High Speed Rail high-speed rail

Published on December 6th, 2011 | by Andrew Meggison


American High Speed Rail is Not Dead – It’s More of a Zombie

Before the Thanksgiving break, House Republicans voted to kill a transportation appropriations bill that resulted in the majority of funding for America’s high speed rail program being eliminated. The GOP cheered at the death of President Obama’s national rail network plan; but their jubilation came premature. When the vote went to the Senate things changed – the bill was not dead but not really alive either.

Prior to the House vote, the Obama Administration had envisioned spending $53 billion on a nationwide high speed rail program over a six year period, including more than $8 billion next year. Beginning in 2008, under the Passenger Rail Investment Act, or PRIA, Congress spent about $2 billion a year on the American high speed rail program. But last year, Congress stopped appropriating money for high speed rail; essentially derailing President Obama’s expressed intention to connect 80% of Americans to high speed rail by 2036. Even with all these setbacks against an American high speed rail program, President Barack Obama inserted $4 billion for high speed rail into his American Jobs Act.

It is no secret that America’s rail program, that was once great, is now in shambles. Other developed and developing countries, such as China, have long surpassed the American rail program by building high speed services that connect cities and people across their nations.

The hope was that the construction of a national high speed rail network would, in the U.S., provide Americans with an alternative means of transportation, provide jobs, and act as a spark in rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. Ultimately, the national rail plan was seen by many as a monetary expenditure that the U.S. cannot afford and that was bogged down in some states, most notably California, by too much red tape.

Rather than allow the Obama bill to pass, some legislators felt that the bill should be killed. Not as a means to end high speed rail in America for good, oh no, the action of killing the Obama bill would be used to restart the plan on a blank slate. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said,

“Today’s vote marks the end to President Obama’s misguided high speed rail program, but it also represents a new beginning for true intercity high-speed passenger rail service in America. By zeroing out high-speed intercity passenger rail funding, we are being given the unique opportunity to refocus and reform the high-speed rail program on the rail lines that will produce the most benefit for the least amount of cost.”

Shuster continued

“The Obama Administration bungled its high-speed rail program from the start, losing an important opportunity to build true high-speed rail in areas where it makes sense, like the Northeast Corridor,” he said. “Instead, billions of dollars were spread too thin around the country and spent on incremental improvements to existing Amtrak services that weren’t high-speed at all.”

Across the aisle, Democrats in the House conceded that the Obama plan was far from perfect but was the best that could be worked out given the poor American economy.

For their part, Democrats in the House said the bill Thursday was “far from perfect,” but they were resigned to the fate of the rail money for now. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said,

“For too long, we have been over-dependent on cars and planes. High Speed Rail should be an option between any cities within a 500 mile radius, providing competitive trip times and fares, freeing up airspace, and benefiting our environment, economy, and national security. It makes no sense to abandon our efforts to develop High Speed Rail in this country.”

With the Obama bill killed in the House the bill went to the Senate, where it received a bit of life after death. The Senate committee voted to restore $100 million in spending to the high speed rail program. Some spending at least keeps the program alive – sort of.

With a zombified high speed rail funding bill lurking around some progress will still be done on establishing a nationwide high speed rail line; but with the limited funds not much progress can be made. Meanwhile, instead of looking at a nationwide system all attention is now focused on the existing rails in the Northeast and improvements that can be made to them using high speed train technology.

The successful amendment to restore $100 million in funding was sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Source: transportationnation.org | Image: Oleksiy Mark via Shutterstock

Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. Being an Eagle Scout, Andrew has a passion for all things environmental. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMeggison

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About the Author

Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor's Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master's Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMeggison

  • http://www.GreenJoyment.com Juan Miguel Ruiz

    Having high-speed would do wonders. USA is a huge country but we still rely on planes, and ICE vehicles. Railways used to connect everything, and they were pretty effective. Why not bring that back?

    JM Ruiz (Going Green)

  • Pingback: Daily Green Wrap-Up 06.December, 2011 | GreenJoyment

  • JLawson

    They were pretty effective if you didn’t have anything else available, and you didn’t mind taking several days to go from LA to NYC. You can argue that we shouldn’t be in so much of a hurry – but the world today runs a lot faster than it did 70 years ago. Rail is very cost-effective for hauling stuff that isn’t time-sensitive, but passengers are notorious for complaining when they don’t arrive somewhere when scheduled.

