A transportation vision

February 2011 » Exclusive
Is U.S. high-speed rail moving full-speed ahead?
Stephanie Hildebrandt
Rendering of a high-speed rail station in California
California High-Speed Rail Authority

On Nov. 3, 2010, China’s high-speed train CRH- 380A broke a world speed record for unmodified commercial use, travelling 300 mph. And in as little as five years from now, China may have more miles of high-speed rail than any other country. In Spain, more people travel between Madrid and Seville by high-speed rail than by car and airplane combined. Currently, Japan is building a rail line from Tokyo to Osaka with the ability to travel faster than 300 mph. These international high-speed rail facts were pointed out in President Barack Obama’s “A Vision for High-Speed Rail” speech, given on April 16, 2009. At the end of his address, he quoted architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, FAIA, saying, “Make no little plans.”

The president’s plan for high-speed rail is no small task, but it will take plenty of little steps to get there. The first step was Obama’s dedication of $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. This money was originally distributed across major corridors in 31 states, however, Wisconsin and Ohio rejected the funds. As a result, the money was redistributed to other states committed to high-speed rail programs. According to America 2050, the top-performing corridors in each region determined to have the greatest potential demand for high-speed rail ridership are: New York-Washington, D.C.; Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego; Tampa, Fla.,-Miami; Dallas-Houston; Atlanta-Birmingham, Ala.; Portland, Ore.-Seattle; and Denver-Pueblo, Colo. Scoring was based on factors that have contributed to rail ridership in other systems around the world, including regional and city population size and density, employment concentrations, rail transit accessibility, air travel markets, and the composition of job markets by sector.

According to an article on nbcwashington.com, the Northeast Corridor line is a $117 billion, 30-year project that would reduce the travel time between Washington, D.C., and New York City from 162 minutes to 96 minutes; it would reduce the travel time between New York City and Boston from 215 minutes to 84 minutes. Trains would operate at an average speed of 140 mph with the ability to travel as fast as 220 mph on a new two-track corridor.

One of the United States’ most ambitious projects is California’s high-speed rail. According to whitehouse.gov, trains will reach speeds of 220 mph, reducing the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to less than two hours and 20 minutes. The drive would take about six hours. California eventually expects as many as 100 million passengers per year, which would make it one of the busiest passenger rail lines in the world. But when planners announced that the initial segment would be built in the state’s Central Valley, many people referred to it as the “train to nowhere.” And, of course, this isn’t the only negative opinion of high-speed rail.

Proposed U.S. high-speed rail network through 2030
U.S. High-Speed Rail Association

“Critics believe that high-speed rail will not be successful because people will not leave their cars or airplanes,” said Richard Simonetta, vice president and national director of high-speed rail and special projects at URS Corp. “Some also argue that the United States lacks the density of population, with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, to support high-speed rail.”

William Mooney, senior manager of U.S. rail practice at Halcrow, added: “Certain states (Ohio and Wisconsin) have determined that they could not accept the U.S. [Department of Transportation (DOT)] ARRA funds since their current governors believe that in doing so they are guaranteeing that their states will make up any capital or operating shortfalls from their local tax base. They have expressed concern that the cost estimates for capital construction and ongoing operating expenses are vastly understated. Other states have embraced the high-speed rail plans for their areas and have readily accepted the USDOT funding. Clearly, the concerns of all states are that the planning efforts for high-speed rail are sound.”

Many pro-rail advocates look to other nations as proof that high-speed rail can work, while also citing the rising costs of oil and the inefficiencies of cars. “Over the past 60 years, intercity travel of less than 500 miles in the United States is primarily by automobile,” said David Carol, market leader of high-speed rail at Parsons Brinckerhoff. “Our lifestyle, transportation systems, and land use are all built around this axiom. However, it is unclear how long we as a nation can continue to travel and live this way. Growing concerns about rising gasoline prices, global warming, and energy security all point toward a future where intercity travel by car will be increasingly expensive and inefficient. Experience around the world has demonstrated that high-speed rail is the most efficient means of intercity travel. High-speed rail also supports concentrated transit-oriented development around stations and more self-sustaining communities. What this means is that even if it turns out that construction of a new high-speed rail system is more expensive than a highway or other alternative, it may still be in our long-term best interest to build the high-speed rail system.”

