The myth of "Higher Speed Rail"

"Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!"

Sir Walter Scott


Just the other day, an old head asked me to explain the difference between a streetcar and a light rail vehicle. I told him the distinction was far more aesthetic than technical.

"Light rail" is a term born of governmental bureaucracy. Developed as a marketing tool, it has ultimately become a source of confusion.

The name was originally devised because some federal planners believed "streetcar" sounded old-fashioned - and old-fashioned is the last image one might wish to convey when convincing elected officials (or taxpayers) that a proposal is not only new-and-improved, but inherently different. [More than that: once you call the new vehicle a streetcar, you've essentially admitted it was a mistake to get rid of them in the first place!]

This sums up a primary problem I have with the whole U.S. "high speed/high[er] speed" lie. Not only are those terms being used in a technically inaccurate way, they were born of the same ill-advised belief (and insulting perception) that traditional, conventional passenger trains are hopelessly old-fashioned.

Dwell on the concept of speed and always speak of "rail" instead of trains. Eventually, you may convince some that your proposal is not only "new-and-improved, but inherently different."


Higher Speed Rail - the concept, the name, the promise - is a complete fabrication! A myth! The term doesn't represent an equipment type or operational standard; rather, it is a promotional appellation which, as a matter of course, tends to over-promise and under-deliver: precisely the OPPOSITE approach most legitimate businesses wish to take when selling a product.

Sound bite solutions, as conveniently tempting as they may be, have no place in transportation planning!

The world of marketing, of course, is a different story. Therefore, if someone wants to embrace this opportunity and create a new term which means "modern passenger train," I'm willing to listen.

In the meantime, what can we do to move our presumed "passenger rail renaissance" forward? Moreover, if concepts such as "higher-speed rail" are indeed inherently flawed, what should we be touting instead?

Well, before grappling with those questions, why don't we pay a quick visit to the spectres of railroading's past?

Passenger trains in these United States - the sort of which, today, would be considered "corridor" runs - were operating at "higher-speeds" during the 1930s! Furthermore, the first passenger train to exceed 100 miles-per-hour set its record in 1893! [I understand and accept the various issues surrounding the NYC&HR's claim. Still, it's fascinating that Locomotive #999 and the Empire State Express supposedly reached 112 1/2 miles-per-hour almost 120 YEARS ago - and that its speed EXCEEDS the threshold of today's so-called "high[er]-speed rail"!]

If our "modern" proposals truly involve "higher" speeds, shouldn't we be able to accurately, precisely identify the trains they might beat in a race?! Are they the trains of recent years? Perhaps; but, certainly not trains of the pre-Amtrak era. In fact, early experiments with streamlining led to services which, due to reasons ranging from federal regulations to liability concerns, would essentially be unachievable today!

Higher speed, my foot!

Let us consider names like Zephyr and Hiawatha and Rocket and what they mean - then, these matters can be honestly discussed. My gracious; I have ridden Santa Fe's Super Chief at speeds exceeding the century mark...and I'm not THAT old!

[Well, maybe I am; but, that's not the point!]

Here in Dallas, our service to Houston was once quite enviable. Quick reading of a mid-century Guide can make a profound impression: multiple daily trains - safe, dependable, comfortable - each operating on an approximate four hour carding. Even now, such timing would be competitive with the always difficult and sometimes excruciating drive along Interstate 45. Offer such trains to an iPod and MP3 crowd, along with the current-day equivalent of traditional on-board amenities such as dining, club-lounge and parlor observation cars, and you probably couldn't schedule enough daily departures to satisfy the demand!

[Please note my use of the phrase "modern day equivalent." A secretary/stenographer might be a needless extravagance, but computer "Wi-Fi" could be immensely popular.]

Now, of course, we can only busy ourselves studying shiny "T-Bone" brochures and reading the latest government proposals, while those who would patronise the railroads find that Amtrak doesn't even offer one train at any speed between the two cities.

So, are we simply awaiting an incremental approach? Surely, I would love to see it! Someday, though, we must stop trying to take that idea too far.

