Preparing intercity rail corridors for long-term viability

Key questions agencies can answer to lay the groundwork for new rail corridors

Intercity rail service can serve as an essential component of a region’s transportation system, by increasing travel capacity and offering greater travel choice.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program (Corridor ID) aims to tap into this potential by establishing a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects ready for implementation nationwide.

To advance through the program and secure continued funding, Corridor ID projects need a high-quality service development plan that answers the following two fundamental questions.

  • What is the basic objective of the development of the rail corridor – its purpose and need?
  • How should the rail corridor be developed to achieve those objectives?

What is the objective of the development of the rail corridor?

Successful service development plans begin with a clear statement on the objective the corridor is intended to achieve. This comes in the form of a preliminary purpose and need statement that defines the “purpose” (e.g. to increase mobility) and “need” (e.g. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) of the transportation system and becomes the north star for the planning of the service.

An appropriately crafted preliminary purpose and need statement helps structure and drive the analysis and decision-making around how the corridor would be implemented to achieve those objectives. The key elements that are addressed in the service development plan are:

  1. The specific route the corridor would follow
  2. The characteristics of the service (frequency, trip time, etc.) that will be provided on the corridor
  3. The capital investments needed to implement the corridor on the specified route and with the specified service characteristics

In some cases, some of these elements may actually be defined in the preliminary purpose and need statement. For example, if the effort relates to improvements to an existing service without any geographic extensions or potential reroutings, the route of the corridor would be specified in the preliminary purpose and need statement. While these three basic elements are generally initially examined sequentially, there is nearly always an iterative aspect to the analysis given the interplay and dependencies that often exist between them.

How should the rail corridor be developed to achieve its objectives?

At its core, the service development plan documents the three basic elements that determine how a corridor will be implemented or improved to meet its objectives established in the preliminary purpose and need statement: its route, its service characteristics and the investments needed to achieve those service characteristics on the identified route. Furthermore, the service development plan should document the analysis used to arrive at the definition of these three basic elements, including what alternatives were considered, and how all other alternatives were dismissed from consideration.

Route: In cases where a new corridor is being proposed, an existing corridor is being extended or the rerouting of an existing corridor is contemplated (e.g. to reduce trip times or change the geographic travel markets it serves), the service development plan must document the route the corridor would traverse, and how that route was determined.

The analysis of route options focuses on two primary factors: 1) the travel market to be served by the corridor, and 2) the physical and operational characteristics of the route. When it comes to a corridor’s route, analysis of the travel market drives decisions regarding the intermediate geographic locations that would be directly served by station stops. With the physical characteristics of the route, the service development plan will specify whether the corridor would operate over existing rail lines (intermixing operationally with existing rail services) or new rail lines (or a combination), and for any new rail lines, what their general alignment would be, including whether they would follow or be situated on existing rights-of-way.

Service characteristics: To meet the needs of the market, the plan should identify the basic characteristics of the intercity passenger rail service that would operate on the corridor, including train frequency, trip times, service times, speed of trains and fare-setting policies. These encompass the factors that prospective passengers will consider when they decide whether the passenger rail service would meet their travel needs for a particular trip. In addition to examining the characteristics of the travel market (such as thorough market analysis and travel demand forecasting), physical and operational considerations play a major role in determining service characteristics. These include both the travel time and capacity-related capabilities of a specific route and the need to identify a set of service characteristics that can be operated efficiently and reliably.

Investments: Service development plans identify the discrete capital investments that will support the proposed improvement or introduction of intercity passenger rail service. This essentially takes the form of a “project list,” which itself is identified through technical analysis that encompasses disciplines such as railroad operations analysis, fleet planning, station planning and conceptual engineering. It is this project list that is then advanced (either all at once, or in subsets, each corresponding to a phase of implementing the proposed investments and the resulting improvement to or introduction of the intercity passenger rail service on the corridor) into “Step 3” of the Corridor ID program, which comprises completion of environmental review and preliminary engineering.

Laying the groundwork

The Corridor ID program represents a pivotal opportunity to further develop the United States’ passenger rail network and provide economic development to communities it serves. By answering questions that define the scope, market and vision for the intercity rail corridor, agencies can begin to lay the groundwork for a transformational investment in rail infrastructure that may take decades to realize.


Chris Kopp
Associate Vice President
Planning, Economics and Finance

Chris brings more than 25 years of experience managing a wide variety of planning studies, most recently helping states and regions develop passenger rail and transit system visions and secure federal discretionary funding. He has supported more than 120 federal discretionary grant applications, prepared benefit-cost analyses for more than 60 successful applications and helped clients secure more than $6 billion of external funding. Chris has advised more than 30 transportation agencies on financial issues, including transformative projects that promote sustainable, livable communities such as passenger rail.



Peter Schwartz
Vice President
Railroad Development Practice Lead

Peter Schwartz joined HNTB in May 2024, coming to the firm following 21 years in the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Development, where most recently he created and led the office responsible for all planning and engineering related to the agency’s financial assistance programs. During his time at the FRA, Schwartz was the principal architect of the agency’s project development and intercity passenger rail investment frameworks, including creating the concept of the service development plan following the enacting of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and led the agency’s creation of the Corridor ID Program under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021.


Dominic Spaethling
Vice President and Salt Lake City Office Leader

Dominic Spaethling is a vice president and Salt Lake City office leader at HNTB. As office leader, he oversees the operations and growth of the Salt Lake City office and manages the delivery of complex infrastructure solutions for highways, light rail, bridges and more in the Utah region. Spaethling has overseen the development of several high-speed, intercity, commuter and freight rail properties in major markets including Utah, Colorado, Washington and California.