Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Sep 22nd 2009 at 10:30am UTC

Where High Speed Rail Makes the Most Sense

The ongoing debate over high-speed rail generates heated passions on all sides. Those opposed see high-speed rail as too costly and the U.S. as lacking the density to make the numbers work. Those in favor argue that high-speed rail is a way to move the U.S. to smarter, more energy-efficient transportation alternatives. My own take is that high-speed rail offers a mechanism to both expand and intensify the use of urban space leading to what geographers call a new “spatial fix” – required, I would add, to spur long-run economic recovery.

Here’s some useful analysis by America 2050 which can help advance the dialogue. Its new  report uses six factors – population, economic output, distance between cities, quality of local transit networks, highway congestion, and mega-region designation – to rank the top 50 routes across the U.S. (via Planetizen and Infrastructurist).

high speed rail routes.gif

16 Responses to “Where High Speed Rail Makes the Most Sense”

  1. Michael Wells Says:

    Yeah, but this is really a half dozen routes.

    Numbers 1,2,3,4,6,9 & 12 are Boston-Washington.
    Numbers 5,7,8 & 18 are San Diego-San Francisco (except San Jose is a spur off of SF, since the route will have to go inland.)
    Numbers 11,13,16,19,20,21,24 & 25 are roughly Minneapolis-New York.

    My favorite of course is #29, Portland (or Eugene) to Seattle to Vancouver, BC.

  2. Buzzcut Says:

    The Chicago runs are almost no brainers. You could add Chicago-Milwaukee (making Milwaukee a defacto ‘burb of Chicago), Chicago-Rockford (ditto), and Chicago-Indianapolis. If you like Chicago-Detroit, why not Chicago-Cleveland?

    The biggest issue, as always, is cost. I live at the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan, and Amtrak runs almost right outside my front door. There’s simply no way that high speed trains are going to share freight lines with at-grade crossings in suburban and urban neighborhoods. Citizens are simply not going to stand for it.

    Then you start talking about dedicated lines, with no grade crossings, and the costs simply skyrocket.

    The country is bankrupt. Where is the money going to come from?

    There are plenty of abandoned rails in the region, but most have become, or are becoming, bike trails. I’d like to see the furor that would erupt if one of the trails were siezed for high speed rail! Bike nuts vs. train nerds, oh my!

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    BTW, I see Amtrak trains everyday. Their rolling stock is maybe from the ’60s, some actually looks quite a bit older. The engines are generally sleek and modern (GE lobbying at work, no doubt).

    New railcars alone would make the service much more attractive. Nobody wants to feel like they’re riding in a rolling ghetto, which pretty much sums up Amtrak at this time.

  4. Cliff Lippard Says:

    I have been trying to make the case for a connector route from Louisville through Nashville to either Atlanta or Birmingham. Though the Louisville and Nashville metros are still less than 2 million in population, this route could save valuable time connecting the Chicago and Atlanta mega-regions.

  5. Deep Says:

    Once we get an established high speed rail in this country, the next step would be to link it up with Canada. I am sure we can have a train that goes from New York to Montreal in less than 12 hours-that includes 2 hours at the border.

    Given that less than 10% of our transportation budget goes to rail transportation, I am sure we can find the funds to fund this project. Yes that would require cuts in auto transportation’s portion of the budget, which is where the overwhelming majority of government funds go to.

  6. Buzzcut Says:

    Given that less than 10% of our transportation budget goes to rail transportation, I am sure we can find the funds to fund this project.

    You’re sure of nothing. Given that true high speed rail, with dedicated lines and no at-grade crossings, cost upwards of a billion euros per kilometer in Spain for the Madrid to Barcelona line, we’re talking about big bucks here to get us to European standards.

    Highways are paid for by gas taxes and airports are paid for with user fees. Rail doesn’t have a dedicated stream of income. Baring that, I don’t see how this gets done.

    Maybe you could charge a tax on rail freight and dedicate it to high speed rail. Justify it as the cost of getting passenger trains off of freight tracks, or something.

  7. Nik Kondratieff Says:

    High Speed Rail is a red herring. Sure, those city pairs are obvious candidates for HSR, but it’s less important for our environment, improving our transportation, stimulating the economy (construction), and creating long term sustainable jobs (access to labor markets) than REGIONAL RAIL would be. But NO ONE is talking about Regional Rail.

