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Life at the Speed of Rail

How could high-speed rail change American life in the coming decades?

Comprehensive high-speed rail has long been considered a pipe dream in the U.S. However, with the Obama administration’s 2011 pledge of $53 billion for the construction of a high-speed rail network, and its goal of connecting 80 percent of Americans to the service by 2050, the nation has taken the first steps towards a new era of physical connectivity.

Van Alen’s competition thrust designers’ ideas, narratives, and images into a national discussion that had previously been dominated solely by politics, and generated dozens of proposals for how to build this new infrastructure. Entrants envisioned the cultural, environmental, and economic impact of a new rail network for the nation’s communities, whether urban or rural, rail-riding or car-centric, heartland or borderland, in a new era of transportation connectivity. The resulting proposals, presented at museums, offices, and universities across the U.S., crystalized the hopes and fears associated with realizing this new infrastructure, and offered the public a glimpse of new ways of getting from A to B.

Advisory Committee: 

> Carol Coletta, Director, ArtPlace

> Keller Easterling, Associate Professor, Yale University

> Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic, Los Angeles Times

> Gary Hustwit, Director, Helvetica

> Michael Lejeune, Creative Director, L.A. Metro

> Thom Mayne, Founder & Design Director, Morphosis

> Petra Todorovich, Director, America 2050

> Sarah Whiting, Dean, Rice School of Architecture


> Diana Lind & Andrew Colopy


> Fogelson-Lubliner



The Beacon

MANIFESTO Architecture P.C.

New York, New York

The beacon is an icon not just for the city but for the megaregion, with a glowing presence forever amplified when reflected in the continuous growth of the city around it. Project Statement:

Compared to 20th-century infrastructure, the new high-speed rail network will allow people to travel far greater distances in a greatly reduced amount of time. This phenomenon can be described as an expansion of the realm of daily life, or rather, a shrinkage of the perceived scale of the entire Midwest region. In effect, through the new rail networks urban nodes will be pulled closer together, and industries, commerce, and most importantly, people will be connected more intimately than ever before. The Beacon, a proposal for a renovation of Chicago’s Union Station will be at the center of this new age, and our design proposal symbolically represents this new paradigm. The main component of the proposal will be a highly illuminated mixed-use volume called The Beacon, which houses a hotel, railway offices, and a conference center. The Beacon will be positioned above the existing Grand Hall, which will provide a venue for the new Midwest regional market. However, the Beacon will not take on the form of a typical vertical structural addition. The Beacon’s simple, spiritual form, resonating as a familiar yet iconic component of the existing Chicago skyline, will be raised up far above the Grand Hall with its complex structural, service, and circulatory system exposed beneath. This complex infrastructural web is a reminder of the extensive transportation network that exists directly beneath the surface of the streets of the city. The Beacon will be noticed from miles away, clearly declaring the role of Union Station as the symbolic heart of the new Midwest high speed transportation network, which will help revitalize Chicago and the neighboring regions through enhanced social and commercial exchange.
TEAM MEMBERS: Jeeyong An, AIA, Sang Hwa Lee, LEED AP, Hosung Chun, LEED AP


Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC)

Cleveland, Ohio

Advisory Overview:

The Expanded Civic Center 

Switch Space

Permeable Response


Advisory Overview:

VPL co-opts the existing transportation networks of peripheral airports in lieu of central business districts.

Project Statement:

VPL is the product of unexpected economies and partnerships resulting from hybridizing rail and air travel in a triangle of the Southwest that contains eight of America’s ten fastest growing cities and three of the nation’s most congested airports. Like other beloved American acronyms, the airport code VPL will be become the name for a vast development zone in the Mojave desert equidistant from Las Vegas McCarren (LAS), Phoenix International (PHX) and Los Angeles International (LAX). What makes VPL different from other rail schemes is that its funding will come from an unlikely ally: the air travel industry. Airlines facing a shortage of airspace and no opportunity for runway expansion will “keep their enemies closer” by using high speed rail to link airports via a central hub in the desert. In addition to freeing up runway space for more lucrative long haul flights, VPL is a massive property development scheme that recalls the invention of Las Vegas. At the center of the new rail lines will be an ultra-dense, flat,sun-lit station-city that is within commuting distance of Vegas, Phoenix and LA. This “smart sprawl” will mix the profit formulas of the airport city, casino, convention center and suburb, and thanks to its density and abundant supply of sun for lighting and electricity, it will also be paradoxically sustainable.

