For decades prior to President Obama, the federal government invested only $4 billion to create a 437-mile High Speed Rail line in the Northeast Corridor. Managed by Amtrak, that High Speed Rail service for Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-Newark-New York City-New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor is called “Acela.” Less than $1 billion of federal funds were applied to the remaining 22,000 passenger rail miles.
In January 2010, President Obama directed $8 billion from the economic stimulus to many rail corridors previously selected for speed and frequency upgrades. To address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, he directed another $5 billion over 5 years. A few months afterwards, Congress allocated $2 billion more and another $3 billion came from various states. By far, $18 billion is the largest federal and state funding of intercity passenger rail.
America’s first black president, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, began upgrading intercity passenger rail amidst two wars and the Great Recession. His actions suggest a poetic bookend to President Lincoln who authorized construction of the Transcontinental Railroad amidst the Civil War.
So what’s not to like? Plenty, if you believe the High Speed Rail (HSR) naysayers:
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans won’t ride trains
• Outside the Northeast, America doesn’t have Europe-like population density for HSR to succeed
• Outside the Northeast Corridor, America doesn’t have enough Rapid Transit for HSR to succeed
• Europeans ride HSR because gasoline is more expensive
• Americans always prefer driving highways over HSR
• Americans always prefer flying over HSR
• Unlike HSR, fuel taxes solely pay for Interstate Highways
• Don’t bother with HSR, widening Interstate Highways solves intercity traffic congestion
Naysayers would have you believe a dozen more anti-HSR arguments that are also outdated, opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths or falsehoods.
Understanding HSR well enough to pass informed judgment requires more than a TV soundbite or 500-word news article. It takes thoughtful analysis of sustainable transportation into the future, yet begins with the glory days of trains and streetcars. Come with me on this fascinating journey, even if you board as a skeptic.
22,000 MILES OF RAIL — OKAY FOR FREIGHT AND TRANSIT, BAD FOR HIGH SPEED
For a century, America had the world’s largest and best train network. Today, freight train companies are out of the passenger rail business. So U.S. rail routes, to an overwhelming degree, are owned by private freight train companies and to a lesser degree, by pubic transit agencies. By law, freight train companies and transit agencies lease Amtrak trains access to their tracks. Since leasing fees are low, freight train companies have no independent economic incentive to upgrade route infrastructure for high speed. Nor do transit agencies have extra funds lying around.
Consequently, America’s passenger rail routes are plagued with Slow Zones that do not support high speeds and frequent service due to:
• beat-up tracks, regulation & signaling systems limiting most Amtrak trains to 59 or 79 mph
• excessively curvy tracks
• antiquated bridges and tunnels
• autos, people and animals crossing tracks
• trains traveling in opposite directions using the same track
• slow freight and commuter trains limiting faster Amtrak trains sharing their tracks
As bad as Slow Zones are for Amtrak, they are fine for 49 mph freight trains and tolerable for 59 mph commuter trains. Why did America let the world’s former best passenger rail network fall so far?
REGULATION AND COLLUSION WEAKEN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES
From 1830, intercity passenger rail grew and blanketed our nation. From 1888, electric streetcars grew and blanketed our major cities. They met at train stations and we loved them for it. Then, the Great Depression assaulted all businesses from 1929-1941. Understandably, there were fewer passengers and less freight for rail transportation.
Unlike trains and buses that directly ran on cheap diesel fuel, streetcars were electric-powered. Burning coal, wood or oil required another layer of labor cost to produce electricity. Excluding streetcar companies that got energy from hydroelectric dams, streetcar companies paid more for energy from coal and oil-powered electric plants.
Adults fortunate to have jobs during the Great Depression required public transportation dominated by subways in NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and streetcars elsewhere. The high volume of passengers allowed many subway and streetcar companies to struggle by on razor-thin profits. Their fortunes turned worse when the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 made it illegal for a single business to both provide public transport and supply electricity to other parties.
Prior to that act, most electric subway and streetcar lines were owned by utility companies who subsidized them with lower electricity rates, while charging other customers slightly higher electric rates. After that act, streetcar companies cut electricity costs by reducing service. Subway lines, having faster times and higher passenger volume than streetcars, were able to preserve service levels longer. Though utility companies divested both subway and streetcar lines, most sold their private streetcar lines to one of two national streetcar companies.
Intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a reprieve during World War II (December 1941-August 1945). During the war, America needed oil companies to expand refinery capacity, and railroads to transport soldiers, support staff, fuels and materials. Domestically, gasoline, diesel fuel and metals were rationed. A larger percentage of people not shipped off to war found work in weapons manufacturing plants. So intercity passenger trains, subways and streetcars got a healthy ration of fuel to transport a larger volume of people.
