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The future of high-speed rail

Editors' Posts

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The future of high-speed rail

  • It's been nearly four years since President Obama laid out his vision for high-speed rail in the United States. Political infighting and funding issues since have altered that vision a bit, but that doesn't mean high-speed rail is a dead issue. Rather, it's more likely that slow and steady progress will be made on various intercity passenger-rail corridors to accommodate higher-speed trains, as HNTB Corp. High-Speed Rail Services Chair Peter Gertler wrote in a guest column featured in Progressive Railroading's January issue. For more on Gertler's thoughts on how high-speed rail might evolve, click here.

  • High speed rail in America is certainly an issue of huge debate. With an accent on the word debate, as progress has not elevated much beyond that. The California hs-rail movement is the most forward moving in our country at this time. Even the CHSRA progress has been beset by errors and advancement. Of main concern to professionals, as myself, is the authority of overview in management of hs-rail planning and eventually assembly in the US. Most recently in California the union organization of state engineers has expressed caution in the way build plans have been set-up. There is attention that the system regarding construction be monitored for absolute quality in plan and construction. This is a new twist, as it reveals a disconnect between state engineering and the partially independent group called CHSRA. With the importance of high technology planning and assembly of a genuine hs-rail infrastructure there can be no disconnects.

    The general populous must be educated also! What is being constructed out of the Chicago railroad hub now is just simply a mild increase in speeds called, "faster rail". In definition this is speeds up to 110-mph, achieved by current conventional diesel powered trainsets. Real high-speed rail is internationally guaged by speeds at 186-mph and above. The French TGV lines currently have the world speed record of 357.2-mph! That's fast, and that is genuine hs-rail, even though that trainset used for the run was a special prototype designed and manufactured by Alstom just for future research, and a speed record. In America we don't know how fast operations will be, as we don't have one mile of hs-railroad built! And no operating passenger equipment even on display!

    As an educated observer of infrastructure design, plan and construction I feel we are at a point of way to much conversation and convention. Conference upon conference, research group upon research group, talk upon talk has taken plance without any visible progress. Leadership has been missed. We're still trying to find the best "quarterback" to make the plays for hs-rail. It takes a complete engineering plan, not small sections spliced together across a state. It takes the proper sized high-speed passenger train on display to get public attention. The train depicted in CHSRA annimation publicity video from about 10 years ago is already obsolete! Fact is; we don't have a definition of exactly what hs-rail will look like or operate as. Faster progress would be to let our nation's excellent and state-of-the-art freight railroads be consulted about hs-rail and how this operation would best fit into their future plans.

    Witness the fact that our government has distributed billions so far in hs-rail stimulus funding; but not one foot of genuine hs-rail track has ever been put in place!

  • As for railroad participation, UP seems to have been clear about not wanting Amtrak or hsr on their right of way - state services such as in California, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri are more welcome for a price.

    It seems that by the time a step is about to be taken, politics intervenes as has been the case in California and more recently in Iowa and Wisconsin.  Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, Missouri, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Maine have moved ahead, even if baby steps.

  • Too often advocates complain about lack of progress on HSR; but we forget that this was driven by restrictive capacity caps that would not allow service expansion where over a hundred trains a day were running on the existing line.  Where there are over a hundred trains a day, it's a safe bet that people will ride a high-speed line and justify the public's investment.  Proposals in the US are made where current passenger service is minimal or non-existent.  

    The California situation is unique in that a gap in passenger service exists between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.  The worst bottleneck preventing through service is at Tehachapi Pass where every day 50 or so freights toil up the grade and around slow curves on a single track.  Yet there are sixteen daily train-bus services between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.  Six daily round trips are made between Northern California and Bakersfield with bus connections to Los Angeles; and another four daily round trips are made from San Diego to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo with bus connections to San Jose and Oakland and Caltrain connections at San Jose to San Francisco.  The demand is there for a new line; and it doesn't cost that much more to be built to high speed standards as the Japanese and French realized with their ground-breaking high-speed lines.

    I think the incremental approach taken in the Midwest is appropriate and works well.  The $2 billion cost for CHI-STL for 110-mph operation for 9 round trips would be doubled for 150-mph while just doubling the number of trains and riders.  This is still the slow way to Kansas City; but I see opportunities for expansion of services beyond Saint Louis to Tulsa and Memphis that will be more attractive with the 2-hr saving to Saint Louis.

    The Midwest High Speed Rail Assn published a paper this week urging more long-distance trains based on the higher utilization and links between major and minor markets.  I see the need for additional long-distance trains in the role as starters for regional corridor improvements, especially between the East Coast, Midwest, and Gulf.  

    The major sticking point is that railroads down-sized capacity in an era of decline with the building of the Interstate Highway System; and following deregulation have grown traffic beyond the bursting point to where a second or third main track has been restored or added.  Railroads are reluctant to allow even one passenger train without substantial capacity improvement, even where added capacity may be needed for current and anticipated freight traffic.  The reality is that most Amtrak long-distance trains average only around 50 mph overall with intermediate station stops; so they actually might slow intermodal trains rather than catch up!  Railroads may argue the desire for a one-speed railroad; but that isn't realistic with the mix of intermodals, unit commodities, and restricted equipment such as empty bulkhead flatcars.  Conversely, a slower passenger schedule might be a way to accommodate a rudimentary service expanding the network and accessibility.