by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica
This Passenger Rail Taxonomy fleshes out the categories summarized in Part 1 of the this article. Around the world, it would be called an Intercity High Speed Rail Taxonomy. In America, states play a larger role planning passenger rail between cities. So in America, it is more appropriate to think of as an Interstate High Speed Rail Taxonomy.
Freight Rail Routes reaching 49-60 mph top speed compose the majority of America's 22,000 miles of legacy rail shared between freight trains and commuter trains. In America, freight trains can legally run up to 79 mph, but for safety and fuel economy, they are typically limited to 60 mph. Furthermore, these routes have a torture test of speed limiting "Slow Zone" factors named in Part 1. Consequently, they average 35-45 mph, just fast enough to convey the world's most comprehensive freight train network. Tracks have low platforms, so passengers step up and down from trains. That means boarding and un-boarding take longer than stations having raised platforms.
Conventional Rail Routes reach 79 mph. These legacy routes host diesel-powered freight trains, commuter trains and Amtrak trains. Routes feature a 3rd passing track in some sections to minimize delay by slower trains. Most stations have low platforms, so boarding and un-boarding still take as long as Freight Rail Routes. Even commuter and Amtrak trains slow to 60 mph when crossing roadways in these routes. Stations are often 5-10 miles apart so these routes tend to average 55 mph.
Improved Conventional Rail Routes reach 90 mph. These legacy routes host diesel-powered commuter trains, Amtrak trains and occasionally freight trains via a 3rd passing track in some sections. Most stations have low platforms, so boarding and un-boarding still take as long as Freight Rail and Conventional Rail routes. Since these routes have safer crossing arms trains may still run at 79 mph when crossing roadways. Stations are often 10-15 miles apart so these routes tend to average 65-70 mph. Low-density 400 to 1500-mile routes like Amtrak Empire Builder and Amtrak City of New Orleans would give better, cost-effective service if upgraded to 90 mph service running 3-4 trains daily.
Emerging HSR Routes reach 110 mph in America, 106-112 mph elsewhere via diesel- or electric-powered trains over routes that have fewer Slow Zones. Passenger trains dominate these tracks, but freight trains may occasionally share them. There are more roadway overpasses & underpasses, more stretches where a 3rd or 4th track permit faster trains to bypass slower trains. An automated train control system enables more trains per hour. Unlike loud diesel locomotives whose moving parts breakdown more frequently, electric locomotives run 15 decibels quieter at the same speed and up to 300,000 miles before an overall is required. In pursuit of higher average speeds, quieter external noise, and no greenhouse emissions on the route, some popular Emerging HSR routes are converting from deisel-powered to electric-powered trains. Such routes require poles to suspend electrical wires overhead ("catenaries") that transmit electricity by pantographs extended from the top of trains to the train's electric motor. To supply enough electric power, catenaries must maintain constant tension with pantographs over the entire route.
Depending on how an electric-powered Emerging HSR Route is built, its percentage of railroad crossings and number of stops, it averages 75-80 mph. Routes may feature 6-12 daily intercity trains and many more commuter trains. But since freight train companies own most tracks in America, they are reluctant to reduce good paying freight capacity for frequent, but lower paying passenger trains. Automated train control systems for passenger trains also smell like unwanted regulation to freight train companies.
There is only one long term solution to this conflict of business models in America. Over time, federal and state Departments of Transportation should purchase adjacent space in high-merit passenger rail routes, then add tracks so those routes have 2 freight tracks and 2 Commuter/Emerging HSR tracks. As more overpasses and underpasses are built in such routes, Emerging HSR Routes support 8-14 daily intercity trains and reach 80% on-time performance. Commuter trains can also reach 90 mph. Freight train companies don't mind this solution because other people's money helps their trains achieve shorter trip times without reducing freight capacity or adding regulation.
