American high-speed rail building in full swing: An update

The building of a high-speed train system these days is really no big deal. But as United States citizens, we might be inclined to believe otherwise.

There is no question of the electric train’s many advantages: speed, comfort, safety, reliability, convenience and environmental friendliness – these being the key ones. In the world of intercity travel, high-speed, electric trains, even though a competitive option, in the U.S., the idea about Americans traveling in high-speed trains in certain areas of the country, has, historically, not been quick to catch on.

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]The irony here is it used to be that America was once the premier railroad builder. In fact, at the pinnacle of the domestic railroad construction movement in 1916, track route-miles totaled no less than 254,000. Nor was it uncommon for the nation’s crack passenger trains to break the hundred-mile-per-hour mark. On the Northeast Corridor mainline higher-speed railway north of New York, Amtrak’s Acela Express trains regularly reach 150 mph albeit on two relatively short track stretches in the state of Rhode Island, all of it made possible by well-maintained Class Six trackage and electricity-fed trains enabled through the use of overhead catenary wire. At any rate, the Acela’s will presumably soon have company on tracks in California, Texas and possibly in other corridors where trains will rival those speeds and then some, that is, if forward momentum along these lines can just keep rolling along.

On a roll out west

The California high-speed train endeavor has its work cut out. The first 520 miles of track connecting the megalopolis’ of San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim is being constructed; the construction effort already underway in the state’s central San Joaquin Valley in Madera and Fresno. This is part of a track segment to stretch 116 miles south to Bakersfield, a line which will later reach Merced north of Madera and Gilroy and San Jose to Madera’s northwest. Construction of Phase 1 (S.F.-L.A./Anaheim) is slated to be finished and open for service by 2028 or ’29. Sacramento and San Diego are expected to come online sometime thereafter, those sections constituting Phase 2 of the mainline building program.

320px-FLV_California_train[1]Not unlike building highway infrastructure, building a rail system, any rail system, takes money. In the case of California high-speed rail Phase 1, it is currently estimated that to complete that task it will cost $68.4 billion. There is a pending case right this moment before a Sacramento County Superior Court judge being brought by a group in Kings County asking for a course correction, apparently. How this will play out remains to be seen. The trial could last weeks and possibly months, purportedly. Whichever way the presiding judge in this case rules – for or against the plaintiffs – the feeling is there is almost certain to be an appeal (by the losing side).

The Texas plan

Way back when, what was proposed for the Lone Star State was dubbed the Texas TGV; TGV in this instance standing for “Train a Grande Vitesse,” or “Train of Great Speed” in French. That proposal, for lack of a better way to describe the outcome, was stopped dead in its tracks.

Change being a constant, interest has been renewed. Only this time it is the Texas Central Railway high-speed rail plan we’re talking about here.

The proposal/plan as it stands, call for trains to traverse the 240-mile distance from Dallas to Houston in a little as 90 minutes, with trains reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Whereas Dallas would offer riders a downtown station, Houston would not, trains to stop at a terminus located outside the city’s central core, that is, if a route into the city can’t be identified. And, whereas California’s effort will utilize federal transportation and stimulus monies, dollars from polluters coming courtesy of the Golden State’s Cap-and-Trade program, financing from the sale of bonds, plus there being the expectation that private contributions will materialize farther down the line, Texas Central is relying exclusively on private sector capital, estimated to be $12 billion max. Word has it a 30-mile extension from Dallas to Fort Worth is not out of the realm of possibility either.

The system, if approved, will be built along both utility and transportation rights-of-way and a full environmental review has already been performed. Once begun, the main trunk between Dallas and Houston, the Lone Star State’s two largest cities, is projected to receive paying passengers by year 2021, five short years away, that is, if construction commences next year.

Middle America, back east, etc.

While California and Texas programs continue to gain traction, others are being proposed. One, which deviates from the conventional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail approach, is magnetically levitated in orientation. There appears to be fairly strong interest in bridging by this technology/propulsion type, Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C., a distance of roughly 50 miles. Others more along conventional lines are proposed as well. These include Minneapolis-St. Paul to Rochester, Minnesota Zip Rail; Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California (with a possible branch from Victorville to Palmdale) XpressWest; as well as a network of corridors in Mid-America whose hub more than likely would be Chicago, with fingers presumably to Detroit, St. Louis among other mid-west-based metropolitan regions.

Bigger bang for the buck

As pricey as electrified high-speed rail systems are (or are perceived to be), the proverbial bang for the buck is bigger compared to other modes, not only from an air-quality/environmental/sustainability standpoint, but in terms of helping alleviate both congested roads and skies, the amount of fuel consumed (electrified, high-speed trains can run on 100 percent renewable energy and, via regenerative braking capability, the trains can produce electricity that can be stored for use at a later time or be immediately utilized by other electric, high-speed trainsets on the same line operating on level track or going upgrade) and they can’t be beat for comfort, reliability, and safety. Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train system serves 151 million annual riders and since Oct. 1, 1964 when the system first started operating, there hasn’t been a single train-caused fatality. What other automatic mode responsible for moving masses of people can make a claim like this?!

Much more information can be found at the following:

  1. California High-Speed Rail Authority
  2. Midwest High-Speed Rail Association
  3. Texas Central Railway
  4. XpressWest
  5. Zip Rail


Department of corrections: It was incorrectly stated that “ … California’s effort will utilize federal transportation and stimulus monies, dollars from polluters coming courtesy of the Golden State’s Cap-and-Trade program, financial grants coming from the state … ” Further, the word “racetrack,” previously used in paragraph 3 (replaced with “higher-speed railway”) and the phrase “and can do so without even breaking a sweat,” have been removed. The article has since been adjusted and incorporates text that has either been corrected or made more appropriate.

Upper image above: Connor Harris

– Alan Kandel

1 thought on “American high-speed rail building in full swing: An update”

  1. the government’s high priests of mumbo-jumbo are now using weasel words to hide substantial cost- overruns that will cost the public billions in misspent taxes for decades.

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