The Future of Passenger Rail in America

On October 19, an Amtrak passenger train hit 111 mph in a test run on a 15-mile stretch of track between Dwight and Pontiac, Illinois. It was the first tangible return from a three-year $1.5 billion program of improvements funded under the Administration's high-speed rail initiative. The program hopes to shave about an hour off the 5 ½ hour rail trip between Chicago and St. Louis. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn who were aboard, called it a "historic" event. They were perhaps unaware, as Chicago SunTimes respected columnist Mark Brown pointed out, that "ten years ago, also on the eve of an election, the same Illinois Department of Transportation offered another demonstration along nearly the same stretch of track, also reaching 110 mph."

Setting this pre-election rhetoric aside, of President Obama’s vaunted HSR initiative that promised to connect 80 percent of Americans with high-speed rail, only two true high-speed rail projects remain.  They are the California SF-to-LA Bullet Train and the "Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor." The future of these two projects is discussed below. A condensed version of this commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 24, 2012.


High speed trains are hardly new --- they have been crisscrossing France and Japan for over 40 years. But building a nationwide high-speed rail network in America is quite a novel idea. It originated with President Obama who, on April 16, 2009, announced a plan "to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within the next 25 years." The program was seeded with an $8 billion grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), later supplemented with an additional $2.1 billion in general funds.

But this lofty and extravagant vision soon yielded to practical realities. One such reality is America’s demography. Unlike Western Europe and Japan, the United States, lacks an urban pattern that favors high-speed rail connections. This pattern requires large traffic generating city-pairs that are neither close enough to each other to favor travel by car nor far enough apart to favor travel by air. In Europe and Japan those distances happen to fall in the range of 200-400 miles (Think Paris-Lyon, 290 miles; or Tokyo-Nagoya, 220 miles). The only corridor in the United States that fits this description is the Northeast Corridor. No wonder, the Boston-to-Washington rail line has lately become a focus of high-speed rail planning.

Another reality is that true high-speed rail service requires a dedicated alignment reserved exclusively for passenger trains. Such is the case with the French TGV, the German ICE and the Japanese Shinkansen trains— as indeed, with any train that runs at top speeds of 150 miles per hour or higher. Having high-speed trains share a common track with lumbering freight trains as the Obama Administration has proposed to do, is to invite serious operational conflicts and safety problems. But dedicated rights-of-way for high speed trains require relatively straight and level alignments with minimal curvature. To assemble such rights-of-way in densely populated corridors where land holdings are highly fragmented, would be extremely costly and disruptive if not totally impossible.

Yet another reality is the uncertain prospect for further federal support. Such support is deemed essential for the future of the Administration’s HSR program (but not for the future of privately funded ventures such as the proposed Lone Star HSR line between Dallas and Houston). Congress, by denying White House requests for high-speed rail funds three years in a row, has sent a clear bipartisan signal that states should not count on continued congressional appropriations for high-speed rail. The lawmakers reaffirmed this intention by eliminating Title V of the Senate transportation bill (the National Rail System Preservation, Expansion and Development Act of 2012) from the final version of the surface transportation reauthorization (MAP-21). In the meantime, the $10.1 billion earmarked for high-speed rail has been fully committed.

In sum, high-speed rail advocates, promoters and dreamers need a triple reality check.

Improving Existing Rail Service

But this is not to say that nothing should be done to improve and expand existing passenger rail services, especially commuter rail lines serving major metropolitan areas. Even though such improvements will not result in significant travel time savings, they could lead to more efficient, frequent and reliable transportation service benefitting millions of daily commuters. In 2010, commuter rail systems across the country provided service to nearly 460 million riders.

Improving commuter rail services is indeed, the approach embraced by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Despite its avowed goal to link LA and San Francisco with high-speed trains, almost half of its initial $10 billion first stage of the project will be devoted to upgrading conventional transit and commuter rail services in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the "bookends" of the high-speed rail line, e.g. through electrification of the SF-to-San Jose Caltrain and "connectivity" improvements in LA’s Metrolink.