From 1936-46, the two national streetcar companies purchased 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities. Turns out, the national streetcar companies were owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies who coveted streetcar tracks in the middle of avenues to increase road capacity for oil-burning and tire-using cars, buses and trucks. Then they went a step further. By lowering maintenance and frequency, the consortium made streetcars less desirable and inconvenient for patrons.
In World War II, intercity passenger rail carried most soldiers to Atlantic and Pacific Coast points of departure for war duty. Los Angeles became the largest hub of defense factory work and a major oil refinery center. Intercity passenger trains and streetcar lines anchored at bustling Los Angeles Union Station. Before and during the war, LA had the nation’s largest streetcar system and 70% of its population rode streetcars.
After World War II ended in August 1945, rationing ended and America suddenly had excess oil refinery capacity. Consumer income and product demand increased. The G.I. Bill enabled veterans to buy their first house. Many veterans who served in the Pacific relocated to LA, creating a real estate boom. To accommodate rapidly increasing consumer demand, developers opened new housing tracts in LA suburbs. Private streetcar companies were financially incapable of expanding to the suburbs. So more people bought cars and suburban cities formed transit agencies who favored bus purchases because gasoline was cheaper than electricity and buses did not require track expansion.
Under those conditions, its no surprise that streetcar patronage plunged and subway patronage reduced, while bus patronage ascended.
New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia had subway tunnels to maintain speed and dependability advantages over buses. Even San Francisco had a few passenger rail tunnels in its relatively compact city. But Los Angeles had only one downtown tunnel in its sprawling metropolis. Thus, LA’s surging metropolis population, plunging streetcar service and lack of passenger rail tunnels made its abundant streetcar rights of way a prize target by the consortium.
A merger of the two national streetcar companies as streetcar service declined prompted a Look-See by Congress. In 1946, congressional hearings reviewed the intent of the national streetcar company owned by the consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. No change of consortium behavior resulted from those powderpuff hearings. Quite the contrary happened. General Motors supplied even more buses to public transit routes where streetcar service weakened.
In the 1940s, NYC, Chicago and Boston and Philadelphia transit agencies expanded by purchasing ailing subway and commuter rail lines from private companies at a discount. San Francisco to Oakland streetcar service ended, but San Francisco transit agency maintained several streetcar lines. A healthy portion of LA’s streetcar infrastructure could have survived too, but the city lost a high stakes gamble.
Los Angeles city government gambled that a lawsuit would rescue the last of its ailing, independent streetcar companies. In 1947, the Federal District Court of Southern California indicted the consortium under Sherman Anti-Trust Law. Long story short, the trial was switched to a Midwest federal court sympathetic to the defendants. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949.
Unfettered, the consortium stepped up efforts to convince all cities nationwide to rip out streetcar tracks for more automotive rights of way and then dismantle or burn streetcars.
FEDERAL POLICY AND MORE REGULATION WEAKEN RAIL TRANSPORTATION LEGACIES
Though consortium companies formed a Highway Lobby in 1932, by 1949 the lobby expanded membership with freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters and road construction companies. A larger, more ambitious Highway Lobby added private railroads to its crosshairs.
In 1950, few National Highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph due to bumps, major curves, stoplights and stop signs. The Highway Lobby knew better highways were needed to make the auto-highway lifestyle essential for Americans. To achieve that goal, automotive companies ramped up the marketing of cars as instruments of personal freedom. Oil companies increased their convenience by expanding service stations along boulevards and highways. In an era of only three TV networks with automotive and oil industries as the biggest TV program sponsors, their marketing pitch was powerful and uncontested, “demand more and better highways to increase your personal freedom and choose better gasoline for higher automotive performance.”
With cars, buses and trucks multiplying like ant colonies on a food trail, the national fuel tax accelerated the paving of national highway. Even with fuel tax, gasoline cost under 10 cents per gallon. So driving at highway speeds was cheap fun, until the next stoplight or stop sign.
America already had a few highways like Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania Turnpike that gave a taste non-stop driving. Knowing that a network of non-stop highways would be a business productivity and lifestyle game-changer, the Highway Lobby wanted drivers to fully indulge.
Asking for taxpayer money to change American lifestyle is a non-starter, so in 1951, the Highway Lobby approached President Truman and Congress about funding a network of non-stop highways to boost business productivity. They won over many in Congress, but Truman wasn’t too impressed by their pitch or still pre-occupied funding the Korean War. He only authorized a paltry $50 million in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952. Truman did however, act on another concern amplified by the Highway Lobby.
Intercity passenger trains used to reach up to 110 mph with stops every 40-70 miles to produce 80-85 mph average speeds and shorter journey times than automobiles. Then a train-ramming-train accident killed 25 people due to inadequate signaling to slow down and lack of siding track for the malfunctioning train to pull aside. The Highway Lobby took note.
