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How To Improve U.S. Passenger Rail, Pt. 2

It starts with expanding right-of-way—ideally in a manner that requires minimal eminent domain

October 22, 2021

In pt. 1 of this series on how to improve U.S. passenger rail, we wrote about how existing track could be better used. This would mainly involve the owners of said track—ranging from Amtrak to state and local authorities—allowing open rail access so that private operators could bid to use it, creating a climate of competition.    

In this piece, we will discuss whether private operators can circumnavigate this step by building their own tracks. This is admittedly harder due to legal issues concerning right-of-way (ROW). But it is not impossible: some firms are doing it, and with technological advances to tunneling and elevated rail, it should be easier than ever to increase capacity.  

Acquiring ROW has long been a sticking point, though. In Connecticut, residents of Fairfield County have routinely opposed plans to bring high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor. Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are trying to stop privately-funded HSR that would connect D.C. and Baltimore. In Texas, the planned Texas Central high-speed rail project has been opposed by surrounding landowners. And the list of objections to rail throughout America goes on

In many cases, this is good old-fashioned Nimbyism by people who choose to live in urbanized areas, yet refuse to have core infrastructure (such as trains) built near them. But in other cases, the opposition is from landowners who don’t want their land seized through eminent domain.

Most American railroads were built through land grant measures, where the government would gift land to private railroads. This too was controversial; in some cases, the state granted land to which Native American tribes asserted claims. But other times the land was owned by the U.S outright. 

Today, a land grant approach would be challenging. In dense areas where rail works, there simply are not enough government-owned parcels along a linear stretch to create new ROW, meaning government agencies would need to utilize mass eminent domain. Reasonable people can disagree about how much property seizure should be tolerated to carve out new transportation spines, but we think it is something to avoid.  

Rather, an alternative is to expand the capacity of existing track by tunneling below or building above the current ROW. This would not be cheap, but some advancements have made it at least more plausible than it was in the past.

Tunnel boring technology has advanced substantially. Bored tunnels allow for economies of scale and the automated nature of tunnel boring machines (TBMs) reduces costs by reducing the need for labor. The tunnels are capable of stacking, allowing for potential doubling of capacity. In the long term, they also reduce maintenance complexity: “large-diameter TBMs have been designed to allow the replacement of cutting tools without sending workers into the pressurized zone in front of the machine, simplifying maintenance procedures,” according to Arup North America. Other technological advances enable more streamlined construction, such as radar that scans for impediments.

In fact, one high-speed proposal would use a majority-underground ROW in its first phase. The Northeast Maglev is a plan to build a high-speed magnetic levitation train from Washington, D.C. to New York, with an initial phase spanning from the nation’s capital to Baltimore. Nearly two-thirds of this first phase would be tunneled

The project, which has been proposed for several years, would be similar to the Chuo Shinkansen project underway in Japan. Undertaken to relieve capacity constraints on the existing high-speed line, the project’s first phase is slated to open in 2027, and when cmplete will connect Tokyo and Osaka in just over an hour. The project will not be cheap—the final cost is projected at $52 billion—but that is partly because it’s being built through mountains. 

Along with local Nimby opposition, Amtrak has been critical of the Northeast Maglev proposal; Amtrak’s CEO argued before Congress that the service would be only for the wealthy, and others have argued that it detracts from the more urgent need of upgrading existing lines. Yet the larger issue there may be Amtrak’s own high costs and unnecessary proposed upgrades.  

Some more speculative technologies are also under development. Hyperloop, which promises to transport passengers at high speeds via tunnel, continues with research and development. Reuters reports that Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop has opened a new testing facility in West Virginia, with hopes of transporting the idea to the Northeast Corridor. In 2017, Elon Musk claimed he had the approval to begin construction on a New York-DC Hyperloop, although the regulatory status is unclear. Musk has, however, been building what amounts to early-stage tunnel transport in other parts of America, namely Las Vegas. 

Meanwhile elevated rail technology, infamous for its loud noise and obtrusiveness (an American audience is mostly familiar with Chicago’s “L”), has become more advanced. An Australian project is being designed with noise reduction in mind and also demonstrates advances in overall technology, including crane technology that avoids disruption to road crossings and to the extant line.

“The elevated rail design allows for more natural light, air, and rainwater to reach ground that helps to sustain vegetation along the line,” Railway Technology writes. 

There are other examples of how rail ROW could be expanded, besides the relatively capital-intensive measures of tunneling or elevation. State DOTs could lease space along interstates; help facilitate open access along existing tracks, or help private operators overcome local Nimby opposition. Ultimately, the barrier to becoming a nation of futuristic trains is less one of engineering or public spending, than of a political culture that has proven unwilling to accommodate a clearly enthusiastic private sector. Governments at all levels in this country can change this, and it begins with finding more innovative and technological ways to expand ROW. 

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on improving U.S. passenger rail. (Read part 1.) The series is being co-authored by Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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