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By Andrew Holland on Jul 11, 2012 with 13 responses

The Logic of High Speed Rail in America

Connecting Massive Population Centers

high speed rail

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association is promoting a plan for a fully integrated,multi-layered national rail system built in 4 phases.

As the population of the U.S. grows from a country of 300 million to 400 million over the next 30-40 years, we’re going to have some decisions to make about how we keep the country moving. In our biggest cities — also the source of the greatest portion of our wealth creation — the highways and transportation systems are becoming more jammed by the day. It should be obvious that more transportation infrastructure options are needed in America’s densely packed regions.

The Interstate Highway System has been successful in linking the country together, but I’m afraid that it promotes sprawling, auto dependent development — which essentially outsources a major cost (fuel) to consumers. More highways, even if they could be built to meet capacity, are not the answer for dense regions because they have proved to only encourage more oil-dependent sprawl.

I believe that High Speed Rail (HSR) is the way to build dense, interlinked cities and regions. This past week saw two major developments about the future of HSR, as the California Senate approved $4.6 billion in funding for the construction of the first section of the state’s HSR and Amtrak announced a plan for significant upgrades to the lines along the Northeast Corridor.

Political Hot Potato

High-speed rail has had a rough few years. Initially, there was some enthusiasm generated by the $8 billion investment in the 2009 stimulus legislation. However, the stimulus bill very quickly became a political football; the high-speed rail money was identified as a particular priority of President Obama’s, so it became a popular target. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida rejected the high-speed rail funding, even though the funding came with very few strings attached (compared to most other federal funding).

Ultimately, I think it was a good thing that these states rejected the funding. High-speed rail actually doesn’t make sense in most of the country — only when it can connect high density regions and cities. That means, as a 2009 report “Where HSR Works Best” (PDF) by America 2050 showed, that funding for HSR should be focused on the Northeast corridor, California, and parts of the Midwest. Of the top 20 city pairs, as ranked by their criteria, 7 were in the Boston-Washington route (including the top 4), 4 were in California, and 4 were in spokes extending from Chicago. The only route of the top 20 that didn’t include at least one city in one of those three main areas was the Dallas-Houston route in Texas.

Although the best business and efficiency case can be made for investment in those areas, the nature of political funding is to spread the funding around to many interest groups. I’m convinced that’s why we ended up with large amounts of funding initially being sent to states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. What these states have in common is not a strong potential for HSR, but that they are electoral swing-states.

As someone usually skeptical of government, the way we’re doing it — with government funding to government-sponsored companies (Amtrak or the California High Speed Rail Authority) — may not be the most efficient or effective method, but it’s the only one on the table right now. A credible conservative response would be to give tax credits or preferred financing to private companies to build and operate the lines, but the Republican party right now is more interested in shutting down rail altogether rather than building a real transportation system.

Fortunately, when their Republican governors decided to turn down the funding, that freed it up to be concentrated on where it could be most useful: the Northeast corridor and California, which I will talk about in tomorrow’s post.

See also: Why The Northeast and California Need High Speed Rail

  1. By Leeni Balogh on July 11, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    I assume that new rails will be built specifically for high speed trains and not shared with freight trains.  The private freight companies are notorious for not maintaining the rails which has caused many accidents in recent years.  For safety reasons, even if the existing rails were in good shape, passenger trains must have their own parallel rails, one for each direction. Human errors and computer glitches happen. 

    Glad to see finally progress in this vital infrastructure. This kind of mass transit will save a lot of energy. It’s not energy efficient to fly between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles. A train can move many times more people than an airliner, and train is more convenient because you arrive in the city instead of at an outlying airport. Not to mention the comfort of train travel.

    • By Donna Maurillo on July 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Conventional rail and high-speed rail operate on two different kinds of track. HSR uses electrified rail, ideally a “ribbon rail,” eliminating the “clickety-clack” noisiness of conventional rail. The ballast also is different. Conventional rail uses gravel, whereas HSR uses concrete. The reason? The high speeds of HSR are more prone to kicking up gravel, so they need a different type of ballast.

  2. By stan on July 12, 2012 at 8:40 am

    It takes a minimum of 6 MW to run a maglev train at all times (8000 HP) 3 to 5… 400 ft windmills @ ave. annual output..probably about every 50 miles…..or the area of 600 fairly large home rooftops of solar panels, in daylight only…that means the electricty has to come from somewhere…..also, with the upcoming requirement for a few hundred thousand electric vehicles that require a charge everyday….well, do the math……exactly where are we going to get enough power without building more power generators, whether they be fossile, nuclear or renewable? As usual, we are putting the cart before the horse……

    • By Andrew Holland on July 12, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Stan – sometimes I wish we were talking about maglev – which can run up to 350 miles per hour – but what I’m talking about is electrified traditional rail – which can reach speeds of about 225 mph.

      You’re right that we need to make sure the electricity system can handle it, but we should note that this is very predictable power. One of the reasons the French TGV system has been so effective is the widespread use of  nuclear power. 

      Overall, though, HSR represents a move away from oil-powered transportation (planes and cars) to electricity-powered. That’s a good choice economically, politically, environmentally, and for national security. I’ll take that any time.

