“Make no little plans”: Obama lays out ambitious high-speed rail plan

[Click to enlarge to big PDF.]

President Obama laid out a sweeping vision for high-speed rail in this country yesterday.  Obama has already secured $8 billion in funding in the stimulus bill and plans to pursue another $5 billion over the next 5 years.

One thing is very clear about transport in this country in the not-so-distant future:  Once the global recession ends, oil prices will resume their inevitable march to record levels (see “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015” and “Normally staid International Energy Agency says oil will peak in 2020“).

Problem is, once you get past $150 a barrel for any sustained period of time, the business model of the domestic airline industry is no longer viable.  What happens beyond $200 a barrel is anybody’s guess.  So even ignoring the urgent need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the future for air travel is not a bright one.

High-speed rail is one of many strategies the country must embrace — and quickly.  I will blog on others in the coming weeks.

You can read the full Department of Transporation strategic plan here.  And here are some excerpts from Obama’s Kennedy-moonshot-esque speech:

If we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do a little bit more.  We also have to build a new foundation for our future growth.  Today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines is hindering that growth.  Our highways are clogged with traffic, costing us $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.  Our airports are choked with increased loads.  Some of you flew down here and you know what that was about.  We’re at the mercy of fluctuating gas prices all too often; we pump too many greenhouse gases into the air.

What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century.  A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility.  A system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity.  A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.

What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  (Laughter.)  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.  Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.  It is now.  It is happening right now.  It’s been happening for decades.  The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.  In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined.  China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.  And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next:  a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour.  So it’s being done; it’s just not being done here.

There’s no reason why we can’t do this.  This is America.  There’s no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders.  Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system — and everybody stands to benefit.

High-speed rail was included in the stimulus plan because it achieves multiple objectives that are crucial to creating sustainable prosperity and jobs in this country.  As VP Biden said in his intro:

And we’re making a down payment today, a down payment on the economy for tomorrow, the economy that’s going to drive us in the 21st century in a way that the other — the highway system drove us in the mid-20th century.  And I’m happy to be here.  I’m more happy than you can imagine — (laughter) — to talk about a commitment that, with the President’s leadership, we’re making to achieve the goal through the development of high-speed rail projects that will extend eventually all across this nation.  And most of you know that not only means an awful lot to me, but I know a lot of you personally in this audience over the years, I know it means equally as much to you.

With high-speed rail system, we’re going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks.  We’re going to loosen the congestion that also has great impact on productivity, I might add, the people sitting at stop lights right now in overcrowded streets and cities.  We’re also going to deal with the suffocation that’s taking place in our major metropolitan areas as a consequence of that congestion.  And we’re going to significantly lessen the damage to our planet.  This is a giant environmental down payment.

Kudos to Obama and Transportation Secretary LaHood.

Obama ended his remarks with another eloquent, history-minded dismissal of his status-quo-defending critics [David Broder, this means you]:

Now finally, there are those who say at a time of crisis, we shouldn’t be pursuing such a strategy; we’ve got too many other things to do.  But our history teaches us a different lesson.

As Secretary LaHood just mentioned, President Lincoln was committed to a nation connected from East to West, even at the same time he was trying to hold North and South together.  He was in the middle of a Civil War.  While fighting raged on one side of the continent, tens of thousands of Americans from all walks of life came together on the other.  Dreamers and risk-takers willing to invest in America.  College-educated engineers and supervisors who learned leadership in war.  American workers and immigrants from all over the world.  Confederates and Yankees joined on the same side.

And eventually, those two sets of tracks met.  And with one final blow of a hammer, backed by years of hard work and decades of dreams, the way was laid for a nationwide economy.  A telegraph operator sent out a simple message to a waiting nation.  It just said, “DONE.”  (Laughter.)  A newspaper proclaimed: “We are the youngest of peoples.  But we are teaching the world to march forward.”

In retrospect, America’s march forward seems inevitable.  But time and again, it’s only made possible by generations that are willing to work and sacrifice and invest in plans to make tomorrow better than today.  That’s the vision we can’t afford to lose sight of.  That’s the challenge that’s fallen to this generation.  And with this strategy for America’s transportation future, and our efforts across all fronts to lay a new foundation for our lasting prosperity, that is the challenge we will meet.

“Make no little plans.”  That’s what Daniel Burnham said in Chicago.  I believe that about America:  Make no little plans.  So let’s get to work. Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)

That would be Daniel Hudson Burnham, “an American architect and urban planner,” who was “Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago,” helped rebuild Chicago after the great fire, and designed several famous buildings, including Union Station in Washington D.C.  His full quote is:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.

22 Responses to “Make no little plans”: Obama lays out ambitious high-speed rail plan

  1. oxnardprof says:

    Thank you for the post. I had heard a snippet of the PResident’s comments on the news earlier today, and this longer discussion is excellent and good news.

    I think in many ways President Obama is showing the type of leadership that my give some hope of dealing with the climate problem. I am heartened by this type of leadership, when at other times, I am not confident we (and by extension, the rest of the world) will not make the changes needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

  2. Allen says:

    I’m curious to know whether the high speed trains will require a ground-up construction of entirely new lines, or if this new system be used by retrofitting existing lines.

