High-Speed Debate Continues—in Congress

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

The long-simmering controversy over high-speed rail (HSR) continued during a May 6 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. Its theme: “When Unlimited Potential Meets Limited Resources: The Benefits and Challenges of High-Speed Rail and Emerging Rail Technologies.”

Subcommittee Chair Donald Payne, Jr. (D-N.J.) kicked off the event, which ran for nearly 4-1/2 hours. “Thanks to the bold vision of President Biden, we stand at the crossroads of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the nation’s passenger-rail network and bring it into the 21st century,” he said. “Imagine being able to hop on a train in Newark at 9 a.m. and make it to Washington in time for today’s hearing at 11 a.m. High-speed rail could be the technology that fully unlocks the potential of passenger rail in this country.” He noted American technological achievements in the past, and said “there is nothing stopping us from applying the same perseverance to high-speed rail.”

Then he warned: “But we must confront the reality of limited resources. Even if we invest the tens of billions of dollars in the American Jobs Plan, it will not be enough to fully implement every project we will hear about today. That is why we must have today’s conversation that could be the basis for tomorrow’s solutions.”

Against this backdrop, a number of witnesses made their statements. Most are well-known within the political and rail communities, either as HSR supporters or opponents. A few promoted technologies, including the Hyperloop and magnetic levitation (maglev), which are further removed from today’s passenger rail technology than the HSR systems now in regular operation in Europe and Asia.

Promoting High-Speed Rail

The proponents were familiar figures. John D. Porcari, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation in the Obama-Biden Administration and more-recently head of North American Sales for consulting firm WSP USA and Executive Director of the Gateway Program Development Corp. (promoting the series of mega-projects in the New York-New Jersey area by the same name) said: “It is my strong belief that high-speed rail systems, higher-speed intercity rail city/town pairs, and emerging technologies must all play an important part in our future transportation system.”

Porcari continued: “If you wonder why America’s transportation system is configured the way it is today, I would urge you to follow the money.” He then mentioned a situation he faced when he was Maryland’s Transportation Secretary. There were three options for increasing capacity between Baltimore and New York City: “Add air capacity between BWI Thurgood Marshall airport and New York, with 90% federal funding for runway and taxiway capacity improvements; v. Add highway capacity on I-95 to New York, with 80% federal funding; v. Add passenger rail capacity, with zero federal funding.” In other words, he explained, “I had to find either 10%, 20% or 100% of the project funding from the state’s transportation trust fund, depending on the transportation mode I chose. For that 215-mile segment, a passenger rail trip makes far more sense than driving or flying, yet passenger rail capacity was the least likely alternative to be selected. If you wonder why we have the unbalanced transportation system we have today, follow the money.”

While Porcari mentioned the California HSR project and the efforts to secure funding for it, he did not concentrate specifically on HSR. Instead, he called for greater federal involvement in funding for rail: “Providing real transportation choices at the local and state levels requires the establishment of a passenger rail trust fund on par with our highway trust fund, and airport and airway trust fund,” which “would for the first time enable local jurisdictions to advance projects that are truly their priorities for the future.” Porcari emphasized federal funding for local initiatives, and also mentioned “higher-speed intercity rail.” He also called for both high-speed rail corridors and “additional city/town pairs for Amtrak’s cross-country network.”

Andy Kunz, President of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, called explicitly for more HSR projects and extolled what he considered to be the benefits of such projects. “We have before us a unique opportunity to remake our nation by investing in high speed rail—an incredible mode of transport proven to deliver multiple benefits across a number of sectors. The rest of the world has embraced this technology and for decades has benefitted greatly from it. America is one of the last remaining industrialized nations that doesn’t have high speed rail.” With it, he testified, comes mobility and jobs benefits; economic development, equity and affordable living; safety benefits; and a climate solution: HSR could help de-carbonize the transportation sector because the trains would be electrically powered. 

