HIGH-SPEED RAIL UPDATE: Slowing down for a look

Oct. 8, 2014

As industry watches, officials focus in on key high-speed rail projects

In spite of limited new federal funding in recent years, high-speed rail (HSR) projects are moving forward in many of the nation’s 11 designated HSR corridors as states are using a mixture of existing federal funding and state and private funding sources in order to advance projects.

While there has not been a specific Congressional appropriation for HSR since the $10.1 billion allotted in 2009 and 2010 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has since encouraged passenger rail applications for a portion of the $9.5 billion in federal grant funding available to states through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant Program.

In most corridors, the goal of states supporting passenger rail service is to incrementally increase rail speeds from the conventional 79 mph to 110 mph. While technically still considered HSR, these corridors often rely upon the use of existing right-of-way, improved signaling and additional tracks rather than new bullet-train-style locomotion on electrified tracks. More important perhaps than higher speeds has been the focus on reduced travel times and increased train frequency.

The corridors pursuing speeds beyond 110 mph are in California, Florida, Texas and the Northeast. Furthest along is California, where track is being placed in some areas and a $1 billion contract is about to begin for construction on 31 miles of new railroad berm in the central valley near Fresno. The California corridor will be “true” HSR, achieving speeds up to 220 mph upon completion in the 2020s.

In Florida, a private company, All Aboard Florida, is planning a rail line in the wake of the governor’s cancellation of a state HSR project in 2011. Trains are to reach speeds of up to 125 mph, although they will travel slower on a proposed route between Miami and West Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale. Construction on a final leg to Orlando is expected to begin in 2017. The project is currently being privately financed, but builders have applied for a $1.5 billion loan from the FRA, to be paid back with interest over 25 years.

In Texas, another private company, the Texas Central Railway, has proposed building an HSR line with trains that could reach speeds of up to 205 mph, which would cut the trip between Houston and Dallas to 90 minutes. The Texas project plans to use the bullet trains popularized in Japan and is planned to open in 2021, according to Richard Lawless, chairman and chief executive of Texas Central Railway.

Texas Central Railway believes the 240-mile Dallas-to-Houston route is ideal for HSR and would make travel times between the two cities faster than by car and competitive with airlines. Other regions throughout the U.S. have work underway as well, although desired speeds are somewhat slower.

Perhaps the area most accustomed to rail travel, and most receptive to HSR, is the Northeast Corridor, where in most cases Amtrak is leading projects in various stages of environmental assessment, planning, design or construction.

Some background

In 2009, President Obama, together with Vice President Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, announced a new vision for developing high-speed intercity passenger rail in America, calling for a collaborative effort by the federal government, states, railroads and other key stakeholders to help transform America’s transportation system through the creation of a national network of HSR corridors.

To achieve this vision, FRA published the High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan in April 2009 and launched the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program in June 2009. The objectives of the HSIPR program are to:

  • Build new HSR corridors that expand and fundamentally improve passenger transportation in the geographic regions they serve;
  • Upgrade existing intercity passenger rail corridors to improve reliability, speed and frequency of existing services; and
  • Lay the groundwork for future HSR services through corridor and state planning efforts.

While Republican opposition, community protests and a slowdown in federal funding have hindered projects in some areas, many corridors are moving projects forward through a mix of private funding, TIGER grants and federal ARRA funding. As a result, projects are entering the construction phase and are thereby becoming visible to the public. The following is a wrap-up of a few of those:

California Corridor

Even though plans for a 520-mile train route between Los Angeles and San Francisco have endured some controversy, the first of many projects have already begun construction in California. The state is surging forward with its HSR initiatives, thanks in part to a promise of funding from the state’s “cap-and-trade program,” which requires businesses to pay for excess pollution.

The goal of the California Corridor is to have a $68 billion statewide HSR system up and operating by 2028, stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The corridor will achieve true HSR speeds of 220 mph. The following projects are currently underway:

  • A $1 billion contract will soon break ground to build grade-separated berm from 30 miles north of Fresno to downtown Fresno, stretching from Avenue 17 in Madera to East American Avenue
  • In the financial district of San Francisco, the subsurface TransBay Transit Center is currently under construction. Under the jurisdiction of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the station will provide a terminal for HSR service in downtown San Francisco. A $2.5 billion tunnel project will eventually connect the terminal to an electrified Caltrain system via a 1.75-mile-long tunnel;
  • An effort is underway between San Francisco and San Jose to blend existing commuter and future high-speed-train operations. The goal is for Caltrain to electrify the system by 2019. Caltrain plans to complete environmental analysis of the electrified system by early 2015, followed by a design-build contract to construct the system; and
  • Plans are underway to blend HSR and existing service providers to provide better connectivity between Sacramento and the Bay Area (Capital Corridor) and between Stockton and San Jose through the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE). Eventually, upon arriving in San Jose a passenger could transfer to a Capital Corridor train and continue to Sacramento.

The single greatest challenge in California is community support. Waning public opinion about the project could jeopardize future funding efforts, making it imperative that the project team and industry do a better job of promoting HSR as beneficial to the region.

