Episode 43: High Speed Rail with Andy Kunz (U.S. High Speed Rail Association)


High speed rail ain't your grandparents' type of train. Modern high speed rail systems sustain speeds of more than 125 MPH, drastically cutting transit time between major destinations while reducing road congestion at the same time. In this episode, you’ll learn about the many benefits of these systems and why so many global cities have developed state of the art systems while the U.S. lags behind. Prior to arriving at our final destination, we’ll also talk with Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, who will give us his insights on why he started the Association, how high speed rail can be built economically, and how listeners can help make more high speed rail a reality. Whether you’re sitting in traffic or whizzing by at 200 MPH, we know you’ll enjoy this episode. All aboard!

Learn more about green transportation alternatives here!

Episode Intro Notes

What We’ll cover

  • What qualifies as high speed rail?

  • What’s the history of high speed rail?

  • Where does high speed rail exist today?

  • What are some of the reasons that high speed rail is considered to be sustainable?

  • What are the criticisms of HSR?

  • What are some of the future plans to build more HSR and what typically holds it back?

  • More on U.S. High Speed Rail Association and its president Andy Kunz

What Qualifies as High Speed Rail?

  • The definition of “high speed” differs depending on where you look and who you ask. U.S. federal code says that trains that reach “sustained speeds of 125 miles per hour” count as high speed. Other speeds are listed in other sources, but we feel like U.S. federal code is pretty authoritative so we hereby deem sustained speeds of 125 miles per hour as what qualifies as high speed rail. *gavel slams*

  • Other than speed, high speed rail is different than traditional train lines in a few ways. 

    • For one, the curvature of HSR train lines is far more gradual (i.e. gentler turns) than highways or older train lines to account for stability when the train cars hit the turns at such high speeds.

    • Second, as elementary as it may sound, HSR train cars look fast as compared to old fashioned trains. Their noses are designed to be more aerodynamic and reduce noise. Send our apologies to Thomas the Tank Engine - he’s clearly not HSR material.

    • Third, HSR lines are typically grade-separated, meaning that they are on top of a bridge so that they don’t have to intersect with cars, which allows them to move along at top speeds.

History of HSR Lines

  • Back in 1830, the steam engine dubbed “the rocket” debuted on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. How fast did it go? We’re talking 36 MPH. You listeners may scoff, but we will have you know that a member of Britain’s parliament was hit and killed on opening day.

    • But let’s be real, our favorite the Rocket is Chet Steadman from Rookie of the Year. Gary Busey at his finest.

  • Fast forward (haha) to when Japan opened the world's first high-speed rail line, between Tokyo and Osaka, in time for the 1964 Olympics.

Where does HSR exist today?

  • With that history under our belts, let’s explore where HSR exists today.

  • Since those early HSR trains in Italy and France, Europe has built up an extensive rail network. Spain has actually spent more money on rail than roads since 2003. In fact, Spain’s Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) network is the longest high speed rail network in Europe at over 2000 miles. That’s over half the distance to the earth’s core!

  • Recall that Japan built the first HSR in the 1960’s. Since that time, it has moved more than 9 billion people without one casualty

  • Saudi Arabia opened the first HSR in the Middle East in October 2018. It connects two of the holiest cities in Islam--Mecca and Medina. It travels the 280 miles between these two cities in just two hours. 

  • Africa got its first high speed rail line in 2018 that connects Tangier to Casablanca with speeds reaching 200 MPH. The hope is this $2 billion train will spur tourism and development but some say it is misplaced funds in a poor country where so many lack basic necessities.

  • In the U.S., there are no high speed rail lines that meet our definition.

    • Some of our U.S. listeners might be like well what about Amtrak’s Acela? Well not so much. It opened in 1999. It goes between DC and Boston, reaching 150 miles per hour for only 34 miles of its 457 mile span. It averages only 85 miles per hour over its full route due to limitations of the tracks and overhead electric lines. 

What are some of the reasons that HSR is considered to be sustainable?

