Things I would have known about high-speed rail …

… if I spent more time with Brian Taylor and Alan Altshuler:

1. Only about 20% of the people who take inter-city trains are going from one city center to another, so the vaunted advantage of rail over air of not having to get to and from the airport is somewhat blunted.

2. Once an area is highly urbanized, track assembly for truly high-speed rail is roughly impossible under current American political conditions. So in the real world we might have faster trains, but not fast trains by French or Japanese standards.

3. Europe uses rail for passengers, but mostly trucks for freight. It’s not clear that freight and passengers can really use the same tracks, and multi-tracking runs into #2. So the fact that we use rail for inter-city freight may mean that we can’t move passengers quickly enough.

4. Passenger rail works best in areas with a series of dense centers arrayed in a line: Boston-Washington or San Diego-Santa Barbara. And most of the action is going to be in shorter rather than longer trips. The Los Angeles-San Francisco run, for example, is not really an attractive target.

5. There’s a case for going seriously into high-speed rail, but the capital costs would be in the trillions, and it’s hard to see who’s going to vote for that much money.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Things I would have known about high-speed rail …”

  1. All very interesting points, much as I'd love to see them proven wrong. High-speed rail just seems so damn sexy.

    How does energy play into this though? Assuming we inevitably transition from oil to coal-powered electricity, electric cars would seem a still-viable option to rail. But will we get to a point – especially if global consumption continues to climb, where electricity gets expensive enough to make rail seem more attractive?

  2. #2 is questionable. The Japanese seem to have done very well running the Shinkansen over/alongside of expressways, and there is no obvious reason why an ultra-high speed rail system could not follow the right-of-way of major interstate highways: e.g I5 for San Diego to Stockton, then I580 to Oakland, where you would connect to another line running the I80/880 corridor from Sacramento to San Jose

    #3 is correct – you definitely DONT want to run freight on the same tracks as your 200 MPH bullet trains. The difference in speeds would make the traffic control a nightmare, and the higher axle loads of freight trains would damage the smooth track needed for really high speed. But if you are running along the interstate right-of-way, you don't need the freight tracks.

    You could also elevate the ultra-high speed rail tracks and run them OVER the freight tracks if you needed to. Since the fast passenger trains are much much lighter than freight trains, the structural cost would be very reasonable compared to the costs of acquiring right-of-way in urban areas.

    #5 – Start with the low-hanging fruit like the Richmond-Boston Corridor via I95 and LA to San Diego via I5, then extend and expand as the technology and economics are proven.

  3. @Diesel Kitty: In developed areas, existing freeways are just as likely as existing rail lines to be sandwiched by development, so it doesn't strike me as an obvious solution. I've never been to Japan, so I'm curious: when they built the rail lines alongside existing freeways, did they remove traffic lanes? And when they built over freeways, how did they deal with overpasses? Did they just build the railway twice as high?

    Anyway, Mark specifically referred to political barriers, not technical ones. Here in the SF Bay Area, the state high-speed rail authority has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of routing it along freeways, instead insisting on widening the existing rail line along the peninsula. It's hard to fathom why, given the large and growing (but in some cases literal) NIMBY opposition, the enormous cost, and the fact that 110 miles/hour barely qualifies as high-speed.

  4. @Ed Swierk: I don't know the development history of combining rail lines with expressways in Japan, but I doubt that they took away traffic lanes. Usually, there is more separation than that.

    With many U.S. freeways, you could support a Shinkansen-type track on pylons over the median strip.

    Politics is another matter. From my observation, the Rail and Highway people at Caltrans don't seem to talk to each other at ALL.

  5. I am reminded of the section of Caro's Robert Moses biography in which Caro explains that Moses deliberately built 100 low bridges over the LIE and kept it narrow to preclude trains and (iirc) buses.

  6. When BART was planning on extending service Silicon Valley, the cost for high speed rail lines (including land acquisition) was estimated more than a decade ago at $120,000,000 per mile of track. Since then, concrete and copper (included in the PPI for heavy construction) has skyrocketed to the point where costs would be doubled. To put that in perspective, the FasTracks construction project here in Denver is a light rail system and inflation has pushed the cost of light rail lines (50mph lines with light weight cars) into the 45-50 megabuck/mile range (including land acquisition).

