Rail

Published on October 5th, 2010 | by Christopher DeMorro

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Amtrak Proposes $117 Billion High-Speed Rail Corridor by 2040

October 5th, 2010 by  
 

I used to love trains. Hell, I still love trains, though the “honeymoon” wore off some time ago. Connecticut has what I like to call a “half-finished” railway system. My state is small, but very congested, which is why rail commuting is on the rise here. Yet the tracks are old, incomplete, and can’t even handle the full speed of the Acela high-speed train that currently runs on them. Also, a lot of people don’t want to listen to high-speed trains ripping through their backyards.

None of that is stopping Amtrak from proposing a $117 billion upgrade to the Northeast Corridor over the next 30 years that would make room for a 220 mph bullet train between Boston and Washington D.C. Can we afford it though, and more importantly, is it worth it?

I may be young, but I’ve learned that almost any project with a “projected cost” will have cost overruns. It’s like California’s high-speed rail, which went from costing $45 billion to $65 billion, and the project has barely begun. So in my mind, $117 billion would just be the start of costs. However, this corridor would benefit a lot of people, reaching upwards of 33 million people by the time it was completed, creating 40,000 temporary jobs, and 120,000 jobs from “economic benefits”.

The Amtrak proposal would go between Boston and Washington D.C., with one high-speed train that makes just two stops in between at Philadelphia and New York. The current “high-speed” Acela train can do this trip in about 6.5 hours, but a new “Super Express” train would cut that time down to about 3.5 hours. This would require new tracks to be built, as well as maintaining and upgrading current tracks and providing plenty of local access as well. And of course, there are plenty of NIMBYs to get in the way. It is easy for me to sit here and say “they could build it in my backyard” because I know they won’t. Would I really want a train line cutting my town in two though? Not really.

I’m torn. We could do a lot of good with that $117 billion going towards other areas… but spread out over 30 years, that is just under $4 billion a year. Is it worth the cost and should we take the big plunge? Or should we take smaller steps first, and perhaps improve current rail service so it appeals to a broader base? I’ll tell you one thing, those Amtrak train cars could use a bit of upgrading.

Source: Infrastructurist | Image: Amtrak





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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.



  • MSO

    Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, DC. And if we were to drop Washington, DC from the stops?

    Sorry, this sounds like a perk for politicians and lobbyists to me.

  • High speed rail (HSR) is a vanity project for politicians. Mr. DeMorro is correct to be suspicious of cost overruns. He should also be weary of exaggerated revenue estimates, exaggerated ridership estimates, exaggerated environmental benefits and exaggerated congestion relief benefits.

    Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute has written extensively on HSR. Below is a link to one of his papers that covers a lot of ground on HSR in the U.S., Japan and Europe:

    http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/high-speed-rail

    • The Cato Institute is a noted anti-rail pro-highway front. I would look deeper into any statments from that organization.

      • Make that word: statements

      • The analysis in the linked article is historical, utilitarian and economic, not ideological. What you characterise as anti-rail, pro-highway, I see as anti-waste, pro-most-bang-for-the-taxpayer-buck. This seems like a reasonable argument to me. If you have a link to an article that argues HSR is more economical and useful than highways and airports in the U.S., I’d be interested in reading it.

    • MSO

      I love New York, New Jersey is OK, never been to Boston. Have you been to North Dakota?

      When in Washington, DC., I found a primarily (as expected) federal government orientation.

      Boston, New York and New Jersey would be a much more logical rail line when private folks and enterprises are to be the locus of the public weal.

      The rail line, as proposed, is intended to facilitate the NE/DC relationship. Further promotion of ‘government business’ is detrimental to the nation’s welfare.

  • You guys crack me up.
    A perk for politicians and lobbyists? Wha?
    Read the proposal before you judge.
    I still love trains, but then again I love my wheels, too.
    What I really love is getting from here to there – fast – and the fast part is the problem with trains now. 6 1/2 hrs from Boston to DC is just too pokey and air travel sucks.
    I say, the time has come to modernize our rail system. If Americans had been so timid about spending in the 50s we’d have no interstate highway system.
    It’s just so easy to say no.
    I say “Let’s GO!”