    Plus, I don’t think there’s a practical rail system that could take the place of air travel. If a train can hold 500 people to go coast to coast – and from say, La Guardia, there’s 30,000 people on miscellaneous flights going out a day that way (It’s actually about 60-70k per day, but I figured half would be local-eastern seaboard) going from NYC to Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and LA… you’re looking at a need for at least 60 locomotives, rolling stock for the passengers, a marshalling yard that’d handle such, plus feeder trains into the high-speed rail hub… not to mention rights of way wrangling to build the track, track maintenance and security – it’s going to be very expensive to get even a minimal capacity – and then you’ve got to worry about ridership and ticket pricing. This HAS to be able to stand on it’s own economically. (Because frankly, we’re starting to see the lint at the bottom of Uncle Sam’s deep pockets. And there hasn’t been a passenger rail carrier yet that made money off the passenger travel, aside from hauling soldiers in WW2.)

    I like trains – they’re a relaxing way tro travel when you don’t have to be anywhere quickly, and there’s a route that’s going the same way you are. This is rarely the case outside the NE corridor – look at the AmTrak map for an example.

    The costs aren’t supportable, and the benefits iffy at best. Sadly, it’s a good thing this got staked. I really hope it stays dead this time.

    • http://www.sublimeburnout.com Christopher DeMorro

      @ Jlawson

      Then how have so many other countries managed to set up extensive HSR networks that have a ton of popular support?

      Don’t tell me America can’t make a train system to rival air travel. We put a man on the moon with less computer power than we carry in our pockets these days.

      • JM

        The other countries that have HSR, was it state developed or private enterprise? Do they make a profit or state subsidized? If private entities, are they government corporations without competition or are there competiting companies? Actually curious on how they do their HSRs?

        • JM

          Ugh my last sentence was horrible. It should be: I am actually curious on how other countries develop and maintain their HSR systems.

        • JLawson

          From what I gather it was a combined case – the countries talking about it, agreeing to share costs, then (as in the case of the Chunnel) making up a private entity with a whole lof of government funding and a lot of private funding combined.

          In China, they decided to build it. (Much easier to do when you control the people. Don’t need to worry about such legal niceties as rights of way…) However, there’s a lot of trouble with corruption, quality, and cost – the ticket prices are prohibitive for the locals, the tracks aren’t quite up to spec, and corruption is endemic. It’s not a money maker – far from it.

      • JLawson

        “Don’t tell me America can’t make a train system to rival air travel. We put a man on the moon with less computer power than we carry in our pockets these days.”

        I might also point out that we haven’t been back since 1973. Yes, you can manage to do something a few times for an incredible expenditure of money – but that doesn’t mean you can keep doing it economically, and when you come to any large project (and a national HSR network that’d replace air travel in the US would be an order or two of magnitude LARGER than the Space Program) there needs to be three things.

        1. There has to be a NEED for it.
        2. There has to be a DESIRE for it.
        3. There has to be MONEY for it.

        US HSR fails on all three counts.

        Have you EVER used trains for travel outside the NE corridor? I have – it’s… okay. The trains are infrequent – usually one a day each way. They’re usually late. The stations are poorly maintained, the staff is surly, the rolling stock is marginal to okay (not great), the folks manning the train seem like they’d rather be anywhere else.

        The ‘dining experience’ is on plastic plates (but there’s still metal utensils, for now) – and on my last trip the dining car was closed to the general public for a ‘tour group’ that had their own car attached to the train. They got the first two hours of dinner service. Darn shame that our own destination was reached during that time – no dinner for you!

        Ridership is low. There’s too many alternatives, and the time/cost/distance ratio stinks on ice. You travel for the ‘experience’ – and it could be vastly improved.

        In Europe, you’ve got much shorter distances to cover, you’ve got countries that are more dependent on trains for their long-distance passenger transportation infrastructure and road construction for lots of cars was not a primary concern. Trains are frequent and convenient, because they’ve GOT to be – there’s no real alternative.

        There’s a NEED there. Not in the US.

        Even in Europe, the economics of HSR is an iffy thing – the Chunnel train, for example, is FINALLY making a profit, after losing money for years – but they’re getting a lot of money from the various governments that it runs through. The Eurostar train system has a ridership of about 9.2 – 9.5 million people annually.

        Chicago O’Hare serves about 65 million people a year. Atlanta-Hartsfield – 89 million. La Guardia – 24 million. Los Angeles (LAX) – 59 million. Seattle (SEA) – 31.5 million. (Per da Wikis on the airports.)

        2. There’s no DESIRE for it. To get people to want something, it has to be seen as ‘better’. Cheaper, faster, more comfortable, more luxurious. You won’t be getting that with US HSR.

        Now, some things scale up – some things don’t. We could DO a national HSR system. It would cost many trillions in stations, land acquisitions, track building, fees, rolling stock costs and maintenance costs, but we COULD do it. It’d take decades to build up a usuable network, but we COULD do it. It would likely never make money, but we COULD do it.

