Monday, December 27, 2010

The transparent foolishness of HSR in the US

Ken Orski's NewsBriefs are a great source of a political overviewpoint about what's going on with high-speed rail. Let's just say that what he finds happening, as HSR projects receive the federal promise of funding, is underwhelming.

The defenders will tell us to be patient; this is only the beginning. Anything this momentous will have a rough start. Well, no.

What we are seeing is the result of no planning. By that I mean there has been no well developed overview, policy, or strategy about America's transit and transportation needs. Although California has been screwing around with the vision of high-speed rail for decades, it's been no more than that, a vision. Or better, a marketing concept. We don't have any idea about how high-speed rail is intended to fit into the state's master transit plans, because there is no master state transit plan.

"I know what let's do and get a lot of money for it. Let's promote a high-speed train for California.

I'm sure everyone will love the idea. Build it, and they will come." Excuse me, but this is not a baseball diamond in a cornfield. This is a super-expensive, mega-infrastructure project that has to demonstrate, legitimately, that it is going to be cost-effective. And first, there needs to be an overall plan for California about how people will move around over the next 100 years, in ALL modalities, not just rail. Not based on whim, or even good intentions, but on solid, empirical evidence.

It should be obvious by now that the CHSRA is winging it. So is the FRA, which not only funnels the money, but is making more and more local decisions attached to that money. They are improvising decisions on a day by day basis because it's really, really not about building a new rail system in the US. It's about getting federal funding and pushing it out to the states, mostly for political reasons.

"The Peninsula objects to an elevated alignment? There are conflicts and NIMBYs in the LA Basin? Then let's start in an area where the locals think it will be their economic salvation." And, no matter what, let's start somewhere; get those shovels in the ground. Once the realities of this project sink in, it will be too late to stop it."

Please note that the "facts" have been constantly adjusted to meet the criticisms and the realities. The Rail Authority is parsing each word in AB3034 to fit their current impulses. Legal? Probably not.

At least in California, the bureaucracy created to promote this mega-infrastructure project, an appointed group of rail amateurs and lower level politicians, have garnered no trust from the citizens who elected to have this project built. What is in the immediate future planning for this project has next to nothing to do with what the voters voted for.

We have been saying for a number of years that this project has no legitimate justification for existing. Most of us, even as we concern ourselves about this alignment or that one, this route or that one, have not yet come to terms with this reality: that the project -- which is still on the Parsons Brinkerhoff drawing boards -- can and must be terminated before more funding is wasted and before they start digging holes in the ground.


Vol. 21, No. 33

December 27, 2010

A billion dollar federal grant to reduce travel time by 48 minutes

An Editorial Comment

The Illinois Department of Transportation has reached a cooperative agreement with Union Pacific and Amtrak that will permit the release of a $1.1 billion federal high-speed rail grant to the state of Illinois to fund passenger rail improvements between Chicago and St. Louis. The agreement was proclaimed by state and federal officials as "historic" and "one giant step closer to achieving high-speed passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis." But stripped of its rhetoric, the announcement only reveals how inadequate and cost-ineffective the Administration's "high--speed" program is turning out to be.

The billion dollar program of improvements to be completed under the Cooperative Agreement will enable "higher-speed" trains to travel between Chicago and St. Louis in 4 hours and 32 minutes, cutting present trip time by 48 minutes when the planned improvements are completed by 2014. As the Springfield Journal Register pointedly observed, that is 22 minutes longer than the trip time of 4 hours and 10 minutes promised in the original grant application. A four-hour trip time was also pledged in the White House press release announcing the project last January.

Currently Amtrak operates passenger service between Chicago and St. Louis at an average speed of 53 mph. The announcement is silent about the expected improvement in the average speed when the project is completed but our calculations suggest that the planned improvements would increase average speeds only by 11mph, to 62 mph. Of the 284-mile Chicago-St. Louis route, a total of 210 miles of track will be ready for 110 mph operation under the present grant. Upgrading the remaining 74 miles of the line, between Dwight and Chicago, would have to await further federal aid. The State of Illinois originally requested $3 billion to complete the total project.

From what we can read between the lines, Union Pacific drove a hard bargain as a condition of signing the cooperative agreement. "Our priority in working out this agreement," the company’s CEO, Jim Young said in a prepared statement, "was to protect Union Pacific’s ability to provide the exceptional freight service our customers need and expect. ... This agreement allows us to deliver on those customer commitments." The message is clear: UP’s freight operations will take precedence over passenger rail operations. The route, we are told, is expected to accommodate as many as 22 freight trains a day ultimately.

Union Pacific also seems to have won out on another contentious issue. The cooperative agreement is silent about any penalties the railroad might face if on-time performance standards for passenger service are not met – a condition that the Federal Railroad Administration had insisted upon in its initial (and later withdrawn) guidelines concerning the terms of the cooperative agreements.

The announcement, released on December 23, barely two weeks before a new Congress takes office, was meant to give a boost to a program that is barely limping along. The record speak for itself. Two major high-speed rail projects — in Wisconsin and Ohio— have been cancelled by the incoming governors because of the cost burden the operation of the new rail services would impose on the state taxpayers. The Florida Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line is still in doubt as Gov.-elect Rick Scott ponders its cost and economics. The California high-speed rail program, with its starter line in the sparsely populated Central Valley, has been ridiculed as "the railroad to nowhere." And several HSR cooperative agreements remain stalled in contentious negotiations. It’s not surprising that the Administration would be anxious to show progress and refute the widely held impression that the program is on its last legs. This is not how it was all supposed to end.

Whether the program will, indeed, come to an untimely end will depend on the next Congress. To the incoming Republican lawmakers, eager to make good on their promise to cut federal spending, any unspent HSR funds will present a tempting target for rescission. In addition, future appropriations for the program will have to compete with other urgent transportation priorities amid pressures to trim discretionary spending and Congressman Mica's announced intent to revisit the program and refocus it in ways that, in his words, "makes sense."

It is not a scenario that offers high-speed rail advocates much cheer in the New Year.

Kenneth Orski Editor/Publisher

Innovation NewsBriefs


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