  • This is a no brainer. Of course we should do this. If there is any role for rail in the US, it’s the northeast corridor. The population density is high enough to make it worthwhile and lots of people are accustomed to riding the train.

    As far as the NIMBY stuff — I’m sure people will complain, but having a rail line “cut your town in half” is not the horrible trauma you make it out to be. I live about half a mile from the current northeast corridor tracks in NJ, and they are not nearly as annoying as an interstate. They’re easy to cross (bridges go over them) and not as noisy as highways. Plus, it’s great living close to a train station — I can take a 10 minute walk, hop on a train and go anywhere from DC to Boston. Making those trips faster would be great.

    MSO: Have you ever been to any of the places you’re talking about? I travel for business from NJ to DC several times a year and it’s great having the train (And no, I’m not a politician). This knee-jerk hatred of everything about DC and the northeast from red neck retards is getting old. Just move to Texas and start your own country already, you morons.

    • “This knee-jerk hatred of everything about DC and the northeast from red neck retards is getting old.”

      Fine. No federal money for high speed rail projects in the Northeast. You guys want it, you pay for it. The arrogance of Northeasterners who think the rest of the country (“red neck retards”) should pay for a white elephant boondoggle that has no utility beyond a handful of citizens (who happen to live in the Northeast, surprise, surprise) is what’s getting old.

      • While I sympathize with those wanting lower taxes (who doesn’t?), the balance sheet of FDOT money pays for the railroads competition, otherwise the railroads would still be in the business of hauling passengers.

        • That’s doubtful – the economics are against it. Post WW2, passenger traffic was not profitable for the railroads, and was decidedly secondary to their freight efforts. Train travel outside the NE corridor is a friggin’ pain in the ass. Try going from Atlanta to LA – it can’t be done cheaply or quickly. Takes 4 days, and you’ve got to go up to Washington DC, then to Chicago. Meals on board aren’t cheap, and if you want a roomette you’re looking at $1628 for 2 people. (But they throw in meals, so…) And THAT’S one way. With a government subsidy, so you figure AmTrak’s not losing too much per rider.

          Round trip nonstop on Delta is $382 pp. Yeah, you’re in a sardine can, but you won’t spend 4 days just getting there.

  • ziv

    This corridor is the busiest train line in the US and this improvement would basically put the airline shuttles out of business, freeing gates up for flights that make more sense. But, Amtrak would get more business if they simply found a way to increase the average speeds of trains like the Empire Builder and Capital Express from their pokey 49 and 44 mph, respectively. And all it would take is for the ICC to mark up their idiotic ruling limiting the trains to 79 mph max. It wouldn’t hurt to double track the busier sections, though that would actually cost money. It will happen in 2015 when the new Positive Train Control policy will allow faster top speeds, but sooner would be better. Getting the top speeds up to 100 mph and eliminating as much idling time would get those average speeds up from 49 mph to 70 mph or more, which would be a huge difference. DC to Chicago in 11 hours is much more useful than doing the same trip but in 18 hours, like it is now.

    • Passenger speeds in the heyday of private trains was about 16 hours (NYC RR), with about many more trains per day between New York and Chicago (and other cities between)than now.
      I believe the New York Central alone had 12 daily trains CHI-NYC. There was also the Pennsylvania RR, Erie RR, Nickle Plate, A bit farther south, the B&O and the C&O.
      FDOT funded the competition, (and with other mitigating factors such as the ICC, work rules, and attitudes) literally ruined the railroads.

  • JP

    “It’s like California’s high-speed rail, which went from costing $45 billion to $65 billion, and the project has barely begun.”

    Not true…this is a common misconception. California was required to project fuutre dollar costs (i.e. guess at inflation) in order to apply for stimulus funds. http://www.cahsrblog.com/2010/08/assessing-the-cost-of-high-speed-rail/

  • Lee

    I think it would be a good way to begin to promote the habit of taking the train amongst the largest percentage of Americans. Reducing air and highway traffic are needed improvement,

    I don’t really the view the service itself as a boon to politicians and lobbyists but, it may be in line with the goals of some. If it opos them out of private plane and cars and puts them among the masses, we are probablyt better off.

