U.S. DOT Clocks High-Speed Rail at 110 MPH, Give or Take

The federal DOT has just released its guidance for states seeking a share of its $8 billion in high-speed rail funding — and tucked in the rules are standards that could prove crucial to the project’s success.

lahoodtrain.jpgRay LaHood geeks out on French high-speed rail. Photo via The Overhead Wire

The definition of high-speed rail can vary depending on the source. The original White House outline cited a top speed of 150 mph, while European and Asian networks can go as high as 200 mph.

Today’s DOT guidance uses the same standard that was outlined in last year’s Amtrak reauthorization bill: high-speed trains are those "reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 mph."

That standard appears flexible enough to include most regional rail plans. California’s high-speed authority believes the state’s service can reach a top speed of 220 mph. The states working on a midwestern rail network with Chicago at the center, however, envision their trains achieving an average of 67 mph for local service and 78 mph for express rides.

In addition to speed, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will initially evaluate high-speed rail proposals using six criteria, with each one assuming a different priority level depending on the pot of money that’s being spent.

Here’s where things get a bit complicated, because high-speed rail aid has been split into four tracks.

The first two use stimulus money for projects and programs, and the second two use money from the annual congressional appropriations process for planning and project execution. In fact, DOT’s guidance says the first two tracks of money — the $8 billion popularly referred to as high-speed rail stimulus money — may not be paid out in full this year, "to allow for potential future rounds of solicitations and awards which occur after 2009."

The first track of stimulus money is aimed at "shovel-ready" projects that are supportive of high-speed rail development. For these funds, economic benefits (read: job creation) is the No. 1 criterion, followed by general transportation benefits at No. 2.

Saving energy, promoting sustainable development and discouraging fossil fuel use — what DOT calls "other public benefits" — is ranked No. 6 out of six priorities for this first track of stimulus money. For the second track of stimulus money, reserved for longer-term work that’s not primarily aimed at economic recovery, "other public benefits" is priority No. 2.

Another DOT criterion focuses on the sustainability of each high-speed rail network, or how well local planners have anticipated the financial risk of such a massive project. Sustainability is ranked in the bottom three priorities for both pots of stimulus money.

The dense nature of today’s 68-page guidance may make it difficult for many in the mainstream media to pay close attention. Yet with $8 billion on the line, it should be interesting to see how many state and local officials weigh in before DOT’s official comment period ends on July 10.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s the average speed rather than the top speed that matters, and that is affected both by the top speed and the number of stops.

    The number of stops pits the interests of major cities against smaller places in between.

    To me, they’ve got to get the average up to 100 mph, which they could do with a cruising speed of 120 and few stops.

  • I \v/ NY

    and sadly here in the US we are ok with a “high speed” train going 110mph considering there are some regular amtrak lines that go as slow as 30mph.

  • Max

    Half-assed like everything the US is doing these days.

    Half-assed healthcare reform, half-assed high speed rail. Ugh. We apparently have no confidence or vision left.

  • Way to aim low, USDOT.

  • Spokker

    The entire country does not need 220 MPH service. 110 MPH is a huge improvement considering they will have to straighten out the track to achieve that, which will allow trains to STAY at 110 MPH and not have to slow down as often, resulting in faster trips and higher ridership.

  • Anything faster than what a car can do on the highway is a win for me. That means AVERAGE speed of greater than 70MPH.

    A couple of years ago amtrak upgraded a line in Penn. to 110MPH, and it got very little attention from the media. Thats the type of work we need in most of our country. Fix some signals, update the ties, and ban, 110MPH train where the previous limit was 79.

    Thats what 8B can pay for anyway.

    Of course I love the cali rail project and would love to see that elsewhere, but until our government is willing to fork over 100b, it wont be happening in the timeframe needed.

  • The problem with existing Amtrak service is not so much that the target speed (which is usually about 70 or 80 mph.) is too slow, but that the trains never reach that target speed. They’re always crawling behind a freight train, or sitting dead on the tracks because of some mechanical malfunction. And they never arrive on time.

    A reliable network of trains traveling between cities at 110 mph. would be a vast improvement over what we have now. The trains would be faster than driving, and they would be competitive with air travel (not quite as fast, but almost, and with much less hassle) for regional travel.

    A 200 mph. bullet train, or even a 300 mph. maglev train would be cool, and I hope we have them someday, but not as a substitute for a system we could build in the next few years.

  • Yes, the US is way behind but given that, it does make sense to start with small improvements right away while the planning for true high speed rail is underway. Note that in China, on their way to 200mph rail, they made many incremental speed improvements over a period of 20 years..

  • “Anything faster than what a car can do on the highway is a win for me. That means AVERAGE speed of greater than 70MPH.”

    HSR competes against airplanes as much as against cars. To compete with flying on shorter trips, it has to get up to the speed being planned for California, 200 mph or so.