Kunz also said that O-D pairs like Detroit-Chicago, Charlotte-Atlanta, and Eugene-Portland could become commutable. He touted the investment that other countries have made in HSR, and also called for a rail trust fund and “Large, Targeted Investments” in HSR projects.

One proponent of such a regional project was Rachel Smith, President of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. She called for a “Cascadia Ultra High Speed Corridor” to connect the cities in the Northwest, referring to “the transformative power of rail,” and said: “Fast, frequent and reliable rail is an economic competitiveness tool for any region. Providing people with alternatives to sitting in traffic, mobility to move seamlessly from work to home to recreational activities, and building community around modern transit technology helps attract talent and adds to the vibrancy of a community. It also frees up precious highway and road space for the efficient movement of goods from our farms and manufacturing centers to the hearts of our cities and towns.”

Danielle Eckert, International Representative for Political and Legislative Affairs for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and a former railroad electrician, extolled the benefits of building an HSR network, both for labor and as part of the effort to fight greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. She called for strong labor protections, “strong regulatory regimes and safety cultures” and “Buy American” requirements for materials. She also said, “The U.S. is 55 years behind our biggest global competitors when it comes to the development of high-speed rail.”

Private-Sector Projects

P. Michael Reininger, CEO of Brightline Holdings, LLC, called for more private-sector participation in developing HSR. His company operated Brightline trains in South Florida until the COVID-19 virus hit (and they expect to resume operations later this year); is building a line to Orlando Airport; and is developing Brightline West between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Reininger summarized his program this way: “First, our business model parallels the most successful models from around the world, while applying American ingenuity to our different context and circumstances. Second, multiple benefits to customers, economies and communities accrue from the introduction of transportation investments such as high-speed rail. And third, this subcommittee can initiate steps to incentivize greater participation by the private sector to multiply the effects of public-sector investment and overcome hurdles that have inhibited progress to date.” He said that the Brightline model targets city pairs that are “too short to fly and too far to drive.”

Reininger also announced that Brightline West would go to Los Angeles, rather than merely to the general region of “Southern California.” He said: “Brightline West, the company’s first expansion outside Florida, will connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Starting with a convenient station on Las Vegas Blvd., Brightline West will connect to L.A. via Rancho Cucamonga with an inline station in the Victor Valley.”

In later questioning, Philip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA or “Metro”) said that such a connection is feasible. An agreement of that sort between Brightline and L.A.’s local railroad Metrolink to provide direct service between Las Vegas and Los Angeles could expand the nation’s passenger rail network to a new and busy destination city, while potentially serving as a model for other such projects through a Public-Private Partnership (P3).

Also appearing was the head of another HSR project in progress, Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central, a line that would run between Dallas and the intersection of two highways about eight miles from Houston. He called his project a “WIN-WIN opportunity for our country on multiple fronts: WIN on SAFETY and EFFICIENCY, WIN on JOBS and ECONOMIC COMPETITIVENESS, WIN on ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL JUSTICE and ECONOMIC EQUITY, [and] WIN on CLIMATE CHANGE” (emphasis in original). Aguilar praised his prospective route as a safer alternative to Interstate Highway 45 and said: “That 240-mile stretch between Houston and North Texas is in the sweet spot of ‘too far to drive, too short to fly.’” He called it a “job creator” and said it would have a “low impact”—at least on the environment.

Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon III of Waller County, Tex., argued the case in opposition to that project and submitted exhibits. He is known for opposing it, and his county lies along the proposed right-of-way, near Houston. He opened by saying: “I’m here to provide a real-world perspective on the Texas HSR project promoted by Texas Central Railway. I’m not necessarily opposed to HSR in general, but if you believe that HSR can provide the American people with a cheaper, greener way to move around, please listen to me that the Texas HSR project does none of those.”

Duhon then said: “Since 2014, Texas Central has promised landowners and elected officials that no tax dollars would be needed for its private project; that it would only cost around $10 billion to construct; and it would be operational by 2021. Texas knew better, so it passed a law in 2017 prohibiting the use of state funds for private HSR, which is still in effect today,” and later mentioned that the cost had escalated to $30 billion.

