Faster-than-Conventional Rail: Where Could It Work?

Note: this post is secretly about Hyperloop and Elon Musk’s most likely fraudulent claim about the Northeast Corridor. But it’s an interesting discussion more in general. Not all such technology is vaporware the way Musk’s efforts are. See more on The Boring Company’s false claims in a piece I published at Urbanize.LA a few days ago.

The upper limit of conventional high-speed rail seems to be 360 km/h. In Japan, experiments at that speed have succeeded, but there already are problems with noise, stopping distance, and catenary wear, and currently trains top at 320; plans to go at 360 depend on a future Shinkansen extension to Sapporo. In China, the maximum speed is 350, with trains capable of reaching 380 but not doing so in practice. In Continental Europe the maximum speed for new lines is 320-330 km/h, whereas in Britain HS2 is designed for about 350 km/h (220 mph).

Faster technologies exist, in service, today. Shanghai’s Transrapid tops at 431 km/h in service, and JR Central’s under-construction maglev line is targeted at 500 km/h, with tests at 600. Vactrains can go even faster, but are still untested technology (and this includes Hyperloop variants). The question is, where is there room for such technology? So far, Siemens’ attempts to sell Transrapid failed beyond the Shanghai airport connector, an orphan 30 km line going from the airport to the edge of the built-up area of the city. JR Central is building the Chuo Shinkansen maglev between Tokyo and Osaka, but so far there are no plans to extend this technology elsewhere – even within Japan, the state is continuing with building Tokyo-Sapporo as conventional Shinkansen rather than maglev.

The Tokyo-Osaka line is somewhat sui generis. JR Central is currently running about 14 trains per hour at the peak on the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, each with 1,323 seats, and they’re generally full. It is also old – as the first HSR line in the world, it has a curve radius of 2.5 km (newer lines start at 4 km and go up), and a top speed of 270 km/h. This is exactly the sort of situation that favors new technology. The Tokaido Main Line was a popular intercity line in the late 1950s, but Japan National Railways couldn’t add more express trains without bumping against the capacity limit imposed by slower trains using the line; this tilted it in favor of building the Shinkansen. The Paris-Lyon main line was similarly busy in the 1970s, encouraging the construction of the LGV Sud-Est as a bypass. Nowhere in the world except Tokyo-Osaka is there a full conventional HSR line, except Paris-Lyon – but see later why it is a poor candidate for faster technology.

Track sharing

The main tradeoff with maglev, or even faster technology, is cost. This comes from two places. First, higher top speed requires much more advanced civil engineering, with wider curves, which means more tunnels and viaducts. Conventional HSR can limit costs by climbing steeper grades than legacy trains (the LGV Sud-Est has no tunnels, the legacy Paris-Lyon line does). Maglev can climb even faster grades, but once the speed crosses into the vactrain range, the vertical curve radius required to achieve a steep grade is so wide that it is no longer possible to vertically hug terrain the way European HSR lines do.

The second place is the urban approaches. In theory, this should be a strength of faster-than-conventional rail technology, which has a lower minimum curve radius than HSR at equal speed. But in practice, conventional HSR can leverage existing railroad lines on the urban approaches. At lower speed the stopping distances are shorter, so capacity is higher; the upper limit at speed maybe 12-15 trains per hour, but on a low-speed approach it’s closer to 24-30, so it’s possible to share tracks with legacy commuter and intercity trains.

In Japan, Spain, and Taiwan the HSR track gauge is different from the legacy gauge, so track-sharing is not possible in the major cities, driving up the cost of urban approaches. In smaller cities, Japan and Spain have gauge-change technology, which takes too much time to be of use in capacity-constrained big cities but can allow track sharing on branches. But unconventional technology cannot share tracks anywhere, requiring tunnels on urban approaches. The cost of 20 km of urban tunnel can easily match that of 200 km of at-grade greenfield HSR outside urban areas. The Chuo Shinkansen’s cost, around $200 million per km, comes from the fact that 70-80% of the line is underground, in urban areas and under mountains.

This implies that unconventional technology is most useful when there is limited benefit to be gained from track sharing. This includes the following situations:

  1. The cities served do not have usable legacy rail approaches, or else have a surplus of space within which to build a new approach.
  2. There is no need to branch and use legacy track at lower speed.
  3. There is no preexisting high-quality track that HSR can use, either at high speed outside cities or at medium speed on approaches.

In North America, FRA regulations traditionally led to situation #1. But FRA regulations seem to be changing, which makes track-sharing on approaches more feasible; practically every city has approaches with a surplus of passenger rail capacity (yes, even New York – Amtrak runs 4 trains per hour into Penn Station from the west at the peak, it just uses these slots poorly). In Europe, cities with poor approaches are more likely to be served on a branch, since the rest of the network is so strong. Situation #2 never applies here – branching is always useful, letting the LGV Sud-Est carry not just Paris-Lyon trains but also Paris-Marseille, Lille-Lyon, London-Lyon, Paris-Geneva, etc.

Some of the stronger intercity travel markets are in situation #3, but most aren’t. In North America, the Northeast Corridor has long stretches of high-quality track, either already capable of high speed or capable with a small number of curve modifications. That characteristic alone makes it exceptionally bad for unconventional rail technology: such technology would need a new alignment through hundreds of kilometers of suburbia in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Toronto is also a poor candidate for unconventional technology, since it has a long stretch of suburbia in both directions with high-quality four-track commuter rail, straight enough for 200 km/h or even more. Significant suburban tracks are also useful in California (Caltrain, parts of Metrolink) and Chicago. Only the Pacific Northwest, Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, has a real shortage of usable legacy track even on the approaches. So is it a good candidate for unconventional technology? No, for reasons of distance.

The optimal distance

Faster-than-conventional rail is silly at short distance. The difference in travel time is smaller and does not justify the expense. Access and egress times are fixed, and may even go up if the station locations are less central (the Chuo Shinkansen won’t serve Tokyo Station but rather Shinagawa, a few km south of the CBD). So focusing on in-vehicle time is less useful. The Chuo Shinkansen is really at the lowest end of what is acceptable. It works because, again, the Tokaido Shinkansen is at capacity. Tokaido is also relatively circuitous in order to avoid mountains – the distance from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka is 515 km on the Tokaido Shinkansen, 438 on the Chuo Shinkansen, and 405 on a straight line. On the Northeast Corridor, the New York-Washington distance is 362 km on the railroad and 330 on a straight line, a much smaller difference.

Conversely, faster-than-conventional rail is questionable at very long distance. At maglev speed, a New York-Los Angeles train would take perhaps 12 hours, not really competitive with planes for people who don’t mind flying. At vactrain speed, the train would be competitive. However, in either case, trains require linear infrastructure, and repackaging them as a new Hyperloop doesn’t change this basic fact. Ignoring the effects of terrain, a 4,000 km vactrain or maglev line costs ten times as much as a 400 km line. This is not the case for air travel, which requires no fixed infrastructure between the airports.

There should be a good zone in the middle, say the 1,000-1,500 km range. This includes city pairs like Beijing-Shanghai, New York-Chicago, Tokyo-Sapporo, Tokyo-Fukuoka, Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, and some international European pairs like Paris-Madrid. Going up to 2,000 there are also New York-Miami, Chicago-Dallas-Houston, Beijing-Guangzhou, and Los Angeles-San Francisco-Seattle; in China, where conventional HSR is faster, even 1,000-1,300 km is well within conventional HSR capabilities (Beijing-Shanghai is 1,300).

