The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Grand Vitesse

[Autoposted while I'm in France]

By François on Flickr.

Unless something's gone wrong, Greater Greater Fiancée and I should be on the TGV right now, conveniently zipping from Paris out to wine country (car-free, though they have to pick us up in a car to get me to the barge).

How about some high speed rail here in the U.S.A.?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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California has a ballot initiative for such a system between SF and LA. The big difference between high speed rail in Europe vs. the US is that in Europe, when you get to your destination, you can be a tourist car-free, but in the US you are probably going to want to rent a car.

If you're going to want a car, why not drive? I'm not saying I endorse this mindset, but it's gotta be part of the mental calculus of taking a high speed rail from, say, Atlanta to Orlando or Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. You may turn a 6 or 7 hour drive into two hours by choosing rail, but you'll be stuck on the other end.

It would work for any trip where the end is Manhattan, though. NYC is one of the few places in the US where car-free is almost preferred. DC's getting there.

by Michael P on Sep 22, 2008 10:09 am • linkreport

Remember Gail "for Rail" Parker? Her platform kinda sounded Springfieldian (Monorail!).

Also, does anyone know about Virginians for High-Speed Rail?

I'm just wondering how active/effective/practical they are.

by James on Sep 22, 2008 10:23 am • linkreport

Re. Michael P: Replacing car trips is something rail can certainly do, but I'd be inclined to think it would eliminate short-haul air traffic too, freeing up highly congested airspace. In that market, the need for a rental car (or a pickup) would require no difference in mindset.

by Joey on Sep 22, 2008 10:26 am • linkreport

Amtrack Car-Train: I don't endorse the mind-set of driving everywhere either. However there is an alternate to driving to Florida on the east coast. My Aunt & Uncle took the "car-train" from Baltimore to Florida and really liked it.

by Bianchi on Sep 22, 2008 10:30 am • linkreport

I'm in no way an expert about high-speed rail, or what it would take to implement in the US, but I am fully in support of it, even if it would require renting a car once you've reached your destination. I think most travelers would appreciate a hassle-free alternative to flying. So, maybe start with a network between major business and population hubs (corridors along the east and west coasts, and through the middle of the country), and then add additional local/regional rails that connect people to these hubs.

A few other things that I think may help get people more excited about Amtrak: (1) better overnight service and (2) assigned seats (like planes). Regarding the first point, when I traveled overnight between Paris and Barcelona, we received our own, four-person sleeping berth. Granted, we had to pay more for this option, but it definitely made the 9-hour train ride a bit more comfortable. Out of the wall, above our seats, unfolded two bunk beds (basically cots). I've never been on an overnight train in the US, so maybe we already have this stuff, but if not, Amtrak should definitely invest in upgrading the trains.

Regarding the second point, assigned seats would make the boarding process much less hectic. Waiting for a train in Union Station is like being herded to the slaughter house--there is no organized line so people just push their way towards the door, hoping the ticket collector will let them pass. Why not have a system of assigned seats (or at least an organized line) to take the pressure off the boarding process? A small point, I know, but it really irks me :)

by Nick on Sep 22, 2008 10:33 am • linkreport

re: Europe vs. USA -- I've heard that Europe has a focus on passenger rail whereas America prefers rail for freight (which is often why Amtrak is so off schedule), however, I don't know much about how freight rolls on either continent and I would be surprised to learn that America's nearly unusable often impractical passenger rail system is just the ugly sibling of an efficient enviable freight network.

by James on Sep 22, 2008 10:41 am • linkreport

Follow-up: found this map of the USA rail network:

by Nick on Sep 22, 2008 10:42 am • linkreport

Michael P makes an excellent point. For intercity rail (nevermind whether it's high speed or not) to really work, you have to be able to get about without a car once you reach your destination.

This is why Amtrak hasn't been as successful in the midwest as it has in the northeast. Midwestern cities aren't that much farther apart than northeastern ones, but with a couple of notable exceptions the intRA-city transit networks aren't there to support large-scale rail travel.