  • One reason is because almost all high speed trains run on electricity, as opposed to diesel trains. The fact that it is electric is also part of how it’s able to reach such high speeds. Electric trains are more efficient; diesel trains only transfer about 30-35 percent of the energy generated by combustion to the wheels. Electric trains, in contrast, transfer about 95 percent of the energy to the wheels.

    • Unfortunately, almost all passenger and freight rail in the US is still running on diesel. Electrified rail is currently used on less than 1 percent of U.S. railroad tracks while electricity supplies more than one-third of the energy that powers trains globally.

  • Another argument for sustainability is that on a per-passenger-mile basis, the operational carbon footprint of high speed rail is lower than that of automobiles or planes. A 2018 study looked at transit in Europe with planes versus trains and found a significant difference along many routes. For example, from Paris to Barcelona, a plane emits 238 kilograms of C02 emissions per passenger for a one-way trip, compared to only 11 kilograms per passenger for a train. That’s not even 5% of the emissions of a plane!

    • Reducing transportation emissions is a big deal because according to the U.S. EPA,  in 2017 the transportation sector was the U.S.’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, edging out electricity and industry.

  • Let’s also consider the overall efficiency of HSR which we’ll consider in 3 ways.

    • First, in terms of passengers. One high speed rail train holds 1,100 passengers, and loads and unloads in 5 minutes. That’s the same number of passengers as nine airplanes, which can take an hour to taxi and load/unload. Plus, you can simply tack a new car full of passengers onto the end to take more people.

    • Second is space. The direct and indirect land taken by cars of a three lane highway is almost three times as much as a one lane high speed rail line.

    • Third for efficiency is energy efficiency. In 2016, rail globally accounted for 8 percent of the world’s motorized passengers and 7 percent of its freight. Yet, it only accounted for only two percent of energy consumed in the transportation sector. The reasons for this energy efficiency include the discussed passenger efficiency, the high efficiency of electric motors, and the efficiency of fuel use resulting from the very low resistance offered by the steel-to-steel interface between wheels and tracks.

      • Of course, it’s not so green if all that energy is coming from fossil fuels. In the case of Japan and France, its trains run on zero emission nuclear energy.

  • HSR is also seen as an urban development tool since HSR stations can be built in the heart of downtown or close to it with connecting lines. The term typically used to describe this is “transit oriented development.” The thinking is that trains can reduce congestion on our roads and also drive development based on placing stations in areas that have walkable designs.

    • Consider the Rosslyn-Ballston area near DC. City planners starting 30 years ago created high density areas around the metro train stations. Property values skyrocketed, property taxes stayed the same due to increased tax revenue from businesses, and 70% of public transit riders in that area commute to the station by foot.

    • In China, HSR has made Shanghai accessible. There are 75 million people living in the cheaper suburbs that can get downtown in less than an hour.

Criticisms of HSR

  • There is land disruption, especially if building where there was no rail line before. It can also displace or disrupt current landowners.

  • There are significant carbon emissions associated with the construction of rail lines because of earth moving, tunnel boring, cement required, etc.

  • Further, emission reductions from HSR only come if people avoid car and plane trips, planes don’t fly that otherwise would, and other infrastructure doesn’t get built because of HSR.

  • It can also be freaking expensive. California’s planned HSR, which we’ll get to, costs $148 million per mile. China does it at $30 million per mile because land acquisition costs are lower, labor costs are lower, and it mass produces the infrastructure.

    • In general, HSR makes financial sense when you have dense cities that are several hours car ride away, ideally with flat land and areas that are important to connect to in between. 

      • Consider this financial boondoggle (that’s a fun word). China built one largely for political reasons from Lanzhou (lang-joe) and Urumqi (air-um-ji) where there is nothing notable between them on the 11 hour trip. The revenue doesn’t even cover simply the electricity to run the train.

Future Plans and What Holds it Back

  • So first let’s talk United States. Yes, we’ve been lagging way behind the world on this front, but there is serious action taking place.

    • There are lines being discussed from Portland to Vancouver to Washington State as well as Las Vegas to Southern California, but both are struggling with funding. 