However, the fact that there is this sweet spot for unconventional rail does not mean that the construction costs are affordable. This remains a question mark. Maglev costs are either in line with HSR costs at equal tunnel proportion, or somewhat higher. The Shanghai maglev cost 10 billion RMB in 2003, which in PPP terms is maybe $100 million per km for an elevated suburban/exurban line (bad, but not terrible), and in exchange rate terms (imported technology) is somewhat more than half that. The Chuo Shinkansen seems to be $200 million per km, 70-80% underground, which is in line with urban tunneling costs in Japan but high by the standards of exurban tunneling (the 60% tunneled extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori was $55 million per km).

The upshot is that a New York-Chicago maglev is likely to cost like 1,200 km of HSR. The western half of this line is easy – maybe a short tunnel in suburban Chicago is required, but there’s so much right-of-way space that an above-ground urban approach should be fine. The eastern half of this line consists of 600 km of pain in the Appalachians, suburban New Jersey, and a new tunnel under the Hudson. Costs approaching $100 billion are likely, and I don’t know that the benefits are commensurate.

Can you start big?

A short maglev or vactrain is of little use. Given the expense of approaches, the best use of expensive infrastructure may well be to build multiple lines using the same approach. For example, not just New York-Chicago or New York-Atlanta-Miami, but both at once, to take advantage of the same maglev tunnel under the Hudson. By itself New York-Chicago might be good enough, but it’s unclear – it’s nowhere the huge benefit/cost ratio coming from a program for conventional HSR on the Northeast Corridor at normal first-world rates.

I think this is the biggest risk with unconventional rail technology. Its basic characteristics suggest that there should be a distance range at which it works well – not too short so as to offer too little benefit versus conventional HSR, not too long so as for construction costs to grind it down. But it’s equally possible that the two bad zones, too short and too long, really overlap, so that 1,200-km lines are still too expensive to compete with planes while not offering enough speed benefit over conventional HSR to justify all this new construction.

The problem, then, is that it’s difficult to start big with a risky technology. The shortest useful maglev segment, Tokyo-Nagoya, is still well over $50 billion, and Tokyo-Osaka approaches $100 billion. This is on a route with proven demand; what about routes that don’t parallel overcrowded conventional HSR? Some government will need to take a $100 billion gamble on a long route hoping that the 1,200-km niche really exists.


  1. Martin

    Exactly for the reasons you describe there will never by a market for an exclusive 1000+ km new train technology between two cities. At 1300 km you would have to run full trains, at almost full capacity 10-15 times an hour, for prices below that of an airport ticket (the plane would after all still be quicker).

    Such a pair of travel destinations does not exist anywhere. Travel demand falls by distance. Such travel patterns does not exist today anywhere even given destinations served cheap European flights that travel at quicker speeds and have lower prices than a future maglev train would have. Flights also have the luxury to a much bigger extent being able to match demand to season and hour of the day, unlike this train which would have to charge pretty high prices around the clock to not undercut their own margins.

    The only way such a line could be ran, is if it also served important destinations along the way, and that this concerned most of the trafic. Beyond future exentions of the Chuo Shinkansen, I could really only see it in northwest Europe, and then only as a reaction to overcrowded existent current links, similar to the Japanese case. Basically a capacity upgrade.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I really don’t see this happen in Europe. Language regions are too small, and international, cross-linguistic city pair links are really weak. But the US and China are bigger and have big cities in the right range. The issue is, as you say, travel demand falls by distance. You could build NY-Chicago maglev and go from city center to city center in 3 hours, maybe even 2:30, and have an intermediate suburban stop in Cleveland. But the ridership would take a while to catch up to the reality of faster travel.

      • Ryan

        It doesn’t make sense at any range to run as a non-stop or one-stop service given the relative “stopping penalty” time versus serving more major metropolitan cities or HSR trunk lines; the NYC-CHI example is unfortunate because everywhere is just far enough off the line that diverting doesn’t make sense. NYC-MIA is a better example, hampered by the fact that you have to justify replicating that half of the Northeast Corridor AND bypassing every stop between NYC and DC; but if you can get south of DC there’s a solid maglev corridor with stops only in Fayetteville, Savannah and Jacksonville fed by conventional rail serving all locations in between. Or, CHI-MIA with stops in Indy, Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville.

        The extra expense of introducing more urban approaches in each of these cities is more than worth the added ridership. Now, it’s still an unresolved question as to whether it makes sense to place a bet on this kind of companion service to sit between HSR and airline travel when we’ve completely failed as a country to do either correctly, but there’s certainly a hypothetical use case for the Maglev Network.

        And who knows, maybe sticking a shiny bleeding edge technology in front of Congress is more likely to gain the necessary political capital then sticking with the proven effective world standard technology, which hasn’t.

    • Michael James

      for prices below that of an airport ticket (the plane would after all still be quicker). Such a pair of travel destinations does not exist anywhere. Travel demand falls by distance.

      All of those are unfounded assumptions. Some have already been disproven. The thing is that once the public get to experience HSR the price is less important than you imply. I’m not saying it is not a consideration but the travel experience is sooo superior that the assumption of “cheapest always wins” is no longer true; I think this would be as true in the US though doubtless others will argue against it (always those who have never use true HSR.)
      Of course travel demand does fall by distance but the definitions keep changing. Originally the limit at which HSR could compete with aviation was about 400km but today we’re talking of 1,000+ km. In summer you can now catch a Eurostar/TGV non-stop from London-St Pancras to Avignon, a distance of more than 1,500km. Tickets are as low as €65 one-way. Even if there is a LCC fare cheaper, it couldn’t be by much, and would it be competitive when you think about the airport hassles and then getting a bus or taxi from Avignon-Provence airport into town? When it began service in 2012 here is what one newspaper wrote:

      Now if you get the 7.17 am Eurostar from St Pancras in London on a Saturday in the northern summer, you can be having a late lunch in the square at Avignon at 2pm. Even with the hour’s time difference. It’s a miracle.

      And here’s the thing: by TGV you’d arrive relaxed and refreshed. If you flew you’d be harassed and stressed and probably need a lie-down in your hotel room, with maybe recourse to the mini-bar! Here is another long route that demonstrates the same point:

      The commencement of service on this line (LGV-Méditerranée) has led to a reversal of the respective airplane and train markets: by making Marseille reachable in three hours from Paris (a distance of over 750 kilometres (470 mi)), the train now handles two thirds of all journeys on that route.

      I see that Paris-Bordeaux (560km) is LGV all the way now (TGV l’Océane, opened three weeks ago; Macron was on the inaugural service); previously the TGV only used LGV from Tours to Paris (less than half the total distance) but it was still a good journey at 3h. Now it is 2h. Heck, you can almost do anywhere in France as a day-trip from Paris! (Or the inverse which is what I suggest to my friends. Cheaper than a hotel in Paris.)

      • Alon Levy

        No, 1,000 km is beyond HSR range at most places. Tokyo-Fukuoka is around 1,100 km on the Shinkansen and a 5-hour trip on the fastest trains; the air/rail modal split is 92% air, 8% Shinkansen. HSR does a little better in Europe (where air travel is worse than in Japan) and much better in China (where average HSR speed is closer to 300 km/h than to 220 km/h), but there’s still an upper limit. The TGV aims for 3-hour trips, maybe 3.5-4 hours in a crunch. Nice, 5:30 hours from Paris, has a 69% air, 31% TGV split; I’ve taken that train a few times and it’s not especially relaxing, especially when I’m sitting facing backward, with a sneezing person diagonally across from me, with my laptop’s battery rapidly depleting because there are no power outlets.

