When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, critics jumped on it immediately – it can’t be done, it’s too expensive, etc. I want to debunk one of these critiques, and that is that carbon-intensive air travel cannot be replaced with (eventually green) electricity-powered rail travel.

People often cite the size of the country and large distances between cities as the number one reason. The story goes, we used to have regional and cross-country rail, but now we have cars and planes and the former were rendered obsolete. A lot of people have covered why regional transport (think up to 200 miles), now covered by car as flying is not economical, can be effectively replaced by high-speed rail. The definition of high-speed rail requires a speed of at least 125 mph and if sustained, this provides much faster travel than by car (not to mention that it is congestion-free) and a comparable total travel time to air.

But, what about cross-country? Surely this is the domain of air travel given the vastness of the country? Let’s calculate some travel times from our corner here in Seattle (good for accounting for the longest flights possible).

Look at those travel times! So we average almost 440 mph when going to Chicago. The times above are gate to gate including taxi time, or basically the time indicated by airlines. But airport travel involves so much more rigmarole than that!

First, airports are located outside of population centers, usually on one side of the metro area. While they may be convenient to get to for some, usually they involve at least half an hour of travel for most residents of the metro. Second, at the airport one has to walk a fair bit, get through security, get to the gate, etc. It’s risky to arrive at the airport less than one hour before the flight. And third, at the other end of the flight, there is some more walking required, plus finding a cab, or a parked car (let’s consider this to be 15 min), plus one also has another half an hour of travel to their final destination. So, the total travel time must be increased by 2h 15m.

With the times to/at/from the airport the map changes…

All of a sudden, our amazing speed to Chicago dropped to 277 mph. Even the longest stretch, Seattle to Miami averages 342 mph.

But surely that’s still far beyond even the fastest operating trains, China Railway’s CR400 series, with an operating speed of 218 mph?

Well, that’s only half the story.

Most modern trains can reach a much higher speed than there is track for. The CR400 series mentioned above, for example, were designed to operate at 249 mph. But to really see what’s possible we have to look at tests. This is where the world record winner for conventional steel rail is the French TGV150. It travelled at a speed of…

357 mph

Video:

Now, we still have to calculate the time to/at/from a train station, but at 357 mph, we actually have a chance to be competitive with air. Before I go there, you may question my use of a test train for this example. So, a few points:

  • The test was done on an existing conventional steel railway with an existing train and in far back 2007. Modifications were done, but this is not a rare magnetic levitation train or completely unproven hyperloop.
  • The modifications included:
    • They used two locomotives and three double-decker passenger cars with powered bogies, instead of a longer train with unpowered cars. The passengers cars had capacity for 240 seats. That’s still significantly more than the 181 seats on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900.
    • The locomotives used larger wheels – negligible cost increase when done from the get go.
    • They made slight aerodynamic improvements – again, fairly negligible when done during manufacturing.
    • The overhead power was supplied at 31 kV instead of 25 kV. Again, negligible, some slower lines operate at 50 kV.
    • The tension of the overhead wires was increased.
    • The track super-elevation was changed (again, negligible if done this way when built).
  • While this isn’t an off-the-shelf product, the point is that, if we set out design a line for 357 mph operation, it is completely achievable. We are trying to have a manned mission to Mars (never been done before), while this is something that has already been achieved and we can absolutely beat.

Train passing by at 357 mph (chased by a jet for aerial video, as helicopters can’t go anywhere near that fast):

Ok, back to our map. So, to add rail to it, let’s first calculate the time to/at/from the railway station. Railway stations are usually in the downtown of the central city of a region, which is much easier to access both by car and public transport. All the roads tend to lead there.

Let’s assume 20 minutes travel time on each end. Then, at the station, one does not have to go through security and usually just has to walk to the train and hop on. Let’s allow for 20 minutes for that, for a total of 1 hour for to/at/from station.

Now, let’s add rail to the map with a travel speed of 350 mph (accounting for some stops) and a 1 hour overhead.

Whoa!

So all of a sudden, rail becomes faster than air not just for regional trips, but also for most cross-country trips. Faster than air!

In fact, it is only the longest possible trip, Seattle to Miami, where air has a noticeable 9% travel time advantage.

Now, you may ask many more questions – what about intermediate stops, where exactly should the rail lines go, etc etc. All of these are solvable. In fact, they were solved 100 years ago optimized for the railway technology of the time, and can be solved again today, optimized for the high-tech high-speed trains of the day. And again, using achievable upgrades to existing technology, not using unproven or overly expensive technology like maglev or hyperloop.

Our local initiative here in the Pacific Northwest is the study for building high-speed rail between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Local advocacy groups Cascadia Rail and All Aboard Washington are major supporters of improvements to rail in our region.

In conclusion, we should not cease to be bold and dream big. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to congress the highly ambitious goal of putting a person on the moon by the end of the decade. There had never been a manned landing on a celestial body before. On July 20, 1969, just a little over 8 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on our closest satellite in a moment followed live by almost the entire population of Earth. This country was built on entrepreneurial innovative thinking and fearless pushing of boundaries. The Green New Deal is a perfect embodiment of that. Let’s make it happen.

156 Replies to “Can we replace cross-country air with rail travel? Yes, we can!”

  1. You forgot those pesky huge mountain ranges that severely slow trains down especially high speed ones. I love HSR but it makes no sense for cross country travel, it is needed in shorter and medium range trips like Cascadia, California, NEC.

    1. Yes, along with the fact that rail between cities across the country will never be direct. A flight to Chicago is not only faster than taking a train, it is shorter. This is a major reason why commuter rail between Tacoma and Seattle is relatively slow. As the crow flies, it is about 25 miles. Via I-5 it is a bit over 30 miles. Via the train it is around 40 miles. For cross country rail you have the same sort of detours — some caused by topography, some caused by the desire to actually serve the places along the way. The Empire builder, for example, is 2,200 miles long. You might skip Minot North Dakota, but you aren’t going to skip Spokane, the Twin Cities, or Milwaukee. Even if the train *averaged* 350 MPH, that is about six hours and 15 minutes on the train.

      1. Realistically even a robust HSR system would only run 3 basic routes out of Seattle given geographic and demand constraints:

        1) Seattle-Portland-Sacramento/Bay Area-LA-San Diego
        2) Seattle-Portland (or via Yakima)-Boise-Salt Lake City
        3) Seattle-Spokane-Minneapolis-Chicago

        Even of those, only (1) seems like a winner given the shorter distances and better population density. (2) has some challenges with demand without connecting service to Las Vegas (if any water remains in the future) or Denver. (3) is essential for rest-of-US connections but it has to cross a huge stretch of the county with minimal demand and terrible weather in the winter.

      2. Right – each trip pair in the air can follow the great circle, while a rail line is stuck with one alignment for most trip pairs, This geometric advantage doesn’t really matter for a few hundred miles, but make a huge difference for longer flights.

        HSR from Seattle to NYC will go through Chicago. A flight from Seattle to NYC spends most of it’s time above Canada.

    2. I hope you’ve seen HSR lines in Europe. They are all tunnels and viaducts. Spain has difficult mountaineous terrain, yet their new HSR lines maintain top speed >90% of the time as they did all the necessary straightening.

      1. I think Europe has an over indulgence rail. Is the level of subsidization worth it? Maybe a little Greyhound?

        “The future of these rural railways has been cast into sharp relief by former Air France CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta’s landmark review into the future of the French rail sector published in early 2018. His report included a blunt assessment of their finances, finding that they accounted for 2% of ridership but 15% of costs.”

        https://www.railwaygazette.com/news/single-view/view/battle-plan-to-save-frances-rural-railways.html

      2. Rail lines in Europe aren’t straight! Taking TGV for example, it’s no coincidence that there are fast lines from Paris to Bordeaux, Lyon, and Strasbourg but for Toulouse you have to go all the way around the Massif Central. And in places where fast trains do skirt along difficult typography, even if less than 10% of the distance, that can still cut overall speeds by a lot more than 10%. Moreover, even at top speeds they don’t follow crow’s flying distances.

        Writing from Paris

      3. Joel, I’ve been on European HSR in a few countries, most notably German, France, UK, Spain. From these Spain impressed me the most because they did the hard work of building a lot of tunnels and viaducts to maintain the top speed for as high a % of the route as possible.

        Imagine a national mobilization of resources akin to the Interstate highway system or the moon landing. What can we achieve? Straight rail corridors across the country? Yes, we can.

      4. Anton, you sure have a lot more optimism in this country than I do. This country cant do anything now, it sure as he ll isnt going to build an interstate high speed rail system. Even California which was the best shot at it, just pulled the plug or at least dramatically scaled it back. Unfortunately, HSR has become politicized which gives it even lower odds. The Right sees HSR as a government boondoggle to take away their taxes and land and even views trains with suspicion probably because the Left views HSR as a way to push a hyper environmental agenda and to reward unions. The Green New Deal joke this week certainly didnt help HSR being tied to that dumpster fire.

      5. “Rewarding unions” would be a valid criticism if unions weren’t about the only ones giving non-tech workers a living wage and pushing for a basic safety net for even the minimum safety net for all workers that other industrialized countries have.

