01 October 2020

High Speed Rail In Texas And Southern California Gets Real

A high speed rail project in Texas from Dallas to Houston will be the second true high speed rail lines in the U.S., rather than mere "medium speed rail" barely faster than interstate highway motor vehicle traffic. The Dallas to Houston line is scheduled to be finished by 2027 and is a rare Trump Administration initiatives that a Biden-Harris administration surely wouldn't roll back. The Texas line will be much faster than the properly described "medium" speed Acela line in the Northeast (which is at least upgrading to trains that can handle somewhat higher speeds but needs expensive infrastructure improvements). 

A similar Los Angeles to Las Vegas proposal is scheduled to be completed in 2023 that will make the trip in 85 minutes making it the first truly high speed rail line in the U.S. California has other high speed rail plans in place in the early stages with construction just starting and completion in phases from 2029 to 2033 planned.

Florida has "medium speed" rail from Miami to West Palm Beach similar to Acela service in place (but suspended due to Coronavirus), with construction continuing to Orlando underway scheduled for 2022 completion, and continuation on to Tampa at some indefinite time after that time.

Texas High Speed Rail

The high-speed train that promises to transport passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes has been approved by the Federal Railroad Administration, according to Texas Central Railroad, the company in charge of the project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration issued the two key rulings, which provide the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train, that Texas officials were waiting on to move forward with the project, according to the company. The announcement was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

Texas Central expects to start construction in the first half of 2021. The federal Surface Transportation Board still must approve the project before construction can begin. . . . 
The company estimates that the construction for the project will take up to six years, with a total cost of around $20 billion. The train will use the same technology as the Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan, which can reach speeds of more than 200 mph. . . . 

The project has seen resistance from property owners in rural areas of Central Texas, where the railroad would travel through. According to Texas Central Railroad, they already have control of over 600 parcels of land — approximately 40% of the parcels they need for the project — as well as sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

From The Texas Tribune (September 21, 2020) (image from here).

XpressWest, a passenger rail project between Las Vegas and greater Los Angeles, a distance of about 170 miles, received the rights two weeks ago to build on the Interstate 15 median. Brightline, the Miami company that runs the project, plans to break ground later this year, with $5 billion of private funding, $4.2 billion of which will come in the form of tax-exempt bonds. Trains will reach speeds of 200 mph. It's expected to be completed in late 2023.

A Texas project that will offer 90-minute-or-less trips between Houston and Dallas received an important environmental review in May after a six-year wait. It also won a state court case this spring that gives it eminent domain rights, which will simplify the process of acquiring land between the two cities, which lie 240 miles apart. . . 
Efforts began to speed up Northeast corridor train service in the 1990s, and the Acela launched in 2000. But the service isn't considered true high-speed rail without investment in the tracks and infrastructure, and Amtrak has struggled to find funding. High-speed rail interest re-emerged in 2008 when former President Obama pledged billions.

High-speed rail advocates say that 2020 may be a turning point for US high-speed rail development, which has long lagged other developed nations. Japan began building high-speed rail in the 1960s. Europe followed in the 1980s and 1990s. Africa's first high-speed rail train came in 2018. China surpassed everyone in the last 12 years, building the world's largest high-speed rail network, stretching thousands of miles, and moving passengers at speeds of up to 217 mph.

From CNN (July 8, 2020) (image from here).

Acela In The Northeast Corridor. 

The Acela (/əˈsɛlə/ ə-SEL-ə; until September 2019 Acela Express) is Amtrak's flagship high speed service along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) in the Northeastern United States between Washington, D.C. and Boston via 16 intermediate stops, including Providence, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. The route contains segments of high-speed rail, and Acela trains are the fastest trainsets in the Americas; they attain 150 mph (240 km/h) on 33.9 mi (54.6 km) of the route.

Acela carried more than 3.4 million passengers in fiscal year 2016; second only to the slower and less expensive Northeast Regional, which had over 8 million passengers in FY 2016. Its 2016 revenue of US $585 million was 25% of Amtrak's total.