One of the most important functions of high-speed rail is that these systems will relieve congestion from all other transportation modes — airports, highways, and even existing rail systems, said Bryan Mulqueen, P.E., vice president and director of transit and rail for Gannett Fleming’s Delmarva and Southeast regions. “A functional high-speed rail system can achieve a high modal split for trips under 500 miles when compared to airports and roads. Furthermore, it must be recognized that in our densely developed mega-regions, little room remains to expand airports and roads, driving the need to consider other means to expand,” he said.

Who will pay?
Whether high-speed rail is the right course of action or not, it’s clear that many Americans are rethinking their spending strategies after the Great Recession. This concern directly affects funding for high-speed rail because many authorities, and citizens for that matter, can’t justify the cost of high-speed rail when the government is making efforts to cut overall spending. Yet, for those states determined to push through with high-speed rail, how will these projects be funded?

“The private sector will be essential to the development and success of high-speed rail in the United States,” Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Carol said. “First, America’s two most ambitious programs — California’s San DiegoLos Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramentohigh-speed train project and Florida’s Tampa-Orlando-Miami high-speed rail program — intend to rely on private-sector consortia to design, build, and operate the high-speed rail systems. Both programs are looking to the expertise of companies from around the world that have successfully built and operated high-speed rail systems in Europe and Asia. These consortia will be responsible for operating and maintaining the systems in return for a franchise on fare-box revenues. Second, one of the major benefits from implementation of public transportation, including high-speed rail, is the transit-oriented development that takes place around station areas. The economic development impact from new high-speed rail stations is projected to be significant. As demonstrated around the world, and along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail stations serve as an engine for growth with major mixed-use development capitalizing on easy access to the intercity travel market.”

However, public-private partnerships alone will not magically fund America’s high-speed rail network, said Samara Barend, AECOM vice president of strategic development and director of public-private partnerships in North America. “Every nation that has advanced high-speed rail has done so with a major public investment to cover initial capital expenses, upward of at least 50 to 70 percent of total project costs,” she said. “Given the sizeable upfront construction costs of building a new high-speed rail network, ridership forecasts have not been able to generate a large enough revenue stream upon commencement of operations to finance the initial capital expenditures that would make the projects financially viable on a standalone basis. However, operational revenue can often cover ongoing operating costs and some portion of ongoing capital renewal costs so that there is not an ongoing subsidy requirement. The private sector has less ability to capture the multiplier effects or externalities associated with growth than the government, which can justify the initial capital expenditures against the expected economic development benefits, environmental benefits, and potential reductions in other capital expenditures that would be required to address increased transportation capacity, such as expanded highways and airports.”

Corridor development
Once the funding sources have been determined, there are a whole new set of factors that come into play. Unfortunately, high-speed trains can’t jump on any track and run 200 mph. There are operational and safety standards that must be kept in mind.

“Unlike most passenger rail or freight [rail], true high-speed rail systems, which operate at speeds in excess of 150 mph, must have a fully restricted right-of-way and operating environment,” said Peter Cipolla, vice president of rail and transit at Hatch Mott MacDonald. “In doing so, this often entails a larger number of tunnels or structures than one might normally expect in a rail corridor. Railway infrastructure for high-speed rail is a complex combination of technologies which includes … everything from respecting the compatibility of wheel/rail interface, where it may be appropriate to utilize slab track versus ballasted track; cross-wind protection; dynamic and aerodynamic effects, particularly [when] entering and exiting tunnels and/or at station platforms; the voltage and frequency of power stations; compatibility of the rolling stock with the catenary system (height, zig-zag, and forces); along with respecting the level of harmonics and compliance with the electromagnetic compatibility standards.”

To put it simply, high-speed trains must be physically separated from vehicular traffic, whether that means constructing the track above or below a road — there can be no at-grade road crossings, Gannett Fleming’s Mulqueen said. Plus, high-speed trains must travel in a relatively straight line in order to achieve high operating speeds. And, to be economically viable, they must carry a high volume of passengers from one largely populated area to the next with minimal stops, he added.

Another important factor is speed and schedule requirements. “A normal high-speed rail corridor is dedicated to trains which are scheduled to run at extremely high speeds (180 mph or higher) and scheduled extremely tightly (often within 15-minute intervals),” Halcrow’s Mooney explained. “The difference of this high-speed rail service and a typical passenger/freight corridor is that a typical passenger/freight corridor has various speed and schedule requirements which cause a variety of revenue train spacings to occur. If you think about this in a highway situation, the local lanes which have trucks, buses, and passenger vehicles, often times have speeds which are inconsistent and choppy (similar to a passenger/freight corridor), while the express lanes, which only allow passenger vehicles, have higher speeds and more consistent intervals (similar to a high-speed rail corridor).”

