Yesterday, I tweeted this proposal for a high-speed rail network for the eastern half of the United States:
I’d like to go over what the map means and address questions that have appeared on Twitter.
The color scheme
Red denotes high-speed lines, with a top speed in the 300-360 km/h range, not including the occasional enforced slow zone. The average speed would be around 225-250 km/h in the Northeast, where the routes are all compromised by existing infrastructure, and 300 km/h in the Midwest, where flat expanses and generous rail rights-of-way into the major cities should allow the same average speeds achieved in China. The South is intermediate, due to the rolling terrain and extensive suburban sprawl in the Piedmont.
Yellow denotes high-speed lines as well, but they are more marginal (in the linked tweet this is purple, but yellow is friendlier to the colorblind). This means that I expect much lower social return on investment there, so whether these lines could succeed depends on the price of fuel, trends in urban sprawl, and construction costs within the normal first-world range. Some of these lines, namely Atlanta-New Orleans and the connection from Savannah to Jacksonville, should be legacy lines if HSR does not pan out; others, like Kansas City-Oklahoma City, are unlikely to be worth it.
Blue denotes legacy lines that are notable for the network. It does not include the entire set of legacy intercity lines the US should be running, but does include all lines that I believe should get through-service to high-speed lines; but note that some lines, like Minneapolis-Duluth and Charleston-Greenville, do not have through-service. Some of these lines are potentially very strong, like New Haven-Springfield as a Northeast Corridor extension. Others are marginal, like Binghamton-Syracuse, which Adirondacker has recurrently criticized in comments on the grounds that New York-Syracuse is much faster on HSR and the intermediate cities are too small to justify more than a bus.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Some of the alignments may not be optimal, and one of the red lines, Albany-Montreal, can plausibly be reclassified as yellow due to the weakness of travel markets from the United States to Montreal.
The schedules I’m proposing are fast – all faster than in Germany and Italy, many faster than in France and Spain. The reason for this is the long expanses between American cities. Germany and Italy have high population density, which is in theory good for HSR, but in practice means the closely-spaced cities yield lines with a lot of route compromises. In Britain people who advocate for the construction of High Speed 2 complain that England’s population density is too high, making it harder to build lines through undeveloped areas (that is, farms) between big cities the way France and Spain did.
Out of New York, the target trip times are:
- Boston: 1:40
- Philadelphia: 0:40
- Washington: 1:35
- Albany: 0:55, an hour minus half a turnaround time, useful for Swiss run-trains-as-fast-as-necessary timetabling
- Syracuse: 1:50
- Rochester: 2:25
- Buffalo: 2:45
- Toronto: 3:20
- Harrisburg: 1:20
- Pittsburgh: 2:30
- Cleveland: 3:10
- Richmond: 2:15
- Raleigh: 3:10
- Charlotte: 4:05
- Atlanta: 5:30
- Birmingham: 6:15, probably no direct service from New York except at restricted times of day, but hourly or 30-minute service to Atlanta
Out of Chicago, they are:
- Milwaukee: 0:30
- Minneapolis: 2:30
- St. Louis: 1:30
- Kansas City: 2:50
- Indianapolis: 0:55
- Cincinnati: 1:30
- Louisville: 1:35
- Nashville: 2:35
- Atlanta: 4:00
- Toledo: 1:15
- Detroit: 1:35
- Toronto: 2:55
- Cleveland: 1:50
- Buffalo: 2:50
For the most part, there should be a stop in each metropolitan area. What counts as a metropolitan area remains a question; truly multicore regions can get one stop per core, for example there should definitely be a stop in Newark in addition to New York, and South Florida should have individual stops for Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. On the Northeast Corridor, what I think the optimal express stopping pattern is is one stop per state, with additional local trains making some extra stops like New London, Stamford, New Rochelle, and Trenton; Wilmington can be a local or an express stop – whether the infrastructure required to skip it at speed is worth it is a close decision.
On most lines, multiple stopping patterns are unlikely to be worth it. The frequency wouldn’t be high in the first place; moreover, the specific stations that are likely candidates for local stops are small and medium-size cities with mostly short-range travel demand, so serving them on a train stopping less than hourly is probably not going to lead to high ridership. Among the lines coming out of Chicago, the only one where I’m comfortable prescribing multiple stopping patterns is the one headed east toward Cleveland and Detroit.
