Beyond the Bay, High-Speed Rail

Obama Administration Unveils HSR Strategic Plan

Yesterday’s big news item (alas, I had not a scrap of free time to write about this yesterday, but better late than never) in the world of transportation was the Obama Administration’s unveiling of its strategic plan for a national high-speed rail system. The so-called “down payment” on this system is $13 billion: $8 billion of stimulus funds, and an additional $1 billion per year for five years proposed for the FY2010 budget. Video footage of President Obama’s announcement is posted on the White House blog; the strategic plan, corridor map, and other materials are available at this link.

The strategic plan identifies ten high-speed corridors (California, Pacific Northwest, Chicago Hub Network, South Central, Gulf Coast, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire, and Northern New England), in addition to the Northeast Corridor. The identified corridors are based on the previously designated 90 mph corridors:


Courtesy of FRA. Link to full-size map (2.28 MB PDF).

To be maximally successful, a high-speed train system cannot stand in isolation; a high-speed corridor is greatly benefited by the presence of feeder lines that run at slower speeds, but which supplement and augment the high-speed service by increasing the number of accessible destinations of the entire rail system. This country has plenty of track that could be used for just that purpose, but a great deal of it is in poor, neglected, unusable condition. Passenger rail has also played second fiddle to freight (a priority that is reflected in the FRA’s requirements for compliant trainsets that are not ideal for passenger service), and Amtrak service is slow and unreliable. Recognizing these obstacles standing in the way of the growth of passenger rail, the strategic plan declared that FRA would need to revise its safety standards to facilitate high-speed rail, and it recommended agreements between states and railroads to ensure that federal investment in existing railroad infrastructure will realize the envisioned boost to intercity passenger service.

The plan wisely establishes a few definitions to ensure that everyone is on the same page as regards terminology. “HSR-Express” refers to the type of service that pops into mind immediately when one thinks of high-speed rail: 150+ mph service, few stops, and a dedicated, grade-separated reight of way, basically functioning in lieu of an airplane or long-distance highway trip. “HSR-Regional” service is somewhat slower, 110-150 mph with more stops, and drawing some shorter-distance trips. “Emerging HSR” would cover 90-110 mph feeder service; it would share track and utilize Positive Train Control, and as ridership grows, Emerging HSR corridors could be incrementally upgraded. And finally, there is 79-90 mph conventional rail. High-speed service is roughly targeted for 100-600 mile long routes with moderate to high population density.

The strategic plan also defines three types of work that would be eligible for the $8 billion of stimulus funding: (a) “ready to go” projects (i.e. environmental review under NEPA and preliminary engineering are complete) that are of “independent utility”; (b) intercity (Section 301) and high-speed (Section 501) corridor programs; and (c) funding for planning work, so that states can ready themselves to snatch up any stimulus money that might be available in the next round. The strategic plan includes a timeline: applications for (a) and (c) above would be due by August 2009, with grants made in October 2009; applications for (b) are due by October 2009, with grants made in December 2009. A second round of applications is anticipated for 2010.

To be sure, mostly everything remains to be fleshed out at this point — including where the funds will go, and further details from the states themselves about projects and corridor alignments. Some of those details will be revealed soon enough, as states apply this summer for grant money from the $8 billion of federal stimulus funds dedicated to high-speed rail. And yes, the $13 billion that the stimulus and budget combined will allocate to high-speed rail is only a drop in the bucket of the investment we will need to make to truly turn around passenger rail in this country. But we have, at least, finally started the process of building a national rail network; and based on the the plan’s strategies, as painted in broad strokes, it is a promising start.



9 thoughts on “Obama Administration Unveils HSR Strategic Plan

  1. Thanks for describing the concept of feeder lines. What I don’t think most people realize is the CA HSR is the backbone of a new type of land use and zoning in CA that will allow people to live farther away from job centers w/o creating more traffic and pollution. Builidng California’s growth around rail rather than car driven urban sprawl will maintain and even improve our state’s livability.

    Posted by missiondweller | 17 April 2009, 3:21 pm
  2. Good post. I pointed out some of these same point in an article called Obama Is On The Right Track. There’s a lot we can learn from how other countries approached high-speed rail. Obama laid out a clear plan for America… it looks surprisingly familiar to another countries approach.

    Posted by switchingmodes | 17 April 2009, 3:33 pm
  3. In response to ‘missiondweller’: you are completely correct. One example of this is with the Transbay Terminal. People can’t understand why we would build a new terminal away from downtown. The truth is, the new terminal will become downtown: it is just part of a massive transit-oriented development. On my site,, I discuss this issue. If you have a chance take a look at what we’re about. Anyways, thanks for the comment, it brightens my day to hear people are excited about big picture. One of the reasons why I like The Transbay Blog, is that it is one of the few websites that bridge the gap between transportation and land use.

    Posted by switchingmodes | 17 April 2009, 3:47 pm
  4. I don’t know why it’s surprising that it looks familiar. Most transportation systems, as a general matter, are based on a combination of local and express service (street -> freeway, bus -> BART, etc), so it stands to reason that an actually comprehensive rail system would have similar qualities. This is the model that has evolved throughout the world because it makes sense. Quite frankly, the more inspiration and expertise we can gain from other countries, the better.

    Posted by Eric | 17 April 2009, 3:53 pm
  5. Re: Transbay being “away” from downtown – that feeling may have been more true years ago, but I don’t think many people feel that way anymore, especially now as skyscrapers fill in the space south of Howard. And if they have any doubts, we now have a 645-foot tower across the street from the terminal, to clear up any confusion about it being downtown. The distance from BART/Muni would really be the only legitimate complaint at this point, although mitigated with an underground pedestrian connection.

    Posted by Eric | 17 April 2009, 4:03 pm
  6. I noticed that this map still shows the coastal route in California. Is there really a justification for bringing any truly high-speed service to that route? There is not that much population served by adding that route.

    Improving the Coast Starlight (now much busier than when I rode it six years ago) and restarting the Coast Daylight (and running it, at least initially, to 4th and King in SF) seem like good ideas, but that route seems like an overbuild for real HSR.

    Posted by MikeD | 19 April 2009, 9:07 am
  7. MikeD, California has rejected a coastal HSR route. This map depicts the coastal route because the strategic plan map is based on the former designated 90 mph corridors (now several years old). However, USDOT will prepare a National Rail Plan, which will be updated and will be consistent with the individual corridor planning that states are now carrying out.

    Posted by Eric | 20 April 2009, 12:36 am
  8. I’d be more excited about HSR if it allowed me to go somewhere besides Los Angeles. I wonder if HSR to Truckee/Reno is economically justifiable? And, in the long run, HSR to Seattle?

    Posted by Wes | 30 April 2009, 11:30 am
  9. Nice dig at the Southland, Wes ;-)

    I think true HSR between SF and Portland, and also to Truckee/Reno, is pushing it, but a less robust rail upgrade is something to investigate. As for non-LA destinations: there is chatter of a spur off the mainline to Las Vegas; and then later phases of CAHSR include Sacto (albeit via a circuitous route from SF) and San Diego.

    Posted by Eric | 30 April 2009, 11:39 am

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