"Incremental high speed rail" can be a fabulous marketing term. Alas, it carries no practical weight. Most people, seeing that phrase used in context, rightfully presume the investments they're being asked to make involve services which, given enough capital over a long enough period of time, will eventually reach the level of service and dependability as the "bullet trains" of overseas. This is not the case. No matter how much cash is poured into the infrastructure, you'll still be operating on rights-of-way originally surveyed and engineered for steam-era traffic. In fact, the vast majority of these alignments - with their curves, inner-city paths and crossings at grade - can never be made to serve as true high-speed routes (Amtrak's N.E.C. being the sole exception to date). Instead, such investments can go a long way toward proving the pubic's desire for further improvements on other alignments, including (but not limited to) full-bore H.S.R. - something I've been preaching for quite some time.

Well, what is the best solution? Understanding the danger of oversimplification (as well as planning without a budget!), my advice would be a return to what once was. Presuming the passenger train is restored as an integral part of the U.S. transportation network, the best approach I can imagine would be to reestablish as many of the main line routes and services as possible, based upon my Grid and Gateway concept (more on that later), creating what might be compared to an Interstate Highway system-style national railway network.

It won't take 110 mile-per-hour top speeds to make all this work, either. Witness the successes in places like North Carolina, Illinois, California and the Pacific Northwest! Concentrate upon removing the worst bottlenecks (slow speed areas, delay-prone interlocking plants, inadequate terminal facilities) and you'll find a far more reasonable approach to trip time efficiency. After all, Amtrak's Acela, with a top speed of 150 m/h, is greatly hampered by such slow spots - to the point where its best average terminal-to-terminal speed is but 86 m/h.

Want to attract business? Sensible speeds and frequencies combined with "set your watch by it" reliability will do it, every time!

Due to its gross misuse and imprecise application, the very term "higher speed rail" has become tainted. It is not only ultimately meaningless in itself, but has become a sign of governmental arrogance and disrespect for private enterprise.

In December of last year, I posted a column entitled "Kumbaya, y'all," in which I expressed hope that our industry could (re)learn to embrace the passenger side of this equation and work with proponents of increased/improved varnish. I envisioned a world where mutual understanding and respect could achieve great things. Instead, just over the past few weeks, we've seen representatives of our own government attack the railroads with an arrogance seldom seen since the worst days of over-regulation.

Our industry won't be taking this lying down, either...nor should they.

The Association of American Railroads has now filed a federal lawsuit against the F.R.A. over its proposed "guidelines" for implementing the Administration's "vision" (what I call "Obama Speed Rail"). According to the A.A.R., the F.R.A.'s proposals are "contrary to law" and constitute "arbitrary and capricious agency action." Pretty strong stuff!

I've heard that the BNSF, proactively, has been negotiating with the state of Washington to develop their OWN set of rules. If successful, these might serve as a national model. No matter what happens, the best solution will never be achieved through intimidation - nor by way of a public agency telling the railroads what to do.

My maternal grandfather (the original "Garl") loved to say, "I don't care what they call me, a long as they call me to dinner!"

That attitude may be pretty healthy. After all, semantics shouldn't drive the debate - and I'd rather have so-called "higher speed trains" doing what passenger trains commonly did three and four generations ago than have no trains to ride at all!

Still, honesty is the best policy...and this web that's been so haphazardly and dangerously woven would become far less tangled if we'd just let trains be trains and railroaders be railroaders - and allow conventional, traditional passenger service to do what it does best: move travelers safely, comfortably and efficiently along ribbons of steel.




  • Hi Garl,

    You are completely right about how government tangles up language, and thus tangled language betrays deeper tangles.  The problem is we are in this world shaped by the mistake 50 years ago of railroads removal from the public conversation at the time that the interstate highways were designed and free subsidized competition arose.  Without "light rail" we probably wouldn't have had the boom around the country, including DART.  Sometimes we really do have to move past something old-fashioned -- not the technology, but the perception and the conversation.  I think it took that to enable a new commitment to rail transit.  Of course you are right -- if rail played on a level playing field without government involvement in transportation policy, we wouldn't have to worry about a new government commitment to transit -- people would have the freedom to choose on their own, and they would choose rail, or at least enough would.  But as a society we are not ready to consider that.  Even modest efforts at toll roads generate huge political backlash.