Another consideration in the stop spacing is where most passengers are expected to travel. If there is a dominant city pair, then it can get express trains, which is the justification for express trains on the Northeast Corridor and on Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-Cleveland. However, in Upstate New York, there is no such dominant city pair: travel demand from New York to Toronto is not much more than to Buffalo (the air travel market is around a million people annually, whereas New York-Buffalo is 600,000) even though Toronto is a lot bigger, so there’s little point in skipping Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo to speed up end-to-end trips.
Ultimately, stops don’t cost that much time. In 360 km/h territory, a late-model Shinkansen has a stop penalty of a little under 3 minutes excluding dwell time – figure about 4 minutes with dwell. Those minutes add up on short-range lines with a lot of stops, but as long as it’s restricted to about a stop every 150 km or more in high-speed territory, this should be fine.
Highland gaps in service
Several people on Twitter complained about the lack of service to West Virginia and Arkansas. West Virginia is a politically distinguished part of the US nowadays, a metonym for white working-class decline centered on the coal industry, and as a result people notice it more than they do Midwestern poverty, let alone Southern or Western poverty. Poor cities are often served by red lines on my map, if they are between larger cities: Youngstown and Bowling Green are both noticeably poorer than Charleston, West Virginia, and Lafayette, Killeen-Temple, and Erie are barely richer. In the West, not depicted on my map, Pueblo, Chico, and Redding are all as poor as Charleston and are on standard wishlists for upgraded legacy rail while Tucson is a hair poorer and probably should get a full HSR extension of Los Angeles-Phoenix.
The reason Appalachia is underserved is the highland topography. Construction costs go up sharply once tunnels are needed; the route through Pennsylvania connects New York and Philadelphia with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, which are big enough urban centers to justify the expense, but additional routes would connect smaller cities. Washington awkwardly gets poor service to the Midwest; a yellow line between Baltimore and Harrisburg may be prudent, but a blue line is not, since the legacy line is so curvy that a high-speed detour through Philadelphia would still be faster. The Piedmont South gets a red line parallel to the mountains and some branches, but nothing that justifies going over the mountains.
Legacy rail additions are still plausible. Amtrak connects Charleston with Cincinnati in 5 hours, but cutting this to about 3.5 should probably be feasible within existing right-of-way, provided CSX does not mind faster passenger rail on its tracks; thence, Chicago-Cincinnati would take around 1.5 hours. However, the negotiations with CSX may be difficult given the line’s use by slow, heavy freight; the blue lines shown on my map are mostly not important freight mainlines.
In Arkansas, the question is whether a line to Little Rock is justifiable. The yellow route between Atlanta and Dallas could plausible detour north through Memphis and Little Rock instead of the depicted direct alignment; Atlanta-Dallas is about the same distance as New York-Chicago, a trip of about 5 hours, so the line would have to survive based on intermediate markets, making the less direct route better. On the other hand, Memphis and Little Rock are small, and while Atlanta and Dallas are big, they’re nowhere near the size of New York, and have very weak centers, encouraging driving rather than riding paid transportation whether it’s a train or plane.
Regional rail additions
As I said above, the blue line list is not intended to be exhaustive. I suspect it is exhaustive among long-range intercity lines, not counting yellow routes like Dallas-Oklahoma City or Atlanta-New Orleans. I was specifically asked about Amtrak’s City of New Orleans route, connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, since there is no trace of it on the map beyond the Chicago-St. Louis HSR. There could certainly be a high-speed line down to Memphis, which would place the city around 3 hours from Chicago. However, Memphis is not a large city; St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans have all stagnated in the last hundred years, making them weaker candidates for HSR than they were for legacy rail in the postwar era.
In contrast with the deliberate omission of the City of New Orleans routes, there are many regional lines that could be added. In the Northeast, a number of lines are every bit as valuable candidates for a national map as Boston-Portland, including Boston-Cape Cod, Boston-Manchester, New York-Allentown, Philadelphia-Allentown, and maybe Syracuse-Watertown with a timed HSR connections. Boston-Portland could have through-service to the Northeast Corridor or it could not, depending on timetabling in the North-South Rail Link tunnel; my current position is that it should only have through-service to other regional lines, but it’s a close decision.
