Lessons from APTA’s High Speed Rail Conference

Acela at platform level

The new Acela train, which we had a chance to tour as part of APTA’s conference. They should be coming to the Northeast Corridor soon.

In early April, the American Public Transportation Association held a three day conference on high-speed rail. Our executive director Rick Harnish attended, along with over 300 transportation leaders from across the country and abroad. There was an air of excitement in the room as presenters discussed the new possibilities that $66 billion for passenger rail, from the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), have created in this country. Over the three days we learned from professionals who have developed high-speed rail around the world, heard from U.S. officials on the importance of putting passenger rail funding to work quickly, and heard repeatedly how this could be the tipping point for high-speed rail in America.



High-Speed Rail Around the World

The conference opened with perspectives on high-speed rail from around the world and how they could be applied to the U.S. It featured presenters from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and Morocco. They stressed the importance of expanding high-performace rail all over the world, shared optimism that the U.S. is finally in a position to begin catching up, and emphasized what lessons we shoud take from international high-speed rail networks as we implement it here.

La Rochelle not Bordeaux

The Integrated Network Approach allows French high-speed trains to serve stations far beyond the high-speed line, like the 1922-built station at La Rochelle.

We were struck by the remarks of Jorge Rios, Vice President of Deutsche Bahn E.C.O. North America. He stressed the importance of partnerships between connecting rail services when conducting studies. This has been a challenge in the U.S. when it comes to planning high-speed rail. The benefits of high-speed rail have far-reaching impacts and it works best when planned as part of an integrated network, but too often high-speed rail is only studied as a single corridor between major cities, instead of a tool for connecting entire regions with fast, frequent and affordable trains.

We’re excited to say that Jorge Rios will be joining us for a webinar this month, to share Deutsche Bahn’s approach to integrated network planning and how it could be used across the U.S. to maximize the benefits and prioritizing projects to create the biggest impact in the shortest time. Deutsche Bahn has decades of experience implementing these network-planning concepts, which can be seen in countries like Germany and Switzerland, both of whom run incredibly frequent and reliable trains that serve a broad geographic area. Deutsche Bahn has been using this same approach in their consulting and development roles for the California High Speed Rail Project, and will plan and implement the start-up of rail operations there.

Since the Alliance was founded, we have studied how high-speed rail has been implemented across the world. We’ve found that some form of what we call the Integrated Network Approach has been present in most cases, and we have used this framework to show how high-speed rail can transform travel in the U.S.

We Need to Move Quickly

2021 High Speed Rail National Base Map

A national vision, along with strong projects at the state level, will help us make meaningful progress on improving our passenger rail network.

Another message that was repeated throughout the conference was the importance of putting the funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to work quickly. The administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Nuria Fernandez, explained why. “We need to see these dollars of investments growing the economy, creating more jobs and getting people excited about their tax dollars going into public transportation.” Amit Bose, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) struck a similar tone, urging attendees to shift from the mindset of securing more funding, to implementing the projects and programs that the BIL created. “I know that a lot of us put in a lot of effort to get to $66 billion in bipartisan infrastructure law… Now is the time to execute.”

The Alliance shares the sentiment that we need some immediate wins for conventional and high-speed rail, but we also need to develop a long-term vision that guides this process. The FRA has a large role to play, as they are best suited to create a national rail plan, which can shape how funding for trains gets used for decades to come. We’ve written about how their new Corridor Identification and Development Program could provide an avenue to build this national plan, while establishing a system for how projects are prioritized.

In addition to a strong federal vision, it’s critical that state and local officials bring forward plans to improve train service for their communities. We have worked to build support at the local level across the country and continuously work to educate state and local officials on all the opportunities that are on the horizon to move their project forward.

By combining a national rail plan with strong proposals from states across the country, we have a good chance of distributing funding to projects that will improve passenger rail in the short-term and be a building block for integrated high-speed rail networks.

Could This Be the Tipping Point?

California network

The 2018 California rail plan is the first plan to coordinate commuter, regional and high-speed train development.

There was a sense among attendees and presenters that we are nearing a watershed moment for high-speed rail and that the first completed high-speed line will lead to a wave of high-speed rail projects. At the Alliance, we share this belief that when Americans first experience this transformative technology, it will shift public perception. This is why one of our top goals is to ensure that a high-speed train enters revenue service this decade.

California is our best bet for riding a high-speed train in America by 2030. Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, shared the progress they’ve been making in the Central Valley, getting the San Francisco to Los Angeles route environmentally cleared, and the importance of Caltrain electrification in the Bay Area. While steady progress is being made in California, an important funding decision is about to be made in the legislature, which could either propel the project forward or threaten the chance of commencing service this decade.

We need to make sure the California Legislature votes yes. You can read more about the situation here.


All in all, we enjoyed our time connecting with industry leaders who share our vision for high-speed rail.

It’s important that transportation planners, railroads, and advocates continue to share ideas and build enthusiasm across the country for this transformational technology. We hope to bring some of the speakers from the event to future webinars where we can learn more from each other.

If you’d like to see what webinars we have coming up or catch up on past talks, you can see them here.

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