New Report Maps a High-Speed Rail Link For Every Major U.S. City

HS.png(Image: U.S. PIRG)

Now that the Obama administration has awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to more than two dozen states, with $2.5 billion more coming soon, why not keep thinking big when it comes to bullet-train expansion?

That’s the ethos of a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) calling for a New Deal-like public works juggernaut that would eventually connect all major cities located within 100 and 500 miles of each other. For a look at how such a system would remake the American rail map, check out the image above.

"The first step in building the network is to set a national goal
with an ambitious time frame, just like we did for the Interstate
Highway System or getting to the moon," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall wrote in a blog post unveiling the report. "We can link all our major cities
by 2050, if we set our minds to it."

Given the political wrangling over the deficit that continues to paralyze Washington, however, it’s worth asking how an ambitious rail program would be funded. The U.S. PIRG answers that question in several ways: First, the group calls for a dedicated revenue stream for inter-city passenger rail in the next long-term transportation bill, with local investments matched by the federal government in the same 80:20 ratio that highway plans receive.

"By financing transportation projects equitably," the report’s authors write, "states will be able to make rational transportation decisions based on the needs of their residents, rather than on the chances of securing a lucrative federal match."

Secondly, the U.S. PIRG aims to put government support for Amtrak — often derided by conservatives for its reliance on federal subsidies that also benefit road projects — in perspective. When evaluated as a share of U.S. GDP, government investment of passenger rail looks stunningly low compared with other industrialized nations. The imbalance is visible in the chart below:

chart_2.png(Chart: U.S. PIRG)

From the U.S. PIRG report:

To begin to dig out of that hole, the federal government should invest steadily increasing levels of funding in passenger rail. We probably cannot hope to match the $300 billion China will be investing in its high-speed rail system between now and 2020, but we should endeavor to match the level of investment provided by other industrialized nations, as a share of GDP, in their rail networks.

The group does not address the lingering debate over whether all planned U.S. inter-city rail projects can truly be called "high-speed" given that many would achieve maximum speeds little better than 110 miles per hour. Still, its vision of finishing the job begun by the White House this year is likely to fire up rail advocates and give helpful new tools to local planners.

  • While high-speed rail advocates have been disappointed by the Administration’s selections because few of the projects offer the promise of true high-speed service — even the Florida project is not expected to attain European-like average high speeds according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL)— the Administration’s decision to fund upgrades of rail infrastructure in as many as 13 different rail corridors make good sense, and not just politically but also policywise.

    True “high speed” service (as that term is used in Europe and the Far East, i.e. top speeds of 150 mph and higher) would require separating freight and passenger traffic and that means building entirely new rail infrastructure in dedicated rights-of-way— something that is clearly not within the scope of a $8 billion program. The final price tag for California’s complete high-speed rail system could reach $60 to $80 billion and a recent Government Accountability Office report cites a range of construction costs for high-speed rail from $22 million/mile to $132 million/mile. Setting one’s sights on dedicated high-speed lines makes the $8 billion look like a drop in the bucket.

    In the meantime, with railroads expected to assume an ever growing share of intercity freight transport, upgrading infrastructure in existing rail corridors has become an urgent necessity. Since nearly all of Amtrak’s passenger trains run on rail lines owned by freight railroads, such improvements will also benefit passenger traffic. In most corridors, track and signaling upgrades on existing shared passenger/freight lines would permit raising speeds to 90-100 mph from today’s 60-80 mph, according to railroad experts.

    To be sure, a strong case can be made that true high-speed rail service will eventually be necessary between major city-pairs separated by less than 300 miles to relieve unacceptable levels of highway and air traffic congestion. But building a national network of dedicated high-speed rail lines from scratch will require decades of a sustained national commitment, spanning many administrations. There is no assurance that future presidents and future Congresses will share President Obama’s and Secretary LaHood’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail. Hence, whether the $8 billion is a first modest down payment on a multi-generational commitment to create a national high-speed rail system, or whether it is simply a commendable one-time policy initiative that will substantially benefit freight railroads but probably only marginally improve passenger rail service, only the future will tell.


    “To call the $8 billion rail program “high-speed” is clearly a misnomer. Only one of the 30 projects –the California LA-to-San Francisco corridor –has the potential for true high speed service as that term is used in the rest of the world, i.e. average speeds of 150 mph and higher. The Florida Tampa-to-Orlando project is expected to operate at average speeds of 86 mph, and the Chicago-to-St Louis at 71 mph, according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL). All the remaining projects can best be described as upgrades of existing rail infrastructure that will at best result in moderate increases in average speeds.
    “Revising the definition of “high-speed rail” downward may be good public relations but it will not change the reality of the modest improvements in service that will be experienced by future rail users.”

    From the National Journal Transportation blog, February 4, 2010

    Ken Orski, Publisher, Innovation NewsBriefs
    celebrating our 21st year of publication)

  • jim

    “But building a national network of dedicated high-speed rail lines from scratch will require decades of a sustained national commitment, spanning many administrations.”

    Perhaps, but a great deal could be done by one administration. The $8B HSIPR ARRA funds were described as a down-payment on the Midwest (Chicago and Ohio hubs), the Pacific Northwest, California, Florida and SEHSR. To fund building those projects out would require HSIPR appropriations on the order of $7B/yr through FY2017. Add a separate multi-year appropriation for Amtrak to fund its rolling stock replenishment plan and the forthcoming NEC Master Plan, the required commitment would still be something less than $10B per year. That would build something like 60% of USPIRG’s (rather timid) map. It wouldn’t include the Kansas-Oklahoma-Texas corridor, nor the pair of lines crossing at Atlanta, nor the Raleigh-Savannah-Jacksonville East Coast corridor. Nor would it cover the Western complex: El Paso-Albuquerque-Denver-Salt Lake-Reno-Las Vegas-Phoenix. But it would cover most everything else.

    But such a commitment would require that President Obama and Secretary LaHood actually did have enthusiasm for high speed rail. Since their 2011 budget recommends just $1B for HSIPR, we may assume they don’t.

  • Mtn Doc

    What’s most egregious about all this banter about high speed rail is that the admininstration is throwing good money after bad – if the freight rail system needs to be upgraded, then let the freight companies pay for it – or did we all collectively and conveniently forget about the great land grab that occurred when the rail lines first went in – the reason that passenger service takes a back seat to freight is because the freight companies OWN the rails, not the federal government! But if we truly want high speed rail, why are we wasting time talking about even trying to run hihg speed rail on freight lines. People wnat to go where the interstates now go, not where the freight lines now run.

    So if we really are serious about a new high speed rail network for the US, why aren’t we looking at a 21st century technology that will accommodate steep grades and tight curves? Why are we insisting on deploying a 19th century technology, even if it is on steroids. Why can’t FRA even contemplate a maglev system, just look at the successful operation of the Shanghai line in China (and for those engineers who are stuck in the 19th century – the cost of the Shanghai line was almost totally due to its construction in an alluvial plain). Whatever happened to that can-do spirit of Americans? Are we so far removed from the “We will put a man on the moon by the end of this decade” era, and so selfish, self-centered and greedy that we don’t recognize what benefits regions ultimately benefits the whole nation?


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