Sprawling suburbs and growing towns created busier roads crossing tracks. Too many people took chances crossing in front of oncoming trains. Some committed suicide parking on tracks. The Highway Lobby reminded President Truman, Congress and news media of every such accident to escalate concern and public outcry for government to act.
Since railroad company profit margins thinned again after World War II, few could afford a train control system and enough siding tracks. None could afford railroad overpasses. The sordid pre-1929 history of privately-owned railroad company anti-trust behavior also worked against them. Given that backstory, Congress and Truman were not keen to fund the building of overpasses, a train control system and siding tracks for private railroad companies.
Railroad companies lobbied against safety regulation as long as they could, but Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation on 31 December 1951, that effectively limited passenger trains to 79 mph top speed. Factoring in stops every 40-70 miles reduced average speeds to about 60 mph.
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER EMBRACES FEDERAL HIGHWAY POLICY
In January 1953, President Eisenhower arrived with a different take on national highways. In July 1953, the Korean War ended and high income tax rates were reducing the national debt. Congress was anxious to start infrastructure construction projects to increase jobs, business productivity and GDP. Those conditions and a 5-star general’s transportation perspective from World War II influenced him to go all in for highways.
During World War II in Germany, General Eisenhower admired how the comprehensive Autobahn Network of straighter, smoother, non-stop highways enabled faster movement of tanks, trucks and troops. So when the Highway Lobby called on President Eisenhower about a similar network of non-stop highways for America, he noted that such a system could also be used for national defense and emergency purposes.
Unlike the Pennsylvania Turnpike tollway however, the Highway Lobby produced videos and other data that influenced Eisenhower and Congress to plan a network of non-stop freeways like the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Automotive companies assured Congress and Eisenhower that higher power autos driving more miles would consume more gasoline, thereby producing more national fuel tax to expand it.
Without substantially more tollways in the system or significantly higher fuel tax, the planned network of freeways would face a funding shortfall. America was still paying down Gross National Debt that spiked during World War II and no one had an appetite for higher taxes. So the Highway Lobby exerted more influence on Congress to also divert money from general taxes (income taxes, usage fees, etc.).
With all the stars aligned, President Eisenhower could not have timed a better introduction for his National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Plan in 1955. The Highway Lobby marketed the plan and America bought it. In early 1956, Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the combination of national fuel tax and general tax to underwrite the first $25 billion of construction for 41,000 miles of Interstate Highways that today, link 90% of all cities having 50,000 or greater population.
Each state posted 45-80 mph speed limits as they judged safe for a given stretch of Interstate Highway. The slower speeds were posted on curvy areas. The highest speeds were posted in straighter wide-open areas, usually in western states. Under good weather conditions and light traffic, cops let people drive 5-10 mph over speed limits.
By the early 1960s, above-the-speed-limit driver behavior for 4, 5 or 6 hours with one stop in between often enabled 65-80 mph average speed — slightly faster than intercity passenger rail. Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeways, drivers only had to pay for cheap gasoline and occasionally, oil. Given a large percentage of highway construction was paid with general taxes and states paid for highway patrolmen, intercity bus lines, car renters and freight truckers only paid a fraction of the true operating costs for federal highways.
In contrast to intercity bus lines and car renters, railroad companies paid for 100% of track and signal maintenance.
Enjoying an operating cost advantage, intercity bus lines passed along savings as lower fares than intercity passenger rail. Consumers also discovered that transporting two or more people by personal car was cheaper than train fare. Transporting three or more people by rental car was also cheaper than train fare. Additionally, freight trucking narrowed the shipping cost gap with freight rail.
Few could argue that the Interstate Highway System was not good for America. Its construction fueled growth in automotive, oil, freight trucking, intercity bus lines and tourism industries, leading unemployment to 3% during much of the Eisenhower Administration. Such heydays in the 1950s led a General Motors executive to boast, “What’s good for GM is good for the nation.”
JET AGE DEALS MORTAL BLOWS TO INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL
In 1958, the Commercial Jet Age began in America. Boeing 707 jets were pressurized to fly above 30,000 feet to avoid the biggest hindrance to airline patronage — turbulence. Jets also flew faster (500-550 mph) and longer than turbo-propeller airplanes. For distances of 300 miles or longer, jets permitted travelers to shave at least 2 hours Journey Time compared to intercity passenger trains, buses and cars. Business travelers loved traveling 1000-3000 miles in a matter of hours, rather than days. From that year forward, long-distance business travelers rapidly switched from trains to jets.
With more people getting airline and airport jobs, chambers of commerce influenced state and federal politicians to fund airport expansion via a mix of publicly-issued bonds and a larger percentage of general taxes. This was yet another public benefit aiding private airlines, while stacking the deck against private railroad companies.
