APTA HSR Conference Focuses on Recurring Themes

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

A conference highlight was an opportunity to tour the new Acela II train, built by Alstom.

There is nothing operating in the United States or Canada that meets the standard of the High-Speed Rail (HSR) lines that run in Europe, Japan and China today. Still, there are many planners, managers, transportation officials, and rider-advocates who want to remedy that situation.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) held a three-day conference in Philadelphia on March 30 and 31 and April 1 to discuss some potential solutions to that predicament. Although rider-advocates were generally not represented, the other classes were. Joining the many U.S. officials and managers were a number from Europe and a few from other continents, as well. While the event had the feel of a rail conference with the emphasis on conventional trains, HSR was still a recurring theme, effectively the icing on the conventional-rail cake.

There were some transportation “stars” in the lineup, including Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, two members of the Surface Transportation Board (STB, which is now holding an evidentiary hearing on Amtrak’s request to initiate service between New Orleans and Mobile, an initiative strongly opposed by potential host railroads CSX and NS, and by the Port of Mobile), and a number of state-level transportation commissioners and transit heads.

It was a busy program, with a morning session, a break for tours, and an afternoon session on Wednesday, a full-day program on Thursday, and a Friday morning session that ran almost non-stop.

It opened on Wednesday morning with an international perspective, featuring managers from the International Union of Railways (UIC, from the French). The session was billed as Planning and Delivering on High Performance Rail: Lessons from Around the World, and it featured presenters from France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Morocco, and Italy. Chris Brady, Vice Chair of the APTA Committee on High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (and an American), kicked off the session by calling the funding provisions in the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, IIJA) “a down payment in giving us the opportunity to do what you’ve already done.”

Jorge Rios of Deutche Bahn in Germany stated that “financially sustainable operations are possible” and stressed that managers of potential connecting service should be partners when doing studies. Asako Tugari from JR East in Japan described UIC standards for high-performance and interoperability and Rios later added that a high-performance rail line is a State asset for economic development.

After the “Planning and Development” portion of the session ended, the “Operations and Maintenance” portion began. Alvero Mascaraque of ADIF in Spain addressed capacity problems by suggesting a “Capacity Framework Agreement” that would determine who has access to slots on the railroad. He mentioned such an agreement running for ten years and referred to a deal where Spanish HSR operator Renfe had two slots per hour, Iryo had one slot per hour, and Ouigo had five slots per day. He called the strengthening passenger-rail system “the European Green Deal” and said that the passengers are the winners. Jared Katsef of McKinsey & Co. stressed the goals of decarbonization and moving more people by rail, specifically suggesting that managers look toward the goal of increasing leisure travel. Eduardo Romo of the Fundación de Camino de Herrera stressed goals of performance, travel time, capacity, and convenient stations. High-performance rail is not restricted to Europe, as Nacera Berhari of ONCF in Morocco noted. She described such a line running from Tangier southward to Rabat and Casablanca, with a double-track line going further south to Marrakesh.

After mid-day tours of the SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) control center and a construction site for a new subway station that included Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, it was time to reconvene for the afternoon session. That session was titled Visions of Local, State, National and International Leaders, and it featured some of the biggest “names” at the conference. Jeffrey Wharton, Director of Contracts and Technical Services for Systra USA, kicked off the proceedings, saying: “This event will open your eyes on the possibilities to transform our transportation network connecting cities across America. It is time to stop envying what other countries have done and to stop asking why we cannot do it. It is time to implement a world-class high-speed rail network in America.” 

Leslie Richards, former state Transportation Secretary and now General Manager of SEPTA, was next. She expanded the nickname of her city to “The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love” and noted SEPTA goals like “reliable all-day service” and the agency’s Trolley Revitalization Plan. Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-N.J.), Chair of the House Committee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, was the next speaker. He said it is time for this country “to catch up with the rest of the world” and that the $100 billion for rail in the BIL will help toward achieving that goal. He called for connecting the urban cores of the nation’s cities with trains and said “We must do more.” He concluded by saying that HSR is “our country’s next great transportation project.” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenny praised the Philadelphia Transit Plan as well as COVID relief funding. “Without the American Rescue Plan, I would still be laying off people” he said.

