In April 16, 2009, President Obama startled the passenger rail community by saying what no other president has: that high-speed rail (HSR) is an idea whose time has finally arrived in the United States. In his words,

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. It is happening right now; it's been happening for decades. The problem is, it's been happening elsewhere, not here."

To move U.S. transportation toward the goal of a more balanced national transportation system by the addition of HSR, the Obama administration has set aside $8 billion in his stimulus package for projects in the next two years and an annual $1 billion over the next five years, with competitive awards to be made by the end of summer 2009. This funding is in addition to the increased funding for Amtrak approved by Congress in 2008.

The HSR system identified by the administration includes ten potential corridors: California, Pacific Northwest, South Central, Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire (New York State), and Northern New England. The only existing HSR corridor now is the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

Why is passenger rail, for years struggling just to avoid budgetary extinction, now suddenly a national priority? Clearly, one reason is high-level political support for the first time. At the national level, President Obama, Vice President Biden (a long-time user and champion of passenger rail), and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood are all dedicated to making the idea work. It appears that HSR is LaHoods top priority as transportation secretary. At the state level, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also champions the idea, as do coalitions of elected leaders in the regions identified. In short, passenger rail service has emerged in recent years as a major policy initiative with strong and committed backers at all levels of the federal system.

Passenger Rail Advocacy

Advocates of rail passenger service base their case on several familiar arguments, including these major points:

  • It can relieve highway and airport congestion, especially in and around major metropolitan areas, and provide a safety valve for shorter distance air travel in clogged airports.
  • It can relieve air pollution caused by excessive highway utilization and address issues of climate change.
  • It is currently underfunded and technologically obsolete, and major investments and new technology could greatly increase its share of travel.
  • The U.S. lags behind other advanced (and some advancing) nations in passenger rail and can learn from the positive experiences in Europe and Asia.
  • Investment in passenger rail can also benefit freight rail service, which has become profitable and fundamental to global commerce. Additional arguments include other supposed positive benefits of passenger rail:
  • It is safer than highway travel and on par with the safety records of commercial air and bus service.

It can provide new employment and stimulate new business enterprises.

  • In urban regions, it can help stimulate wiser land use and reinvigorate deteriorating urban centers.
  • It is a necessary modal alternative to air and highway travel in case of natural or human-made catastrophic events, such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Arguments Against

However, passenger rail has its critics, some of them fierce. John McCain, for example, considers Amtrak to be a broken government program that should be eliminated. Arguments against passenger rail provide a powerful counterpoint to the case presented by its advocates:

  • It has a tiny share of the travel market and is essentially inconsequential in the nations transportation system, other than commuter services in a select group of large cities.
  • It is poorly organized and managed by organizations that are wasteful, unaccountable, and hostage to political interests; it has received large subsidies without creating a culture of rail passenger demand.
  • It is viable only in high-density corridors like the Northeast Corridor and thus should not be a national priority. Trips longer than 250 miles are better served by commercial air service.
  • It suffers from the inflexibility of fixed-route systems and thus cannot compete with the advantages of the anywhere-to-anywhere highway system.
  • It is vulnerable to terrorism, particularly urban commuter operations.

Role of Amtrak

In sum, arguments for and against passenger rail have taken on an intensity and salience far beyond what the metrics would suggest is its importance. Rail advocates are passionate in their love of trains and train travel, often mixing arguments based on the promise of new technology with nostalgia for a time when train travel dominated the nations transportation system, when dining cars rivaled fine restaurants, and first-class Pullman service was the equal of elegant hotels. The broad base of support for rail passenger service is highly organized and vocal, linked as an advocacy coalition by the Internet, including associations of rail passengers, civic organizations, and rail industry groups. National organizations exist, but much of the activity in the past decade has been at the state level, not just in the traditionally receptive northeastern states but in states experiencing rapid population growth in sprawling urban regions or geographic corridors. A good deal of recent activity has taken place in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Washington, Texas, and Californiamany of which were characterized as among the most highway and automobile oriented.

At the national level, up until now Amtrak has been the focus of almost all of the politics of rail passenger service. Politically, Amtrak can rely on a bloc of congressional supporters from states that have significant Amtrak service, largely in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions. Amtrak has also been able to rely upona small network of organizations that support rail passenger service, the most prominent being the National Association of Rail Passengers. However, it often seems as if the advocacy network for rail passenger service is more supportive of the concept (or vision) of a true national rail passenger system than they are for Amtrak, whose management, strategy, and operations are often questioned.

Four Forces for Change

Four major changes have altered the initial Amtrak against the world theme that seemed to dominate policy discussions from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Expansion beyond the Northeast Corridor

The first change has been the expansion of interest in passenger rail beyond its natural and traditional home in the United States, the heavily populated Northeast Corridor. The rapid population growth of the Southeast, Southwest, and Pacific Coast regions has created opportunities for new passenger rail corridors similar to the Northeast Corridor route that is the mainstay of current Amtrak operations. This has created opportunities for states to consider options for dealing with the rail passenger alternative, either by partnering with Amtrak or creating regional rail agencies. Examples of such corridors are the Seattle-Portland Cascadecorridor and the Coasterservice in Southern California.

