High-Speed Rail

In the 1960s, the Japanese Shinkansen captured the world’s imagination as the first “bullet train,” followed in the early 1980s by the French TGV. Soon after, similar high-speed trains now traveling more than 200 miles per hour appeared in Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, China, Korea, Taiwan and many other of the world’s more advanced countries. Not only is that new technology amazingly fast, less polluting and more fuel efficient, but it’s also impressively safe. The Japanese and French high-speed trains have carried many billions of riders and have experienced not one fatality. Meanwhile in the United States, 43,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were maimed on the nation’s freeways last year alone. That is equivalent to a major epidemic. It’s a truly sobering statistic.

The United States, assumed to be the world’s technological leader, has been left far behind while it has focused almost exclusively on the interstate system and the family cars. Now the nation is trying to catch up with the rest of the world’s more advanced transportation programs. But that effort has been agonizingly slow. Though Congress designated 10 high-speed rail (HSR) corridors in the early 1990s, only one modestly higher speed line has been developed — Amtrak’s Boston to New York and Washington Acela Line, which averages only 83 miles per hour. But there is hope. Under President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, HSR is gaining speed toward implementation in America’s most congested areas. It’s about time.

Both President Obama and California’s Governor Schwarzenegger emphatically support high-speed rail networks and have placed their reputations squarely behind that effort. Recent meetings hosted by the president in the White House and the governor in his Sacramento office emphasized their determined commitment to this once-in-a-century reinvention of the American transportation system.

Available Funding
The president’s stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), supports the 10 federally designated corridors for use in creating higher and HSR capacity. In a remarkably short time and with a massive effort, on June 17 the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released the criteria and procedure for the approval of the ARRA high-speed rail competitive grants. While the local funding will vary for each of the corridors, the federal funding for the nationwide HSR program will include the following:

  • $8 billion in the stimulus bill designated for higher and HSR implementation
  • $5 billion in the form of $1 billion per year added by President Obama to each of his next five annual budgets
  • Possibly $50 billion, specifically designated for HSR, spread over the next six years in Chair James Oberstar’s House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s version of the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA)

The first two funding sources are fairly firm, while the third is under legislative negotiations. Each of the rail corridors will include a mix of funding sources depending on local jurisdiction. Typically, the funding for each corridor will come from three sources:

  • Local and state funding
  • Federal funding (the three sources mentioned above and possibly others)
  • Public-private partnership funding

Types of HSR corridors
Two general kinds of HSR programs are to be funded under ARRA. The first is the so-called “true” HSR, which will operate on exclusive, grade-separated and protected rights-of-way at speeds in excess of 200 mph using European or Asian-style electrically powered rolling stock. The second is referred to as “incremental upgrade” technology and would use improved freight rail tracks using either electric- or diesel-powered rolling stock and reaching speeds up to 120 mph.

The three currently designated “true” HSR corridors are in California, Florida and Texas. Two additional corridors are seeking designation as true HSR segments. The Boston to Washington Acela corridor, mentioned previously, may be proposed by Amtrak to the Secretary of Transportation for formal HSR designation. The other would emanate from Chicago and be upgraded, via the completion of a Program-level Environmental Clearance, from an incremental upgraded corridor (120 mph) to a true HSR (200+ mph) segment if the study proves that to be viable. Each of those five corridors has significant population growth and implementation strategies that seem ideal for HSR.

The other seven federally designated elements are currently incremental upgrade corridors. These corridors will operate on the same tracks as the standard freight rail service. The Midwest Regional Rail, an 11-state rail system branching from Chicago, is one example. Those systems operate above standard speeds at up to 120 mph and offer a faster alternative and more throughput than is currently available.

California: a model for HSR funding
Of the three (possibly five) true HSR corridors, California is considered to have a model HSR funding and implementation strategy. The California legislature created the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) board in 1996 and tasked it to design, build, operate and maintain a 220-mph rail system to tie together the state’s metropolitan areas through a 790-mile basic system. This would connect the San Diego, Inland Empire, Los Angeles, Central Valley, San Francisco Bay and Sacramento areas. The CHSRA board, with five gubernatorial, two senate and two assembly appointees, has expended more than $70 million to complete the federally required environmental and engineering studies and bond-worthy business and implementation plans. That level of preliminary investment was required to assure that the $40+ billion needed for this largest single constructing project in the nation’s history is built in the correct corridors with stations in the best locations and using the most effective technology.   

