Map Monday: Fantasy Eastern US Rail Network

Here’s a map from erstwhile rail and transit blogger, Alon Levy, with a proposed “high-speed” / low-speed rail network that would connect to Minnesota.

First, the map itself:

Levy Rail Map Proposal

Red denotes high-speed lines, with a top speed in the 300-360 km/h range, not including the occasional enforced slow zone. The average speed would be 300 km/h in the Midwest, where flat expanses and generous rail rights-of-way into the major cities should allow the same average speeds achieved in China. … Blue denotes legacy lines that are notable for the network, including all lines that I believe should get through-service to high-speed lines; but note that some lines, like Minneapolis-Duluth … do not have through-service.

For Levy’s proposal, the Chicago-to-Minneapolis travel time would be 2 hours and 30 minutes. There would also be connection north to Duluth. Here’s what Levy writes about the route and frequency patterns, where the route skips the current Amtrak route along the Mississippi River, and stops instead in Rochester:

On most lines, multiple stopping patterns are unlikely to be worth it. The frequency wouldn’t be high in the first place; moreover, the specific stations that are likely candidates for local stops are small and medium-size cities with mostly short-range travel demand, so serving them on a train stopping less than hourly is probably not going to lead to high ridership. Among the lines coming out of Chicago, the only one where I’m comfortable prescribing multiple stopping patterns is the one headed east toward Cleveland and Detroit.

The conclusion:

The likely impact of HSR on the US is different, because the country is too big for a single city’s network. However, the Midwest is likely to become a more tightly integrated network focused on Chicago, Texas and Florida are likely to have tighter interconnections between their respective major cities, and the links between the Piedmont South and the Northeast are likely to thicken. HSR cannot supplant air travel at long distances, but it can still create stronger travel volumes within its service range, such that overall trip numbers will be much higher than those of air travel, reducing the latter’s relative importance.

This would be amazing, but the US hasn’t meaningfully invested in passenger rail in almost a century, so I am not holding my breath here.

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8 Responses to Map Monday: Fantasy Eastern US Rail Network

  1. Elizabeth Larey February 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm #

    I can attest to the fact there is tremendous desire to have hi speed rail between Jacksonville ( area i live in the winter ) and Orlando, and Jacksonville and the Miami Ft Lauderdale area. There is a lot of chatter on the political front but so far no action. CSX has tremendous influence and I believe they are using it to grind this idea to a haunt. People that live here would love it and use it.

    • Cobo R February 11, 2019 at 1:11 pm #

      Would there be sufficient local transit at both ends? would it be comprehensive enough? I’ve never been to Jacksonville but I’ve been to Orlando and going anywhere but disney parks without a car was a pain..

      Intercity rail transit works best when it is a bridge between public transit networks.

  2. Andrew Evans February 11, 2019 at 12:29 pm #

    I don’t know. One of the things that makes us great as a country is our decently robust rail network for freight, and a decent one for trucks. One of the things that holds us back is our rail network for freight and the airlines and freeways.

    Europe has rail because that’s what people got used to using, and Europe is more focused on passenger rail due to (in the past and maybe currently) each country had different rail requirements and sizes, so they couldn’t do a single standard freight system. So they have the opposite than we do. Quite a lot of freight is moved around by truck and more people are moved around by rail.

    To me it seems the freeway system, and air travel, may have had too big of an impact when they rolled out to fall back to rail. Then the expensive fiascos like California’s high speed line, or even here in the cities with the southwest rail (or even the north west for that matter, all kinds of activists were up in arms that Nomi didn’t have a stop or enough stops), that I’m not sure voters or politicians are really that interested in a new rail network and the headache of right of way or land that would be required to do it.

    It’s too bad, since although it may take longer than a flight, walking up to a platform and getting on a train is much better than going through airport security and in general that whole hassle.

    • Alon Levy February 11, 2019 at 12:46 pm #

      FWIW, there are parts of Europe with both high freight rail mode share and high passenger rail use, i.e. Switzerland and Sweden. Sweden has low population density like the US and mainlines carrying heavy, low-value freight – namely, iron ore. Switzerland is the land bridge between Germany and Italy, so there’s lots of fast intermodal freight going across the Alps.

      And as for freeways: in Europe the history is that freeways led to rail decline and then HSR (or heavily upgraded legacy mainlines averaging ~130 km/h) led to rail revival. It’s not like Japan, which went straight from legacy rail to the Shinkansen without going through an interim period of mass intercity driving.

      • Andrew Evans February 11, 2019 at 1:07 pm #

        We didn’t take much rail in Switzerland, just drove in for a day. Mostly have been around France and then the odd article I read about rail use there. The Germany to Italy connection through Switzerland makes sense though, considering they were alleys.

        But the article I did read mentioned that a lot of the countries had different standards and classes of rail. Plus the different boarders then, so it wasn’t as easy to put a shipping container on a train in Portugal and have it arrive in Russia a short time later. Ports may play a role in this as well.