  • high speed train is needed….lets learn how to do it right…..build a small line ..such as anaheim to las vegas…….
    most of the land is dessert and gov land.
    and have it up and running ,,quick.

  • The States in the ACELA corridor between Wash, DC and NY have a combined population of about 50 million people and a population density of over 400 people per sq.mi., i.e. twice the population density of Spain and nearly twice the density of France, both of which have very successful HSR.

    I don’t know how Amtrak came up with $117 billion, however that is grossly overstated. Considering there are only 420 miles from Boston to DC, it would amount to over $270 Million per mile. That is 10 times the amount Spain just spent to built the HSR from Madrid to Barcelona and about 7 times the latest TGV line in France. Italy spent $100 Million per mile to build the 60 mile HSR segment from Bologna to Florence, a segment that is nearly all underground (50 miles of tunnels!) through the Apennines mountains. So unless Amtrak plans to build the NE corridor totally underground for 400 miles, their figures are questionable. If that’s the case they should be fired and they should hire the Europeans to build it for us.

    I don’t disagree with those who say that since the NE corridor benefits primarily the NE states it should be paid by them. However the same rule should apply to Interstate highways as well. Why should people in NY fund Interstate construction in Utah? The only New Yorkers interested in going to Utah are only the Mormons and those who are alcohol intolerant.

    • “…both of which [Spain and France] have very successful HSR.”

      In order to get ridership up, Europe has tolls and high fuel taxes that increase the costs for alternatives to rail such as cars and planes. Yet despite this artificial advantage, European HSR is highly subsidised; it doesn’t come close to making a profit. How is this very successful?

      “Why should people in NY fund Interstate construction in Utah?”

      Because the people in Utah fund interstate construction in New York. Everyone pays for, and benefits from, the interstate highway system. It’s not a regional system, it continental.

      Read the article I linked to in the second comment to this blog.

  • I would much rather see less congested areas built up, like LA or Seattle to Chicago. yes, both are big cities, but the space in between is dirt cheap land. And really, cutting a trip by Train from 48 or so hours down to 8 or 9 would make a HUGE improvement. In fact, I would love to see them make much faster trains, and cut it down to less than 6 hours. That would suddenly make Amtrak a valid option, if not the preferred one.

    • Why would you love to see untold billions of dollars spent on a railroad when LAX to O’Hare can surpass your goal of a 6 hour trip today? What’s the advantage?

  • “European HSR is highly subsidised; it doesn’t come close to making a profit.”

    Not true. Practically all ‘true’ HSR lines have sufficient revenue to cover all operating costs and make a profit. Some lines even cover enough of the depreciation on capital construction costs.

    Why is HSR held at a higher standard than highways. Do Interstate highway make any profits? No! They are TOTALLY SUBSIDIZED BY TAXPAYERS.

    Why is ok for the government to subsidize the construction of a Highway system while an HSR is considered ‘socialist’? We have a ‘socialist’ airport and airtraffic system in America and a ‘socialist’ highway system, yet that doesn’t bother the Tea party red nex. Why are high speed train operators required to build their own HSR lines without taxpayers’ help, while the same is not required from Trucking companies and airlines? Can you name an airport that has been built by Southwest or Delta? Last I checked it’s the local and state governments that pay for airport construction. But that’s ok. That’s ‘acceptable socialism’ for you I guess.

    • “Practically all ‘true’ HSR lines have sufficient revenue to cover all operating costs and make a profit.”

      Only two high-speed rail routes in the world, Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon, earn enough revenues to cover capital and operating costs.
      David Randall Peterman et al., “High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States,” Congressional Research Service, December 8, 2009.”