Yasmin Gramian, Pennsylvania’s current Secretary of Transportation, was next. She called for a system “that works for everyone, no matter who you are or how you travel.” She noted that Pennsylvania has 65 operating railroads and 5600 track miles. She praised the improvements on the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that added frequencies and enabled the trains to run at faster speeds, and looks forward to the proposed additional train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh on the part of the line she called “Keystone West.” When asked about other restored routes like the New York area to Allentown and Scranton, and Philadelphia to Reading, she expressed support but offered no specifics. Jacques Pittleloud, Swiss Ambassador to the United States, talked about how successful rail is in his country, that “it connects cities and stimulates economic growth.” He stated that “no one drives to work in Zurich anymore” but added that he expects to see more people go into the office two days a week in the future, an expectation expressed by this writer last year in Railway Age in a series entitled Commuting post-COVID. Elaine Clegg, President of the City Council in Boise, Idaho and Chair of the Transportation Infrastructure and Services Committee at the National League of Cities, concluded the session. She praised the convenience of 30th Street Station. She recalled the role that access to rail travel played in the 1870-1920 campaign to secure the vote for women, called for more development that can be driven by more passenger trains, and expressed her desire to see more trains, especially in the West, like the Pioneer that ran on the Union Pacific and stopped at Boise (discontinued in 1997), and the train on the North Coast route, historically the Northern Pacific (discontinued in 1979). When asked about the effectiveness of passenger trains in light of new technologies like Elon Musk’s hyperloop, she mentioned that rail is “high-density,” that it has the capacity to carry a lot more people. Clegg is scheduled to make a similar presentation at an on-line conference sponsored by the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) on Friday, April 29. Registration information is available on the RUN website, www.railusers.net. That concluded the Wednesday presentations.

There were sessions throughout the day on Thursday, leading off with Federal Transit Administrator Nuria I. Fernandez. She called for a “high-functioning network” and said: “Passenger rail is an integral part of a well-functioning transportation system.” Concerning HSR, she referred to a “sense of urgency” and added: “this needs to happen quick.” She mentioned the regularly-cited optimal 100 to 300-mile length for corridors and stressed the importance of connectivity with other Amtrak routes. Joseph Giuletti, Connecticut’s Transportation Commissioner, made it clear that faster service requires infrastructure investment, and said that such investment is happening on the state-owned segment of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) from the New York line to New Haven. He mentioned environmental economic, and social equity factors concerning transit and added: “If you don’t make the transit in your state work, the entire state is at risk.” Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, former head of New Jersey Transit and New York City Transit, and now at HNTB, praised the audience for its level of energy and said that equity requires access to education, as an example.

Albrecht P. (Al) Engel, longtime APTA “regular” and consultant, moderated the next panel: Visions of High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail. He remembered a derailment on the NEC in 1975, which forced transportation leaders to think about the line’s condition, and which he said led to the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (“4R Act”), which was passed the following year. He also said that he felt the recently-enacted BIL could be a tipping point for HSR in the United States. Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose was next. He started by saying: “Your years of advocacy delivered results.” He called for a revitalized NEC, along with improvements in the national network, especially in terms of fleets and facilities. He said that we are experiencing “an unprecedented moment” to deliver world-class rail all over the country, and “an opportunity for win-win investments.” He added that he was “incredibly optimistic.” Amtrak President and CEO Stephen Gardner followed Bose. Gardner called for “a new era for mobility across the country” and touted Amtrak as the alternative to driving and flying, an attitude shared by many advocates for the riders around the nation. He praised the Biden Administration for “incredible leadership.” He called recent developments “a significant vote of confidence for rail” and said: “Now we have to go and deliver,” adding that HSR is an “essential piece” of the nation’s mobility. He also warned: “We have elected to ignore the assets we have available to us.” Jennie Louwerse, Deputy Secretary of Multimodal Transportation at PennDOT, echoed Gardner’s statements and said: “This is our chance to prove that we can do it” and “We have to work harder than we did years ago, because we have funding and political will.” Marc Guigon, Head of Passenger Rail at UIC, concluded the session. He described the long-term effects of HSR: more mobility, a shift to rail, and positive effects on jobs, housing, and the economy. He added that it might help save our planet.