        But why? Because Europe does it? Because China does it? Is there some sort of checklist for ‘Modern Countries’ that has a line that says: “High Speed Rail – Y/N”?

        So let’s look at the three things from the top.

        1. Is there a need for US HSR?

        I don’t see it. If you want to go somewhere, you want to GET there. Planes do that well enough now. I can fly from Atlanta to Seattle, for example, go down to the airport and there’s 34 flights heading that way today. It’ll cost me from $293 to $921 according to Hipmunk.com, and require about 5 hours flight time. With the costs involved in building out a HSR line, I could expect around 10 times that for a one way fare.

        2. Is there a real desire for HSR in the US?

        You tell me. I don’t see it, aside from in Congress where’s it’s a way to buy votes. I’ll be honest, I’d like to go on a HSR train sometime. But if I don’t (shrug) it won’t break my heart. I don’t see it. I don’t see that it’d be a better (faster/less expensive) alternative than flying, unless you’re phobic.

        3. Is there money for it?

        No. Looking at our economy at the present, we’re in the situation of a man earning $20k/year paying out $35k/year. Getting HSR would be the equivalent of him buying a Ferrari. There’s no money that can be broken loose for it unless there’s an overwhelming need. (As in, vital to national survival overwhelming need. Because Europe and Asia has it doesn’t quite rise to that level. They have trains, we have planes.)

        So when you add together no need, no desire, and no money – you aren’t going to see it built. Sorry – but that’s the reality of it. The day of cross-country passenger rail in the US has passed, and I don’t see it returning.

        • http://www.sublimeburnout.com Christopher DeMorro

          @ JLawson

          You want an argument for high-speed rail?

          Fly somewhere.

          Flying is an awful experience between the excessive security, confined seats, recirculated air, and high ticket prices. I’d MUCH rather take a train. And at one point, most of this country got around by train, and this was a time of America’s largest economic expansion (1820 to 1920.) Obviously there were other factors at work there, but trains, unlike airplanes, can deliver you to the HEART of a city, rapidly and effectively. Trains can carry a lot more people than an airplane, stopovers are quicker, so on and so forth. Furthermore, planes have a monopoly on any trip that can’t be made in a few hours by car. America needs a third rail of mass transit (cars and planes being the first two.) HSR trains would do best at medium-range travel, like my upcoming trip from CT to Detroit. It is a 6 hour plane ride with a stop over (even though I’ve had trips out there that lasted less than 2 hours) or a 15 hour train ride that never goes above 70 mph. Double that to an average of 140 mph, theoretically you’re talking about a 7.5 hour train trip. I’d much rather do that, if the price was right.

          You argue there is no money for high speed rail. I argue that if we took 10% of the Pentagon’s annual budget, we could make massive upgrades to the Northeast corridor, and use it to showcase to the rest of the country what HSR is capable of. I don’t agree with Obama’s plan of trying to build a massive network right away; do it right in the one place people use trains now, and then you’ll have people BEGGING for HSR. Then again, Obama never asked me.

          A HSR network would also provide a ton of jobs, both temporary and permanent, as I can tell you that the train stations in the Northeast are almost always surrounded by up-and-coming neighborhoods and store fronts. Train stations are an economic booster for cities; airports? I dunno.

          Just because YOU don’t want to take a train doesn’t mean the rest of the country doesn’t. America could use a new public works project to be rebuild some of America’s hurt pride. Every other developed nation in the world is investing in HSR…why not America?

          • JLawson

            “I’d MUCH rather take a train.”

            I don’t blame you. That’s your privelege – and choice. AmTrak’s ready when you are, if they’re going where you’re going when you want to go.

            I’ve laid out the reasons I see as to why HSR will not work, and isn’t needed. I don’t particularly care to fly any more myself – it’s a miserable experience akin to shoving yourself into a Greyhound bus with less roomy seats for a few hours, after being strip-searched by surly cops. It rates high on the ‘No Fun At All’ scale for me, close to but not quite up to a full-bore colonscopy.

            But it gets you there pretty fast. That lowers the misery quotient some.

            If I’ve got to go further than I can reasonably drive, I’ll still fly. (And that’s about a 600 mile radius.) I won’t like it – but I’ll still fly.

            Amtrak one-way from Atlanta to Seattle is $455 (cheapest fare.) Leaving tonight, (Thursday) it’ll get you there Monday afternoon. (Add in about $30/day for food, unless you bring your own. Club and dining cars aren’t cheap.) Based on past experience browsing the AmTrak site, add in about $600-800 for a roomette, but at least you’ll eat free in the dining car on that leg.

