"True" High-Speed Rail

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, February 15, 2021

(VIA Rail train 17 west of Drummondville, Quebec, March 15, 2009

It seems to be a common practice to bash the U.S. (and apparently by inference, Canada) for being ‘deficient’ in adopting “true” high-speed rail, as opposed to other entities, such as Japan (that’s been going on for decades, now); Europe; China; etc.  The other day I saw a social media post that pictured sleek, shiny high-speed trains from France, Germany, Japan, China and Russia labeled “Trains of the World”.  Representing the U.S., in the lowest tier of these pictures, was an Amtrak P42 Genesis unit, in the relatively-dated Phase II paint scheme.  Of course, there was no mention of the more recent Siemens Chargers.

One comment on this post described this as “Another sign of our crumbling infrastructure.” I’m not quite sure how “equipment” conflates with “infrastructure” to produce “crumbling”.  Also, I recall that when the American Society of Civil Engineers prepared its Infrastructure Report Card in 2017, the overall grade was D-plus, while rail rated the highest, receiving a B.

Part of this stems from the historic leadership role that U.S. railroads played in many areas, including high-speed runs like the New York Central’s 999, or the PRR’s 7002, which purportedly reached 127 miles per hour in Ohio in the early twentieth century.  Portending future trends in high-speed rail, however, it’s now generally considered that the British locomotive “Mallard”, which achieved 126 mph in 1938 (and was documented far better than the Pennsy’s earlier effort) holds the world record for steam locomotive speed.

Yes, subsequently in conjunction with the “Northeast Corridor” project in the late 1960s, there were some speed records set, including 170.8 miles per hour by the United Aircraft Turbo Train, and the original multiple-unit Metroliner equipment achieved 164 mph, although nothing like these velocities was even approached in regular service with either equipment type.

There are a variety of reasons why real high-speed rail has thrived elsewhere in the world, but has yet to catch on in North America.  These include lower population density; a highly-developed and price-competitive domestic commercial airline industry; and most importantly, lack of political will to finance purpose-built rights-of-way to be used by this type of rail service.

On the other hand, riding at 125 (on Northeast Regional Service) or 135 on the Acelas (with up to 160 coming between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey) is certainly better than nothing.  For that matter, watching Acelas meet (at a closing speed of 180 miles per hour) on the restricted-speed (90) bridge over the Susquehanna River in Maryland between Havre de Grace and Perryville is enjoyable either onboard or watching from trackside.

Elsewhere in North America, 110 mph pretty much tops things out, and the days of E units being urged by their crews to reach their maximum speed of 117 are long gone.  On the other hand, in 2009 I encountered an unexpectedly rapid ride in eastern Canada.

Riding VIA Rail’s westbound combined Chaleur/Ocean across the Drummondville Sub, east of Montreal, we were late and the crew apparently was trying to make up at least some of the time west of the Drummondville stop.   My understanding is that the speed limit for this train was 90, and there was little doubt that we were proceeding accordingly.

But that ride on the Chaleur west of Drummondville on the morning of March 15, 2009 wasn’t really high-speed, was it?  Who cares!  It was exhilarating: classic Budd stainless steel equipment being propelled rapidly by the 9,000 horsepower of the three F40PHs up front, excellent ride quality and a dome seat to experience this.  Some things should be savored simply for what they are, as opposed to what they are not.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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