The final session of the morning focused on Understanding the New Federal HS&IPR Programs and Initiatives. Chris Brady started the session by stressing the need to understand High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR), demonstrating leadership, and showing that we have a “willing public.” Leo Watula of the Build America Bureau of USDOT then explained the Department’s financing programs: Transportation Infrastructure Finance & Improvement Act (TIFIA) loans, Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement (RRIF) loans, and the Private Activity Bonds program. He mentioned funding for Brightline West (between Southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada) and a $2.9B multimodal program. There is a 2.55% interest rate for 35-year loans, as of March 30, 2022. The next speaker was Allison Ishihara Fultz, General Counsel for the FRA. She described new funding available through the BIL, including $200B in DOT grants. Ryan Arbuckle, FRA Senior Economist, concluded the program also spoke about funding opportunities for corridor improvements and HSR for “sustained, high-quality service on existing routes.”

After a bag lunch, it was time for the afternoon session. Gretchen Kostura, Senior Director of Major Stations Planning and Development at Amtrak, led off. The stations within her purview are Chicago Union Station, New York Penn Station, Union Station in Washington, DC, Boston South Station and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. She described her projects, designed to maximize the return on those station assets. Anthony Perl, a faculty member at Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, B.C., started his talk by saying that railroads made urban centers what they became, and then gave a presentation on the Chinese experience with HSR. He said that high-speed trains brought transit-oriented development (TOD) to exurbs in the Beijing area, far from the city center. He called HSR “a harbinger of economic and social development.” He added that China wants to have a sufficiently-extensive network to serve 80% of the population, and that it provides opportunities to developers and revenue to towns. Rich Andreski, Public Transportation Chief at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, concluded the panel. He mentioned plans to speed up the state-owned New Haven Line, and described the situation at the stations in New Haven and Stamford. The latter was a challenge because it is bounded by a highway and has 400 shuttle buses for commuters, some of which have routes less than a mile long.

The next session focused on Project Delivery for Major Intercity Rail Projects. Brian P. Kelly, Executive Director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) led off, advising listeners to “celebrate all victories and let them pile on top of each other until we get momentum.” He said that the overall cost of the project is in the range of $105B to $110B, and that there is $25B available between now and 2030. He also offered the advice to initiate a project ASAP and build more as funding becomes available. He described the “bookend projects” of Caltrain electrification in the Bay area, improvements at Union Station in Los Angeles, and grade separation projects. He attributed the problems face by the HSR project to “a tough start” but said that the situation is changing now. He concluded by saying that the segment through Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield is next, along with King-Tulare Station. Laura Mason, Executive Vice President for Major Program Delivery at Amtrak, was next. She warned that a railroad should not award contracts until management knows that it can give track access. Wayne Rogers, Chair and CEO of Northeast Maglev, then described his company’s plan for developing a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train modeled after the ones that run in Japan on JR Central. He said his project could allow travel time of one hour between New York and Washington, D.C. in one hour, and between the Nation’s Capital and Baltimore in 15 minutes. The company hopes to have permits for a demonstration project in 2024-25 and completion by 2033. The last presenter on the panel was Daniel Friere, Project Manager for Renfe of America. He described the 3000-mile HSR network in Spain, which is the second-most-mountainous country in Europe, exceeded only by Switzerland. He mentioned the challenges inherent in building an HSR line, including integrating all the components. He also said that operations and maintenance (O&M) come later, and that a “shadow operator” with experience is a necessity.

The last panel of the day focused on Planning for Connections Across the Country. Paul Vilter, AVP at Amtrak, started it off by describing the Amtrak Planning Group for Sustainability, starting with the Amtrak Connects US initiative for new corridors to be developed between now and 2035. He also distinguished between Amtrak’s “owner’s perspective” concerning the NEC and dealings with host railroads elsewhere. He added two observations at the end of the session: that Amtrak serves more places with connecting buses than with trains, and that, when it comes to train speeds, “the best way to go fast is not to go slow.” Peter Schwartz, Chief for Project Engineering and Planning at the FRA, distinguished between system planning (where connections go) and project planning (what they look like). He mentioned that the BIL delivered a new legal framework for project planning, and referred to state rail plans, regional rail plans sponsored by the FRA in the Northwest, Southwest, and Midwest, and a long-distance plan at the national level for Amtrak. Alan Rao, Passenger Rail Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), followed. He described the Corridor Development Plan, which starts with a state or regional plan, going through an Amtrak feasibility study, capacity simulation, service development plan, NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, grant application and review, culminating in a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA). He mentioned that it took ten years to get approval for a second train between Chicago and the Twin Cities (actually St. Paul) through Milwaukee. He said that it’s difficult to get a potential host railroad engaged until there is funding on the table. He also mentioned that Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee will increase from seven to ten trains daily.

