With all the focus on high-speed rail and urban transit, it’s easy to forget the low-speed rail that forms the backbone of every good national transit network. Switzerland, whose high-speed infrastructure consists of shared passenger and freight rail base tunnels, has a national rail ridership that puts the rest of Europe to shame. Japan may be famous for the Shinkansen, but the enormous low-speed networks surrounding Tokyo and Osaka are the two busiest in the world. Although intercity travel produces disproportionate revenues, most trips are local, even on mainline rail, and government rail planning should make sure to prioritize regional travel.
While the main intercity routes in the US should be eventually upgraded to high-speed rail, rather than rapid legacy rail, the low-speed network should dominate regional traffic as well as intercity gaps in the high-speed network. This means two traffic classes: regional and intercity. The intercity travel in question is for the most part short-distance – for examples, lines in Michigan fanning out of Detroit and not reaching any future high-speed lines to Chicago, lines in Georgia fanning out of Atlanta, and the portions of Amtrak California that won’t be replaced by HSR. The service level on the intercity lines should be a more modern version of the Regional, Keystone, and Empire South services; the service level on the regional lines should be the same as that of regional lines in Continental Europe.
The standards for the low-speed network should be based on the best industry practices. Because those lines are by definition not the highest-volume routes, it’s important to plan them with utmost care to keep costs under control. Federal assistance should aim to do the opposite of what FRA regulations do today. Instead of encouraging outdated practices, the federal government should on the contrary promulgate a set of good practices, based on what is done in Switzerland and other countries with good regional rail.
This is similar to what the various good roads bureaus did in the early 20th century, creating a unified set of standards. That said, the roads movement should only be an inspiration in the vaguest sense, since in reality US road building was much heavier on concrete than necessary and lighter on organization, leading up to the overbuilt Interstate network. This means that, whereas federal-aid highways are required to meet minimum standards for width and speed, federal-aid low-speed rail should be required to meet minimum standards for schedule and fare integration with local transit, signaling, and punctuality. The German motto, organization before electronics before concrete, rings truer here than for other kinds of transit investment, and agencies that ignore it should not receive funding for concrete before they complete the cheaper fixes.
Scandinavia is of especial importance as a rolemodel, because the lower density of its metro areas forces its regional trains to be faster, as they ought to be in the US. Combined with the wider loading gauge, it means that Swedish and Norwegian orders should be one of the sources of early American rolling stock. The lower speeds of Continental Europe (excluding Scandinavia) are not sufficient for more sprawling American urban areas. Instead, regional trains should have a top speed of about 160 km/h or just a little less, except on branch lines. A good example for the service quality to aim for is the Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog plans for trains from San Francisco to San Jose: local trains, stopping about once per 3.5 km, average 59 km/h, and express trains average 85 km/h.
While some regional lines in the US already average 60 km/h or even more, the cost is a very sparse station spacing, such that walking to stations is infeasible, even if the station areas are walkable, which they usually aren’t. For example, the Providence Line from Providence to Boston averages 58 km/h, with one daily late-night train with less schedule padding and another that skips stops achieving 65 km/h; however, the average interstation is 6.8 km, and requires skipping or closing down entirely several urban stations (Forest Hills, Ruggles, Readville, Pawtucket).
Instead of current practices, I would recommend a program of federal standardization based on the idea that transit should be able to compete with driving and provide meaningful transportation at all times of day. Federal action means that a few best practices could be violated: most prominently, rolling stock doesn’t have to be completely off-the-shelf if the federal government can induce transit agencies to combine and buy in bulk. However, the most important of the general best practices – perfect schedule and fare integration, allowing seamless intermodal transfers regardless of which agency operates the vehicles – are as important as ever. This leads to the following set of suggestions, in addition to the aforementioned set of best practices:
1. The main lines, both regional and intercity, should be electrified, with 25 kV 60 Hz.
2. Trains’ design speed should generically be 160 km/h, or a little lower on unelectrified branch lines and regional lines with frequent stops, though the track speed could be lower if increasing it is not worth the extra cost. Acceleration should be high, to allow average speed to remain high even with a few more stops. The ideal train should look like an M-7 with bigger doors from the outside and have the performance of a FLIRT. On unelectrified lines, good choices include the diesel Talent, GTW, Desiro, and Coradia. Bilevel trains are useful only in narrow circumstances in which passenger volumes are very high and the higher dwell times coming from the double-deck configurations are not a major problem; with a few exceptions such as the MI 2N used on the RER, this is practically never the case.
