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.




  • First, I certainly know that the track gauge in this country is 4' 8.5 inches.  I plead "fat finger syndrome" for my error.

    "Blaine, I think your discussion is interesting, but the Amtrak payment to freight railroads is based on avolidable cost, an accounting method that is pretty universally accepted in the railroad industry.  The act that created Amtrak also requires that host railroads give preference to Amtrak trains.  That may sound simple, but if you have an 18-car Amtrak that has to pass or be passed by a 135-car coal train, you either have to put capital into sidings you might not have lengthened except for the passenger train's needs.  Congress doesn't provide the capital that Amtrak is required by law to spend as its share of railroad capital expenditures that benefit Amtrak and that they might not spend if they didn't have Amtrak trains and their needs.  

    And, yes, if the airlines paid their full cost allocation for airports and airways management, their fares would be higher. That still does not mean Amtrak, or a successor entity, would suddenly have so many passengers paying so much per ticket that rail passenger service suddenly would become profitable.  Sorry for another dose of reality.

  • Larry,

    I suspected you knew the proper number for gauge, but we can't always be sure all readers know the same.  

    Are you suggesting then, that the bulk of the need for Amtrak subsidy is related to the payments Amtrak makes to host railroads?  And that a majority of the amount included in these payments is meant to essentially mitigate reduced freight capacity?  I'm not an operations person so I don't have a feel for related costs.

    Thanks for your reply.

  • I'm obviously not an operations person, either, Blaine, but that doesn't keep me from having opinions, some strongly held.  I don't believe the Amtrak subsidy number is tied as specifically to the factors causing its losses as you might wish.  For accounting purposes, Amtrak can - or should be able to - tell you what the operating losses are for each of its trains.  Its subsidy request of Congress each year is based, I believe, on its total revenue minus its total loss, with some additional amount thrown in for intended capital expenditures such as new locomotives, cars, an occasional station project, etc.  Its payments to the host railroads is based on avoidable loss, which is close to if not identical to operating loss.  That is the loss that would not be experienced if the train were not operated, hence "avoidable."  I don't believe there is a meaningful calculation of reduced freight capacity.  At the present time and current level of service, there isn't much of that.  Under the law that created Amtrak, if a capital expenditure were necessary for Amtrak's operation, Amtrak has the obligation of paying for that.  

    Time now for my repeated rant.  Amtrak is operationally and financially a mess.  That's mostly because Congress is dishonest about rail passenger service, the need for subsidies, and its willingness to appropriate the subsidies.  I believe that's because Congress never has looked at the fundamental issue: how much rail passenger service does the U.S. need and how much will that cost?  Instead, it postures about "socialism" and bad management, allowing the libertarians among us to bray about wasting taxpayer dolloars, blah, blah, blah.  Meanwhile, we have the RAILWAYISTs and others like him who cannot even pronounce the word "economics" much less understand it.  They would have passenger trains running all over the place with great frequency, convinced that we can solve our energy dependence issues with passenger trains.  Remember, they never offer in their frequent blog posts any recognition that these things cost money or where that money will come from. Hey, it's not theirs' why worry about it?  Off the soap box now and on to some worthwhile activities.