Most railroad companies only survived by mothballing passenger trains to focus on high-volume freight material unfeasible for freight trucks. As the economy grew, such freight rail shipments increased. Freight rail companies added siding track in more places, but let larger chunks of their track slip into 59 mph Slow Zone status — still perfect for freight rail. With 79 mph top speed available for fewer miles, average speeds for remaining intercity passenger trains fell to about 55 mph.
By 1964, Interstate Highways and airport construction were federal priorities. Therefore, 80-85% of their costs were covered by federal funding. Only a few publicly-owned streetcar lines in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Newark and Pittsburgh were operational. National population was growing, particularly surrounding large cities. Following up on a promise by the fallen President Kennedy, President Johnson announced that a key part of his Great Society Program would increase urban transportation infrastructure investment. If fulfilled, it would include new subways in our large cities, along with more interstate highways circling more cities.
In July 1964, President Johnson started the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with $375 million. He also announced plans that UMTA funding would later increase to anchor 50% of rapid transit projects in larger cities. Unfortunately, Vietnam War ramp-up in August 1964 limited most transportation initiatives to Interstate Highway and airport expansion projects. Only a select few cities received funds for rapid transit projects. Federal railroad investment was an afterthought.
Having lost speed and cost advantages, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling the benefits of scenery and comfort over long journeys, like the California Zephyr. Passenger trains also continued service to smaller cities that airlines had no intention to serving. Such niche-level passenger volume could not save the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once the largest union of black employees, it became the unfortunate answer to a trivia question.
In 1950 there were 9,000 passenger trains in service, which carried just under 50 percent of all intercity passenger traffic. By 1970, there were only 450 trains in operation, carrying 7% of intercity passenger traffic. Los Angeles was the best example of how our two passenger rail legacies were devastated. Los Angeles Union Station was practically a ghost town and younger drivers wondered when the remaining unused streetcar tracks would be removed. LA was focused on building wide boulevards, America’s most comprehensive freeway system and making LAX a top tier airport. LA’s auto-highway-airport lifestyle marketed in movies and television, inspired the transportation model of most American cities, particularly fast-growing Atlanta, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Denver, Phoenix and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale.
Fond memories of America’s passenger rail died with older generations. People who never rode 110 mph trains before 1952 were manipulated to think “Americans always prefer highways or flights, so don’t bother upgrading passenger rail.” The narrative was complete. Corporate collusion, federal regulation and disproportionately high public investment in boulevards, freeways and airports made streetcars and intercity passenger rail collateral damage.
FLICKERS OF HOPE FOR INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL IN AMERICA
In 1971, President Nixon was still consumed by the Vietnam War, but understood that cities and suburbs were growing into large metro areas. Congested commuting from the suburbs to central business districts was reducing business productivity. So he convinced Congress to boost UMTA funding, particularly for New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Nixon and Congress were also embarrassed that America’s heritage of privately-owned intercity passenger rail was killed by a potent combination of factors that included the federal government. So Nixon and Congress formed Amtrak to consolidate remaining intercity passenger train companies and the Federal Railroad Administration to partially subsidize their operation.
But since the Vietnam War was still gobbling up federal funds and the Highway and Aviation lobbies were dominating transportation funding, Nixon and Congress didn’t authorize enough funding for railroad overpasses, track upgrades and a better train control system. Without them returning to 110 mph, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving a part of American heritage.
The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 motivated President Ford and Congress to increase rapid transit funding and enact the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit to conserve gasoline in 1974. In defiance, people commonly drove 60-65 mph on highways. In 1976, Ford authorized funding a new train control system and safety improvements for Amtrak to reach 90 mph in the NYC-Washington corridor.
In 1977-78, President Carter authorized funding for projects that would eventually eliminate road crossings in the NYC-Washington rail corridor. Also in 1978, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel, sparking lower airfares, dramatically more regional flights and more airport funding.
Suddenly in December 1979, another OPEC Oil Crisis hit America. Overnight, there were long lines to refill gasoline tanks. Many people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. To conserve domestic oil, President Carter ordered strict enforcement of the 55 mph National Highway Speed Limit. Considering re-fueling hassles and slower speeds, most people refused to drive long distances, thereby crippling tourism while we were still caught in the Stagflation Era.
The downtick in economic activity alerted President Carter and some in Congress to consider funding a project to speed-up passenger trains. In early 1980, Amtrak was attracting more passengers in the NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor. Since Japan and Italy were enjoying success with electric-powered 155 mph trains, High Speed Rail (HSR) for intercity passengers was no longer moribund technology. Additionally, France was feverishly building an electric-powered 168 mph HSR line.
When analyzing them for possible HSR success in America, Carter and Congress quickly learned that many billions of dollars would be required to achieve 155-165 mph in Northeastern states. So Carter narrowed his HSR proposal to the Washington-NYC corridor segment.