We should absolutely be investing more in Amtrak, but those investments won't fully pay off unless more cities have adequate transit.

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2008 10:45 am • linkreport

It was also an absolute zoo getting on the trains in Europe when I was there this summer. Union Station doesn't let people wait on the platforms which helps lead to the herded cattle, but even waiting for a train where you could line up anywhere was very hectic.

I am 100% for HSR in the USA though. It would be a massive infrastructure investment, many US jobs, it could be as 'green' as we want to design it, and it is by far the most efficient mode of transport we can build. Think about this. A 200 mph train (which exist elsewhere in the world) could cover NYC to Chicago with stops in Philly, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, and oh, South Bend before reaching the Windy City in 5 hours. That would be downtown to downtown and really not much longer than flying when you account for all the crap you have to put up with at airports. You could have a spur from D.C. to Pittsburgh that then continues on the same line.

Charlotte, NC, is about the same distance away as D.C. is from Boston, and with proper infrastructure, Atlanta would be within easy HSR reach.

by NikolasM on Sep 22, 2008 10:52 am • linkreport

The need for getting around at the destination is more important for business travellers -? then tourists or vistors? I don't know. I used to take the Blue Water Limited (Chicago to Ottawa, Ont.)to Michigan where family picked me up at the station, but there were always a few taxi's waiting too. If there is an increased need for transport for train travelers at destination cities it seems more options will follow. In the mid-west it seems all trains lead to Chicago where the transit system is really good.

by Bianchi on Sep 22, 2008 10:58 am • linkreport


Point taken about Midwest city transit - however, I'd note that the inter-city rail service in the midwest is nowhere near as convenient or as fast as stuff along the NE corridor and in the cities with substantial commuter rail networks. Where Amtrak has invested in upgrading that service (the Hiawatha, from Chicago to Milwaukee, and the Wolverine from Chicago to Detroit come to mind), ridership has increased dramatically.

by Alex B. on Sep 22, 2008 11:29 am • linkreport

Both of those lines involve Chicago. Which isn't exactly deficient in intracity rail:

HSR is a long-term high-hanging fruit, my friends. We can do more productive things with less funds maxing out the local networks - heavy rail, streetcars & light rail, and upping the QoS on commuter tracks. Once we've saturated the cities & corridors with those, we can start looking to replace the long-haul stuff.

The first thing on the list needed to address EITHER of the above, luckily, is reforming FRA rules, and establishing a few standard US railcar categories with more reasonable safety regulations that engineers can design for. The current regs are very, very strict - based on specific design features of prime-mover based diesel/steam locomotives, with tolerances on dozens of measurements. The buff strength requirements have even been increased recently. Alternate design features like auto-stop systems and segregated doubletracking are the only thing that can protect against something like the Chatsworth disaster, but if you relax the buff weight requirements in favor of other safety features, it's possible to create something that doesn't kill so many people even in the case of a head-on collision.

by Squalish on Sep 22, 2008 12:01 pm • linkreport

Chicago is indeed good on urban transit, but none of the cities along those lines are all that great. Detroit and Milwaukee certainly aren't. Along the NE corridor, DC, Philly, NYC, and Boston all have solid transit, and other areas are improving greatly.

Still, service along the NE corridor is vastly superior to any service Amtrak has anywhere else. No other corridor has trains that are that fast or that frequent - that's the biggest reason the Midwest Amtrak lines aren't as successful, not the relative lack of city transit once you get there.

by Alex B. on Sep 22, 2008 12:16 pm • linkreport

From what I understand, we'd have to basically completely replace our tracks to handle the trains. i.e., the current infrastructure can't handle either the speed of the trains or the electronic components propelling them. Because of our relatively low density per square mile compared to a country like France, this becomes expensive if attempted on a nationwide basis. We'd have to target it to places like the northeast corridor and the Californian coast ... and then compare the what fare would need to be charged to make it profitable vs. what plane fares for the same trip are. Interestingly, the French TGVs were built back when airlines in Europe were still highly regulated (i.e., back when it costs 4 times as much to fly from one European capital to another as it did to fly to the US.)

