Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

The wrong place to put high-speed rail


I drew it out for everyone.

Conde Nast’s Joe Brancatelli has a few suggestions to Obama about transportation. One of them involves building a high-speed rail network (yep), but he gets something wrong.

What the nation needs is a titanic investment in high-speed, short-haul rail service between heavily populated major cities. What we need is inter-modal solutions that create express rail links between major airports, nearby suburbs and city centers. Recreating the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago isn’t the answer. Creating a 21st Century Amtrak that links Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to tens of millions of travelers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana is.

Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even getting into the biz themselves, like Air France. This is great. What we can’t do, however, is make the mistake of seeing high-speed rail as merely some replacement for short-haul connection flights. Trains [probably] won’t ever be as fast as planes, so it’s critical that we don’t remove from them one of their best advantages over flying: being able to leave and arrive right from the city.

For one thing, this makes things easier for travelers. Airports are generally located in the far-flung fringes of an urban area. The trip to and from the airport after the plane has landed can be long, expensive, and cumbersome for travelers. This is true for drivers and doubly true for users of mass transit. If you’re lucky, the city has a rail transit connection to its airport. If you’re not, get ready to put up with a more confusing bus ride or a pricey cab fare. Even if there is a connection, like the CTA’s Blue Line at O’Hare, those trains are usually neither suited for luggage nor the long suburban distances. It’s much more practical to have our trains arriving and leaving in the cities themselves, where they are well served by local transportation and close to urban amenities and destinations. The UK is looking at having Heathrow be the hub for a national HSR scheme, but Heathrow already has an express rail connection to London, and as part of the plan will be getting an even faster one. I don’t envision the political will ever materializing for something like that in the United States. Transit connections will always be “good enough.”

This also dips into the realm of urban policy. Focusing our tax money on airports will encourage more development in those far-flung suburbs. Conference centers and hotels will thrive out there while struggling in the cities. More subsidized sprawl is the least thing we need when we should be weaning ourselves off of oil and heading towards a greener economy. Missing the forest for the trees is part of what got us into our current transportation mess. We can’t afford to let that happen again.

And the right-of-ways for bringing trains into the city have existed for a long time. Improving these existing links and giving Amtrak the improved capacity is desperately needs should be our first priority. Refocusing our rail system onto the airports is a foolhardy waste of money. A better suggestion for Obama would be to get to work on improving the extensive infrastructure we already have and making it look at least a little bit like it might be the rail system of a first-world country. The Midwest HSR project would, as always, be a very very good place to start.


Filed under: Travel Woes, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

9 Responses

  1. MissionPk says:

    While I agree that the “hub” should be the city-center, I do think having the airport as a through stop (not a spur line) can be a big win. A large reason that both Zurich and, especially, Frankfurt are such regional hubs is the ease of getting to their airports from any station in the network. Basically any inner-city train that goes to Zurich or Frankfurt also continues on to the airport.


  2. Jason says:

    I agree with Dave.

    Airports can effectively serve two types of HSR stops:

    1. Stops that are on the way to other cities. For instance, Newark Liberty is on the way to/from NYC from the southeast.

    2. For smaller cities and airports, it might make since for a bypass HSR line to stop at an airport, saving trip time for those not traveling to the city and providing connections to the airport. This makes since in places where many high speed trains would not stop. For instance, Merced, CA should have a stop downtown, but it might also make since to have a bypass line that stops at the airport as well.

    But I do agree with the premise of your post.

  3. Logan-
    I appreciate your shout out for my column, but I think you missed my point. We need to connect big airports like O’Hare and Atlanta Hartsfield to many communities, not JUST the main metropolitan city center it serves. And we need city-to-city links, too. I do not suggest that airports serve as hubs for high-speed rail, although some of your other posters do note how well Frankfurt works as both a train and airline nexus. I suggest that inter-modal and city-to-city is what we need, not the fantasy of a “national” rail network.
    Joe Brancatelli //

  4. Anonymous says:

    Joe – When you have a city-to-city rail link, you’ve got a link that goes from every city on the network to every other city on the network. If that network stretches from Boston to LA, then it’s national.

