The Case for Not-Quite-So-High-Speed Rail

The bad news: Republicans have torpedoed plans for American bullet trains. The good news: The Obama administration is quietly building a slower, but potentially much better, rail system.

After concluding some business in Frankfurt, Germany, recently, I found myself with a day to kill and decided to use it to tour the historic Cologne Cathedral, about 120 miles away. I could have rented a car and driven through traffic on the autobahn for about two hours, but instead I decided to walk a few blocks from my hotel and board Intercity-Express #616. The sleek bullet train left Frankfurt’s magnificent nineteenth-century main terminal on time and sped along a super-engineered, beeline right-of-way completed in 2002 at a cost of $5.6 billion. The scenery wasn’t much, as we were often in tunnels built to keep the line straight and fast. But the ride was smooth, quiet, and comfortable, even at 180 miles per hour, and in a mere fifty-six minutes the train arrived on time to the second within steps of the Cologne Cathedral. The fare was $109.

You might expect me at this point to proclaim, like so many Americans who have sojourned in Europe, Japan, or China on gleaming bullet trains, that what the United States needs now is a crash program to catch up with our peers in building high-speed rail for the twenty-first century. And, for the record, I will proclaim that. It’s a vision almost all progressives have come to share, even as conservatives increasingly denounce it as creeping socialism, social engineering, or worse. But I’ll make an important qualification that should inform the increasingly partisan debate about high-speed rail in this country—one that is illustrated by my trip back to Frankfurt later that afternoon.

Having arrived in Cologne faster than I needed to, I decided to take the longer, more scenic route back to Frankfurt, which costs just $72, riding the old West Rhine Railway. Begun in 1844, it’s a conventional railway that twists and turns mostly along the banks of the Rhine, passing beneath many high-perched castles and vineyards. It also provides access to such midsize cities as Koblenz and Mainz, and to such bucolic spots as the famous Rock of Lorelei, all of which the new high-speed rail line misses in order to save time.

Because of its more circuitous route and local stops, and because passenger trains on the Rhine Valley line also have to share tracks with many freight trains, these trains are slower than those on the new high-speed line. Yet they still max out at about 100 mph, which means that they only take a bit more than an hour longer to go from Cologne to Frankfurt even as they serve more population centers in between. The line is vibrant, with local and express passenger trains passing through any given station every fifteen to twenty minutes. By European or Asian standards, this service doesn’t qualify as high-speed rail, but it is faster on average than most American railways, and frequent enough to provide vital connectivity throughout the Rhine Valley.

My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.

The debate over high-speed rail in the United States has become akin to that over organic food. Most people can’t define exactly what it is, but they tend to have strong, almost theological opinions about whether it’s morally good, elitist, impractical, and/or politically correct. Progressives are likely to tell you that high-speed rail is necessary to reduce global warming, prepare for “peak oil,” and overcome “auto dependency.” The Obama administration plays to this growing progressive consensus by proudly proclaiming that it has set in motion projects that will bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of the U.S. population within twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, especially since the elections of 2010, conservatives have been rallying their troops in full-throated opposition to any and all government spending to improve passenger rail service, often portraying it as another step on the road to serfdom. Though many Republicans, such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, have strongly supported Amtrak over the years (especially for service in their own backyards), we now see a new breed of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all making a big show of waving away billions in federal stimulus dollar for rail improvements in their states.

So how about we all calm down, chuck the theology, and look practically at what should be the future of passenger trains in the U.S.?

To do that, we need to start by defining what we mean by high-speed rail. An extreme example is the French National Railways’ train a grande vitesse (“high-speed train”), or TGV, which in 2007 set a world record of 357.2 mph. In regular service, its average start-to-stop speed is typically a bit north of 170 mph, with top speeds of around 200 mph. I once had the opportunity to ride in the cab of a TGV between Paris and Lille, and even to hold the throttle. It was an unexpectedly harrowing experience, as the windshield repeatedly filled with the remains of unfortunate birds who failed to get out of the way in time. But back in the revenue seats, the experience is sublime. Even as the French countryside shoots by in a blur, you won’t see so much as a ripple in your wine glass, and even the coach seats are bigger than what you would find in first class on an airplane.