  • I find it interesting that our biggest population are baby boomers and those types actually like or are endeared to some "old fashioned" things as it may bring back memories of truly "durable" goods, made in america, or other types of pride they have.

    So do we need to call it High Speed Rail to make sure all the younger folks that are into tech stuff buy into the concept?  Will Gen X, Y or whatever other names are out there, not ride the train because it seems slow and antiquated?  Do these trains need to have plug ins for tweeting, twittering, facebooking, texting, sexting, etc??

    The name Amtrak is old and moldy by now too and associated with not much positive.  So why not change it to something more catchy for the younger crowd?

    Like Garl I will step aside to let the marketing folks come up with some slick acronym or buzzword.

  • What's in a name?  Do you guys really think that a lousy train service will be used by real, live, money-paying customers just because you got rid of a musty old name?  People ride the train (most of them, anyway), fly in airplanes, or drive automobiles because in their estimation whichever method they choose suits their perceived needs for getting from where they are to where they wish to be.  It's just that simple.  Amtrak by any other name still would be Amtrak.  Amtrak needs new cars, a better route network, greater frequencies, and minor things like that.  If we had a Congress that chose (I'm not advocating, just analyzing here) to provide sufficient subsidy money I think young techies would flock to the outstanding service even if it retained the musty, old name Amtrak.

  • LK>"What's in a name?  Do you guys really think that a lousy train service will be used by real, live, money-paying customers just because you got rid of a musty old name? "

    No, but I think improvements could be overlooked because of it, yeah.

    Renaming and re-branding has sometimes shown spectacular success.  It was hard to give away china gooseberries, but kiwi fruit are sold at a premium.

    Now, if you keep the bad stuff, and just change the lable, that won't work, or at least won't work long.

  • I think, anmccaff, that you and I are saying essentially the same thing.

  • LK>"I think, anmccaff, that you and I are saying essentially the same thing."

    Sure, but so, I think, is BTTF.

  • Hi Garl

    I read your article with great interest .

    In regards to the previously existing street-car network: It would have been impossible to sustain this network to the present day.The advent of private transportation ( ie. the CAR) and the political power stemming from it caused its demise.

    One thing i suggest to cities looking at bringing back the stree-car is to see if old "Right-of-Ways" still exist. So they take a real look at what is still usable and how it can be integrated in to a new system.

    In regards to the High-Speed trains:

    I could not agree more with your findings. Ultimately Speed is an issue but it is not the most critical.

    Price, Customer Service, Convenience and most of all "BEING ON TIME" is what makes it or breaks the system.

    Lets look at a very successful example: GO-Transit in Toronto Canada provides Service right into Union Station from the East,West and North. Its a double-decker Commuter, not even high-speed(60 mph)but they experience exponential growth. Low cost,customer service,you don't have to fight the highway traffic and they are trying to have a high "On-Time" percentage.

    How do they grow their system? They began leasing time on existing freight lines, then they built their own lines beside the freight lines. Now they are taking over the freight lines and the freight railways gladly relocate out of the down-town area and run their container trains on a "City-Bypass"-Line (that's what i cal a "Win-Win)

    Will we ever see freight railway's reentering the Passenger Service? Can you imagine AMTRAK for example being bought out by BNSF and then turned into their passenger arm? Will "Carbon Credits" be the vehicle to pay for the passenger rail-service?

    Yours  Peter

  • Schnellzug:  Interesting comments from you.  I would add to your list in addition to price, customer service and on-time performance, frequency.  People would be more inclined to use passenger rail if all they had to do was go to the station knowing that another train will be along with only a reasonable wait.  That said, I chuckle at the concept that "price" is a factor to be considered.  Of course it must be considered.  Try to recover all costs of service and the price will be so high as to drive customers away.  Keep the price at levels people are willing to pay and you increase the subsidy required to maintain the service.  Catch 22.  As for BNSF buying Amtrak, don't hold your breath.  For one thing, Matt Rose isn't that foolish.  For another, U.S. law specifies that Amtrak has a monopoly on intercity rail passenger service.  Why would any profit-making company or freight railroad want to own a money-loser like Amtrak, especially when the federal government has demonstrated for more than 40 years its inability or unwillingness to fund Amtrak properly.  I always make a point of thanking European and Japanese taxpayers for subsidizing my travels when I get to ride their trains.  European and Japanese governments, of course, lose money by having me and other American tourists riding their trains.  The more of us there are, the more the losses generated.  

