The ABCs of High Speed Rail

by trenzpruca

From the reports that I read recently about High Speed Rail(HSR)

Taiwan High Speed Rail Shinkansen 700T at plat...

Taiwan High Speed Rail Shinkansen 700T at platform of Banciao Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and the public reaction to it, I have been most concerned about the lack of understanding of HSR, what it is and what it can be expected to do. So, I thought I would prepare a few posts on the ABC’s of HSR in hope that it may provide some clarity and aid in the public debate.

As a former Chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, I sometime still follow the news reports about the world-wide High Speed Rail industry. I also served as a director of the California State Coastal Conservency an agency created as part of  California’s massive Coastal Program. In addition, I wrote several sections of the California Coastal Plan and consider myself one of the principle drafters and consultants on the legislation setting up the program.

I mention this by way of demonstrating that I hopefully have absorbed at least a modest understanding of High Speed Rail and regional planning.

HSR What it is and What it is not.

A once and future governor of California, Jerry Brown, referred to HSR as a Buck Rodgers thing,” implying that it is some complex high technology system beyond the ordinary person to understand. It definitely is not.

It is actually an amalgam of two old technologies with which we all are familiar.

The first technology is well over two hundred years old. We all know it as the technology of almost all railroads the world over, steel wheels riding on steel rails. (Note: a version of HSR powered by magnetic levitation is in fact a high technology system but it exists only in a few experimental and operational examples. Almost all HSR remains the tried and true wheel on rail system. Later on I will explain why this is so.)

The second concept, if not precisely a technology, relied upon by HSR is more or less the same as that represented by national highway systems instituted in the US and other countries beginning in the 1950s, for the most part. That was not “Buck Rogers” either.

Before creation of the modern highway systems, it used to take a long time getting anywhere by car, not because the car couldn’t go fast, it did, but because of the roads. The roads of the time required a traveller to often stop at almost every intersection and there were many many intersections. The roads often meandered and curved in ways that were not optimum for efficient higher speed driving. Finally the roads were often poorly and inconsistantly graded and made with materials that puckered or rutted (pot holes and the like) causing vibrations that reduced the speed at which you could drive, not to mention the increased wear and tear on the automobile and its occupants.

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...

Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a result, if one wanted to cross the country by car at that time, it took several weeks. Faster than by horse but not optimum for the machine one was riding in.

So the US commenced upon a construction program to run four or more ribbons of high strength concrete across the country from east to west and more crossing the country from north to south. These ribbons of concrete were sturdy, relatively smooth, straight with gentle banked curves for optimum traveling and absent pesky at grade crossings. As a result now a person could drive across the country in about four days, not because his automobile suddenly got faster but because it could travel continuously at designed speeds. In fact the cars of that time could cross the country at about the same time as cars do today. Automotive technology, in response to construction of the Highway Systems, then moved not just to make cars faster but also lighter and more streamlined to save on energy as well as more comfortable for passengers during longer trips.

All HSR does is to take a traditional railroad, straighten out its right of way, flatten its road bed to reduce vibration and eliminate at grade crossings. If this is done, even existing equipment could reach speeds qualifying for the lower reaches of HSR. In fact, I estimate if the road bed were appropriately designed existing equipment could reduce the current travel tome between San Francisco and Los Angeles from the current 10 to 12 hours to about 4 to 5. But existing equipment remains too heavy, uses the wrong fuels and lacks streamlining to operate at maximum efficiency, just like old cars ceased  being optimum for freeway driving.

(Note, for many valid reasons the rolling stock [trains] of modern HSR require construction of overhead transmission lines to provide power to move the trains. The reason for this and its impact will be discussed later on.)

However, just as the highways were more expensive to build per mile given the materials and tolerances required so is HSR more expensive to build by mile than old style railroad

English: Map of designated and eligible high-s...

English: Map of designated and eligible high-speed rail corridors in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In 2006 the cost to construct a 4 lane divided highway, according to some estimates, could range from almost $20 million per mile to almost $300 million per mile. The costs for high-speed rail have been variously estimated as falling between $35 and $50 million per mile depending upon many variables. All these numbers obviously are highly volatile and depend upon specific conditions. It is however probably safe to conclude that given equivalent conditions the cost of constructing one mile of HSR is more than adding a single lane to an existing highway and generally less expensive than to construct a 4 lane divided highway.

I future posts I will discuss, rolling stock, relative costs, relative benefits, economics and the nature of some of the criticisms leveled at American HSR efforts.