American high-speed rail building on a roll – 2

In “American high-speed rail building in full swing: An update,” it was explained what the progress on high-speed rail building is in the U.S. In this second section, detailed is how America got where it is today, high-speed rail advancement-wise; discusses some high, low and in-between points, and what it is about this transportation mode that makes it attractive and gives it value and how it can benefit mobility as a whole. It is amazing actually how far the country has come from where the nation had once been in terms of experimentation and testing (the trials) in this area. (More on this in a bit).

“The United States has been studying high-speed rail for at least 30 years, while the rest of the world has moved beyond studying and has been building high-speed rail systems and networks,” writes Tom Skancke, Western High Speed Rail Alliance Executive Director, writing for RAIL Magazine in the Fall 2011 (28th Edition) issue in the article “Rocky Mountain High… …Speed Rail.”1

Making tracks – interest in and from overseas

The place where high-speed rail first debuted – in Japan in 1964 – contributing to that effort were American business interests.

In “How America Led, and Lost, the High-Speed Rail Race,” Mark Reutter wrote: “To operate the Shinkansen, or ‘New Trunk Line,’ between Tokyo and Osaka, [then Japan’s Minister of Transport Shinhi] Sogo actively imported technology from America, including the two-axle trucks of the Budd Manufacturing Co. and dynamic braking pioneered by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division. To top it off, the [sic] Japan ordered the most advanced computer used outside of military applications (built by yet another American company, Bendix) to operate the line’s signal and dispatching systems.”

But, as Reutter also qualified, also from the same “Progressive Fix” blog of the Progressive Policy Institute, “Not so very long ago, we were not in this humiliating position. In fact, we operated trains that amazed and impressed the rest of the world. These trains … connoted speed and luxury. In the period between 1935 and 1950, the 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were all U.S. streamliners.”

In “Fifty years in the making: American high-speed rail,” it is written: “The movement officially began with President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 on Sept. 30th.” Informally, the movement and forward momentum started long before that.

This was followed in 1971 with the unveiling of the High Speed Ground Test Center (HSGTC), today known as the Transportation Technology Center located roughly 25 miles northeast of Pueblo, Colorado. It was at this facility that the wheels of high-speed-rail-development progress in the U.S. were set in motion.

320px-THE_LIMTV_(LINEAR_INDUCTION_MOTOR_TEST_VEHICLE)_IS_TESTED_AT_THE_DEPARTMENT_OF_TRANSPORTATION'S_HIGH_SPEED_GROUND..._-_NARA_-_545956[1]From its inception until 1974, as its name no doubt would imply, the HSGTC conducted tests on such sophisticated transportation alternatives as air suspension systems and linear induction motors. A world speed record for a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail vehicle was attained, in 1974, clocking the Linear Induction Motor Research Vehicle at 255 mph. However, in December that same year, the government shifted its focus toward enhancing the safety and efficiency of conventional railroading and changed the name to the Transportation Test Center to reflect this change.2

Somewhere right around this time, incidentally, a partnering program among American and Japanese interests was established to build an approximately 125-mile-long bullet-train line connecting Los Angeles and San Diego, it at the time an all-but-certain potentiality, hopes running extremely high that the line would one-day see the light of day, especially considering the entire project tab was going to be picked up by the Japanese interests then involved. But, alas, this did not happen.

Even so, interest in building high-speed rail in California never ever waned completely and, in particular, then Governor Jerry Brown (in his first term as Governor) refused to give up the fight to make high-speed rail in the Golden State a reality, though, it was 15 years later that momentum in this area really began to build.

As it were, in 1990, “the Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act (Proposition 116) provided $5 million to conduct HSR feasibility and preliminary engineering studies for the Los Angeles to Bakersfield Corridor. In 1993, an Executive Order from the Governor and Senate Concurrent Resolution 6 (SCR6) established the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission to develop a plan for HSR service between northern and southern California within 20 years,” emphasized the Commission.3 Things didn’t exactly work out this way, but still.