  • Larry, regards U.S. law & Amtrak: change the law.  This is always an argument against much of what makes common sense.  Look at U.S. census numbers & you will see the aging boomers @ 75 million strong with about 75% of the disposable income and this will be a dominant market for long distance train travel for at least 25 years.  It does not have to be "luxury travel" for these seniors, just reasonable accommodations, food, speed (want to see those grand kids), accessibility (me, climb those Superliner stairs & get into that top roomette bunk?) and reliable, on time service with reasonable frequency ( 3 days a week? give me a break). Amtrak senior management and the Board do not have an entrepreneurial bone in their collective body, the missed markets & opportunity are instead viewed as problems.  

    Subsidies for many aspects of rail service seem to be very acceptable to many voting blocks (California, Oregon,New Mexico, Texas,etc).  If the voter themselves benefits by a quick,frequent, comfortable & affordable ride to work they will act in their own best interest.

  • I wish, oamundsen, that I could be as optimistic as you appear to be.  First, there is a big difference between commuter and point-to-point rail passenger service.  The services you cite tend to be commuter services, and it is not at all surprising that voters have demonstrated their willingness to pay for that.  Simplistically, it's much more pleasant to ride a train to work than to pay the outrageous parking fees and fight the traffic by driving to work.  The only thing long-haul passenger service has in common with commuter rail service is that both rely on a 4-foot, 6-inch guage.  What you have described would be fine, but I notice you have no reference to anything but the pleasure of the trip.  It is a fact that someone must pay for the wonderful travel experience, and as I have tried to ppoint out, if you charged the cost of the service, you would price it out of reach of most potential customers.  That raises the issue: why should the society subsidize your or my travels.  Unlike getting to work, which is a necessity for most of us, traveling to see the grandkids is a matter of choice.  Please don't tell me about the subsidies that go to airlines or trucking companies.  I wrrite about them with some frequency and I'm sure we would be in agreement.  I'm being pragmatic here; those who are already subsidized are not going to give it back and the railroads are unlikely to get off-setting subsidies of their own to even things up.  Sorry for this dash of cold water, but I live in the world as it is, not as I migtht wish it to be.

  • Larry, we agree on most issues, I believe, but I think some issues can be viewed differently depending on individual backgrounds/attitudes.  My “pleasure travel” should not be subsidized even though the argument for getting many tax breaks for business development argue that the collateral employment, taxes on earnings, improved infrastructure, etc will in the long term benefit everyone.  Recent studies of the spin off benefits to communities along improved passenger lines show positive, diverse benefits.  Subsidies such as done by North Carolina for instance, while benefiting long distance business travelers, provide a travel option to the pleasure traveler as well: my recent trip on two of those trains (both sold out) showed this clearly to me as I traveled from Penn Station to Charleston and returned from Smithfield to Penn Station.  “Multiple motivation/ multiple origin & destination” travelers can fill a train load of revenue!  But, the trains must have capacity so a last minute business traveler can grab a seat, and they  must have adequate frequency so said travelers’ business driven schedules can be accommodated.  This could be one reason people from Toledo who want to do a show and some shopping in Chicago on a weekend find it hard to get aboard the Lake Shore at 6 am and return at 2:30 am!  So, frequency and flexibility are pretty critical to success for multi city runs.  