Competition for federal transportation funds did not sit well with the Highway and Aviation lobbies. Since auto and aviation culture dominated the American psyche and lifestyles, the Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced most in Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before a decision was made about Carter’s project.
Within months after the December 1979 Oil Crisis, other nations sold us more oil that returned gasoline prices to a comfortable, yet slightly higher level. Long lines for gasoline purchase disappeared. Though the National Highway Speed Limit remained 55 mph for many years, people quickly exceeded it by 10 mph again.
Under those conditions, the resolve of President Carter to fight for HSR funding wilted. The best he could do was ensure all railroad overpass construction for NYC-Washington corridor segment continued. When the overpasses completed in 1984, passenger trains returned to 110 mph top speed between NYC and Washington. Carter also deregulated freight rail in 1980, restoring some of their competitive edge vs. freight trucking.
From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I made it the Dark Ages for passenger rail. On their watch, railroads and transit got scraps, while Interstate Highways and aviation received princely funding. The National Speed Limit returned to 65 mph, along with 5-10 mph above-the-speed-limit driving behavior.
WHICH HIGH SPEED RAIL SUCCESS MODEL FIT AMERICA?
By January 1993 when President Clinton took office, the commerical flight experience was showing signs of congestion in airports. A drive to airport, collect boarding pass, luggage drop-off, security check-in, boarding, flight, un-boarding, luggage pick-up, taxi to local destinations increased the shortest Journey Time for commercial flying from 2:15 minutes to about 2:50 minutes.
Other leading nations experienced airport congestion in high-traffic corridors, yet chose to expand consumer options with more HSR. By 1993 in Japan, Italy and France, high speed passenger trains were reaching 186 mph. Which nation among them had conditions most analogous to America’s Northeast that we could model for successful HSR?
Japan has the most experience managing congested travel conditions. Since its domestic oil peaked in 1932, Japan was importing expensive oil for cars. After World War II, the U.S. permitted it to build nuclear power plants for electricity. Japan expanded its electric-powered Metro subway systems and expanded its system of diesel-powered 112 mph intercity passenger trains.
Despite its free market economy with large auto, aviation, freight rail and freight trucking industries, Japan’s commitment to electric-powered HSR was an easy decision. A hyper-dense country of over 130 million people on a mountain island chain the size of California, Japan is dominated by two mega-cities, Tokyo and Osaka only 320 miles apart, and one large city between them, Nagoya. Strings of cities 50-500 miles lie north, south and west of them. Anchored by central train stations, extensive Metro subway systems blanketed Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya metro areas, enabling convenient transit-train-transit transfers.
Since Japan was an oil-poor nation, its leaders chose to build a 62 mph 4-to-6 lane national highway system that charges expensive tolls and caps speed at 62 mph. Its first section opened in 1963. Then in 1964, Japan upgraded the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka line to electric-powered 130 mph intercity passenger trains called “Shinkansen.” Retail, hotel and office development train company property added revenue. Thus, Shinkansen and Metro subway systems formed a high-capacity combo that always had speed and cost disadvantages over tollways.
The desire for increased productivity by shrinking Tokyo-Osaka Journey Time inspired Japanese officials to boost Shinkansen from 130 mph to 155 mph, then 186 mph. Express trains between the two cities took 2:30 minutes, which was faster and more dependable than flying plus ground transportation. More city-pairs involving Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka supported short Journey Times and popular Shinkansen-Metro stations attracted more patrons.
Though Japan proved that HSR works in a democratic nation with strong automotive and aviation industries, its gasoline economics, mega-dense population corridors and relatively slow tollway system are too different from America to model HSR success here. So lets turn to Italy and France.
In 1993, Italy proved that HSR works in a democratic nation with large auto and freight trucking industries. Its 58 million residents had a population similar to America’s Northeast Region. After World War II, Italy built enough overpasses to maintain 106 mph trains in a single 408-mile corridor (Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples). Its two largest cities, Rome and Milan, had Metro systems feeding train stations. Its Autostrada Network of freeways within cities and 81-93 mph tollways between cities was fantastic.
Other demographic factors however, give pause. Italy had few oil fields, so imported oil made gasoline prices very expensive. Italy did not have a major aviation industry. Household income was significantly lower than America, so fewer single-passenger autos drove long distances in the corridor. In this peninsula-shaped country, 75% of the nation’s residents lived in the Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples corridor. Since higher speeds attract more patrons, it was an easy decision to upgrade that corridor from 106 mph to 124 mph to 155 mph, then to 186 mph.
Overall, Italy’s gasoline economics, income demographics, lack of strong aviation and oil industry influence and the majority of its nation’s residents concentrated in a single corridor did not bear enough resemblance to America’s Northeast.
HSR IN FRANCE, THE HSR MODEL FOR AMERICA’S NORTHEAST
Though it never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline, France greatly resembled conditions in America’s Northeast.