      6. Anton, Spain also went bankrupt trying to build massive infrastructure projects in places that would never justify it. (Yes, this also included roads and airports.)

        They’re a particularly poor example of why we should build HSR.

    3. Take a look at a random trip in Europe where there are substantial mountains in the way. Flying from Berlin to Rome, for example, is slightly over 5 hours – and that includes transfers to central rail stations in both cities, so apples-to-apples. Fastest train time between the two cities is over 14 hours – competitive with driving but certainly not flying.

      Want another example? How about Paris to Rome? 5 hours vs 11 hours. Amsterdam to Vienna? 4.5 hours vs over 11. Madrid to Frankfurt? 5.5 vs over 15 hours. Again – that’s central city to central city. Even where there are NO real mountains, say central Amsterdam to central Berlin, you are still taking 4 hours if you fly, over 6 by train.

      (source: rome2rio.com – an incredibly useful and fun site for travel planning)

      I too am a fan of HSR, and will nearly always travel by train when I have the opportunity – and have done so on all six continents that have passenger rail service. That said, the USA would be far better off focusing on the handful of corridors where it makes sense and building up to that. Grandiose plans for bullet trains ripping across North Dakota does not help the conversation, and tons of assumptions about how long the trip might actually take are even less useful.

  2. We need to keep in mind that European countries have been building out there systems for 1/2 century while we’ve been surrendering transit to the oil, car and air industries. Europe has also had the chance to build out their urban train transportation corridors at yesterday prices. We got a lot of catching up to do and it will be expensive.

    I think we will see a lot of this: (@Tom from last post)

    If HSR follows this pattern of incremental construction, Californians will eventually experience trains running on smooth tracks, with barely any cabin noise, at 220-250 mph, from Bakersfield to Merced. They’ll feel a slight bump during the Merced stop as a diesel locomotive is coupled to the front. And they’ll see the stark contrast as their train continues at “normal” speeds on the state’s current bumpy, slow and aged tracks to Sacramento, San Jose, and the Bay Area.

    https://sf.streetsblog.org/2019/02/14/high-speed-rails-central-valley-segment-is-not-stranded/

    1. on the state’s current bumpy, slow and aged tracks to Sacramento, San Jose, and the Bay Area.

      Dude, you obviously haven-t been to California lately. The only thing “aged” about the tracks on which The San Joaquins travel is their alignment, The State has given UP and BNSF close to a billion dollars over the oast thirty years to improve and double track long stretches of the route. There are three tracks much of the way between Oakland and Martinez where the Capitol Corridor diverges and mostly double track on BNSF to Merced from there.

      Sure, the existence of grade crossings means that trains can’t travel faster than 79 north of Merced and south of Wasco, but they will be able to run at 110 or above on the separated HSR tracks.

      That said, in reply to the OP there is no way a train can cross the Cascades , the Bitteroots, the Rockies and the Belts at 350 mph. And you ESPECIALLY won’t get that direct diagonal through Colorado to Austin…..

      1. Dude, I’m well aware of the cash infusion into ACE and SJ system and wasn’t referencing state of tracks. [ah]

        You had said “Even with the current equipment they can run 110 in separated right of way, especially with no freight interference.”.

        I was referencing the fact that they can use new HSR rolling stock so as to maximize HSR tracks but still blend into ACE and SJ. It makes more sense this way so as to be able to test the new line.

      2. Crossing mountains at high speed means picking an elevation to maintain which optimizes your tunnel to viaduct ratio. Of course it can be done. Is it difficult, yes. So was landing on the moon. I put the last paragraph there because this is definitely a moonshot project.

      3. “NRLA project is building faster north-south tracks across the Swiss Alps by constructing base tunnels several hundred metres below the level of the current tunnels. The 35 km Lötschberg Base Tunnel opened in 2007 where New Pendolino trains run at 250 km/h. The 57 km Gotthard Base Tunnel (Top speed 250 km/h) opened on 1 June 2016.”

        Bernese Alps are about same elevation as Cascades based on tallest peaks.

      4. Should be able to run at least 110 on lines with grade crossings, unless there is some state law that prevents it. Keystone corridor trains already allows this and a few other corridors (Michigan, Illinois) are aiming for this.

        Even at speeds above 110 mph the last rules I knew of say “the railroad shall
        submit for FRA’s approval a complete description of the proposed barrier/warning system
        to address the protection of highway traffic and high‐speed trains.” So, you might be able to get approval for faster.

      5. les, it’d clear that you don’t even know that the OFFICIAL PLAN for California HSR states that trains will not be purchased UNTIL San Jose is reached.

        There will be no “HSR trains” for Amtrak’s diesels to tow.

        RTFP.

      6. Glenn, OK, maybe they run 90 or so now in some places. But having the separated ROW removes any constraint at all from “standard” bi-level equipment. It will definitely improve the rider experience and shorten the times, especially out of Bakersfield.

        And les, “bumpy, slow and aged tracks” sure SOUNDS like you’re talking about the train tracks. Or were you meaning some other kind if track?

      7. Glenn, there are posts on Streetsblog that claim California only allows 79 because of all the rural grade crossings. The people seem to know what they’re talking about. I searched for a neutral reference but couldn’t find one.

  3. Mountain ranges are what tunnel boring machines are for. And for money, put rail conversion in the defense budget where it belongs. And where it’ll be pocket change in comparison with (pick your choice of wars where we don’t belong.)

    But the main reason we need to bring train travel back to our country is the cramped fear-laced totalitarian Hell which commercial air travel has had to become. We’re Americans. If worst comes to worst, at least we deserve to die with some leg-room.

    Mark Dublin

    1. But because of the sheer size of those mountain ranges, those tunnels will not be cost effective. Yes, Switzerland has deep tunnels, but the length and amount of those tunnels are short and small compared to what is needed to cross, say, the Rockies.

      1. It’s on from Merced to Wasco which s not nothing. But as Vartabedian crowed, this had given the Greedy Old Party gobs of quotable footage for future ads.

  4. I completely disagree with the premise of the article. Cross country HSR will never be competitive with jet travel. That being said, I do agree with the conclusion. We should invest in HSR across the country. If humanity has any sense of self preservation, we will stop flying. Flying adds too much CO2 to the atmosphere. Once flying is out, cross country HSR is the next best thing. We may as well start building it now.

    1. I agree, HSR has its sweetspots and should be confined to certain routes:

      “Distance between city pairs, confined to distances between 100-500 miles, with 250 miles receiving the
      highest value.”

      “Metropolitan regions with existing transit systems including regional rail, commuter rail and local transit
      networks.”

      “Metropolitan regions with high levels of auto congestion as measured by the Texas Transportation Institute’s Travel Time Index”

      http://www.america2050.org/pdf/Where-HSR-Works-Best.pdf

    2. You are operating from the mindset of what was possible today/yestedday.

      I am challenging people to think out of the box. At 350 mph HSR will be *faster* than air travel for most cross-country trips. And the speed was already achieved 12 years ago with near stock technology.

      1. Really? How many people travel from Seattle to the east coast every day? Now how many trains, how many tracks, how many tunnels are you going to build and maintain to match that? I don’t think so…

      2. No east coast city tops the top 10 destinations out of SEA. (https://www.transtats.bts.gov/airports.asp?pn=1&Airport=SEA&Airport_Name=Seattle)

        The top two are LAX and SFO, with a combined 2.5 million trips a year. For comparison, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional carries 8.5 million trips a year, and Acela carries another 3.5 million trips. The Northeast Corridor has between 2 and 6 tracks. It’s really not as much infrastructure as you think.

        I’m not totally sold on the economic viability of transcontinental HSR either, but the east coast simply isn’t that big of a destination from here.

      3. >> At 350 mph HSR will be *faster* than air travel for most cross-country trips.

        No, it wouldn’t. You are basing your numbers on four assumptions:

        1) That trains can *average* 350 MPH.

        2) That trains would travel across the country in a straight line (the way that planes do).

        3) That there is an enormous difference in boarding time between a plane and a train.

        4) That it is much easier for people to get to a train station than an airport.

        The first item is a huge assumption, as there is no line in the world that is close to that fast. The second is absurd. You not only have major topographic challenges, but you have the cities along the way. There is no way you are going to build a line from Seattle to Chicago without including Spokane, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago. You’ve already made significant but essential detours, and you haven’t even made it to New York. At a minimum you are probably going through Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Trenton. All of that extra distance adds up. You linked to a Northwest plan that has a similar detour. It is about an extra 100 miles (a 50% increase) versus a straight shot between Seattle and Spokane. That doesn’t matter much with the distances involved, but it makes all the difference for a trip across the country (and that assumes that the train doesn’t stop along the way).

        Your third assumption is only a terrorist attack away. All it would take is some idiot to blow up a train full of people (or just shoot them up with a machine gun) and the boarding process for a train would be remarkably similar to that of a plane.

        The last point is true, but only for a subset of the population. For many, a trip to the airport is quicker. Folks who travel from coast to coast often locate themselves close to the airport for that reason.

