High Times for
High-Speed Rail


Image: Amtrak

U.S. high-speed rail is on a roll. For decades, a passionate coalition of rail buffs, economic development types, aerophobes, and car-disdainers have longed for Euro-Asian-style fast trains that shave hours off intercity travel. Mustering occasional bursts of steam, rail officials have repeatedly chugged up the mountain of political indifference and infrastructural shortcomings only to stall and roll back down. But lately, with record train ridership in the nation's most populous regions, high-speed rail (HSR) projects have picked up serious steam.

Some 13 million Amtrak passengers a year travel Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (NEC) route between Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. It's the railroad's busiest service, and it has some of its biggest infrastructure problems, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. For Amtrak, it's the ideal national test bed for its vision of full-scale next-generation HSR.

"The NEC region is America's economic powerhouse and is facing a severe crisis with an aging and congested multi-modal transportation network that routinely operates at or near capacity in key segments. With an expected 30 percent population increase by 2050, we must move beyond mere preservation and rehabilitation of the current system to a new vision for expanded transportation capacity and growth," said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman.

Amtrak has been working to expand high-speed intercity rail service in the Northeast Corridor and beyond.

Record Run

Amtrak currently permits its Acela express trains to go as fast as 150 mph at designated points along the NEC. However, with station stops and slow downs, the train's actual average speed is closer to 80 mph. With plans to double that rate to a top speed of 160 mph on certain NEC segments by 2017, engineers need to know how the Acela handles, how the switching systems will work, which bridges will need modification, and where track would have to be rebuilt to accommodate HSR.

In September 2012, Amtrak flexed its high-speed muscle with a well-publicized speed trial of a standard, nine-car Acela configuration on a 23-mile segment of the NEC between the New Jersey cities of Trenton and New Brunswick. On its late-night trial, the Acela topped 165 mph, setting a new U.S. rail speed record. The feat was repeated on subsequent tests on other key lengths of track in four states.

To prepare for routine 160-mph travel, the NEC has been tapped for a $151-billion refurbishment to replace octogenarian catenary train wires and upgrade electrical systems and signals over the next five years. In the future, a high-speed network permitting 220 mph speed could reduce the length of an end-to-end trip from Boston to the capital to just three hours, and the U.S. rail system would at last stand toe-to-toe with its Asian and European counterparts.

Model Trains

The HSR approach that works in the densely populated Northeast may take longer to socialize in regions like California and the industrial Midwest, where the major metropolitan areas are separated by hundreds of miles and the culture of the automobile is firmly entrenched. Nevertheless, true believers in high-speed rail have several recent reasons to cheer.

In car-crazy California, a planned $68 billion, 800-mile high-speed link between Los Angeles and San Francisco is moving forward, promising 450,000 permanent new jobs in the economically beleaguered state. Despite numerous lawsuits and red tape, the plan seems to be on track for construction beginning in 2013.

This fall, Amtrak ran high-speed test runs exceeding 111 mph on its 285-mile Chicago-St. Louis corridor. It's the first step toward regular 110 mph service on this route and admittedly modest, as for the time being trains will only hit these top speeds on a 15-mile segment. But the grand plan calls for shearing an hour or more off the trip between the two cities with high-speed travel over about 75% of the route.

Trains departing Chicago for the Motor City are also gearing up for a four-hour HSR option. Amtrak's Wolverine service between Chicago and Pontiac, MI, has opened up about 90 miles of track for speeds up to 110 mph.

High Speed's Needs

For HSR to fly, it has to deliver. According to Amtrak's market surveys, it would take reducing the trip from New York to Washington down to 90 minutes and from New York to Boston to two hours to really excite potential customers. That's about 45% faster than current capabilities and—if you factor in the additional time required to travel to an airport, clear security, and wait to board—it's at least as fast as flying.

Amtrak's $151-billion NEC upgrade will fund projects such as building dedicated tracks for safe, comfortable operation at higher speeds. To reach the projected speeds of 200 mph or more, a train would need about five minutes of acceleration over 16 miles of straight, flat track. High-speed trains require much gentler curves than traditional trains—curves must have at least a three-mile radius, compared to the half-mile that typical trains require. To allow trains to reach and maintain maximum speed, curves should be even more gradual, although curved sections of track can be banked like a race car track to counter the force of a high-speed train. The alignment of a dedicated high-speed line would have to be designed around these types of restrictions.

Amtrak has based its projected future fleet of rolling stock on the design and performance standards of current French and German trains. The next-generation high-speed train is envisioned as a 400-passenger train comprising two power cars and eight coaches with three classes of seating, a café car, Wi-Fi, and other rider amenities. Amtrak used computer simulations of HSR operations that modeled factors such as the geometry of the rail alignment, the performance specifications of comparable trains, and number of station stops to calculate how much of the route a train could actually operate at 220 mph. Even with slowdowns and wait times, calculations suggest that Amtrak's concept would match the vaunted average speeds of other HSR systems worldwide.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

In the future, a high-speed network permitting 220 mph speed could reduce the length of an end-to-end trip from Boston to the capital to just three hours.


December 2012

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org