Regional HSR Routes reach 124-150 mph (200-241 kmph). Japan, the HSR pioneer, established 200 kmph as the international minimum speed for "High Speed Rail." They have overpasses & underpasses, automatic train control, high platforms enabling patrons to quickly board/un-board and catenaries over their distance. Slow freight trains run on adjacent tracks, but 90 mph commuter trains often share these tracks. In urban areas, routes are fenced to prevent people and animals from wandering onto tracks. Regional HSR Routes have fewer slow zones and better automated train control systems enable 83-105 mph average speed, 15-30 daily intercity trains and 85% on-time performance, like Acela Express between NYC-Washington averages 83 mph. Business travelers prefer these trains over flights up to 3 hours for distances of 240-285 miles. When priced less than flying, leisure travelers prefer these trains up to 4 hours for distances of 320-380 miles.
1st Generation Express HSR Routes reach 155-168 mph (250-270 kmph) top speed. Slow zones are minimized via tracks that feature good bedding, high speed switches, concrete ties, continuous welding and more stringent leveling for a smoother ride. The entire route is fenced and has many relatively straight segments. Intercity passenger trains running 124-155 mph are permitted on these high-speed-only tracks. The fastest routes average 110-125 mph for sub-3 hour trip times over 330-375 miles and 90-92% on-time performance. Excluding nightly maintenance hours, they operate 25-50 intercity trains daily. These routes introduce Business Class service that features leather seating, electrical outlets, WiFi and in-seat dining service.
2nd Generation Express HSR Routes reach 174-186 mph (280-300 kmph) top speed. They feature curve straightening and premium track bedding, track leveling, high-speed switches & catenaries, bridges, tunnels, engines, and advanced train control systems. High-Speed-Only tracks with trains running at similar speeds are required to enable 130-140 mph average speed for sub-3 hour trip times over 390-420 miles and 95-98% on-time performance. Outside urban areas, they have wider spacing between tracks to reduce the air pressure vibration of trains passing in opposite directions or air pressure exerted on adjacent freight rail tracks in the same corridor. More impressively, France and Japan have transported billions of HSR passengers on them without a single fatality and both run at 98-99% on-time performance in those countries, respectively. France and Japan also use nuclear energy to power trains and carry up to 700-800 passengers per train set. That's equivalent to two Boeing 747s carrying passengers at a carbon dioxide footprint barely larger than a Toyota Prius. In general, they run 36-90 times daily.
Once France safely tested the world's fastest speed at 357 mph (575 kmph), it opened the door to higher commercial operating speeds.
VHSR Routes reach 199 mph (320 kmph) today, but faster speeds are coming while featuring 48-90 intercity trains daily. VHSR Routes have state-of-the-art track profiles (premium track bedding, leveling & switches, VHSR train control systems, long straightaways, mildly banked curves) for a smooth ride and higher average speeds. VHSR requires High-Speed-Only tracks with light weight trains. Completely elevated, submerged or fenced-off, routes are monitored to detect objects that fall onto tracks well before a train arrives. Outside urban areas, they have wider spacing between tracks to reduce air pressure vibration of trains passing in opposite directions. Like freeway interchanges, many routes use flyovers to eliminate crossing other tracks at same the level. The newest catenaries are more durable and can operate as cold as –58 degrees Fahrenheit. Given their strict operational tolerances, a VHSR Route features only VHSR trains of the same speed to prevent bottlenecks and maximize train frequency. Given VHSR trains are lighter weight, VHSR-only tracks also maintain alignment and leveling better that other tracks. Exceptions are the modified HSR trains running on VHSR routes until France and Japan upgrade their inventory to VHSR trains this decade.
At speeds of 199 mph and above, even minute bulges on the train exterior or gaps between trains increase wind-drag for higher external noise, cabin vibration and energy consumption. So aerodynamically-sculpted VHSR trains (like French AGV, German Valero and Canadian Zefiro) have smaller inter-train gaps and lower height. VHSR trains have the most advanced wheels and regenerative braking that creates electricity for on-board services. Combined with 20% lower materials weight, they increase energy efficiency per mph by roughly 20%. VHSR trains are designed to reach top speed in under 5 minutes, tilt on curves at higher speeds, and brake quicker for safety.