    Also, in reviewing the map of the proposed lines, there are some breaks in the system’s contiguousness. For example, a passenger boarding in Oklahoma would have to backtrack significant distances to travel to the Chicago area, and a passenger boarding in Tampa bound for New York City would have to debark the high speed train in Orlando, take a regular train to Jacksonville, where the passenger could resume high speed travel northward.

    Don’t get me wrong: having traveled on high speed lines in Europe, I am extremely enthusiastic about this prospect and understand that the United States has to begin somewhere. However, it will take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars to get a functional system that will make an appreciable difference in the amount of automobile and plane travel that we in the United States have accustomed ourselves to.

    Obama mentioned in his address that people travel by high speed train from Madrid to Seville more frequently than by car and plane combined. I have no doubt that that is true. I’ve made that very trip by high speed rail and it was a wonderful experience. However, the distance from Madrid to Seville is about 530 kilometers, or roughly 330 miles. The trip takes a little over three hours. On the proposed high speed rail system in the United States, someone traveling from Miami to Orlando or San Francisco to LA may have a similar ride time compared to Madrid-Seville. But someone traveling from Miami to New England? That will be a long trip, indeed.

  3. hapa says:

    talk of electrification of transport from an american president is big news. electrification of freight is the next question, not quite as sexy, right, but necessary.

    i’m a little taken aback that we’re still — maybe “we’re still who we are” — leaving out mexican and canadian cities from our fast train maps. not personally too devoted to NAFTA as it is but let’s face it: the major cities of “the other two” are more than neighbors.

    the ecological footprint of TGV at scale is still to debate, and the question about investing in rail in florida and other low coastland is best left to sober thinkers in private offices? how many years are we building for.

  4. Robert says:

    So 20th century – physical travel. Hasn’t Obama heard of the internet?

  5. David B. Benson says:

    hapa — Vancouver, BC, is included in the PNW high speed link.

  6. Anders says:

    Outstanding. However, to date, isn’t Amtrak losing tons of money every year? I hope some of that money will go to developing a sustainable business model as well.

    It looks like connecting the west and the east US is still under deliberation. Is this inevitable? Do we need high speed rail running through the central US? I don’t think there is a demand for it like there must be between, say madrid to paris to amsterdam to copenhagen to stockholm. The coasts I can understand, but everything continental? really?

  7. hapa says:

    DBB: thx. actually so’s montreal, oops, though only via boston. (honestly, apologies to vancouver, i think of it as part of a metro area with seattle.)

    i’m a little ambivalent. but since we’re talking about carbon going very rare, i’d rather have fast trains that took their cues from air routes, instead of existing rights-of-way.

  8. MarkB says:

    I heard a Republican politician essentially claim it’s not a good idea because Americans are used to flying. No vision whatsoever.

    Personally, when possible, I’d prefer to travel in a more comfortable grounded high-speed rail line than crammed tightly into a piece of machinery miles above the ground, facing frequent delays and cancellations – might even be a little cheaper too.

  9. paulm says:

    We must not lose touch on striving for sustainable living.

    This must be the ultimate goal.

  10. Matt says:

    I look forward to seeing the country by rail on my visits home to Northern Idaho from Boston…wait, most of that trip would be incredibly boring and flat. Maybe the trains could harness the wind of SD and MT.

    Could we save money by converting jumbo-jets to rail cars? They’re pretty aerodynamic.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Anders — Both the German and French passanger railroad services are subsidized. Dunno about the others.

  12. Robert says:

    Serious question – why do people need to travel so much? Surely most travel is an unnecessary and pointless activity. If people want to communicate there are much faster carbon-free ways to do so.

    The US is quite homogenous compared to other countries. What is this urge to criss-cross it on planes, trains, cars or anything else?

  13. Robert says:

    Is it to attend climate change conferences? Here are all the ways you can spew CO2 into the atmos getting there:

    I used to fly a lot but gave it up completely about 10 years ago. Over the last 4 years we have completely switched from gas central heating to wood burning stoves. Sometimes I think I am wasting my time.

  14. jcwinnie says:


    I would agree and go so far as to suggest that electrification of the transit of goods is more critical to our economy and environment. On the other hand, if you improve the rail / electric power infrastructures, such improvements could benefit freight and passenger transit. And, such growth might seem less controversial to the general public.

  15. Will Koroluk says:

    @ hapa:
    Regarding Canadian high-speed links: The Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor is being studied again, for the umpteenth time. And the Alberta government is studying the Calgary-Edmonton corridor. Don’t expect anything to happen soon. Our governments up here are expert at studying things to death. Our prime minister (who is from Alberta) seems more concerned with protecting the tar sands projects than doing anything about GHG emissions.