Duhon questioned the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of the project, and urged committee members “to proceed with extreme caution.” His was the only prepared statement that opposed an HSR project, but other committee members expressed similar opinions in their statements. The project remains controversial.

Other Technologies

There were two other technologies represented. Wayne L. Rogers, Chair and CEO of The Northeast Maglev, LLC and the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, LLC, is developing a Super Conducting Maglev (SCMAGLEV) train, and claimed: “When in service, the SCMAGLEV project will provide 15-minute service between Washington and Baltimore and one hour service between Washington and New York, operating at 311 mph.” He went on to say: “Our vision will connect the Northeast Corridor utilizing the fastest, proven, and tested transportation technology in the world today. A technology which is not only environmentally friendly and energy-efficient but is deliverable today.”

Rogers also said that revenues would cover total life-cycle costs for an operation in the Northeast. He explained how maglev works (“through a magnetic force generated between the onboard superconducting magnets and electromagnetic coils in a guideway”), mentioned operations in Japan, and said that such operations would complement Amtrak on the NEC, rather than competing with it: “SCMAGLEV is not targeted as competition with AMTRAK. Rather, it is complementary and focused on the 94% of passengers that still utilize their automobile for corridor travel.”

The other technology represented was the Hyperloop. Josh Giegel, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, explained it this way: “The term ‘hyperloop’ is shorthand for a high-speed surface transportation system utilizing magnetic levitation to move vehicles, or ‘PODs’ as we have named them, within a low-pressure enclosure, while the POD is pressurized to normal atmospheric conditions—much like a commercial aircraft.”

Giegel continued: “Transportation is on demand and direct to destination, which combined with the system’s high speed, means dramatically reduced travel times.” He also claimed: “Hyperloop offers the promise of many benefits: improved mobility of people and freight, enhanced safety, the creation of new jobs and supply chains, establishing U.S. international leadership in an emerging technology, and, very important in these times, environmental and energy efficiency benefits.” He also claimed that it was “capable of moving people and goods at up to 670 miles per hour and 50,000 passengers per hour per direction.”

Andres de Leon, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), is working on applying the hyperloop concept, and said it “brings airplane speeds to the ground at a very competitive development cost of only $54 million per mile, compared to $150 [million] or even $250 million per mile with other modes.” He did not specify which modes, but said that his company is working on a proposal to connect Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago, and that a feasibility study said this could be done without government subsidies. He also touted the environmental benefits of his technology, and claimed inspiration from great innovators of the past: Peter Cooper, Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers.

HSR and Amtrak

Amtrak CEO William Flynn submitted a 22-page statement that was too long to be read into the record, but he addressed Amtrak’s position on HSR. He compared Amtrak’s NEC to the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, “where frequent high-speed trains operating at maximum speeds of 125 to 160 mph share electrified tracks with conventional intercity, commuter and freight trains.” While such an operation may be considered “high-speed” by Amtrak’s standards, it would not be recognized that way elsewhere. Flynn also mentioned the connection between conventional and high-speed rail: “In nearly every nation, conventional rail service is the foundation for the development of successful high-speed rail service. Improvement or initiation of conventional rail service can occur much more quickly than construction of new high-speed rail lines, and can set the stage for high-speed rail service by building a ready market and existing passenger ridership that high-speed rail can tap when it arrives.” 

Flynn also touted improvements that allow the NEC to accommodate higher speeds than before—improvements that have enabled it to advance its market share, compared to the airlines. He said, “Improved and higher speed service in the NEC has had a dramatic effect on Amtrak’s competitiveness with airlines…. [F]rom 2000 to 2019 Amtrak’s share of the air-rail market between New York City and Washington increased from 37% to 78%. Amtrak’s market share between New York City and Boston nearly tripled, increasing from 20% to 54%.” Flynn also praised the “green” benefits of passenger trains.

