Energize America Passenger Rail
The High Speed Passenger Rail Act - Background
Passenger air travel in the US in 2005 got about 45 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel, emitting 140 million tons of CO2 in total (1). Passenger cars on highways traveled over 1.5 trillion miles with an average of 1.59 occupants, at about 44 passenger-mpg, emitting about 750 million tons of CO2. Both air and automobile are heavily dependent on liquid fuels whose future supply is uncertain.
Successful high-speed rail systems, implemented in Japan and Europe, particularly the French TGV system, run on electricity with an efficiency equivalent to 300 to 500 passenger-mpg. And electric power is the easiest form to generate from new energy sources such as wind and solar energy. High-passenger-load high-speed rail would dramatically reduce the impact of the passenger transportation sector on energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
Current US Passenger Rail Status
Mention passenger rail in the US and people think first of Amtrak and its perpetual funding crisis. Amtrak’s total ridership of 25 million per year is dwarfed by the 658 million for air travel and the billions for cars. But commuter rail is widely successful across the country, and “light” inter-city passenger rail has been making a comeback in recent years thanks to state funding to help offset pollution and congestion, for a combined total of 750 million annual trips in 2003 (2). Americans are at least as willing to travel by train as by airplane. The problems with Amtrak are simple to state: unreliability, coupled with high cost and low speed. On some routes, 96% of Amtrak trains arrive late (3). On all but a very few routes, taking the train takes longer than traveling by car because the trains are limited to 79 mph. Yet the cost can be comparable to or even higher than plane fare.
Train travel has at least one advantage over road or air: it’s much easier for business travelers to work on the way. But that doesn’t help if they arrive at their meetings hours late. States, seeing the importance for local development and pollution-prevention, have taken matters into their own hands and funded significant upgrades for inter-city passenger rail service in Washington state, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and other states appear eager to join (3).
But even the fastest “high speed” trains on US railroads rarely go much above 100 mph. By comparison, the French TGV and Spanish AVE reach 220 mph in commercial service and the TGV over 355 mph in tests, thanks to dedicated passenger-only high-speed track. The average speeds of US intercity passenger trains on most routes are slower than interstate highway speed limits, providing little reason for anybody to ride the train if they can drive. The faster the average speed, the more ridership can be pulled from both automobile and air travel. A successful US program designed to increase intercity passenger rail ridership by a factor of 10 or more must eventually be able reach inter-city travel speeds of at least 150 mph, to provide significant competition to air travel over 500-mile distances. 100 mph sustained speeds is probably necessary to compete with automobiles over any distance. This will require a significant capital investment in high speed rail, at least tens of billions of dollars over a period of several decades, but progress can be made through a large number of incremental steps such as those in the project ideas listed here. The interstate highway system provides a useful model, with its 80/20% federal/state funding approach, though with rail travel the passenger rail operators would constitute a third partner that should have some equity investment in the project.
The following investment areas could substantially increase inter-city rail ridership in the US, and should be considered as examples of projects that could apply for federal funding under the proposed act:
- More reliable/fast service to make rail more attractive:
- eliminating bottlenecks between passenger and freight trains (new track, longer sidings, schedule sharing, etc) - speed up the slowest sections - high speed to pull passengers (and some freight) from air to rail - Improve passenger comfort: internet service, cleanliness - New rail cars - Pendolino style for instance that can go faster on existing lines.
- urban rail/mass transit on either end, integrated ticketing - terminals: parking, rental cars, zip cars, etc. - interlink with airport hubs
- Safety/energy improvements:
- eliminate grade crossings - better signaling, safety systems - centralized traffic control - lighter passenger cars - "crumple zones"
- Lower ticket prices (temporary operating subsidies are in the federal interest if they decrease national energy use)
Current Legislation and Activity
The US Department of Transportation includes the Federal Railroad Administration which for 2006 had a $1.5 billion budget, about $1 billion of which was for Amtrak support, with roughly half for infrastructure improvements and half to subsidize operating losses. The Bush administration budget proposals for 2007 and 2008 included significant decreases in the FRA budget, to just over $1 billion in 2008, but also included $100 million outside of Amtrak to support state-initiated projects for rail improvements. The FRA in a 1997 report highlighted 12 potential high-speed rail corridors around the country that could be developed at a cost of $50-75 billion over 20 years (4). To fully fund those corridors with the highway administration’s 80/20 funding level means a federal contribution of up to $6 billion/year, at least 10 times what the administration proposes in the near term.
Title III of Senate bill S.294 (110th Congress), the “Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007”, and the corresponding Title V subtitle C of H.R. 1300 - the "Progress Act" - add two new chapters to Subtitle V of Title 49 of the US Code: Chapter 225: "State Rail Plans and High Priority Projects" and Chapter 244: "Intercity Passenger Rail Service Corridor Capital Assistance". These two additional chapters provide a mechanism for federal funding of state-prioritized intercity rail projects, and would be an ideal route for much of the intercity funding proposed in this act.
Title II of S.294 proposes a reorganization of Amtrak management that could be beneficial to improving US intercity passenger rail service. It also straightens out Amtrak finances and clarifies the continued federal interest in supporting passenger rail.