The service has proven to be a great commercial success. As with other high-speed rail lines in Europe, it generates an operating profit. The capital cost of constructing the first TGV line between Paris and Lyon was recovered within twelve years, and newer lines are well on their way to paying for themselves as well. The social returns, in the form of reduced airport and road congestion, pollution, and energy use, have also been high, as have been the returns in the form of economic development. Lille was once one of the most economically depressed cities in France. Now served by high-speed trains that put Paris and Brussels just an hour away and London an hour and a half, as well as by other high-speed lines providing easy connectivity to other major Continental cities, Lille is no longer a dying “flyover city” but a quickly expanding commercial hub.

But as great as it would be to have passenger service as fast and elegant as the TGV in the United States, there are many reasons not to put our first dollars into such an ambitious project. First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.

Plans to build a high-speed rail in California between San Diego and the Bay Area are now foundering for precisely this reason. Big showcase high-speed projects in Texas and Florida flopped in the 1990s for the same reason, plus another: the shifting currents of polarized American politics. Under the governorship of the late Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles, Florida committed to building a true high-speed line connecting Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. Both the government and private companies spent millions to conduct feasibility and environmental studies, survey the route, secure financing, and develop elaborate project management and business plans. But then, just as the project became “shovel ready,” Florida elected Republican Jeb Bush governor, and he promptly pulled the plug despite widespread public support for the project. Last February the same thing happened again, when newly elected Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott decided to reject $2 billion in federal funds that the Obama administration wanted to use to revive the project that Chiles had set in motion more than seventeen years ago.

Quite apart from these bureaucratic and political barriers to an American TGV, there’s also an economic question that needs to be asked for any given rail corridor: just how fast does high-speed rail need to go in order to gain a meaningful market share? The typical answer is “fast enough to beat air and auto travel times,” but achieving that optimum speed is rarely just a matter of buying suped-up trains. Often boosting top speeds up to 180 mph or more, while requiring enormous increases in capital spending and geometric increases in energy use, does little to increase average speed, which is what really counts. Total trip times, especially on runs of less than 200 hundred miles or so, are typically far more affected by a train’s slowest moments than its fastest. On Amtrak’s forty-mile run between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, for example, trains run as fast as 125 mph on some segments. But because all trains on the line must spend a long time creeping through the yard at Washington’s Union Station and through antiquated tunnels under Baltimore Harbor, the average speed of even the fastest scheduled train, the vaunted Acela, is only 83.4 mph. Increasing speeds on the slowest segments of the line would do as much or more to shorten travel times as making the fastest speeds faster, and wouldn’t require an expensive new right-of-way or new equipment.

As it is, Amtrak’s service between Washington and Boston is already highly successful, even if it does not qualify as high-speed rail by world standards. The top speed obtained by any train is 150 mph, and that happens only in a brief segment of Rhode Island. The average speed is much lower, even to the point that the schedule today between New York and Boston is only nineteen minutes faster than that achieved by the New Haven Railroad’s “Merchants Limited” in 1954. But today’s service is fast enough for Amtrak to dominate the travel market among the intermediate points along the corridor. Tellingly, almost no one rides all the way from Boston to Washington, which takes seven hours on the Acela and costs more than flying. But the trains are nonetheless full despite steep fares, and ridership continues to mount.

That’s because most passengers are traveling between intermediate points where existing train service is more than competitive with alternative modes, such as battling the traffic on I-95 or catching a flight. Compared to airlines, for example, Amtrak has virtually a 100 percent market share of passenger trips between Philadelphia and New York, a 60 percent share between Washington and New York, and a 50 percent share between New York and Boston. On each trip between Washington and Boston, more than half the passengers will get off at either Philadelphia or New York and are replaced by other passengers. From the travelers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether the train goes 150 mph or even 300 mph, since they will only be on it for a short time anyway. What matters to them far more is that the trains are frequent, pleasant, reasonably priced, and reliable. Recently, after Florida rejected federal money for its high-speed project, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redirected $795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily used sections of the Northeast Corridor. This money will increase speeds from 135 to 160 miles per hour on critical segments, but much more importantly it will improve on-time performance and add more seats to accommodate the continuing surge in ridership.