Two local officials who made statements at the STB’s February hearing about Gulf Coast service between New Orleans and Mobile also completed the Thursday panel. One was Alice Gallucci, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA, the local MPO). She said that it should not be necessary to have a vehicle to live in the Cleveland area. She called for multimodalism, said that the highway system is “over-designed and over-built” and called for more passenger rail, transit and TOD in the region. For passenger rail, she called for the proposed Chicago-Cleveland Corridor, which she said was responsible for ¼ to 1/3 of the GDP of the Great Lakes region, and for a corridor linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton (3C+D) that former Gov. John Kasich killed in 2010, despite receiving a federal grant to start the service. She also called for corridors between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit, and concluded by recommending that proponents of new services “facilitate, collaborate and coordinate” (FCC). John S. Spain, Vice-Chair of the Southern Rail Commission from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, completed the lineup. He started with the history of his organization, which was created by Congress in 1982, so it could get funding. He said that the arrangement “saves a lot of red tape. He wants to see a train between New Orleans and Florida again, and he mentioned a purpose for passenger trains as “rescue trains” that could be used to evacuate people in the event of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed Gulf Coast service then.

There was one more session on Thursday afternoon, with the topic A Business Model for National High-Speed Rail. Patrick Fuchs, a member of the STB, kicked off the panel by introducing his agency. He cited five unique features of the Board: pre-emptive jurisdiction that overrides state or local regulation, a presumption in favor of building projects it deems appropriate, permissive authority on land rights, ability to conduct “financial marketplace” tests, and authority to pursue environmental review. Because of its special status, Amtrak is exempt from some rules on projects it proposes.

Amy Scarton, Deputy Director of the Washington State DOT, said: “Railroads must all work together for a project to work.” She mentioned the example of the Cascade Corridor in her state, which runs mostly on BNSF, but partly on the Sounder Line, which is owned locally by Sound Transit. Mike Reininger, CEO of Brightline, delivered the view from the private sector. He said his objective is to get more trains and systems operating quickly, but a debt source is needed. He also believes in risk-sharing as much as possible, but added that you need to break inertia. Harout Chitilian, VP of Corporate Affairs for CDPQ in Quebec, advised that “pre-visibility” cuts risk. Dave Joynt of MD Transport Investments for Brookfield Infrastructure, advised that “first dollar in” capital is hard to get, but there is less risk as project development goes along. That concluded the Thursday sessions.

The final event on Thursday was more relaxed. It was a reception at 30th Street station. The highlight of the evening was an opportunity to tour the new Acela II train, built by Alstom. 

Friday’s session only lasted for half the day, but it was packed with four panels, each separated only by a short break. The first one was entitled No Time to Lose: Successful Intercity Passenger Rail Expansion on Shared Infrastructure. The moderator was Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers’ Association (RPA), the only person on any panel who is associated with a rider-oriented advocacy organization. He extolled the benefits of shared infrastructure and said “We need it for the country.” He added: “We need to bury the hatchet for everyone’s benefit.” Michelle Teel Kratzer, Director of Multimodal for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), was next. She said that her agency completed an economic study for passenger rail in the state and hired WSP for a funding study. The state recently reduced funding for Amtrak service, which resulted in the elimination at the beginning of this year of the River Runner train that used to leave St. Louis in the morning for Kansas City and returned in the afternoon for an evening arrival (the train that leaves Kansas City in the morning and returns in the evening still runs). She mentioned the Missouri Rail Passenger Advisory Committee (MoRPAC) and said that, when the Chair of the appropriate legislative committee called for the recently discontinued train to come back, the audience cheered. Time will tell if the legislature finds the money to restore the train. Katherine Youngbluth, Planning Director for the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, said that the agency was formed in 2020 and described the passenger rail network in Virginia. It can accept grants, but will not operate trains. She mentioned plans to add more service to Richmond and on Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter trains serving Alexandria and Washington, D.C. There are also plans to expand service to Roanoke and a short distance beyond there, to Christiansburg. She concluded by describing the state’s initiative to buy right-of-way for passenger service along the line to Richmond, the S Line (historic Seaboard Railroad) to the North Carolina state line, and on the Buckingham Branch (west of Charlottesville, used by the Cardinal).

