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The Illusive Dream of Modern American Rail
Flickr photo from Danforth1.

Flickr photo from Danforth1.

For a total of 7 minutes, train geeks can rejoice while riding Amtrak’s Acela Express, which glides at 150 mph in America’s northeast corridor. That track, located in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, totals 18 miles and is the only segment in Amtrak’s 22,000-mile network that approaches the international definition of high speed rail (155 mph). The United States system of high speed and intercity railroads is way behind when compared to Europe and Asia, where key corridors regularly approach or exceed 200 mph and have average speeds three and sometimes even four times faster than Amtrak. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation created its own definition of high speed rail (110 mph) and still just one corridor qualifies – the northeast corridor – but still only averages 68 mph. Not surprisingly, commentators often compare America’s train systems to that of a developing country. According to a recent article in the Wilson Quarterly:

After accounting for speed-restricted curves, snail-like crawls through junctions, stops for opposing trains, and other obstacles thrown in their path, Amtrak trains average no better than 50 m.p.h. between terminals—and much less if unscheduled delays are counted. The result is that train service is slower today than it was in the 1940s, when “streamliners” touted for their speed—such as the Super Chief, 20th Century Limited, Denver Zephyr, and Hiawatha—routinely topped 90 to 100 m.p.h. between station stops. While the rest of the world has advanced, America’s passenger rail has stalled, if not reversed direction.

The government has identified 10 major high-speed rail corridors eligible for stimulus funding. Photo by the White House via About.com.

10 identified high-speed rail corridors eligible for stimulus funding. Photo by the White House via About.com.

There was a frenzy last April, when President Obama committed $8 billion in stimulus funds to improve the country’s train network and asked Congress for another $5 billion over five years. The press reports came accompanied with a sleek map displaying a stylized representation of a nationwide high speed rail system tying together major metropolitan areas in the Pacific Northwest, Florida, New England, and Texas among others.

The plan included ten corridors ranging in length from 200 to 600 miles. A passive observer might have thought at the time that Obama was launching a nationwide rail network, but a basic reading of the press reports indicate that these designated corridors are simply places eligible for a federal competitive grant program.

Rob Goodspeeed over at Planetizen points out that even this seemingly large influx of cash will do relatively little to increase train performance in most areas. He recently saw Federal Railway Administration (FRA) Administrator Karen Rae at a conference where she said that the federal government viewed these outlays as a modest sum designed to invest strategically in the rail network. It is similar to the $1.5 billion Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER Grant) program, only it is specific to passenger rail. The FRA received a stunning $57 billion worth of requests for the $8 billion in stimulus money: an unexpectedly high level of interest that has delayed the grant program. Seven billion dollars of those requests were for intercity rail not in designated high speed corridors.

In many corridors, the FRA is looking at spending much of the stimulus money by simply upgrading existing tracks where passenger trains share rail with freight. Unfortunately, such work is extraordinarily expensive. The Wilson Quarterly article points out:

Together, the limits on curvature and gradient mean that high-speed rail requires extensive land acquisition and expensive cutting, filling, bridging, and tunneling, especially in hilly areas,” Thompson noted. Expanding such corridors through heavily populated areas presents environmental hazards and NIMBY (not in my backyard) challenges, not to mention costs ranging up to $50 million a mile.

The price tag for modest upgrades to the northeast corridor would also be staggering, according to the New York Times:

“According to Amtrak … the route — roughly from New York City to Washington, D.C. — currently takes an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes to travel about 220 miles. To cut just 15 minutes off the trip would take an estimated $625 million. To cut an additional 15 minutes could cost as much as $5 billion.”

Much of the stimulus money is expected to go towards projects like California’s planned high speed rail corridor where local officials are putting up billions of dollars in bond money to try to get a $4.7 billion slice of the $8 billion in federal stimulus pie. California would use the money get started on their $40 billion, 15-20 year plan to to build a high-speed train (220 mph) from L.A. to San Francisco on mostly on dedicated track.

We’re talking big dollars here. In today’s dollars, the U.S. Interstate Highway System costs $280 billion. A full build-out of Obama’s proposed high speed rail corridors would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $200 billion. That has led many, including Nancy Kete, director of EMBARQ – The WRI Center for Sustainable Transport, to suggest future transportation funds may be better spent on more cost-effective systems that accomplish economic development, emissions and congestion reduction goals.

Photo by thisisbossi.

Photo by thisisbossi.

