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How to build high-speed rail? Start thinking “inside the box”

January 19, 2021

A guest post from Fritz Plous

Have you learned how to think outside the box?

That’s what we’re all supposed to be doing now, you know.  

“Think outside the box” and “Color outside the lines” are all the rage in management-speak.  Best-selling books and TED talks urge us to shun convention and embrace “disruptive” thinking.

Learning to love the box again

But there are certain situations when outside-the-box thinking is exactly the wrong way to approach a problem. Some problems actually benefit from a conventional, unadventurous approach that stays inside the lines and trundles steadily forward following well worn ruts.

And passenger trains are one of them. America lacks good passenger trains because Americans keep trying to use outside-the-box thinking to solve an inside-the-box problem.

The Box rail needs to be in

What exactly is this “Box” that passenger trains need?

Policy. Established, successful, time-honored U.S. transportation policy. Cars and planes are in it; passenger trains have been left outside.Few realize it, but the United States has a standard set of policies and procedures--a “Box” if you will--for creating modern transportation systems. It’s been used three times in the last 105 years, and each time the Box proved successful. America has built two modern nationwide highway systems and an advanced network of airports and airways, and all three owe their success to the Box.

But the Box has never been used to establish a U.S. passenger-train system, and failure to put passenger-train planning and finance into the same Box as highways and civil aviation has condemned passenger trains to punch below their weight  class. To become successful, passenger trains must now have access tobe put into the same policy Box as highways and civil aviation and given the same attention and resources that made the other modes successful.

Transportation innovation? There’s an app for that: a big federal program.

What is this Box, and what is inside the Box that makes it so effective?

Big federal infrastructure programs. The successful and admired elements in U.S. transportation--our highways, our airports and the Air Traffic Control system--are the result of three giant federally sponsored programs that Congress enacted to tie the nation together with modern mobility technologies. These federal programs constitute the Policy Box that keeps Americans on the move. 

The “Box” was hammered together between 1916 and 1956 when the U.S. acknowledged three fundamental principles:

1. No matter how advanced, exciting andor attractive new vehicles and propulsion technologies might be, they won’t achieve their potential as practical transportation without a modern, nationwide infrastructure.

2. Only the federal government has the money to finance a modern infrastructure.

3. Only the federal government has the authority and the resources to plan a truly national infrastructure that connects and serves all of the Lower 48 contiguous states with a modern transportation infrastructure.

A brief history of the Box
The national network of grade-separated, high-speed highways was agreed to in 1947 and funded in 1956.

• The Box was first used in 1916 when, after four decades of debate, discussion and dithering, Congress agreed to fund 42,000 miles of modern, hard-surfaced, two-lane highways connecting all the principal cities in the nation. The automobile no longer was a novelty, and auto ownership was growing, but intercity auto travel was impossible because the country lacked modern, hard-surfaced highways linked into a coherent national system. So Congress appropriated $75 million, the states contributed a $75-million match, the federal government drew the map, developed the construction standards and  route-numbering system, and the states hired the contractors and inspectors. When the system was finished in 1929 the roads became the property of the states (and driving became the new national pastime).  That’s The Road Box: federal funding and planning, state ownership and control (and a new mode of transportation becomes popular and successful).

• The same formula was followed between 1956 and 1976 when the original road system was supplemented with the high-speed, grade-separated, 4-lane Interstate highways, --except that this time Congress provided 90 per cent of the funding, with the states contributing 10 per cent. Despite their much smaller share of the financing, however, the states again took ownership and control of the new roads.  The Box was growing, and the new Interstates gave the U.S. economy a shot in the arm that still hasn’t worn off 65 years later.

• The Box was used a third time in 1956 when the Eisenhower administration reluctantly agreed with Congress that commercial air transportation needed a big federal program to plan and finance a modern civil-aviation infrastructure to replace outdated airports and a fragmented, poorly equipped, municipally owned set of control towers.  Congress established the Federal Aviation Administration to plan a network and administer federal grants so cities could build modern airports with long runways to accommodate jet airliners.  To assure safety, the FAA funded Instrument Landing Systems to permit all-weather and night operation at each airport, and Congress awarded the FAA grants to build control towers and radar-equipped, computerized Air Traffic Control centers to manage the growing flow of traffic safely from airport to airport. FAA personnel were trained to operate the new system. Much as the federal government funded highways that became the property of the states, ownership of the federally funded  airports was vested in the cities (with the feds owning the traffic-control system outright).

Thus The Box: federal funding and planning of a modern infrastructure with operation, control and maintenance in the hands of another party (except for the FAA control towers, still owned and operated by the FAA).

Now fast-forward to 2021. How can that Box be expanded to develop a modern, high-performance U.S. passenger-train network? How do we put passenger trains into the federal-policy and financing Box when almost all the tracks are owned by private railroad corporations?

New thinking in the Old Dominion

The first signs already have appeared in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will use federal grants to buy, state money and turnpike revenues to buy up empty space on one side of CSX Corporation’s 126-mile right of way between Washington and Richmond. On that unused space Virginia will build its own track for the exclusive use of passenger trains.