Outside the NEC, Flynn claimed that Amtrak meets the “high-speed” standard of 110 mph from the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA), even though former FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo referred to such a speed as “higher-speed rail” at a series of conferences about HSR that he had sponsored in 2010. Flynn mentioned that Amtrak trains could reach 110 mph on some of the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the Michigan Line, the Springfield Line, and the Empire Line between Poughkeepsie and Albany. He concluded that part of his discussion by saying, “When you add up all the trains described above, more than half of Amtrak’s trains operate at a maximum speed of 100 mph or more over at least a portion of their route.”  In his overall conclusion, Flynn said, “President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is an important first step in developing a high-speed and conventional passenger rail system in the United States that would enhance mobility, generate significant economic benefits, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The potential for high-speed rail in the right markets in the United States is indeed unlimited—and largely untapped.”

Can History Repeat Itself?

Flynn was not the only presenter who recounted railroad history. LACMTA’s Washington recounted some earlier railroad history in a scholarly style: “When Leland Stanford struck the ‘last spike’ on May 10, 1869—which connected the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad—it was a historic event. Historic because this rail line would serve as a great bridge across America, a great bridge connecting America.” Washington quoted William Faulker writing, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past,” and then commented, “And that, I believe, is so very true with respect to the American experience with rail—whether it is light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, freight rail, long haul rail or short haul rail—it still has the power to move America to the forefront of the world stage and to enhance our nation in any number of ways.”

Washington touted four key benefits of high-speed rail: connecting rural areas with the urban core, renewing the American dream in the form of affordable/equitable housing, restoring America’s leadership in building rolling stock, and providing a safer way to travel.

Is There a Place for High-Speed Rail in America’s Future?

Returning to Rep. Payne’s opening statement, he said: “I want to hear why it is good policy to invest in high-speed rail. I want to hear how these technologies can re-define short and long-distance travel, and I finally want to hear about how these technologies can be made available to all Americans.”

Twenty-seven months ago, when the FRA acknowledged that the California HSR Project was highly unlikely to meet its objectives, Railway Age published a commentary by this writer titled “Whither (Wither?) High-speed Rail?” that examined the mode’s prospects in this country and conjectured that they were not good. If Subcommittee hearing is any indication, little has changed since that time. HSR proponents touted its perceived benefits, apparently oblivious to the hearing’s theme, which included the “limited resources” warning. HSR, as a transportation concept and as a political concept, is as controversial now as it was then, as Judge Duhon demonstrated.

If there is one measure by which true HSR is genuinely controversial, it is cost-effectiveness—an issue raised by its opponents, including those on the Subcommittee. Sadly, that issue did not become a starting point for a thorough discussion of how to improve mobility for Americans and persons from foreign countries who would visit our nation, but a battle line between those who want to keep the dream of high-speed rail in America alive (however they may define it), and those who would prefer to kill it. That tug-of-war was a prominent feature of the hearing. As for maglev and hyperloop, it appeared that they were included in the hearing because the organizers wanted to include them rather than because they added more cost-effective modes to the mix.  

Amtrak’s Flynn said: “One of the questions Amtrak is often asked is why the United States does not have faster or more high-speed trains like most European countries in corridors where that would make sense. The answer is simple: money. Unlike these countries, the United States has chosen to primarily invest in highways and aviation rather than rail.” He added: “From the mid-1930s, when lightweight streamlined trains were introduced, until 1959, the United States had the fastest trains in the world. Passenger trains serving corridors like Chicago to Minneapolis, some pulled by steam locomotives, operated at speeds of 90-100 mph. They offered frequent service, with trip times that would be competitive even with today’s driving times, on rail lines shared with freight trains,” but “[i]n the 1950s, that began to change. As European countries and Japan started investing in improved and higher speed passenger rail service, the United States opted instead to build interstate highways and airports. The federal government’s decision to invest in cars and planes rather than passenger rail contributed significantly to the precipitous decline in intercity passenger rail service that resulted in the creation of Amtrak.”

