“Remember it’s not about the speed, it’s about the time, it’s about the service, frequency, connectivity. A lot of that gets lost when we get into this big battle for who can go fastest across the country or on an alignment.”
Defining “High Speed”
One limiting factor for high-speed rail in the United States is the need to switch from diesel to electric power. In the Northeast, Amtrak’s lines are all-electric and Boardman says the majority of its equipment is electric and half its ridership everyday rides on electric-powered vehicles.
That isn’t to say that Amtrak is all-electric. With a little more than 200 diesel locomotives, Amtrak still has a sizable diesel fleet, which it uses across the country. But it’s the only electric railroad in the United States, which is good for several reasons.
“One, it’s green,” Boardman says, “but also, and a lot of people don’t get this, one of the reasons you’re not going to go faster than 110 mph out beyond the Northeast Corridor is that you need to electrify if you’re going to go faster.”
Another reason for 110 mph to be a limit for many lines is the FRA requirement to remove all rail crossings — be completely grade separated — to operate above that speed, which incurs a huge cost. And when you look at the size of the United States, huge takes on a different connotation.
“A lot of people don’t [understand the scale] until they get on a train and ride across the country. The Europeans don’t understand the scale of this country,” Boardman says.
Boardman says that for the most part outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak operates at 79 mph on 21,000 miles of track because in part the freight lines don’t need any more than that.
But what about high-speed rail? Boardman pulled out “general definitions” of high-speed rail from the Union of International Railroads (UIC) and read to me verbatim:
“We’ve deliberately used the word definition in the plural because there is no single standard definition of high-speed rail or parenthetically nor even a standard usage of the term. Sometimes it’s called high speed and sometimes very high speed. The definitions vary according to the criteria used since high-speed rail corresponds to a complex reality. We on the UIC high-speed rail task force wanted to reflect this diversity by considering high speed from all the standpoints: infrastructure, rolling stock and operating practice.”
Boardman points out that America has become enamored with the idea of implementing high-speed or very-high-speed trains like in Europe, which isn’t exactly what the public expects it to be.
“Europe doesn’t have high-speed rail like the Americans think they have,” Boardman says.
In Europe many lines are green field areas with a straight line with one stop in the middle, which may not even be in the downtown area. Another factor is what is called “high-speed traffic,” which is essentially going high speed outside of towns and reducing speed as the train enters a town only to go back to high speed once it exits again.
“There has to be an understanding and a common sense applied to what we need to do for the future,” Boardman says.
“The Northeast Corridor is high speed. It already is high speed, but to spend the dollars to take incremental minutes off from that speed is astronomical.”
Boardman points out a common-sense statement that he head from someone from the Midwest: “One of the keys to go faster is not to go slower.”
“Let’s go from 20 to 40 — we just doubled our speed. Let’s fix it from 25 to 50. You know those kinds of fixes really improve railroading,” Boardman says.
“We’re not doubling our speed when we’re going from 90 to 110. We have to go from 90 to 180 to double our speed. [There are] huge costs there in comparison to all the low-hanging fruit that is out there that we could fix today and for the future.”
True High Speed
So what will it take to have true “high-speed” trains in the United States? To get there it will take a change in understanding according to Boardman.
“There’s a need out there for people to understand high-speed rail is going to pass you by when it’s doing 186 miles an hour. [You] can’t stop at all those little stations and still be high speed.