The result is a final Program Environmental Clearance now approved by the federal EPA, Corps of Engineers and FRA and certified by the CHSRA board on July 9, 2008. That plan provided the detailed background information for both the technicians and the voters to review. On Nov. 4, 2008, California voters approved $9.95 billion in HSR bonds. Of that amount, $9 billion is designated exclusively for the CHSRA project and $950 million will be expended to upgrade and integrate the rail feeder lines throughout the state. The $9 billion provides California’s share of the CHSRA project. Approximately $12 to $16 billion will be needed in federal funds, which seems quite feasible with the advent of ARRA and the STAA draft. An additional $6.5 to $7.5 billion is expected to be provided by private investors, of which 28 have signed non-binding letters of interest to invest. The 24 cities in which HSR stops are to be located have agreed to fund the construction and maintenance of the stations, which will save the project $2 to $3 billion.

Completion estimates have been made
California’s first element is expected to begin construction in 2012 from Anaheim north via Los Angeles and the Central Valley to Merced then in tunnels to Gilroy and via San Jose to San Francisco. It is expected to be completed by 2018-20. That starter-line is projected to cost more than $30 billion (2008 dollars) and carry 55 million annual riders with gross revenue of $2.4 billion and a net, after operating and maintenance costs, of approximately $1.1 billion. The state’s full 790-mile HSR basic system is expected to be completed between 2020-30, depending on funding variability, with an annual ridership of 93 million passengers and gross revenue of $3.6 billion per year. The net, after operating and maintenance costs, is projected at $2.0 billion annually. HSR also has the capacity to carry high-value, low-bulk cargo, such as computer components and mail, thus adding another revenue stream that has not yet been estimated.

Business plans developed by two top bond-worthy financial consulting firms (Charles River Associates and Cambridge Systematics) estimate that the completed CHSRA system will have the significant positive cash flow after all operating and maintenance costs as described. That net will amortize a significant amount of private investment to help build and later expand the basic system.

Why do we need HSR?
America needs HSR because it makes good economic sense. California’s population alone will double from its current 36 million to more than 60 million by mid-century. Those citizens will need transportation. Just imagine all those additional cars on the highway! What are the alternatives? California has the choice of building 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and two new international airports at a cost of more than $100 billion, or of building the planned $40+ billion 790-mile HSR system. What’s the smart choice? Even with the additional highway and airport construction, that system expansion will meet the state’s travel needs only for the next 40 years. After that, the $100 billion highway and airport cost would be required again to meet the needs of the second half of the century. Nationally, the cost of the additional highway miles and airport infrastructure needed to meet America’s transportation demand is even more staggering.

Yet, in California the HSR system will meet the state’s transportation needs until 2100 with no additional capital expenditures except to add more rolling stock.

Economically, California’s HSR system is expected to create 160,000 construction jobs and to stimulate an added 450,000 permanent jobs by 2035. And these jobs cannot be sent off-shore.

Finally, highways and airports don’t come close to paying for themselves. But HSR systems around the world, as is projected for the CHSRA system, help to build extensions and to support other transportation systems’ elements after the starter line is constructed by the sponsoring governments. The cost-benefit analysis based upon “investment grade” ridership forecasts concludes that HSR tax and economic benefits would be more than two times the cost.

Environmentally clear choice
In California alone, the highway and airport alternative would create more than 18 billion more pounds of global warming gases and would use more than 22 million additional barrels of oil per year than the electrically powered high-speed trains. HSR is a huge step toward energy independence from imported oil. When compared with other vehicles, high-speed trains require only one-third of the energy required by air travel and one-fifth that of an automobile per passenger mile. Additionally, the HSR line would synergize the effectiveness of other mass transit systems while helping to focus growth around both the HSR and as well as feeder line train stations. By contrast, the highway and airport alternative would continue to promote urban sprawl while desecrating our last farmlands and open space. HSR environmental impacts can also be minimized with most alignments within or adjacent to existing rail or highway rights-of-way.

The narrower and cleaner rights-of-way needed for HSR will also have less impact on wetlands and water resources, biology and farmlands. It also will have much less noise pollution because the electric trains on state-of-the-art roadbeds are much quieter than typical diesel trains and very much quieter that jet planes.

HSR sustainable benefits
HSR will provide a significant increase in property values for the land surrounding the HSR stations. Some estimates place that increase at 10 times the original value of the property because HSR stations help to catalyze high-density, high-value urban infill. A portion of the additional value will be captured by city redevelopment or revenue assessment districts, with a portion of that revenue reinvested in facilities supporting the HSR program. As a result, HSR stations will be paid for by the hosting cities through value-capture on the increased tax revenue when the land is redeveloped. In Japan, many of the HSR stations and marshaling yards are under high-rise buildings, some of which are owned by the railroad and others of which lease air-rights and pay a fee to the HSR companies. This multi-use of scarce land adds to the HSR revenue by force-feeding riders into the system, creating lease/rent income, and it provides incremental tax revenue increases for the surrounding community while helping to fight urban sprawl.