Previous US Legislation
- 2005 Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)
- 1998 Transporation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21)
- 1994 Swift Rail Development Act
- 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act
- 1980 Passenger Railroad Rebuilding Act
- 1976 Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act
- 1973 Amtrak Improvement Act
- 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act
- 1965 High Speed Ground Transportation Act
- Numbers on fuel use and passenger miles from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics: www.bts.gov
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics Annual Report, 2005: http://www.bts.gov/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_report/2005/html/chapter_02/figure_06_04.html
- “Revving up the Rails”, by Josh Goodman, Governing Magazine, March 2007 - http://www.governing.com/archive/2007/mar/trains.txt
- Department of Transportation Report to Congress, 1997: http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/515
The High Speed Passenger Rail Act - Draft Text
Next Generation Transportation
To enable a transition from energy intensive medium-distance air and road transport of passengers to cost-effective, reliable, and safe rail transportation through creation of dedicated high-speed intercity passenger rail services.
The High Speed Passenger Rail Act (HSPRA) of 2007 will provide up to $6 billion per year in federal matching funds under a 80/20 rule to build rail infrastructure improvements necessary to develop high-volume high-speed passenger rail services between major American cities. Both tourism and commerce rely on rapid, dependable transport between cities. This has increasingly been handled by air travel, but the dual pressures of increased security and rising fuel prices have made air travel both more cumbersome and more expensive. High-speed passenger rail is more fuel efficient, quicker and more environmentally responsible than regional air travel, and can serve a key role in a low-emissions future. Studies done in the United States for the state of California and other states have shown that the construction of high speed rail infrastructure can be more economical that investments in airport and highway expansions of equivalent capacity. European experience shows that high-speed trains are more convenient, faster and profitable on high-density or metro-to-metro lines, and can offer a compelling alternative to air travel on trips up to 500 miles, taking 90% of airline traffic for point-to-point trips of less than 2 hours (300 miles at 150 mph), and 50% of airline traffic for trips lasting 3 hours (500 miles).
American passenger rail service could rebound if two critical improvements were funded - increased speed on dedicated infrastructure, and a network of semi-high speed regional services to prepare for and connect to high speed services. The High Speed Passenger Rail Act proposes a federal-state-private partnership to build, equip and operate new high-speed electric rail lines using existing technology. Additionally semi-high speed shared lines will be funded to create connecting feeder services and/or as a first step towards the implementation of high-speed electric rail lines over the medium term. The Department of Transportation would consider joint proposals from states and private operators or Amtrak, with the federal government to provide 80% of capital investment. These proposals would be judged and funded under the following metrics and preferred criteria.
For high speed services on dedicated infrastructure:
- Average inter-city speeds: at least 150 mph.
- Time to high-volume operation: 6 years or less
- Likely annual ridership
- Level of CO2 emissions reductions and other environmental benefits
- Reliability and safety of operations
For semi-high speed services on shared infrastructure:
- Sustained inter-city speeds: at least 110 mph on at least 25% of route.
- Time to high-volume operation: 4 years or less
- Likely annual ridership
- Level of CO2 emissions reductions and other environmental benefits
- Reliability and safety of operations
- Connection to funded high speed service or ongoing-planning for mid-term (5-15 years) upgrade to high speed service on dedicated infrastructure
Additionally, under this Act the Secretary of Transportation will annually prepare and submit to Congress an analysis of high-speed, semi-high speed, and medium-speed inter-city passenger rail showing current values and trends for these networks and other relevant metrics.
The HSPRA will
- begin to significantly reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions in the transportation sector by replacing energy-intensive passenger air and road travel,
- create new jobs through increased economic activity,
- increase the resilience of US inter-city travel by providing a high-volume alternative to road and air travel,
- reinvigorate downtowns and promote climate-friendly development by increasing the accessibility and attractiveness of the areas surrounding downtown train stations,
- leverage state and private funds in the transportation sector,
- establish and measure success in implementing high-speed rail.
The Federal Government will, over the 5 years after passage of this act, increase funding for intercity rail capital projects by $1 billion per year, to a total of $6 billion/year in 2012. This will be allocated to prioritized projects and provide up to 80% of needed capital investments in high speed electric and semi-high speed rail systems. The division of funds between high-speed dedicated infrastructure and semi-high speed dedicated or shared infrastructure will allocate not less than 30% of the total to each area, with priority given to projects that will attract ridership from other transportation modes and are expected to result in the largest net reductions of energy use per dollar spent.
- passenger rail transport can consume one tenth the energy of air and road travel, per passenger mile
- rail provides a third transport system to interconnect US cities that can be independent of liquid fuels and maintain connectivity during emergencies
- the low average speed and lack of timeliness of US trains have been key barriers to the increased ridership necessary for substantial energy savings
- there are many incremental steps that would improve speed and reliability
- Americans already travel by commuter rail in large numbers. High speed inter-city rail is successful and operationally profitable in over ten countries in Europe and East Asia; it can work here too.
- an investment in high speed inter-city rail is a cheaper, more cost effective, investment than exclusive reliance on airport and highway expansions.
- high speed inter-city rail so cost-effective and affordable that it is now being implemented by poorer countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Russia; if they can afford it we can too.