            As I see it, a HSR ticket’s going to have to cost between 5 and 10 times that, unless heavily subsidized. So I don’t see it’ll be cheaper to go by train, sorry.

            I’ve gone from Atlanta to New Orleans by train several times. I’ve gone to Birmingham by train from Atlanta a couple of times. It’s neither fun or particularly pleasant – the seats are, I’ll admit, a lot nicer on a train but after 4 days it’s going to seem pretty hard.

            “I argue that if we took 10% of the Pentagon’s annual budget, we could make massive upgrades to the Northeast corridor, and use it to showcase to the rest of the country what HSR is capable of.”

            (Shrug.) We can’t – there hasn’t been a budget passed in 3 years. (Really hard to overspend if you don’t have a budget, right?)

            And if the Acela Express hasn’t been able to show the benefits by now – I don’t anticipate an upgrade will do much to change things.

            But we’ll take military as 20% of the expenditures, that seems the governmentally accepted figure. If the latest projections hold, we’re looking at 20% of $3.5 trillion, or about $700 billion. So – $70 billion/year Seems like a lot of money, doesn’t it?

            The LA-San Fran line was orignally forecast to cost $33 billion in 2009. Current estimates are up to $65 billion, with a completion time of 2030. By the time it’s all said and done, I’d estimate at least double that, probably triple. (It doubled in just two years, after all.) But even if it only doubles – that’s $130 billion for about 350 miles of track, plus rolling stock. About $370 million per mile of laid track.

            Let’s figure economy of scale hits and we get the cost down to only $125 million a mile. (It won’t, not with inflation, but we’ll use that number anyway.)

            Looks like there’s about 140,000 miles of currently used track – but let’s just run between major cities, likely passenger routes. About 5 N/S routes at 1300 miles each, and 4 E/W at 3100 miles each, in kind of an irregular grid.

            It comes out to about 19,000 miles, but I’ll round it up to 20,000 for ease of calculation. Does that seem like a fair number to you?

            20,000 x $125 million equals about $2.5 trillion on the tracks. (I’ll figure the last .5 trillion would be for the rolling stock, if you like.)

            (That’s assuming the price stays that low. I don’t think it will, by a factor of 5 to 10.)

            Add in new construction for stations, legal wranging for rights of way and easements – we won’t even talk about the environmental aspects of what’ll happen when a proposed rail line traverses the habitat range of the Perpetually Sotted Beaver Flea or it’s equivalent… well, you do the math. It adds up to a hefty amount, I think you’ll agree.

            Is it affordable? That’s… iffy.

            Right now, the US is taking in about $2 trillion a year in revenue. We’re spending about $3.5 trillion. The national debt’s at $15 trillion, or 7.5 years of revenue. The first couple of months of FY 2012, deficit spending was $250 billion, which means about $1.5 trillion added to the national debt at the end of FY 2012.

            Financially – we’re flat broke and living on credit cards. Hey, let’s go buy a new Ferrari – what could possibly go wrong? We’ve got to keep up with the Jones’s.

            “America could use a new public works project to be rebuild some of America’s hurt pride. Every other developed nation in the world is investing in HSR…why not America?”

            Because we won’t be able to afford it. And we don’t need it. You might like it – and if I could see some rational way to afford it I’d probably support it too. The idea is fun – really. But the reality is that the numbers just don’t fit – there’s no way it’d ever pay for itself, and the cost would be immense with little to no actual benefit.

            That’s how I see it. And I understand your mileage may vary on this. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done – technically, it’s feasible. Economically? Politically? It’s not.

  • Jerry

    Before China built the HSR, they have 6 major speeding up on existing tracks, raising nationwide average train speed from 48km/hr in 1997 to 70 km/hr in 2007, with main lines average speed of 120 km/hr and peak speed of 200-250 km/hr on 10 main lines.

  • Dave Holroyd

    I’ve lived in the UK, and worked in Europe, and traveled for business & pleasure on high speed rail there and in China & Japan. I also worked with several rail companies in the 70′s & 80′s when the UK & European networks were being built. I like trains.

    High speed rail (HSR) is a none starter in the US, other than, maybe, in the east coast corridor. Why? Population density, journey patterns and good alternatives. The US major population centers are much further apart than those in Europe. Most HSR traffic is for business travelers (and is priced accordingly), and European business centers are less well served by air, and the roads are more crowded. The US has good alternatives: better, less crowded roads and somewhere to park when you get there, good airports and affordable fares, and, best of all very inexpensive point to point bus services. If you travel by HSR, at the end of your journey you still need to travel the last few miles by some other form of transport, and outside a few metro areas, US public transport is unusable for business travelers.