One thing led to another, and by Nov. 2008, voters approved the construction of the state’s ambitious 800-mile-total statewide HSR project. Groundbreaking for the program was made official in Fresno on Jan. 6, 2015 and construction commenced a few short miles away in Madera County on a viaduct crossing Raymond Road, the Fresno River and State Route 145 on Jun. 16th that same year.

Air-benefit/electrification association

One of the most important advances on the railway technology front was the introduction of electricity as a means to power locomotives, and trains without locomotives. (That’s a whole subject unto itself and in consideration of space limitations will not be detailed here).

Suffice it to say, electricity is a clean form of energy when generated from 100 percent renewable sources. Powering trains using electricity generated from such sources (solar, wind, tide, geothermal, hydro) results in no emissions being produced which in no uncertain terms is of benefit to air quality.

From the Nov. 2011 High Speed Rail and Sustainability report from the Union of International Railways, it is written: “For PM10 [coarse particulate matter] HSR is 14 times less polluting than car and air transport; for NOx [oxides of nitrogen] HSR is 13 times less polluting, and considering non-methane hydrocarbons [NMHC] about 19 times less polluting than car and air transport.”4

Restoring balance, adding substance in transportation is key

The U.S. transportation system as such is in most other countries consists, actually, of networks of varied systems. In America, the backbone is composed of an agglomeration of roadways. Subsidiary to this, of course, is the collection of various “ways” or rights-of-way on which trains, planes and watercraft travel. Within this broad, mobile band, working high-speed rail – passenger and freight – is decidedly missing. That said, the pendulum, at long last, is moving in the direction of high-speed rail inclusion, even if slowly and that – good, bad or indifferent depending upon one’s point of view – has upset the status quo.

Peter Richmond in the Parade magazine cover story “A Better Way To Travel?” on Nov. 4, 2007, hit the nail on the head in remarking on why the nation, compared to other countries rail-progress-wise, had fallen “so far behind.” Richmond chided: “Blame it on our love affair with the automobile and a historical antipathy of legislators for subsidizing the nation’s railroads. Our government’s disdain for trains began with FDR, who in the late 1930s turned his back on fat-cat railroad barons asking for federal handouts. Two decades later, President Eisenhower certified our commitment to cars when he built the interstate highway system.”5

Though true, not all legislators are anti-rail/anti-high-speed rail. In fact, U.S. Congressman David Price, representing North Carolina in an address he delivered at the meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Standing Committee on Rail Transportation,6 expressed the following:

“This March, I joined a group of my colleagues to launch the new Congressional Bipartisan Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. In keeping with Washington tradition, the name is long (!), but it represents the fact that there are members from both parties – and on both sides of the Hill – who understand the importance of high-speed rail. Our mission is to build the foundation for our future growth and a smart transportation system that meets the needs of the 21st century including high speed rail.”

What can be gleaned from this is that high-speed rail isn’t to be built sacrificing some other mode or modes, the latter thereby going the way of the dinosaurs. In fact, just the opposite: HSR will serve to make better the existing transportation network by providing one more viable option and means of transport to more effectively and efficiently move people around the country.

High-speed rail is a transportation choice people want. That’s a given.


  1. Tom Skancke, “Rocky Mountain High… …Speed Rail,” RAIL, Fall 2011 (28th Edition), pp. 30-32
  2. Edward R. Walsh and Peggy L. Herman, “History of the Transportation Technology Center,” TTC, Pueblo, Colorado, 1996
  3. Distribution of the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission (publication date unknown)
  4. High Speed Rail and Sustainability, “4.1.2 Air pollution, HSR Causes Less Pollutants Than Competitive Modes,” Union of International Railways (UIC), Nov. 2011, p. 22
  5. Peter Richmond, “A Better Way To Travel?” Parade, Nov. 4, 2007, pp. 6-8
  6. “The Future of High-Speed Rail, The Railyard, Track II,” reprinted in RAIL, Fall 2011 (28th Edition), pp. 8, 9

Image above: Bruce McAllister, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park location collection