After World War II, France added or rebuilt railroad overpasses and train control systems to maintain its 106-112 mph intercity passenger rail network. Its democratic market economy produced household income and strong citizen rights similar to ours. When HSR planning started in 1971, France’s 54 million residents would have a strong say in any land-takings for HSR or highway routes. Paris and Lyon, France’s two largest cities, had Metrorail systems feeding train stations. The cities are only 274 miles apart and the corridor between them held less than 25% of French population. The Mediterranean Sea is 296 miles south of Lyon and attracted many vacation drivers from Paris.
France also had large auto, aviation and freight trucking lobbies prodding the government to expand airports and the Autoroute network of freeways within cities and 81 mph tollways spread across a country the size of Texas. The French also like exceeding highway speed limits. Prior to French HSR opening, Autoroute often clogged from the Belgian border to Paris to Lyon to Mediterranean cities.
When electric-powered 168 mph TGV opened on Paris-Lyon HSR-only tracks in 1981, the Highway and Aviation lobbies pressured the French government to make it prove operating success before expansion. Having straighter tracks with welded rails to reduce cabin vibration and noise, success came quickly. Fatigued Autoroute drivers between Paris and Lyon welcomed the short Journey Time and alternative to traffic congestion. The lack of diesel fumes by TGV trains also permitted train stations to shield outside weather for a comfortable all-season travel experience.
By 1988, TGV was upgraded to 186 mph, train frequency was increased and coach fares were lowered. Those changes attracted even more single and double-passenger travelers to the time and cost savings of TGV vs. driving and TGV vs. flying.
By 1993, the Train-Metrorail stations of Paris and Lyon hosted as many restaurants, cafes, gift shops, business services, shuttles, taxis and nearby hotels as an international airport. More HSR routes opened from Paris to Tours, LeMans, Lille, Calais and Brussels and from Lyon south to Valence. The Channel Tunnel to enable Paris-London service was on track to open in 1994. Wherever a TGV station integrated a Metrorail or Tramway (Light Rail) station, train passengers having monthly or seasonal rail-passes made day-trips or overnight-trips along the route. The French discovered that TGV + Metrorail/Tramway stations rejuvenated cities along the route and increased tax revenue from international tourists. Freight truckers appreciated less congestion on Autoroute as well.
CLINTON FUNDED OUR FIRST, POORLY EXECUTED HIGH SPEED RAIL ROUTE
The first TGV line cost $6 billion to construct and could repay taxpayers in less than 8 years of operation. Instead of retiring construction debt, the French government used TGV profits and general taxes to help expand the system. Their visionary choice helped make TGV an internationally-praised success story.
By 1993, President Clinton could reference successful French TGV as the model for Northeast Corridor HSR. Though gasoline cost less in America, population density of NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltmore-Washington corridor was triple that of Paris-Lyon corridor and 50 miles shorter at 237 miles. It already had 110 mph passenger rail and train stations served by extensive Metro rail transit. Equally important, the fastest drive between NYC and Washington required half tollways, was speed limited to 65 mph and often clogged. So Clinton used economic stimulus funds to further upgrade the Northeast Corridor.
Unfortunately, Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation followed that wise decision with critical mistakes. The short story is the Clinton Administration split 1993 economic stimulus grants between commercially-proven HSR and a competing technology called “MagLev”, short for Magnetic Levitation Trains.
MagLev was running on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at a jaw-dropping 280 mph. Due to excessive construction and energy costs however, neither country would announce construction dates to move MagLev into commercial operation. Most telling of all, both nations continued building HSR routes.
Weighing those obvious clues, the Clinton Administration should never have authorized incremental amounts summing to $1 billion on MagLev engineering studies, leaving only $1 billion in stimulus grants for the 437-mile Boston-NYC-Washington Corridor. Even though Amtrak/Northeast Corridor accumulated another $2 billion in federal railroad funds under Clinton’s 8-year term, funds invested from 1976-2000 only totaled to $4 billion spread razor thin across across 437 miles.
In 1995, posted Interstate Highway speed limits returned to 65-80 mph for most states (85 mph came later), which meant people often drove 70-85 mph. Acela had to achieve twice those speeds to impress enough people to switch from the personal comfort of driving.
In December 2000, there was fanfare about Amtrak finally launching a fast passenger train like Europe. Unfortunately, the Devil was in the Details.
To survive hitting a freight train on the same tracks, 1951 federal railroad regulation requires that our passenger trains be heavier than those in Europe. Acela high speed trains between NYC and Washington would not share tracks with freight rains, but would share tracks with slower passenger trains that also ran on freight tracks. Since those slower passenger trains had to be heavier, federal regulation dictated that Acela trains be heavier as well. Heavier trains require more electricity per mph and take longer to accelerate and brake. For those and other America-specific reasons, Acela trains were design-limited to 165 mph, rather than 186 mph like those in Europe and Japan. Federal regulation also restricts Acela to 150 mph top speed because parallel freight tracks are close to Amtrak tracks in too many places.