Acela operates along routes that are used by freight and slower regional passenger traffic, and reaches the maximum allowed speed of the tracks only along some sections, with the fastest peak speed along segments between Mansfield, Massachusetts and Richmond, Rhode Island. Acela trains use active tilting technology, which helps control lateral centrifugal force, allowing the train to travel at higher speeds on the sharply curved NEC without disturbing passengers. The high-speed operation occurs mostly along the 226 mi (364 km) route from Pennsylvania Station in New York City to Union Station in Washington, D.C., with a fastest scheduled time of 2 hours and 45 minutes and an average speed of 82.2 mph (132.3 km/h), including time spent at intermediate stops. Over this route, Acela and the Northeast Regional service captured a 75% share of air/train commuters between New York and Washington in 2011, up from 37% in 2000.

The Acela's speed is limited by traffic and infrastructure on the route's northern half. On the 231 mi (372 km) section from Boston's South Station to New York's Penn Station, the fastest scheduled time is 3 hours and 30 minutes, or an average speed of 66 mph (106 km/h). Along this section, Acela has still captured a 54% share of the combined train and air market. The entire 457 mi (735 km) route from Boston to Washington takes between 6 hours, 38 minutes and 6 hours, 50 minutes, at an average of around 70.3 mph (113.1 km/h).

The present Acela Express equipment will be replaced by new Avelia Liberty trainsets, beginning in 2021. The new trains will have greater passenger capacity and an enhanced active tilt system that will allow faster speed on the many curved sections of the route. Amtrak plans to retire all current Acela trains by the end of 2022. . . .
On August 26, 2016, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $2.45 billion federal loan package to pay for new equipment for the Acela Express service, as well as upgrades to the NEC. The loans will finance 28 trainsets, named the Avelia Liberty, that will be built by Alstom in Hornell and Rochester, New York and will replace the existing fleet of twenty trainsets.

The fleet expansion will allow for hourly New York-Boston service all day and half-hourly New York-Washington service at peak hours. The new trainsets will be longer, offering 30% greater seating capacity and will feature active tilt technology that would allow service to operate at 186 miles per hour (299 km/h) if infrastructure improvements were completed to allow the higher speeds.

The new trains will be phased in between 2021 and 2022, after which the current fleet is to be retired. Amtrak will pay off the loans from increased NEC passenger revenue.

From Wikipedia (references omitted).

Infrastructure upgrades to make Acela a true high speed rail line would cost about $151 billion (as of July 2012), and with the infrastructure upgrades: "A trip from New York to Washington, D.C., would take just 94 minutes instead of three hours. Boston to D.C. would take just three hours instead of seven." 

Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden is a long time Amtrak user who often commutes from Wilmington, Delaware (a suburb of Philadelphia across the state line from it) to Union Station in Washington D.C. for his work in Congress (a 79 minute trip on the high speed line and up to a 106 minute trip via the ordinary Northeast Regional line) at a cost of $23-$45 and you don't have to buy your ticket far in advance. His choice of Amtrak to make the trip isn't irrational.

The trip takes about 119 minutes and is 108 miles via I-95 by car, requires you to have parking at your destination and prevents you from doing anything else en route unless you have a driver - at a realistic 50 cents a mile "all in" cost of driving a personal car (i.e. not just gasoline, but car insurance, oil changes and maintenance, and the cost of the car itself), it costs about $54 to make that trip one way by car. 

A Greyhound bus also connects the two locations, takes 145 minutes and costs $18-$26 one way, but it makes trips only about as often as the Amtrak and is less comfortable in addition to being slower.

You basically can't buy a direct commercial airline flight on that route. Once you factor in the time needed to clear security and board the plane (realistically at least 45 minutes), time spent on the plane from gate to gate (about 44 minutes), time spent walking from the gate in the airport to ground transportation (at least 10 minutes) travel from one of the area airports (one of two in metro D.C. or one in Baltimore) to the Capitol (at least 9 minutes from Reagan airport, at least 37 minutes from Dulles with more time from the gate to ground transportation since its a larger airport, and at least 41 minutes from Baltimore), it realistically, it would take at least 108 minutes from the Wilmington, Delaware airpot to Union Station, which is longer than the longest Northwest Regional trip and would cost more than the most expensive Acela ticket. The closest price comparison where there actually are direct commercial flights, would be from the Philadelphia airport to Reagan (about the same distance and flight time) which would cost at least $265 one way plus $19 for transport from the airport for a combined cost of at least $284 one way.