    The purpose of HSR is to improve the movement of people, and the people who’ll pay are business travelers. Business travelers aren’t demanding HSR.

    Consider the Acela. I live near Boston, my kids live in New York. We travel between the two cities on a regular basis. We rarely use the train. Why? It’s too inconvenient and it’s usually too expensive. The bus is the cheapest, a car is the fastest.

    As for the choices in Europe, last year I had to get from London to Antwerp & Amsterdam on business. Two people and their luggage. The price for two return tickets on the TGV was over $850. We flew Heathrow – Brussels drove to Antwerp then Amsterdam and flew back to Heathrow for $575 including the car rental. A more flexible, less expensive solution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000952005408 Uncle B

    Deeply troubling article here. Oil at $100.00 bbl., U.S. and rising, soon out of reach for the working class, all the while, the huge expanses in the Pan Eurasian Empire to be serviced with High Speed Rail, expressly for their working class, driven with electricity from Thorium fueled LFTR reactors or better, http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4971 tells this story, and not by jet planes – already deemed impractical by the Chinese Communist Central Planning Committee – a body of Scientists, Engineers, Social planners, esteemed, bar – none in this world. They (the communists) see the British “Chunnel” as an extension of their own planning, and in fact Brittan builds the largest Trans-Continental Air base ever, to join the two major civilizations on earth today to the Rising Pan Eurasian Empire: All intercontinental transport where populations will support it, in the Pan Eurasian Empire will be by Chinese styled bullet trains, as they are daisy chained, inter-connected across that vast land area – some three or four times greater than the U.S.A. and Canada combined!
    The notion of Electric bullet trains and their nuclear electric, sustainable, sub-structures, human infrastructures, then daisy chained, over the larger areas as the population grows to fill these regions, escapes the American concept, eludes American logic, runs contrary to Capitalist based thinking, even appears alien to the American mind, but exists and prospers in Asia, and gives us good cheap none-oil based products from folks who live sustainable lifestyles, eat sustainable diets, accept sustainable rewards for their efforts, and achieve higher, better, practical oriented education for their social situation. Hence the Chinese efforts to squelch sorrowfully mistaken, impractical and, unrealistic for the Eurasian economic realities, ideologies on the internet! It is not to refuse exposure so much as to make certain that these wild, unfounded, unrealistic, unsustainable, and unfair American notions are in fact “Make Believe” and the many starving, unemployed, foreclosed, disenchanted, Americans today are the living proof of this!
    America’s “Golden Age” supported by the “Cheap Oil Era” is ending now, even with the export of the Canadian Tar Sands Oil, by multi-national (American based) Corporations to China at world market prices, Iraq’s oil riches also going to World Markets for World market Prices, and Iran’s oil already going to China for Yuan not U.S. Dollars, and even the petroleum riches of the unimaginably vast Siberia, are going to China and for Yuan, not U.S. Dollars, as we speak. Every day that the vast Pan Eurasian Empire grows, America is challenged for oil by bids in strong and highly desirable, unmanipulated, (since 2008) Chinese Yuan. This new economic reality will forcibly change the very fabric of American society, This new economic reality will force Americans to realize that the Capitalists will sell even freshly drilled Alaskan, or off-shore American oil to the highest bidder on the world markets at world prices, enriching only the shareholders, who are often not American, (Arabs, Saudis, Chinese, Europeans, Africans, all hold shares) and as the corporate charters of American law enforce! – So much for the asinine “Drill Baby Drill!” nonsense.
    America is just embarking on the largest paradigm shift of her short history. This is not just another dip in the ‘normal’ Capitalist System. This is not another recession before the “good times roll”. This is not the effect of corrupt financiers in New York as they manipulate world markets. This is not the fault of Banksters as they steal from the working classes. This is a fundamental change, world-wide, caused by the successes of the communists in China, Vietnam, and others of the Pan Eurasian group, who wish a different definition from the American one for all civilization and have clout in a very strong bid on markets world wide for its fruition. They are only decades away from forming, from strong alliances, a new, Pan Eurasian Empire, communist in nature and stronger by far than the wildest American imaginings. Electric, Thorium fusion sourced bullet train networks and their associated human social infrastructures will be the back-bone of a “new world order” there, as America shrinks in significance by comparison, and in fact by the realities of present day and future America, bound by old concepts, even of governance, and failing rapidly into the history books as we speak. Even America’s whole Military/Industrial Complex, totally oil dependent, and paying world prices, Yuan controlled Yuan dominated prices, for oil to greater richer expanding nations. They fall on their own Petard, Oil.

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