amount of public and private investment in things that we need to invest in and which will have a substantial economic benefit …

… then we can come out the other side in much the same sound financial shape as we emerged from WII, with fairly high net public debt as a ratio to GDP but our TOTAL debt as a ratio of GDP a long way down from the 5x and higher ratios that we are currently experiencing.

The relatively small Treasury debt burden gets a focus as a way of distracting from the massive and unsustainable private debt burden that is keeping our economy stuck in first gear and ensuring sustained high unemployment rates.

US is unreliable at guaranteeing property rights.

The investors bought contracts backed by no-recourse mortgages. Their property rights are being upheld. They are more than welcome to foreclose on the properties and sell them off.

It’s not the government’s problem that they were combined into collateralized debt obligations and sold snake oil credit default swaps to insure the mortgages.

No, you haven’t even started to figure out the problems. I suggest reviewing the _Naked Capitalism_ blog for a while. I shouldn’t have given such a shorthand description of the problem, I’ve been following it more in depth than most.

It turns out a bunch of the “mortgage-backed securites” weren’t actually legally backed by mortgages *at all*, in direct violation of the original Pooling & Servicing agreements and statements by the banks to the SEC; in essence, the banks were committing fraud. The banks are trying to get away with this fraud; they ought, normally, to be forced to pay the investors back at par, but so far they are getting away with it.

On the other end of things, they are attempting to foreclose on houses they don’t own the mortgages for, and are using “rocket docket” courts in order to do so — this is the bigger threat to the general security of property rights.

(Yes, some courts are doing The Right Thing, including the Massachussetts Supreme Court. There is now, however, a political push by the banksters to pass federal laws to overturn all of state land law to allow them to steal stuff. We must hope it gets stopped in its tracks.)

The point is, unless the courts start really enforcing the law against the banks, investors will start to recognize that our enforcement of “property rights” is completely politicized, with a major bias towards the megabanks and against everyone else. If you’re willing to tolerate a biased court system like that, you can get it in China or Russia — but both have better investment opportunities. If you want a court system with impartial justice and enforcement of property rights, you invest in Europe.

Basically, our rule of law is being degraded to the point where it’s no longer a selling point to investors. Corporate governance in the US — the ability of shareholders to have any control over management — is already generally considered the worst in the developed world, and worse than in some “emerging markets”. And given that the US in other ways provides worse opportunities than in emerging markets, this is very dangerous.

Most of this can be fixed easily by the courts and prosecutors simply enforcing the damn laws. The SEC also ought to give shareholders real control over the CEOs and boards of directors, like they have in most of Europe. But I’m not holding my breath; the CEO capture of our government has been getting worse and worse my entire life.

Slightly off topic, but I just noticed this at the NARP blog:

“U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday (click for audio and transcript) to forcefully respond to growing criticism of the Obama Administration’s approach toward developing faster and more frequent train service in selected corridors through grants to states. He tells host Scott Simon that new Chicago-Dubuque and Chicago-Quad Cities lines should be seen as initial segments for service that will extend to the Twin Cities and Omaha, respectively.”

Uh-oh. Walker just screwed Wisconsin big-time, didn’t he? LaHood’s planning to push to the Twin Cities via Iowa.

I suspected this might happen.

Too bad that there is not an alternative to Indiana for getting east of Chicago, but this kind of situation is likely why the first stage of the MRRS goes through as little of Indiana as possible in heading east.

I note that to add insult to injury, the corridor from Dubuque to La Crescent, MN (across the river from La Crosse WI, where it can pick up the original alignment options either on the river line or via Rochester) is a water route that runs for most of its length right on the Iowa side of the Iowa / WI border.

I thought that a big part of this was Illinois state funding for the Quad Cities route and that Iowa ponied up additional monies for the Iowa City extension. Continuation to Des Moines and Omaha will follow, I’m sure.

Which way did the Twin Cities Zephyr run? I thought a lot of it’s route was through Iowa. Nope, looks like it ran through Prairie du Chien and La Crosse.


The west side line of the old Milwaukee is completely unsuitable as a high speed ROW. There are tight bluffs on that side for most of the way between Dubuque and La Crosse (La Crescent). If an HSR line to the Twin Cities were to go via Dubuque it would continue west toward Dyersville, IA, skirt the west side of the range of hills leading northwest to West Union then head due north through Rochester.

There’s no “there” along the river and very high costs for curvature avoidance.

In any case, trading Rockford and Dubuque for Milwaukee and Madison because of a temporary political setback wouldn’t make sense. There’s not going to be any money for a Chicago to Twin Cities line any time soon anyway and Wisconsin may have come to its senses.

Also, I’m sticking to my guns that the foolish selfishness of Americans plus other demands for infrastructure and education will ensure that nothing happens in HSR outside the NEC and maybe California.

“Also, I’m sticking to my guns that the foolish selfishness of Americans plus other demands for infrastructure and education will ensure that nothing happens in HSR outside the NEC and maybe California.”

Indeed, betting on the nonfunctionality of the US government has been a good bet since Reagan. On the other hand, after the government as we know it collapses, maybe the successor will do something. ;-)

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