      4. Ross, I have no issue with your first two points. I don’t really think transcontinental HSR is feasible either.

        But to address points 3 and 4:

        Regarding terrorism, literally hundreds of people have been killed in subway and commuter train bombings around the world in the past two decades, but no one has implemented TSA-style security theater on their metro and intercity rail system, because it’s a dumb idea.

        I would also contend that far more people who disembark at any given airport are going to the CBD or vicinity than are going to locations near the airport. This is especially true for business travel. Using NYC as an example, a lot more people would be better off disembarking at Penn Station instead of at JFK all the way out in eastern Queens. Even Newark is a comparative pain in the ass.

      5. Thanks, Anton, for pushing the envelope on HSR.

        Ross’ points 1 and 2 above are valid – and will increase travel time somewhat. One issue is the ratio between design top speed and average speed. On the Beijing-Shanghai HSR route (currently the worlds fastest at 217 mph top speed) the average speed is 90% of the maximum. If applied to a 357 mph top speed, an average of 320 mph could be maintained over long distances. This adds 1.5 hours to the Miami train trip.

        The second point is straightness. HSR tracks in the real world will add 10% to 30% rail miles compared to the straight line route. For Miami, this adds another 1.5 hours, for a total trip time of 11:48 per your assumptions compared to 8 hours flying. But for San Francisco, this only adds 45 minutes so train still beats plane.

        Two points in favor of the practicality of a nationwide HSR network:

        1. Travel between intermediate cities will outweigh the endpoints. A Seattle-Miami rail line isn’t built for Seattle-Miami traffic, but for Seattle-SLC traffic, SLC-Denver traffic, Denver-Dallas traffic and Atlanta-Miami traffic. A few long lonely segments in the west may need to be subsidized on a national basis to provide a complete network (like interstates in Wyoming), but most segments will be reasonably cost-effective based on regional travel.

        2. The jet age won’t last forever. If we politically succeed in avoiding a complete ice-cap melt, jet fuel will be banned or extremely limited within the century. It would be great if long-haul electric airplanes became a thing, but the physics doesn’t look promising. 12 hours to Miami doesn’t sound too bad compared to an electric Greyhound bus.

      6. @Pat — I think you are missing my point with regards to security. Obviously the trains are a relatively easy target, and at attack on one is far more likely to occur than someone commandeering an airliner with a pocket knife and flying it into downtown Seattle. It is clear that our security system is not really geared towards addressing the biggest threats, but rather, is merely a reaction to every *American* attack that has happened. Even in that regard it fails. Security is extreme for passengers boarding a commercial jet, yet lax for private planes. If airplanes flying into buildings is really a major problem — requiring all of this effort — then we would be focused on the latter more than the former. But we aren’t, because most of what we see security people do is symbolic. It is to make us all feel like they are doing something. The truth is, I’m sure they really are doing something — we just can’t see it. The things that are happening behind the scenes are far more likely to prevent an attack than all the BS that we are routinely asked to endure.

        My point is that if some idiot terrorist slips through the cracks and blows up or shoots up a train *in America*, then we will have to endure the same sort of BS to board a train.

        As far as my second point, I agree with your statement, but that still makes it a subset of users. Cities like New York are both massive and centrally located. Any airport is a hassle compared to a train station. The same is true for Seattle, but not to the same degree. But places like Phoenix, for example, really don’t have a central core, and it is just about the same amount of effort to get to the airport as to the train station. Again, it is a matter of degrees, but my main point is that it is never 100%. It may be somewhere around 80% for New York, and 70% for Seattle, but there is always going to be some subset of potential users that find it easier to get to the airport rather than a train station.

        All of this really misses the point. Unless the government taxes the hell out of airplane travel, it isn’t going away. It also isn’t the main competition for rail travel. Driving is. Many of the same dynamics are involved (location of the train station, distance traveled) but that is where fast trains have the potential to replace a significant number of trips. For every person that flies or takes the train to Portland, there are probably a dozen who drive. The plane is simply too much of a hassle, and the train is too slow. Make the train faster, and it will be worth the effort for a lot of people.

        A couple citations about security (I’m sure you can find more):
        https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/private-plane-public-menace/308335/
        https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/the-things-he-carried/307057/

      7. Sure, I guess if you believe that 1) our security apparatus is so myopic as to believe that there’s some sort of freedom-based force field around our trains that they don’t have in Europe (I could believe this) and 2) European security establishments aren’t inherently reactionary the way ours is (I have a hard time believing this). As far as I’m aware they still don’t make you go through metal detectors to get on the Tube or on commuter trains in Madrid.

        I don’t think massive investment in HSR is likely to happen in a vacuum. I’m disappointed by the absence of land use regulation reform in current GND proposals, but I don’t think there’s a reality in which sprawly Sun Belt cities and nationwide HSR coexist.

        Of course, I don’t think any of this is going to happen, though. Incremental improvements to regional HSR corridors seems to be the most likely way forward.

      8. The powers that be have talked about putting airport-like security in train stations, and it may still happen due to an arbitrary decision.

      9. >>I am challenging people to think out of the box.

        This is not “out of the box” thinking. This is HSR adolescent fan fiction.

        Let’s talk about the nonsensical “time spent at the station” portion. King Street’s annual passenger volume is around 700,000. Seatac’s domestic? 45,000,000. You’re honestly making a straight-faced assertion that King Street could effortlessly absorb an additional 44 million passengers a year? That all 44,000,000 passengers would still be able to quickly travel to and from there and hop on a one of those super duper “non-stop to every city in the country” trains with no line or waiting? Forget security lines, what about bathroom lines?

        King Street was built to handle domestic travel volumes in 1906. It’s changed a little around here since then.

      10. You don’t build a railroad network based around single point stations. You are better off with multiple stations so that people don’t have to spend hours getting to and from the station. Take a look at the Shinkansen lines: there are several dozen stations scattered across a metropolitan area to allow easy access. Some trains stop at some of them while others are through trains.

        Properly designed, trains originating in “Seattle” would start in Everett. Fully 1/3 or so of “Seattle” passengers on the Cascades trains from / to Portland actually use Tacoma as their station.

      11. “You’re honestly making a straight-faced assertion that King Street could effortlessly absorb an additional 44 million passengers a year?”

        Subtract international flights and plane-to-plane transfers for a start. If they’re going to Asia or Europe or South America, they might as well fly out of Seattle rather than Los Angeles. And “King Street Station” doesn’t mean the station as is but an expanded station. Or it may loosely refer to a new station in SODO, as some have suggested King Street is too tight for HSR. We don’t need to eliminate all flights, just provide a competitive alternative that’s less energy-intensive. It may be competitive for 100 miles, 500 miles, 1000 miles, fine, every transportation method has its limit. the reasons Europeans take intercity trains more is that the trains exist, are not slower than driving, and leave more than once a day. We’ve heavily subsidized freeways and airports and neglected trains without thinking of the energy use or carbon emissions. Before the 1980s air travel was for the rich or a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Now it’s casual convenience. Environmentalists would say we need to stop making it so convenient and cut down on the trivial use of flying, and replace it with trains. That doesn’t mean we have to eliminate all flights, and that would be impossible anyway unless we want to eliminate international humanitarian missions and cultural exchanges and migration or go back to month-long ship voyages. But we should probably start thinking again of overseas trips as thrice-in-a-lifetime rather than once a year events.

      12. I did subtract international flights, but no one would have to transfer?

        Providing alternatives for 500 mile trips makes sense. Arguing for HSR because travel time from Seattle to Miami would be roughly equivalent is just nonsense.

      13. Boarding a train is MASSIVELY faster than boarding a plane. Most planes are boarded using a single jetway, and narrow aisles on the plane slow down the process as well since people can’t realistically pass eachother. A train can have as many as 30+ boarding points and have wider aisles. Not everyone needs to be seated before the train departs as well.

        This is completely obvious to people that have ridden HSR in Japan, for example, or really trains anywhere, and have also flown. As I said in a different post, Japan has trains that leave as little as 3 minutes apart, and take less than 3 minutes to board (I think it’s 1 minute or less). Boarding a plane easily takes 10-20x as long.

    3. Building high speed rail also adds a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere. It is also extremely expensive. It is probably worth it for some segments (Seattle to Portland, San Fransisco to L. A.) but not worth it for others (L. A. to New York, let alone Seattle to Chicago). So even if money is no object, building a coast to coast high speed train system may not be carbon neutral, but actually increase carbon consumption for a long time (maybe 50 years).

      Of course, we don’t have a limitless supply of money. Spending billions and billions on rail travel that is still significantly slower than air travel is simply not a good use of money if the goal is reducing carbon.

      1. The jets continue to be built, and that has a carbon cost, too. And people seem to forget that there are no electric planes. If we want to preserve our ability to travel after oil has become prohibitively expensive and has a very high GHG cost to extract from the Earth, rail is a great alternative. I hope Boeing retools itself to help with the rail effort sooner rather than later.

      2. Short-term yes, but if the long-term operation of a new railway reduces the travel by cars and planes, then the net effect will reduce CO2 above the baseline no-build option.