        • Michael James

          Nice, 5:30 hours from Paris, has a 69% air, 31% TGV split; I’ve taken that train a few times and it’s not especially relaxing, …

          First, it is not LGV from Marseilles onwards. Paris-Marseilles is now 4h and I would wonder why anyone would fly.
          Second, I found the train to Nice (from Paris) to be excellent, because the final stretch from Marseilles is very scenic, parts of it are effectively on the beach! I think it is a great daytime rail journey (and it connects the top four cities in France; it’s another of my recommendations to people travelling in that part of the world). Oh, point 2b: MagLev would be easier to build along (or above) this windy route; I assume if they ever build TGV to Nice it will use an inland route from Aix (as the autoroute does).
          Third, you are making my point about MagLev (admittedly in a later post). Your “limits” are now well within range if you substitute MagLev for conventional HSR.
          Fourth, I do almost anything to avoid airports these days. And many of those cheapo LCC flights don’t use main airports but dump you at some minor airstrip 50km from your destination (actually Narita is 78km from central Tokyo). But even mainline destinations: for example it is 780km from Paris to Sete (a wonderful port just south of Montpellier; a place that interests me if I go to live in France) and it now has a TGV station; the average time from Paris is 4h12m while the quickest route is 3h42m. If you flew you’d have to get from Montpellier Airport to Sete which would be a real bore and probably at least an hour almost certainly with a mode change (or two). And get this: Paris to Sete fare is €50. There are 19 trains a day at about 43 minute intervals from Gare de Lyon; leave Paris at 19.15 (last train; I wish they ran really late trains! incidentally another advantage of MagLev is that they are essentially fully automatic with on-board staff entirely optional) arrive in Sete (and walk home) at 22.58. The other great thing: only 2h53m to Barcelona by TGV!

          • Alon Levy

            Paris-Marseille is 3 hours; Paris-Nice is 5:30, and yes, it’s scenic, but I don’t want scenic, I want to be out of Le Pen country and back in Paris already.

            The plans for the LGV PACA use a coastal route, rather than an inland one. The official reason is that they want to hit Toulon on the same line. The real reason is that Provence had an enormous NIMBY campaign against the inland route, on the grounds that Cezanne had painted some scenes there and an LGV would spoil it. The line is budgeted at €10 billion give or take, and some sources are saying it’s gone up to €15-20 billion. (And despite this, I guarantee you the people of the Riviera will still feel like the Parisian elites aren’t paying attention to their concerns and keep voting for F-Haine.)

            Narita is indeed in the middle of nowhere, but domestic flights in Japan use Haneda, which is very well-connected to Central Tokyo by rail.

          • RVA_Exile

            The real reason for LGV PACA routing is that the region’s politicians insisted that if PACA region funds help pay for the line, then the line should be useful for intra-PACA travel. Politicians from Nice were pushing for a route as fast to Paris as possible, directly from Aix. Politicians from Marseille pushed for the full-fat routing, with a horrendously expensive center city rail tunnel under Marseille. Marseille won this debate, making the entire project so expensive that it likely won’t get built (and still only 1 hr or so of time savings if it does get built).

          • Michael James

            RVA_Exile 2017/07/30 – 15:58

            The real reason for LGV PACA routing is that the region’s politicians insisted that if PACA region funds help pay for the line, then the line should be useful for intra-PACA travel.

            They’ve got a point. Linking Marseille (France’s 2nd or 3rd city) to Toulon (9th largest), Nice (5th), Cannes, Antibes, Antipolis etc for a total population of about 2 million (5m incl. Marseille), makes sense. When building such infrastructure it should be done right, rather than simply cheapest or easiest. I suppose the Aix-en-Provence TGV station (ie. sitting out in the middle of nowhere, about 20km west of “Aix-Centre” and ≈30km? north of Marseille) was intended to be a major interchange to connect up the LGV Méditerranée, PACA, Marseille and Languedoc-Rossillon routes, but it rather loses the advantages of TGV which we all expect to take us from city centre to city centre. We all know what a change for long-distance trains means (a long wait). The econon-rationalists hate this and will force us to change to a bus, but it is our taxes that pay for these things and we hate being forced from a TGV to a bus.

            However, I see on the official site that phase 1 is planned to be complete “before 2030”. This is the expensive bit, Marseille to Toulon. The second phase is “after 2030” and the final phase (to Nice) is “before 2050”.
            So, maybe Alon will live to avoid those scenic vistas on his way to/from Nice, but it looks like I’ll be in my grave! Just as well I like the vistas.

          • Alon Levy

            Aix-en-Provence gets decent usage out of people living in the northern Marseille suburbs, actually.

            The inland route for the LGV PACA would’ve still hit Nice center, it would just be faster and cheaper than converting Saint-Charles into a Lille-Europe. It just would make Marseille feel less important, so it’s out.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2017/07/31 – 21:46

            Aix-en-Provence gets decent usage out of people living in the northern Marseille suburbs, actually.
            The inland route for the LGV PACA would’ve still hit Nice center, it would just be faster and cheaper than converting Saint-Charles into a Lille-Europe. It just would make Marseille feel less important, so it’s out.

            Aix itself is really a suburb of Marseille –you know, where petite bourgeoise snobs like me (or for that matter, you, since I suspect there are not too many FN voters there!) prefer to live even if we worked in Marseille!

            Sure LGV PACA would have gone to Nice, as I offhandedly wrote in my first post (before considering it in any detail), but actually it would have been a lot slower to get into Marseille because of the need to change trains etc. maybe catch a bloody bus! (as most people currently do to get into Aix-Centre). It would be like asking all those Westchester commuters to get off their trains in Harlem and change to a bus for downtown, or even the subway (which is ≈45minutes).
            Hmm, in the context of your article maybe this is a case for a Maglev link from Aix-en-Provence TGV station to Marseille-St-Charles. Probably less than a 10 minute trip. Would hardly seem likely to cost more than the tunnel under Marseille.

          • Alon Levy

            Nice-Marseille isn’t really a core TGV market. Two not large cities, at too short a range to really be optimal for HSR vs. cars, with two of the worst cases of suburban sprawl in France.

          • Michael James

            But those are reasons for HSR. Currently the train here is very slow as you have pointed out. And the sprawl-the total of 5m residents probably swollen to, what, 7m during summer–leads to awful road congestion etc. Not to mention connecting up with Italy’s Riveria (OK the Lyon-Turin line will do that.)
            Incidentally I do wonder if this route is not a candidate for Maglev since it could use much more of the existing legacy line (maintaining hi-speed despite the curves) and serve as a local connection service as well as inter-city link (ie. Nice-Toulon-Marseille)? My original argument applies: the cost of conventional HSR seems to be spectacularly OTT. (Could maglev use existing line into Marseille without as much compromise as conventional HSR apparently would? ie. it can handle grades and curves with less impact on its performance?)
            Of course inter-operability and thru lines to Italy etc., and being non-French, will have made it a non-starter.

          • Alon Levy

            The summer tourists are often Parisian (or Lyonnais, but that’s less common judging by license plates on cars in Menton), and need fast transportation from here to there, without being delayed for Marseille and Toulon.

            The local connection between Nice, Toulon, and Marseille is really not worth much. When I say the line doesn’t have enough speed advantage over cars, I mean HSR, not the TER. HSR would of course be faster than driving, but with access and egress times it wouldn’t, especially since in the Riviera, both destinations and origins are dispersed away from train stations. The hotels are mostly on the beach, not at the train stations. Moreover, vacation travel is a weaker market for HSR, since families tend to travel together, reducing the cost of driving (4 people in 1 car vs. 4 TGV tickets); Paris-Nice is still worth it, but Marseille-Nice probably becomes too weak to bother.

          • adirondacker12800

            there will be less people from Lyon …. because there are less people in Lyon….

      • Martin

        Also note that if you for example take the New York – Chicago travel market from the New York perspective, you would have to capture pretty much all demand of the greater New York area. Very large shares of the New York area population are much closer to any of the airports, all of them with direct flights to Chicago I think. If you live far away from Manhattan the difference can be pretty huge.

