High Speed Rail in America

At the new year of 2003, only one high-speed rail corridor was in operation in the United States – The Northeast Corridor.

“Our goal with this first Acela Express train was to establish a strong initial presence between Boston and New York and based on these initial results, we are succeeding,” said former Amtrak President George D. Warrington in January 2001. “Acela Express marks the introduction of premium, limited stop Amtrak service in New England and this first roundtrip was scheduled to serve that market.”

However, high-speed rail as a viable option is being considered in communities nationwide. And in 2002, approving and constructing high-speed rail corridors made several gains.

The Northeast Corridor

The 457-mile Northeast Corridor rail line connecting Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston is the busiest passenger line in the country. About 200 million travelers use Amtrak and seven commuter rail systems over a portion of the Northeast Corridor every year. Amtrak owns and operates most of the trackage.

Between 1978 and 1999, the federal government invested $3.7 billion in preserving and upgrading the line, which was inherited from the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad in 1976. In 1992, Amtrak initiated its Acela high-speed rail program, which focused on extending the Washington-New Haven electrification system east to Boston and rebuilding the railroad infrastructure to support train speeds up to 150 m.p.h.

Amtrak inaugurated its first Acela Express service between Washington and Boston on Dec. 11, 2000. Today, trains operate between Washington and New York in as little as 2 hours and 35 minutes and between New York and Boston in as little as 3 hours and 25 minutes. Those times are expected to decrease over the next three years.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is unique amongst the world’s high-speed rail systems. In Europe, most high-speed lines are dedicated solely to high-speed passenger trains. Slower passenger service and all freight operations are relegated to other rail lines. On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s Acela Express trainsets operate at speeds between 110 and 150 mph for much of the route.

However, hundreds of 80 m.p.h. commuter trains and 30 m.p.h. freights trains also operate on the right-of-way. Amtrak’s ability to upgrade the corridor to accommodate freight, commuter and high-speed trains enabled it to avoid the enormous costs and environmental issues associated with construction of new right-of-way, which has piqued the interest of several European high-speed rail operators who are studying this less-expensive option for expanding Europe’s high-speed rail network.

By the end of 2003, Acela revenues are projected to exceed costs by some $180 million, enabling the Northeast Corridor to generate an operating profit. This achievement – a rail system that can cover its operating costs – is virtually unique in the international world of high-speed rail and reflects huge potential for high-speed rail in the American market place.

California High-Speed

High speed rail service in California made gains in September 2002, Governor Gray Davis has signed legislation that places a nearly $10 billion general obligation bond on the November 2004 ballot to fund the planning and construction of a high-speed rail transportation system for California.

“During my four years in office, I’ve made a record commitment to California’s future through new investments in transportation,” Davis said. “Today, we elevate this investment in our future by investing in High-Speed Rail, the train of the future.”

The California High Speed Rail Authority is a nine-member agency established to plan, finance, construct and operate a statewide network of high-speed rail service. The Authority is charged with ensuring inter-city high speed rail is fully integrated with the state’s existing inter-city rail and bus network.

This bill is consistent with the draft business plan issued by the Authority which envisions a 700 mile, $25 billion high-speed rail system moving passengers between Sacramento, Merced, Bakersfield, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego at speeds of more than 200 m.p.h.

Southeast High-Speed

In November 2002, officials from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation received federal confirmation and approval on the designated Washington, D.C. to Charlotte high-speed rail route.

“This is a significant milestone of which we’re very proud,” said North Carolina Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett. “We know of no other environmental study for any transportation project that was completed on such a large scale and in such a short time.”

The two transportation agencies began initial environmental work three years ago, examining nine possible routes along a 500-mile corridor. Normally environmental impact statements for transportation projects – whether rail, aviation or highway- are studied in smaller geographical segments and take five to six years to complete.

“We have achieved a key incremental step to put us on the right track to improve rail freight and passenger service,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington Clement.

The Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Highway Administration issued the formal Record of Decision on the project last week, marking completion of the first Tier I Environmental Impact Statement. The states are now discussing a plan that identifies the next steps necessary to build and implement high-speed rail in the Southeast.

“High speed rail service will help us to reduce congestion, improve air quality and grow in ways that benefit all of our citizens,” said North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. “It’s one of many elements that can preserve the quality of life in North Carolina while helping our economy continue to grow.”

As part of the second – or Tier 2 Study – phase, the departments will conduct in phases more detailed environmental and engineering studies on the corridor. One of the first steps for both states will be to work with CSX Transportation to solidify an agreement to rebuild and use the rail line that runs from Norlina to south of Petersburg. The railroad took the section, known as the “S-line,” out of service 17 years ago. Reconstructing this portion of track will benefit high-speed rail and may help relieve some of the rail traffic congestion on CSX’s parallel main line between Petersburg and Rocky Mount.