HSR is cost efficient, and unlike most airports, it takes passengers from city center to city center rather than requiring supplemental transport by cab or bus from a remote location, where most airports are located. HSR also provides a comfortable travel experience with more room for passengers and with on-board conveniences such as refreshment, business cars (cell phones and Internet connections are encouraged on HSR) and restaurants. HSR is also more reliable than air travel and is unaffected by weather delays. Security is extensive but non-intrusive, therefore not requiring passenger delays. Overall, HSR is safer and more reliable than highway or air travel, with fast and predictable travel times that can be sustained over time.

This makes HSR more convenient than flying and ideal for one-way trips of less than 600 miles. California’s system will offer a fast and safe 790 miles of double track, electrified, grade-separated and right-of-way protected travel by express or by way of the local HSR version that will stop at more intermediate stations.

However, HSR will not diminish the importance of longer-distance airline travel or other forms of public transit. HSR is the ideal form of linear travel to connect neighboring metropolitan regions. HSR is not designed for coast-to-coast travel. But it would increase connectivity and accessibility to existing transcontinental air transportation systems and with the underserved inland populations, such as California’s central valley and the wide open spaces of Texas and central Florida.

HSR is ideal for both work and leisure. The primary target for high-speed rail is the business travelers who use the system several days per week accessing the metropolitan areas. An added bonus to HSR commuters, at least in some areas, is that employers often will subsidize mass transit use for employees, which will further reduce the cost to the user and increase ridership. The employees’ productivity also will be improved because commuters will be able to work comfortably while they travel and use cell phone and Internet connections, turning their travel time into paid time. They also will arrive at the workplace more relaxed because they will not have been fighting traffic congestion on saturated highways while paying for increasingly more expensive fuel.

Finally, the price of a one-way HSR ticket from San Francisco to Los Angles was estimated at $55, which was half the average cost of a commuter airline ticket at the time the business plan was developed. Moreover, the cost of shorter HSR trips is incrementally less, while for shorter airline flights, the price is substantially more than for long-haul flights between major metropolitan areas.

So HSR is less expensive, faster, more convenient, more reliable, safer, accessible directly into urban centers and more environmentally friendly. Which would you chose?

Time for final HSR implementation
Our national economy is staggering. Americans need jobs. President Franklin Roosevelt showed us how to build our way out of a depression while creating needed infrastructure. President Obama and congress will help build the HSR systems, in part, to create and sustain employment. HSR also helps the United States become a meaningful player in controlling climate change, which has become a crisis throughout the world. In fact, the vast European and Japanese high-speed rail networks are a primary reason both areas meet the old Kyoto Accords.

While the United States is 4 percent of the world’s population, it creates almost 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. It’s time the United States assumed responsibility as a global citizen regarding this most serious climate challenge.

The economic unit that moves employees and products most efficiently will prevail in the rapidly intensifying geo-economic competition. Certainly Japan, China, the European Community and even some underdeveloped areas are leaping ahead of the United States by creating HSR systems. Chair Oberstar and other national transportation leaders have asked if the United States has become a Third World country in terms of our transportation systems. China is in the early stages of planning 35 high-speed rail lines. China’s railways are among the main beneficiaries of its government’s 4-trillion-yuan ($585B) stimulus package. Approximately 11,000 kilometers of HSR traveling at more than 220 mph are under construction. More than 13,000 km of higher-speed railways capable of handling freight and passenger trains traveling at more than 120 mph could be completed and put into service by 2012, according to Zheng Jian, chief planner with the Ministry of Railways.

Just as the United States implemented a state-of-the-art interstate highway system in the 1950s, the time has come for America to implement this new, more user-friendly modal core for our national transportation system. We owe it to our beleaguered economy, to our local and global environment and to our children. All Americans should support this creative solution to our country’s long-term transportation challenge.

Will we be able to tell our children and grandchildren, as global warming and population growth become more severe, that we’ve done everything possible to meet the challenge? Our generation set out to make the world a better place. Are we succeeding? Will we be considered good ancestors? What will future generations say about us? The choice is ours to make.

Rod Diridon Sr. was a 20-year member of Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County (Calif.) Board of Supervisors, where he chaired the transit board as well as regional, national and international transit programs, including the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). He is chair emeritus and member of the California HSR Authority Board and executive director of the congressionally created Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in California.