      Experts say that virtually no [high speed rail] HSR lines anywhere in the world have earned enough revenue to cover both their construction and operating costs, even where population density is far greater than anywhere in the United States. Typically, governments have paid the construction costs, and in many cases have subsidized the operating costs as well.
      High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States, by David Randall Peterman, John Frittelli, and William J. Mallett, CRS Report for Congress R40973, December 8, 2009

      “Why is HSR held at a higher standard than highways. Do Interstate highway make any profits?” “Why is ok for the government to subsidize the construction of a Highway system while an HSR is considered ‘socialist’?”

      HSR is not held to a higher standard. Compared to highways and airports, HSR is not economical. The interstate highway system is not run as a business. So, yes there is no “profit”. However, it is paid for by user fees – fuel taxes, trucking taxes, licensing and registration fees, and probably money from general tax funds. This a legitimate governmental function because there is no private sector incentive to build interstate highways – tolls
      would not cover capital and operating expenses. Interstate highways may in fact “lose” money if you ignore the non-pecuniary direct benefits like
      being able to move people and cargo around the nation at the lowest cost (i.e., the highway may lose money but this is made up in lower overall
      transportation and travel costs to society in general).

      “We have a ‘socialist’ airport and airtraffic system in America and a ‘socialist’ highway system, yet that doesn’t bother the Tea party red nex.”

      Airports are financed by municipal bonds. These bonds are paid off with revenues from aviation fuel taxes, gate taxes, airline ticket taxes, concessions, adverts in the concord, parking fees, ect… All airports are thus paid for by the airlines (Delta, Southwest, FedEx, ect…) and passengers. In addition, airports attract significant revenue for their municipalities (e.g., taxi cab fees, hotel taxes, tourist dollars, convention and restaurant business, ect…). If the municipal airport authority is managed properly, eventually airports can be profitable. In fact, some airports are owned by a municipality but operated by private firms who pocket the difference between revenues generated and the leasehold expenses paid to the municipality.

      “Why are high speed train operators required to build their own HSR lines without taxpayers’ help, while the same is not required from Trucking companies and airlines?”

      HSR operators are not “required” to build their own lines without taxpayer help. You could begin building yours today. If the government (taxpayers) wants to build the stations and
      thousands of miles of track required, fine. All they’ll have to do then is convince a private carrier to pay for and operate a HSR in addition to paying all the taxes and fees just like airlines pay at an airport. Good luck with that!

      Finally, the one question you’ll never be able answer is this: If HSR is profitable in the U.S., why haven’t any private carriers built it? (Hint: It’s a waste of money with no value add to the existing transportation system in the U.S.)

  • For those who don’t know how the European systems work the HSR construction and maintenance (capital cost) and the train operation (operating costs) are under two different companies. Construction and maintenance of the line is under a state owned company. This company doesn’t make a profit and survives thanks to fees from operators and government subsidy. It’s no different from you local State Highway authority. They don’t make money either, they are state agencies.

    Train operators are government owned or privately owned operators of HSR which, after paying for operating costs and fees to the HSR line state company, make a profit. They are no different from airlines.

  • I will agree that HSR between LA and Chicago makes no sense. HSR is not competitive against airlines for trips over 400 miles and it’s not competitive against cars for short trips under 100 miles (unless it’s a very congested route). However it makes plenty of sense for large densely populated cities located between 100 and 400 miles apart. It’s therefore perfect for the NE corridor from Wash DC to Boston with stops in NYC, Philly and in some cases Baltimore.

    California could also work, however the route they chose makes the trip much longer (over 430 miles), which makes it less competitive against airplanes, while the cities in between (Fresno and Bakersfield) aren’t really that big.

    • We agree! So long as it’s paid for by the carriers and users of the railway.

  • “The interstate highway system is not run as a business. So, yes there is no “profit”. […]. This a legitimate governmental function because there is no private sector incentive to build interstate highways – tolls”

    One could use the EXACT SAME argument for high speed railroads. Just replace the word ‘highway’ with ‘high speed railroad’ in your very same sentence et voila’.

    “If HSR is profitable in the U.S., why haven’t any private carriers built it?”

    For the same reason why no private investor has built its own freeway. These type of infrastructures are too large and the returns, if any, would be too long term for a private investor.

