There is no doubt that the US railroad has suffered over the past few decades. Indeed, after 60 years starved of investment, is it any wonder that America’s dilapidated railroads have slowly been sinking out of sight?
However, in an interesting turnaround the current administration has a strong commitment to developing a variable high-speed rail network across the country, which will have huge implications for the current railroad system. In less than a year the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has moved from a concept to the development of a high-speed rail vision document, the development of a strategy for implementation and developed the initial brand guidance. Why is it moving so quickly? Well, in a study recently presented by the Millennium Institute, the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure found that 83 percent of all long-haul trucks would be eliminated from the nation's highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail.
And if high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation's carbon emission by 39 percent and oil consumption by 15 percent. There is also potential for the nation's economy to be 10 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be by moderating the growing cost of logistics.
Joseph Szabo, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, believes there's been nothing but a high-level of enthusiasm for the new program. "First of all, we saw it with the tremendous outpouring of application from various states around the country. We've also seen it on a bipartisan basis from the members of Congress. And equally important is that the public opinion polls show tremendously strong support from the traveling public."
So, why now is there such interest in developing a high-speed railroad for the US, after it has lagged behind equivalents in Europe, China and Japan for so long? Szabo explains that he can't speak for previous administration making the decisions that they did, but that there is no question that the development of the interstate highway and aviation systems were national priorities, which had a devastating impact on the fate of the railroad over the past half a decade.
"We have done outstanding work in the automobile and aviation transport sectors," he says. "But now there's a realization that we need to better balance our transportation network. We need to offer genuine transportation alternatives to the traveling public because of congestion, because of environmental impact and because of the need to reduce our consumption of oil. We need to balance our transportation network so that people are able to travel using the mode that is most efficient for a particular journey. In many, many cases rail is that mode."
Indeed, the inherent efficiencies of passenger rail are finally being recognized once again. The lifeblood of America's early development, the railroad saw unprecedented use and popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, reaching an all-time peak in 1920 with 1.2 million passengers boarding 9000 inter-city trains and racking up 47 million passenger miles every day.
Will it be possible to force that decline back to an incline and see railroads back in favor with the public? Without question answers Szabo. "For far too long now too many generations have forgotten the transport opportunities that rail offers - and there is no question of the role that rail can and must play in the movements of people and goods. In hauling people within 100 to 500 mile radiuses rail is usually considerably more efficient than automotive or air, whereas air is superior for distances greater than 500 miles. It's simply a matter of understanding where each mode is most efficient and cultivating each mode in that aspect."
A balancing act
Szabo reiterates that rail is not about competing with air or auto transportation options, it is about providing a balance for what becomes a seamlessly flowing transportation network, allowing for the efficiencies of each mode to come forward. Indeed a seamless transportation network should surely be the core consideration at the heart of the matter. That said, there are a number of challenges to ensure that the railroad fits with the other transport options and infrastructure already available.
"As we review applications for funding these types of interconnections, one of the key criteria is that we look at how well the high speed rail will link up with mass transit and with commuter rail to ensure that people are delivered that final mile - how will it connect with airports for example so that the first 100 miles of journey can take place by rail and the next 1000 by air," explains Szabo.
"It's about ensuring that seamless flow between the modes. Europe does an outstanding job with that and these are some of the lessons that we've learned from our visits to Europe and Asia."
Indeed, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956, little did the nation know that they were effectively sealing the fate of America's railroads and handing over its technological advances overseas, welcomed by a visionary group of railroaders. In 1955, Louis Armand, head of the French national railway had proved the capacity of an all-electric test train with record speeds of 208 mph.
Inspired, Japan's Minister of Transport Shinhi Sogo began planning a rail line without sharp curves or steep gradients permitting streamlined, all-electric trains to run at even higher speeds safely. Sogo actively imported technology from America to do so, included the two-axle trucks, dynamic braking innovation and advanced computers to operate the line's signal and dispatching systems. And Japan wasn't alone, high-speed trains expanded beyond France into Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland and Spain in Europe and China, South Korea and Taiwan in Asia.
Playing catch up
Back to today. After the 2008 financial crisis many countries were searching for speedy economic solutions to help ease them out of the worst world economic downturn since the 1929 depression. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), was an unprecedented effort to jumpstart the economy and create or save millions of jobs across the country, putting a down payment on addressing long neglected challenges - like the railroad. In April 2009, the administration released a long-term plan for high-speed rail, called the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program (HSIPR), including $1 billion a year for the next five years to help the program get underway.