National Transportation Planning

The second change dates from 1991 and the ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act)legislation that stimulated more holistic planning efforts for the nations transportation system. The paradigm introduced by ISTEA, while imperfect in providing a truly integrated national transportation system that balances local interests with national priorities, remains the basic template for all subsequent surface transportation legislation. By breaking down the modal silos in planning, and requiring state departments of transportation to be more receptive to local government interests and alternatives to highways, the ISTEA paradigm has moved rail transport, both freight and passenger, more into the mainstream of transportation planning at the state and local government levels.

The most recent manifestation of this all-modes paradigm for surface transportation was the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, created by Congress in 2005 to comprehensively look at surface transportation needs in the future and suggest ways of funding the needed improvements. The bipartisan, twelve-member commission released its report, Transportation for Tomorrow, in January 2008. The report calls for an annual national investment of at least $225 billion for the next half-century, with most funding coming from increases in the motor fuel tax along with user fees, increased tolls, and congestion pricing on major urban highways. Intercity passenger rail is one of ten programmatic areas identified by the commission. Borrowing heavily from examples in other developed nations, the goal of the program would be to connect, through HSR corridors up to five hundred miles long, most major cities and metropolitan areas in the country.

The commissions work fostered a coalition within the group focused on the rail passenger initiative. A leader of the effort was Wisconsins Secretary of Transportation Frank Busalacchi, a member of the twelve-person commission and chairman of States for Passenger Rail Coalition, a group of Midwestern states supporting a regional approach to rail passenger service radiating out from the hub of the nations rail system, the Greater Chicago area. The working group developed into a network organization called the Passenger Rail Working Group, which issued a follow-up report, Vision for the Future: U. S. Intercity Passenger Rail Network through 2050.

Global Interest

The third force for change and innovation is the wave of interest globally in HSR passenger investment. Many of the developed nations and a number of rapidly developing countries have made or are planning major investments in HSR systems. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party is making state investment in a high-speed line between London and Edinburgh/ Glasgow a major part of their party platform. Another Conservative Party proposal would link London to the Midlands, with stops at Heathrow Airport, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. Besides providing quick travel through the densest population corridor in England, the 20 billion proposal is projected to ease congestion at Heathrow Airport by reducing dependence on domestic air travel.

In Spain, HSR between the countrys two largest cities, Barcelona and Madrid, has been a major success. Taking on Europes busiest domestic air corridor, the AVE trains have almost doubled rails market share, to 47 percent. The route is Spains showcase example of HSR, but the nation is pushing an ambitious project to connect most of the major cities in the Iberian Peninsula with state-of-the-art HSR and within a few years connect the Iberian system to that of France.

Modernization and expansion of rail systems are also high on the agenda of South Korea and Poland. In Korea, not just HSR corridors, but the entire rail system, is on the table. The Korean plan is to expand the rail system by building a high-speed line into the center of Seoul that will segregate the high-speed trains from commuter and non-high-speed operations, doubletrack freight lines around the nation, and expand commuter rail capacity in major cities. The centerpiece of the program is parallel upgraded lines between the two major cities, Seoul and Busan, one dedicated to freight and one to high-speed passenger operations.

In 2007, Polands government announced an ambitious program for HSR. Funds were provided by an EU Cohesion Fund to conduct preliminary studies for what has come to be called the Y-Line. Extending westward from Warsaw to Kalisz, the Y-Line will fork into a Y, with the northern arm extending to Poznan and the southern arm to Wroclaw. The line will not only link the capital with two of the nations major western cities but also allow connections via HSR to Szczecin and Berlin. Along with the north-south Gdansk-Warsaw-Krakow line, also projected to become a high-speed corridor, the Y-Line will bring Poland into the HSR age.

Policy Coalitions

The fourth, most recent, change is the creation of a broad network of rail and transit operators, advocacy groups, and state and local government representatives pushing for policies to advance rail programs. At the national level, the most prominent example is the OneRail Coalition, whose members are drawn from a wide array of organizations: the American Public Transportation Association, Amtrak, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, Association of American Railroads, Building Americas Future, National Association of Railroad Passengers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Railway Supply Institute, States for Passenger Rail Coalition, and Surface Transportation Policy Partnership.

The coalition breaks down the distinction between freight rail, intercity passenger rail, and urban transit and links the private and public sectors in a true network organization, with no discernible hierarchy and members drawn together by mutual interest in having rail identified as a priority by the Obama administration. Rather than highlighting the specifics of freight or passenger rail operations, OneRail focuses on what the two aspects of rail have in common. As Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, characterizes the networks goals, Rail must be an essential component of any national infrastructure investment initiative. Rail provides a solution for many of our most urgent transportation, energy and environmental problems. The coalitions goal is to focus investment on the nations rail system and foster public-private partnerships. It acknowledges the importance of the 2008 National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commissions work and its role as a stimulus to get the various groups to coalesce around a shared agenda.