      3. Yes, but my point is that it is highly likely that a nationwide high speed network would have a ridiculously long payoff point. It might take over 100 years for the carbon saved from switching to trains makes up for the carbon spent building the thing. There are literally dozens of things that are more cost effective. The only reason ideas like this are given serious consideration is because they sound really cool. Of course I would love to take a 5 hour train ride to L. A. But building that kind of system — let alone one connecting Seattle to New York in less than 8 hours — would require spending enormous sums, and likely destroying the planet in the process. It just doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on something that would make so little difference (and might make things worse) if the goal is to actually reduce climate change.

  5. I am very pro high speed rail. Constructing a national network would be a drop in the bucket compared to other expenditures that arguably don’t improve our society.

    However, unless I read wrong, you are using as-the-crow-flies distances for trains, which is somewhat deceiving.

    Seattle to Chicago might be 1740 mi by plane, but by train, it’s over 2,000 miles (note that I used I-90 driving mileage, since Google doesn’t seem to like to share transit mileage), which you’re not going to lessen without adding orders of magnitude to any potential high speed rail lines. That’s a 15% increase, which is not insignificant.

    Also compare Hamburg to Munich, a longer, established ICE HSR route, with a flight distance of 375 mi and a train distance of approximately 500 miles. Travel time is 1:30 (or 4 hours with padding) vs 5:45 (includes negligible transfer), which leads to an average train speed of ~90 mph. Granted this speed could be increased by removing stops and clearly ICEs are nowhere near the top real life train speeds in usage today. But still, if I was traveling from Hamburg to Munich, I would definitely choose the ICE over a flight. The almost 2 hour penalty is worth the convenience and price, plus not having to deal with the hassle of airports and planes.

    Yes, train technology will continue to advance, allowing for faster trains, but I would argue that planes will too, especially if we can ever crack the supersonic passenger plane issues. Trains will need some kind of radical technology breakthrough to even approach current plane flight times in real life settings. I doubt that will happen in our lifetimes

    Instead of focusing on pure travel time, HSR advocates needs to push the actual advantages of HSR: convenience, ticket cost and travel times competitive with flight times.

  6. By the time a cross-country high speed rail network could be built in the U.S. (estimate 4-5 decades, optimistically), new technologies will have made air travel/long distance car travel dramatically less carbon-intensive. Also the effects of climate change may be at a point where the net impact of high speed rail will be negligible.

    It’s time to start living in reality. The U.S. missed the high speed train. Exhibit A: California HSR.

    Let’s nip this Cascadia HSR silliness in the bud.

    1. We don’t have to nip any Amtrak Cascades improvements in the bud, because it’s only a few billion to improve travel times so that they’re competitive with driving and maximum speeds to 110 mph.

      1. That has been WSDOT’s plan for a decade or two. Incrementally improve Seattle-Portland to 90 mph, then 110. Beyond that it decided the cost/benefit ratio was too high. It’s just taking a long time to get there, probably because the legislature doesn’t care that much about Cascades and periodically loses interest.

  7. A 20-minute commute to the train station? I live in the city (north end) and there is no way it’s only going to take me 20 minutes to get to the train station. I could take Link but I would have to commute to Link and then take it (with all my luggage) to the train station.

    What about security lines at the train station – or are we assuming we don’t need those?

    Wouldn’t I also have to find a cab or a car or a bus at the other end of the trip, just like when I fly? Why are you decreasing the extra time at the ends for trains when it involves the same process?

    1. No, there are no security lines at train stations.

      Security lines at airports are predicated on the fact that you only need a bomb the size of a shoe to crash a plane. There have been many, many attempts to bomb HSR trains over the years; they’re a great way to blow up one person. Unfortunately, terrorists have learned that there are easier, more effective targets.

      That said, I have no doubt that Americans will find a way to screw this up, too.

    2. Airports are frequently out in the boonies, while central train stations are closer to more peoples’ destinations, so the to/from travel time is a lot lower. You’re closer to King Street than you are to the airport.

      See the replies to AJ’s comment below about security checks.

      1. “You’re closer to King Street than you are to the airport.” Not all of us are. And for the volumes required to replace air travel, King Street is woefully inadequate and has no room to expand.

      2. ““You’re closer to King Street than you are to the airport.” Not all of us are. ”

        But the majority of the population is.

  8. The post is long on how we can replace planes with rail, but short on why we should. Demonize air travel in the first few paragraphs … throw in some negative stats about it, etc., then propose a rail solution.

    This paragraph intentionally left blank.

      1. Building a massive land-based rail network would bisect wildlife areas, require immense amounts of carbon intensive concrete and steel rails, and for what, diverting the few railfans willing to slog out the hours it takes to cross the Rockies? This makes no sense and would never pay off as a project.

    1. Let’s see an HSR cross the Pacific.

      The San Francisco airport has actually argued in favor of CAHSR. They need the domestic space for international routes and want to do away with all the Kali interstate flights.

      1. Yes, the Trans-Bering railroad from Alaska to Russia should be built eventually. Will be a great and comfortable way to get to Asia once jet travel is banned in the lat 21st century.

      2. The Trans-Bering route is actually quite straightforward and Russia keeps constructing more of the approach track.

        That said, not top priority!

  9. We should focus on HSR within large conurbations before trying to build HSR across rural america.

    Trying to solve cross-country travel with HSR is a bit like trying to build an airport express bus. Its a niche problem, appealing to those that would use it frequently but useless for most people. Most people don’t leave their major metro area more than a few times a year.

    Even in Europe, no one takes the train from Madrid to Budapest – they would fly. Every European HSR example is comparable to HSR between DC and Boston, which does make good since but is very different than any of your examples.

    1. Absolutely agree that the 600 mile range is the sweet spot using today’s technology. But I am specifically addressing the Green New Deal. With pushing the technology to what we know is possible we can solve cross-country travel too.

      1. A Green New Deal should still be focused on projects that are cost effective. This is essential because unlike the real New Deal, we aren’t in a depression right now. As far as rail is concerned, I would start by electrifying both passenger and freight rail. I would also invest in mass transit systems, especially in large urban areas (just spending all the money proposed for HSR on improving the New York subway system would probably lead to a better outcome for the planet). Not that I would stop there. There are plenty of cities (L. A. stands out) as having underfunded mass transit. High speed rail should be added in areas with major population centers relatively close together. Investments should be tailored towards demand (e. g. like this proposal for the Eastern U. S. https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/02/10/high-speed-rail-for-the-eastern-united-states/, which has varying speeds for their trains).

        Not that any of that is necessarily the best way to spend the money. Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency are likely to make a much bigger difference.

    2. For now, let’s forget about crossing the Rockies with HSR. It’s very expensive due to the tunnels needed; there’s no reasonable intermediate cities to stop at except Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno; and honestly people don’t take flights across the Rockies that much either.

      Let’s focus HSR from New York to Chicago, Chicago to Dallas and Houston, etc.

      It is obvious that we can replace Chicago-NY rail travel with high speed rail, and that’s a *big deal*. Tunnelling across the Appalachians is much more practical than across the Rockies, and there are plenty of intermediate cities (Cleveland, Pittsburgh)

    1. I’ll repeat myself here, but: Crossing mountains at high speed means picking an elevation to maintain which optimizes your tunnel to viaduct ratio. Of course it can be done. Is it difficult? Yes. So was landing on the moon. I put the last paragraph there because this is definitely a moonshot project.

      1. Anton:

        Since air travel is not the sole contributor to human-caused global warming …

        Is the “moonshot” to build a massive HSR network in the USA or is the “moonshot” to minimize further human-caused contribution to global warming?

    2. So forget the Rockies. Why haven’t we built HSR from Chicago to NY, or Chicago to Dallas, or Atlanta to Dallas? These are all *easy*, with relatively low mountain ranges in the Appalachians.

  10. I’m a huge supporter of high speed rail, but this is wildly unrealistic. I have made several long-distance Amtrak trips in the past year or so, including the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago, the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA, and the Coast Starlight from Santa Barbara to Seattle. There is no conceivable way you’re going to run 350 mph trains past the pier at San Clemente, or through the Rockies down into Denver.

    Tunnels? There are 33 Tunnels in the area near the Moffat Tunnel, plus almost uncountable switchbacks where even the most advanced trains in the world would have difficulty topping 15 MPH. There are many long sections of 3 percent grade across UT and CO. And unlike aircraft, there are many, many stops along the way, every few miles in places. These stops are used, too.

    Where HSR makes sense is regionally, especially in the Northeast, but also the Northwest, California, Texas, around Chicago, etc.

    Of course, HSR in a lot of these places means nationalizing the freight railroads, since they own the track and have no interest in change. That’s going to be difficult. Too bad it wasn’t done a hundred years ago when we were pouring massive subsidies into corrupt and incompetent western rail companies instead. (You should read Richard White’s Railroaded if you want to know more about that boondoggle).

    1. I am not talking about using *any* existing mileage. As I said, that was built over 100 years ago, optimized for a very different problem.

      Back then doing the crossing that were done was a moonshot, on the verge of impossible.

      Today this moonshot is doing the same at 350 mph. As I’ve mentioned in comments, this is going to be entirely a combination of viaducts and tunnels (perhaps many the length of the Swiss Gotthard Base tunnel).

      And yes, we should start with regional rail, but the Green New Deal suggested that on a national level and I addressed exactly that point.

