Thinking Big: What About an Interstate Rail System?

With all the billions of dollars rolling around the headlines lately, it’s not surprising that some of the Streetsblog Network members are thinking big. The Transport Politic, for instance, today presents a grand vision for an interstate rail system:

rail_network6.jpg[It] would have an emphasis on connecting destinations separated by 500 miles or less; for such distances, high-speed rail outpaces airplanes and in other countries has commanded up to 80% of the market share on such routes.

Yonah Freemark, the blog’s author, acknowledges the enormity of the project, but points out that there’s a precedent:

Such a system would require an active federal government funding an expensive national system, maintaining its infrastructure, and running its trains. Our government is currently not capable of doing as much, but with a defined vision such as this — to provide rail service to all of the nation’s metro areas and to connect the biggest ones with true high-speed rail — Washington could mature to the task. Back in 1956, the federal commitment to highways was minimal; in one bill, under one president, the system changed.

Also out there on the network: Fort Worthology has an update on the Fort Worth streetcar project, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space has a post about on-street bike parking in Seattle, and Bike Providence reports on a lock-lending program at a local library.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If it were possible to just get 120 mph with limited stops consistently in the routes on the map (in yellow) designated for higher speeds, it would be a huge advance.

    That, for example, could permit an average speed of 90 mph for NY to Buffalo, for a total trip time under five hours.

  • Brian

    Larry, why the poverty of thought?

    If barely 1st world Spain and still developing (and poorer) China can blanket their countries with 200 mph + High Speed Rail why would we invest in 120 mph?

    Why build something that is already out of date in the third world?

    I truly don’t understand this American tendency to automatically say no to normal world-class rail infrastructure and want something inferior instead.

    One would think we are post-bankruptcy Russia or Argentina… oh wait, even they are building 180 mph + high speed rail not 120 mph.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    It is not a question of wanting something inferior it is a question of what fits into the American transportation marketplace. And, of course, realistic expectations. There is no problem with the concept of 200MPH trains, of course we know it can be done. Whether it will or not flips up some difficult jokers in the deck however.

    1) As Larry includes in his post without saying it. One of the key determinants of the efficiency of rail service, high speed or otherwise, is not how fast it goes, but how often you stop it.

    2) A corollary problem is what do you do when you get there? How do the nodes you serve work as intermodal exchanges?

    3) Then there are the private property concerns. These are two-fold, most of the existing right of way is privately held by the Class 1 Freight operations and, worse, most of the property for new HSR level rails will run through the back yard of the abutters (NIMBY). They have the ear and the balls of the local politicians and are cheered on by the “community participation” advocates.

    4) Then there are the regulatory issues. None of the HSR equipment running through France, Germany, Spain and Italy could run legally on US train tracks because they do not meat the structural and weight standards of the FRA.

    5) Then you have the vested interest political fight that out weighs all of the other considerations in force and vector.

    I love HSR, we could start on it tomorrow and in a couple decades have a few good 200 MPH connections on the Northeast Corridor. I’m sure the voters and gas guzzlers out in Wyoming and Dakota will vote for that. What Larry is hinting at is achievable goals that can actually move some of the mass in mass transportation before Obama and Biden are driven from office.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (One would think we are post-bankruptcy Russia or Argentina…)

    We need to get some people from Argentina up here to explain what life is like in the wake of 25 years of irresponsible fiscal and economic policies. Knowledge we need.

  • Transtopian

    Poverty of thought? How about poverty of pocketbook? Our existing big transit systems — which are incredibly cost effective and groaning under big ridership increases — are on the brink. This HSR fantasizing gives politicians a great fig leaf to do nothing about our existing transit service. They can issue grand proclamations about HSR, toss a couple hundred million into studies and then watch as nothing happens because of the obstacles outlined above. Compared to intercity transit, HSR just isn’t cost effective as a carbon reducer, job producer or smart growth focus. Why do you think a US HSR system would work? We can’t even get Amtrak service and subsidies right. New bus service is taking Amtrak share away in the NE corridor because high fares ares subsidizing German tourists in Texas.

  • Brian

    Niccolo Machiavelli all your problems but the last are trivial and have already been solved.

    1) Express trains and local trains 1000 year old concept see Italy for an extreme version:;sid=2008/12/13/19913/110

    2) See France where the TGV caused dozens of cities to build light rail/trams BECAUSE it made a “there there” that proved the need for high capaciity, high quality local transit.