    That’s what is really needed. Everyone looks at Europe as a better rail system and points to the ICE, EuroStar, TGV, and other high speed solutions. But what they (you) fail to realize is the regional feeders to all those systems are the foundation upon which HSR is built.

    So, HSR gets the press instead of Regional Rail. You want effective and substantive policy that promotes long term economic growth? the dialogue should be about Regional Rail.


  8. Fred Says:

    Nik is right on. There are thousands of potential almost shovel ready grade seperation projects that will allow faster, safer regional rail. It would make sense to first undertake these projects along the corridors that link major city pairs and to make sure the bridges and / or underpasses that are built will be wide enough to also allow high speed rail to be placed along side the regional tracks.

  9. Buzzcut Says:

    Actually, Nik, that’s why Chicago is such a natural HSR hub. It has an excellent rail system that brings lines from the entire region either into the same station that Amtrak uses, or ones close by.

    Now, once you get to Detroit or Cleveland, you’re screwed. Good luck getting to where you want to go from downtown Detroit without a car.

  10. RS Says:

    Good points, being orignially from Cleveland I can vouch for that being the case there for sure. However, what about a system of connectivity via their best and most under used resource… the Great Lakes.

    Seems like that would be the cheapest and coolest way (maybe not all that speedy but who knows) to get around the broader Great Lakes region. Furthermore, the lakes are the best thing that region has going for them, and getting people on them would open their eyes to how cool they really are.

  11. Wendy Waters Says:

    I agree that a first step is good local/regional rail connections. Otherwise, how do you get to and from the train station?

    It will be like most airports in North America, you take a motor vehicle to get there, fly quickly to your destination, and get in another motor vehicle.

    Trains might be more ecologically pleasing than planes, and cheaper, but adding fast train routes without having the urban metro-rail infrastructure will likely just result in the discontinuation of some short-haul air passenger services, but no real change to how we think about moving between and within cities.

  12. Michael Wells Says:

    A few issues here.

    Yes, local/regional rail would be good, but which comes first? Something needs to be built to encourage the other and I’d argue for getting started on high speed, then metro areas will work on their own local systems. High speed rail will be expensive but it’s decades overdue, will contribute enormously to the economy and probably pay for itself through productivity, and will take a decade or two to build. Ike’s interstate highway system took from the 50’s until the ’70’s or longer.

    The Northeast route is obvious. Boston, NYC, Philly & DC all have good subway systems and commuter rail. The whole region is dense and needs new transport. There’s already some decent intercity rail and people use it. So building high speed here first is a no-brainer.

    California isn’t as easy. SF & the Bay Area have BART and good transit systems and are fairly dense. But LA-San Diego are so spread out that local/regional rail won’t be a factor in the next few decades. On the other hand, So Cal has close to 5% of the national population so it needs to be connected to the Bay Area and probably Sacramento. And unless its been dropped, Californians committed a bunch of their own money to getting started.

    After the Northeast and California, it becomes more problematic and long range.

    Chicago has good transit and rail as I remember, but I’m not sure about the other cities it would connect with.

    Portland is developing a good rail system and has decent bus service, Seattle lags on rail and I’m not sure about Vancouver. But high speed rail would add enormously to the region’s productivity connecting three creative class cities that are a little too close to fly and too far to drive.

    Most of the rest seem to just connect two isolated cities so I’m not sure about them. Let the Casinos build the Las Vegas line, it really has no other purpose.

    And I’d add Canada, at least Vancouver and Toronto. On the other border, I don’t think there are big enough cities in Northern Mexico to make high-speed work.

  13. Readings: Tuesday 29 September 2009 GregorWeekly Says:

    [...] Where High Speed Rail Makes the Most Sense: Richard Florida, Creative Class. [...]

  14. sacha davilak Says:

    Without effective public transportation in the connected communities, high speed rail will not work. Getting to the city is only half the problem, getting around the city is the other half. People won’t use it if they can’t get around once they arrive at their destination and will still drive instead.

  15. Randall S. Barros Says:

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