Next meeting, Zoom, Monday 11/7, 8pm
Wheels on Steel:
International Railway Journal
Railway Track & Structure
In the Tube:
Yahoo Finance / Fox Business
Up in the Air:
The Washington Post
CNBC | Youtbe
As was announced in the news, the Hyperloop Pod race tube has been dismantled at the SpaceX campus in Hawthorne, CA. While there were always naysayers about the Hyperloop (we included), it is worth remembering what happened there on that campus in 2017 thru 2019. After all, it was a celebration of transportation technology... in that parking lot and street.
But it was more than that back at the first competition in January 2017. I witnessed engineers from across the university put their life aside to work on this advanced technology. Then I watched as thousands of people convened on the SpaceX campus to take part in the very first Hyperloop competition. While the competition was classified as a “Hyperloop” competition, it was a celebration of advanced high-speed technology. In the tents that lined the street were superconducting maglevs, advanced battery-operated autonomous cars, rockets, and the dreams of passenger space travel. All the while you could have your taco truck and bands. It really was a celebration of transportation technology.logy.hnology.nology.ology.logy.ogy.gy.y.
But it was more than that back at the first competition in January 2017. I witnessed engineers from across the university put their life aside to work on this advanced technology. Then I watched as thousands of people convened on the SpaceX campus to take part in the very first Hyperloop competition. While the competition was classified as a “Hyperloop” competition, it was a celebration of advanced high-speed technology. In the tents that lined the street were superconducting maglevs, advanced battery-operated autonomous cars, rockets, and the dreams of passenger space travel. All the while you could have your taco truck and bands. Itbration of transportation technology.
Of course, then teams from around the world went on competition 2, 3, & 4; and some companies received some serious seed funding FROM THE EUROPEAN RAILROADS and AIRBUS! It was a wild experience.
So did a new technology emerge from that Hyperloop tube…not yet. However, was it a way to get people excited about future transportation technology – absolutely! And in fact, while the tube is now gone…. get ready. In about 5-7 years the United States will be hitting the transportation tech button again as high-speed transportation projects from California, Texas, and DC start seeing trains at speeds that will make the student pods in the Space Hyperloop tube look like a horse and buggy.
So again, the tube may be gone, but the dream is living on…the dream to “Go Faster”
Amtrak Connects US: One Giant Leap for American Passenger Rail
By Alexander Kofman
In November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was signed into law. Among other historic investments, the new law awarded $66 billion to Amtrak to expand and improve its services. With this historic cash infusion in hand, Amtrak is not going to turn around and pour all the money into a high-speed line between Chicago and Minneapolis or anywhere else in the country. But the money won’t be wasted either. With the Amtrak Connects US program, the railroad promises to radically expand service and reverse 75 years of decline in American passenger service.
What Is Amtrak Proposing?
While the full Amtrak report is readable, detailed, and informative, it is 76 pages long, so here’s the short version. Amtrak superimposed its current route network over the America 2050 study done by the Regional Plan Association to draw new and expanded routes. Of the three categories of Amtrak service (Northeast Corridor, State Supported, and Long Distance), the expansions fall mostly on State Supported routes with some enhancements to Northeast Corridor services as well.
RPA America 2050 Study map showing growing megaregions with the Amtrak rail network superimposed.
Amtrak Connects US map showing a vision for rail corridor service to be implemented by 2035. Note how closely the service matches the megaregion map.
Let’s have a look at each region and the Northeast Corridor separately.
Amtrak arguably has the least ambitious plans on the West Coast, which already enjoys robust service on the Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest, between Sacramento and the Bay Area under Amtrak California branding, and the highly successful Pacific Surfliner connecting Southern California. Three high-speed rail lines are currently in various stages of development on the West Coast: California High Speed Rail, Brightline West, and Cascadia Ultra High-Speed Rail. Until they become available, Amtrak proposes to bolster service on the Cascades and Pacific Surfliner routes, create a new service to Phoenix to augment the long-distance Sunset Limited, and revive a route to Las Vegas that has not been served since the Desert Wind service ended in 1997.
Texas and Mountain West
Along the Front Range, from Pueblo to Denver to Cheyenne, Amtrak and the states of Wyoming and Colorado hope to revive services that have not operated in many years. The Denver to Cheyenne route disappeared along with the Pioneer in 1997, and service south of Denver has not operated since Amtrak was created in 1971. The renewed line is a culmination of 20 years of momentum, and discussions have also sometimes included extensions south to Albuquerque and El Paso, TX, 500 miles to the south.