  3. By Lou Gage on July 12, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I have a simple question. Is the collection point (terminals) the high speed trains will serve to be located in a high density community (central city like NYC) or will they just require huge parking lots to collect passengers? I just don’t see the density being met in SF-LA but in Chicago and NY yes. So why spread it out. Concentrate it. Second point. Can California afford this system? LouG 

    • By Donna Maurillo on July 12, 2012 at 10:24 am

      San Francisco is already planning a large multi-modal terminal inside the city. Rail stations typically are sited in the population centers, whereas airports often are not. This alone will be an advantage for high-speed rail.

    • By Andrew Holland on July 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

      Lou – its a good question, which I’ll get into some in today’s post. On the east coast, the HSR terminals will be center city (33rd st in Manhattan, Union Station in DC, South Station in Boston, etc) and in California that will be the case too. They’re planning large terminals in San Francisco and LA, and they’ve talked about transportation-oriented development around the stations. The key part of HSR is not just the transportation, but the ability to impact urban development. 

      In LA, HSR combined with a really impressive build-out of their Metro system could fundamentally change the urban fabric of the entire city. Its a real opportunity.

      • By Douglas Hvistendahl on July 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        Much of the need is not for high speed over long distances, but for large capacity at smaller distances. For this reason, a solid investigation of personalized rapid transit should be included in any plans. The information I have is that the best of these combine very high people moving capacities with lower costs than most of the others.

  4. By euroflycars on July 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Reading today about France’s 14 TGV projects (2000 km) likely to be abandoned in order to comply with the French government’s savings program, I noted the cost figure of 130 million Euro per km (as compared to a 100 million CHF for 1000 metres of local highway without emergency lane, built in 2008 between my town and the nearby Swiss watchmaking metropolis La Chaux-de-Fonds).

    While both HSR and highway-based individual mobility thus suffer heavy infrastructural penalties, Vertical Take-Off and Landing rotorcraft-based individual intercity mobility entails almost no infrastructure costs — with the collateral advantage of urban road networks being cleared for exclusive use by small ultra-light electric citycars.

    Moreover, as massively widespread individual aeromobility will imperatively call for fully automated personal aircraft — a technology which, by the way, is just about to become state-of-the-art — the same personal air vehicles will be able to serve both individual and mass transit needs, with the latter calling for formation-flying along intercity corridors, which is easy in the airspace yet impossible on the road.

    While modern avionics are ready for high-density airspace structuring and individual real-time flight-path calculation, the only known aircraft concept eligible in this respect, i. e. the tilt-rotor concept, is being withheld from the public by intentionally keeping the civil BA-609 prototype grounded in Italy because of its incapacity to sustain safe autorotation, which is mandatory for civil certification — while the NASA is right now inviting hundreds of American companies to submit proposals for the development of a variable/reversible-twist rotor blade concept needed to make the V-22 Osprey military version fit for autorotation in order for the aircraft to be affected to logistic missions by the US Army and no more exclusively for high-risk combat operations of the Airforce and the Navy, as hitherto.

    The recent sale of the civil prototype by Bell to its former civil partner Agusta Westland, under a contract securing Bell’s exclusive right to conduct further development of the BA-609, as well as to supply new components, is to be seen as the proof of denial of further development to the civil version.

    But this does not prevent variable/reversible-twist rotor blade technology from being a sleeping giant…

    • By Andrew Holland on July 13, 2012 at 10:54 am

      I, for one, am still waiting for my hoverboard, flying car, and Mr. Fusion. Back to the Future 2 said that they would be here by 2015…

      But – not to be glib – there’s lots of good ideas for both transportation and energy. The trick will be to get good ideas like this to scale.

  5. By Bob Barker on July 13, 2012 at 4:49 am

    Your lovely graphic is sadly far removed from reality. In California, you show HSR connecting Sacramento, San Francisco, LA, and San Diego by 2015. In fact, it will be 2029 before SF and LA are connected by only semi-HSR. There are no current plans to include SD and SAC. 

    It will not run at 220 mph because it will share track with commuter trains near SF and LA. 

    • By Andrew Holland on July 13, 2012 at 11:00 am

      I know – I wish. This is a map from the High Speed Rail association from a few years ago. With full funding (a lot of money) this could have happened.

      For a vision of what the government had in mind in 2009, see this document (pdf) from the Department of Transportation. 

      • By Mike on July 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

        We’ve only been talking about HSR in America for 3 years!  Give it a chance, it will happen, and we may well build the entire map as shown… it will start out behind schedule, but could easily catch up to those dates once we focus and put the full power of American ingenuity behind it.  Look how fast we built the Interstate Highway system, and that was 10 time more infrastructure than this national rail system.
        The reason we will be doing this is we are out of options as far as our current transportation systems go.  Oil prices will continue to rise, and it will continue to get more difficult to obtain the massive quantities we use daily in America to run our super inefficient transportation systems.  We will not be powering 300 million cars, and thousands of airplanes with french fry oil, biodiesel, hydrogen, algae, natural gas, or any other such fuel.  None of them can be scaled up to meet our 20 million barrels per day thirst in any economic or environmental way.  Its impossible.  But building an electric rail network and moving 300 million people is very feasible, and has been proven in country after country all over the world.  Both China and Spain have built new HSR faster than the map above shows, and they continue to do so today. 

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