I think David once mentioned the possibility of transcontinental "tubes" that would zip people from one coast to another in a matter of hours. Now that would be interesting.

by Lance on Sep 22, 2008 12:53 pm • linkreport

Yes, a truly national system of TGVs doesn't make a lot of sense. It does, however, make sense to have regional networks (as is essentially the framework in Europe) and link them by upgrading the surrounding lines and providing interoperability between them.

As squalish notes, the FRA rules are horribly outdated and have the wrong mindset for high speed rail. The TGV engineers that worked on the Acela were appalled at how heavy it had to be to meet the FRA rules for crashes - the whole point about going fast is to reduce weight, not increase it.

Such a move should also be accompanied by a move to electrify all rail mainlines in the US. This would be a big investment, but a relatively easy one. If the RRs got some gov't support, they'd chip in.

by Alex B. on Sep 22, 2008 1:14 pm • linkreport

I think the NE is one of the only places where a service like this can thrive is obviously b/c of the connectivity economically along with the robust transit services that the cities provide. In the midwest there is some connectivity, especially between the Chicago and the rest of the cities, but other than that, not much. With the NE corridor system, people from Philly go to Boston, DC-Philly, or whatever combination, with relative frequency and the distances are short enough to make it competitive with flying. In the same distance of Detroit and Chicago, on the east coast, that's DC-B'more-Philly-NYC.

How you'd provide right of way for passengers and freight is a complex issue, but there California and the east coast are great places for us to develop the system here. If I had to add another area, perhaps Texas, but outside of that, I don't see the connectivity needed. For those places, they'd be better off developing their inter-city transit systems so people are more accepting to it and it's not so exotic.

by Vik on Sep 22, 2008 1:33 pm • linkreport

If taking the train were an option in more places then more people would take the train. didn't most people agree the reason DC is an outlier in the density/transit analysis is because the train is available? There once was great "connectivity" by train throughout the industrial mid-west. Now those tracks are used for snowmobile trails...

by Bianchi on Sep 22, 2008 1:47 pm • linkreport

Exactly, Bianchi.

Experience from the TGV and other high speed trains shows that true HSR can compete with air travel on time for distances up to about 400-500 miles. That means Chicago-Minneapolis is in play, not just Chicago-Milwaukee.

I'd envision HSR corridors in Cali, Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, the NE corridor, a SE Hub around Atlanta, a Texas hub, a Chicago hub (to Minneapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland), and a Colorado Front Range corridor. These could be linked by more standard tracks for true national service, even if not all of it were super high speed.

by Alex B. on Sep 22, 2008 1:59 pm • linkreport

Carving out new environmentally and fiscally acceptable rights of way is going to be important if we ever want HSR, and it takes forever. A conservative national program to start plotting out RoW routes & station sites which are close enough to connect to rapid transit, but far enough that the land is cheap & undeveloped (Dulles, I'm lookin' at you), would not be amiss even if we don't plan on building it out for a decade. Other uses (be it HVDC grid interties, refrigerated superconductor lines, pipelines to offsite LNG terminals, freight tracks to take some of the pressure off the ones which cities have grown up around, water & sewage lines) are screaming out for a few federally-managed corridors in the meantime.

by Squalish on Sep 22, 2008 2:19 pm • linkreport

There once were train loads full of vacationers from Chicago, Detroit, Toledo and Indianapolis unloading in lakeside towns in MI and WI and trains carried goods from shipping ports on the Great Lakes to everywhere in the US. (I've seen photos in the Historical Society!) These visions of train travel are not without precendent even in our car-and trailer truck dependent present. Sixty years ago my dad took the train from Pittsburgh to Indian River MI (most northern lower penninsula). That's impossible to do now, sadly.

by Bianchi on Sep 22, 2008 2:30 pm • linkreport

Among many other factors, the economy is huge in all of this. I don't imagine that there is as much demand for HSR in the midwest outside of a couple places and I could not justify paying as a taxpayer for something like this. More inter-city and normal rail funding would go a very long way. Chicago would be the hub for HSR in the midwest when the time comes, so either a line from Chicago/Milwaukee to Detroit or St. Louis would be a great starting point.