In Texas, Amtrak hopes to introduce new regional service to supplement the daily Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle long-distance services and significantly expand the Heartland Flyer service from Ft. Worth to Oklahoma City. New regional services will be created to connect the Texas Triangle, and the Flyer will be extended to connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton, KS and increased to three times a day. The Dallas to Houston leg overlaps with the Texas Central Railroad high-speed service that is in development, but as with the West Coast services, Amtrak hopes to fill the gap until TCRR begins operations and serve as a regional rail partner to the high-speed line later. The Texas DOT also proposed a new service from Dallas/Ft. Worth east to Jackson and Meridian, MS to connect to other existing Amtrak services, but the railroad has not chosen to pursue this idea yet.
For the first time in at least half a century, the South is getting the regional rail connections it has been denied. Amtrak’s plodding Crescent, Palmetto, and Silver Service trains will be supplemented by frequent state-supported rail services radiating out from Atlanta and connecting the Southeast in a way that only highways and puddle-jumping airplanes do today. Amtrak’s proposal pairs well with the ATL Trains proposal circulated by Caleb Stubbs that calls for an expansive regional rail network around Atlanta made possible by an abundance of underutilized freight right-of-way (ROW). The existence of 100-foot wide single-track ROW also bodes well for high-speed rail development in the Southeast if portions of existing corridors can be rededicated to allow for separate trackage in the future.
Although it starts in much better shape than the South, the anemic Midwest services offered by Amtrak are slated to receive a much-needed upgrade. In Illinois, trains will see speed and reliability upgrades, plus new services to Rockford and to Moline, continuing on to the Quad Cities. In Michigan, Amtrak will double train frequencies on its three lines to 11 Michigan-bound trains each day from Chicago. One of those Wolverine trains will continue to Toronto via Detroit as well.
Ohio is another big winner. Three round trips per day will connect the 3C+D corridor of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati. The Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit corridor will also receive three daily round trips. Cleveland will also receive another connection to Buffalo with an Empire Service extension to augment the existing Lake Shore Limited, which arrives in Cleveland in both directions in the middle of the night. Four trains per day will run from Chicago to Cincinnati via Indianapolis along the current route of the three-times-weekly Cardinal, and a further four daily trains will turn south at Indianapolis to serve Louisville.
In Wisconsin, Amtrak will extend its incredibly successful Hiawatha service from seven to ten trips per day. Three of these trains will be extended from Milwaukee to Green Bay via Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Appleton. Four of the ten daily trains will run to Madison via Watertown and Oconomowoc. The City of Madison has begun the process of planning and building its new Amtrak station, and we are watching that process closely. Of the four daily round-trips to Madison, three of them will continue on to Minneapolis under the TCMC plan. Combined with the Empire Builder, which will continue to operate via Columbus and La Crosse, the four daily trips will be split between La Crosse and Eau Claire. In Minneapolis, passengers will be able to connect to the Northern Lights Express that will run north to Duluth, MN, and Superior, WI. The NLX is a revived version of the North Star service that was discontinued in 1986.
Northeast State-Supported Services
As with the Midwest, Amtrak is promising to greatly expand its current regional services and introduce several new ones as well. The railroad predicts New Hampshire will overcome its long resistance to passenger rail to receive service to Concord and Manchester along a new route, and that Maine will extend its Downeaster service north to Rockland and increase its frequency along some or all of the route.
New York State is funding a massive increase in Empire Service trains to 17 round trips per day between New York City and Albany, nine of which will extend north or west across the state. Service to Niagara Falls will be increased and sped up, with one train a day still reaching Toronto and one more now extending to Cleveland as mentioned in the Midwest section. Service on the Ethan Allen Express will be extended from Rutland to Burlington, VT. Service on the Vermonter, which originates in Washington and passes through New York and Connecticut, will now be extended to Montreal. Amtrak is hoping that US and Canadian customs officials can shorten the international border crossing times, which have become impractically long since 9/11. Finally, Amtrak is looking at service to Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, along the LIRR commuter railroad mainline. This connection would make it easier for Long Island customers to connect to Amtrak services along the Northeast Corridor compared to the current journey to Penn Station to begin the longer-distance trip.
Pennsylvania hopes to expand the Keystone Service to 17 daily trips with 125 mph service and introduce several new routes. Currently under development are services from Allentown and Scranton into New York City and an upgrade to the Pennsylvanian. The current New York to Pittsburgh train would be doubled to two daily trips, one of which would extend to Cleveland along the current route of the Capitol Limited long-distance service.