  • iso

    Personally I don’t completely understand the fixation on high speed rail – it reminds me of the typical American fixation on having everything be the biggest, baddest, fastest, shiniest – in other words, the same mindset that caused people to buy Hummers and McMansions earlier this decade.

    Modest upgrades to this country’s rail service to make it a real, viable transportation option – trains going where people want to go, several times per day, getting there about as quickly as you could in a car, with minimal transfers – would be such a quantum leap beyond what we currently have that I can barely bring myself to hope that it will ever happen, much less the geegaw high speed systems that are frequently discussed.

  • Whither Cap’n Transit?

  • Lexslamman

    High-speed rail is a necessity, not an option for our country, but the way we go about it must be comprehensive. Amtrak’s appropriations must be tripled or quadrupled through the duration of the Obama Presidency (lets go ahead and assume 8 years) in order to buy new rolling stock capable of tolerating increasing speeds.

    Our first steps at improving the rail system must be baby-steps. Save Amtrak first allowing it to at least maintain its current level of service – add more trains serving more areas, and then slowly improve track quality to bring the speed up.

    If we want to do this now, though, the High Speed Rail investment must also be increased – $13 billion won’t build more than one high speed rail connection. We must put an investment into our rails like the Spanish have, an appropriation of $10-$15 billion over the next 10-15 years. This will allow us to electrify and grade-separate these lines. Even then we’ll be left with a bundle of regional networks only connected by conventional rail – which is why our investment in Amtrak is so important. Eventually all of our passenger rail routes will be upgraded to run at higher speeds, at which point newer technologies should be examined like Mag-Lev.

  • If the sexiness of high-speed rail is what it takes to get the feds to start rail investment soon rather than years later, it’s not a bad idea. The ultimate beneficiaries may be folks in lightly populated western states where great distance need to be traversed quickly and rights of way would be easier to get. That’s cool — it might create rail supporters in places where there currently aren’t enough.

    Here in the northeast, what we really need is to roll out conventional rail to more places, replacing buses, and secondarily to make incremental speed improvements where practical. I hope the administration will be flexible and give us what we need the most.

    Incidentally, the latest Kunstler column is pretty scathing about HSR, but I don’t think he’s sussed out the political reality that HSR is sexier than highways and old-school rail (much as I love it) is not.

  • rex

    HSR is a beauty mark on a supermodel. It only enhances the overall package. In order for HSR to be replacement for driving, you have to be confident that you can get where you want to go without a car at your destination city. Without that element, HSR is only a mole.

  • You rang, Urbanis? Were you referring to my post about the lack of comfort on high-speed trains, and the followup?

  • Bill

    re Mitch’s comment “And they never arrive on time”: well, in my experience they often do arrive on time, or even beat the scheduled time on the legs of trips that let passengers only depart and not board. For example, on a May 10th Southern Crescent trip from Greensboro NC to Newark NJ, the train I was on was an hour ahead of schedule even before it reached the Amtrak-owned NE Corridor. And it maintained that lead along the Corridor at least until Newark.

  • lexslamman


    Amtrak has improved its on-time percentages to over 90% for most routes. The E-W long distance trains through the mountains and the Pacific coast trains bring those numbers down.


    I rode the Cardinal, an infamously late train, from Newark to Cincinnati in January and arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule. And the train was packed full, by the time we passed Washington, DC there was not an empty seat to be found – they had to temporarily sit people in the lounge car. We need to increase appropriations so that Amtrak can get more rolling stock, they are running out of room on their trains.

  • Anticato Rickyrabi

    The Cato Institute is a big obstacle to high-speed rail – it proffers arguments against high-speed rail based on half-truths and lies. While it may have some sound arguments about many things (including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and gay rights), it’s wrong about transit, including high-speed rail, and its arguments in the field fail to consider how expensive driving is, and how transit and other modes of transportation work in other countries and how people take them more in those countries than they do here – and what leads to transit success. Also, they claim driving is as eco-friendly as rail, which isn’t true. Someone needs to point facts out to them. While I’m loathe to bash lovers of liberty, some of them are wrong about rail and transit’s impact on liberty and other standards of living. Anyone care to argue against their arguments in a blog or something?

  • General Schematic

    OK, 110mph seems pretty wimpy compared to the numbers that we see coming out of Europe and Japan, and there were sections of passenger rail in the 1930s that were going well in excess of that number. High speed rail will remain slower in the US as long as we use former freight lines and share lines with freight rail. Those routes were not designed for high speed. Their curves are too sharp, they need to have their wooden ties replaced with concrete, signaling is all wrong and they have at grade crossings.

    If you are going to go high speed, real high speed, you need to have passenger rail on dedicated rights of way with high end equipment. That will cost a lot more than $8 billion and it will take a long time to implement. It is also worth the investment – we won’t fix our passenger rail problems in one budget year, or one transportation bill cycle. Its going to take years to fix years of underinvestment and poor planning.



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