Tidbits from This Week’s U.S. High Speed Rail Association Conference

Photo: Ryan Stern
Photo: Ryan Stern

This week Streetsblog L.A. attended the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s West Coast Rail Conference. The conference featured speakers from public agencies and private industry speaking on rail projects from California to Korea to Turkey to Spain and many places between.

Below are three conference tidbids that Streetsblog L.A. readers might be interested in. Some of this may not be news to folks who follow high-speed rail issues closely, but they bear repeating to reach a broader audience.

High-Speed Rail comes in various speeds

There is a broad spectrum of rail speeds. Amtrak Acela service between Washington D.C. and Boston actually runs at 150 miles per hour for portions of the route, though its average speed is just above 80 miles per hour. Acela is pretty fast, fast enough to compete with airlines, which is something numerous high-speed rail systems aspire to and regularly accomplish. Even though Acela is fast, it is not actually considered true high-speed rail.

Numerous high speed rail lines in Asia and Europe operate with top speeds from 180 to 220 mph. California High-Speed Rail is being built for top speeds of 220 mph, though speeds in urban areas will be much less.

Below “high-speed rail” there is “higher-speed rail.” These days, fast rail lines that run at 150 mph or less, including Acela, are considered higher-speed. Florida’s higher-speed Brightline, phase one opening from Miami to West Palm Beach later this year, will operate at 125 mph.

Here are some local examples for contrast. The top speed for Metro rail, the Red Line Subway, is about 70 mph. Metrolink’s top speed is about 79 mph. The top speed for the Amtrak Surfliner is about 90 mph, but it only does that for a short stretch.

California high-speed rail construction work underway on downtown Fresno's Tuolumne Street Bridge. Photo via CAHSRA
California high-speed rail construction work underway on downtown Fresno’s Tuolumne Street Bridge. Photo via CAHSRA

California High-Speed Rail is definitely already under construction

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales reiterated what a lot of Californians already know: California high-speed rail is already under construction. 119 miles of rail infrastructure are being built in California’s Central Valley [PDF], in and near the city of Fresno. Work is being done under a billion-dollar design-build contract with Tutor-Perini.

California high-speed rail construction on the new Fresno River Viaduct near Madera. Photo by CAHSRA
California high-speed rail construction underway on the new Fresno River Viaduct near Madera. Photo by CAHSRA

Morales stressed that high-speed rail is not just important for its future mobility and environmental benefits, but is already bringing huge economic benefits to the Central Valley. The Mineta Transportation Institute’s Rod Diridon credited high-speed rail construction jobs for taking Fresno’s recent 18 percent unemployment down to nine percent today.

California high-speed rail, according to Morales, is the largest public works project in the U.S. and arguably the world, and is expected to open for customer service in 2025.

Importance of station as place

This too may come as no surprise to many Streetsblog readers, but what makes high-speed rail successful is that, unlike airports, rail delivers passengers to urban cores. High-speed rail is dependent on the design of those urban core stations, especially in the way that they connect with local mobility, including walking, transit, and bicycling. The station itself should draw locals who gather there for everyday uses.

The most popular high-speed rail stations are not strictly utilitarian spaces that travelers pass through, but include public space, retail, housing and office space. Geeti Silwal, of Perkins+Will Architects, emphasized that minimizing parking is one key feature. She emphasized that most European high-speed rail stations have no parking.



  • There are High-Speed Rail stations that have been deliberately built on the outskirts of cities where the High-Speed Line line passes a secondary city in order to go from a primary city to another. These will have lots of car parking but also a bus to the traditional city center. One good example of this is the TGV station at Aix-en-Provence in France.


    This allows the city faster access to Paris, as the local regional-train trip south to Marseille is no longer required to connect to mainline trains to Paris. But the line does still operate to the station.


  • shinkansen2013

    One of the big benefits of intercity rail compare to air service is the ability to make multiple stops in a single urban region, including the parkway or park-and-ride stations of Britain and Amtrak’s NEC. Intercity rail can also serve airport stations, like you see in France and Germany. Closest example in the US I think is Newark Liberty where Amtrak as code-shares with one or two airlines.

  • Mike Jones

    defining HSR by its nominal top speed is a fools errand. CA HSR will not be going 220 mph anywhere other than in the Central Valley. Better criteria are “average speed” or “percentage of dedicated HS Line”.

  • Michigan has the largest number of HighER Speed rail outside of the NEC on the Amtrak Wolverine (Chicago – Kalamazoo – Jackson – Detroit) route. Would be nice to see a mention in an article once in awhile – advocates fought very hard to achieve this – and we did it under a Republican state administration.

  • Vooch

    Same goes for the Surfliner whose average station to station speed is just above 30 MPH

    What’s amazing is this pathetic rail speed is nearly the same for actual car driving speeds.

    The Surfliner is hugely successful at 30mph, imagine the passenger demand at a modest 50 mph. At 50mph the Surfliner would be faster than driving.

    Demand might triple resulting in need for more trains, say every half hour, which would result in better service creating every more demand, etc etc etc

    Electrification of the Surfliner would nearly get average station to station speed to 50mph.

  • Joe Linton

    I didn’t know – thanks for the getting the word out. I’ll try to learn more and mention it in a future HSR article.

  • More bad news for the favorite rail project of Governor Brown and Streetsblog: the latest cap and trade auction made little money:

    Rail systems may deliver passengers to the “urban core,” but passengers still must figure out how to get to their destinations from there just like they do from airports.

  • crazyvag

    While at it, keep an eye out on Illinois higher-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis. That portion should enable 110mph service through most of the corridor and is expected to wrap up in the next 12 months.


  • thielges

    “… passengers still must figure out how to get to their destinations from there just like they do from airports”

    Are you suggesting that people can walk out of San Francisco airport and reach hundreds of businesses within minutes like those arriving at SF’s Transbay terminal will be able to do? Who’s building this city around SFO?

  • And the beauty of the CAHSR line is that it will pass BUR, SJC and SFO airports and will be able to connect passengers to them.

  • Guy Ross

    Ok, but think about the difference between dumping high volumes of people in an urban core compared to an airport, which by definition, can’t exists in (and is often located very far away from) an urban core. The neighborhood grows to meet the needs of those being discharged in an urban center. The only thing a neighborhood can offer those leaving an airport is more pavement to get them somewhere else as fast as possible

    Also, you can have multiple stops within an urban area – so the term ‘urban core’ is a bit misleading. For example, a high speed train can also reach the airport after passing through a population center.

  • Wells

    “Rail is dependent on urban core station design, certainly with connection to local mobility, walkers, users of mass transit and those who sometimes or frequently bicycle.”

    There. I said the same thing (or more) about (walking, bicycling, transit) in an undeserved edited form. My edit machine never turns off.
    Some guy gets into his self-driving car. He’s greeted with “beep, state destination,” and answers “Take me to the burger drive-thru on Cosmo boulevard. Robocar answers “No. Every time we take you to a drive-thru you toss the trash and even unfinished drink cups in the back seat, a violation of terms. Ejection sequence initiated. You have 10 seconds to exit before a major unpleasantness will spoil your day.” 10, 9, 8…

  • Wells

    I’m not supporting the Gilroy Pacheco route. CAHSR is planned to continue north to Sacramento, from Stockton or near there, the Altamont corridor could use the electrification and the service. Gilroy is a backwater soon to become an island of exurban estates. Altamont corridor needs the investment more obviously.
    SJC has enough rail, BART, to reach HSR near Fremont.



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