Not Your Grandfather's Locomotive: High-Speed Rail

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In President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 27th, he mentioned Tampa’s upcoming high-speed rail (HSR) project and his subsequent trip there on January 28th. As was mentioned in his speech, Tampa’s new HSR line is not the only rail project addressed in the recent American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). Several other states are slated to receive federal funding for rail line improvements, totaling $8 billion. The Florida project will receive $1.25 billion to connect Tampa to the Orlando International Airport. California will receive $2.25 billion to begin a HSR line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Not Your Grandfather's Locomotive: High-Speed Rail

The $4.5 billion rail project balance will go to 31 other states to upgrade their existing rail lines for higher speed train traffic, and to repair tunnels and bridges along many existing rail lines. This map, produced by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), shows the regions that will be supported with ARRA funding.

Railroads are nearing two centuries of effective use in the United States; they have come a long way since the first commercial-use steam locomotive (the 13-foot-long Tom Thumb) had mechanical troubles and famously lost an impromptu race to a horse-drawn cart in 1830. Boxcars have evolved into fast rail cars stacked high with shipping containers. The transformation of the shipping container industry over the last few decades has kept rail freight of vital importance. Obsolete bridges have been raised in recent decades to allow taller stacks of container cars to use existing rail lines. Railroad technology is still improving and is a vital link to our infrastructure and economy. Rail clearly has a place in our transportation system and is not in danger of being replaced by trucking or air freight. As CSX is advertising now throughout the internet: We can move a ton of freight over 400 miles on a gallon of fuel. That’s impressive - a ‘fuel-ton-distance’ offering only bested by the marine shipping industry. There are raw economics involved in how our consumer goods are transported, with the ship-rail-truck-car sequence of modes being a routine means by which manufactured products arrive in our homes.

The “people” end of the rail business has been improving, too. Urban renewal, higher fuel prices, and Green initiatives have encouraged commuter light rail within cities and newer HSR lines between cities. Apart from the Florida and California HSR lines ARRA provides for, the remaining ARRA-funded rail projects will not technically meet the definition of passenger-carrying HSR, but they still offer needed upgrades and rail system enhancements that will allow for greater train speeds. One such example is the planned rail work between Chicago and St. Louis, which will improve passenger rail speeds up to 110 mph.

What Does “High-Speed Rail” Mean?


An exact definition is not universally agreed upon, but various sources claim that the United States' high speed threshold begins anywhere between 90 and 150 miles per hour, depending on whose definition is referenced, with most pegging the HSR threshold at 150 mph for passenger transport. Exceeding 90 mph with a diesel freight locomotive would be considered “high speed” by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The track systems of our railroad infrastructure have speed ratings established by the FRA. There are nine different FRA track classes with corresponding speed limit restrictions. Track Classes 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 begin to enter the threshold of HSR, having respective speed ratings of 90, 110, 125, 160, and 200 mph. Portions of the United States’ northeast corridor are the only locations where Class 8 track exists; these lines support the Acela train, America’s only true HSR passenger train, which allegedly achieves 150 mph during brief segments of its service in the northeastern corridor. The above video displays a rail-side view of the Acela in action. The train is not even obvious in this 41-second clip until halfway through the video!

European and Asian HSR…and Mag Lev

The Europeans and Asians are much more experienced with HSR trains than Americans. Most European and Asian HSR trains are powered by electricity, although a few diesel examples exist. A good example of European HSR is Spain’s AVE 103. This state-of-the-art 8800-kilowatt engine is operated with a 25 kilo-Volt, 50 Hertz AC overhead power system and can achieve 220 mph. Most European and Asian trains appear to have very similar electrical infrastructure requirements.


Overseas HSR systems are not to be confused with “Mag Lev”, or magnetic levitation systems, which are a completely different motive technology. But Mag Lev is a very capable sibling to HSR, one that very likely has a bright future. Mag Lev systems support the train and cars with a magnetic field and travel on guide-ways instead of railways. Mag Lev commuter trains are already seeing use in China and Japan in particular. The comparative speed records for these technologies indicate Mag Lev is slightly ahead at 361 mph, with electric-powered HSR at 357 mph, both of which are phenomenal. One big disadvantage of Mag Lev is a higher initial capital cost for the guide-way infrastructure. Normal HSR and Mag Lev service speeds overseas exceed 200 mph, significantly above our own Acela that has a 150 mph maximum speed limit, probably due to track limitations as opposed to engine power. This amazing video clip shows a Japanese Mag Lev train in operation. Note: 501 km/hr converts to 311 mph, or more than twice the speed of the Acela.

Jobs for America

As a result of the ARRA and its $8 billion HSR scope, there will be no lack of work to be done in the American rail industry. Mainly, that work will take the form of rail bed construction and the traditional construction work required to build rail stations and parking lots. A few criticisms of the ARRA-supported HSR program are that the scope and funding offered is not nearly enough (speculation is that the true costs for implementing a comprehensive start for HSR in America will exceed $100 billion), and that the heart of the technologies used will be foreign-sourced. Because the Asians and Europeans are far ahead of Americans in the practical use of HSR, the track systems, locomotives, and passenger cars ARRA pays for will likely come from overseas manufacturers. However, as this cross-sectional diagram of a generic railroad bed shows, a significant scope of construction work is required before the rails are laid. There’s more work required to complete rail bed construction than may be obvious from the finished product. Critics of the plan also point to the maintenance tail that follows an HSR project, a potentially expensive follow-on consideration for future budgets.

If you have a personal or professional connection to HSR rail construction or use, or more interesting photos or video, please let us know. We’d appreciate your thoughts as an article comment, forum post, or email!

Andrew Kimos

Andrew Kimos completed the civil engineering programs at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (B.S. 1987) and the University of Illinois (M.S. 1992) and is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Wisconsin. He served as a design engineer, construction project manager, facilities engineer, and executive leader in the Coast Guard for over 20 years. He worked as a regional airline pilot in the western U.S. before joining the team as Operations Channel Producer.

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