Outside the Northeast there may be strong in-state networks. I showed the one in South Carolina since it substitutes for lines that I think are just a little too weak to even be in yellow, connecting North Carolina directly with Jacksonville, as well as the one in Wisconsin, based on through-service to HSR to Chicago. But Michigan can have an in-state network, either electrified or unelectrified, connecting cities orthogonally to HSR, and maybe also an electrified spine running the current Wolverines route with through-service to HSR. Indiana can have interregional lines from Indianapolis to outlying cities, but there would need to be more stuff in the center of Indianapolis for such service to attract drivers. Florida has some decent regional lines, even with how unusually weak-centered its cities are, for example Tampa-St. Petersburg and Tampa-Sarasota.
In a few places, the alignment is either vague or questionable. In the Northeast the biggest question is whether to serve Hartford on the mainline. I dealt with that issue years ago, and my answer has not changed: probably not. The second biggest is which alignment to take across the Appalachians in Pennsylvania; this requires a detailed engineering survey and the line I drew is merely a placeholder, since further design is required to answer questions about the precise costs and benefits of serving intermediate cities like State College and Altoona.
By far the biggest criticism I’ve gotten about macro alignment concerns how to get between the Midwest and the Northeast. The alignment I drew connects Chicago with points east via Cleveland. Due to the decline of Cleveland and slow growth of Columbus in its stead, multiple people have posited that it’s better to draw the red line well to the south, passing via Fort Wayne and Columbus. This would give Columbus fast service to Chicago, in not much more than 1:30, and also connect Pittsburgh better with Columbus, Cincinnati, and plausibly Louisville.
The problem with the Columbus route is that Detroit exists. The drawn alignment connects Pittsburgh with Detroit in about 1:35 and New York with Detroit in about 4:05, in addition to the fast connection to Chicago. A legacy connection in Fort Wayne would slow Chicago-Detroit to about 2:50, nearly doubling the trip time between the Midwest’s two largest cities; it would lengthen New York-Detroit to around 6 hours via Pennsylvania; the route via Canada would take a little more than 4 hours, but might not even exist without the ability to connect it west to Chicago – Canadian HSR studies are skeptical about the benefits of just Toronto-Windsor.
In contrast, the new city pairs opened by the Columbus alignment, other than Chicago-Columbus, involve small, weak-centered cities. Detroit is extremely weak-centered as well, but Chicago and New York are not, which means that suburban drivers will still drive to the train station to catch a ride to Chicago or New York if HSR is available; in contrast, city pairs like Pittsburgh-Cincinnati are very unlikely to get substantial rail mode share without completely revamping the way the geography of jobs in American cities is laid out.
Changing the geography of the nation
In one of the interminable Green New Deal papers, there was some comment about having HSR obviate the need for air travel. This proposition is wrong and misses what makes HSR work here and in Japan, South Korea, and China. The median distance of a domestic American air trip is well above the point beyond which HSR stops being competitive with air travel.
Counting only city pairs at a plausible HSR range of around 4-5 hours, maybe a bit more for New York-Atlanta, my estimate is that about 20-25% of domestic US air trips can be substituted by rail. This excludes city pairs at plausible HSR distance on which there will never be any reason to build HSR, like El Paso-Albuquerque, Minneapolis-Denver, and Charlotte-Columbus. Higher-end estimates, closer to 25% than to 20%, require all the yellow lines and a few more, as well as relying on some long-range city pairs that happen to be on the way of relatively direct HSR and have no direct air traffic.
However, the fact that people will continue flying until vactrains are invented does not make HSR useless or unnecessary. After all, people fly within Europe all the time, even within individual countries like France. Not only do people fly within Japan, but also the country furnishes two of the world’s top air routes in Tokyo-Sapporo and Tokyo-Fukuoka. As an alternative at its optimum range of under about 1,000 km, HSR remains a solid mode of travel.
Moreover, HSR has a tendency to change the geography of the nation. In France and Japan, it’s helped cement the capital’s central location in national economic geography. Tokyo and Paris are the world’s top two cities in Fortune Global 500 headquarters, not because those cities have notable economic specialization like New York but because a large company in Japan and France will usually be headquartered in the capital.
The likely impact of HSR on the US is different, because the country is too big for a single city’s network. However, the Midwest is likely to become a more tightly integrated network focused on Chicago, Texas and Florida are likely to have tighter interconnections between their respective major cities, and the links between the Piedmont South and the Northeast are likely to thicken. HSR cannot supplant air travel at long distances, but it can still create stronger travel volumes within its service range, such that overall trip numbers will be much higher than those of air travel, reducing the latter’s relative importance.