By Noel T. Braymer
There is no shortage of stories in the media about how difficult it is building High Speed Rail in America. There are also stories about how we are behind other countries when it comes to High Speed Rail. Many stories claim that America is the wrong place to build High Speed Rail. What these stories fail to write about is what is needed before you can build a successful High Speed Rail service.
After World War II, the United States mostly dismantled both its urban and intercity rail passenger networks. At the same time cheap open farm land was being turned into suburban housing built near to new freeways. All of this was made possible by inexpensive autos, cheap gasoline and affordable housing in the suburbs.
In Europe and Asia after World War II this wasn’t an option. Large parts of Europe and Asia were recovering from major damage from the war. This included major damage to their economies. Farm land was not cheap in these countries or even food readily available. So land for new or replacement housing was scarce. Unlike America which then was producing all the oil it used after the war, most counties had to import all of their oil. These countries placed high taxes on oil to limit oil consumption and avoid a major trade deficit.
So most countries after the war rebuilt and improved their urban and intercity rail services while America dismantled theirs. As these counties economies recovered, autos became more popular and roads became crowded. New roads were built in these counties. But these counties knew they also needed rail service to save money on expensive imported oil and to make their densely populated cities function.
But these counties also knew that to keep and grow ridership on the trains in the first world counties of Europe and Asia, that they needed faster trains to compete with both auto and air travel. Japan and France in particular would lead in the development of faster trains. Today most major countries outside of America continue to upgrade their rail passenger service and run faster trains.
At the heart of a decent High Speed Rail service are good connecting urban and intercity rail passenger services. Also needed is major development around downtown stations to provide traffic for High Speed Trains. In most of America these elements don’t exist. The Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston is one of the few places left where it would seem High Speed Rail should work in this country. There is often talk on the NEC of running trains over 200 miles per hour. This is highly unlikely to happen.
The NEC was largely in place before the American Civil War. As a railroad it was never designed for modern high speed rail service. Most of the traffic on the NEC is for commuter trains. It is impossible to mix 70 mile per hour commuter trains with high speed trains going over twice as fast. Separate tracks for this would be needed on a right of way often already built to maximum capacity. In Europe most of the High Speed Rail operations is done out in the countryside where new construction is less than a problem than in a urban area. Also even in urban areas, train speeds of over 100 miles per hour are common where it is common for High Speed Trains to share tracks and stations with conventional passenger trains.
After several years of planning, Amtrak finally gave up on building a new high speed railroad on the NEC. It was just to expensive and there wasn’t the money available to build it. The cost was due to the largely developed area in the NEC and high cost of property. What will be possible will be tilt train service with speed in some places up to 160 mile per hour. But even these trains will have to slow down for the several major curves like the 50 mile per hour curve Amtrak Train 188 recently derailed at in Philadelphia at 106 miles per hour.
What about California? It has had some luck building both new urban and intercity rail service. There is clearly plenty of population growth and density for High Speed Rail service in California. An advantages California has over the NEC is there are some areas of open space between urban areas, unlike the more developed NEC. Also the distance between major urban areas in greater is greater which mean more passenger miles and revenues for a High Speed Rail service in California compared to the NEC.
Building a new railroad in a urban area is very expensive. There are places between Los Angeles and San Francisco where it will be possible to build a new High Speed Railroad, although not always popular with the people impacted by it. In densely populated areas such as near Los Angels much of the construction is planned in tunnels to avoid local opposition. There are plans to use existing rail rights of way for some sections between San Jose/ San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim. This is possible with speeds no greater than 125 miles per hour and is much cheaper than building a new railroad,
California is also likely to get High Speed Rail service from Southern California to Las Vegas. Unlike California, Nevada will be able to use an existing right of way on the I-15 freeway between Las Vegas and Victorville. From Victorville it will be able to share right of way with a new highway planned between Victorville and Palmdale. From Palmdale the Nevada trains would share the tracks of the California High Speed Trains. Being able to take advantage of existing public rights of way will greatly reduce the costs of building High Speed Rail for Nevada. It was also planned for slower speeds of “only’ 150 miles an hour which lowers costs.
As High Speed Rail service comes into place around California, we will see ridership grow. A major factor for High Speed Rail is the need for more housing in California. The high cost of housing in the coastal areas of the State, will drive new housing development inland. Because of neighborhood opposition it is often difficult to build new housing along coastal California. Expanded rail passenger service, including High Speed Rail service will be a major factor in opening up land inland for more affordable housing. This in turn will bring more ridership to rail service. This is what happened in the post World War II era with freeways and suburban housing driving development.
California may not be the perfect model for other regions in the United States for High Speed Rail passenger service. What we will likely see is expansions and improvements of rail passenger service on existing rights of way connecting to more urban rail service. There is an element of diminishing returns after train speeds go more than 150 miles per hour. Just seeing trains speed raised from 79 miles per hour or less to 125 miles an hour will cut much running time from current schedules.