Advisory Overview:

Advisory Overview:


Competition Announcement

President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union laid out a vision of how the United States will “win the future.”

In addition to proposals for increasing broadband access and investing in entrepreneurial innovation, the president called for a new high-speed rail network that will connect 80 percent of Americans in the next 25 years.

Two weeks later, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the government will spend $53 billion over the next six years on high-speed rail construction and passenger rail maintenance. The federal government’s position is clear: it wants high-speed rail to be a big part of the country’s 21st-century transportation infrastructure.

But what will high-speed rail (HSR) mean for Americans? While HSR has been a prominent feature of European and Asian transportation for decades, the United States currently has just one HSR line: the 150-mph Acela Express line, which runs between Boston and Washington, D.C. Although the Acela Express transports fewer than 9,000 people per day, other HSR projects around the world are much more integrated and popular. The latest HSR line in China is estimated to transport 220,000 people a day between Shanghai and Beijing — more than all the passengers that fly through the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta each day.

The American HSR initiative aims to increase passenger numbers, train speed and eventually build rail infrastructure in eleven megaregions around the country. But more than speed movement, HSR has a host of other impacts from shifting the identity of American transportation to reconfiguring how that transit gets funded.

Some urban planners see HSR’s potential to enhance regional planning. A new rail network, oriented around the country’s most populous regions, could revolutionize how cities are connected within regions and alter where and how people choose to live and work. By shifting demand to transit corridors, rail may curb sprawl in some areas and spark development in new areas. Skeptics claim that HSR is not the appropriate planning tool for some parts of the country, where low density and dominant car use make its popularity less likely. They remind rail advocates that HSR is not a one-size-fits-all infrastructure.

Sustainability is another national priority in the 21st century, and HSR is touted for saving millions of car trips and short-haul flights. Driving as currently practiced fails to account for externalities such as carbon emissions, congestion, dependence on foreign oil and the costly maintenance of highways. With several states facing untenable budgets, highway infrastructure reaching its obsolescence point in the coming decades, and some kind of carbon trading framework increasingly likely, these externalities are unlikely to be ignored forever. A richer rail network may emerge out of necessity, rather than choice.

But building high-speed rail isn’t cheap; in fact, some estimates show that it’s about 20 times more expensive than paving highways. HSR critics suggest that high-speed trains are economically unsustainable for the country; in Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently canceled an HSR project that would have connected Tampa with Orlando, claiming that the state could not afford to pay its portion of the rail line’s cost. Editorials published in The Washington Post and other periodicals have criticized the fact that high-speed rail requires billions in subsidies (although they often fail to compare rail subsidies to those for highways and the automobile industry). Moreover, pundits and the public alike have lamented the cost of a high-speed train ticket. The average price of a one-way ticket on the new California line is expected to be $105; as the passenger numbers on the Acela Express suggest, many people cannot afford the fastest trains. Lastly, local officials have questioned whether it makes sense to invest billions on high-speed rail rather than improve local transit projects, which would affect a greater number of people every day and ostensibly better achieve the environmental goal of getting people out of cars and on to trains.

Questions about American transportation policy will be at the forefront of politics this summer as Congress debates the long-expired federal transportation reauthorization bill — an omnibus package that sets the funding and strategy for transportation over the next six years. But while much of the conversation about HSR has been full of statistics and political ideology, it has been devoid of the design community’s input and vision. A few tired maps show where rail should be implemented, but these images fail to address the transformations that HSR could bring to social, economic, cultural and environmental contexts.

What does it mean to embark on such a transformation of American infrastructure? What will the consequences of HSR look like, in terms of cities or rural places, new trains and old ones, local economies and global connectivity? What will it mean if economic and political obstacles prevent HSR from becoming a reality? It’s the design community’s turn to synthesize and envision the impacts of this technology.


Alternate Visions 

Organizations like America 2050 and the US High Speed Rail Association, among others, have put forth alternative proposals for HSR development. With different potential routes and implementation schedules, they contribute varying degrees of independent research and analysis to the discussion.