        How would even these huge number of people arrive at a station in Manhattan, in particular if they have luggage? Taxi would by geometrically impossible at the central Manhattan stations, for the number of people involved. Few people would take a 45-60 minute public transit ride, instead of a 15-20 minute cab ride to the nearest airport. Travelling with luggage on New York transit would only be acceptable to people with very tight budgets. Even if it would serve CBD-CBD demand decently, that also likely is less price sensitive, that is a small share of all demand.

        So airplane would be more convenient location wise for a large share of the population, most likely be cheaper (possible quite a lot), and be considerably faster. Any fall in ridership drawn away by those three factors would make the economics even harder to manage. Good luck competing with that combination.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, access time is always dicey, but egress time is not. Most destinations in Greater New York are in Midtown; most destinations in Chicagoland are in the Loop.

          • Martin

            I am not sure. 80% of all overnight domestic trips in the US is non-business related, and while some of that is pure tourism and probably is quite concentrated (though not completely so) close to the CBD, very much is likely other trips such as family visits, trips to friends, visits home from college, etc. Those destinations are probably spread quite evenly with population density in the urban areas.Take air travel around Christmas or Thanksgiving as an example. For NYC to Chicago the proportion business travel is probably higher, but plausibly still under a third.

            And even if destinations to some extent are concentrated to the center (though in particular in the US that should not be exaggerated), the origin place is certainly not, which of course are half of all the trips.


          • Alon Levy

            The proportion of trips that are business-related presumably grows with distance. The minimum cutoff looks like 50 miles, by which standards if I live in New York and take the train to visit relatives in New Haven overnight, that’s a leisure trip. Of note, there are 2.2 billion trips per your link, but only around 400 million one-way domestic O&D air trips (source: Consumer Airfare Report, Table 6). So most of these leisure trips are likely very short, and not really a competitive strength of HSR, let alone faster modes of transportation.

        • Michael James

          Most of those arguments are just self-fufilling and defeatist. Paris has 4 (not counting CDG) TGV stations, one of which connects the two biggest cities in Europe (combined population about 24 million though the real catchment is even greater–eg. I lived in both Oxford and Brighton which are effectively London commuter suburbs, all of whose residents use the London airports and Eurostar; you simply accept the hour journey into London), and on this route HSR has captured >75% of journeys (without checking I think air has less than 15%, the bus-ferries remain alive because they are dirt cheap though a pretty awful trip). Just this one line has 10m pax/pa which is more than Chicago-NYC air traffic. (And Paris is both more compact–thus in principle more dense/congested, plus gets 50m visitors per year, more than any other city in the world.) One thing is that both cities have good Metro (subway) systems to handle the people (which it is handling whether they go via air or rail).
          But of course a Chicago-NYC HSR line would service other cities along the route. I don’t know if the numbers would justify a stop in upper-NYC, ie. Westchester etc. (probably not; neither London or Paris have suburban stops, at least to date). But additional stops could be used at special times as you mention, ie. Thanksgiving, Xmas etc. Just like those summer Eurostar-TGVs take Londoners all the way to Avignon (I recall there are some winter trains to the ski-fields too.) A rail line has great flexibility–you could run a few trains a day to these lesser stops as well. Of course HSR generates its own new traffic–much of it “leisure” though it needs to be sensibly priced. (Eurostar shot itself in the foot at the beginning because Thatcher insisted on it being self-financing which meant premium fares which naturally didn’t help its economics; thus is the outcome of “economic-rationalist” (non-)thinking!) Increasingly people avoid discretionary trips by air because it has become such an ordeal, even if cheap (too cheap, part of the problem! another perverse result of economic-rationalism gone crazy). But long-distance travel by HSR is a pleasure.

          Alon wrote:

          Paris-Marseille is 3 hours; Paris-Nice is 5:30, and yes, it’s scenic, but I don’t want scenic, I want to be out of Le Pen country and back in Paris already.

          Hah! That’s one way to look at it. For me it is more the assorted Eurotrash and cashed-up bogans (chavs in Blimey) and that’s why I prefer the “other” south of France (Languedoc-Roussillon)–it manages to largely avoid the cashed-up trash (and Americans) of the Riviera plus the bogans/chavs beer & skittles Brits and Germans head a bit further south to the Spanish beaches which are cheaper. (Except German nudists who head to the largest nudist camp in the world at Cap d’Agde!). Yes, I am a shocking snob.
          Anyway, if you are starting at Nice then flying might get you back home in the 12th quicker than the TGV but not by much and with much more hassle at both ends. My guess is you can walk home from the TGV when it arrives at Gare de Lyon! Hard to pin down exactly why, but whenever I arrived back in Paris by Eurostar or TGV (or even RER-B from CDG) and walked the final bit home, it always put me in a good mood.
          The average of Paris-Marseilles appears to be 3h38m so it does show just how slow the segment to Nice is. It must be quite a feat to turn it into a LGV route. The thing is, it makes sense that it runs that route since that is where all the population is; obviously Toulon but essentially its wall-to-wall along that coast.

          • po8crg

            London does have a suburban stop – Ebbsfleet International is exactly that.

            There’s also Ashford International, but that exists primarily as a bribe to the people of Kent so they could build HS1 through their county – that is, it was built so the could say to the locals that they could get the train from the station and therefore not to complain quite so much about it running across the end of their back garden. Very few trains actually stop there because there aren’t anything like enough people living nearby to justify its construction.

          • adirondacker12800

            Chicago is west of New York. Westchester is north of the Bronx and therefore Manhattan. If you want to go to Chicago to New York or vice versa you’d be going through New Jersey.

          • Michael James

            po8crg wrote:

            London does have a suburban stop – Ebbsfleet International is exactly that.
            There’s also Ashford International, but that exists primarily as a bribe to the people of Kent so they could build HS1 through their county – that is, it was built so the could say to the locals that they could get the train from the station and therefore not to complain quite so much about it running across the end of their back garden.

            Isn’t Ebbsfleet only for freight? In any case, though I may have forgotten, I can’t recall ever being on a Eurostar that stopped at Ashford.

            About Kent, it is a bit different to your version. Here are some relevant bits from Nicholas Faith’s The Right LIne:

            (p46) The first impetus for a new and fast link to the Channel Tunnel came from a surprising source, Kent County Council (KCC). In many ways Kent was an old-fashioned, pre-Thatcher, Tory county … In the early 1980s one example of the new inhabitants was Mike Idling, a former senior executive from ICI. Tony Hart, chairman of the Council and himself a former accountant, appointed Odling as chairman of its combined development, planning and transport committee. … KCC’s councillors belied the usual Tory-council image and provided the most comprehensively integrated of plans for their county’s future.
            The KCC’s attitude towards the tunnel itself was also constructive–as was inevitable from a group of men who often felt that they had more in common with their counterparts in Northern France, whom they frequently visited, than those in the rest of England. … but the KCC took a broader view, analysing the need for new rail infrastructure in what was the sole study (from government or indeed anyone else) to examine the environmental and other non-transport results of the rail links. Of course Kent did not forget its own, narrow interest: the study also emphasised the need for a station at Ashford (allowed for, but not insisted on, in the Channel Tunnel Act) which, it claimed, would result in 14,000 additional jobs. … Ashford, says Odling, was a ‘prerequisite to permission’.
            The study provided the necessary shock to Whitehall … BR’s, and Whitehall’s, reluctance to face facts was not just an automatic Thatcherite reaction but was seemingly deeply embedded in the British consciousness, for by the late 1980s Britain was virtually the only major European country not to be building, or at least planning, a network of TGV-type lines.

            And so on. Not only did these technocrat-masters of industry who lived in Kent effectively rescue the plan for Eurotunnel but they also suggested what became the ultimately selected route for HS1.