      1. The original “transcontinental” rail lines in the US were built on free, that is, stolen, land. There isn’t any of that anymore. This would cost more than the entire GDP of the world.

        I look forward to your plans for the three-mile-long escalators at the new Denver station.

  11. I’m a big supporter of HSR in general – but assuming a 350mph average speed for comparison is a bit absurd. It’s simply not economically viable to run trains that small with that many engines, not to mention the other difficulties others have mentioned. We might as well assume that commercial planes will fly at 2,000mph, since the SR-71 blackbird can fly that fast.

    1. The test train used 2 engines. Today, the Empire builder sometimes has more engines.

      The test train had capacity for 240 seats. More than a modern 737.

      That doesn’t seem uneconomical to me.

      And again, this was a test train from 12 years ago. If we design for this scenario it is likely we can scale it to much better numbers.

      1. You haven’t said a thing about the energy requirements of HSR generally, much less for traveling at an average speed of 350 MPH. See Table 1 in Westin & Kageston (2012, Transportation Research Part D 17 (2012) 1–7). The KW-Hr per seat mile is 50-63% greater for HSR vs. conventional rail. That it the penalty of speed.

        We should electrify and improve (for better avg. speed) the conventional rail network, and expand it. Money and the required natural resources and the carbon emissions from construction will go a lot farther that way.

        HSR requires (as noted by others here) a lot more tunneling and elevated sections. That is much more costly for HSR than conventional rail, in terms of $, resources and CO2 emissions (concrete & steel are both very carbon intensive).

        I have traveled Seattle to W.DC by train many times; about 2.75 days and not bad for crossing an entire continent. I think that could be cut to 1.5 days if improvements are made and if passenger trains get priority over freight. Light-weight rolling stock (similar to HSR) could further reduce energy requirements.

        Bear in too (regarding HSR vs. conventional) that even when we are eventually 100% renewable energy, HSR would require more power facilities and there may be limits to how much renewable energy we can reasonably build.

  12. “In fact, they were solved 100 years ago optimized for the railway technology of the time,”

    That’s one way to describe the Gilded Age. The transcontinental railroads were optimized for making money, not speed, and were intended to more freight, not people.

    Using freight corridors to move people is fine – that’s more or less what Dallas, Denver, and LA are doing with their rail networks. But it certainly isn’t optimal, and doesn’t work for most cities – see Sounder North as a good example of a perfectly acceptable freight corridor of limited use for moving people.

    1. You are conveniently omitting my next sentence: “and can be solved again today, optimized for the high-tech high-speed trains of the day.”

      My point is, if we put our minds to this, the challenge is definitely solvable.

  13. Technology is not the limitation. Travel time is not the limitation. Cost doesn’t even have to be the limitation. The problem is the hyper-localized nature of US politics. Look at California–every little town along the route wanted a kickback and was ready to delay the project with endless EIS challenges if they didn’t get it. A nationwide high speed rail network will absolutely fail in that type of legal environment. Who gets to select the winners and losers? Which cities become irrelevant and which get the economic growth? How many established industries will do everything in their power to kill it?

    In that kind of environment there’s no possible way this gets proactively built. It will only get built after the middle class gets priced out of air travel–and that will probably not happen until the 2nd half of the century at the earliest.

  14. “Let’s assume 20 minutes travel time on each end. Then, at the station, one does not have to go through security and usually just has to walk to the train and hop on. Let’s allow for 20 minutes for that, for a total of 1 hour for to/at/from station.”

    So you are assuming that the Feds will spend trillion dollars on HSR, but we’ll have no TSA to protect those assets? If rail is going to replace air travel, why would the security policy be any different?

    1. The planes can be flown into skyscrapers. Trains cannot.

      The feds are spending a lot of money on Link Light Rail, and, thankfully, we aren’t having to go through a security checkpoint to board.

      There are reasons why we see less See Something Say Something and more Report It to Stop It on transit now.

    2. TSA is unnecessary on rail. Germany has no such thing for their high speed trains. They don’t even have the silly “closing the gates” thing that Amtrak Cascades has. You walk to the train, you hop on. Done.

      Don’t forget you can’t hijack a train and run into a building. Why?

      a) track – it only goes where we need it to go
      b) PTC – will stop your train at any red signal
      c) overhead power – disable that and your train can’t move

      1. Tedious security existed long before they ran the planes into skyscrapers. Besides, that problem (someone commandeering a plane and using it as a weapon) was solved before the last of the 9/11 planes crashed. I still get teary eyed thinking about the bravery of the folks who fought for control of the plane over the fields of Pennsylvania. Now the cockpits locked, the pilot has a gun, and no one just assumes that everything will be OK if they cooperate with the hijackers (the way they felt on September 10).

        Anyway, airport security has largely been reactionary and ineffective. After each attack, they change the rules, while leaving huge gaps in security. The point being that we are simply one terrorist attack away from going through the same type of process to board an airplane as a train. The main reason that terrorists in America have focused on airplanes is because it is such a visible, big part of our lives. It is really only in the Northeast where people ride trains between cities in appreciable numbers. If that changed, then it is quite possible that terrorists would shift their focus. It wouldn’t even take a bomb, but a machine gun and next thing you know, everyone is going through the same sort of security.

      2. d) if the engines fail it doesn’t fall out of the sky; it just stops on the track or at worst turns over adjacent to it.

    3. There’s no TSA checks on busy Amtrak NEC routes, nor at commuter rail or subway stations, despite multiple high profile terror attacks on metro and intercity trains around the world. I rode a packed Northeast Regional a few weeks back and I didn’t so much as have to go through a metal detector. Just went right down to the platform at Boston Back Bay.

      If I had to guess, it’s probably got to do with the way it’s very hard to drive a train into a building.

      1. No need to guess, it should be pretty obvious. It is political, based on a reactionary system*. It isn’t because commandeering an airplane is a huge threat anymore. If it was, then security for private and chartered planes would be much higher. As it is, getting onto a chartered plane is *less* secure than getting on a jet that has a locked door and an armed pilot**. The only reason that getting on a train is easier than getting on an airplane is because there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on a train, not because it is fundamentally less dangerous. The problem is, all it would take is one large attack on a train and we would go through the same BS to board a train as we do with an airplane.

        * https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/01/tsa-business-security-theater-not-security/357599/

        ** https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/private-plane-public-menace/308335/

      2. @Pat none of those are in America. Americans consistently ignore events that occur outside the country and under-react but when a similar event occurs inside the country they wildly overreact.

      3. Seriously, we had terrorist attacks on trains in the US in the *1990s*. Look up the Sunset Limited derailment in 1995.

        The fundamental reasons we will never have airline-style security theater on trains is that it slows down train boarding too much. It will simply not be tolerated. (It’s also useless, of course; competent terrorist attacks on trains are executed at trackside, not onboard.)

  15. Wow. This analysis is so unbelievably unrealistic. First of all, you can get a train on regular tracks to 357 miles per hour to prove that it can be done, just wait until safety regulators hear that you want to use this for country-wide passenger rail service on old tracks. Also wait until cost cutting on train equipment occurs, and rail topography reality sets in. There’s a reason that high speed rail starts at 125 mph.

    Secondly, going by the distance as the crow flies is silly because trains don’t fly, airplanes do. Taking a train to Miami usually requires a south leg and an east leg. You can fill in some diagonals, but we’re not going to fill in all the diagonals, not to mention the bridge across the gulf of Mexico that your 8hr 48min fantasy Miami train needs. Rail is great for a lot of things. Being faster than airplanes is not one of them, especially across odd paths. If we need to make hard choices and wean off airplanes, then that’s an argument, but I don’t think it’s productive or honest to promise what trains can’t deliver, like an 8:48 ride to Miami.

    1. Who said “old tracks”. Most of our current trackage was designed and built over 100 years ago. We are lucky if we have long 79 mph segments today. Practically none of that is usable for HSR.

      I specifically didn’t want to go into alignment details, but talk conceptually. The problem is not solved, but is solvable. One very rough conceptual alignment is that of a the box with its diagonals connected. That would enable NYC-LA, SEA-MIA, etc.

      1. A box, corner to corner, for SEA-MIA? Have you looked at a map recently? Or better yet, a globe? Are you going to build this thing completely underground the whole way? Are there going to be any stops along the way? Why not a pneumatic tube instead, like banks and offices used to use? All this for a couple of hundred passengers a day? Well, less, since tickets will be a trillion dollars each.

        It would take a hundred years just to identify all the landowners along the right-of-way.

  16. My first boss once said that almost anything is possible from an engineering standpoint. We could figure out a way to cross Puget Sound on rail or put an airport in the middle of Lake Washington.

    The practical nature of funding and environmental regulation have to tamper these visions.

    Without a cost-benefit discussion, this is fun but frankly impractical.

    Meanwhile, our elected leaders are enthralled about a huge expansion of light rail, with top speeds of only 55 mph! If speed was so important, we wouldn’t be building the ST3 light rail system without first revisiting the technology chosen for the projects.

    So, rather than ignore the slow-moving elephant (light rail) in the room, shouldn’t we first work together to increase speeds on the Link tracks? We’re talking 300K users expected every weekday!