    3) Eminent domain, blah, blah, panic! I suppose this is why no interstates or roads get widened in America ever? Oh wait they do. If multi-billion dollar contracts are being handed out the “industry” will see that eminent domain is handled. Besides the freight rail operators cannot stop the plans and will benefit greatly from the land buy out, because they need the money far that the land anyway.

    4) One word Caltrain, five more CA High Speed Rail Authority, they are already solving this problem as we speak. With Obama people replacing Bush people the process should get even easier. Within a year this problem won’t exist.

    5) Ok this is a problem in that those that want to utterly destroy human civilization through fossil fuel use and climate change, just for their short term profit, also hate trains, especially electric ones. (They like buses and slow diesel trains in as much as they burn fuel and fail to compete with autos and planes.) They are powerful too, but why does that mean that we should only ask for outdated, crippled alternatives?

    Look at California where Prop 1A passed. The oil barons, airlines, and auto lobbies are a spent force. Give the people a real alternative like HSR and you can win, just like prop 1A did in CA. “Let’s aim for 120 mph” is choosing to fail before you start. People and not dumb enough to think that is a real alternative and your ” little plans” will “have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

  • Brian

    1) Express trains and local trains 100 year old concept… extra zero there.

  • Ryan

    SWEET graphic dude! Blood and thunder, FUCK YEAH

  • Brian

    Transtopian, if you read the article it is about a bill to FUND the CONSTRUCTION of the national HSR network. It is not about a bill for another study.

    Besides CA is two year away from turning dirt (if the Feds actually step up and provide matching funds) and is already turning dirt for the SF Transbay Terminal. We are moving beyond the endless study phase in California, into actual final design and construction. The rest of the nation needs to start following.

  • Geck

    If we don’t move on this sort of HSR, we will really become an economic backwater where the oil starts to runs out.

  • Streetsman

    I’m glad someone is talking about this. It’s embarrassing that from Paris you can be in London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Zurich in about 4 hours by rail, and at half the cost of the same distance on the Acela. One should be able to get from New York to Montreal in Chicago by train in

    A word to the designers of the graphic – the red in the map makes the cities look like electricity or pollution hot spots. Try using blue or green – green is good.

  • rex

    HSR is bling. Going fast costs energy. Going 200 mph takes four times the energy than going 100 mph. The only way HSR makes energy sense is if it running at a very high capacity per train. A half full HSR is less efficient than a full 747, and a 747 is a 40 year old aircraft.

    The requirement of a dedicated right-of-way for HSR raises the cost exponentially over standard rail and the space requirement of HSR is not often examined. This not only the static space taken up by the right-of-way, it is linear space, or capacity, with in that right of way. Basically HSR vs rail has the same compromises as grade separated roadways and surface roadways. You really aren’t moving any more people, you are moving fewer of them faster.

  • Brian


    1. San Francisco to LA via 100 mph rail is a total loser. Many other city pairs in the US are similar distances. The operational history over over 10 countries proves your idea that 100mph ridership=200mph ridership wrong.

    2. HSR is TEN times as efficent as airplanes see:
    so no, a 1/2 empty HSR train is FIVE times more efficient than a 747.

    3. HSR tracks have very minor increases in ROW requirement via standard tracks (a little more separation between parallel lines), not exponential. The CA network is designed to run trains every 3-4 minutes, better than all rail intercity lines in the country today. Some it will have far heigher train density than current lines (Caltrain maxes out at 5/hour).

    Sorry but your arguments are all bogus.

  • I don’t necessarily think HSR is the answer, as long as the system is continuous and well-connected.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli


    Yeah, I’m sorry, I forgot about local trains, gee what was wrong with me, I must have thought it was pre-Obama. I think service between Jamestown and Buffalo could hit three or four other points, maybe stop at the GM plant there, I’d vote for it. Oneida New York used to have a stop, there is still track, I’m happy with another one. I’m sure you can get the head times down to around three or four hours with the proper tax support from the communities.

    And your second point, I yield to no one in my love for France, the home of one of my grandmothers, and Italy. Great places, great rail service. $5 a gallon gas tax works for me and thats what makes those systems work both from a demand and a financing point of view, plus a nuclear power plant on every street corner (another system I support, don’t worry I’ve got your back). I’m all behind you where do I cast my vote?

