High-speed rail (HSR) is glitzy and glamorous. There is no question that it has captured the public’s imagination to an extent. It is a commendable accomplishment to see such a serious discussion revolving around the development of modern and competitive rail infrastructure. However, if the final goal are trains akin to those famous ones in France, Japan, and now China then the first infrastructure developments have to be, out of necessity for the survival of the whole system, significantly more functional and less glamorous: it’ll have to be regional rail. Stations are important, organizational structure is important, but a functional regional rail system is the glue keeping the whole thing together.
Like I have mentioned in a pervious article, the whole process begins by breaking up Amtrak and keeping only limited oversight, funding, and coordinating powers in a national body out of Washington, D.C. (or another city). The major powers to operate and maintain the system would be handed over to regional systems: New England and the Mid-Atlantic (i.e. the Northeast Corridor), the Midwest, the South, Texas and Southern Plains, the Great Plains, the Mountain States, California and the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Such a system would look much more like Europe, where national rail operators run autonomous systems with high levels of coordination and partnership through the EU and other trans-European entities helping to coordinate trans-national projects and services. This would be where DC still plays a role.
At a more localized level, each of these regional rail services could be further partitioned into operating districts organized around either a major urban center or cluster of smaller cities. Each of these could in fact be further subdivided into smaller districts that are even more localized, or used to coordinate how regional and intercity services work in relation to urban rail and transportation services. From a superficial perspective it does appear like a number of unnecessary layers and operating organizations, but the whole purpose of layered operations is to ensure a level of coordination wherein transfers between modes is actually convenient.
Take a region like the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin. At no point are any of the three major cities more than about 2 hours from each other by car. Travel between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago is frequent and done for a variety of reasons and considering their close proximity if the infrastructure was available could be done without ever having to step in a car. But it isn’t there.
Issues have arisen in developing better connections including funding, planning, political bottlenecks and so on. One of the benefits of having a larger entity coordinating funding and services above the local level, but outside of the direct control of states and their own political turmoil, is the potential to orchestrate the development of service types with broad mutually beneficial outcomes. While commuter rail does a good job of shuttling people between the suburbs of a city into the urban core and intercity rail or high-speed rail adequately moves people from city center to city center, there is nothing in between. That in between stage though is necessary for the success of other modes of transportation and making sure people can live car-free to a greater extent.
This type of system is necessary to support other options: transit use begets more transit use. While subways and LTR are great in cities and HSR remains an ideal option for connecting the centers of major cities regional rail systems necessarily weave these all together. While HSR passengers might use urban rail upon arrival, not all travelers are going point-to-point just between major city centers. This middle ground rail option is what connects smaller points in between to the larger nodes where transfers between multiple options are possible. Such systems have the potential to be huge boons to maintain economies and bringing new investment to areas struggling like Michigan while also supporting newly prosperous areas like the string of cities in the central part of North Carolina.
By no means should regional rail options be viewed as a half-assed approach to high-speed rail nor a competitor for dollars. Although I don’t believe many people view it that way, I do think people misconstrue the role and purpose of different kinds of rail operations. There an honest recognition of the role of different service types needs to be maintained. The concept of regional rail is to connect people within already interconnected regions and act as a middle ground between local and urban transportation options and long-distance/intercity options. This is why I’ve only provided examples of regions where end-to-end trips could reasonably be made in less than 2-2.5 hours at speeds somewhere between 80-100 mph. The distance between endpoints is thus limited to about 175 miles, which is fine. Anything longer might run the risk of becoming an inconvenient hybrid of regional and intercity rail (more on intercity rail later).
Putting a renewed focus on regional rail systems–the “in between system”–is the best next step in advancing the passenger rail in the United States. Regional rail is the keystone of a strong multi-modal and equitable intercity transit system, because a regional rail system achieves many things the other modes don’t: it services smaller communities and even cities that would otherwise be passed with HSR or even a traditional long-distance intercity train, they can travel at speeds competitive with cars (80-100 mph), while not requiring the same costly infrastructure investment as HSR, and regional rail can double as commuter rail for communities outside the normal reach of commuter rail or where none exists or could be supported in isolation. But, it stills serves more than the express purpose of getting commuters in and out of a city center.
The best tool to connect cities, people, and transportation options in a more complete web regionalized rail systems that bring equitable transit further from city centers and complements urban rail options and long-distance trains, whether conventional intercity trains or HSR. Without a strong regional rail system other transportation options fail by virtue of existing in a vacuum disassociated with each other.