Thoughts on an HSR Implementation Strategy

Guest post by CrossRail Chicago Technical Committee

we want to put forth my thoughts on what is necessary to create a real shift to rail for intercity travel around the U.S.:

1) Priority should be given to foundational corridors that set the stage for future growth  Outside the Northeast Corridor, various studies have identified these as:

a) 4 lines radiating out of Chicago (Minneapolis/St. Paul, Indianapolis, St. Louis, & Detroit)>>3 routes out of Atlanta (Orlando/Miami, Charlotte, and, maybe Nashville)

b) California High-Speed Rail (San Francisco-Los Angeles/Anaheim)

c) Texas Triangle (Dallas, Ft. Worth-Austin-San Antonio)

d) Portland-Seattle-Vancouver

e) Los Angeles-Las Vegas

f) Los Angeles-Phoenix.

These total something over 6000 miles. To put this in perspective China is very close to having 25,000 miles of HSR lines (i.e. lines with a design speed of 120 mph and above).

2) These routes all justify, and can support, frequent service. Both speed and frequency must be provided in these key corridors.

3) Service on all of these routes can operated at a surplus; no operating subsidy will be required.

4) It is not realistic to expect that the freight railroads in these corridors would permit the frequency and speed that the market can support on tracks shared with any significant freight activity.

Thus, dedicated passenger rail tracks are required.

5) To date, Texas Central and Brightline are the only private entities that have expressed an interest in creating those but their experience makes it clear that entities attempting to do this must have eminent domain rights.

6) Thus, the states, who have such rights, and experience in right-of-way acquisition and environmental clearance must play a key role.  HSR rights-of-way can be assembled by:

a) Buying existing tracks from Class 1 or short line railroads, >>Using/buying right-of-way next to highways,

b) Using abandoned rail rights-of-way (rail-banked or otherwise), or

c) Buying parcels from farmers or others.

Once you have purchased or constructed dedicated tracks you might as well pay a bit more to separate the roadway crossings, and a bit more to electrify. Bingo: you have HSR routes! The grade separations and electrification can be added over time but it is necessary to start by assembling the rights-of-way and environmental clearance.

7) The Brightline and Texas Central examples suggest that if the public sector assembles the right-of-way and environmental clearance it is possible that the private sector will construct the tracks/electrification at their risk, depending on the market potential.

8) Trains from the secondary tier of routes can use the HSR routes to access to the major hubs.

9) Long distance routes could use this network; think Chicago-Indianapolis-Nashville-Atlanta-Orlando-Miami in 10-12 hours, a nice overnight and but also requiring frequent daytime service for the numerous city pairs that would be served.

Application of this Strategy in Illinois

Our home state of Illinois would be a good place for initial application and demonstration of this strategy.

It has a history of investing in railroads with a good base of intercity and commuter rail service and ridership.

About 99% of the Chicago-St. Louis route lies within its borders, essentially avoiding the need to coordinate with an adjoining state that is less interested in upgrading intercity passenger rail.

We think that an O’Hare Airport-Union Station-Kankakee-Champaign segment would be the best place to start.

It would use the Crossrail Chicago route proposed by HSRA, with about 50 miles through the congested Chicago terminal area that is already in public ownership (by Metra or Amtrak), much of which is already electrified and has no at-grade roadway crossings.

It meets the criteria established in the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA)

It would provide benefits to rural areas (i.e. Gilman, Rantoul, and others).

It would serve historically underserved and low-income communities or areas of persistent poverty (i.e. Chicago, the south suburbs, and Kankakee).

It would benefit or improve connectivity with existing transportation services of other modes (O’Hare, Chicago Union Station, and Champaign’s Illinois Terminal station).

Much of the route could be straight enough to allow 220 mph operation.

There would be no significant grades (not a significant factor for HSR)

This initial segment would provide a base for future phases extending HSR service to Decatur/Springfield, St. Louis, and a branch from Kankakee to Indianapolis, as well as upgraded regional service to Carbondale and long distance service to Memphis and New Orleans.

An alignment could be developed that would have very limited negative impacts, create significant positive economic and diversity impacts, have reasonable ROW acquisition cost, avoid the need to build any major bridges/structures, be separated from all intersecting roads and railroads, and eliminate interference with the existing freight railroad in the corridor (which is now used by Amtrak).

If necessary, it would be possible to initially construct the route without grade separations and/or without electrification, with these elements to be added in subsequent phases. (Operation with at-grade roadway crossings is, effectively, limited to 110 mph and operation with diesel power is, effectively, limited to 125 mph.)