    Better yet, I’m a socialist, condemn all the land you want, fine with me man. Fuck the Class 1 freight companies take whatever you need, what good are all those factories along the right of way anyway, what do they need the trackage for?

    And your right, Cal Tran has done a great job with commuter rail running on freight track. Here is a great link on that

    But your best punchline is “People and (sic?) not dumb enough to think that is a real alternative and your ” little plans” will “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Again I yield to your vision. The railroads are really stuck in tradition and yesterdays thinking where the chief concern is safety and commitment. I’m not sure that has a place in todays thinking and you are probably correct. Just tell me when and where to cast my vote.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Local thinking: Sheldon Silver refuses to accept a Second Avenue Subway from 63rd Street to 125th Street, and lets the LIRR to Grand Central go ahead while blocking the Second Avenue Subway for two years while demanding a subway all the way to Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

    National thinking: go ahead and invest in highways, but we don’t want rail until we can get 200 mph.

    Same result.

    If we had seperate (or mostly separate) two-track ROWs capable of a consistent 120 mph for the stuff in yellow on that map, with limited stops, I’d be happy. But we won’t get it. If it isn’t built in the next eight years, it won’t be built — all the money will be going to the retired.

  • Brian

    Uhh, yeah Niccolo send me a link to an LA Metrolink crash no prove how bad the San Francisco are Caltrain (not Cal Tran) system is. Not that you showed off how well informed you are about CA rail systems and geography… Oh look ad hominems about how I must be a FRENCH, SOCIALIST, NUCLEAR, pro-GAS TAX freak to dare say we deserve trains service equal to the Argentinians, Russians, or Spanish. Nice logic fact-based argument there.

    Pointing out that it the real world good HSR service prompts cities to DECIDE to invest in local transit refuses your point about not being about to build because of underdeveloped local transit, no matter how many ad hominems you throw. Besides we can build BOTH at the same time.

    Re: Eminent domain why is this not an issue re highways (you do admit the US is still building and widening highways right) yet the minute any transit is brought up it is the end of the world?

    BNSF welcomes selling their excess right-of-way next to their track to High Speed Rail in CA. They get free grade separation to boot. The reactionaries at Union Pacific, known for willfully sending their network into three meltdowns in the last 20 years due to arrogance and lack of investment, and pushing back, but that is solvable with more money or yes eminent domain. The UP does not need a 50-70 foot weed patch next to every rail line in the state. They can be paid for the land, maybe be paid to more their tracks over a few feet within the ROW and get grade separations for free too.

    It. Is. Not. The. End. Of. The. World.

    Any other problems with real High Speed Rail?

  • Brian

    Uhh, yeah Niccolo send me a link to an LA Metrolink crash to prove how bad the San Francisco arae Caltrain (not Cal Tran) system is. Now that you showed off how well informed you are about CA rail systems and geography…

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Well Brian, I enjoy a good back and forth as much as the next guy and I don’t mind admitting when I am wrong. And, I’m not the most clear writer on the planet and am sometimes misunderstood.

    I strive not to engage in ad hominem argument and to defend myself, perhaps weakly here, did not in this particular case. I did not call you a French, Socialist, pro-Nuclear and pro Gas tax. I said that I am those things. So if I was arguing in an ad hominem manner I was arguing against myself in that doing so. I guess I should apologize for that as well, these are serious issues and damning yourself with faint praise is not a real effective argument. Again, sincerest apologies. Believe it or not I am a big supporter of High Speed Rail, anywhere, anytime. I also like the constipated 125 MPH system that Larry dared to justify to you.

    For the record I did not mean those things to be attacks at all. I, perhaps naively, am a Socialist, pro-Nuclear, pro-Gas-tax man of Franco American heritage. I like those things and do think they are a strong component of how and why the French have such magnificent High Speed Rail in particular and mass transit in general. I also thing the European example is distinguished by parliamentary political systems with a strong history of localized, urban, communal political power that makes it easier to drive pro-mass transit policies with a strong political agenda from the national to the local levels.