I also don't think this is something we should try to induce demand with. To induce demand for HSR, you should start out with normal train service or heavy/commuter rail. Heck, in Detroit, you have to drive to Toledo just to go east on the train. It's ridiculous.

I agree with Squalish that this is something that will take a long time, and ROW, environmental and money are the biggest issues right now. We could incrementally and gradually deal with these problems and I feel like the demand for rail will increase given the economic/environmental issues that we're facing right now.

by Vik on Sep 22, 2008 5:43 pm • linkreport

I think the demand is already there. The option is not. The example of driving to Toledo from Detroit to catch a train is a great example of the missing option.

by Bianchi on Sep 22, 2008 6:01 pm • linkreport

Given how the technology has developed far ahead in the US of the infrastructure or the demand or the legal possibilities, and how heavily invested the government is in the highways & airports...

My perception is that we should break it down into several categories, rated by average speed:

Bulk-Freight Rail - <40mph

Low-Speed Rail - 40-75mph

Medium-Speed Rail - 75-125mph

High-Speed Rail - 125-250mph

Very High-Speed Rail - 250mph+

And that given our lack of capability to implement a high-speed rail system anytime soon, we should skip it entirely and prepare for a national VHSR system to be started sometime in the future, while doing heavy peripheral upgrades to create a minimum standard level of MSR service for existing mixed-use corridors much higher than is currently present. A 10k-mile VHSR line could replace a significant amount of air traffic in the US, not just at the regional level.

My vision of VHSR is to make it competitive with the jumbo jet and the Panama Canal, and allow food transport routes that aren't even currently practical, like fresh vegetables from California to the western US. As long as it's an entirely new system which requires entirely new rights of way, entirely new rolling stock, entirely new electric substations, entirely new stations, and an entirely new funding program... may as well go all in and try to make it innovative enough that we can be proud of it.

A nationwide network of 400mph maglevs isn't going to be that much more expensive to build, and hopefully much cheaper to maintain, than a nationwide network of 200mph TGV trains completely rebuilt to survive collisions with trucks, while working a catenary cable to the very edge of its operating tolerance and gradually destroying welded steel tracks spaced a ridiculous 4'8.5" apart.

For the normal rail networks, standardization (of voltage, AC/DC, transmission mechanism, safety systems, track standards, freight/commuter interaction protocol, signalling, the list goes on...) of a reasonably capable national MSR label is important to bringing costs down and reaching service levels that we should expect out of our mass transit. It's one of the things the FRA *should* be doing.

by Squalish on Sep 23, 2008 12:30 am • linkreport

I love HSR systems across Europe and I agree with other posters here that a European approach would only work in limited corridors here. But I do think that we could have a different, uniquely American approach by working with airlines rather than competing. I would propose a system to augment the existing hub-n-spoke system with some HSR spokes for places that don't have well-connected downtowns. Airlines could code-share with train operators, handle luggage transfers, etc, and trains could operate from stations conjoined to the airports. The gov. could help move this along by building and leasing out HSR tracks and prohibiting shuttle flights that are too short. I think that more people would ride it if was integrated with something they already know (airports/airlines). Plus those foggy, rainy or windy days wouldn't generate the same delays.

by gaithersburger on Sep 23, 2008 12:33 am • linkreport

Texas had a proposal in the early 80s to link Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio via HSR. They were working with the French, and they actually were calling it the "Texas TGV".

Southwest Airlines and its lobby killed the project, though, by buying off the legislators.

by mike capitol hill on Sep 23, 2008 5:28 am • linkreport

That is a great example of the difficulties I would envision with fighting airlines. I think most of us Americans (unfortunately) would side with the airlines in this fight because the corridor systems I've seen proposed would serve a limited constituency but would threaten all airlines. I think politicians would have trouble supporting the project against nimbus, airlines, maybe trucking unions... These entrenched interests would have to benefit somehow (I think).

by gaithersburger on Sep 23, 2008 9:32 am • linkreport

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