Hence, the underfunded Clinton HSR approach produced only 18 miles of 150 mph service plus 193 miles of 79-90-110-125 mph service for a 3:40 minute Journey Time in Boston-NYC corridor. It only produced 227 miles of 110-125-135 mph service for a 2:42 minute Journey Time in NYC-Washington corridor. Both speed sets and Journey Times were disappointing by European and Japanese HSR standards.
SOMEONE FORGOT TO PROPOSE PLAN B
Several news media naively anticipated that our $4 billion HSR investment would produce Boston-NYC-Washington corridor trains achieving 186 mph like the TGV.
By comparison, the Paris-Lyon corridor required $6 billion from 1971-1981 for 274-miles of HSR-only tracks. Given Boston-NYC-Washington was 163 miles longer, had far more bridges and tunnels to upgrade, and 19 years more inflation (counting from 1971 in France), the cost to achieve similar results would be closer to $17-18 billion. Since Congress would not approve anything close to that amount, Clinton’s Transportation Secretary and Amtrak needed to prevent the media forming “Champaign expectations from Beer money.”
After watching Plan A go down in flames with Congress, they should have switched to Plan B — ditch MagLev and focus the 226-mile NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington segment. With that focus, they could use $2 billion in stimulus grants and $2 billion in cumulative federal railroad grants over Clinton’s 8-year term to lever $1 billion in state funds. That $5 billion total could have built 90 miles of HSR-only track between Newark and Philadelphia, Slow Zone reductions between Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington and purchased Acela trains. Federal regulations would still limit Acela trains to 165 mph on HSR-only tracks and 125 mph elsewhere. But NYC-Washington Journey Time would have dropped from 3:20 minutes to 2:25 minutes.
By 2001, the news media would press Congress for HSR-only tracks with wider spacing from Philadelphia-Washington and NYC-Boston to produce a 2-Hour NYC-Philadelhia-Washington Journey Time and a 3-Hour NYC-Boston Journey Time by 2009.
LIKE ROCKY, AMTRAK-HSR IS A SURVIVOR DESPITE HUGE OPPOSITION
Since anti-HSR forces did not want a successful Acela spawning an Interstate HSR System, they exploited Clinton Administration mistakes by hiring Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks to disseminate analyst reports, TV interviews and newspaper articles to ensure that a HSR-naysayer narrative prevailed in the media. Thus, paid disinformation from think tanks to news media increased naysaying to the point that many citizens never think to ask, “If HSR is succeeding everywhere else, why not here“?
Whenever HSR is mentioned on TV or newspapers, most TV personalities and news journalists latch onto a anti-HSR soundbites not realizing where they originated. With anti-HSR forces doping American sentiment, President Bush II would not fund upgrades. Operating at 59-79 mph in most places, Amtrak was forced to beg for federal and state operating subsidies, like Rocky calling Adrian for help.
In return for those tax subsidies, many rural congressmen and governors forced Amtrak to maintain routes through their low-traffic districts. Emphasizing the Slow Zone-laden low-traffic routes in 2004, President Bush II tried to kill Amtrak.
OPPORTUNITY TO RESTORE & ENHANCE INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL
Fortunately, many congressmen and governors saw the glass-half-full with Amtrak-HSR. Aside from the Northeast Corridor posting patronage and financial gains, Departments of Transportation (DOT) in California, Washington and the Northeastern states helped Amtrak complete small projects that reduced Slow Zones to restore 79 mph top speed, increased daily trains and boosted punctuality. As a result, their ridership posted significant gains as well. From that evidence, dozens of state DOTs concluded that reducing Slow Zones, more daily trains and nicer train cabins would provide services to more constituents.
On the heels of Amtrak ridership growth, the Institute for Civil Engineers and the well-respected Brookings Institution agreed that America needs an Interstate HSR System. Many state DOTs hoped a change in sentiment by the next Congress and President would allocate more federal funds for higher speeds and more trains.
State DOTs convinced 37 governors and even more mayors of both parties to support HSR projects. President-elect Obama could measure their support by applications for $75 billion of federal funds for intercity passenger rail projects. California voters also approved a $9.9 billion bond measure to help build an HSR system that would travel up to 220 mph on its straightest segments.
Aware that $18 billion invested in 2009-10 and $75 billion in isolated HSR projects would not solve systemic rail issues, President Obama envisioned a bigger transportation solution like President Eisenhower. So he called those funds, the “Kick-start to an Interstate High Speed Rail System to serve 80% of Americans by 2035.”
