How To Build a National High Speed Rail system

(1 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

… A Four Step Program

Step 1. Give states a framework to develop plans, either individually or in groups, and present them to the Federal government for vetting, approval, and funding support.

Step 2. States do that.

Step 3. Fund a substantial number of seed corridors, so that a large number of metro areas (House) and States (Senate) have a stake in maintaining ongoing Federal HSR funding.

Step 4. Keep funding the construction of more.

That is my plan. But, OTOH, I’m just an obscure Development Economist with a field specialization in Regional Economics, so the fact that its my plan is neither here nor there.

More newsworthy, it seems to be the plan of the Obama administration. So, unlike the Bank Bail-out, I find myself on the “cheerleader” side of Administration activity.

Give Me an H! Give Me an S! Give Me an R! What’s It Spell? One Piece of the Energy Independent Transport Puzzle! YEAH!!!!

Wait a minute, what about the network map?

What about it? You want a network map, here’s a network map:

That from a crude spreadsheet of pairs of 1m+ metro areas within a line-of-sight radius for Express HSR, based on geometric mean population per mile. Its main flaws, of course, are lack of detailed knowledge of local conditions … for example, the Pacheco Alignment selected for the California HSR system, with HSR train running up the Caltrain Corridor from San Jose to San Francisco, has the impact on an HSR service of making San Jose and San Francisco into a single destination zone from Southern California, and adjusting for that adjustment would make for a much stronger corridor between LA and the BAY.

But, that’s the point of the strategy, above. Those dots and lines are not a corridor map, they are a service map. One strong network economy of HSR is the ability to provide multiple trip-pair services on a single train with far less difficulty than an airplane.

Here is the (newly buffed and polished) Department of Transportation map of the corridors that have already won designation for development of HSR systems:

These corridors are shown laid out over a ghost of the existing Amtrak intercity network, which is reasonable since connection to existing passenger rail service is one of the criteria for designation.

They are not a design for a future HSR network. What they are is the result of the pieces of the four part strategy that were already in place. To make a long story short, we had everything in the above strategy except the money.

IOW, Shorter Obama: “High Speed Rail makes sense. Let’s take our HSR plans and start funding them”.

zOMG, some of those are not Bullet Trains! MASSIVE FAIL

There is some hyperventilating about the fact that many of the systems being talked about receiving funding are not going to be among the fastest trains on the face of the earth.

This hyperventilation is based on a fundamental misconception about how HSR works.

High Speed Rail does not work by being the fastest mode of transport on the planet. The fastest mode of transport on the planet is the Rocket. After that the Supersonic Plane. After that regular Jet Aircraft … which, should be noted, is the mode that has commercial passenger operations … then short-haul commuter jets, then prop planes, then … I’m not sure what is next. Sooner or later we get to bullet trains.

High Speed Rail works be being fast enough so that it can offer competitive trip speeds, and then leveraging the other competitive advantages of rail over air and car transport to carve out a successful market niche.

How fast is fast enough depends on the distance between two cities.

Outside of congested areas, conventional rail cannot compete for speed against cars on the Interstate Highway system, so for most of the country, conventional rail relies entirely on its other competitive advantages in order to attract patronage … not everyone has a car, some people dislike driving and view it as a tedious chore, on a train you can watch a movie on a portable DVD player or get work done on a laptop, there are some (mostly urban) destinations where having a car is a pain rather than a benefit, etc.

For conventional rail with conventional signaling and running over conventional level crossings, Federal Railroad Administration regulations typically mandate a top speed of 79mph. Add in slow zones for curves, station stops, etc., and conventional rail is only faster than the Interstate in congested areas.

Raise the top speed to 110mph and the effective trip speed to the 80mph-90mph range, and for most non-insane drivers a train trip begins to be faster than driving. This is the “Emerging HSR” class of HSR. When you take an existing rail corridor and upgrade it to take faster than conventional trains, this is the first step up from there. 110mph here is a limit for a specific class of upgraded level crossings.

Raise the top speed to 125mph and the effective trip speed to the 90mph to 110mph range, and for all non-insane drivers, a train trip of 2 to 3 hours begins to be significantly faster than driving. This is the “Regional HSR” class of HSR. 125mph here is the limit for trains relying on conventional signaling with lights and information next to the track … beyond 125mph, signals have to be brought into the cab.

Most of the planned corridors on the DoT map above are Emerging HSR corridors … and by the same token, since they were the ones that states took seriously enough to push through the process, they are mostly strategic enough corridors that they are likely to end up as Regional HSR corridors.

For many metro areas trip pairs, an effective trip speed of 100mph, which is a radius of 300mph, is fast enough to bring trips down to 3 hours or less. For others, its not. For Cleveland/Cincinnati, Regional HSR is certainly “High Speed Enough”. For the LA Basin to the Bay Area, Regional HSR is not “High Speed Enough”.

And that brings the final class of HSR, “Express HSR”, also known as bullet trains. This is the class which would be referred to as HSR basically anywhere in the world. It requires all grade separated corridors … 200mph is too fast to take across a level crossing, no matter how “hardened” the crossing may be. It requires that the track be banked for operation far above the speeds of normal container freight cars. It requires an ability to broadcast signals into the driver cabs of the trains. It requires broader, more sweeping turns than conventional rail. In order to keep the mass down and the driving energy up, it essentially requires an all-electrified corridor.

