The Benefits of High Speed Rail

[V150 train, modified TGV, conventional World speed record holder at 357.2 mph from WikiCommons]

The following post is by guest writer Matt Sindt, a recent graduate of the Hamline University School of Law who has worked in both state and local government, serving as a staffer on both the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee, and the Economic Development and Budget Committee of the Minnesota State Senate.


The benefits of a High Speed Rail (HSR) system have been hotly debated across the political spectrum in the U.S. for decades, especially in the Upper Midwest, but developments abroad have brought the ages old struggle into stark relief. Over the last decade, China has built a modern HSR system that can reach 220 MPH. China has invested over 300 billion dollars on HSR. This investment has allowed the Chinese to drastically abbreviate travel times between their major cities.

China’s rail program should make us consider whether or not such a program should be instituted in the U.S. The main reasons the U.S. should invest in HSR are jobs, conservation, safety and comfort.

The debate over building an HSR line in the Upper Midwest has been going on for over 20 years. The discussions have focused on what would be the best route for a new passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Chicago. The Tri-State II report listed two general options; one passes through Winona, MN, the other through Rochester, MN. Recently, the French national rail company (SNCF) published a report with a route through Hudson, WI. This allows travel to Eau Claire, WI rather than to La Crosse, WI as with the majority of domestic proposals. The advantages of the French proposal are obvious since their route is approximately 25 miles shorter than the La Crosse route. The route is also more attractive because the Eau Claire Metropolitan Area has 73,000 more people than the La Crosse Metropolitan area.

There are reasons why a Rochester line is preferred. The Mayo Clinic is considered an international destination and the metropolitan population is fairly sizable at 186,000. The Tri-State III report proposes a line running through Rochester. On a practical level, their plan is inferior because travel time would be 191 minutes rather than 162 minutes. The ultimate failure of these local planning reports is that they rely almost exclusively on existing infrastructure that is at least 50 years old.

Reliance on old infrastructure is bad enough but they also plan to share the infrastructure with freight trains that by their very nature frustrate the purpose of an HSR system. What is the use of having a train that can go 220 MPH if it spends half of its time stuck behind a freight train going 55 MPH? It is for this reason that dual, dedicated tracks must be built, grades lessened, and super-elevators (cants) installed to make the system function to the extent of its abilities. Whenever its practical to use and modify disused or abandoned rail lines this should be done to lower costs, but new lines should be built when necessary. This option is more expensive but provides superior service.

The national conversation began in earnest when in 2009, the Obama administration solicited bids for five regional high speed rail networks. The five networks included lines in: California, Texas, Florida, the Mid-West, and the East Coast. In response to this invitation, SNCF put forth a highly detailed bid. The French plan called HST 220, called for the use of AVG train-sets which are capable of reaching 220 MPH.

SNCF’s bid is a good place to start the discussion in order to provide somewhat specific notions of what cost, service, jobs and other benefits and liabilities would be incurred in such a massive undertaking. The total estimated cost in 2009 dollars for four out of five lines was $140 billion. Amtrak announced plans in 2010 for 220 MPH HSR service on the east coast corridor connecting Boston and Washington D.C. for a total cost of $117 billion. Adjusting for inflation, the total cost of all five projects would be approximately $270 billion. While a highly significant sum it is not astronomical since the annual federal budget in 2012 was $3.796 trillion. The annualized cost of all five projects combined would be less than 0.5% of the federal budget. All public investment will be paid back based on profit estimates. The SNCF plan estimates a 15 year payback cycle while Amtrak estimates 20 years. The two estimates combined calculate that 2.1 million full-time temporary and permanent jobs will be created over the 30 years.

The continuing volatility in the world’s fossil fuel based energy sector is a threat not only to the environment through oil spills and global warming but also because of the instability it causes our national security. As demand increases and supply declines over the next few years and decades, crude oil prices will continue to rise. These increases will exacerbate the already precarious financial position of the American airline industry. Providing a viable alternative in high speed rail would allow for a dramatic decrease in the number of short to mid-range commuter flights. A significant decrease in the number of commuter flights would lower demand for jet fuel and therefore lower the price of fuel making long-haul flights more profitable. The SNCF estimate alone yields a decline in annual fuel consumption equivalent to .2% of America’s fuel consumption in 2010.