    The question is: why is Government investment in “roads” is considered ok for you, even though you yourself recognize they cannot turn a profit, whereas Government investment in “railroads” is not? Is it the extra 4 letters R-A-I-L that makes the difference? It’s certainly not the cost, since building a 6 lane freeway is way more expensive than a 2 track line (for obvious reasons: real estate requirements).

    So why do you pick one government infrastructure and not another? At least Milton Freeman used to be against all, including government constructions of roads (he used to say that if there was a need private investors would build toll roads).

    Answer: because Glen Beck, your shepherd, told you so!

    • “One could use the EXACT SAME argument for high speed railroads.”

      My whole argument is that HSR is not economical. There is no way to make the exact same argument for interstate highways and airports as that made for HSR because interstate highways and airports cost a small fraction of HSR on a cost per passenger mile basis. You can only have one, maybe two, trains on a line at a time. In other words, you may have 400 miles of high speed track tied up with one or two trains from Boston to D.C. – no-one else can use it until they reach the station. Or, you could have dozens of airplanes in the sky and hundreds of cars moving in both directions at the same time for less cost.

      “These type of infrastructures are too large and the returns, if any, would be too long term for a private investor. ”

      I thought I conceded the idea that some megaprojects (i.e. the interstate highway system) are uniquely suited to government because there is no way for a private sector company, or companies, to make any money. I agree, HSR makes no sense for the private sector. I further believe HSR makes no sense for the public sector. How many 737’s and runways could the government buy for $117 Billion? (I know you demolished this stupid number in a previous comment. Pick any number you like as a substitute.)

      “…why is Government investment in “roads” is considered ok for you, even though you yourself recognize they cannot turn a profit, whereas Government investment in “railroads” is not?”

      Because roads and airports are vastly cheaper than rail in the U.S. We would lose/waste more money with rail. Even if neither turns a profit, roads and airports lose a lot less.

      “It’s certainly not the cost, since building a 6 lane freeway is way more expensive than a 2 track line (for obvious reasons: real estate requirements).”

      No. Try your analysis on a cost per passenger mile basis. Plus, once government has built the interstate, except for maintenance (which HSR needs
      as well), it’s done. I bring my own car, I pay the gas, I do scheduled maintenance, I pay for repairs.

      “So why do you pick one government infrastructure and not another?”

      Because one is less expensive than the other. If Milton Friedman were around today, even if he didn’t agree with me, he would be more disposed to my point of view than yours. As you stated, Friedman was against all government intervention.

  • All this back and forth, and nobody’s noticing the due-date of 2040 … not entirely coincidentally around the same date by which the US military says they’ll have to be weaned off of oil to continue fighting.

    In 2010, nobody can make any argument for why high-speed rail makes sense in a country as physically big as the US; for what it costs in government subsidies, we almost could buy every passenger an airline ticket. But airline tickets will not always be this cheap. As we run out of cheap oil, and enter the era of expensive oil, when oil prices triple or quadruple, whenever that happens, we’ll either have the rights of way cleared and the rails laid for inter-city rail that can be converted to electricity, or we’ll have to give up inter-city passenger traffic for anybody but the rich.

    There is no room for doubt, whatsoever, that we will need this eventually. The sooner we start on it, the cheaper it will be. You can pay low taxes now and fund it over the next thirty years, or you can pay confiscatory taxes and try to rush it into existence at the last possible second (and probably still see the US economy spiral farther down while we wait for it) if we wait until we actually need it.

  • “You can only have one, maybe two, trains on a line at a time. In other words, you may have 400 miles of high speed track tied up with one or two trains from Boston to D.C. – no-one else can use it until they reach the station. Or, you could have dozens of airplanes in the sky and hundreds of cars moving in both directions at the same time for less cost.”

    This is utterly false. With modern technology HSRs have become High Speed High Capacity Rail. A typical capacity is now 15 trains per hour per direction traveling at 4 minute intervals and each train set can carry 400 to 800 passengers. Therefore a two track railway has more capacity than a 6 lane freeway while requiring only half of the land. The Tokaido Shinkansen line carries over 20,000 passengers per hour per direction.