    1. The argument for metro area light rail’s lack of need for speed is that when you have stop spacing of 1.5 – 2 miles, you don’t have much time to reach a higher top speed. There are some exceptions to this (most notably Rainier to Mercer Island on East Link which is closer to 5 miles), but it largely holds true. Even at this speed it should be able to compare in travel times with the main competition – driving.

      Regional rail (<600 miles) competes with regional air and driving as well. At those distances 200-250 mph trains as envisioned in existing studies make sense.

      National rail was alwasys deemed impossible, and the purpose of this article is to provoke people’s imagination that it is actually possible. When calculating costs, you have to also consider the environmental cost of carbon-intensive flying.

      1. When calculating the environmental of a high speed coast to coast network, you have to factor in the environmental cost of building it. How many miles of new rail are you talking about, anyway? That sounds like a lot of concrete to maybe, hopefully, replace some of the airplane trips.

      2. The system would be significantly better if we built Link with extra tracks to have express trains that only stop every 5-10 miles. Stopping 18 times from Tacoma Dome rather than 5 times adds 15 minutes once the station open door time and the speed-up and slow-down effects are considered. Going from 55 to 80 would save probably another 15 minutes.

      3. Stopping at all stops is a feature, not a bug, of Link. It’s intended to provide high frequency and long span of service at all stations, not express service to Seattle.

    2. 55 mph is not a limitation of light rail; it’s a limitation of the specs Sound Transit chose. There’s a tradeoff between speed and tight turns and probably train cost. ST’s original vision was a lot more surface, like Mt Baker to SeaTac (and presumably Federal Way). All the previous post-1970 light rails in the US were 90-100% surface. San Diego and San Jose were all-surface. Portland’s first line (Gresham) was all-surface, and its second line (Hillsboro) has only one tunnel and station to go under a mountain. Dallas when I was there in the 00’s was all surface except one underpass under a highway. ST chose light rail because it can be surface, elevated, and underground, whereas heavy rail can’t run on streets, and they were counting on street-running to keep the capital costs down. But as the segments went through design one by one, there was significant opposition to the speed and impacts of surface trains. ST pushed it through anyway in Rainier Valley and SODO, but after that there was more opposition and a greater willingness to pay for elevated/tunnels, so everything since then has been grade-separated, except a small part of East Link that reverted to surface to pay for downtown Bellevue’s tunnel.

      A few ST staff or board members have muttered an intention to try to speed up Link as much as possible within the limitations of the existing track, and to design new segments with less curves and elevation changes, and get trains that can go above 55 mph, but I don’t know whether they’ve done anything.

      It’s astonishing that ST won’t prioritize this more, especially with its long-planned intention to go to Tacoma and Everett, but it’s even more astonishing that it won’t order trains with open gangways and fewer seats to get a 20% capacity increase “for free”. They say it would limit flexibility in the maintenance base, but we’ll never run less than 4-car trains after the ST2 cars arrive, and isn’t low-cost capacity a core requirement and more important than maintenance flexibility?

      The original ST vision had a lot more surface segments, like Mt Baker to SeaTac (and presumably Federal Way and Tacoma). All the then-existing light rails in the US had been built that way: San Diego and San Jose are all-surface, the first Portland line (Gresham) was, and the second (Hillsboro) was 90% surface with only one tunnel and station under a mountain, and Dallas (when I was there in th

      1. Mike, you should write a book about the history and context of Link and transit in the region. Maybe a few other regulars on here could contribute and share the burden. I would definitely buy that book.

      1. Um, if you want rail to Everett or Tacoma, there’s always Sounder. “Quick” it is not. Sounder is 55-60 minutes to Tacoma vs Everett, whereas driving is 30 minutes without traffic.

      2. Sounder is consistently 60 minutes from Everett to Tacoma.

        30 min travel time from Tacoma to Everett is great if there’s no traffic, but that’s hardly dependable and depending on what time of day you’re traveling that is incredibly unlikely.

        You could get a lot of mileage by just running Sounder half hourly in both directions all day, 7 days a week. Every 20 or 15 during peak if you’re feeling generous.

      3. Sounder is a terrible comparison as it currently operates. It’s at most 5 minutes faster than Link will be. The Cascades do make the trip in just 43 minutes, which is much better. Even ST Express is scheduled to be about 45-50 minutes — faster than today’s Sounder.

        If speed is so important for transit, why isn’t there more outrage that we are spending billions in expanding technologies and system designs that are actually slower than what we have today — for trips between the two most populous counties in Washington!

        Local high speed rail advocates are not make an convincing argument. The project would be much more practical if the design wasn’t so lofty and self-serving to only connect distant points , which probably 99 percent of the population won’t use more than a half-dozen times a year. The project would be much more practical if the local rail transit feeding the stations was faster.

        Comparatively, Caltrain JPB has been looking at electrification and grade crossing eleminations in concert with California HSR. Agencies can work together. Of course, Caltrain got possession of its track and that really changes things.

        High speed fairy tales are nice — but without an investment and operations systems strategy to facilitate speed for more than mere long-distance trips, we aren’t going to get much faster travel.

        We have planning for Tacoma Dome Link and final design for Federal Way Link happening right now; at the very least, shouldn’t we be designing for enough room between Link tracks to add HSR in the future? Shouldn’t we be planning for a South King hub next to I-5 for non-stop service to Seattle or Tacoma (like at Federal Way or KDM or BAR)? Shouldn’t we have a plan to take possession of the Sounder/Cascade/possible HSR tracks between Seattle and Tacoma so we can enhance speeds for future riders?

        Let’s put the fairy tales away and pull out the systems planning and design strategy manuals.

  17. It isn’t too often an article makes my eye twitch but here we are.

    First of all, the Western United States is probably the most difficult to build any sort of HSR. I have been firmly against it, even with me being a strong rail supporter, ideas such as this, the Vancouver – Seattle – Portland HSR idea are all frankly stupid and should be shelved. Why?

    Where do you propose to build this rail line? How do you access Downtown Seattle realistically? You simply can’t without blowing up a building and placing it in the Central Business District of Seattle and tunneling in and out of Seattle. You cannot realistically build an elevated system and BNSF will not allow joint/shared usage for HSR trains.

    Where is the money going to come from? Do you use special finance? Bonds like California? Who will manage the project? We can barely afford the Amtrak Cascades service and fund it to the point that the service of high-speed rail could be realistically looked at. At this point, WSDOT, ODOT and BC wanted to have 12 Seattle to Portland trains, 8 Seattle to Vancouver BC trains, 4 Vancouver to Eugene trains. We are still at 4, soon to be 6 later this year.

    The lack of TRUE cooperation between Washington, Oregon and British Columbia is laughable at best. If there was a true investment into the Cascades program, again, the studies and look into high-speed rail would then be justified if trains were always near capacity.

    As for the shared usage with BNSF? The carrier has already said additional trains will be allowed as long as track capacity is increased. Point Defiance was a very TINY step in the right direction but a better approach would have been to rebuild the Nelson Bennett tunnels and allow double tracking to be reinstalled in that segment.

    If you want to get people behind high-speed rail, you need to start off right. In today’s money, it would be $10 to 15 billion dollars to build out the Amtrak Cascades program and could be done in 3-5 years. it would be $70+ billion to construct a high-speed rail system and at least 20-30 YEARS.

    Want a break down of what needs to be done? I’ll start from Eugene North;

    Double track UP mainline from Eugene to Portland
    Replace the Steel Bridge in Portland
    Replace jointed rail with welded rail at Portland Union Station to allow faster arrival/departures.
    Construct/Rebuild St. John North siding
    Replace the Vancouver Swing Bridge and Willamette Draw Bridges with 3 main track bridges.
    Construct 3rd main from Portland Union Station to Kalama.
    Construct 3rd main from Kalama to Castle Rock.
    Construct 4th main from Castle Rock to Chehalis (#1 spot for the Cascades to be delayed due to Napavine Hill, heavy trains can get down to 10mph both directions)
    Construct 3rd main from Chehalis to Nisqually
    Construct 2nd main from Nisqually to Tacoma
    Improve Nelson Bennett Tunnel to help with freight mobility
    Construct 3rd main from Tacoma to Auburn
    Construct 4th main from Auburn to King Street Station.
    Improve King Street Tunnel by notching it, reducing freight delays with ‘high/wide’ equipment, which reduces the speed from 25 to 12.
    Closing Wall Street and Vine Street, constructing a Sounder platform, remove 10mph crossovers, add power switch to grain terminal leads to reduce delays.
    Replace Salmon Bay Bridge (in Progress)
    Construct 2nd main from Milepost 16 to Milepost 18 and build new passenger station in Edmonds
    Construct 2nd main from Milepost 27 to Milepost 28, remove 30mph residential restriction, install flange greaser to reduce noise impact from curve and sound wall in Mukilteo
    Rebuild Howarth Park and Everett Jct turnouts to high speed (50mph) turnouts in Everett.
    Construct/add CTC and power switches on Bayside low line to increase freight mobility in Everett.
    Replace ABS system with CTC system from PA Jct to Bridge 37 in Everett.
    Replace all rail bridges (Bridge 37, Union Slough, Ebey Slough, and Steamboat Slough to new double track bridges. Increases speed from 10mph to 50mph. Helps with freight mobility as well.
    Double track all feasible portions of the Bellingham Subdivision. The vast majority of the subdivision is single track and accounts for the vast majority of the delays for the Amtrak Cascades.
    Construct station at Blaine to capture potential riders from White Rock, Langley, Abbotsford, Sumas, etc.
    Double track all feasible portions of the New Westminster Subdivision. Difficult terrain makes adding a second main difficult on the majority of the road but double tracking or long sidings will reduce freight dwell times and reduced Cascades delays.
    Work with Transport Canada to allow tilt capable trains to increase speed. Currently, the Cascades service does not utilize the speed advantage in Canada due to rules and regulations there, which hampers on-time performance and reduced running times.
    Terminate the Cascades service at TransLink Scott Road Station or a way to increase speeds to reduce the runtime between.