Because HST’s are powered purely by electricity renewable resources may be used exclusively. Even using the USA’s current fossil fuels, SNCF claims that their HSR lines would reduce the amount of pollution by 4.4 million tons over the first twenty years.

HST’s are far safer than both automobiles and airplanes. Over 50 years of service throughout the world, high speed trains have a fatality rate, measured in passenger miles traveled per fatality, that is one-sixth of the rate of commercial air-travel throughout the same period.

Additionally, high speed trains routinely provide 7 more inches of seat pitch than American commercial airlines do. This is the international industry and government standard for defining seating area. Seat pitch more or less correlates to legroom. More legroom allows for more comfort and a better travel experience for passengers.

A parallel in US history to this project was President Eisenhower’s decision to build the Interstate Highway System. In much the same way as HSR could be used, a European model was adapted to American use. During WWII, Eisenhower observed the speed with which German troops could be deployed using the autobahn. When he became President he created a federal highway system to allow for the efficient transfer of troops in short order. This lead to decades of American prosperity. Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary vision who grasped the inherent possibilities of a truly interconnected stream of commerce that would not only ease traffic but foster it as well.

For over a decade, America has been mired in a prolonged economic decline. That is why a leader with a bold vision would propose a nation-wide system of federal HSR lines. The Presidency’s executive authority should be utilized to provide for centralized planning of projects, purchasing of equipment in bulk, and uniform quality control throughout the system. This would prevent interference by parochial interests in state and local governments from frustrating the purpose of the project. The overarching purpose is to improve connectivity between markets, decrease our national dependence on foreign oil, decrease pollution, lower travel costs, and ease travel congestion, and save lives by substituting a safer form of transit.


Guest Writer Profile: Matt Sindt is a recent graduate of the Hamline University School of Law who has worked in both state and local government, serving as a staffer on both the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee, and the Economic Development and Budget Committee of the Minnesota State Senate.

Join Streets.MN on Twitter and Facebook (you can also add us to your RSS Feed). It’s a great way to join the conversation about land use and transportation in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota.

16 thoughts on “The Benefits of High Speed Rail

  1. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon

    Intercity bus is currently the fastest growing form of transportation, showing that there is a demand for alternatives to the car and plane for short regional trips. For much less than $2 billion, the cost of a "high-speed" rail between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee, I bet we could provide extreme advantages to these bus systems, like dedicated/separated lanes around congested areas (Eau Claire, Madison), high-amenity stations and maybe even underwrite the cost of really swanky vehicles. They could still be operated by private companies, which seems like a great way to avoid the political punching bag that HSR has become.

    1. Ian Bicking

      The success of intercity buses is *because* they've dropped quite a few amenities that Grayhound provides, decreasing the price significantly. Grayhound has stations, Megabus does not. Also the unreliability of the travel times on intercity bus (at least in the Upper Midwest) seem primarily to be because of unpredictable situations (construction, weather), not predictable traffic. Except in Chicago of course, where the traffic is predictably terrible and there's no room to fix it.

  2. Peter

    Although I would love to see HSR developed in the upper Midwest, I tend to agree with Brendon that in the near term options like bus that use existing infrastructure are the most viable solution, both politically and economically.

    I would say that the comparison with the Eisenhower investment in interstate highways a a model for rapid infrastructure development quickly breaks down. The highway system was designed to be multi-use, while HSR is single-purpose. The interstate system was created during the Cold War largely with the expectation that troops and military equipment could be rapidly deployed across the country if the need arose. Autobilea had already become entrenched in American society ny the late 1940's, and the system quickly became a major transportation network, used to move both people and goods. Thus, it's benefits have always been military, economic, and social. As pointed out in the article, HSR would need dedicated infrastructure; sharing the existing rail network with slower freight trains (and existing passenger rail) would defeat the purpose of HSR.

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    Beginning the argument with the China peril is misleading at best. China is a still fast developing country without adequate infrastructure, the US is mature. Of course they will spend more. Looking at how they spend it, with the poor quality of infrastructure they are getting (last year's HSR crash being just the most visible indicator) should pause any quick emulation of Chinese policy.

    Second, 0.5% of the federal budget ain't beanbag. It is quite a large share to serve such a small market (intercity) compared with say urban transportation, where the actual needs are.