It is, in other words, not an incremental upgrade to an existing rail corridor. It might use an appropriate existing rail Right of Way, but it would use that right of way as a location to lay new bullet train tracks. And its not uncommon for bullet train systems to use the margins of rural and suburban Expressways for their Right of Way.

Fighting HSR Segregation

Now, assuming good design, you get what you pay for. Or as a programmer I am acquainted with writes, “Good, Fast, Cheap … pick any Two out of Three”.

The danger in providing only Express HSR funding is that an Express HSR corridor is expensive. Not every part of the country will find it possible to justify the required state contribution.

That means that if we segregate Express HSR out as the “only true and holy” HSR, we leave it politically exposed to counterattack in the areas that are left out.

And where, precisely, is left in? Well, California has passed $9b in state bond funding for a California HSR system that is Express HSR. The Northeast Corridor is the only place in the country that has established a “Regional HSR” system (though because it is operating in such a congested rail corridor with substantial legacy constraints, it operates in effect as an Emerging HSR system).

Florida and Texas have at various times flirted with bullet train systems … indeed, a Governor Bush helped kill the flirtation in both instances.

Anyway, California, and the Northeast Corridor. That’s it.

Now, instead of fighting over the “true and holy meaning of HSR”, suppose that all of the systems that met the original Department of Transportation HSR corridor designation are given a definition as a “class of” HSR.

Now you have Southeastern Corridor, the Gulf Corridor, the Empire and Keystone corridors, the Ohio Hub, the Midwest Hub, possibilities for Emerging HSR corridor development in Texas, the Cascade Corridor in the Pacific Northwest, the New England Corridor connecting into the NEC. Add to that the Front Range corridor presently in early exploratory stages, and there is a massive footprint … in total number of beneficiary states, for the Senate, in metro populations served, for the House, and even in terms of Swing States, for Presidential Politics.

And unlike bullet train corridors, those are systems that can have their foundation corridors built and put into operation in five years or less, which means corridors that can see ground broken before 2012 and passengers being served before the 2014 midterm elections.

Express and Regional HSR Should Be Friends

When built out, one way that Express HSR and Regional HSR work together is by sharing transfer passengers.

However, by electrifying the Regional HSR line, the Express HSR train can also simply continue on the Regional HSR to a destination that is off the HSR corridor.

So consider the following Express HSR alignment: New York City directly through northern Pennsylvania to North Central Ohio to Fort Wayne Indiana and on to Chicago.

“But it doesn’t go to…” is the first reaction. If I set out that map, then assuming anyone was reading, the reaction would be to point out all the places it does not go. But that is ignoring the Midwest and Ohio Hubs. Which is a silly thing to do. Consider the following (note that this is from the Ohio Hub site … it does not include the entire Midwest Hub, but only the eastern corridors … the Midwest Hub does actually extend from the Great Lakes into the Midwest proper):

Only the far western stretch of that bullet train alignment appears in this map …

… but from where it crosses the “Pittsburgh to Cleveland via the Rail Line I Cycle Commute Over” alignment, a bullet train can run from New York City to Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit, from where it crosses the Triple-C from New York City to Columbus to Cincinnati (and likely on to Louisville and Memphis).

… from Chicago, Chicago to the Triple C to Buffalo and Albany, Chicago to the Cleveland / Pittsburgh corridor to Pittsburgh / Harrisburg / Philadelphia, as well as after upgrading the Pittsburgh / DC alignment, Chicago / Pittsburgh / DC.

That is, after all, how it is done overseas … quite a large number of the French TGV routes, for instance, keep going for quite a way beyond the end of the bullet train corridor. In the map to the right, grey lines are TGV’s running on conventional French rail corridors … which, because of the differences between European and American rail systems, could be considered to be running on “Regional HSR” lines.

Indeed, much of the French TGV system was built in stages, with individual segments of a corridor brought into service on completion, with each segment reducing the travel time on that corridor until all bullet train corridors are completed.

Anyway, that’s how to build a HSR system

It doesn’t actually matter whether someone is an “Amtrak incrementalist”, a “Rapid Rail advocate”, or a “HSR advocate” … its the same plan.

Which is why its not big deal if “Emerging HSR” and “Regional HSR” is not what some Europeans would call “Real HSR”. Now that we have the blueprint, we have the language to say “Express HSR” when we mean bullet trains, “Regional HSR” when we mean full fledged Rapid Rail, and “Emerging HSR” when we mean turbocharged conventional rail corridors with plans to build toward full fledged Rapid Rail.

Its a natural coalition of interests, which is a durable foundation for a political coalition among the supporters of the full range of systems.

Those of us living in flyover country no that this is not really building the “Regional HSR” in the outback … but we do need to be building systems between the Appalachians and the Rockies if we want the robust political coalition that will allow the building of ten and twenty year infrastructure projects in the new century ahead.


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  1. BruceMcF

    … some good news an another front is welcome relief.

  2. theevolutionarysieve

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