    Sounds like a lot? It is. What are the current drive times?

    1 Hour, 10 minutes via Horizon Airlines
    5 Hours, 10 minutes to 7 hours, Automobile
    7 hours, 36 minutes via Bolt Bus
    8 Hours, 40 minutes via Amtrak Cascades
    9 Hours, 9 minutes via Greyhound

    At 110mph, where you can still run at grade crossings at speed (See videos of the Amtrak Wolverine service) it would be close to driving times at 5 hours and 45 minutes.

    1. Yeah, the best approach is to chip away at the problem. 110 MPH would be a huge improvement, as would eliminating delays. This would make it competitive with driving, which is really the main competition. You list times for Vancouver to Portland, but that is probably the least common trip, and the least likely to occur by rail. The hassles of an airport are minor for such a distance. On the other hand, trips from Seattle to Vancouver or Portland suddenly become a lot more appealing by rail if a train ride doesn’t take so long. Driving is tedious, and flying is too big of a hassle.

      1. “You list times for Vancouver to Portland, but that is probably the least common trip, and the least likely to occur by rail.”

        Be careful of generalizations like this.

        One, we don’t specifically know the actual auto trips (no record of ‘tickets’ showing on/off)
        Two, for flights, what would be the valid comparison? If it’s a connecting flight, especially to an overseas flight, I’d be sticking with the airline (same mode) to guarantee that connection)

        When they extended the train (517(SB)/518(NB) (formerly 513/516)) over the border for the 2010 Winter Olympics, they discovered that 30% of the people boarding and detraining on those two trains had destinations of Portland/Vancouver, WA).

        (that would equal approximately 9,000 passengers per year).

        Make it faster, and more importantly, make it reliable (minimal delays, mudslide mitigation (which has worked very well on the Scenic sub between Everett and Seattle)).

        Just doing some of the improvements Brian suggested will make a big difference.

    2. I prefer an incremental approach as RossB does, and I’m not convinced of the need for 125+ mph trains in the Cascades corridor or future Spokane corridor, even if it could theoretically become part of a Washington-California HSR line at some point.

      As for a downtown station, supporters have vaguely pointed to King Street, SODO, or a suburban location (e.g., transferring to Link for downtown). Nothing in the middle of the CBD.

    3. “First of all, the Western United States is probably the most difficult to build any sort of HSR. ”

      This is true, because of the mountains.

      California HSR still makes sense, and they need to bite the bullet and connect from Bakersfield to Los Angeles.

      But east of the Rockies, HSR is (relatively) easy. NY-Chicago should have been built already. Chicago-Denver is trivial to construct.

  18. what Brian Bundridge says.

    My observations is that we should support and improve times on our current long distance trains. Part of this is improving freight times and schedules. Lack of flexibility on carload freight in increasingly seen as a problem. The major freight RRs are worried about a lack of competitiveness.

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, we should improve the Vancouver BC to Eugene (and esp. Seattle to Portland) But we do not need true HSR. Even averaging 75 mph might be sufficient. If you are going all the way from Vancouver BC to Eugene take a plane, but for 250 distances trains are great. And they can stop at all the intermediate towns and cities (or at least most of them).

    By the time we get around doing this, autonomous vehicles may be common. And contrary to popular belief they do not need to be single occupancy. Boeing and Airbus are expecting that hybrid air transportation may look like something possible, say in 2030 (it will not arrive then – just look possible, esp. for sub-500 mile flights – could kill passenger rail at those sorts of distances.

  19. If I am flying to Ohio, or Iowa, or Missouri, with air travel, I will be stuck with a potentially terrible layover. That layover might be in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, or even New York, overshooting and then backtracking. It might be a seriously short layover that risks missing my next flight, or it could be a layover of 3, 4, 5, or 6 hours, all in addition to the TSA lines, excess travel time caused by going out of my way, and usually the need to get a rental car and drive an hour or two to my actual destination, since a direct trip to, say, Fort Wayne Indiana, or Lexington Kentucky, would be prohibitively expensive, compared to a car rental. My typical travel time to visit parents via air travel is in excess of 12 hours, each direction. A direct flight would run approximately 4 hours. I can drive it in roughly 36 hours, but need stops to sleep and face the danger of fatigue. A rail option at even 110 to 180 mph average would be amazing.
    High speed rail makes a lot of sense for a lot of the country even if the travel time isn’t completely competitive with air travel. If the Empire Builder offered “express trips” that bolted past small towns and maintained “local service” on its current route, a trip to the Midwest would definitely be more efficient via rail. Also, building rail lines across the Great Plains of the Midwest is a piece of cake, just as road building is. There’s a reason that most of the Midwest has a grid of local roads, every mile north-south and east-west.

  20. I will see several high speed rail system across the USA. Especially railroad lines dedicated only to passenger trains as in Europe and Asia Japan and China and South Korea included. And Morroco has recently inaugurated its first-ever high speed rail line from Tangier to Casablanca in November 2018.

    1. “The funding is to be allocated equally to rural and urban areas.”

      Oh. i guess half our transit needs are in rural areas. Funny how that worked out when they added up all the needs in the census blocks.

      1. Is what got me is the 10 million for higher speed trains. What a joke! I wonder what that will get us, a map of zero miles of HSR?

        Yes, rural republicans hijacked the transportation bills the last few years.

    1. Europe, hardly an anti-rail place, is in the midst of shuttering all their overnight trains (or supplying lots of state aid) because they’re so lightly used. Good luck getting anyone to buy into that.

      1. No they’re not. You’re several years out of date.

        What’s happened is that trains got too fast for overnights to make sense internal to France or Germany… so Austria, where an overnight train to France still makes sense, took over the overnight trains. You get the idea.

      2. Trains not getting too fast is not the only factor. Europe also significantly liberalized bus markets, so now you have operators like Flixbus running cheap overnight buses. The buses aren’t that much slower than the sleeper trains, are usually half the price of an equivalent train ticket (or more) and speed is not a defining factor for a sleeper train. Why spend extra money for Berlin-Prague on the train when the bus is functionally equivalent?

        In any case sleepers are great for the environment if you’re leveraging existing rail infrastructure, but suck if you have to build an entirely new line just for the sleeper.

      3. Riding on a bus sucks, no two ways about it. Riding on the train, on the other hand is a much, much more pleasant experience (the bus and plane experiences are essentially the same in my book, so trains are also a much nicer experience than planes). I would gladly pay more to take a train than a bus. I also would be willing to take a somewhat longer train ride than take a plane under the right circumstances and if the time difference is not too great.

    2. One thing I noticed in the UK was that there were almost no overnight trains; they were scheduled from morning to evening. The country is just long enough that you can leave Inverness at 8:30am and get to Bristol by 9:30pm. The only overnight train I saw was one from London to Edinburgh. Whereas here both Amtrak and Greyhound run buses around the clock for multi-day trips and you spend one or even two nights aboard. But we don’t have to focus on this elusive Reno to Chicago corridor first. Getting regional HSR in the west and east coasts and the midwest would be a start.

      1. Overnight trains basically work when you happen to have an 8-12 hour trip time between two major cities. As trains got faster in Europe, the rational overnight routes ended up longer and longer and are now all international.

  21. 357 MPH is entirely unrealistic for a top speed, let alone an average speed. Noise (especially tunnel boom), wear and tear, required land acquisition, etc. all rise quadratically or exponentially with speed.

    China, no stranger to pushing technology to its limits or showering infrastructure with money, actually *lowered* the top speed of its rail lines from 380 km/h to 320 km/h because it was too expensive to run.

    1. The top speed in China right now is actually 350 km/h and they are working on increasing it to the maximum the Fuxing trains are capable which is 400 km/h.

      You cite noise and wear and tear as a problem, but don’t forget that trains went from <100 km/h to >200 km/h to >300 km/h and all these problems were solved every single time. There is no reason we can’t solve these problems for >500 km/h either. Once we start approaching the sound barrier, that’s when real problems will arise, but we are far from that.

      1. China can say they’re targeting 400 kph. South Korea has been saying the same thing for a while. But when push comes to shove it’s not extremely likely.

        Cars are capable of going at 100MPH and yet speed limits aren’t set anywhere near that high. We once had passenger airliners capable of going faster than Mach 0.85 and some that broke the speed of sound. And yet in 2019 we don’t have planes that go much faster than that.