  16. rlb says:

    Regarding the motives of this blog, I think a good way to look at it is as, which jcwinnie hints at, an investment in transportation with an effort towards reducing CO2 emissions. The question becomes where is the most cost effective place to invest 8 billion dollars. Is it in intercity travel? Intercity goods transport? MASS TRANSIT?
    I’d be interested to see the facts on it, but I would assume that a far greater percentage of the country’s VMT is spent commuting to work, not on long distance driving. That’s also where most people are sitting in traffic – on the way to work. 8 billion dollars could go an extremely long way for Mass transit in medium sized cities. Greater Investment in mass transit now may also inspire sensible development patterns once housing construction picks up. I don’t see one train station downtown with HSR having that effect.
    Right now, for instance, there’s fairly serious talk of a major BRT network for the DC area. It’s cost needs to be below 300 million dollars – not quite a twentieth of the HSR funding (which doesn’t have a chance of creating much HSR) to considerably alter the way people get around one of the country’s biggest metropolitan areas. That seems like it might be a better return on investment.

  17. paulm says:

    So anyone coming up with the Carbon footprint of large infrastructure projects such as this?

    We are so close to the IPCC tipping points that we seriously have to start taking into account these emissions.

    If we find that these large projects don’t fly, then the real cost of moving to a zero emissions CO2 society becomes more clear.

  18. Sasparilla says:

    Just as a note, the high speed lines listed in the graphic are existing Amtrak lines (which run on existing Freight rails for the most part) – nothing “new” is being built. Making them “high speed”, at least in reference to this speech means making the tracks support ~90mph speeds.

    This would be a step up for most of these existing lines.

    Now if we really want to have a much more efficient alternative to aircraft travel for shorter distances (say Chicago to St. Louis) then we need dedicated electrified high speed tracks that would support +200mph trains – for all the talk in the speech, that isn’t anywhere on the horizon (except in California’s own project if that state can find the money somehow).

    Joe is right about commercial aviation – it will become a shadow of its former self when oil starts marching back up again. Its hope lies in Algae based biofuel (makes an excellent jet fuel replacement and can be grown in salt water of course) which by 2020 is projected to be down to ~$1.00 gallon to produce, but before we get to that (assuming it pans out) commercial aviation gets to go through peak oil and it (and the commercial manufacturers who make the planes) will be one of the most decimated industries because of it – JMHO.

    Good speech and a nice small step forward for the administration on rail – thanks for highlighting this Joe.

  19. PaulK says:

    Allen & Sasparilla

    True high-speed rail (150-200 mph ) as in Japan and parts of Europe requires separate rights of way: broad curves, shallow grades, and no freight sharing the track. It is very expensive to engineer and maintain.
    This plan using existing infrastructure will do 90-mph max and share the track with existing freight traffic (60 mph max).

    If you believe that greenhouses gases are a problem, you don’t want a shared passenger/freight system. One of the reasons why Europe is doing such a wretched job of complying with Kyoto is that it does only 10% of its freight by rail, as opposed to 51% in the U.S. Europe moves more people by rail, and more freight by truck. Our intermodal system of truck-to-rail container transfer helps account for the fact that freight emissions of greenhouse gases are 155 grams per ton mile in the U.S. compared to 193 grams per ton mile in Europe.

  20. Amitabha Mukhopadhyay says:

    It appears that America is now moving in the right direction. America’s overwhelming involvement with individual transportation system was the real culprit. But now since that mindset has changed somewhat the future would belong to electrification of railways and deployment of bullet trains. But this sum of 8 billion usd is insignificant when we think about the task ahead.
    Most of the existing railway tracks have to be replaced as those will not be able to take the very high speed load and then all those thousands of lines have to be electrified. Since the existing engines and cars making facilities are old type either Japanese or French technology to be used. So it will take decades to achieve the full potential of the system.
    Regarding technology of the futuristic transportation system my science fiction novel MEGALOPOLIS ONE 2080 A.D. will be of great help. All the engineering details of future transportation system which would leave zero carbon foot print, sleek and air- conditioned and sophisticated and use a fraction of the energy of the existing systems- all are given. Please see the press release

  21. dhogaza says:

    Obama mentioned in his address that people travel by high speed train from Madrid to Seville more frequently than by car and plane combined. I have no doubt that that is true. I’ve made that very trip by high speed rail and it was a wonderful experience. However, the distance from Madrid to Seville is about 530 kilometers, or roughly 330 miles. The trip takes a little over three hours.

    Spanish AVE is great, and I’ve been on that route myself. The train I was on was the same Siemens rolling stock I’ve ridden on in Germany, the 250 km/hr (150 mi/hr) ICE trains. Both Germany and Spain are upgrading some routes, at least, to 350 km/hr (220 mi/hr) trains, I think the Madrid to Grenada train might be using that technology now. Obviously you can’t throw out a bunch of perfectly good working 250 km/hr trains to upgrade all at once, I imagine it will be a slow process as the existing trains reach the end of their service life.

    Maybe if we just endlessly remind opponents that the french, the croissant-eating, wine-sipping, pate-loving FRENCH, build trains that make our rail technology look positively stone-age they’ll come around out of sheer dislike of the idea.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Of course if you want really fast trains, put them in tunnels underground which can then have the air evacuated. Maybe mag-lev as well. Ought to be able to sustain speeds of 800 kph (=480 mph) that way with future prospects of even higher speeds.

    Costs lots to dig the tunnels, tho’.