Northeast Corridor

The easiest sell for HSR is in the Northeast Corridor, where commuter train travel is commonplace and the need for shorter commute times and greater train frequencies is widespread.

While Amtrak’s Acela line is already capable of reaching 150 mph, it averages only 80 mph in some areas, in particular the heavily traveled New York-to-Washington corridor. On a 30-mile stretch of railroad between Westerly and Cranston, R.I., Amtrak’s 150-mph Acela hits its top speed—for five or 10 minutes.

The single greatest challenge for the region is funding. The work that’s currently underway now is largely funded by federal dollars with some state contributions.

The following are the active projects:

  • The New York State DOT is currently overseeing an environmental impact statement (EIS) for HSR along the 463-mile-long Empire Corridor from New York City’s Penn Station to Niagara Falls Station. The project will ultimately increase speeds alongside an existing freight corridor. The Empire Corridor runs through the population and economic spine of New York state, connecting all major metropolitan areas. Eighty percent, or roughly 15.5 million, of New York’s residents live within 30 miles of the Empire Corridor;
  • Some sections of the Amtrak Trans-Hudson Gateway Tunnel project in New York are already under construction. It marks the beginning of a $13.5 billion program to increase capacity and speeds into Manhattan by 2020. The tunnel will eventually traverse the Hudson River near the Westside Yards in Lower Manhattan. While Amtrak is advancing the tunnel project, the remainder of the project is still in design. It is a critical step toward bringing 220-mph Amtrak high-speed service to the Northeast Corridor;
  • The Amtrak New Jersey HSR Improvement Project is under construction between Morrisville, Pa., and New Brunswick, N.J. Funded by FRA, the construction includes track upgrades as well as new signals and catenary systems (electrified railroad) to support electrified tracks with trains operating at maximum speeds of 160 mph. The challenge has been making upgrades to an existing, operating corridor with approximately 500 trains using the tracks per day;
  • Design is currently underway on Amtrak’s 1-mile-long Susquehanna River Bridge, funded by a $22 million grant. The project will replace an existing moveable bridge with a higher fixed bridge and will increase the number of tracks from two to four. As a result of the project, travel speeds will increase from 100 to 160 mph in a section between Newark, N.J., and Baltimore. At present, a Record of Decision (ROD) is pending to determine if the project requires an environmental study;
  • Amtrak’s Baltimore Tunnel is in design and environmental work is underway to construct new tunnels through Maryland with increased speeds. The tunnels will ultimately help improve reliability and trip time. The project is a tri-party effort between FRA, the Maryland Department of Transportation and Amtrak; and
  • Connecticut DOT is moving forward with a section from New Haven, Conn., to Springfield, Mass., which will increase speeds to 110 mph from a current maximum of 79 mph. The project calls for the upgrading of the signal system and tracks and the construction of new bridges. 

The Midwest

In the Midwest, the basic framework for current work is the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, originally developed by nine participating states and the FRA in 1996. With Chicago as the hub, elements of the initiative include:

  • Use of 3,000 miles of existing rail right-of-way to connect rural and urban areas;
  • Operation of a hub and spoke passenger rail system;
  • Introduction of modern, high-speed trains operating at speeds up to 110 mph; and
  • Provision of multimodal connections to improve system access.

Midwestern states have developed two complementary plans, the Midwest Regional Rail System and the Ohio Hub, to significantly improve passenger rail in the Midwest and link the region to the improvements being planned in the Northeast. Additionally, states also are engaged in other passenger rail projects that will increase the number of people served by passenger rail. At present, Midwest states are proceeding with planning, final design and construction of a variety of projects using a mix of federal and state dollars:

  • Illinois has secured $1.2 billion in FRA money to be used toward developing increased frequencies and speeds to 110 mph in the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor. The state also is considering increased rail speeds between Chicago and Moline, Ill., and is currently performing Tier 2 preliminary engineering and EIS work in the corridor;
  • Iowa is performing Tier 2 preliminary engineering and a project-level EIS for a section from Moline to Iowa City, and has a Tier 1 NEPA ROD on the entire corridor to Omaha;
  • In a unique arrangement, the state of Michigan has purchased approximately 135 miles of the CSX corridor from Kalamazoo to Dearborn to improve passenger rail service between Chicago and Detroit. This arrangement will ultimately allow an increase in frequencies from three to 10 round trips and top speeds of up to 110 mph. Amtrak and the state of Michigan already operate passenger trains at 110 mph for portions of the Chicago-to-Detroit route. In the Kalamazoo-to-Dearborn segment, they’re installing positive train control and putting in double tracks and sidings, along with other improvements the length of the corridor; and
  • Minnesota has numerous HSR projects in various stages of planning for the Chicago-Twin Cities Corridor, which will ultimately increase frequencies and achieve tops speeds of 110 mph. Tier 2 preliminary engineering and EIS work also is underway for the Northern Lights Express (NLX) service between the Twin Cities and Duluth. The state is performing an FRA-funded conceptual engineering, planning and environmental clearance for electrified high-speed service between Rochester and the Twin Cities. Minnesota also is considering adding additional round trips of Amtrak service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and is participating in a study with Amtrak and the state of Wisconsin.

