Not So Fast for High-Speed Rail

Over most of Obama’s so-called high-speed rail network, the administration proposes to run passenger trains at top speeds of 110 miles per hour on the same tracks as freight trains. But CSX says it will not allow passenger trains to run faster than 90 mph on the same tracks as its freight trains. If the government wants to build new tracks, they must be at least 30 feet from CSX freight tracks.

Since New York, among other states, was counting on using CSX tracks for some of its moderate-speed rail routes, the Empire state has unsuccessfully pressured CSX to change this policy. Last month, the director of the state’s high-speed rail program quit in disgust because she felt other state officials were lying to CSX and not negotiating in good faith.

As noted here before, BNSF also believes that passenger trains faster than 90 mph are incompatible with freight. Other than liability problems, one possible reason for their concern is that the banking of rails around curves must be finely tuned for anticipated rail speeds. Curves banked to allow passenger trains to move at 110 mph might cause slower freight trains to derail.

Union Pacific doesn’t seem to think there is any problem with 110 mph trains, as it happily accepted an Illinois plan to have the government pay to double-track its route from Chicago to St. Louis and eventually run 110-mph passenger trains on that route. But UP’s CEO recently admitted that moderate-speed rail “might not be a good long-term investment.” Perhaps the railroad expects the government will give up on faster trains after it double-tracks UP’s line (which has been funded) but before it takes the additional steps needed to increase speeds above 90 mph (which have not yet been funded).

In other moderate-speed rail news, Wisconsin appears to have decided to terminate its planned Milwaukee-Madison passenger rail route near downtown Madison instead of at the airport, as previously contemplated. Yet this decision reveals just how limited the appeal of the supposed high-speed trains will be.

Initially, Wisconsin plans for trains going at top speeds of 79 mph, which means the trip from Milwaukee to Madison will take longer than existing bus services in the same corridor. But the buses stop both in downtown Madison and at the University of Wisconsin, which (when combined with their lower fares) would make them more appealing to students. Eventually, Wisconsin wants to run trains through to Minneapolis, but that means trains will have to go into Madison, then back out on the same tracks for many miles before they pick up the main line west. The time required to do so will mitigate much if not most of the advantage of rail even if the state is able to eventually boost speeds to 110 mph.

UP’s CEO is right: moderate-speed rail is not a good investment. And neither is true high-speed rail, which costs ten times as much but is not likely to carry ten times as many passengers. The fundamental problem is that high-speed rail advocates want people to switch from faster planes to merely fast trains and convenient, door-to-door autos to merely downtown-to-downtown trains, all at huge taxpayer expense because the trains will cost at least four to five times as much, per passenger mile, as either flying or driving. That is an expensive recipe for failure.

Update: Union Pacific has “vowed to fight” California high-speed rail — or at least fight any attempts to use UP rights of way as high-speed rail corridors. The railroad originally objected in 2008, and has apparently not been swayed from its opposition since then. Rail advocates kindly responded by threatening the railroad with retaliation: “What comes around goes around. If they want to do that kind of thing, watch out.”


10 thoughts on “Not So Fast for High-Speed Rail

  1. Scott

    The capital cost for the CA HSR will be $3,000 to $5,000 per worker.
    Such a deal.
    And the expected ridership is about 3 trips/capita/year. Come on! That’s high.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    I have not been there, but it is my understanding that Japan’s famous “bullet” trains, known as the Shinkansen, run entirely on dedicated tracks and rights-of-way.

    I quote from the Wikipedia article linked above:

    Shinkansen routes are completely separate from conventional rail lines (except Mini-shinkansen which goes through to conventional lines). Consequently, Shinkansen is not affected by slower local or freight trains and has the capacity to operate many high-speed trains punctually.

    [Emphasis added]

  3. The Antiplanner Post author


    You are right: 3 trips per capita per year is high. The California HSR Authority is predicting its trains will carry 20 times as many trips per year as Amtrak’s Acela — nearly 60 million vs. 3 million. Yet Acela serves a corridor that has more people than the California corridor is expected to have in 2025. These numbers are simply a fantasy, as are the secondary job numbers.

  4. Borealis

    High speed rail is aimed at a rather narrow niche of the market. It has to be faster than an automobile or bus, but slower than an airplane. It has to be cheaper than an airplane or automobile, but probably more expensive than a bus or normal rail service. It probably has a convenience advantage over airplanes by arriving downtown rather than at an airport, but inevitably loses badly in convenience to automobiles for anything but downtown destinations.

    Maybe that rather narrow niche might be profitable in the right situation, but the risk is high. The large capital investment can’t adjust. Planes, buses and cars can adjust to new places rather easily, but rails cannot.

    I would be interested in knowing whether the existing slow rail service is heavily used, and how much high speed rail would improve on it.

  5. T. Caine

    Any proposed high speed rail service that has to share track is a waste of time and money. While I am a proponent of high speed rail, all we have to do is look at our existing regional rail lines to see how many delays result from sharing tracks with freight let alone trying to travel at speeds north of 100mph. Any designated high speed corridor should be building new track beds or else they are just going to end up running slowly, negating all of the purported benefits for building them in the first place. The last thing that high speed rail needs is new systems built to fail before they have even started service.

  6. Borealis

    That is a good point, T.Caine. High speed rail’s best asset is its land speed, and to handicap it with shared tracks is not a good test. I can see how the Northeast, with its centuries of development, would make it near impossible to build new tracks. But the West and South have lots of land for creative solutions.

  7. prk166

    @Borealis, France and Germany have far more entrenched development and were able to do it. The problem isn’t getting it done but cost. Which is why if it can’t be done in the Northeast, I’m not sure how it’s going to be justfied in the South and especially not in the West.

  8. Borealis

    Good point, prk166. Do you know if France in Germany had inland rail routes, which might have more options than a coastal route like NE US. Perhaps Japan has the most difficult selection of routes because it is so coastal and just much more dense.

    On the other hand, the NJ turnpike goes through a lot of semi-rural areas outside of the metro areas, and inside the metro areas it should be about the same anywhere else.

  9. Scott

    There is a difference between intra-urban & inter-urban.
    Through rural areas? That’s the point.
    If a HSR route went through only urbanized areas, how many stops?
    And how long?
    Large metropolitan areas are not very encompassing, <~60 miles.

    The northeast agglomeration is a ~line, w/"rural" spots, but has the best chance for the "need" to travel between cities–not that much. Sure, it would be nice to be faster, w/out the airport, but the cost is way too overwhelming.

    The coastal aspect does not matter. The matter is not getting riders from a 10-20-30+ mile radius. In other words, having 1/2 a radius is negligible.
    The matter is, if people, at a high density, want to get, from the station (to there, by some means; few riders as close as 0.3 mi.) to another urban area.

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