And in January 2010, President Barack Obama's state of the union speech unleashed plans for pushing America's fast train deployment ahead, with an additional $8 billion load guarantee from the ARRA to develop the countries first nationwide program of high-speed intercity passenger rail service. Obama's vision for high-speed rail in America is built upon a series of strategic transportation goals including: building a foundation for economic competitiveness; ensuring safe and efficient transport choices; promoting energy efficiency and environmental quality; and, supporting interconnected livable communities.
At the time Obama said: "Through the Recovery Act, we are making the largest investment in infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System was created, putting Americans to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and waterways for the future. That investment is how we can break ground across the country, putting people to work building high-speed rail lines, because there's no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains when we can build them right here in America."
The HSIPR program generated enormous excitement across the country with the FRA receiving 259 grant applications from 37 states, requesting nearly $57 billion in funding - far exceeding the initial $8 billion available.
For now the majority of the $8 billion will go towards developing new, large-scale high-speed rail programs, including projects in Florida, which is receiving up to $1.25 billion to develop a high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando, and California, which is receiving up to $2.25 billion for its planned project to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco with trains running up to 220 miles per hour.
Szabo believes that the $8 billion serves as a very important down payment to what will be a decades-long build out. "Our interstate highway took more than four decades to build and if you take a look at Europe and Asia the build out of their high-speed networks in most cases took 30 years," he says. "The important thing is that the railroads have lit the spark in the imagination of Congress and the traveling public to now allow both to realize what this transportation option can mean to them."
Technology is - and will remain - at the heart of ensuring more efficient and safety-led advancements for the future of the railroad in the US. Szabo explains that the FRA is continuing to look at new technologies and is even proposing to fund a greater share of research and development as it relates to the advancement of high-speed rail. "Technology is the wave of the future and so understanding, researching and advancing that technology is a critical part to the long-term development of a program depending on market needs," he says.
And of course those needs may bring some challenges in terms of co-utilizing existing freight infrastructure with planned passenger infrastructure, because there is no question that in many cases passenger and freight trains will utilize capacity differently. Szabo claims that balance is the key to ensure that America's world-class freight system is preserved and improved while there is also investment and capacity improvement that allows for the operation of high-speed rail on that freight infrastructure.
"It is vital that you do very good modeling of the proposed operations and then from there you do your planning and your engineering to make sure that the appropriate investments are made that allow both users to operate at a high level of performance," says Szabo.
Looking forward Szabo points to the clear vision the FRA are looking to achieve, both from a passenger rail and fright rail standpoint. "In a perfect world I would like to see 80 percent of America connected by a strong, high performing passenger rail network. In addition, I would like to see freight rail perform at a high level, while growing market share particularly when we're talking about inter-modal shipments. These all help us achieve reduced congestion, reduced consumption of fuel and improved air quality - and that's important to the quality of life for Americans."
Hopefully, with a little love and attention - plus the projected $13 billion being spent on railroad infrastructure development over the next five years - the sector will get back on track and start speeding ahead to success.
History of American railroad
1815: Colonel John Stevens gained the first railroad charter in North America, the New Jersey Railroad Company
1826: Stevens tests the first steam locomotive in the country, showcasing his 'Steam Waggon' design - basically a steam-powered horse carriage
1829: Horatio Allen tested an early English steam locomotive design on a 16-mile stretch of track owned by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company in Pennsylvania
1830: Three-year-old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tested its famous Tom Thumb, designed by Peter Cooper
1830: South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company carried a trainload of passengers - the first railroad to haul a revenue train with an American-built steam locomotive
1862: President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Bill into law designating the new Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad to complete the transcontinental railroad
1900: 193,346 miles of railroad were in operation
1920: Passenger rail travel reaches it's all-time high with 1.2 million passengers boarding 9000 inter-city trains and racking up 47 million passenger miles every day
1932: Ralph Budd commissions a streamlined train, the Burlington Zephyr, hoping to revive interest in passenger travel
1933: Congress passes the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, freezing railroad employment for three years
1934: Railroads introduce diesel locomotives for passenger service
1940: Railroad mileage drops to 233,000 miles
1942: Heavy reliance on railroads during the war reverses the railroads' situation, but by the war's end the railroads were left in poor shape physically
1957: For the first time, air travel boasts more passengers than rail travel
1970: Under the Rail Passenger Service Act, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, also known as Amtrak, to subsidize and oversee the operation of intercity passenger trains
1980: The Staggers Rail Act signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, deregulated the railroad industry
2000: Amtrak introduced the Acela Express, which operated at a maximum speed of 160 mph between Washington DC and Boston
Can we recreate the map here: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_fasttrack/all/1
Of the five different areas and what they are planning? Don't worry about the rest of America and the lines, dots and dashes, I'd just quite like the five main regions, so I don't imagine it has to be to scale?