Passenger rail travel, once incredibly prevalent in the US, declined rapidly with the introduction of the Interstate Highway System. Most remaining intercity passenger rail was consolidated into Amtrak, a government owned corporation, in 1970.









Though passenger rail declined over the latter part of the 20th century, an extensive network of freight service is still in use and will surpass capacity in many areas without future upgrades. In 2009, Warren Buffett invested $26.5 billion into Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, stating that, “over time, the movement of goods in the United States will increase, and BNSF should get its full share of the gain. The railroad will need to invest massively to bring about this growth.” Some HSR proposals make use of existing freight infrastructure and right of ways; but grade-separated, dedicated HSR track is generally necessary to reach speed thresholds of 150mpg or greater.

National Tranist Database.


An occasional point of HSR criticism is the perceived lack of public transit availability upon reaching an arrival city. The indicated cities above have existing light, heavy or commuter rail systems already in place and most medium and large US cities have extensive public bus networks.

US DOT Federal Railroad Administration
High speed intercity rail program.
US Department of Energy, US Department of Labor.
US DOT, Association of American Railroads, and US DOT RITA National Travel Survey).
National Tranist Database.


The current administration has called for providing convenient passenger rail service to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. $8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and $2.5 billion from the 2010 budget have already been allocated, and Vice President Biden recently called for an additional $53 billion in funding over the next six years. The image above illustrates the status of federal investments in HSR projects as of October 2010. Subsequently, newly elected governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have rejected federal HSR funds.


Historically, the vast majority of federal funding has been focused on highway and aviation systems with just 3 percent dedicated to intercity passenger rail in the year prior to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Additionally, federal rail funds prior to 2009 have come from annual appropriations and served almost exclusively to cover Amtrak’s capital needs and operating deficits with little long-term investment into improved technology or service.


Intercity miles traveled by automotive and airline passengers parallels federal investment trends with substantial growth observed since the 1950s.


All forms of transportation balance personal costs with public infrastructure investment, whether highways, airports, railways or sidewalks. And since each mode of transportation is subsidized differently, costs to the end consumer can be difficult to compare. Fuel costs for instance are typically lower per person for rail than automobiles, but such statistics seldom acknowledge that most passenger rail and virtually all high-speed rail use electricity. As the price of oil fluctuates, so does the relative cost of driving to rail travel. Such costs are important to consider as the average household spends 17.4 percent of their income on transportation, second only to housing – and nearly as much on cars alone as on food.


Source: America 2050.
Source: US DOT Federal Highway Administration.
CONGESTED CITIES: 1982: Los Angeles 2005: Seattle, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Dallas, Austin, Houston, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington DC, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Boston. Source: US DOT Federal Highway Administration
Source: International Union of Railways.


At about 6.5 million miles, the United States has more roadways than anyone (India, second, has 3.3 million). The Interstate Highway system established under the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 by President Eisenhower and other roadways under the National Highway system (image above) total 160,000 miles and are located within 5 miles of 90 percent of the US population.


In 1982 the only city considered by the Texas Transportation Institute to be congested was Los Angeles. By 2005, 27 additional cities met such criteria. The image at left illustrates that much of the National Highway System, even on intercity routes, is anticipated to be congested during peak periods by 2035 without significant infrastructural improvements. Many suggest that the system may be reaching a critical mass and that increased capacity won’t be enough to relieve congestion. For more info, see TTI’s website (link at bottom of page).


Short-haul flights, those under 400 miles, have actually been in decline since the 1990s even while overall air travel has increased. Most of the decline is attributed to higher fares and longer pre-boarding wait times. While telecommuting may be contributing to some decline, increased demand for longer flights at a time when some airports are nearing capacity is an added source of pressure.


On a per-passenger basis, high-speed rail is the most sustainable form of long-haul transportation in terms of energy efficiency. It uses one-third the energy of a plane ride and one-fifth the energy of a car ride. The California high-speed rail system aims to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, reduce sprawl in the state by supporting transit-oriented development, and eliminate 12 billion pounds of CO2 emissions annually.



Federal Railroad Administration
US High Speed Rail Associations
America 2050
Library of Congress
National Association of Railway Passengers
Association of American Railroads
National Transit Database
US Department of Energy
US Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics
US DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA)
US DOT Federal Highway Administration
Texas Transportation Institute
International Union of Railways
California High-Speed Rail Authority


more info