VHSR trains running on VHSR Routes are capable of 236-248 mph (380-400 kmph). But external noise and energy costs will most likely limit them to top speeds of 211-217-224 mph (340-350-360 kmph), depending on what surrounding communities judge to be acceptable noise level and how much energy costs and passenger loading to "profitably" operate at higher speeds. With stops spaced 60-100 miles apart, VHSR routes are capable of averaging 165-180 mph to enable 495-540 miles of travel in 3 hours.
Here's an example. In 2011, French company Alstom sold AGV trains to Ferrari, one of Italy's esteemed private sports car companies, as its first customer. Under test conditions that simulated commercial operation, the AGV running 224 mph has the energy consumption, external noise, cabin vibration and braking distance signature of a HSR train running at 193 mph. But due to constraints of a 2nd Generation Express HSR Route in Italy's higher energy costs than France, the AGV is currently limited to 186 mph. Over this decade, Italy, Spain and other nations plans further route upgrades and a larger percentage of less expensive wind/solar/nuclear/geothermal energy will be used in their electric grid. Under those conditions, anticipate VHSR trains reaching 211-217-224 mph top speed.
Here's another example of trains running below design speed. In China, its VHSR trains were built under technology transfer agreements with Siemens (Germany), Bombardier (Canada) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan). Chinese engineers then re-designed train components to build indigenous trains capable of 236 mph (380 kmph). Chinese engineers found that such speed accelerates friction wear of catenary wires, boosts energy consumption and passenger cabin vibration. No train operator wants to replace catenaries frequently and pay an excessively high energy bill. Nor do they want public complaints of excessive noise and passenger complaints about cabin vibration. So they planned initial operation on the VHSR route for 217 mph (350 kmph).
Unfortunately, the Chinese had a scandal where one Railway official took bribes leading to "Quality of HSR Construction" concerns by the public. So when China also had a fatal train accident on an older HSR route ang Chinese passengers felt uncomfortable cabin vibration at 217 mph, HSR officials were barraged with complaints and reduced patronage. So Chinese train executives dialed down to 186 mph for now. They must gradually earn public trust concerning VHSR safety and comfort. Over a period of years, anticipate speeds gradually increasing to 193-199-206-211-217 mph (310-320-330-340-350 mph).
In contrast, an AGV train was rigorously tested and certified for safe operation, low cabin vibration or acceptable external noise on a French VHSR Route up to 236 mph. The French TGV system has the public's trust because the TGV has never had a fatal HSR train accident on its VHSR Routes. Nevertheless, the French TGV executives only plan to run AGV up to 224 mph (360 kmph) in commercial operation. This makes sense because AGV at 224 mph consumes the same energy as a modified-HSR train running at 193 mph. They also want to minimize complaints about external noise from communities along each route while boosting speed. So TGV executives plan to gradually turnover their train fleets to AGV this decade and permit similar VHSR trains like Zefiro and Valero on their tracks as well. Even with VHSR trains, some TGV routes will be limited to 206 mph (330 km/h) for external noise reasons, while other VHSR Routes gradually increase over many years to 211 mph, 217 mph and 224 mph. Until safety & noise records at acceptable energy costs are established at 224 mph for a decade or more, VHSR is unlikely to surpass that speed in commercial operation.
MagLev, short for Magnetically Levitated Trains, requires powerful electro-magnets to both levitate and pull a large passenger train very fast above concrete tracks. Once a MagLev leaves the station and levitates up-forward, its small wheels retract like a plane so there is no longer contact with tracks. Their small wheels gently touch concrete tracks when slowing to a stop. Unlike the friction of steel wheels spinning at high-speed on rail, MagLev is quieter running through urban areas and requires less track maintenance than VHSR. MagLev accelerates faster than VHSR and climbs steeper gradients, so trip times are shorter and tunneling can be less expensive than VHSR. MagLev trains are ~20% more aerodynamic than the best VHSR trains because they don't require pantographs extending on top or wheels while operating. If a MagLev and VHSR trains weighed the same, MagLev would require ~20% less energy than VHSR at 224 mph. But there are huge cons to MagLev.