It’s a win-win proposition: the Commonwealth gets a separate, high-performance track engineered for fast, frequent passenger trains, while moving the passenger trains over to their own track frees up the two CSX tracks so the railroad can run more freight trains. Because a typical passenger train can take up as many as six freight-train “slots,” CSX’s freight tracks get lots of new capacity.

The “Virginia Plan” is not a total solution.  It's welcome as it is, however, the “Virginia Plan” is way too modest to serve as a true national model.  The budget permits only about 19 miles of new track—less than a sixth of the full distance between Washington and Richmond--to be built in the first six years of the project, and full development of all the route’s amenities may need to wait until 2036.

Moreover, none of the planned amenities addresses the need to eliminate highway grade crossings, a central element in any effort to create modern passenger-rail infrastructure.  Federal Railroad Administration regulations limit passenger-train speeds to less than 125 mph unless highway crossings are grade separated from the railroad tracks. The Virginia plan focuses largely on getting passenger trains out of the way of freight trains—which is good—but it does not yet address the equally important need to get motor vehicles out of the way of all trains by eliminating all street and highway grade crossings and replacing the busiest ones with grade separations. That would require the participation of the Federal Highway Administration (which would require that big federal program we don’t have yet) with the task of separating trains from motor vehicles. That task is unlikely to be addressed without a major federal program to build modern passenger-train infrastructure.  And until that program is a reality, Virginia’s plan will fall short of its potential: hourly departures in each direction connecting Washington and Richmond with a travel time of less than an hour.

Nor does the Virginia plan address serious issues of speed and frequency: running electrified high-speed trains with hourly departures. The Virginia plan is a foot in the door, but the salesman isn’t yet inside the house demonstrating his vacuum cleaner

But can the “Virginia Plan” go national? Not if it’s outside the Box

The “Virginia Plan” --using surplus space on a Class 1 alignment to build a fast passenger track--has vast implications for passenger-rail development across the entire U.S. That stratagem means that in areas where the terrain already is suited to fast running, modern passenger-train tracks can be built without expensive takings of private property or lots of expensive earth moving to create a “greenfield” railroad.

But even those implications and modest ambitions cannot easily spread to the rest of the country because so far, it’s only Virginia’s plan. Those ambitions wouldn’t be realized until passenger trains left out, get access to the “Box” that consists of our national transportation policy, planning and federal financing. Outside the “Box” there’s no guarantee—and no mechanism—for migrating Virginia’s policy to the rest of the U.S. and weaving passenger trains into a true national system like our highways and airways. As long as passenger-train development is left to state discretion, some states will always remain reluctant to participate, sabotaging the efforts of pro-train neighbors who need buy-in from adjacent states to make their own systems work.

Just across the state line...

For example, Virginia has one neighbor, North Carolina, which shares the Old Dominion’s forward-looking views, so the two states will cooperate in redeveloping a mothballed stretch of former Seaboard Railroad main line connecting the Washington-Richmond main line with North Carolina’s fast-growing Raleigh-Charlotte Piedmont passenger line at Durham.

But the other states bordering Virginia--West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee--lag behind Virginia in passenger-train consciousness, leaving Virginia’s passenger-rail development plan geographically bottled up in two mid-Southern coastal states.

So there’s good news and bad news: The United States has a highly effective formula—the Box--for introducing innovative forms of transportation, but passenger trains still aren’t part of it.

That means modern passenger-rail infrastructure—a technologically potent mix of high-speed tracks, signals, bridges, flyovers, tunnels, grade separations, stations and critical junctions—gets built only when a state asks for it (and only after a long and complex effort to qualify for a modest federal grant).  If a state succeeds in collaborating successfully with a neighbor, a bi-state corridor may gain access to a small amount of federal funding, but coordinated, multi-state projects still remain rare (and a true nationwide passenger-rail system does not exist at all)

Time to bring passenger trains inside the Box

Now, at last, after 50 years of futile experiments with other solutions, the time has come to get passenger trains into the same kind of policy Box that our nation used to plan and fund roads and civil aviation. The next chapter in the fascinating history of The Box should be the creation of a truly nationwide system of fast, frequent passenger trains that cross state lines to tie the entire Lower 48 into one integrated, high-performance travel system.

And that means large-scale planning and investment spearheaded by Washington rather than incremental steps initiated by the states and funded with ad hoc federal grants. This time Congress has to go first. Only Washington has the money, the planning skills, the authority and the national reach to do that. As the late Merrill Travis observed when he headed the rail unit at the Illinois Department of Transportation, “It’s easier for the federal government to build a highway from coast to coast than it is for two states to build a bridge over a river between them.”

Inside-the-Box thinking got the U.S. two nationwide highway systems and a globally admired system of federal airways that helped make build the world’s largest national economy. Now it’s time for Act 3: an Act of Congress to plan and fund a nationwide system of passenger-train infrastructure like the roads this nation built for cars, and the airports, and computerized airways it built for commercial airliners. The sooner passenger rail starts looking like highways and airways, the sooner the U.S. will have great passenger-train service.

Let’s leave outside-the-box thinking to the real innovators, the railcar and locomotive builders, the civil engineers and the developers of advanced signaling technologies. For policy makers, it’s time to get historical, traditional and conventional.

We don’ need no steenkin’ innovation.

We just need to think inside the Box.

A Guest Blog by Fritz Plous