  5. […] to set up high speed rail: this article argues that it is correct to hub the high speed rail in the cities rather than in the airports: Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even […]

  6. Allan says:

    I must agree with Dave. When I flew into Frankfurt, I had no interest in going anywhere in Frankfurt. It was just a way point on my trip and the fact that there was a train station in the airport was great!

    Please don’t try to use HSR as some sort of an urban renewal project.

    In fact, I think HSR is mostly a waste of money. We could do just as well by improving the track, straightening the curves, separating the grade, etc. so that the trains can go “fast” … 90-100 mph. Will the extra 50 mph really make much of a difference on short haul routes? Especially with those intermediate stops? Nah, not really.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it. If you have the need for speed then go with maglev. It cost about the same to build; operating and maintenance costs are significantly lower; it’s faster; it accelerates and decelerates faster (thus allowing it to remain at top speed longer). You can see my previous posts on this blog concerning the above statements.

    But if you want the best bang for the buck, then go with “fast” (90-100) and forget HSR.

  7. Don says:

    I agree with the best bang for the buck theory and in the US (and for the time being) it is the 90-110 mph trains (and the author does acknowledge this at the end of his post — “making it look a little bit like…”).

    In the US we seem to have the image that every one in Europe is zipping around in ICE/TGV/AVE, etc trains. Simply not so and what we should be doing in this country (trot first sprint later) is emulating their Regional and Regional Express trains which generally run at the speeds noted above, combined with our traditional LD trains operating at similar speeds (but not with EMU/DMUs like the do over there as we still have too many at grade crossings and mindless drivers).

    Frankfurt and Zurich are good examples of how to do aviation and rail (when it is geographically possible) but I like Munich at it is a true hub with two rail lines to the airport. Fortunately, they scrapped the idea of MagLev out to the airport and we should not be talking about it here in the US. One reason is that it is not compatible with existing rail infrastructure.

    If we ever get around to really high speed rail (e.g., 150 mph plus) these trains will need dedicated ROW. However, they can still access existing transportation facilities (MMTCs) on existing rail corridors. I don’t know what the power drain per passenger would be for MagLev but I can’t see how it can be as efficient as steel on steel technology with regenerative braking.

    Lets face it, if a consortium of the German govt, the DB, TransRapid, Siemens, Lufthansa, Munich and the Free State of Bayern can’t make MagLev work in Germany then it is not going to work here. MagLev was once a promising technology but it simply was overtaken by incremental upgrades to steel on steel. Perhaps a special use application here and there but no one reading this post, or their children, are going to ride a MagLev train coast to coast in this country or any other. So, MagLev folks need to get on board the steel on steel train and lets get the best bang for our bucks!

    I also have no problem wiith using transportation (see MMTC) as an “urban renewal project.” I have enough experience at the Chamber of Commerce level to understand that if you want to attract new business to your community then you better have a vibrant CBD. Sure, good schools and medical facilities are important, but nothing reflects, and more quickly, on a city’s stature than the condition of its core (and you cannot hid it as the prospect will ask to see it).

  8. Allan says:


    I’m glad we agree on the best bang for the buck part.

    As for maglev, you yourself stated that HSR needs a dedicated ROW and thus that eliminates argument that maglev isn’t compatible with existing rail … well neither is HSR if you want “high speed”. Yes, it can use existing rails but at normal speeds.

    Maglev uses less energy for the simple reason that it doesn’t need to overcome friction to speed up. It accelerates and decelerates faster (while using less energy) than HSR.

    As for Germany and maglev, the maglev works it’s the politics that didn’t. Just here. HSR or maglev works but getting the money for either is like yanking teeth. There is an existing, working maglev line in Shanghai.

    Transportation should be just that … transportation. When you deliberately attempt to divert people downtown when that isn’t where they want to go, then you start to lose passengers. Which, in turn, defeats both the transportation purpose and the renewal purpose.

  9. netdragon says:

    Short-haul is how our original rail network got built, with hubs. I know it’d be great if the high-speed connections were built first over long-haul distances, however that probably won’t happen first. Main issues is that it’s tough to get states to cooperate. For instance, the AtlantaChattanooga airport connection line is short-haul and will probably get built soon (see however to connect Atlanta and Charlotte, South Carolina has to play nice and considering they’d foot most of the bill, it may be tough to get them on board unless Georgia and North Carolina practically pay S.C’s way.

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