        The realm of ‘technically possible on a blueprint’ is a lot different from the cold, harsh reality we live in. Thinking that HSR is ever going to work to cross the Rockies and the Great Plains is Elon Musk levels of delusion.

      2. HSR would work to cross the Rockies, but it’s probably too expensive to be worth it for the small numbers who would ride.

        However, for the *Great Plains*? Obviously HSR will work. Trivially. There’s only one city on the west side of the Great Plains large enough to be worth building HSR to, but Denver-Chicago would be an easy line to build and extremely effective.

  22. The fundamental challenge with a shift to rail travel isn’t engineering, or even political; it’s social. Our social patterns have evolved around the idea that it’s cheap and quick to get anywhere. People think little of picking up and moving away from family and friends to some distant part of the country. Business looks at, if not global at least a wide regional base. This is all possible because a day trip to the Bay Area or even Chicago isn’t that hard for a business meeting. Taking a week long vacation to visit family is viable when you can spend only one day each way traveling coast to coast. Train travel, and transit in general requires a much smaller, denser sphere of travel. The low hanging fruit, although it still requires an extension ladder, is commuting. Given the existing land use the most practical solution is moving jobs to where people are and building the next out from there rather than top down government follies.

  23. No. Just no.

    The fact that a specially modified train once topped out at 357 mph for a short distance does not imply that we have the technology to run trains at that speed for thousands of miles per day in a reliable, cost-effective manner.

    Even if you assume a train that can reliably cruise at that speed, it’s not going to average that speed all the way across the continental US, not if it ever stops along the way. You seem to concede that this will take some time by graciously lowering the average speed to a mere 350 mph, but that barely makes a difference of ten minutes on a cross-country journey.

    Ten minutes is unrealistic. Assuming this train won’t be subjecting passengers to more G forces than trains currently in service, you’re going to lose a couple minutes to acceleration and deceleration for each stop, plus whatever amount of time the train is actually idle at each station. Amtrak currently makes about 60 stops on its way from Seattle to Boston. Let’s assume you have the political will to build this new line but only stop at a quarter of the places currently served. Even there you’re still stopping 15 times, likely costing at least an hour.

    Speaking of stops, if you’re going to put the train stations in city centers where they’re more easily accessible to more people than airports are (as you assume by giving such a high time penalty for local transit to the airport compared to the train station), that means the train won’t take a perfectly straight path across the country. It will necessarily zig-zag a bit to hit the population centers. This adds time as well.

    This doesn’t even get into the question of how much it would cost to build tracks over (through?) the Rockies that could sustain this speed of travel.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think high-speed rail does have the real potential to be time-competitive for a large chunk of the trips that are currently taken by plane. I’d love to see a major investment in this infrastructure in order to reduce the large amount of fossil fuels that are currently used by air travel. The time penalty for airports that you mention is real, and this makes realistic trains time-competitive for trips in the hundreds of miles, trips that are often taken by plane today. Let’s focus on that.

    1. 1 – 357 mph in a test – the test shows us what is already possible. If we put our minds to building a purpose-built ultra-high speed train, I am sure we can go far beyond 357 mph. In China their next goal is 600 kph which is 372 mph. Yes, they are using maglev for this, it should be achievable with conventional rail as well. It would be good to get data on track and maintenance costs for 600 kph between conventional and maglev.

      2- Stops – cross-country trains would probably <10 stops per route. You can still have local trains (scheduled so as to not impede the less frequent cross-country trains). A bit of a hub and spoke model, but with more hubs than you’d anticipate.

      3- Rockies – it would be more expensive than average, but it’s the opposite of cheaper than average in the midwest.

      The point of the article is to push the boundary. It’s well known for trips <600 miles HSR can compete with air. But what about beyond that. How can America build the best HSR network in the world and what would it look like?

  24. While I think we should have a stronger regional rail system, and keep a skeleton long distance system keep in mind the following: I plane required on runway about two miles long on each end of the flight. It requires a crew of about 6 say 8 hours to transport 200 people – for the same number as a typical train. The train requires 2000 miles of very expensive track. Crew – a dozen people upwards of three days. This is likely for Seattle to Chicago.

    Now suppose you have more traffic – that same runway can support up to 600 flights. The railroad track may only support 60 trains a day, and that requires several hundred miles of parallel track for sidings and etc. For a really fast train there should be no grade crossings, that can mean several $million for each overpass, and/or blocking tens of thousands of roads, streets, driveways, and paths.

    The

    1. The track should be able to support a lot more than 60 trains a day. Check out Japan’s high speed rail network, where trains from Tokyo toward Kyoto leave on average every 6 to 7 minutes during operating hours (about 150 total trips). Minimum headway is only 3 minutes, so you could operate double that number of trips if demand called for it.

      Each train also has capacity for more than 1,300 people, which is 3-10x more than large commercial jets, so the number of people transported per hour or day can actually be significantly higher for rail than for a runway.

      1. Two tracks for that sort of speed, and if it is going to stop at most cities 4 tracks. My favorite NYC subways had locals plus express, not only 4 tracks, but huge stations.

      2. Japan’s HSR line is mostly only 2 tracks. There is additional track at stations so an express train can bypass, but the rest is either all or mostly 2 tracks.

  25. Better idea, we think about building three different HSR lines that run north-south. One for each coast and one for Chicago-Houston (which sometimes runs express and sometimes stops in St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, and Shreveport)

  26. Others have said this already, but a train will take a significantly less direct route than a plane, and will make intermediate stops, so travel times will be significantly longer than shown in this article.

    Also, at 350+ MPH those trains are using much more energy than they would at 200 MPH. I’d like to see exactly what the difference is and how it compares to air travel. It’s possible that an airplane actually uses less energy than a train at those speeds. The air is much thinner at 30,000+ feet than at ground level, and I suspect that an airplane is probably lighter than a train (which typically are very heavy).

    1. I just checked, looks like a typical passenger train is going to weigh an order of magnitude more than a plane.

      1. At the same time it takes quite a lot of energy to defy gravity and launch a giant metal tube 30,000 feet in the air.

    2. Planes can be efficient at great distances, however the short regional and commuter routes are not so good. Planes take an extraordinary amount of energy for taking off and getting to elevation, and typical small planes carry fewer than 200 passengers. Technically, an intercity bus is the most efficient in terms of miles per gallon per person. However, we already know that doesn’t solve the problem of getting regions like Cascadia well-connected like our Northeastern US, Asian, or European brethren.

      HSR will be able to carry at least double the number of people, possibly over 1000 passengers, and we are talking about switching to electric powered, something planes can’t do today. Fortunately in this region the majority of our energy production does not come from fossil fuels, so this is actually a really good candidate region to invest in HSR.

      Check out this link for some comparison data about fuel efficiency per mode of transportation in the US.
      https://www.theprch.com/this-vs-that/fuel-efficiency-planes-vs-train-bus-car/

  27. Dude your calculations are off by at least 50%,
    first the record you are mentioning was the top speed in a direct path downhill which doesn’t hold in real world, so instead of 357 mph lets say it goes by 320 mph in real life and I am being generous which already adds 10 Percent to your times. if there are 3 stops in the route you will have an hour of overhead just for the stops(20 mins in each stop just for people to take on and off) you have to consider for major cities you have to reduce the speed to 20-30 mph near the cities which would add at least 2 hours to your trip. You assumed there is a straight line between two ends of your trip which is not the case because of all the natural barriers and costs this would add at least another 10% to your calculations. So the Seattle LA trip would be around 7:20 hours vs the 4:45 which is 43% longer and it would be worse in longer paths.

  28. If one can replace cross-country air travel with HSR travel then why are there still airplanes flying around Europe? Maybe commuters prefer competition and options.

    1. That is explained in the article. A flight from Chicago to NYC or LA wouldn’t be cross country. The author is trying (but fails) to show that HSR is a viable alternative to flying even at the greatest distances across our country. Also, this in an article that appears in the Seattle Transit Blog…

  29. And the funding from our $22 Trillion-in-debt-and-rising-rapidly would come from?

    The idea is grand, but ever since I visited Japan in 1980, then home of the “bullet” train at 120 mph, and on-board bus ring straps that only rang once (Metro took until the late 80s to figure that one out), I’ve advocated having a series of regional rapid rail networks, e.g. northwest, as in the map in this article, mountain, southwest, etc. In our case, even improving the existing rail speeds to 120 mph would be great and would make rail the transport of choice over air for trips in the 3-6 hour driving range. I believe that this could be accomplished by step by step improving the current kinks in the line, which presently include through Marysville, where grade separation would do wonders.

    1. This is a great comment. Why are we thinking about 357 MPH rail when we don’t even have 125 MPH rail almost anywhere in the country. We absolutely should be pushing for faster passenger rail, but it should start with the more modest step of getting to 125 MPH. I’m a believer in making real, practical, and achievable improvements. Such a step would be vastly less costly and therefore would be much easier politically. As rail improves and more people start riding (which they will), it will become politically much easier to push ahead to the next level (and the lift will again be smaller since you are building on the improvements you already made).

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