High-speed rail has a major role to play in the development of an efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective transportation network that will have the capacity to meet the needs of America’s growing population in the coming years. This is the premise adopted by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in its National Rail Plan, which outlines a comprehensive vision for the future of American high-speed rail.
One important element in a viable high-speed rail network is the development of a series of tiered passenger rail corridors. This will maximize the efficiency of a high-speed rail system by taking into account the diversity of markets and geographic contexts found in the US, and adapting the system accordingly. The following are the currently anticipated three main tiers:
1. Core Express Corridors
These routes will connect major urban areas up to 500 miles apart, forming the backbone of the country’s passenger rail system. Train speeds of between 125 and 250 mph will allow for travel times of two to three hours between these centers, and service will be frequent. The electrified tracks supporting these corridors will be dedicated and publicly owned. A good example of what a Core Express corridor could look like is California’s proposed high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
2. Regional Corridors
This network will connect various smaller urban centers and other communities along the way. Using a mixture of shared and dedicated track, trains will run at speeds between 90 and 125 mph. Depending on location, some corridors will offer connections to Core Express corridors, thus allowing many potential passenger services to operate over both sets of routes (Regional and Core Express).
3. Emerging/Feeder Routes
Shared track, with trains running at up to 90 mph, will connect regional urban areas. Passengers on these routes can also make connections to both Regional and Core Express corridors, thus allowing residents of smaller or more remote areas an efficient way to access to the national high-speed system.
These connections are designed to provide convenient access to the passenger rail network via public transit, airports, and other transportation modes. This level of integration is essential for a truly successful vision of 21st-century passenger rail—one that ensures that passenger rail is a viable, and indeed preferable, form of intercity travel when compared with other alternatives.
At present, the US Department of Transportation is examining and identifying regions to implement the first three corridor tiers. Feasibility criteria include such variables as highway and airport congestion, estimated trip times between centers, distances, and ridership estimates.
Cost and benefit measures and analyses also form an important part of these feasibility studies. While the development of high-speed passenger rail is a capital-intensive undertaking, it is also one that many expect to bring significant benefits. In particular, the FRA’s vision for a nationwide passenger rail network will do the following:
Provide balance—An effective high-speed and intercity passenger rail system will help balance the transportation network by complementing existing transportation choices. It will also relieve some of the increased demand. This is particularly important in areas where, regardless of the availability of financing, there is simply not enough room to expand other elements of the transportation network, like highways or airports.
A recent analysis by the US Conference of Mayors confirms the theory that high-speed rail could significantly impact how people make intercity trips. An examination of four potential hubs for high-speed rail (Los Angeles, Orlando, Chicago, and Albany) showed that, for these four cities alone, intercity car trips could be reduced by an average of 27 percent, and the need for 900,000 short-haul flights annually would be eliminated by the introduction of high-speed passenger rail service.
Reduce congestion—High-speed rail could be particularly beneficial to America’s megaregions, in which cities are typically afflicted with the most congested airports and roads; these regions include the Northeast Corridor, the Texas Triangle, Southern California, and the Cascadia region. Currently, in urban areas within these megaregions, the annual delay per traveler is an average of 53 hours, meaning that more than people lose six days per year due to congestion.
Boost economic activity—As described by the Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness in a recent report, the US rail market is the world’s most open market. Further developing a long-term passenger rail network will provide a substantial boost to the manufacturing sector, as well as create over 1 million jobs during the construction of the system, plus thousands more in network operations and maintenance. Indirect economic benefits include added economic output in regions with a high-speed rail system, and efficiency gains, including land-use efficiencies. For example, Los Angeles County alone estimates that for California’s high-speed rail network, the total financial payback over the life of the system will account for 2 to 4 percent of its entire annual gross regional product.