    Third, I am pleased to see SNCF "bidding". I say, great, let them build it and operate it and bear the losses. I haven't seen them offer to do that. None of these routes are truly profitable, only a few HSR lines (with a lot of accounting tricks) even dare report "operating profits", excluding the enormous capital costs.

    Fourth, What Brendon and Peter said.

  4. Andrew

    A much as I'd love to see HSR I think we need to seriously beef up the existing intercity rail connection before HSR is a possibility.

    There are currently 14 daily round-trips by bus (6 Megabus, 8 Grayhound) between Minneapolis and Chicago, and *1* daily round-trip Amtrak. I don't understand why Amtrak won't expand. When one of the buses routinely hits capacity for the trip they add another bus.

    But Amtrak won't add another trainset, or even break up their beloved Empire Builder line to be Minneapolis-Seattle and run Minneapolis-Chicago as a separate service. Even considering Amtrak is ~$50 more per ticket than the bus and the train is still always sold out.

    1. Ian Bicking

      They also need to start variable pricing, then they could send trains at multiple times keeping the trains full at whatever price the market bears. Of course when you are in a situation like Amtrak, where you lose money on each passenger and every unit of service, the logic of expanding successful service stops seeming so logical.

  5. Andrew

    Intercity transportation costs

    Car (oneway, 7.5 hours): ~$56

    Bus (oneway, 8-9 hours): $26-$75

    Train (oneway, 7-8 hours): $102

    Plane (oneway, 1.5 hours): $182-$250

    1. Sam RockwellSam

      But a plane ride does not start or end in a center city. You need to add at least an hour and a half to the front end (travel to the airport, security, boarding, etc) and an hour for exiting the airport and getting traveling back into the center city. Thus, Plane (oneway, 4 hours).

      We need to build a midwestern realization that plane travel is much longer than the flight itself. Easterners understand this which is why much of the business class takes a train between NYC and DC or NYC and Boston.

  6. David KingDavid King

    It's a bit of an odd pivot to say first we should look to China, then say the reasons the U.S. should build HSR are jobs, conservation, safety and comfort. China is not building infrastructure for these reasons. As David Levinson said, China does not have adequate infrastructure. As for the four reasons given in support of HSR, construction jobs are a cost, not a benefit. (Though they benefit the individual who has the job.) Conservation is worthwhile, but HSR is not a cost effective way to go about it. HSR may be somewhat safer than today's auto technology but automated vehicles will eliminate this gap, and US domestic air travel is extremely safe. As for comfort, I don't see how comfort on trains should justify the expense. Bentleys are very comfortable (so I hear) but we shouldn't make all taxicabs Bentleys. Considering the condition of US transportation infrastructure, we should not devote resources to building new systems because we don't maintain our current ones. HSR works as a technology, and the people who can afford it like it, but that doesn't suggest that the US should make it a priority.

    One thing about the routes is that if an Upper Midwest HSR is ever built it shouldn't stop in Eau Claire, WI at all. If the train is going to serve everybody then just built a regular train and skip the added expense of the 220mph top speed.

  7. Mike Hicks

    I really like the idea of high-speed rail, and I'd like to see it built as soon as possible. I've been waiting around for it to happen for over 20 years, and it seems like we could easily be waiting another 20 for anything to begin to be constructed between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

    The reasons that I see piling up against high-speed rail are mostly due to inertia: Our country has been dominated by car and air travel for so long that it's hard to see how things could be different. Amtrak has never been given the support it has needed to be truly successful, so there aren't any good examples to point at for how rail could and should work in this country. We really have no idea how hard — or easy — it could be to do things right for once.

    I really think we deserve a high-speed corridor here — the Twin Cities to Chicago market was one of the pioneering links for accelerated, streamlined service back in the 1930s. I think I've only ever found one other train that went any faster than the services we had (I'm pretty sure it was on the New York to Chicago corridor). There's a legacy there which shows we're in an important and viable market, even though talk of true HSR here in the U.S. usually just focuses on the Northeast and California. In truth, I believe there are about two dozen good routes for high-speed service across the country, and they should serve as backbones for other shorter-distance services to intermediate cities as well.

    Huge numbers of small and medium-sized towns are still connected by rail. It wouldn't be practical for super-speed trains to stop as frequently as Amtrak does today, or for them to serve tiny places. However, while service between big cities would run very frequently (such as once an hour or even more often than that), there'd still be enough capacity on a true HSR line for less-frequent services to smaller places piggyback on the high-speed lines for parts of their journeys and then branch off to the conventional rail network for part of the journey.