            I don’t know if you watch Michael Portillo’s tv series on Railways but there is an amusing story in Faith’s book (Portillo was the great white hope of some conservatives as a future PM; but, oops, he lost his own seat in an election!):

            The fundamental neglect of the need for a properly-financed rail system meant that the fast link to the Channel was on the radar at either Ten Downing Street or the Treasury only two or three times during the entire twenty year process. It was simply assumed that BR would put the London section in a tunnel to Waterloo. This attitude was summed up in May 1990 by Harriet Harman, the Labour MP for Peckham, one of the parts of London most affected. On the 19th she noted how Michael Portillo, when Minister of State for Transport had sat through a previous debate on the subject ‘with a studied, neutral expression on his face. He listened to one side; he listened to the other; then he got up and said, “of course, it’s nothing to do with me”.

            Ironic that the very first thing I saw of Portillo in the first ep of his series on Continental Railways was him at the impressively restored St Pancras station getting on a Eurostar to Paris, the very thing which Thatcher and her acolytes had delayed for at least 12 years after Eurotunnel first opened. In fact the show is not bad; he is a genuine lover of rail which makes his indifference as minister at the time curious but of course he was an infamous acolyte of Thatcher, hoping to step in her shoes one day. And she was a near-perfect embodiment of Why do conservatives hate trains so much?

  2. Benjamin Turon

    Very interesting post. Will have to check out the others. Question: Can Hyperloop (as currently being designed) serve intermediate stations or branch off? In the past it sound to be to serve intermediate destinations you would need additional tubes, which would greatly increase costs. The CaHSA seemed to be critized for serving Palmdale, Bakersfield, and Fresno! From what I have read in the past it only has terminal stations at the end point where the pods come out of the tube in a decompression chamber.

    That seems a big negative, given that conventional HSR or maglev can serve intermediate stations and branch off. For a new HSGT line in the NEC or New York-Chicago you would want to have intermediate stations to service places like Cleveland or Philadelphia. Or suburban parkway stations like New Carrollton, Metropark, and Route 128. If you live in the suburbs the Acela could still be faster or at least more convenient than Hyperloop if to use the Hyperloop you have to travel first many miles to Manhattan.

    The biggest issue I see with Hyperloop is the “vactrain” part, your basically building a spaceship on Earth, if one thing goes wrong with your seals than… BANG! Of course without the vac part what you have is a mini-maglev in a tube. It seems that Mr. Musk with his Boring Company is thinking of placing Hyperloop entirely underground which to me makes the most sense because it would be easier to protect the system’s vacuum than a tube in the air exposed to the sun, weather, and other uncontrollable and unexpected variables.

    I can see why the Northeast is such an attractive place for maglev and Hyperloop because of its population, economy, and history of high rail usage, but in my mind given that you already have a pretty fast intercity rail service that could be made much better; it be better to look towards other city pairs like in Texas where there is not much in terms of existing intercity passenger rail infrastructure. Since you have to start from scratch you might has well go with the latest and best technology. There is no legacy track or stations to take advantage of or be constrained by. For Amtrak’s NEC, Northeast Maglev and Hyperloop are unnecessary and counterproductive proposals, the focus needs to be building on what we already have.

    In Japan, I still don’t see the need why the Chou Shinkansen needs to use maglev besides the need to justify decades of investment in that technology. Going with a new 360 km/hr conventional high speed rail line would cut travel times but also allow you to used the existing Tokaido Shinkansen to reach Tokyo Station or after the first segment too Nagoya is complete, to reach Kyoto and Osaka. Under the current plan it will be decades before the SC Maglev reaches Osaka via Nara, so you will have to change trains at Nagoya. Also one of the justifications for the Chou Shinkansen is redundancy in case a natural disaster like an earthquake cuts the Tokaido, but that too would work better if the Chou was compatible with existing Shinkansen trains and infrastructure.

    And finally, one issue I see with Hyperloop is the risk of locking yourself in to a transport tech where evolving standards could leave you with a transport line with one or no suppliers of parts and vehicles, and where your vehicles may be incompatible with future Hyperloop lines built to different designs. Its not like aviation where Le Concorde could utilized the same airports used by Boeing 707s or DeHavilland Comets and Boeing 747s . Think Isambard Kingdom Brunel with his 7-foot broad gauge Great Western Railway. Even with the Shinkansen, because its standard gauge and utilizes standard rail components from steel rails to sleepers to catenary you do have a wide range of potential suppliers. Consider how existing Japanese technology and train designs have been exported to the UK despite some big differences in infrastructure and operations.

    If I was developing Hyperloop, creating one standard for the tube infrastructure would be a big goal, their version of “Standard Guage”.

  3. Michael James

    Excellent post. Though Australia doesn’t figure in your consideration (fair enough, though we do have the world’s second-longest rail journey, Sydney to Perth) your three points are exactly part of my argument for proposing MagLev for our much discussed but forever delayed HSR to link our 4 east coast cities.

    :1. The cities served do not have usable legacy rail approaches, or else have a surplus of space within which to build a new approach.
    2.There is no need to branch and use legacy track at lower speed.
    3. There is no preexisting high-quality track that HSR can use, either at high speed outside cities or at medium speed on approaches.

    Our legacy track is next to useless, especially on the ca. 1000km Sydney-Brisbane coastal route. Legacy track into all cities is pathetic too. This is why AECOM assessed the cost for East-coast HSR (linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne) to be about $120 billion. Their route required 64km of tunnel for Sydney alone, which was something like one third of the total cost. So there is no real advantage or cost savings by making our HSR interoperable with legacy rail (indeed with our miserable politicians it would tempt them into penny-pinching and compromise), and with our long distances and need to build entirely new track, MagLev may not end up being more expensive. But really I am weary of the whole cost nit-picking; this is infrastructure to serve the next century or more, so let’s just do it right. Also there is no point building HSR if it can’t compete with aviation. This doesn’t mean the train journey is identical to the flight-time but total travel time to be comparable (or a bit longer by HSR, as I argued in the earlier post, travellers don’t mind a longer journey on high-quality HSR). My argument is that MagLev makes this crucial difference compared to conventional HSR. Syd-Melb becomes 2h while Canberra becomes a suburb of Sydney at 40min (less time than you’d spend in an airport queue; the current train takes 4 hours! The Tour de France covers the same distance faster!).

    Incidentally Melbourne-Sydney is the third busiest city-pair air route in the world (only beaten by some Asian routes, it is twice the busiest US city-pair of NYC-Chicago). But HSR is not just to replace air travel as that would not be enough justification (other than for train geeks like me) but part of a long-term regional cities development strategy. To relieve unbelievable stresses on living in Sydney and Melbourne where the real estate prices are now beyond anyone under 40 unless they have rich families to subsidise them. I’ve written about this for almost a decade but it is finally becoming mainstream (provoked by ever more insane Sydney house prices):
    We need new fast trains … fast.
    by Michael R James, Wednesday, 28 October 2009
    A very fast train is a model of sustainability
    MICHAEL R. JAMES, March 26, 2010

  4. Simon

    What about Sydney-Melbourne? It certainly ticks box 2 (Canberra would be the only obvious candidate for a branch), and 3 to a certain extent (existing suburban lines are fairly slow).

      • Michael James

        Don’t Sydney and Melbourne have strong suburban rail networks that conventional HSR could use for approaches?

        In a word: no. It may seem that way but the reality is awful. The main southern access to Sydney is geographically constrained and is only two-track and no one would try to mix HSR into it. We gave up city planning and rail planning in the 1930s! Another absurd cost of the AECOM plan (which many rail enthusiasts believe was a sabotage effort to make HSR look totally unaffordable) was something like $4 billion to modify Sydney central station to take HSR; I think they wanted to build huge underground marshalling yards–in central Sydney one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world!).

