Saturday, June 6, 2015

The State(s) of High-Speed Rail in America

Five years ago, when Recovery Act funding was made available for high-speed rail (HSR) in several states, all but one of them declined the money. That lone holdout was California, and as a result it quickly became the state most closely associated with HSR in America. Construction on a line connecting Sacramento to Los Angeles began earlier this year, but by the time it's complete in 2029 it may no longer be the first of its kind.

Over the past several months, a number of other states - from Texas to Florida to Pennsylvania - have started flirting with the idea of building HSR in their own states. These projects are, for the most part, much smaller in scale than California's, thus making them cheaper and faster to build, but most are far from being implemented anyway. But in the case of Texas and Florida, the states have already been able to leverage private financing - something conspicuously absent from California's HSR budget - and may be on their way to cutting the Golden State in line for First in Nation.


"Dallas - Houston in under 90 minutes!" That's the tagline of Texas Central Partners, a for-profit company at the helm of bringing HSR to Texas. Its project would connect two of the state's largest cities without a dollar of taxpayer investment. The 240-mile track would finish construction in six years. Importantly, the 205-mile-per-hour trains would be modeled after Japan's shinkansen trains, a tried-and-true design from a nation with about as few derailments as you can get.

That the line would be funded solely by private investment is fascinating when compared to California's struggle to find a single dollar of private money. But as Fortune points out, it isn't immediately clear how profitable HSR will be here in the states; it may turn out that these private companies will also have to invest in developing the land around the stations in order to benefit financially from that transit-oriented development.


America's other privately-funded HSR line, All Aboard Florida, could begin operating as early as 2017. While that sounds exciting, curb your enthusiasm: the Miami-to-Orlando line will only reach a maximum speed of 125 mph, which is lower than Amtrak's Acela Express's maximum speed of 150 mph. And with an average speed of 81 mph, it'll be faster than Acela's average speed of 68 mph, but it still seems like a cop-out to me. The Miami Herald has an article about a new report analyzing likely ridership and ticket sales revenue that's worth looking at.

New England 

I've stated before that Amtrak's Northeast Corridor lines are their only profitable ones, the revenues from which often cross-subsidize its long-haul routes. Indeed, the Acela Express and Northeast Regional lines are quite popular, particularly among Congress's Northeastern lawmakers. Amtrak now wants to go faster, particularly from New York City to Boston; it says it can make the trip in as little as three hours if it can cut through central Connecticut, rather than having to travel the coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island and then up to Boston.

But that's where it gets tricky, and political: Amtrak's proposal calls for no stops in Connecticut, which not only fails to tap the state's commuters who are sick to death of Metro-North, but would also mean that Amtrak would be claiming right of way through the state - potentially over 50 miles of it, seizing property and kicking people out of their home - without bringing any of the benefit of HSR to the state. Several of Connecticut's lawmakers of note have already come out against this plan, so it will be interesting to see where it goes.

Another important note about this project is that, because Amtrak gets its funding from the federal government, any investment in a new NYC-Boston line will more likely than not require federal funding. And Amtrak's relationship with Congress is mediocre at best, particularly in the wake of the derailment in Pennslyvania.

Speaking of which...


Pennsylvania has a complicated relationship with rail. Tracks are owned by a few different companies - Amtrak being one of them - and a lot of it goes unelectrified and, as a result, unused. Amtrak operates rail between Philadelphia and Harrisburgh and, once a day, as far west as Pittsburgh. The train trip actually takes several hours longer than driving the same distance for a variety of reasons - most notably the mountainous terrain and the sharing of track with slow freight trains - that require it to travel at an almost humorous 45 mph.

PennDOT completed a study for the Federal Railroad Administration last year which offered a menu of different options for increasing speeds and frequency of trips. The cheapest option just electrifies the current unused rail, while the most expensive (but safest) option calls for building all new tracks and trains. It's uncertain whether last month's derailment in the state will create momentum for investing in new rail, or scare them out of rail altogether.


Amtrak operates a rail line between Chicago, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri, and the state of Illinois is hoping to make better use of this track. But in order to compete with air and road travel, the trains will need to go faster. And really, they'll pretty much have to: the trains apparently travel even slower today than then did in the 1930's, so there's sort of nowhere to go but up.

In another case of "how slow can high-speed rail get," Illinois DOT envisions a 110-mph train connecting the two cities. This will mostly be accomplished by adding a second track, as the Lincoln Service line currently has just one, along with several improvements to the existing one. The state DOT is confident it can reduce the nine-hour travel time between terminals by an hour by 2017.


Minnesota is looking to connect its Twin Cities to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Chicago to better connect itself to other economic centers in the region. At 417 miles, this is one of the longer lines on the list, and also one of the least far along; in 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration selected its preferred route, and not much has happened since then. The state legislature is currently considering legislation to appropriate funding for the project, but at up to $7 billion per mile of track, it's going to be a big investment. Like the California project, there doesn't seem to be much private interest yet.

And again, it will only go 110 mph. I'm starting to think we need some new terminology to distinguish high-speed rail from simply "faster than what we already have."


So there you have it: the current status of several HSR projects across the country. While California's gets the most attention (and thus the most scrutiny), it's interesting to see there are ongoing projects elsewhere in the country that may in fact be open while California's still laying track. While President Obama's dream of a network of HSR connecting all corners of the country may remain just that - a dream - there seems to be momentum towards faster rail service that didn't exist just five years ago.

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