    Well, that's how it should have worked if we'd gotten going decades ago. Today, my big worry is that we don't have enough time to deal with the looming crisis of climate change for this to help substantially. We also have to focus on the "last mile" service within cities — getting local rail and bus transit working adequately so that the public will actually use them too.

    Certainly intercity buses need to be part of the solution, particularly in the near term. There will always be a role for them, and they should be used to the fullest extent possible, but they're always going to have some inherent disadvantages versus rail transportation, in my mind. Well-designed rail systems with grade separation have very good safety records, which buses unfortunately will not be able to match. Buses will also never be able to go as fast as well-designed rail systems either: It's hard for them to compete even against conventional-speed Amtrak trains in many cases (their main advantage at the moment is frequency rather than speed). I also doubt we'll ever have electric buses that could travel that distance, but true high-speed rail service is exclusively implemented with electrified trains.

    The Twin Cities to Chicago corridor is an interesting market. Existing frequencies of buses and trains have been mentioned, and I'll also point out the roughly hourly airline service between MSP and O'Hare. But all of those markets are dwarfed by car travel. Faster, more frequent trains could really take a bite out of that.

    We do need to have a discussion about our funding priorities as a society in terms of where this ranks versus education, health care, and other things, but we all know that our priorities have been messed up for quite a while. I don't think we necessarily need to figure that out all at once. If we continue to leave rail de-prioritized just because other things are incorrectly de-prioritized, we're just feeding a vicious cycle. I feel that we really need to rearrange our transportation networks to build a framework to get us through the climate crisis and on into the next few centuries.

      1. mulad

        I was thinking more of the Japanese Shinkansen and French TGV networks, which have eliminated onboard passenger fatalities entirely because of grade-separation (preventing train-vs-car/truck/bus crashes) and using very well-engineered signaling systems (preventing train-vs-train crashes). I didn't intend to imply that buses are necessarily unsafe, but true HSR has the capability to be more safe by orders of magnitude.

  8. Alex

    Personally I think that high-speed rail will continue to be built in the USA, but it will be in gradual increments like those between St Louis and Chicago that are mostly dealt out a couple hundred million at a time but eventually will drop the travel time to two hours. This will apply also to the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor, which is already broken down into segments that mostly each cost between $100m and 300m (upgrades between SPUD and the Mpls Interchange are project to cost $211m, for example). There was just too much backlash to Obama's HSR plan for the concept to work as a program – if California is successful that could change things, but we won't know for at least a decade. Luckily there is already a funding mechanism for gradual passenger rail improvements, it'll just take a more friendly congress to get some more actual dollars.

    When considering intercity bus, remember that it will never be competitive with auto travel unless its own guideway is constructed, and even then it would need special speed limits, which I think is unprecedented in this country. In addition, to offer all the benefits of HSR, it would need overhead wire constructed, so I'm not sure the cost savings would be that great. In the meantime, I'd certainly support shoulder use authorization, but frankly I doubt that will happen any time soon either as politicians seem to take no interest in intercity buses unless they crash. And as a longtime rider, I'm not sure I'd support an intercity bus system that is operated by Greyhound, which is as incompetent and has as much contempt for its customers as any company I've seen.

  9. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    the real comparison needs to be between (short-distance) air travel and high speed rail travel. the price point of rail will never go down enough to compete w/ the Megabus, and that will probably always have most of the budge travel market.

    but if you add in to and from airport times, HSR v. air travel is highly competitive. trains are far more comfortable and convenient, particularly as airlines cut costs and increase security.

    how much govt money goes for subsides for airports, air traffic control networks, etc.?

    1. Alex

      Minnesota spent $366.1m on airports and aircraft navigation between 2007 and 2010. Most of that came from federal funding, and I'm not sure what the source of that is, but Minnesota funded about 25% of it, mostly through aviation fuel taxes, which start at 5 cents/gallon but bizarrely decrease with the more fuel you buy. Also in 2008 there was a general fund infusion of $15m that was supposed to be paid back but I doubt it ever was:

  10. Nathaniel

    "how much govt money goes for subsides for airports, air traffic control networks, etc.?"

    Or professional sport stadiums, bridges to nowhere, interstate and highway ringroads around second tier cities, etc.

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