The other two presenters on the panel were managers. Tamara Noel, Assistant Director for Passenger Train Operations and Amtrak Officer at BNSF, was next. She led off by saying: “We want the same things – trucks to rail and people out of cars.” After saying that, she said that along the railroad’s lines, “we have enough grain to feed 500 million people for a year” and “We want to go for every growth opportunity possible.” She described the railroad’s hosting for Amtrak trains, as well as “commuter” services in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles. She also advised that a “collaborative relationship with key public partners” is necessary. She did not explain how a policy that would support expansion of passenger services on BNSF could comport with the previously mentioned policy and a further policy of “ensuring that BNSF if not negatively impacted” on a railroad whose capacity is limited. The last speaker on the panel was Bruno Maestri, Amtrak’s Vice President for Government Affairs and Corporate Communications. He noted that only 15% of track mileage in the country has a passenger train running on it, and called for “strategic investment to expand passenger rail.” He noted that the country’s population has grown 60% since Amtrak started in 1971, but Amtrak route miles peaked in 1979. He added that “there has to be an effective regulatory network in place” if the country is going to have “a world-class freight and passenger network.”

The next panel addressed The Potential for Private Investment in Intercity and High-Speed Rail. The moderator was Sharon Greene, Managing Partner at InfraStrategies. She mentioned higher prices and referred to “COVID-2 inflation” and speculated on how that could affect costs for future HSR projects. STB Member Karen Hedlund also mentioned her agency’s pre-emptive jurisdiction, which overrides any state or local jurisdiction and, therefore, produces a “regulatory certainty.” She gave examples of the reach of STB jurisdiction with respect to high-performance rail projects. Brightline West’s predecessor accepted it in 2007. There is no comparable jurisdiction over Brightline in Florida, though, because it does not connect with Amtrak. The California HSR lines would take Amtrak passengers, so the Board would have authority over it. The same goes for the proposed Texas Central project, but we have reported that it appears unlikely that the line will be built, on account of a case before the Texas Supreme Court. Duane Callander, Director of the USDOT’s Build America Bureau, described the TIFIA ($80B) and RRIF ($30B) lending programs. Some loans can now be repaid over 75 years, so there is a lot of flexibility for lending from DOT and its sub-agencies. He also said: “We always start each deal from the last deal.” Frank Sacr, Executive Director of the Gateway Program Development Corp., described some components of the Gateway Development Program between northern New Jersey and New York Penn Station, specifically building a new tunnel under the Hudson River, rehabilitating the existing tunnel, and a new Portal North bridge. There are other components of the program that he did not mention, and we reported extensively on the series of projects during 2020 and 2021 in Gateway: The Series. Michael Schneider, also from InfraStrategies, said that public agencies resist long payment commitments. He also recommended expanding the definition of “revenue” beyond fares, to include other revenue from activities like transit-oriented development (TOD). 

The next panel was truly different, titled Gen Z Envisions the Future of High-Speed Rail. The moderator was consultant Chitra Radin, who had surveyed some Philadelphia students in Grade 4 through high school about rail-related issues, as young riders see them. They asked a number of questions, which were put to the other panelists. Radin said that there are 68 million Gen Z’ers in the country, which means they could be fertile ground for attracting new riders to passenger trains. Questions were divided into three categories: sustainability, economics and infrastructure, and social and ridership. One of the important issues involved the environment, and Lonnie Coplen, CEO of ARC Alternatives and Renewable Construction, said that Amtrak and HSR projects are already “green.” There was further discussion about other environmental issues. The students expressed concern about safety and security issues, calling for “less dirty and creepy stations.” One of the most common issues was making trains, including local transit, attractive to kids, as well as to adults who have not ridden before.