    Now as to the merits of your position. I did not confuse the two Caltrain and Cal Tran, though I would think whoever is responsible for marketing those brands could have put a little more thought into distinguishing the services to those of us still struggling with the difference between the IND and the BMT. I believe I remember years ago reading that the Metrolink service was a subcontractor of AMTRAK’s but I may be wrong. No, my issue, again I apologize for apparently not stating it clearly enough, was the problem of shared track between the freight and commuter rail operations at the core of the practical obstructions to building effective high speed rail in the US.

    Among railroader there is a saying that “regulations are written in blood”. Unfortunately, that is often the case and this accident, however much a result of “human error”, is going to be writing a lot of regulations. In the end, this is only one of the many impediments to getting High Speed Rail off the ground (while, hopefully, keeping it on the rails).

    There are so many things I agree with you on that I am shocked you think I am making an ad hominem argument. One of my favorites was “but that is solvable with more money”. I never would have thought of that. Thank you for clearing it up.

    Let me see if I can clear up any other misunderstandings between us. Lets try “you do admit the US is still building and widening highways right”. All right, all right, take the bamboo shoots from under my fingernails. I admit the US is still building and widening highways. You got me there man.

    I also admit that the US is shutting down local bus routes, transit and commuter service as we type. But I do like your sort of bizarro chicken and egg thing about how the Federal, State and Local governments are not supporting local mass transit adequately now but if only we throw a Godzillion Dollars into building 200 MPH grade separated intercity rail service between St. Louis and Indianapolis that we will easily and efficiently serve Brazil, Indiana with local service and that will stimulate light rail and BRT service throughout the greater Brazil metropolitan area. Maybe that is a way out of this. Cut local service, build HSR and let the demand for HSR drive building up local service. Huh, good idea man.

    I didn’t like the part about French, pro-nuclear, pro-gas tax socialists being “freaks”, you really know how to hurt a guy. And apparently I made an error in geography somewhere along the line, I’m sorry about that too, whatever it was.

  • Brian

    Niccolo, I am not calling anyone a freak. Sorry if I hurt or insulted you. What I am reacting to is the common right-wing tactic of tying up every thing the want to put down into a ball with any or all of the right-wing “scare words” hippies/elite/French/(gas) taxes/Europeans/Gay/etc. etc.

    I read your whole statement as ironic as it the whole: oh Brian I support you, and high speed rail, and French gas taxes
    As really meaning: to be Pro-HSR you need to want to turn the US into a high tax, effeminate, European, Socialist, scary-scary

    With the assumption that all of the above are BAD because the right-wing assumption is that they all are.

    The main point of the article is the TRANSFORMATIVE power of a big idea. Getting the US into the HSR business is popular far beyond getting an incremental increase in transit funding would be, even if it costs much much more.

    Once the billions are put into HSR it will literal change the economic geography of the country. That will also change the political geography of the country towards cities, downtowns, and transit.

    Once hundreds of billions of private dollars start chasing after HSR stations the needs of downtowns are going to command FAR more attention up and down the local, state, and federal governments. That will mean more money for transit.

  • Niccolo, stop confusing the Californians with your fancy irony.

    The transport politic’s post as a whole is a lot less high-speed-unicorny than Sarah’s excepts imply. I like this part, personally:

    a network of 10,000 miles of high-speed rail and roughly 30,000 miles of upgraded standard-speed track. The system would provide electrified 200 mph service (in yellow) between the biggest cities on the East and West coasts and connect every metropolitan area of more than 100,000 people in the continental states with at least standard-speed rail (in brown). Standard-speed rail could be implemented relatively simply along existing freight right-of-way; in many cases, these tracks only need minor touch-ups to be readied to serve passengers. The system would rely on existing Interstate and rail right-of-way and extends on both the NARP and FRA proposals, but narrows in on the most cost-effective and interconnected corridors, focusing on the most densely populated regions.

    They get it. I don’t share their “California is leading by example” enthusiasm (we’ll see how their example compares to France’s, of which it is the opposite, when there is something to examine), but the report itself is motivated by an appreciation for railroad travel rather than a penchant for racing airplanes between suburban agglomerations.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Actually Doc, I loved the Transport Politic piece and sent it around to several of my allies who have actually run transit systems and fixed trains for a few decades.

    But I’m not a “big idea” guy. And I actually enjoy it when I take what I think to be a solid leftist position and someone believes it to be ironic or cynical or something. Although I am a leftist I find a lot of solid thinking anywhere I can. On the big idea stuff I often quote from Robert Moses “It takes more than a good idea to make a great public improvement. The fact is that such things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years.” Maybe you’ve seen it before if you are a regular reader here. I don’t see those leaders, those champions on the playing field right now. Or at least not enough of them with not enough support.