        • Eric

          Really? It looks to me like the south approach to Sydney is 4-tracked as far south as Revesby (an outer suburb), and south of Revesby the ROW is easily wide enough to add 2 more tracks. Similarly in Melbourne.

          • Michael James

            the south approach to Sydney is 4-tracked as far south as Revesby

            I was accepting comments on an Australian urbanist blog that made that claim. Is it really 4 track all the way in? And of course more importantly is it at all compatible with sharing with HSR as Simon (comment below) suggests not. (Perhaps two of those tracks are reserved for freight?) There may well be nefarious reasons why AECOM chose to include 64km of tunnels into Sydney for its HSR plan but this unavailability or unsuitability of existing lines was supposed to be a big part of it. And the comparison with Paris is stark, a result of 19th century cities expanding rapidly in the age of the train. Unfortunately Sydney did its expansion beginning in the inter-war years which became the age of the car, and existing rail plans were abandoned. All the 4 TGV lines go right into the mainline train stations of Paris without any new tunnels or ROWs.

  5. red dog

    Little to no conversation where the money might come from for any substantial changes to rail. Without some sense of how anything might be funded, isn’t all this talk just sci-fi? Might as well be talking about space elevators and new cities on the bottom of the oceans.

    • Alon Levy

      Governments fund rail expansion all the time. In several cases they’ve seriously considered funding maglev, but chosen not to (Germany and China rejected the technology in favor of conventional HSR, Japan rejected giving government funding to the Chuo Shinkansen). And of course JR Central is getting private loans for the Chuo Shinkansen, but again, that’s sui generis.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Unless I’m very wrong the Chuo Shinkansen is now planing to use low-interest loans form the Japanese government. NHK World has covered this project pretty extensively, and I’m a regular daily watcher of its online English broadcasts.

        “The maglev is eventually slated to be extended to Osaka. While JR Tokai initially planned to put the Nagoya-Osaka section into service in 2045, the government plans to help the railway move up the timeline by up to eight years, or 2037 at the earliest, by throwing money at it. JR Tokai has been asked to borrow ¥3 trillion in long-term loans at a fixed interest rate from the government’s zaito fiscal investment and loan program to accelerate work on the extension.”


    • Michael James

      Little to no conversation where the money might come from for any substantial changes to rail.

      What happened to the Trump promised trillion dollars for infrastructure (which actually is not all that much for one four-year term; it is about 1.25% GDP each year)? Just another empty broken promise. But even if he managed to get Congress to approve it, it would be entirely devoted to the kind of mega-road project the big builders and financiers prefer. Because, you know, the answer to road congestion and higher mobility, is always more roads …

      Reminds me, I saw a doco on building the SF East Bay Bridge (replacement). Very impressive but it cost $7 billion. For about 1.5km they say it is probably the most expensive road per km in world history. The 50+km of road/bridge/tunnel across the Pearl River Delta (linking Hong Kong, Zuhai & Macao) is costing about $10bn.
      The other thing about the Bay Bridge: most of the significant parts were built in China and Japan, floated across the Pacific, because the US can’t engineer steel structures that big anymore!

  6. Joseph E

    “…1,000-1,500 km range. This includes city pairs like Beijing-Shanghai, New York-Chicago, Tokyo-Sapporo, Tokyo-Fukuoka, Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, and some international European pairs like Paris-Madrid.”

    Although China has gone with conventional HSR so far, it’s possible to imagine the HSR lines reaching capacity limits between Beijing and Shanghai, due to the high population density, as incomes increase. India will need to build HSR first, and still has a long way to go in economic development.
    Indonesia also has large city-pairs in the 500 km to 1500 km range. Jakarta – Bandung – Semarang – Surabaya – Denpasar (Bali) is about ~1100 km and includes the 3 largest cities in Indonesia and puts stations within 2 hours taxi of 1/2 the population of Java (Pop 140 million). However, the main section from Jakarta to Surabaya is only 400 km, well within conventional HSR distance.

    Heading NW to Sumatra, Jakarta – Bandar Lampung – Palembang – Jambi – Pekanbaru – Medan is about 1500 km and includes the main cities with airports for 3/4 of the island of 50 million people, connecting to about 30 million people in greater Jakarta. This would be less be more expensive per passenger-kilometer, but the main cities are farther apart. Conventional HSR could only reach the first two provinces (Lampung and S. Sumatra) with 18 million people, and would still require an expensive 18 km sea crossing, so this may not be built for the next couple of decades.

    As mentioned in a previous comment, Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne-Adelaide is about 1400 km, and Brisbane is another 800 km from Sydney. A Queensland to South Australia line could reach about half of the 24 million people in Australia with about 2300km of Maglev; perhaps not cost-effective considering the small population.

    In contrast, Greater Shanghai and Greater Beijing have over 50 million people alone; intermediate stops at Tianjin and Nanjing would add almost 20 million more, and the terrain is flat. If any city-pair is worthy of a faster HSR reliever it is this.

    Shanghai – Shenzhen – Hong Kong is also about 1400 km, though the terrain would be more challenging and the population in the Pearl river delta is more decentralized.
    Chengdu (East central China) – Chongquing – Guangzhou – Shenzhen – Hong Kong has over 70 million in the urban areas (Hong Kong is actually the smallest of the 5) and is 1400 km over challenging terrain.

    In India, Delhi to Kolkata is over 1300 km, with several large cities in between, even more so than Delhi to Mumbai. However, it is unclear when India will be developed enough to afford this level of investment.

    • Michael James

      Joseph E we:

      Although China has gone with conventional HSR so far, it’s possible to imagine the HSR lines reaching capacity limits between Beijing and Shanghai, due to the high population density, as incomes increase. India will need to build HSR first, and still has a long way to go in economic development.
      In contrast, Greater Shanghai and Greater Beijing have over 50 million people alone; intermediate stops at Tianjin and Nanjing would add almost 20 million more, and the terrain is flat. If any city-pair is worthy of a faster HSR reliever it is this.

      I’ll have to call your comment brilliant … because I have made the same comment on this site recently. I reckon Shanghai to Beijing will be ripe for a maglev both to relieve its existing HSR congestion, and to reduce the travel time as a premium service (to compete with flying which doubtless will be congesting airports by then too).

      the population in the Pearl river delta is more decentralized.

      Maybe but it has 100m people and is en route to be one of the best connected super-regions on the planet. The Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai 50km bridge across the delta is supposed to open later this year. The HSR line into Hong Kong has just begun construction I believe. Also the Pearl River Delta is developing the way the Beijing and Shanghai super-regions are being planned: a series of satellite cities all connected by fast public transit.

      As to:

      As mentioned in a previous comment, Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne-Adelaide is about 1400 km, and Brisbane is another 800 km from Sydney. A Queensland to South Australia line could reach about half of the 24 million people in Australia with about 2300km of Maglev; perhaps not cost-effective considering the small population.

      Just the cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne are on course to be >20m. Without considering all the intermediate towns and cities (Newcastle, Wollongong, Goulburn, inevitable growth of the NSW coastal regions; this already contains a lot more than half of Oz population and it encompasses all the future growth regions.) And my point is that the cost differential between conventional HSR and maglev, plus the undoubted significantly better performance of maglev over these distances, indicates maglev as the better investment. It’s hard to justify adding HSR to Adelaide (its smallish and in decline, few places en route) and north Queensland is more likely with many cities and towns and a booming mining & tourism industry–but that’s another 1200km, almost the equivalent of Briz to Melbourne! BTW, Brisbane together with Sunshine coast (north) and Gold Coast (south) forming the “200km city” will achieve at least 4m+.
      One thing is for sure, if we ever manage to build HSR we won’t be adding a second system this century. (And after that demographic fate is decline everywhere…).