Florida plans to open a high-speed rail service between Tampa and Orlando in 2015.
Florida Department of Transportation

Typical commuter rail stations are spaced anywhere between 1 and 10 miles with top operating speeds in the 70 to 90 mph range, said Christopher Taylor, P.E., AECOM deputy director of high-speed rail. High-speed rail stations, however, should be spaced more than 10 to 20 miles apart, and often at significantly greater distances. “With top operating speeds that can vary from 110 mph to 220 mph by current standards, curve radii must be much larger. Given these high speeds, maintenance requirements demand strict attention to ride quality and there is very little tolerance for track to be out of alignment,” Taylor said. “Further, given the high speeds, it is desirable to have dedicated tracks for high-speed service. Use of dedicated tracks can allow for lighter train sets than required by current [Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)] regulations where passenger trains share tracks with heavier freight trains.

Generally, freight train corridors are designed for speeds as fast as 110 mph, while passenger corridors can be designed for speeds faster than 200 mph, explained Peter Gertler, AICP, chair of national high-speed rail services at HNTB Corp. Trains traveling at speeds of 125 mph or faster are normally lighter weight and electrified; they require their own set of unique infrastructure to support the electrification, he added.

U.S. high-speed rail prospects
With all of this knowledge, what will America’s infrastructure look like in the future? Will other high-speed rail projects, similar to Wisconsin and Ohio, fall through the cracks? Or will we have a fully functional high-speed rail network by 2030?

“There is real cause for concern that current efforts to deliver high-speed rail in the United States will not succeed,” Gannett Fleming’s Mulqueen said. “It is questionable whether a real dialogue of high-speed rail merits can be conducted given the current political climate. The trend to give back funding may be motivated by the desire to avoid long-term operating subsidies or to avoid exposure to cost overruns, and in many cases, these are valid criticisms. There is a long history of mega projects being advanced on the premise of totally unrealistic cost estimates; this trend is dangerous and does no one any good. At the same time, it must be recognized that all transportation modes — air, road, rail, and marine — are subsidized in some form and that transportation and mobility require an integrated solution.” As a result, Mulqueen believes the industry will see contracts placing all cost risk for capital and operational expenses on the public sector concessionaire. And, some entities may be willing to risk the economic downside in order to enter and build a dominant position in a potentially large market, he said.

AECOM’s Taylor believes that projected increases in U.S. population combined with increasing highway and airspace congestion, increasing energy prices, heightened environmental sensitivity, and growth of high-speed rail around the world will help drive the development of high-speed rail in the United States. “With the current leadership from Washington, D.C., on high-speed rail, the creation of a high-speed rail department within Amtrak, and the grassroots development of numerous high-speed rail organizations, advocacy groups, and conferences in the United States, it is almost certain that interest will continue unabated,” he said. Additionally, “the continuing development of the FRA National Rail Plan will be an important step in moving these discussions forward.”

Halcrow’s Mooney opined: “What everyone has to remember is that the United States is in its infancy of developing a high-speed rail network, and as such, just as when we began developing our highway network, the initial projects are foundation cornerstones, but as standalone projects they do not make a high-speed rail system.” He suggests that in order to accomplish this goal, the country must make a long-term plan to commit to a complete network. And once the first few high-speed rail projects are developed, perhaps others that originally turned down the funding will reconsider, he added.

Along these lines, some argue that ARRA funding for high-speed rail should have been concentrated to a select number of corridors that were ready for development and where higher-speed operations would be possible (i.e., California and Florida), URS Corp.’s Simonetta said. Following this logic, he believes California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and the Northeast Corridor will likely be where high-speed rail development takes place in the next decade.

Likewise, HNTB Corp.’s Gertler expects to see significant development of the California and Florida high-speed corridors in the coming years, plus further progress on the planning, engineering, and design of all the other corridors in the nation.

“Success in the long-term will depend on completion of the California and Florida high-speed rail programs,” Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Carol said. “These are the only two current programs in this country that will operate at speeds in excess of 180 mph and both serve states and markets highly dependent on the automobile. If these systems are built, they will demonstrate just how effective high-speed rail can be in addressing critical transportation, environmental, and land-use needs and concerns. Our nation likely needs to see this type of success before it is willing to embrace the cost that comes with large-scale high-speed rail development.”


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