This principle is also illustrated by Amtrak’s highly successful “Cascades” service on the 187-mile line between Portland and Seattle. The Spanish-designed Talgo “tilt” train sets look futuristic, and with their on-board bistros and comfy chairs they are a joy to ride. But because they run on conventional track through mountainous country shared by freight trains, their current top speed is only 79 mph, and their average speed is just 53. Still, that’s enough to make taking the train faster than driving, and ridership has swelled to more than 700,000 passengers a year. Using federal stimulus dollars plus state spending, work is currently under way to boost top train speeds to 110-125 mph, simply by adding better signaling and more sidings to let freight trains get out of the way. This incremental investment will also boost reliability and allow for increased frequency, which will further bump up ridership. But numerous studies show there is no point in making trains go faster than 125 mph on a segment this short because of the great cost involved and the limited gains to total trip times. Moreover, if a new bullet train line were built between Portland and Seattle, the tremendous cost of its construction would require fares too high for all but well-heeled business travelers to afford.

The same considerations apply even on much longer segments. In many instances conventional train service is, or could be, competitive with flying or driving, if only it were more frequent and reliable. For example, when I need to travel from my home in Washington, D.C., to Chicago, I am always tempted to take a sleeper car on Amtrak’s “Capitol Limited,” and frequently do. Though it never goes faster than 79 mph, the train is scheduled to leave Washington at 4:00 p.m. and to arrive in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. To make a morning meeting in Chicago by plane, I would either have to fly out the night before and rent a hotel room, or get up at some ungodly hour on the same day and arrive frazzled. Either way, taking the plane requires schlepping my way to and from airports on both ends, while also enduring the hassle and uncertain duration of airport security. In the wintertime, I’m also far more likely to be stranded by snowstorms if I take the plane, and, of course, dinner in the diner sure beats airplane food.

But while the Capitol Limited is fast enough to be more convenient than flying when it’s on time, it frequently runs hours late, even in fair weather, due to competition with freight trains. So I can’t count on it for business travel to Chicago unless my meeting is in the afternoon. Even with that poor track record, sleeper cars on the Capitol Limited are often sold out weeks in advance, such is the surging popularity of this way of travel among professionals who have had it with air travel. All Amtrak needs to build a much larger market share would be better on-time performance, and this, in turn, would require only incremental investment in new sidings and track capacity to make sure freight trains don’t get in the way.

Frequency of service is also often more important than top speed. Only two passenger trains serve Cleveland, for example, and both come through, in both directions, between 12:59 and 5:35 a.m. It’s surprising how many people use these trains nonetheless. Recently, after business in Cleveland that kept me there late, I decided to take a sleeper car home rather than spending an extra night in a hotel room and flying out in the morning. I counted some seventy-five people in the waiting room even at two a.m. Many more would be taking the train in and out of Cleveland if only there were reliable daytime service to nearby points such as Pittsburgh, Toledo, South Bend, Akron, Indianapolis, or Chicago, all of which could be reached by conventional trains in far less time, and at far less cost, than flying. (Sadly, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich has rejected $400 million in federal stimulus funds that would have had such service up and running in short order. Republican Governor Scott Walker has waved away more than $800 million in federal money that would have brought similarly practical and thrifty passenger rail service to the Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and St. Paul corridor.) Providing connectivity to small towns and midsize cities that currently lack affordable air service, or any air service at all, is one of the most important potential benefits of passenger rail, and you don’t need 300-mph bullet trains to pull it off.

Conventional trains running between Washington and such nearby cities to the south as Richmond, Charlottesville, Durham, and Charlotte already attract a growing ridership, and would attract a larger one if they were more frequent and reliable, as well as better integrated with trains running north of D.C. along the Northeast Corridor. The minimal investment needed in new track capacity would also improve freight service, thereby getting more trucks off the road and improving the driving experience for those who don’t want to take the train. It also would likely spur a good amount of economic development. Midsize cities such as Lynchburg or Petersburg, Virginia, which once thrived because of their strategic position on the nation’s rail map, might experience a real estate boom if it were possible to live there and still have easy access to the business opportunities and cultural amenities of Washington, Philadelphia, or New York. Projects currently under way will do the same for cities like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Springfield, Illinois, by providing improved connections with Chicago. Making such incremental improvements might not stir the hearts of Americans the way eclipsing the French or the Chinese in high-speed rail might, but it’s still a sensible course that will gradually start rebuilding a rail culture in the U.S. As more and more Americans outside the Northeast Corridor experience practical, reliable, conventional train service that beats flying or driving, the constituency for super-expensive, super-fast trains will build as it has abroad. Until then “fast enough” high-speed rail is good enough.

Phillip Longman

Phillip Longman is a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and the policy director at New America's Open Markets Program.