3. Subsidies should still be acceptable for regional services, though relative to passenger volumes they should be lower than they are in the US today; they should not be acceptable for the intercity network, though weak lines within a network could be subsidized by stronger lines they connect to.
4. In urban areas, regional service should function as urban transit and not just as peak-period commuter rail from the suburbs to the city center; therefore, there should be frequent stops in the city, replacing the longer-distance functions of American light rail lines. In-city fares should be identical to those of local urban buses and rail.
5. Regional trains should have just one operator, with the fare enforced with random fare inspections; intercity trains, which have lower traffic, can have one operator and one conductor.
6. There shouldn’t be any distinction between regional, intercity, and high-speed rail stations. High-speed rail should be able to seamlessly run through to lower-speed territory when necessary – for example, surplus Northeast Corridor trains that do not need to go to Boston should serve Jamaica at least (with catenary strung over the LIRR Main Line), and possibly even Mineola, Hicksville, and Ronkonkoma.
8. Signaling should be either ERTMS or ATC. Unless the two systems can be made to talk with each other, the federal government should invite delegations from the vendors, pick one, and mandate it. (And unless Hitachi can provide a convincing explanation for why its vendor-locked system is better, the pick should be ERTMS, which has eight vendors.) It can squeeze amazing capacity out of two tracks and, when enabled, provides absolute crash protection.
9. High punctuality is non-negotiable, especially when timed transfers or overtakes are involved. Trains should be able to stick to their clockface schedule and passengers should be able to rely on transfers even with short connections. Here is a list of ways to maintain punctuality. The ultimate goal is Japan, where, barring suicides and natural disasters, late trains are almost unheard of.
Those requirements are deliberately meant to be as scalable as possible. Although the rolling stock I’m implying is very ambitious for small-scale operations, the advantage of the high top speed is that such operations could piggyback on larger orders by the main established agencies, which could make great use of the extra speed and acceleration and get a more rationalized schedule as a result. The point is to give agencies pricing power coming from pooling together to order multiple thousands of more-or-less identical EMUs.
Although the investment described here is much more intensive than anything done in the US up to now, the true cost is not high. Restoring regional branch lines should be doable for a million dollars per kilometer, bulk electrification of main lines can be done for not much more and has been done on $3 million/km on the NEC, and mainline ETCS installation costs $1–1.5 million/km. It’s comparable to the per-km cost of the diesel-only, single-track, low-platform, commuter-only Lackawanna Cutoff, and if past results are any guide would lead to a sharp increase in transit ridership, measured in hundreds rather than tens of percent.
The ultimate goal of low-speed rail is to make it convenient to use regional transit. With speeds comparable to those of driving, local fares comparable to those of buses, and a frequent, memorable clockface schedule, transit would be a realistic option for many more people in the US than it is now. Every trip should be serviceable by transit, or else people will find it more convenient to buy a car for their irreplaceable car trips and then drive it for other trips. SBB claims that 32.7% of Swiss travel to work is on mass transit; this is higher than the figure for Greater New York, and about seven times the figure for the US.
Some of this is, to quote James Kunstler, Bill Lind, and other supporters of transit who look backward to the industrial era, merely restoring what the US had in the 1920s and 30s, before cars made all but the most traffic-intensive rail travel unprofitable. But the operating practices I’m proposing are modern, in line with today’s labor and capital costs and with innovations in countries that have kept improving their rail systems. Modern low-speed rail shares many characteristics with old local trains, but it’s fundamentally something that’s never really existed in North America. It’s about time to try it.