  • Florida actually has some private train tracks built that go between Miami to Fort Lauderdale in 30 minutes and Miami to Long Beach in 60 minutes. None of it is HSR as we have defined it. It was a conscious choice to not grade separate to save money and build it faster even though it meant slower trains. Still, Virgin Trains plans to build to Orlando airport and Walt Disney World, as well as to Tampa with trains that go up to 125 miles per hour. 

  • Houston to Dallas. Privately owned Texas Central Partners wants to build a line that would connect the two cities in 90 minutes with Japanese style bullet trains that go upwards of 200 miles per hour. That’s in contrast to the current 3.5 hour drive - which I’ve made countless times… shoutout to Sam’s Diner in Fairfield just off I-45. But let’s be real, Texans love their cars so we don’t know if this will attract enough passengers to offset the cost. They have not secured the $12 billion needed nor all of the required land rights.

    • Speaking of land rights, I listened to an episode of The Eminent Domain Podcast focused on this project. 30 minutes of glorious legal intricacies. The main takeaway for me was that this company wants to be like a railroad and have the power to survey and take land via eminent domain. The Texas courts have said no because a railroad is defined as in operation prior to some date long ago or operating a railroad. Texas Central Partners is neither. Check out that podcast if you want to learn more!

  • Then there is California, which hosts the only HSR project in the US that’s currently under construction. The initial plan was to build a line that spans 520 miles and connects Sacramento to San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim. They decided to build in segments, with the first segment the 119 miles between Bakersfield and Madera.

    • This California project is facing the same headwinds as all the other U.S. projects--money and political will. In Calfonia’s case, the state is almost 50 billion dollars short of the 77.3 billion dollars it needs to complete the entire project. The Governor announced in February 2019 that the state would move forward only with the 119 miles in the Central Valley.

  • Overall within the US, we can say that Americans want these trains and will use them. One 2015 survey found that when told of these cost and time saving benefits, Millennials and young people (18-44) reporting strong likelihood of use jumped from 71 percent to 76 percent.

  • Let’s look globally now.

  • Remember China’s more than 15,000 miles of HSR? Well it has plans to double that by 2030. It also wants to extend its network outside China through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.

  • In the UK, hot in the news right now is the HS2 line that has been in the works for 15 years. It would have trains exceeding 200 miles per hour and connect eight of Britain’s ten largest cities including Edinburgh, and Glasgow. There is concern about its spiraling costs and environmental impacts due to tunneling and land use. The hope is to have train service start by 2026.

      • Jay’s experience on the Chunnel

  • Thinking very long-term, there is a super ambitious plan called the Africa Integrated High Speed Rail Network. It would build on and improve existing railways, including building more than 7,000 miles of new track to link all of Africa’s commercial centers with HSR by 2063. There are concerns about corruption and also relying too heavily on Chinese loans.

  • We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least acknowledge the Hyperloop system that’s been in conversation for some time now and could go as high as 700 miles per hour. In a nutshell, a hyperloop is a sealed system of tubes that can carry train cars with no air resistance and at very high speeds. You can visit hyperloop-one.com for more info and sleek interfaces touting how efficient the system could be. It’s all test tracks for now; no actual lines until 2030 at the earliest.

  • And then there’s “maglev” - magnetic levitation trains. Maglev trains use magnetic repulsion both to levitate the train up from the ground, which reduces friction, and to propel it forward. There are maglev trains in operation in China, South Korea, and Japan. China in May 2019 showed off a prototype maglev train that can reach speeds of about 375 miles per hour that it hopes to produce commercially by 2021.

Andy Kunz, President and CEO, U.S. High Speed Rail Association

  • Andy is a national award-winning designer with a background in community design, urban planning, and sustainability. He has designed a wide variety of projects including a number of new towns and transit-oriented developments. 

  • He started the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, which focuses on advancing a modern, national High-Speed Rail (HSR) network across the United States. It envisions a 17,000 mile national high speed rail network in the U.S. with state of the art trains that travel faster than 200 MPH. Its plan also includes a support network of 110 MPH trains connecting smaller cities and towns with the HSR lines.