From Reagan Washington Airport, it takes 9 minutes and $19-$60 to go by taxi, shuttle or town car to Union Station, or 22 minutes and $6 to go by subway. From the Washington Dulles Airport it takes 37 minutes and $40-$120 to go by taxi, shuttle or town car to Union Station, and 50 minutes and $4-$18 to go by bus. From the Baltimore Airport, it takes 41 minutes and $35-$140 to go by taxi, shuttle or town car to Union Station, and it takes 65 minutes and $22-$115 to go by Amtrak.

The Amtrak stop at the end of the line, Union Station, is easy walking distance from the capitol. When I worked as an intern in Congress, I took a commuter rail line from a Virginia suburb of D.C. where I was staying with extended family to Union Station and walked to the Congressional office building where I worked. 

Florida's Medium Speed Rail Projects

The orange line in Florida, construction of which is already underway with service between Miami and West Palm Beach having already commenced in 2018 until it was halted in March 2020 due to COVID, on a stretch connecting three stations in about an hour with peak speeds of 79 miles per hour on a roughly 72 mile route.

An expansion to Orlando, a three hour, 240 mile trip from Miami with peak speeds of 125 miles per hour to the North of West Palm Beach, due to completed in 2022. This compares to highway travel times of 3 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 45 minutes between the same destinations. 

An Orlando to Tampa expansion similar to the West Palm Beach to Orlando portion of the route is planned with no firm timeline or financing. 

Thus, the lines are comparable to the Acela system in the Northeast Corridor and not truly "high speed" rail lines. The cost is about $3.5 billion from Miami to Orlando.

California High Speed Rail

A high speed rail line connecting San Francisco and Sacramento to Los Angeles has a decent chance of being built. 

Plans are in place and there is a government agency that is operating in California to build 380 miles of high speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco with a trip time of two hours and 40 minutes, an estimated price as of 2018 of $63-98 billion, and completion in phases from 2029 to 2033. The cost for Bakersfield to Merced would be $12.4 billion. 

But construction on high speed rail has not yet begun outside the Central Valley and the route to Las Vegas.

General Considerations In Future Rail Development

High speed rail works best on medium length routes with high population density. (See a previous post at this blog on the subject here). 

Some of the plans are more serious than others. It is hard to mobilize resources to build major infrastructure projects like high speed rail lines in places like the red lines in Rust Belt cities of the Midwest and in the Northeast, that are stagnant or in decline, while it is easier to generate enthusiasm to invest large sums of money in places that are experiencing relative economic growth.

Applying those criteria (and other criteria too) the study linked above proposed the following routes:

In reality, the orange lines have ended up getting built or upgraded, before the higher priority red lines, in part, because the cost is more manageable than building high speed rail lines through high density urban areas ($154 billion for the red Northeast Corridor upgrades in 2012 dollars v. $20 billion current dollars for the orange Texas line and $4.2 billion current dollars for a Palmdale to Las Vegas line). 

Lines that involve only one or two states appear to be easier to coordinate than more involved multi-state lines. 

Yellow and gray priority lines on the map above are too low down the priority list to be considered. 

Proposals Stuck In The Planning Stage

A number of high and medium speed rail proposals are in the planning stage. They are imminent, but are further along that other lines that are merely a twinkle in the eye of some very long range planner, so they might happen someday.

The planned upgrade of the Acela line in the Northeast Corridor, because it is such as high priority, because there is already a foundation and ridership in place, and because this corridor is stable than declining economically, might get upgraded to true high speed rail status at some point. But, while new trains are planning, infrastructure improvements are basically just conceptual at this point.

The lines connecting Los Angeles to San Diego and Phoenix, are in the conceptual planning stages. So is the orange line in the Pacific Northwest where only studies are underway at this time. But these have some plausible chance of being built at some point. 

The red and orange priority lines in the Midwest, and the orange priority lines from New York City to Albany, New York and from Atlanta to the District of Columbia, seem much less likely to be built with no real recent progress to date, and the unambitious plans made to date mostly involving modest increases in the speed of existing Amtrak service to "medium speed" rail.

Colorado High Speed Rail Proposals

For example, while Front Range high speed rail in Colorado and New Mexico might have a manageable price of about $11 billion (in 2020 dollars) for 90 to 180 mile per hour lines from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, the Interstate Highway system there is quite adequate and fast considering the volume of traffic in this corridor. 

This is particularly true if you are considering only half measures, like an 80 miles per hour line from Pueblo to Fort Collins along an Interstate highway where speed limits on the adjacent highways are already 75 miles per hour in many places. 