Then it was time for the wrap-up, a short panel titled: Connecting America’s Cities: Where Do We Go From Here? that featured three presenters from previous sessions. Amy Scarton of WashDOT mentioned the level of funding and support for HSR and said that we need more partnerships for rail. Jeffrey Wharton of Systra stressed interoperability, and also said it was necessary to continue to invest and implement the provisions of the BIL. He said that we need a successful HSR project and that the HSR money from the Obama Administration should have gone into one project. Kevin Holzendorf, former Board Chair of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) and the only panelist who had not appeared previously, said: “The right people are in this room.” He stressed that communication is important, that people need to know what’s going on. Commissioner Giuletti had the last word. He said that there is early apprehension when it comes to investing in a big project, but interest grows. He gave the example of Spain, where there was early resistance to HSR, but there were eventually six lines and riders received refunds if a train arrived five minutes late. He concluded the proceedings by saying: “This should not be the last high-speed rail conference we should have.”

After the conference, SEPTA hosted a tour for a limited number of attendees on its catenary maintenance train. It began at Elwyn and extended for about three miles, to a new platform under construction for an extension to Wawa that is scheduled to open for service this summer. It was an unusual ride on a genuine diesel-hauled work train, and it capped off the conference.

There is no doubt that the conference was a “rail conference” in the APTA tradition. It was billed as a “High-Speed Rail Conference,” but the question remains whether it really did fit that description. Of course, there is no genuine HSR by European or Asian standards in the United States. There were lots of managers from Europe who described their systems, but it did not appear that their advice translated well to this country, where government policies concerning passenger trains are vastly different from the ones in effect “across the pond.”

Except for a few presenters who specifically discussed HSR, everything at the conference seemed like it would pertain just as easily to new conventional rail starts. That held for Amtrak-related issues, financing, attracting new riders, and essentially every other topic of discussion. Some topics, like the ones raised by the kids on Friday, pertained specifically to SEPTA’s local rail transit.

We have recently reported on America’s current high-performance rail project here in Railway Age. Brightline in Florida and Brightline West are moving forward, but they are not true HSR, as found in Europe and Asia. The California HSR project is again moving forward after some hard times, but it is long way from completion of an operable segment, and there is no way to be sure that it will be fully-funded, despite strong hopes, and even expectations in California that it will be. The Texas Central project would have fit the definition of HSR, but it appears that the Texas Supreme Court will kill it.

The concept of “high-speed rail” means different things to different people. To many Philadelphians, especially older ones, “high-speed” can refer to the PATCO High-Speed Line (or “Speedline”) between Center City and South Jersey. It can also refer to the “Norristown High-Speed Line,” an interurban line powered by electricity collected form a third rail. Of course, those operations have nothing to do with the international standard for true HSR, but neither does anything else in this country, now or for close to another decade, at the earliest. 

Many Americans have difficulty comprehending what true HSR is, unless they have ridden a high-speed train in Europe, China, or Japan. Even America’s fastest train, Amtrak’s Acela on the NEC, only approaches HSR speeds for a short segment of its route. We don’t know how many of the managers and officials who appeared at the APTA conference have actually ridden an HSR operation overseas, so they might see HSR as a theoretical construct, as most other Americans do. At least they don’t see it as science fiction, as many of the uninitiated do. 

If it is possible to generate some enthusiasm for HSR from an American audience, the conference accomplished that objective. Does that mean true HSR will come to the nation sooner than otherwise? That’s unclear. Still, any enthusiasm among managers and officials for expanding the country’s pitifully skeletal passenger rail network can’t hurt, and it might help. The country needs more trains, period. To this writer, at least, it does not appear possible to sell the concept of HSR to a public that does not know what a train is. In the places where HSR thrives, there are plenty of conventional trains, long haul, corridors and local, along with robust rail transit networks in the cities and towns. Most of the conference could apply to conventional rail as easily as to HSR, maybe more easily. At least it presented an opportunity to catch up with contacts from the past, a sign that the grip of the COVID-19 virus on the nation may be loosening, at least we can hope so. Rather than a high-speed rail conference, the event felt more like a conventional rail conference with some sessions about HSR thrown in. Maybe that’s as well as the organizers could do under the circumstances, and it still served the useful purpose of helping us dare to dream about a vital component of any world-class passenger rail system.

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Tags: , ,