In the coming years, the U.S. will have to seriously examine whether a fully-scaled high speed rail network is worth the price tag. Yes, China does have a trillion dollar plan to build 8,000 miles of high speed rail by 2020 that will carry passengers as fast as 235 mph. That doesn’t mean China is making a sound public investment or that the U.S. has to respond with an equally ambitious rail program.

Rather than one-size-fits-all programs that would inevitably get politicized by members of Congress, public funds would be better spent on a plan that unleashes the creative genius of American planners and engineers and is in tune with the diverse transportation and land use realities around the country. How can America best accomplish this? The trend appears to be towards ramping up competitive grant programs like TIGER that invest in “mode-neutral” transportation projects rather than political ambitions.


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  • Postpast

    8 billion isn’t alot on a fedral scale, the US spends Trillions on guns!

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  • With an original stimulus package of 800B, and at least 60-70B for the auto industry, and trillions for the banking system, you need to consider that 8-15B for high speed rail is essentially “none.” That’s not even a kick start. It’s moot.

    G

  • Bruce, appreciate the lengthy comment and analysis. Using the word “deception” implies that I intentionally have been untruthful and that I have some ulterior motive. That is simply incorrect. Please keep comments on here civil or do not comment at all.

    Yes, the numbers are complicated and there are a lot of caveats. $200 million comes from the Wilson Quarterly article and is a very rough estimate of a full HSR buildout of the 10 corridors.

    Your comment goes very much to my point about how investing (at all and to what extent) in some corridors is more cost-effective than others. My larger point is that we shouldn’t put rail in its own category and fund it independently. We need to view investments in rail as part of a larger transportation picture that includes other investments that accomplish the same transportation and emissions reduction goals at a lower price.

  • “A full build-out of Obama’s proposed high speed rail corridors would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $200 billion.”

    Hiding inside this throw-away line is quite a lot of deceptive framing.

    The lower grade of deception is that the phrase “a full build out” seems to be used to imply building each corridor as an Express HSR corridor. However, if there is any corridor where the benefit of building an Express HSR corridor as opposed to an Emerging or Regional HSR does not justify the additional cost – the answer is to build a Regional HSR corridor at under half the cost or an Emerging HSR corridor at a fifth of the cost instead.

    The higher grade of deception is that there is no indication what this means in terms of annual costs. Some of the largest price tags are for the improvements that have the longest life, such as establishing new alignments or correcting flaws in existing alignments.

    An even broader deception is treating the Northeast Corridor as if it is a typical case, when it is quite evidently the most highly atypical case.

    However, the broadest deception is involved in this assertion: “In the coming years, the U.S. will have to seriously examine whether a fully-scaled high speed rail network is worth the price tag.

    That is simply a lie. All that is necessary is to evaluate each corridor in terms of whether it is worth the price tag. There is no reason why any given Express HSR corridor needs to be networked, since, on the one hand, the primary transport task it serves is 200 mile to 500 mile trips, not cross country trips, and on the other hand, there is no obstacle to running out beyond the end of the 220mph corridors onto the 125mph Rapid Rail corridors in the “Regional HSR” tier.

    It is never necessary to seriously examine whether a fully-scaled, Express HSR network is worth the price tag. If each corridor is worth the price tag, the network is, automatically, and if a corridor is not worth the price tag, it should not be built, irrespective of “the network”.

    And if adjusted to, “in the coming years, the US will have to seriously examined whether a 100mph nationwide “Higher” Speed Rail network is worth the price tag – its still misleading. Because we have a gaping hole in our balance of trade generated by importing 2/3 of our crude oil, and a matching gaping hole in our strategic defense implied by that import oil dependence. If oil supplies are seriously disrupted, with our current transportation system, our ability to move both critical goods and forces across the country will be severely compromised.

    So we have to seriously examined TODAY whether we need a fully-scaled 100mph electric freight rail network, and the answer when we do so will be, “yes, of course, we have needed it for a decade or more, and only the prostituting of our national interests on behalf of Big Oil has prevented us from facing up to that fact.”

  • Sobchak

    “That doesn’t mean China is making a sound public investment or that the U.S. has to respond with an equally ambitious rail program.”

    That’s exactly what it means. We rely today on airplanes and cars, which run on oil, and we don’t have a lot of it. High-Speed Rail runs on electricity, which comes from coal, or uranium, or sunlight, or water, and we have a lot of those things. As a short-term investment, high speed rail is not exactly cost effective. But if oil should rise in price dramatically the next few decades, spending a few billion now will save us hundreds of billions in the future.