        I’m not sure countries like France really went through a period of mass driving though, or at least not anywhere near like we did here. The cities are much older and have less room for cars, and even the suburbs or suburban homes (from experience and watching French house hunter shows) aren’t as setup for cars as what we have here. The distances as well aren’t that far where planes would have made more sense. So going out on a limb again, I would think the population there was in a better spot to take trans and wasn’t as sidetracked as we were here with the interstates.

        Well, and traveling from Paris to Nice on the autoroute would pretty much be about as much as a train ticket with the price of gas and tolls. Then renting a regular car when you’re at Nice is around $10 to $15 a day, so it’s not like driving there would be that critical or really save much of anything.

        In a way too we do have quite a bit of passenger rail use on the east coast. It’s not too bad to take a train from NYC down to Philly or Washington, and then not as bad to get around once there. But then again, most of those cities are older, denser, and had some kind of infrastructure setup before the freeway system, or at least rail that was more than our street car system here. They also, at least in my opinion, had less land to spread out with for suburbs, or if not less land then dealt with greater commuting times, so that maybe the suburban expansion and shift to cars effected them less.

        I just think that there is a sweet spot somewhere for passenger rail, between access to transit, ease of driving, density, and demand for transit. Plus, added in the political cost to build…

        Yes, we had plenty of rail between Chicago and Msp, then the freeways happened and air travel, and it more or less stopped. Sure, a person could argue that with the number of flights, car trips, and bus trips there could be demand for a train, but the cost to do it may out weight the benefit, or the project time would be 20+ years. The rail ship here could have sailed in the 60’s and 70’s.

  3. Allen February 11, 2019 at 6:29 pm #


    in Europe the history is that freeways led to rail decline and then HSR (or heavily upgraded legacy mainlines averaging ~130 km/h) led to rail revival. It’s not like Japan, which went straight from legacy rail to the Shinkansen without going through an interim period of mass intercity driving.

    There is ample evidence that as with Japan, High Speed Rail in France, Germany, Spain and others almost exclusively drew from existing low-speed riders.

    I would recommend against turning to Sweden as an example of HSR to be emulated. The one hour flight between Malmo and Stockholm is a 4 1/2 hour ride on it’s main high speed train.

    I don’t understand the point about freight and passenger rail sharing the tracks. It’s like having pedestrians using a freeway like it’s a sidewalk for a stroll. Can it be done? Yes. Is a smart thing to do? No.

    • Andrew Evans February 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm #

      FYI the only reason I brought up freight and passenger is, at least here, a lot of them were shared use before we took the dive into pretty much freight only. I would guess that in Europe, before high speed rail, the tracks were also shared. My point was also that due to the less freight use Europe has that they may have had an easier time with passenger rail and keeping it going, where here we are pretty freight heavy and I could think that played a part with passenger service. So it was more of a thought exercise on how we ended up where we did than anything else.

  4. Andrew Evans February 14, 2019 at 9:45 am #

    Just to add, since the news of CA stopping their high speed rail line came in over the past few days. I was reading a City Journal article on it, and although that news source (to me) has a conservative tilt, it did have some points that are worth sharing here.

    The article was “high-speed-rail-projects” if anyone wants to search for it, not sure if links work here or not. I’m not arguing cost or environment here, only time, and making a comparison to Europe.

    They were saying a 4 hour train trip from LA to San Fran would be about an hour in a plane. I don’t like how they left out hassle and security for either of them, but let’s assume it’s a half hour on each side for the train at best, and maybe an hour on either side for the flight. There is also something to be said about a free checked bag on the train.

    Then they were saying that for the most part our cities are a little more spread apart than Europe. Again my only real experience is in France, but there it’s “easy” enough (CDG airport sucks, IMO) to fly into Paris and then you have the option to take about a 4 hour train ride just about anywhere – I believe Lyon, Nice, and Nimes are all around 4-5 hours or so. The cost of the ticket is cheaper than a flight, and no security to go through. Over here, a train ride from LA to Chicago they said would take 15 hours or more, Google tells me it’s 2000 miles, which is around that 15 hour mark going over 120-150mph, then you’d have to add another hour of train station waiting and stuff. They also said that such a journey would be about as long as all the high speed rail track in France, Google tells me there are 2600 KM of track in France, so this would be correct. A flight they said would be 3 hours, but either way at that distance flying will be extremely faster.

    I need to study where the sweet spot is between rail travel and flying. As a casual observer, and someone who has taken rail on the East Coast and France, it seems like around 4-5 hours and 3/4 of the cost of a flight is about right. Anything more than that and it seems it’s better to fly, from a pure time point of view.

    In any event, I thought it was an interesting article and I didn’t realize how long LA to Chicago would have been, or the distances compared with Europe. They also mention a failed or failing high speed project in the UK – so again it may be a sweet spot issue where high speed just wouldn’t make as much sense.

    If costs were more realistic and there was appetite from the public to do such a thing I’d argue that there should be a few lines running up and down each coast, and then maybe one feeding into Chicago from cities that would be around 4-5 hours away. I wouldn’t turn it into a grand plan, although in a way I’d be arguing for a similar map that was posted here on this site. However, locally, we were having a hard time getting light rail built for the SouthWest line, and from the way it looks CA had a bunch of issues with cost overrun. So I’m not very optimistic that this would be feasible in the next few decades.

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