Amtrak released an entirely separate 275-page plan called CONNECT NEC 2035 in July 2021 to explain its vision for upgrades and improvements to the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the stretch of track from Boston to Washington that Amtrak itself owns and controls. Before the pandemic, the NEC hosted 760,000 daily trips across eight commuter railroads, plus a further 40,000 Amtrak riders on over 50 daily trains. The system is crowded and its aging infrastructure needs capacity, reliability, and speed upgrades if it is to serve the region even better.
The CONNECT plan hopes to decrease travel time from Washington to Boston by 25% for riders of the Acela with a 30-minute travel time improvement in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In addition, the upgrades will allow for 30% more NEC Amtrak service and up to double service for some of the commuter railroads along the line. Also included in this plan is the Gateway program in New York, which will increase capacity across the Hudson River and allow Metro-North commuter trains to access Penn Station, opening up the prospect of through-running between Metro-North and New Jersey Transit trains.
How Can Amtrak Help High Speed Rail?
Detractors contend Amtrak is slow and unreliable. How can investing billions of dollars in service that has a maximum speed of only 79 miles per hour be helpful for developing high-speed rail?
While it’s true that Amtrak needs structural change, including new management that will aggressively pursue improved service that can really compete with driving or flying outside of the Northeast Corridor, extension of the US passenger rail network remains a good thing. The benefits are threefold: New communities will be connected to the network, fares on these new routes will be at subsidized prices, and Amtrak will prove out the notion that rail is good for the communities that have been left behind by urbanization.
The primary goal of Amtrak Connects US is exactly what it says on the tin: to connect the entire United States to rail service. Given that almost all big cities save Nashville already have Amtrak service, the bulk of the expansion will benefit the smaller cities and towns that today can only watch the train speed past them from one city to the next, like Watertown and Oconomowoc. Other big winners are places where the one train a day comes in the middle of the night, like Cleveland, or the places that today are connected only by a very long detour, like Detroit and Toledo. Even Madison will be a big winner. It’s a win that feels like a loss after the derailment of the Madison-Milwaukee high speed line, but a train east to Milwaukee and Chicago and west to Minneapolis is far superior to the anemic bus service that Amtrak provides Madison today. Connecting communities large and small to an upgraded national network can only be a good thing. Overall, it will reduce the inequality of connections that small cities and towns have suffered from for decades. It will provide redress for the rightfully angry people there who want to be included in the economic boom that follows the railroad even today.
Connecting these communities to a functioning conventional rail network is a crucial first step to effective high speed services. A high-speed train can make more stops than an airplane, but it cannot stop at every small station along the route. In Japan, Germany, Italy, and everywhere else with successful high-speed service, the fastest trains are supported by conventional regional rail that feeds the fastest services that connect the biggest stations. A healthy and popular conventional rail network is a necessary condition for high-speed rail to be built out at any significant scale.
The last thing to note is that people genuinely like trains. It’s not for nothing that rail service in the Northeast is competitive with air and road travel along the corridor. That level of popularity is only possible with effort: there are more than 50 Northeast Regional trains each day including the popular Acela express service. By connecting so much more of the country and making train travel a genuine option instead of an oddity for a majority of Americans, high-speed rail will also ride the boost in popularity and become an improvement on an existing service instead of an alleged boondoggle to construct something untested.
If Amtrak implemented this plan and completed its planned fleet refresh and did nothing else by 2035, it would still be a big win for passenger rail. But for many of us High Speed Rail (HSR) advocates, Amtrak can go even further. To explore this possibility, WiHST is launching a project to study which current or planned Amtrak corridors would benefit the most from an upgrade to higher speeds. With eminent domain, Amtrak can in some cases take control of freight lines and upgrade them from the current 45-90 mph to as fast as 125 or 150 mph as ROW conditions allow. The increased speed, paired with increased frequency, can transform a small regional route into a major player in its corridor. The upgraded speed and frequency can boost ridership by taking cars off the road and planes out of the sky, as well as boosting advocacy for the routes that connect to it. This second path to HSR provides a way for Amtrak to work within the existing framework and build a robust higher-speed network all around the country.
Youtube Channels We Love: Geoffrey Bear at WTTW Chicago
Anyone who has grown up in Chicagoland and watched the PBS station WTTW will immediately recognize the familiar voice and bald head of our favorite Chicago tour guide - Geoffrey Baer.
If you are new to Chicago or lived there your whole life, Geoffrey does a great job of bringing the past to life with the series creative ways of touring the city, and farther abroad.
Some our favorite videos are:
Then there is the time that Geoffrey extended his tours to Wisconsin, and of course Lake Geneva:
You can find the whole Geoffrey Baer playlist here.
The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.