    The “big idea” people think they have come across something others just don’t understand and once they understand what a great idea it is they will drop all of their social and economic relationships and embrace that idea leading to something like transformational change. They are the other side of the coin from the “new technology” people who hope for a new invention to come along that will empower the “big idea” people and create transformational change. You see it all the time, hydrogen cars, teleporters, etc. Many Obamisti are either big idea or new technology advocates.

    I don’t take either seriously. I think existing social relations have a powerful force very difficult to dislodge and glued in place by political and economic arrangements and enforced by laws and governments (and police forces). I do hold out hope for both the big idea people and the new technology people that the status quo ante is so fucked up that out of desperation and bankruptcy the political economy will embrace a positive change. I think Lenin said “the worse, the better”.

    But hope is not the same as expectation. I think our culture’s political consciousness is so low and sense of civic connection so negligible that the dominant forces of privatism and individualism will pervert all the good intentions of the big idea and the new technology forces.

    That is where all the sneering about Socialism is relevant. I was hoping the Republicans were right in the campaign, that Obama was a socialist without declaring himself so. I can hope can’t I? I’m saying the jury is still out.

    On the other hand, trains, planes, buses and subways do have an essentially socialist character and culture that is absent in automobiles. I think the hold of the automobile on our consciousness and sense of possibility is a function of the core privatism and individualism of our culture. The automobile is really an extension of your home, your own space, you don’t have to breathe anyone else’s fucking air.

  • rex

    Brian (#12),

    1. Uhm which ten counties are you talking about, oh never mind, 1000s of people drive LA to SF at 70 mph minus traffic delays every day, so how is LA to SF at 100 mph with out traffic delays a total loser? I think CAHSR between LA and SF is a great idea. (HSR LA to LV is even a better idea, you could make the cost of trip back in gambling, hookers, and cheep booze.)

    2. HSR travel is not ten times as efficient as air travel, see here for the readers digest version: and here for the whole enchilada:

    3. A train is a train, whether is achieves 200 mph or 50 mph. I believe you are confusing design specs with actual performance. Are you seriously suggesting that if I miss the 3:00 a.m. CAHSR from LA to SF that I will be able to catch the 3:04 a.m. Train? Why would CAHSR be able to achieve 1 train per four minutes and CalTrain only be able to achieve 1 train per 20 minutes?

    I was hesitant to post a reference to the concept of linear space/time/value on a ROW for fear that idea would be beyond some. Obviously it was – my bad. Do you want me to step you through the math, or should I just cut to the end?

  • Brian

    Re: Rex

    1. The ten countries that have operational High Speed Rail with 180 mph+ service are:
    Spain, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

    Operational experience throughout these ten countries show that the highest ridership and market share band is connecting cities within travel times of 1.5 to 2.5 hours. With 220 mph (top speed) equipment and infrastructure the SF-LA travel time for express trains is 2:35. Therefore reducing top speeds to 100 mph greatly reduces the ridership of such a service by putting the travel time above three possibly four hours.

    2. We have competing authorities talking about Apples and Oranges. The numbers I linked are strictly operational. The numbers you linked to are “life-cycle.” They may be right but I am skeptical of “life-cycle” costs unless there is a detailed accounting of the assumptions, because the assumptions can change the results by order of magnitude. Remember the study that “proved” the Hummer was better on CO2 “life-cycle” than the Prius?

    3. You are confusing track capacity with service frequency. Right now Caltrain cannot operate more than 5 trains per hour on their ROW. After the CA HSR system is built CA HSR and Caltrain will be able to run more than a train every 4 minutes due to four-tracking and signal improvements. That does not mean that the SF-LA express will leave every four minutes. That means that the combination of all HSR Express, HSR semi-express, HSR local, and regional commuter trains can share tracks running within four minutes of each other.

    Which goes back to #2 how would you “life-cycle” the HSR tracks? Counting only the HSR trains for the projected 1st year’s schedule, adding the commuter trains as well, or running the theoretical maximum number of trains? Those three answers give order of magnitudes different answers for % of infrastructure “life-cycle” emissions.

  • Ryan

    I think that a high speed rail would be great.



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