The dollars spent on commuter rail improvements will have "an immediate and dramatic effect" according to the Authority’s chairman, Dan Richard. Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and chairman of the Independent Peer Review Group advising the High Speed Rail Authority concurs. It will be a good investment, he said, whether or not the overall $68 billion high-speed rail project ever gets completed.

Similarly, in the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak has proposed a 30-year $151 billion capital investment program to bring true high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington DC, the initial efforts will be focused on "meaningful incremental improvements" in track, catenary and signals in the New York-to-Philadelphia corridor (the "NEC Upgrade Program"). This stretch of the line was chosen for the initial upgrade because it carries a heavy volume of local commuter traffic in addition to serving long distance trains. As in the case of California’s "bookend" improvements, the upgrades of the 90-mile NY-Philadelphia rail line will not only benefit large numbers of travelers – they also will be far more cost-effective in dollars-per-passenger terms than any eventual improvements raising line speeds over the entire Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Thus, fiscal, economic and political constraints have caused both the California Bullet Train and the Amtrak vision for the Northeast Corridor — the only two projects that have survived on the Obama Administration’s vaunted high-speed rail agenda --- to morph largely into a program of modest near-term improvements in existing commuter rail services. Lack of funds may prevent either project from achieving its avowed goal of providing true high-speed rail service--- in the case of California, reducing travel time between LA and San Francisco to two hours and forty minutes (see Note below).  To achieve it, the California project will require $68 billion; the NEC program will need $151 billion.

Is this goal even worth pursuing? Some people think so---in fact they passionately believe in it. They contend that in order to make our cities less auto-dependent we need to invest in high-speed trains. Minor upgrades in existing rail services, they argue, will not make a significant dent in auto use. But many planners beg to differ. They believe that the best chance of persuading current auto users to leave their cars at home is to improve the daily suburban rail commute. Business travelers will continue flying because they look for the fastest way to get to their destination. Families on vacation trips will not abandon their cars in favor of trains because cars offer the least costly and most convenient way to travel to holiday destinations. The only sector of the traveling public that can be influenced to shift to trains in large numbers are suburban commuters.

What of the argument that a great nation like ours---a nation that built the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System --- should continue the tradition of visionary grandiose public works.

Regretfully, both ventures have come at a most inopportune time. The nation is recovering from a serious recession and is trying to rein in the deficit and reduce the 16 trillion dollar national debt. At a more distant moment in time, when the economy is growing again and the deficit has come under control, the nation might be able to resume its tradition of pursuing "bold endeavors"---ambitious programs of federally financed public works that benefit the whole nation. When that time comes, perhaps toward the end of this decade, it might be appropriate to revive the idea of high-speed rail--- at least in the context of the densely populated Northeast Corridor where road and air traffic congestion may eventually threaten its continued growth and productivity. For now, prudence, good sense and the nation’s fiscal well-being require that we lower our sights and focus on improving commuter rail connections.


Note on the Status of the California HSR Project

There is a high likelihood that the LA-SF bullet train project will never get completed. Law suits are pending to stop construction of the first stage of the project---the Central Valley segment from Madera to Bakersfield. A motion for a preliminary injunction has been filed by Madera County, the Madera and Merced County farm bureaus and other opponents. The motion seeks to prevent the rail Authority from moving forward on the initial Madera-to-Fresno section until a trial on the lawsuit is completed. Hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for November 16.

Even if the preliminary injunction is denied, construction on the rail section will not begin until the fall of 2013 according to a legal declaration filed by the Authority in the Sacramento Superior Court. What’s more, the Madera-to-Fresno section will not be electrified before 2022 according to the rail Authority---and then only if more funds become available. Additional legal challenges are expected over the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the line. The City of Bakersfield has already announced plans to file a lawsuit contending that the Authority’s environmental impact report doesn’t meet CEQA standards. The cumulative effect of these delays has led to speculations that the Authority may not be able to complete work on the Central Valley segment by September 2017 when the federal $3 billion grant expires. And if the federal money stops flowing, who will step in to fill the gap?