Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Does $8 Billion Buy?

The $8 billion included in President Obama's economic stimulus package is the largest figure ever designated by the federal government for high-speed rail. However, rail experts point out the figure won't get a single bullet train built.

So what will it buy? According to The New York Times, it will pay for long-delayed improvements to conventional rail lines and make a down payment on California's high-speed line, which would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in its first phase.

"In the short term, the money - inserted at the 11th hour by the White House - could put people to work improving tracks, crossings and signal systems.

That could help more trains reach speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, which is much faster than they currently go. It is much slower, however, than high-speed trains elsewhere, like the 180 mph of the newest Japanese bullet train."
Some rail advocates think the money will be spread too thinly to accomplish anything significant. Joseph Vranich, a long-time Amtrak critic and author of Supertrains, contends the money should have been put in one basket, upgrading the Northeast Corridor.
"If we really wanted to have high-speed rail in this country, and have it be a great success, then what we would do is concentrate the funds on the New York-Washington corridor, which is the top corridor in the country."
The United States has had a checkered history with respect to high-speed rail. While the federal government got involved in the mid-1960s with the passage of the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act, which funded the original Metroliner from New York to Washington and a turbo train from New York to Boston, proposals for high-speed lines in other parts of the country have met with fits and starts. They have remained stuck in a side track while countries like Japan, France, Germany and China have sped by us.

Even today, the U.S. government defines 90 m.p.h. as high-speed rail. That's less than half what what trains like France's TGV and Germany's ICE do.

This doesn't mean improvements to bring speeds to the 90 - 110 mph range aren't worthwhile. They could give rail a time advantage over highway travel and make rail competitive with air for trips of 250 - 300 miles.

But speeds of that caliber won't cut it on the 450-mile distance separating Los Angeles from San Francisco. Thus, high-speed rail in the U.S. will require a variety of strategies contingent upon the markets being served.

As for Mr. Vranich's suggestion that the entire $8 billion go to the New York-Washington line, how much upside is there for a line that already dominates the air-rail market between the two cities? In the current state of affairs more good can be accomplished by advancing projects in other parts of the country where incremental improvements can yield significant gains, e.g. Chicago - St. Louis, Seattle - Portland.

Successes there will demonstrate that the Northeast Corridor is not an isolated phenomenon and debunk the arguments of skeptics who say this country has a car and air mentality. Our allegiance to those modes has as much to do with the lack of an attractive rail alternative as it has with the convenience of driving and the speed of air. Where multiple rail frequencies are offered at reasonably competitive trip times, Americans have climbed on board. Make the trains go a little faster and make them run on time and even more will ride.


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  2. And spreading the money around is politically better than only spending it in the NEC, because it gets into many more Congresscritters' districts, thus making them more inclined to vote for it.

    That's why Amtrak continues to maintain a national system, so as to visit as many Congressional districts as is reasonably feasible.