    Japan doesn't have the same sort of eminent domain laws that we have, so they've got an easier time of it than we do, even counting Kelo.

    >With many U.S. freeways, you could support a Shinkansen-type track on pylons over the median strip.

    No. The curve radius of high speed lines is much greater than the curve radius of most near-urban highways. To get an idea of how straight the lines need to be for full-speed sections of track, take a 1 mile long segment of track, move one end 2 feet to the left (or right) and you've now got the maximum curve possible for level track.

  7. I think you are looking at the wrong number in your first point.

    Shouldn't we ask instead what percentage of those who fly are going city center to city center? Or even better, how many actual people, regardless of percentages, are going center to center?

  8. What's the basis for #1? I suspect it's Amtrak Long Distance trains, which run through lots of small towns, small cities with no other means of transportation. The Empire Builder, for example, officially runs from Chicago through Milwaukee and Minneapolis to Seattle and Portland, but the typical trip on it is more like Fargo to Billings. If that's where the number comes from, it has essentially no relevance to HSR.

    On #2, in the East and Midwest, there's actually quite a lot of either abandoned or relatively unused rail Right of Way around that could be repurposed. It would need straightening, but the straightening would require relatively minimal takings. Existing freight Right of Way is generally wider than needed for the existing trackage, so HSR tracks could be added within the existing Right of Way. And there's always tunneling. The British anticipate tunneling to lead their new HS2 into new (or reconstructed) stations in London and Birmingham. It is true, though, that there are some highly suburbanized areas through which the existing rail Right of Way is very curvy — the Shore Line in Connecticut and the RFP Sub between Washington and Richmond come to mind — where, with the best will in the world, you couldn't run trains much faster than 100 MPH, and the takings required for radical straightening would be politically impossible. But apart from these special cases, in practice mountains are likely to be worse barriers: Philly-Pittsburgh or San Jose-Central Valley.

    #3 is true.

    #4 is true. Corridors with intermediate stops are much better prospects than corridors without intermediate stops. New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington is a much better prospect than Dallas-Houston. But there are a lot of such corridors (or nearly such: Chicago-Toledo-Detroit plus Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland, for example).

    #5 is an exaggeration by at least an order of magnitude. A hundred billion or two for the actual likely prospects.

  9. I suppose the HSR people already considered and rejected the idea of taking over (including this question of curves), some existing rail routes for the HSR? I don't mean building beside it, but actually buying the whole thing and making it high speed track?

  10. To Mark, if he is following this thread:

    So what do Brian Taylor and Alan Altshuler think is doable? Medium-speed (~100-150mph) rail along the Boston-Richmond corridor?

  11. DieselKitty, on the possibility of elevated double decker trains, I'd like to refer you to 1) the aftermath in San Francisco from the Loma Prieta quake and 2) you were most definitely correct in your thought that the rail and other transit authorities do not communicate much. Moreover those who own the rail right of ways yield terrific clout and I'm fairly certain they would not warm to sharing their holdings to such a layout.

    As an aside, I highly recommend to anyone interested in HSR to follow The Infrastructurist ( They've been following this space for quite a while. I'm not affiliated in any way, I'm just a fan of the site.

  12. It's a travesty that this first-world country of ours has yet to have a high speed rail built within it. However many other developed countries have this form of transportation that is not only fast, but a cheaper alternative to flying? Everything, even the supreme court seems to be evolving over the years:… Why not our transportation system?

  13. ~3: "It’s not clear that freight and passengers can really use the same tracks.."

    The first generation of Japanese and European high-speed tracks are indeed passenger-only. The problem is less the traffic management than grades; high-speed passenger trains have very high power-to-weight ratios and can cope with steep grades by traditional rail standards, though not tight curves. In a way they are vertically not horizontally polarized. So a dual-use track is more expensive. But the new line under the Pyrenees between Perpignan and Barcelona is designed for dual-use. I think you can take the SNCF's word for it that this is doable.

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