    It is a stretch to categorize such trains as the state subsidized runs in North Carolina, Vermont, California, Oregon/Washington, Michigan, Maine, etc as “commuter” trains even though they haul many people on daily trips for business; they also haul “pleasure travelers,” shoppers, persons going for medical care, etc. Ride the Empire Builder and meet people traveling between cities for just those reasons.  There exist, I believe, models which demonstrate clearly the revenue benefits of such mixed use of a long distance train, if done with efficient/effective schedules and adequate equipment.  My criticism of Amtrak on this score is boundless; they have not figured out how to obtain more cars to improve both frequency and capacity, it is interesting to see that North Carolina, for instance, is running refurbished equipment apparently obtained on the free market.  Perhaps what is needed is some creative thinking on Amtrak’s part to better frame their contracts with other entities allowing for alternative ownership/leasing of  equipment.  Another major part of Amtrak’s equipment problem is poor maintenance:  VIA is proudly running 60 year old Budd built equipment on its premier train and even giving their cars what I believe is their third overhaul rather than disposing of them as Amtrak seems to do.  

    In a previous comment, I expressed my opinion that a major lack in Amtrak senior management and board is an “entrepreneurial” attitude.  This is, I believe, at the heart of the matter.  Instead of seeing its environmental landscape as overflowing with opportunity, it only sees problems.  There is an endless supply of problems in life but, if  one has a “can do” attitude to follow a positive vision of what you are about, the problems appear insignificant.  I just saw an interview with the CEO of Lincoln Electric, which has a 100 % policy of never laying off employees. Asked how they managed this in tough times, he replied: “ Once you decide that this is what you are going to do, you figure out a way to do it.” (paraphrased)  There is no reality, only attitude.

  • OA>"In a previous comment, I expressed my opinion that a major lack in Amtrak senior management and board is an “entrepreneurial” attitude.  This is, I believe, at the heart of the matter.  Instead of seeing its environmental landscape as overflowing with opportunity, it only sees problems."

    A real part of this is that identified problems can lead to inadequate, grudging funding, while opportunities can lead to no funding at all.

  • Without either defending or condemning Amtrak's management and board, I suggest we keep in mind that for the 39 years that Amtrak has existed, it has been on starvation rations from the Congress and several Administrations.  No management can perform well if it is denied the financial resources necessary to provide quality service.  Also, the Amtrak board is made up of representatives, not of entrpreneurial leaders.  That is, its board members represent interests not themselves.  There are board members representing the interests of labor, of states, of big cities, of small cities, of other constituencies.  About the only constituency not represented is passengers.  Anyone see anything wrong with this?

  • Vacation last week - sorry for late reply.  I was a little tongue in cheek with my earlier reply.

    Maybe like the marketing folks have to work through "New Improved Tide."  Yes it's laundry soap and washes your clothes.  But we can't say the "old" Tide sucked and really wasn't as we marketed it.  It's and improved.  Improved by/with what doesn't matter.

    Maybe Amtrak with a '~' over one of the letter a's will make it noveau.

  • Interesting discussion.  For the record our track gauge is 4' 8.5".  I apologize in advance for the long-winded post.

    I have a technical background (railway infrastructure) and I try to approach discussions from that perspective.

    I find the discussions related to competing subsidized modes of transportation particularly interesting. Privately owned freight railways compete with trucking companies running on gov't provided and maintained infrastructure. Fair enough. Let's consider the current level of passenger rail service for a moment.  While the running of passenger trains on existing freight corridors presumably limits freight capacity, the private operator is compensated to some extent.  Let's assume for the moment that the amount of compensation related to freight capacity reduction, given the current infrequent service levels, is relatively small.  In my opinion, the arguments regarding additional maintenance costs related to passenger train operations, operating at current speeds, are weak.  The net contribution (by Amtrak trains) to annual accumulated tonnages on a given line is insignificant.  While Amtrak locomotives do impart a significant axle load, the trailing passenger cars do not.  In my opinion, Amtrak operations on many of the existing lines with infrequent service, and at current speeds, do not amount to any measurable wear on the physical plant owned by the host railroad.  OK.  So if we assume that the compensation required to offset lost freight capacity is small, the required compensation for infrastructure maintenance is low, then we have to assume that a bulk of Amtrak's expenses are operating. Assume all of the arguments related to the differences in efficiencies between moving freight on rail as opposed to road only at apply par for moving passengers. Finally to the question.  Why can't a private company that runs buses across this vast country (at prices competitive or better than passenger train service), do something similar with passenger trains?  Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that passenger rail service in the U.S. needs subsidy.  I'm just not totally convinced that the existing service is being operated in the most efficient manner, all things considered.