MagLev can not use existing rail tracks, so its construction expense is typically twice that of new VHSR routes. That fact alone means MagLev must transport twice as many people per hour or charge twice the price of VHSR or some combination of the two. People rarely pay twice the price without twice the benefit, so MagLev promises significantly faster acceleration/deceleration, higher speed and fewer stops for half the trip time of VHSR.
Not so fast on the higher speed than VHSR. A law of Physics is that wind drag scales as the cube of vehicle speed. Thus, a given train that requires 1X electricity to overcome wind drag at 150 mph, requires 2X electricity at 225 mph and 4X electricity at 300 mph. Hence, even with 20% more energy efficiency than VHSR, MagLev barely dents the extra electricity required to surpass 300 mph. So to justify construction and energy costs double that of VHSR, MagLev needs a huge number of patrons willing to pay a premium over VHSR for shorter trip time.
Financial comparisons favor VHSR, which transports twice as many passengers per trainset as MagLev. With those factors in mind, even Germany, a pioneer in MagLev development, couldn't make the numbers work. So they cancelled a planned MagLev between Hamburg and Berlin, then sought another nation to license MagLev as a turn-key solution. Instead, Germany is building/upgrading VHSR Routes across the country.
Fortunately for Germany, plenty of state-owned coal reserves power China's electric plants, so energy supply is not an issue for that country. The Chinese government saw opportunity to marry a distant international airport with its largest business center (Shanghai, 19 million pop.) while showcasing its emerging technological prowess to the world. Today, the MagLev China purchased from Germany operates between Shanghai Pudong International Airport and a Shanghai suburban station. Spending only $6/person for the government-subsidized ride, patrons are thrilled to smoothly accelerate to 267 mph (430 kmph) in less than 3 minutes. Even airplane pilots are impressed that it takes only 8 minutes to cover 19 miles. China has energy resources and cost profile that are impossible to replicate in another developed nation, making MagLev one of the few places that can justify it. It has much lower labor & land costs, greater imminent domain rights, and benefited from a motivated seller in Germany. The bill was only $1.3 billion and construction completed in under 3 years. Since cheap state-owned coal powers most of its electric plants, its energy costs are lower too.
The next chapter of China MagLev unfolds in 2014-15 when it extends into downtown Shanghai. China plans to introduce its next generation, "homegrown" MagLev capable of 311 mph (500 kmph) in route to the city of Hangzhou -- a total extension of 104 miles from the current station.
Next Generation MagLev planned for Japan is a more interesting application for several reasons. Their test MagLev has already set a world speed record of 361 mph (581 kmph) through mountainous terrain, proving its feasible to operate MagLev through 60% tunnels in the 272 miles between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. MagLev can have lower tunneling costs than VHSR because it can climb a 10% gradient vs. a 4% gradient by VHSR. Japan is designing NextGen MagLev with advanced superconducting magnets and better aerodynamics that lower wind drag and electricity consumption per mph while accelerating to 311 mph (500 kmph) in only 2 minutes; by 2027, Japan anticipates opening NextGen MagLev between Tokyo and Nagoya and increase cabin capacity for more patrons per trainset. By 2045, Japan will extend NextGen MagLev from Nagoya to Osaka.
Japan has labor costs, land costs and imminent domain rights similar to America and Europe. Hence, Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka MagLev construction will cost upwards of $70 billion. Despite daunting construction costs, the operating profits may pencil out like a mortgage. Also, Japan's nuclear energy costs less the oil. The business centers of Tokyo and Osaka already have 25 million and 18 million residents, respectively. Plenty of business travelers would pay a premium for a day trip enabled by 2 hours 14 minutes of roundtrip Journey Time rather than 4 hours of roundtrip Journey Time. Hence, Japan Railways is betting that NextGen MagLev will attract enough business travelers who value saving 1 hour 46 minutes between Tokyo and Osaka.
Given Japan has the luxury to patiently implement MagLev and its spirit of competition vs. China, don't be surprised when they announce NextGen MagLev operating at 530-550 kmph.