But a cost of $18 billion or so (in 2020 dollars) from a high speed rail line from DIA to Eagle, Colorado (along I-70, more or less) while it would alleviate congestion, would have only about a quarter of the estimated traffic of the proposed Colorado Springs to Fort Collins line along the I-25 corridor, despite costing much more to build and really makes sense financially only to the extent it can alleviate the need to spend as much on expanding and/or maintaining I-70 in the mountains. According to a study from 2014:

Two studies from the Colorado Department of Transportation have estimated the cost of building high speed rail in Colorado
With travel speeds of 90 to 180 mph, the system could save considerable time, said CDOT. A trip from C-470 and Interstate 70 in Golden to Breckenridge would take just more than a half hour; travel to Vail would take 50 minutes. Meanwhile, a trip from Fort Collins to DIA would take less than 40 minutes, and Colorado Springs to DIA would take less than an hour.

CDOT also forecasts such a rapid system could serve 18 million to 19 million passengers a year in 2035.

But preliminary capital costs are insurmountable, said Mark Imhoff, director of CDOT's division of transit and rail. A transit system linking DIA to Eagle would cost $16.5 billion, while Fort Collins to Pueblo comes in at $13.6 billion. A maximum of $1 billion to $3 billion could be obtained in private financing, leaving a considerable shortfall, Imhoff said.
This is consistent with a previous report from November of last year, which also noted that the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs portion would cost about $9.8 billion and carry 13 million passengers a year. Extending light rail from Colorado Springs to Pueblo would add $2.8 billion to construction costs and only modestly improve ridership.

The DIA to Eagle route would add about 4-5.5 million passengers (after considering an estimated allowance for Colorado Springs to Pueblo traffic out of the total), with an additional cost of $16.5 billion of infrastructure costs. Thus, the cost per rider in the mountains would be about four to five times as expensive per passenger as the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs route to build.

UPDATE October 6, 2020.

This plan below isn't realistically going to happen any time in the next couple of decades, but is a dream plan that might have happened in the absence of an Interstate Highway system.



Dave Barnes said...

What a stupid waste of money.
Not enough population density.
Acela is a joke.
We can't even compete with France and the TGV is slower than Chinese trains.

andrew said...

The Dallas-Houston corridor has lots of population density and is a good choice even though a national system doesn't make great sense in the U.S.

andrew said...

See this link on where high speed rail works best: https://rpa.org/uploads/pdfs/Where-HSR-Works-Best.pdf

Dave Barnes said...

Ignoring Japan, China, India, Europe in the paper is silly.

andrew said...

Japan and most of the places in China with high speed rail have very high population densities and connect related urban areas. Japan has lots of mountainous terrain that can't be easily developed and huge dense cities. China's geography doesn't inherently demand that, but it has lots of huge dense cities nobody in the West has ever heard of and they are heavily concentrated in Eastern China with the "interior" being rural. Europe, likewise, in regions that have high speed rail, has quite high population density and much less sprawl in destination medium sized cities because in Europe farmers historically lived in villages and commuted to their fields rather than having homes spread out in individual homestead (perhaps driven by near peer warfare which was almost absent in the American frontier).

There is lots of slow speed rail in India and other parts of Europe and China, but that dates to when there were no major highways and it was a cheap alternative to major highways. To my knowledge, there is no high speed rail in India or Eastern Europe.

Also, just because high speed rail makes most economic sense in certain places doesn't mean that people who build it always make the best choices. China's high speed rail lines tend to run relatively empty and hubris by powerful mid-level party leaders is a factor. Morocco has high speed rail along its Atlantic Coast that doesn't really make economic sense, but the king wanted it for prestige reasons to mimic his European counterparts on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Finally, the study is evaluating where high speed rail makes sense in the U.S., not as an abstract matter in general. In addition to the fundamentals of very low population density in much of the country and lots of territory that can't be served by navigable waters, the U.S. also has many sunk costs that influence what is best for it now, for example, in the form of an unrivaled system of high quality interstate highways, high rates of personal car and truck ownership, suburban sprawl land use reflecting past policy decisions to use roads with personal vehicles in lieu of any kind of transit even buses with little public funding for public transit, homestead rather than village style rural land use, an abandoned passenger rail system, and a well developed system of major commercial airports served by a well developed commercial airline industry. What makes sense in the U.S. in status quo 2020 is different than what might have made sense starting from a blank slate.