In a more local project with regional and national system benefits, CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program) is a first-of-its-kind partnership between U.S. DOT, the state of Illinois, city of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads, and is investing in critically needed improvements to increase the efficiency of the region’s passenger- and freight-rail infrastructure and enhance the quality of life for Chicago-area residents. Construction work has already started on projects that will ultimately include:

  • 25 new roadway overpasses or underpasses at locations where traffic (auto, pedestrian, bicycle, bus) currently crosses railroad tracks at grade level;
  • Six new rail overpasses or underpasses to separate passenger and freight train tracks;
  • 36 freight rail projects including extensive upgrades of tracks, switches and signal systems;
  • Viaduct improvement projects—improvements to existing viaducts in Chicago;
  • Grade crossing safety enhancements—improvements to existing railroad grade crossings throughout the region; and
  • Common Operational Picture (COP)—integration of information from dispatch systems of all major railroads in the region into a single display.

Most of the CREATE improvements are grouped along or near four rail corridors running through the Chicago region.

Private money in Texas

In Texas, the Texas Central Railway, formerly Lone Star High-Speed Rail, was created in 2010 to develop a platform for J.R. Central’s (owned by Japan Railway Co.) technology in America. Texas Central officials said J.R. Central is not financing the Texas project, but is a “promotional and technical partner.” If the project moves forward, J.R. Central would sell its trains to the company and play an advisory role on the system’s operations.

At present, Texas Central is in negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation and FRA to determine how environmental assessments will proceed. Even though Texas Central is a private company, it must still comply with environmental requirements.

Texas Central officials have said the project will be privately funded and not require any public funding to subsidize its operational costs. If the private financing can be secured, the Houston-Dallas connection would be the fastest high-speed-rail line in the nation and among the first potentially successful private passenger rail projects in recent American history.

Studies also are being conducted from Dallas to Fort Worth as a potential extension of this service. 

Florida: Miami-West Palm Beach route

In Florida, the privately funded All Aboard Florida project could begin service between Miami and West Palm Beach as early as 2016, although speeds will be less than 100 mph in some areas and up to 125 mph in others.

The project is currently being privately financed, but builders have applied for a $1.5 billion loan from the FRA, to be paid back with interest over 25 years.

Southeast Corridor

Georgia and the Carolinas are heating up with HSR projects in various stages of design and construction. At present, a major focus of that effort is a section stretching from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., where Georgia DOT in cooperation with South Carolina and North Carolina is leading a Tier 1 EIS, which is near completion. As part of the assessment, several alternatives for service are being examined, including true high speeds up to 220 mph.

In North Carolina, the $520 million Piedmont Improvement Program—stretching from Raleigh to Charlotte—consists of railroad capacity projects as well as road-crossing closures, and is funded entirely by ARRA. Ultimately, the program calls for an increase in train speeds up to 90 mph from the conventional speed of 79 mph, primarily by straightening curves and reducing crossings. The project is currently in final design, and in certain locations track is being placed or re-aligned.

The program includes adding two Amtrak trips between Raleigh and Charlotte—making a total of five trips daily—building new bridges for trains to cross over or under driving traffic and closing some railroad crossings. Additionally, roads will be constructed and parallel railroad tracks created along parts of the corridor that moves freight and passengers through the heart of the state.

Active projects along the stretch include:

  • Durham to Morrisville, which involves reconstructing existing tracks, realigning curves, adding a second set of tracks and constructing a new railroad bridge carrying the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) tracks over Hopson Road in Wake County. Expected completion is December 2015;
  • Thomasville to Lexington, which involves the construction of 4 miles of second track along the NCRR mainline corridor in Davidson County. A second track will allow trains to pass more frequently, reducing congestion, increasing capacity and reliability and decreasing travel time between Raleigh and Charlotte. Expected completion is October 2016; and
  • Harrisburg to Charlotte, which involves constructing approximately 12 miles of second track and realigning curves along the NCRR corridor in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties. Expected completion is May 2017.

From Richmond, Va., to Charlotte, N.C., an initiative lead by NCDOT is considering the upgrade of an 80-mile section from Richmond to Raleigh, with increased speeds up to 110 mph. The majority of the route is an abandoned CSX line, which provides an opportunity to build a dedicated passenger rail line since the line is largely intact. North Carolina is performing a Tier 2 environmental assessment of the area.


Utilizing a potpourri of funding sources, various HSR corridors are finding ways to push projects beyond the virtual realm of planning and design and into the physical world of construction. As a result, there is abundant evidence that HSR projects are beginning to see the light of day.

The injection of federal money has already resulted in reduced travel times in select geographies, a trend that will become more widespread in coming years. As the benefits of HSR are realized, this will likely quell the rhetoric of naysayers and open the door to greater funding opportunities and hastened project timelines.TM&E

About The Author: Wade is an associate vice president and passenger rail director at HNTB, Madison, Wis

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