Another example of a network organization pushing for greater attention to rail investment is Future Mobility North America, whose goal is to develop HSR, public-private partnerships for rail passenger service, and the so-called Interstate II program to build a national network of new lines for freight and passenger rail throughout the nation. Like OneRail, the group is sensitive to the need to avoid internecine fighting between the freight and passenger rail operators and also found stimulus in the Transportation for Tomorrowreport.

Eight Principles for Success

Will these groups be able to engage the public and elevate rail passenger policy to the forefront of the nations agenda? Eight principles need to be followed to ensure passenger rail success in the United States:

  1. Think holistically . Envision rail passenger policy, not just as train sets and tracks, but as all the elements needed to make a modern transportation mode work, including connections with other modes, customer needs, safety, access and environmental constraints, labor and management organization, accountability requirements, effects on other modes of transportation, station location, parking and access, ease of ticketing, and so on.
  2. Think inclusively . Develop a network of involved groups and organizations, stakeholders, service providers, supportive industries, state and local governments, potential investors, advocacy groups, and citizen-based organizations.
  3. Disaggregate and aggregate . Develop realistic plans for corridors and specific projects, but as in Europe, tie these parts to a broad vision of a national network of passenger rail that is based on connectivity but plans for regional needs first.
  4. Think creativelybuild incrementally . Consider the track record of steel-wheel on rail high-speed electric systems and the relatively unproven potential of magnetic levitation (maglev) before putting all bets on one or the other. Find ways to build public support, ranging from once-a-year free trips for high school students to acquaint them with train travel to more aggressive publicity campaigns, similar to the recent efforts by freight railroads, like CSX and Norfolk Southern, to show the public how important freight rail is in moving goods in an energy-efficient and green manner.
  5. Be realistic . Dont promise what cant be delivered for a reasonable cost in a realistic time. Only a halfdozen to ten corridors are well suited for HSR.
  6. Build the case and fund it . State governments have to continue building the case for intrastate and regional passenger corridors and find ways of funding them in times of economic and fiscal scarcity and competing demands for federal dollars. Bold efforts, such as Californias Proposition IA, a referendum on HSR that passed by a 53 to 47 percent vote in November 2008, are needed to show citizens how rail is not just a good travel option, but a way to meet emissions standards as well. In other promising rail corridors, states have to form working relationships with Amtrak to build on existing service, as in the Seattle-Portland Cascadecorridor; deal with freight railroads, as in the problematic relationship between Massachusetts and freight carrier CSX to enhance service between Boston and Worcester; lever or empower regional providers, as in the case of Atlanta, where expansion of commuter service is being considered by the Transit Planning Board, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and Georgia DOT; or collaborate with private partners, as in the proposed Atlanta-Chattanooga and Denver/I-70 maglev proposals. Touchy issues rest largely on financial responsibility, liability, performance standards and penalties for nonperformance, length of contracts, and the need for transparency.
  7. Ensure projects deliver . Adequate funding is critical, but projects have to deliver. Plans must be realistic and timetables met. New technologies should not be undertaken if reliability or cost is likely to derail the project. Underestimating ridership and economic benefits is better than overestimating to avoid the deflation of expectations that otherwise arises. Maglev proposals are especially vulnerable to overestimation, from the disappointing results of the Shanghai maglev service, which may be priced beyond the intended ridership. Lessons can be learned from countries with successful passenger rail systems, such as France and the Netherlands, both of which have advanced rail systems that make money. France has adopted practices that allow costs to drop because trains are on time (often in the 99 percent range), fully occupied (an average of 80 percent occupancy) and frequent (eight hundred daily high-speed trains that account for 200 million passenger trips annually). Delivery of the service can either be by a public agency, as in France, by private carriers, as in the denationalized Japanese system, or some quasi-public organization or public-private partnership.
  8. Better trains alone will not suffice . Best practices from abroad indicate that a systematic and ecological approach is necessary. Rail service has to be viewed in the environment in which it is situated, bringing in issues of land use, intermodal connections, station design and utilization, parking, Web sites and information availability, rental car and other ancillary service provisions, support personnel, pricing flexibility, and so on. Too often, the supportive network fixates on technology, especially the urge for faster and more advanced train sets, to the exclusion of the user.

Final Thought

Five or six times a year, my wife and I get in our car and drive twelve miles to an Amtrak stopnot an Amtrak stationin Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. We park in an unpaved and unlit parking area, carry our bags past a beautiful but disused stone station, through a dingy urine-soaked underpass, up crumbling stairs (no elevator or escalator, thank you), to a tiny plastic waiting area, to board a Keystone Service Amtrak train to either Philadelphia or New York. On board, there is no food or drink service, the windows are usually dirty, and if you get in a bad car by chance, you will be treated to a cacophony of squeaks, rattles, and wind-whistles. But for $19 (senior fare) you get a safe, usually on-time, frequent alternative to driving the one hundred miles to downtown Philadelphia; the parking fee alone is almost comparable to the one-way cost. Rail has its problems, but the potential to be an attractive travel alternative is undeniable.