Flynn also noted that the Highway Trust Fund became insolvent in 2008. In addition, he called for a “trust-fund-like structure” for funding rail, and added, “If we funded highways the way we fund passenger rail today, we’d all be driving on dirt roads.” 

Does the ‘Rail’ Need to be ‘High-Speed’?

All of the HSR proponents made eloquent arguments about its benefits: more access to jobs, a cleaner environment, a boost for business, better mobility generally, and the list goes on. But this writer’s or anybody else’s demurrer to those arguments does not change a basic fact.

It is true that such arguments can be made to promote HSR. That’s not because the benefits attributed to HSR stem only from rail that happens to be “high-speed” but from rail generally. Trains provide all of those benefits, whether they are operated by Amtrak, Metrolink, New Jersey Transit, Metro-North, or any other agency. Needless to say, those Amtrak trains and local trains are conventional trains—not HSR.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said that people in his state crowd onto trains; yet, NJ Transit does not run high-speed trains; they take longer for their trips now than the did 50 years ago. Does that make high-speed necessary?

Flynn called for a network of conventional trains that would make connections to high-speed rail. He also called for bringing the NEC up to HSR speed, while developing a faster network of conventional trains elsewhere. Some could run at 110 mph to 125 mph. He added, “Years of investment have allowed high-speed trains to benefit from the connectivity and access provided by the regular intercity and commuter trains.” He also said that investments in existing infrastructure could reduce travel time between Washington, D.C., to New York to under two hours, and the nation’s capital to Baltimore to 21 minutes. He concluded by saying that Amtrak needs “a broad commitment, anchored by federal funding” to provide a high-quality intercity network.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a strong HSR supporter, mentioned the capacity advantages of high-speed trains over airlines and highways. He is correct, but the capacity benefits resulting from HSR also result from conventional trains, which also run on rails and have similar capacity to high-speed trains. In response to a question, he said that successful HSR runs with conventional and commuter trains in an integrated system where they all feed each other. 

John Porcari mentioned “higher-speed” rail in his statement, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) referred to it in a question, and LACMTA’s Washington specifically mentioned other modes of rail transit. Other presenters who mentioned only HSR could make the excuse that it was the theme of the hearing but, by giving the impression that the benefits they mentioned applied only to HSR and not to trains generally, they could have given their listeners a misleading impression that could be construed to degrade the utility of conventional trains.

One question toward the end of the hearing pertained to conventional trains on corridors not earmarked for upgrades to high-speed. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) asked Flynn about planned improvements for Amtrak’s corridors that originate in his home city of Chicago. That was one of very few questions that referred specifically to conventional operations or infrastructure. 

An Unfortunate Omission from the Hearing’s Theme? 

Washington ended his statement on an optimistic note: “The final point I would like to make is this—if high-speed rail is done right, I believe this Congress can smartly use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. That is, we can use the power of the federal government to adequately finance these great public works projects, while allowing local, county and statewide officials to ensure these projects and the manner in which they are built, serve the greatest public good. Clearly, those who favor a strong central government will appreciate this Congress and the President pressing forward on high-speed rail. However, I think it is also worthwhile to consider the equal opportunity for individuals that high-speed rail can provide—by giving our citizens a level playing field when it comes to the ability—I might even say the freedom—to work and live in a place of their choosing.” This was especially true of his final paragraph: “I look forward to seeing rail—in all its forms—continue to provide more mobility to millions of Americans and enhance commerce across America in the years ahead. With leadership from Congress, I am confident that the ceremony marked on Promontory Point in Utah will be replicated again and again across America, as we capture the power of rail to transform our great nation for the better.”

From his mouth to the ears of Congress. But let Congress not interpret his remarks to construe them as exclusive to high-speed rail. Conventional trains, and local rail transit to some extent, provide the same benefits—at a greatly reduced cost. In the meantime, the country needs more trains, as long as they are fast enough to allow the passengers to look out the window onto the parallel highway and feel their train outpacing the automobiles on the road. That should have been a significant point of the hearing but, sadly, it did not come across.

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.

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