/ Articles / Transportation Troubleshooting: The ‘Four C’s’ of High-Speed Rail Build Support for the Long-Term Vision

Transportation Troubleshooting: The ‘Four C’s’ of High-Speed Rail Build Support for the Long-Term Vision

Paula Hammond on April 8, 2024 - in Articles, Column

Enhancing passenger rail service can improve the lives of millions of Americans by cutting the time they spend commuting, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enabling new growth patterns such as transit-oriented development, where rail stations serve as hubs for mixed-use communities of homes and businesses.

But the real game-changer will be high-speed intercity passenger rail. A level of service that people in China, Japan, the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe have long had access to, high-speed rail (HSR) is aimed not so much at serving commuters as providing alternatives to air travel and car trips within mega-regions and between urban areas. It has taken longer to develop in the United States due to our geography, topography, property costs, property rights and other factors.

But there’s good reason to expect HSR to become a reality in the near term, thanks in part to the determination of forward-thinking policy makers, as seen through the enactment of the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which has the potential to transform the way we travel in the United States for generations to come.

Funding Arrives

In December 2023, $8.2 billion in BIL funds were announced for intercity passenger rail projects across the country through the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program, including $6.1 billion in funding for new HSR between Southern California and Las Vegas and to continue building the California HSR project linking the Bay Area with Los Angeles. Planning and development funds also were awarded for HSR between Houston and Dallas and the Cascadia region from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

In addition, dozens of planning grants were awarded to enable Amtrak, states, rail authorities and other entities to develop the scope, schedule and costs for creating service-development plans for new and enhanced rail service in promising corridors under the newly established BIL program, Corridor Identification and Development.

These investments signal a significant commitment for enhanced intercity passenger rail in the United States, to the tune of $66 billion in guaranteed funding for rail service through the BIL, with $58 billion earmarked for passenger rail only, and the remaining $8 billion competitive between freight and passenger rail.

Calling in the Experts

Expert guidance from people who’ve built HSR in the UK, Europe and elsewhere is essential to design, engineer, permit and build new HSR systems. So I checked in with my new colleague, David Cochrane, senior vice president of project management at WSP. Cochrane joined WSP in summer 2023 after working on Great Britain’s HS2, the country’s second HSR after it built HS1 connecting London to the Channel Tunnel.

Cochrane doesn’t diminish the engineering and investment challenges of HSR. It requires dedicated rights-of-way as well as entirely new tracks and other infrastructure. The design and engineering parameters for the infrastructure and rolling stock are vastly more demanding than those for conventional rail.

But he sees another challenge sure to derail HSR in the United States if not handled correctly: communicating the overall long-term benefits it will provide beyond the speed of the trains alone.

“It might be counterintuitive, but high speed is not the purpose of these projects,” says Cochrane. “Faster is only the means to vastly higher-value, corridor-wide benefits, which I call the ‘four C’s’: increased capacity, more connections to all transportation modes, decreased carbon emissions and engaging with communities meaningfully to share the advantages of a new railway that connects the places where people want to live, work and play.”

Putting these “four C’s” front and center for stakeholders at every level across the project corridor helps establish a long-term vision of what cleaner, more-efficient transportation means. When the wider communities served by HSR see direct benefits to them, they begin to see HSR as part of a solution to key issues, including land use, environmental stewardship, and economic growth and development.

Essential Planning

Another key piece of advice is to carefully integrate the planning and development of the major civil assets—such as stations, tunnels and viaducts—with rail systems and rolling stock decisions.

“Lessons from the Crossrail project for London and South East England show what can happen when these elements are not designed as one integrated system,” explains Cochrane. “Delivery of the civil infrastructure—mainly tunnels and stations—leapt ahead of the rail systems, so the design of track, power, control, ventilation and other systems fell behind, leading to many gaps and integration issues.”

Cochrane counsels that political leaders and agency officials backing HSR should expect a bit of a learning curve as we apply what we already know about HSR to the emerging landscape in the United States. Project team managers should welcome these opportunities to grow and innovate.

“Our responsibility is to learn from what’s happened in the past and take that learning forward,” he adds. In the UK, managers of HSR projects developed what he calls a “learning legacy” approach, in which they transparently share lessons learned.

But the key to unlocking value is for HSR champions to articulate a long-term sustainable transportation vision. “These projects look to the future,” he says. “They will deliver their benefits, not during our lifetime, but largely during our children’s and our grandchildren’s lifetimes.”


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About Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond is senior vice president and national multimodal market leader, WSP USA; email: [email protected].

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