With VIA slowly fleshing out their plan (even if they seem to have gone slightly overboard on how desperate they are and undermined their credibility just a bit) I'm finding there to be three broad categories of intercity passenger rail plans:
-High Speed Rail. Think CAHSR, XpressWest, or Texas Central for the easy examples. The Acela technically qualifies, but in some respects it almost does so as a political courtesy more than anything at the moment. Generally HSR implies at least once-hourly service, but the two-and-a-half proposals being feasibly pursued (I consider XpressWest to be a "half-proposal" insofar as it is functionally joined at the hip with CAHSR) envision substantially higher levels of service, particularly at peak hours (I believe that all three proposals imply at least 4-6x hourly trains at peak hours).
-"Higher Speed Rail". Something of a bastard stepchild, this generally basically means "top speed of 90-125 MPH and some ineffable level of frequency" (e.g. a number of the routes out there getting upgraded seem to have 4-6x daily trains at most) but the name is confusing alongside the regular HSR label. This also landed alongside the "emerging" label (which, frankly, tends to get applied to corridors which are about as likely to "emerge" as HSR lines in the next 20 years as I am to grow a new pair of arms).
-"Fast, Frequent Rail". This is the one I've noticed popping up all over the place, either in descriptions (Ed Ellis referred to it in his NARP presentation) or in actual planning as a term (see VIA). The emphasis here seems to be a blend of high-ish speeds (generally shooting for the 90-125 MPH range above) but with a much bigger emphasis on frequency (Ed referred to wanting "clock" service, Brightline is shooting for this with 14-16 departures/day, and VIA is looking at 18x Montreal-Toronto round-trips versus about half of that now). I'd note that Rep. Shuster used some similar language as well.
--For what it's worth, I'd define this as a project seeking average speeds over 60 MPH (ideally over 70-80 MPH so as to clobber highway travel in terms of speed) and at least 10-14x daily round trips (obviously subject to some fiddling on weekends). We can naturally debate the definition but I think this is a viable starting point.
Two general points hit me (Ow!):
-"Higher Speed Rail" seems to be the worst of all worlds in some respects, at least if some of the projects out there (CHI-STL comes to mind) are any indication: There's too much emphasis on top speeds and too little on average speeds and frequency (I think the two are probably about equal in importance; reliability is the other main item of importance, and it seems to bob in and out). I think we've been over how a given dollar is often better spent fixing a slow patch somewhere than trying to bump the top speed of a line.
-With this in mind, I suspect the strongest argument for rail advocates going forward is more or less "High Speed Rail where the market will support it and/or the government dollars are readily available, Fast Frequent Rail where HSR isn't feasible." HSR has a definition and FFR can be defined reasonably...and in many respects, they build directly on one another in concrete terms (though obviously one can envision an FFR project which ramps up frequency and/or an HSR project which is simply a rather fast version of an FFR project). In the meantime, the more euphemistic labels seem to (1) confuse people, (2) don't convey a viable policy objective, and (3) frankly, strike me as useless as a result.