    Given these facts the only issue is to determine if a route has sufficient volume to fully utilize that enormous capacity that trains have.

    I’m not for HSR everywhere and some of the HSRs in Europe have certainly been built to satisfy political rather than economic reasons, however I don’t see how the NE corridor couldn’t be a sound investment. The area is congested, both on the roads and at airports, which causes huge delays (that nobody bothers to quantify in economic terms) and cities are densely populated and compact similarly to their European and Asia counterparts (and unlike the sprawling cities in the rest of the US).

    I don’t see the need for HSR between Tampa and Orlando (although it might become the first HSR in America) given the short distance (80 miles) and the urban sprawl and low density that carachterizes Orlando (and Tampa). I even see with concern the plans here in California given the long distance of the route chosen, which will definitely make it less competitive with airplanes. But the Northeast? That’s a no brainer even for a Tea Bagger. It might be the only government project that Milton Friedman would have agreed to.

    • “I don’t see how the NE corridor couldn’t be a sound investment.”

      Then why hasn’t it been built? How many other sound investments are shunned by investors? Almost by definition an investment that no-one is willing to invest their money in is not “sound”.

      It’s been a fun debate, but I’m done. BTW, you would be more persuasive if you dropped the pejorative epithets like “red nex”, “socialist”, “Glen (sic)
      Beck” and “tea bagger”. Imagine what a red neck, socialist tea bagger looks like!

      • ziv

        The flipside of Al-Fakes statement is that anyone that needs to use pejoratives like Tea Bagger is probably a loser, or that anyone trying to insult people like Milt Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner before the Nobel Prize was sold to anyone that supported an anti-capitalist sort of stance, is probably not going to be worth listening to. I mean really, do you think Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and the failed state that is the IPCC (lets get real,the IPCC has been caught in so many lies only a useful idiot would actually believe that they bring anything of worth to the table), Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama, Menchu of the fictional life story, Mathi who claimed in at least one article that AIDS was propagated by the west- sorry, but the list of recent Nobel Winners in Peace and Literature is a Whos Who of Asinine Philosophy…
        Sorry for the list of Nobel embarrassments, but it is impossible to read a story about the Nobel Peace Prize and not laugh at the fools who think it matters. Until they recently named Xiaobo. He is a real Peace Prize candidate, no rich guy hitting the cocktail circuit with a DVD for sale, he is in jail for asking for basic human rights. Perhaps the Nobel has regained its earlier common sense. Possibly.

  • My state is small, but very congested, which is why rail commuting is on the rise here. Yet the tracks are old, incomplete, and can’t even handle the full speed of the Acela high-speed train that currently runs on them. Also, a lot of people don’t want to listen to high-speed trains ripping through their backyards.

  • This is very poorly thought out. Instead, it should be milwaukee->chic->gary->detroit->pit->nyc->boston.
    Why do it in this fashion? Because it would also carry loads of cargo. Once you have cargo and passengers on the same line, then you have MUCH lower costs. OTH, the boston->DC route is nearly 100% passenger only, with very light cargo. As such, it would be expensive no matter how you cut it. As it is, there, is already a route that runs NYC -> DC.

  • I am a current MARC/AMTRAK commuter between Aberdeen MD and Union Station DC. I tell you one thing, the service really sucks. I hope this proposal never, never, ever takes off the ground. I do not feel like a commuter, but more like live stock cattle. All the stimulus money that AMTRAK received did not help one bit the MARC commuters. MARC commuters get pushed to the side to clear way for AMTRAK and ACELA trains on a daily basis. This is only beneficial for the AMTRAK borad members, CEOs and VPs and those few inviduals that can afford to take ACELA. Used the $117 Billion to expand and improve the current neglected and inefficient rail system that we currently have.UP yours AMTRAK and MARC. SHAME on you!

  • jay

    $117.5 Bill price tag that will generate $900 Mill in revenues. So assuming a zero percent loan it would only take 130 years to pay for this project. We wonder why we are broke….

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