If there is one railway in the United States of America that currently qualifies as a high speed rail line, then that would be the Northeast Corridor (abbreviated NEC) that connects Boston – New York City – Philadelphia – Baltimore – Washington D.C.. These cities alone have a population of 12 million people, but if you look a the Bos-Wash Megalopolis which stretches from Boston to Washington D.C., the railway has potential for 52 million people living in the northeast of the USA. Since the foundation of the federal railway operator Amtrak, this route received various upgrades in the 70s, 90s and 2000s, getting rid of grade crossing, electrification and realignments to enable faster speeds. On large sections of the corridor speeds of 201kmh (125mph) and 217kmh (135mph) can be reached and on several sections north and south of Providence (Rhode Island) even speeds of up to 241kmh (150mph) can be achieved.
But, there is another Northeast Corridor that qualifies as high speed railway. The Swedish railways between Haparanda – Luleå – Umeå – Örnsköldsvik – Sundsvall – Gävle. Below a map of the Swedish corridor drawn and with city bubbles calculated to show the population, to the same scale.
These two corridors are remarkably similar in several ways. The areal distance between Boston South Station and Washington D.C. Union Station is 630km (392mi). The areal distance between Haparanda and Gävle C is 670km (416mi). The American NEC has a line length of 735km (457mi) and the Swedish NEC will have a line length of 850km (the Norrbotniabanan is currently under construction and there is 34km gap between Luleå and the Haparandabanan). The geography of the Swedish corridor is best comparable with the Connecticut coast with many inlets, bays, hills and valleys making the alignment at times quite difficult to design. Some parts of the Swedish corridor are old, the section between Gävle and Sundsvall (which is part of the Ostkustbanan (translates into East coast line)) was built almost a hundred years ago but had an upgrade package in the 90s to realign curves radii and build new tunnels and bridges to a 200kmh standard. As did the Ådalenbanan from Sundsvall to Kramfors which got it’s upgrade from 2006 to 2012 with several sections being rebuilt to a 200kmh speed. The 190 km (120 mi) Botniabanan on the other hand, was only opened eight years ago in 2013. It is built to a 250kmh standard (although currently only trains with a top speed of 200kmh operate along it). With 9 trains a day (that originating from Sundsvall, with a connection to Stockholm) it connects the cities of Kramfors to Umeå. As mentioned the 270km (170mi) Norrbotniabanan is currently under construction and will extend the corridor to Luleå with a designed speed of 250kmh. Luleå is 32km south of the Haparandabanan, which itself was upgraded and newly built as a 250kmh line between Kalix and Haparanda in the early 2000s.
For all the similarities in distance, geography and speeds, there is important dissimilarity between these two corridors. Population. The largest city on the Swedish Northeast Corridor, Umeå, only has 130 thousand inhabitants. New York City boasts more than 8 million within it’s city limits. If you add up all of the cities’ populations along the Swedish route and throw in the Finnish cities next to Haparanda for good measure, then the total is about the population of Baltimore. How come is Sweden building a high speed rail line here?
Well, first we need to mention that the Botniabanan and Norrbotniabanan are both built a single tracked lines, with preparations for double tracks at a later date. See this animation for the Norrbotniabanan section between Robertsfors–Ytterby. Remember, Umeå-Sundsvall only has 9 passenger trains in each direction a day. The large majority of trains will be freight trains from the iron, copper, lead, zink, silver, gold, bismuth, cobalt, rare earths, ect… mining in northern Sweden, and for the new battery factories (see mining).
Botniabanan and Norrbotniabanan close a missing link in the Swedish network connecting the cities along the northeast coast. This link was not built a 130 years ago along the coast but 50 to 200km inland and is called Stambanan genom övre Norrland or the Main Line Through Upper Norrland. This line had branch lines to Sundsvall, Örnsköldsvik, Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå and Luleå (the “å” si pronounce as the “o” like in hero). This main line was built through Upper Norrlandso far inland at the time, because Sweden did not want the north rail line exposed to bombardment along the coast in the case of a potential war with any of it’s neighbors. The Botniabanan and Norrbotniabanan will cut the freight transportation costs and times in the north and increase the capacity.
What do I want to show with these two maps?
When high speed rail is discussed in North America, often the argument is brought that only a few corridors make sense. For example the American Northeast Corridor. But those corridors are so dense that it is exceedingly expensive to upgrade and build high speed rail there. Other corridors (for example Cheyenne- Fort Worth – Denver – Colorado Springs – Pueblo) are dismissed as not having enough population to warrant the investment. Sweden is building a new 455km of high speed rail line for only 5.22 billion USD or 11 million USD per kilometer or 18.5 million USD per mile. How? Because Sweden is building it through low density areas. North America should look where freight links could and should be upgraded, realigned and built new, and build them to enable a high speed passenger service as well.