Saturday, February 14, 2009


I love trains. But our trains suck. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the fact is undeniable. If you've ever ridden on a TGV in France or a bullet train in Japan and then come back to the US of A and taken a "high-speed" Acela from Boston to New York, you can't help but think that we could better.
In 1981, France introduced a train with an operating speed of 168mph. The top speed of the Acela is only 150mph, which it reaches on only a small stretch, and averages 86mph, well below the the high-speed trains in Japan(125mph), South Korea(125mph), Germany(153mph), and France(173mph). If the Acela averaged 125mph, one could do Boston to Washington in 4 hours and 45 minutes and Boston to New York in around 2 hours.

So it's with great pleasure that this train lover anticipates the new investment in train travel that is part of the new "stimulus" package. High-speed and inner-city rail was slated for $300 million in the House bill and $2.25 billion in the Senate bill. So how did the Democrats compromise? By giving high-speed rail $8 billion in the final bill! Meanwhile, Amtrak got $1.3 billion in the final bill compared with $800 million in the house and senate bills.

It's not exactly clear where, when, and how this money will be spent, but some of it seems likely to go towards California's project for a 220mph rail link from San Francisco to Los Angeles, something towards which Californians have already pledged $10 billion of their own money they don't have. Bill Kristol may be right to mock Harry Reid for wanting some money to go to a 300mph line from LA to Vegas, but the California rail link seems like it's going to happen — and soon.

So if you're a Kristol type who doesn't mind subsidies for cars and planes — but hates them for trains — this image of Mike Dukakis in a tank helmet ought to cheer you up. Laugh at it while you read his well-reasoned defense of investment in high-speed rail. It's a good explanation of what to expect, what fantasies won't happen, and why it's necessary.

Some highlights:
There's worry that the states just aren't ready to move on stuff. They haven't done the planning and the engineering they need to jump into major projects when the funding is there. We have a major construction-management problem in this country. In Massachusetts, the governor wants to build a four-mile light-rail extension using existing right of way [tracks and property that are already in place], and it's going to take six years to complete. How can that be? Chinese and Irish immigrants were laying four miles of track a day on the transcontinental railroad, and that was in the 1860s.
Yeah, how can that be? It's a question that vexes us train supporters so much. France did it a generation ago. We built railroads across this continent before anyone else in the world knew what a train was. Have we made no progress in 200 years? What the #$%^?
It's also about government spending priorities. It's absurd to say we don't have money to expand rail. For what we spend in Iraq in a week or maybe 10 days, we could fund Amtrak's ongoing operations as well as make major investments. We spend about $30 billion a year on highways and about $15-to-$16 billion on airports and airline subsidies. We're talking about 6 percent or 7 percent of that for a national rail-passenger system. You're essentially talking about a few billion dollars a year over the course of the next 10 years for a system that we should have had years ago.

That's right. For all those who rail against government subsidies, the question has never been about whether to subsidize or not. We already subsidize by the tens of billions. It's just a matter of what we subsidize and what subsidies are most effective for a clean, safe, efficient, and fast transportation network.
If you want to build a European-style 200-mph high-speed system—the kind that California is now committed to—that requires exclusive rights of way. And it probably argues for electrification. That's an expensive proposition. We can use our existing rights of way to reach speeds of between 110 and 125 mph. In some cases you'd want to lay tracks alongside what is there so that passenger and freight trains can stay out of each other's way, but most of what you'd need is already in place.
Well, this bums me out. I want the 200mph kind. But the man is saying we can get 125mph for much cheaper. That's already a huge improvement. And the hope for people like me is that the California project proves the concept and the rest of the country demands more.

There's a 10-state plan to connect downtown Chicago to every other major Midwest city within 400 miles using trains that travel between 110 and 115 mph. The whole thing would cost around $7 billion, and the basic proposal calls for using existing right of way. That $7 billion is half of what it will cost to move forward with the planned expansion of O'Hare airport. Every third flight out of that airport is less than 350 miles. So if you build a regional rail system in the Midwest, you're also helping with congestion at O'Hare and opening slots for longer flights.

The point is we're a long way off from replacing cross-country flights with cross-country trains, but for travel under 300 miles or so, it doesn't make any sense to fly. Unless, of course, you live in a country that subsidizes its airlines and starves its trains to the point that rail isn't an option . . .
I've heard that argument a lot [that we're more spread out than Europe]. But from the Mississippi River east, we actually look a lot like Europe. There's similar population density and distance between cities. That's why the Southeastern states want high-speed service extended from Washington, D.C., down to Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta. They know it can work. It's true that in the area west of the Mississippi to California, with some exceptions, these kinds of corridors don't exist.
The man's right on. It may not make sense to develop the network from Tulsa to Tucson, but the East is dense enough for trains to work — if given the chance. Let's face it, door to door the train is almost as fast as a plane to get from Boston to NYC. If that trip were shorter by an hour, and air travel weren't over-subsidized compared with trains, it would be a no-brainer. The same is true for Birmingham to Atlanta, DC to Philly, Jacksonville to Charlotte, and a hundred other routes. We're almost at the critical mass necessary to make train travel work in the US. Here's hoping this portion of the "stimulus" puts us over the top . . .

But read the rest of the interview. Even if you're not sold yet, it's a good place to start the debate.

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