There’s nothing wrong with high speed rail except that when your country is really hurting, when your rail system largely falls behind other countries’ because of lack of tracks rather than lack of velocity, and when high speed rail appeals more to bankers than to folks scared of foreclosing homes, it’s a strange transit program to feature in something called a stimulus bill.
One might even call it an $8 billion earmark.
I watched this development with a sense of deja vu. Long ago, I was a rare critic of DC’s Metro subway plans, not because I was against mass transit, but because it was a highly inefficient way of spending mass transit funds compared to light rail or exclusive bus lanes. At the time we could have had ten times as many miles of light rail for the same price of the subway system.
The other day I was struck by Metro bragging about its record ridership during the Obama inauguration. I was one of the few people in town who noticed that Metro had finally achieved what it had, at the beginning, promised the federal government would be normal. We needed a first black president to get that many riders. Further, Metro doesn’t even have the capacity to handle that many people on a regular basis.
Other problems I correctly projected included the fact that Metro wouldn’t really compete with the automobile but with its own bus lines, that it was more of a land development than a transit scheme, and that auto traffic would increase as the subway encouraged new buildings but that a majority of the new users of these buildings would still come by car.
I mention these examples because they illustrate the sort of complexity that transit planning involves, a complexity that rarely gets any attention in the media or by politicians. There’s nothing like something as streamlined as a bullet to make everyone put away doubts, analysis and comparisons and just sit back and say, “Wow.”
The problem became permanently embedded in my mind after I asked a transportation engineer to identify the best form of mass transit. His immediate answer: “Stop people from moving around so much.” So simple, yet so wise and so alien to almost every discussion of the topic you will hear.
If we were really smart, we would be spending far more effort, for example, on redesigning neighborhoods so travel isn’t so necessary. What if every urban neighborhood had minibus service to help people get to necessary services? Or a business center with high quality video conference and other equipment so that more people could work at home often?
Instead we are planning to spend $8 billion so that people who already travel more than they should can do it faster and easier.
Of course, there are plenty of political reasons for this. The extraordinary power of the highway lobby remains undiminished, as does the fear of the trucking industry that freight trains might take a major portion of their business away albeit making more sense economically and ecologically.
One map of proposed routes shows not only high speed service to Las Vegas, home of the Senate majority leader, but a surprising number of routes spreading out from the Chicago of Barrack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.
Admittedly these are just proposals. But the power and pressure are there. For example, ,high speed rail pushing Environmental Lawnotes that the Federal Railroad Administration thinks a plan connecting Chicago and 11 other cities is the project most shovel ready.
Wrote in the: “” And there’s also the plan to electrify the route between San Jose and Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco.
The truth is that conventional rail and bus riders aren’t powerful enough to get what they need. Even upscale liberals prefer air or high speed rail. In the end, there’s no strong constituency for the ordinary rider.
As a result of such things, we can expect more than a fair share of hype and hokum as the high rail projects get underway. But here are a few real things to also keep in mind:
Building new conventional rail lines would have had a much stronger effect on the economy than merely speeding up existing routes. Beyond the benefits of construction and the system itself, there would be the economic opportunities created along the route, just as happened when we first built rail and our country at the same time. in an excellent article, writes, “‘”
When moving freight, speed is just not that important. An example can be found in a towboat pushing more freight up the Mississippi River than all the steamboats of Mark Twain’s time. Why does this lethargic system work so well? Simply because it’s not the speed but the capacity that matters. As long as what’s on the barges keep coming, how fast it comes doesn’t really matter.
Passenger rail capacity is also important. We don’t know what the real capacity of these high speed systems will be but we can guess that the railroads won’t have large numbers of spare trains waiting around for the Christmas season. Conventional rail uses easily coupled old equipment to adjust for peaks, but high speed rail is so expensive that it is more likely to fall short. For example, Trains for America describes the problem with the high speed Acela: “‘‘‘”
The trucking lobby. Philip Longman notes that “I‘‘”
High speed trains can become a pollution problem. The progressive journalist George Monbiot has reported: “”
Where the Japanese model stumbles. A letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out that “‘‘. . . “
The cost factor: Based on the only example we have in the United States, high speed rail is substantially more expensive and serves a wealthier class of riders. For example, making a reservation on one conventional Amtrak train from Washington to NYC today would have cost $52 less than the high speed Acela. More startling is that conventional business class is $16 cheaper than Acela even though in conventional business class you get more leg room, much more space to stow your gear, a free newspaper and free coffee and soft drinks. And all this costs you is one extra half hour ride under more pleasant conditions.
Cost of building high speed routes. Here’s what the NY Times had to say the other day: “[The stimulus bill] ‘ ” A completed California system alone is expected to cost about $45 billion.
A major reason for the high cost: building exclusive tracks for the high speed trains. Even though Acela, for example, can theoretically hit 150 miles an hour, it only averages 84 mph between NYC and Washington, in part because of stops and in part because it uses improved conventional tracks. It only hits full speed on about 35 miles in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
But this raises an important and almost entirely undiscussed question. Is the huge expense of exclusive track high speed rail preferable to spending the money on expanding conventional service to many times more passengers?
Ridership – Costs are changing, however, thanks to other problems. Back in August, the Boston Globe cheerfully reported:
But with the new year, Trains for America was telling a different story:
Even before the downturn, however, the Acela ridership reports were less than stunning. For example, in the last fiscal year the conventional northeast coast regional service rose 9.5% while Acela ridershp only went up 6.5%. Seventy percent of the ridership along the northeast corridor remained with the slower, cheaper trains.
Meanwhile other conventional service was booming. rose 20. grewdespite being slower than an express bus because of all of its stops. Chicago-Wisconsin Hiawatha service was up nearly 26 percent. And the Kansas City to St. Louis route grew more than 30 percent.
Some other traditional train routes that grew more than twice as much as the high speed Acela: Oakland-Sacramento, Northern California’s Capitol Corridor service, and Chicago-San Antonio.
Other uses: – Philip Longman, in his Washington Montly article, reminds us of alternative uses of conventional rail that seldom get mentioned. Some past examples: “‘. . . . . . ‘‘. . . ”
The big advantage of high speed rail is that the media, politicians and upper class love the idea and are happy to promote it without asking any of the hard questions. But it’s worth remembering that after Washington and San Francisco blew huge sums on subways, city planners finally got wise and started looking at less expensive transit systems that were more efficient in every regard except speed. And so, Washington is today finally working towards having its first light rail route in 47 years.
Finally, there is a lot of talk about how the Obama administration is a second New Deal. But the first New Deal would never have spent huge sums on super trains for the better off; it would have expanded decent if unexotic rail service for ordinary folks. Today you can hardly even get Democrats to talk about such things.