With the 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill up for renewal in Summer 2010, President Obama had other reasons to believe the timing was right to repair highways, expand transit, accelerate his HSR vision and increase construction-manufacturing jobs in America. Auto and airline industries finally recognize that the green transportation trend is unstoppable and can be helpful to their long term interests. So Obama also benefited from fewer anti-HSR forces than Clinton and Carter faced.
The planned Interstate Highway System that broke ground in 1956, was completed in 1992. To increase its utility, it was widened and augmented with beltways and thruways in every metro area. The augmented Interstate Highway System effectively finished construction in 2011. Now our Interstate Highway System is in maintenance mode. Freight trucking and highway construction companies welcome more federal funds to replace or refurbish 40-year old interchanges, bridges and tunnels. The system also needs re-paving, sound walls and traffic information displays. The automotive industry’s product development and surging sales of electric cars is driving demand for electric charging stations on Interstate Highways.
Sprawling suburbs engulfing most international airports are making it impossible to add runways. So major airlines welcome HSR offloading their barely profitable short-distance flights in order use scarce runway slots for more profitable long-distance routes. Even Southwest Airlines looks forward to swapping out short-distance flights between Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and San Antonio for long-distance flights when the Wright Amendment expires in October 2014.
AMTRAK PROVING INTERNATIONAL HIGH SPEED RAIL OPERATING PRINCIPLES
As each year passes, more construction completes, more Amtrak-HSR criticisms become outdated, while others are exposed as opinion misrepresented as fact, half-truths or lies. But here’s a well proven truth. HSR has construction principles like Interstate Highways, then like Asia and Europe, its HSR operating principles evolve similar to the relationship between airports and airlines:
1. Upgrade 59-81 mph routes having infrequent trains to 106-112 mph routes and hourly trains from 6am to 8pm. At that faster speed and frequency, enough patrons mode-switch from automobiles to reduce tax subsidy to the route.
2. Upgrade high-traffic 106-112 mph routes to 155-199 mph and trains every 15-30 minutes from 6am to 9pm. At those speeds and frequency, more patrons switch from autos and regional flights to generate significant operating profit for the route.
3. Operating profits repay construction costs in 8-15 years OR help pay for HSR system expansion OR both. Private companies who want to operate passenger trains, often help pay for construction of 186+ mph routes in an established HSR system because they generate the most profits.
Skeptics not tracking Amtrak’s progress might argue that America has developed such a preference for driving and flying that HSR can’t possibly succeed in America because its only been modestly successful in the Boston-NYC-Washington Corridor. What proof points illustrate that international HSR operating principles will succeed elsewhere in America?
The first proof point is the Northeast Corridor hasn’t been upgraded to international standards (HSR-only track) of higher speeds and train frequency, yet operates at a substantial profit transporting 12 million annual passengers. That’s more people than fly between Boston, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Imagine the patronage and profit Acela could achieve with 200 mph trains every 10-15 minutes and a larger train station in NYC.
The second proof point is when Amtrak Keystone in NYC-Philadelphia-Harrisburg route was upgraded from 79 mph to 110 mph and 13 daily trains, it attracted so many additional patrons that its operating budget is approaching break-even. Amtrak and Pennsylvania DOT are now planning to upgrade the route for faster speed, more trains, profitability and extension to Pittsburgh.
The third and biggest proof point is Amtrak tax subsidy is declining due to booming ridership nationwide. Since 2009 and aside from the Boston-NYC-Washington Corridor, more Slow Zone reduction and more daily trains are paying off in California, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and Maine. For 2013, Amtrak requested LESS tax subsidy than Congress was prepared to offer and now only 15% of their operating budget.
So much for skeptic opinion misrepresented as fact, “Outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans won’t ride trains.”
Five corridors outside the Northeast having HSR projects underway represents significant progress. Yet when you observe the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program map, ask yourself why more corridors that have tailor-made demographics for HSR are not underway? Why is there no Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinati HSR route? Why does HSR construction stop in Charlotte, rather than Atlanta? Why don’t fast-growing Texas and Florida have a HSR construction projects listed?
Unfortunately, two powerful anti-HSR forces are working behind the scenes. More about them in Part 3.
OTHER LEADING AND EMERGING NATIONS BUILDING HSR
In addition to Japan, Italy and France, every other leading or emerging nation is rapidly building Intercity HSR systems. China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Belgium, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are investing multi-billions of dollars. Even the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is building an electric-powered HSR System.
Given the huge financial investment required to complete Intercity HSR Systems, it takes more than fast trains to win over so many government budgets. I address the bigger motivations driving them in Parts 2 and 3.
Tags: Acela, America High Speed Rail, Amtrak, fast trains, French TGV, High Speed Rail, HSR, HSR-only track, intercity passenger rail, intercity passenger trains, Interstate High Speed Rail, Interstate HSR Network, Italy HSR, Japanese HSR, Los Angeles streetcars, Shinkansen, Support High Speed Rail