      • michaelrjames

        I wrote:

        I reckon Shanghai to Beijing will be ripe for a maglev both to relieve its existing HSR congestion, and to reduce the travel time as a premium service (to compete with flying which doubtless will be congesting airports by then too).

        Ahem, less than two years later: (emphases are mine).
        China to build high-speed maglev test line
        CHINA plans to start construction next year of a 200km maglev line in Hubei province to test operation of a prototype maglev train at speeds in excess of 600km/h.
        David Briginshaw, 04 Oct 2019.

        Capacity challange
        China’s Beijing – Shanghai and Beijing – Wuhan – Guangzhou high-speed lines are operating at 82% of capacity with traffic growing strongly. Studies are currently underway to increase the length of high-speed trains on the Beijing – Shanghai from 16 to 17 coaches.
        China sees maglev as a way of relieving the pressure on these lines as well as helping to give it a technological lead. Maglev is also seen as a means to plug the gap between high-speed trains and jet aircraft.
        A preliminary pre-feasibility study report is underway for a Guangzhou – Shenzhen – Hong Kong maglev project together with a pre-feasibility study for a maglev line linking Jinan, with Qufu.

        • michaelrjames

          China is relentlessly marching towards long-distance maglev HSR:

          World’s speediest 600 km/h maglev rolls off assembly line in E. China’s Qingdao
          By GT staff reporters, Jul 20, 2021

          The 600 km/h high-speed maglev transportation system will be more likely first used in Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong and Shanghai-Hangzhou high-speed maglev channels, as the high-quality development of core cities and town clusters along the routes is the decisive factor, said Zhang.
          But Zhao Jian, a professor with Beijing Jiaotong University, said that it is unlikely to export China’s maglev train and relevant technologies in the near future, as other countries lack the scale to make the maglev lines profitable.
          “The maglev lines can earn money only when a network of high-speed transportation is formed, with huge passenger flows,” Zhao told the Global Times on Tuesday.

          • Eric2

            Why use maglev on short lines? Both of those lines are ~1hr by regular HSR, the time savings from maglev will be minimal. The appropriate use of HSR is on long lines, like ~5hr HSR trips which can be reduced to ~3hr maglev trips.

          • michaelrjames


            I agree it reads a bit strange. I’m not sure if it was a Chinglish thing because earlier in the piece they wrote:

            It is the fastest method of surface transportation within the range of 1,500 kilometers, according to a report by the CRRC sent to the Global Times on Tuesday. What is currently a 10-hour high-speed train trip from South China’s Shenzhen to Shanghai will be shortened to only 2.5 hours once a maglev train is built.

            So, possibly they were talking about linking the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong mega-region to the Shanghai-Hangzhou mega-region. Approx. 130 million people. Or possibly they will start with two pilot lines as described before joining the two regions? However the distances are not nothing: Guangzhou to HK and Shanghai to Hangzhou are both about 170km. As it happens I’ve done the Shanghai-Hangzhou trip, and accidentally during rush hour for one leg; before it was HSR, and it was already an intensively used commuter route. It’s why there were plans to extend the Transrapid to Hangzhou via the bay route (ie. from the airport heading south, so a less direct route than the current one which is city-centre to city-centre) as it was almost certain to have had excellent patronage even if a bit more expensive.

  7. Joseph

    Another consideration for faster-than-HSR trains is whether they could compete with hub-and-spoke airline operations. Many people traveling from smaller airports in the midwest would need to travel to Chicago, Atlanta or another airline hub to get to New York-DC-Boston. If the Maglev/Vactrain service is integrated with an airport, airline passengers could transfer to Chicago-NY or Atlanta-NY trains. Similarly, conventional rail services and standard HSR lines might converge on Chicago, Atlanta and NYC, allowing passengers to transfer to many more destinations.
    Successful budget airlines, such as Southwest and Jet Blue, have been offering many more point-to-point flights, but many airline passengers still need to transfer at hubs. Perhaps this could justify a extra-fast line between large hubs, especially Chicago or Atlanta and the NE corridor.
    The key would to have a much faster, more seamless experience in transferring between trains, or from planes to trains, compared to the alternatives at airports.

  8. David P Lubic

    One thing to consider in all of this that a lot of HSR advocates, and I would say especially the tube advocates, seem to miss–how much speed do you really need?

    When trains were first introduced, say the 1850s, you had average speeds in the 25 mph range. That sounds slow today, and the schedule then would look like a local service today, but it was a huge improvement on the 20 miles per day that was considered excellent traveling before any sort of powered conveyance came available.

    By the 1890s or so, you had a demand for true express services, “limited” trains, which might average 40 mph or somewhat better, thanks to limited numbers of stops; this was a demand created by an expanded economy of that time, which included businessmen who, then as now, were in a hurry. The locals that stopped everywhere still averaged 25 mph.

    Competition helped edge speeds up a little bit, but the real spur to faster running started in the 1920s. This was as automobile ownership was taking off, and there were enough paved roads to allow in some cases for you to average about 25 mph, the same as the locals. As you can imagine, the locals, the branch line trains, and local transit services were the first to feel this pressure, but the main line trains, now averaging about 50 mph, were still doing fine.

    This relationship still held into the 1930s and into the early 1950s. Driving on roads like Route 66 or US 1, you could average about 100 miles in three hours, and if you drive on those now secondary roads today, still going through the middle of all those small towns, you still average about the same speed today. Again, the main liners, averaging 50 to 60 mph, with top speeds in the 70 to 80 mph range, were sill doing relatively well.

    The bottom for railroads fell out starting in the 1950s. Jet airplanes hugely reduced flight times for really long distances (travel on piston airliners, while remembered as glamorous, was also much slower than most realize, and accompanied by a considerable level of noise and vibration from the engines), but the big killer was new, and at that time, relatively uncrowded superhighways. Suddenly it was now possible to drive faster than the trains, including in markets such as Boston-New York and Washington-Richmond. This was when things turned poorly for the main liners, which were still averaging about 50 to 60 mph.

    Of course, that was then. Today you hear squawks about how the Acela averages “only 79 mph,” but that’s a good deal faster than driving. More recently, Amtrak was able to extend services from Washington, DC to Lynchburg, Va. This service, averaging the old 60 mph or so, is profitable operationally–and apparently because, for some reason, there is no direct Interstate highway paralleling the rail route. The train, still in the older speed range, retains its speed advantage.

    This Lynchburg service, by the way, is supposed to be extended to Roanoke, Va. in the near future. I’m looking forward to taking a ride on it; it’s a scenic route.

    • Alon Levy

      The Acela’s speed indeed needs an “only” in front of it. It hits an average speed of 110 km/h end-to-end, on a top speed of 240 (you can be pedantic and argue 220 because that’s the maximum south of Rhode Island, but eh, it was designed for 240). It’s about comparable to the 160 km/h trains that HSR here replaced, and slower than the 200 km/h trains in Sweden and the UK (where the average is ~140), what Anonymouse in comments here calls normal-speed rail.

      You hint at the reason why higher speed is necessary: competition. In the 1890s it was competition between steam roads. Today it’s competition with cars and planes. At Northeast Corridor or California HSR scale, cars are the biggest competitor, and being just a little faster is not enough. It’s faster to take the train from Boston to New Brunswick, NJ with a transfer at Penn Station than to drive, but the difference isn’t enough to justify ticket fares (esp. for a group – there were three of us in the car). At the outer end, like Boston-Washington or maybe LA-SF, planes are also significant (Boston-Washington is the 6th busiest air city pair in the US as of a few years ago) – who would take a 7-hour train when the planes do it in an hour? Even 5-hour trains have trouble competing.

      At the scale I’m discussing here for maglev and faster technologies, the point is that planes already exist for NY-Chicago, NY-Miami, NY-LA, etc. So it’s worth asking whether there’s technology that enables trains to be competitive at that scale – and whether such technology is economically feasible.

      • electricangel

        The fares are really egregious. Take an Acela NYC-dC for hundreds, or a bus for as little as $5? The Acela will save you an hour travel and is usually pretty timely. Going with a group? Take the bus or a car.

        Of course, tolls for a car between D.C. And NYC can pay for 4 bus tickets. I think the RT in toll costs comes to $75, and then there is gas on top of that.

  9. Chad Newton

    A topic not addressed in this post or comment thread is climate change.

    Air travel is a high carbon activity, for which carbon-neutral adaptations are unlikely. Air travel will become much more restricted or expensive later this century. This means that high-speed rail networks of all sorts will be much more important at longer distances. Maglev can travel at about one-half the speed of aircraft, and becomes competitive even over very long distances (like 12 hours from LA to NY) if airfare is simply not affordable.

    • Alon Levy

      There are some mitigations for air travel, like using more fuel-efficient planes. Late-model planes average 30-45 seat-km per liter of jet fuel (see Wikipedia). The airlines and the manufacturers are constantly trying to reduce fuel consumption, because fuel is such a large proportion of variable costs, way more so than labor.

  10. Michael James

    St Petersberg, September 2018?
    I don’t know what got me on their mailing list but this dropped into my inbox:

    The MAGLEV 2018 Conference
    Russia, St. Petersburg
    September 5th till September 7th, 2018

    I assume it has dropped into yours as well. Should try to get yourself invited as an urbanist (hah, maybe that is why you wrote this article! I know that is what I would do.)

    Here is (part 1) of the proceedings of their 2016 conference:

    Click to access MAGLEV_Bd1.pdf

    Publishing info: (not on Amazon; only available from publisher):
    (1) Maglev Solutions for People, Cities, and Regions? MAGLEV 2016 Volume 1 of 2 – Technological Research and Development –The International Maglev Board (editor) ISBN 9 783940 685285 – Euro 49,00
    (2) Maglev Solutions for People, Cities, and Regions? MAGLEV 2016 Volume 2 of 2 – Maglev Projects, Implementations and Impacts The International Maglev Board (editor) ISBN 9 783940 685285 – Euro 39,00

    A lot of it is technical (ie. for engineers rather than urbanists) but some intriguing titles, eg. relevant to this blog (along with Chinglish typos; most of the participants appear to be Chinese or Japanese):

    Chapter 3. A multidimensonal Examination of Prefomences of the Future advanced Transport Systems: The ETT (Evacuated Tube Transport) TRM (Transrapid MAGLEV) System 25 by Milan Janić

    Chapter 17. Research on A New Type of Medium-low Speed Maglev train Negotiating Curve of 50m Radius 170 by Junxiong HU, Weihua Ma

    Chapter 24. Design of Guideway Switch in Changsha Medium and Low-speed Maglev Project 215 by Guofeng Zeng, Yihong Yuan, Wen Jl, Feng Ye, Guoqiang Wang

    Dare I say that some of these things are suggestive of some things I have speculated about, eg: hints at more efficient, lower cost, faster construction, longer spans?:

    Chapter 30. Application of New Integrated Girder In Shanghai Maglev Line 263 by Feng Ye, Guofeng Zeng, Yihong Yuan, Guoqiang Wang, Qing Lv, Yimin Zhu, Zhiwei Zhu

    And this: I once suggested on an Australian aviation site, that one could lose the 20 tonnes (or whatever big pax aircraft wheel assemblies are), and thus have enormous fuel savings on long flights (plus savings on takeoff) by using …. well as this appears to hint at; someone said this kind of thing has been speculated about deep inside the Airbus skunkworks:
    Chapter 15. Preliminary Design of the Magplane MagTrain System 152 by Jiarong Fang, D. Bruce Montgomery, Stephen J. Kochan, Magplane Technology, Inc.

  11. Michael James

    There are quite a few contributions on low-speed urban systems (beyond airport people-movers):

    Chapter 24. (Book 1) Design of Guideway Switch in Changsha Medium and Low-speed Maglev Project 215 by Guofeng Zeng, Yihong Yuan, Wen Jl, Feng Ye, Guoqiang Wang.

    Chapter 2. (Book 2) The Experimental Line of the MagLev-Cobra Project for Urban Transportation 17 by Richard Stephan, Felipe Costa, Rubens de Andrade Jr., Antônio Carlos Ferreira, Elkin Rodriguez

  12. yorksranter

    Conventional HSR can limit costs by climbing steeper grades than legacy trains

    Huh. Huh. I had assumed it was more the opposite – the whole project was about pouring concrete and digging tunnels until you got a flat, straight alignment.

    • Alon Levy

      No, it’s the exact opposite! High-speed trains have powerful motors, and they run at 300 km/h when they start climbing so if they lose a little bit of speed when they climb 100 meters over 2.5 km, it’s not a big deal. They usually have more tunnels because the alignment needs to be straight, but it doesn’t need to be flat. Japan doesn’t make use of this (Shinkansen ruling grade is 1.5-2%), and I think neither does China, but over here it’s standard, and I imagine the HS2 engineers learned their specs from here and Germany and not from Japan.

  13. Michael James

    Dropped into my email in-box today:
    Maglev 2018 Conference, St. Petersburg, 1st Call for Papers
    Call for Abstracts / Papers / Posters
    November 2017: 1st Call for Papers.
    December 2018: Early Bird Registration starts
    February 10, 2018: Deadline for submission of abstracts.
    February 20, 2018: Notification of successful abstracts.
    March 1, 2018: Early-Bird registration ends.
    August 10, 2018: Deadline for submission of final papers.


    High-speed maglev
    Urban maglev
    Cargo maglev
    Magnetic Levitation and Guidance in Transport
    Energy Storage and Supply
    Linear motors
    Superconductors, application of superconductivity
    Permanent magnets
    Guideway and Infrastructure Technologies
    Reliability, Safety and Operational Control
    Maglev Elevators and Escalators; Magnetic Bearings, Maglev Wind Turbines
    New Ideas on Levitating Device Applications.
    Standardization issues
    Economical aspects of Maglev
    Health and environmental issues (electromagnetic fields, noise, vibrations)
    Influence on regional and urban development, architecture
    Transport policy issues, maglev marketing, aspects of transport psychology
    History of development of maglev transport
    Project status reports

    • Alon Levy

      If you got a mass email about this conference, it’s a vanity conference trying to get people to pay registration fees for trash.

      • Michael James

        Of course, but most conferences are always scrabbling for funds. I haven’t looked at the costs of this one as obviously I won’t be going. But if you look at past Proceedings it does appear to be a serious conference (in fact perhaps too techno–mostly engineers), and it is an interesting time for all kinds of maglev technology (elevators, travelators, low-speed urban as well as high-speed intercity transport etc; not to mention fancy rail-guns in starwars scenarios). If I were you I’d write to them and try to score a freebie (low likelihood but gotta be in to win; sometimes they want someone with different angle to the usual–and actually you never know with this kind of thing, it might be sponsored by the Russian military or industry…. ie. they might have a budget.)

        I once found out about a conference with only a week to go, so faxed a potential presentation to the organiser and he telephoned me (at 3am in Paris! typical American) and invited me, and paid for everything. At the conference (in an area of my PhD but that was years in the past) at Newport Beach CA, I met the top statistical geneticist in Paris (a Canadian) who offered me a job after my presentation (he probably didn’t understand much of it as it was leftfield relative to the conference) and that is why I moved from Villejuif cancer institute to the soon-to-be-illustrious CEPH (Centre d’Etude du Polymorphism Humain, in Hopital St Louis) and jumped feet first into the Human Genome Project and related exciting projects.

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