Tuesday, February 15, 2011

USA TODAY speaks about HSR

It's USA Today, for goodness sake!  

Every person in every hotel room and airplane in the sky is reading this, even as we speak. USA has the second largest circulation in the US, right after the WSJ. 

Although this article, like several that have been posted here, contains nothing that you haven't already read if you follow this blog, it's certainly worth noting.

Let's pick it up here with Obama's "Sputnik" promise to provide high-speed rail access for 80% of all Americans 25 years from now.  On the face of it, this is absurd.  We don't have a railroad network that does this now.  Why would we have a high-speed rail network that does this in 25 years?  The Europeans and Japanese built high-speed rail on existing rail networks, improving them with speed (and therefore higher costs, both to the ticket buyer and their governments).  

We have no equivalent existing passenger rail network that covers our spread out population so comprehensively.  It would have to be built from the ground up.  The existing Amtrak passenger network runs mostly on freight-owned tracks and that's been a problem right along.  All the more reason to anticipate the construction of extremely costly brand-new rail corridors for HSR. Costs can range from $30/40 million per mile to over $100 million per mile of track.

Reading on. Biden's HSR goal is 1. create thousands of jobs, 2. relieve congestion, 3. and improve our ability to compete with countries that have fast trains.  Well, the jobs will be far fewer than promised.  It's become standard to inflate job numbers, just like it's standard to inflate ridership numbers.  It's a sales job.  Congestion? Unless it's nasal congestion, it certainly won't reduce car use in the urban population centers where the gridlock is, and 3. Competition.  The nation with the fastest trains wins the competition. Right?  Because fast passenger trains are the back bone of the nation's economy. Right?  What nonsense.

But, as always, the high-speed rail problem comes down to one fact. Costs and fund availability.  It costs too much and we don't have the funds.  Assemblywoman Diane Harkey in California is a high-speed rail opponent.  She asks her pro-rail Democratic colleagues if there is any upper limit to how much in tax dollars they are willing to commit to build this train.  They say, none. . .No upper limit.  Are they crazy?  

As if that wasn't silly enough, many Democratic staffers, when told about all the shenanigans of the rail authority, the outrageous costs, and the failure to perform as promised, they say, they support this train project in "in principle."  What, if anything, does that mean?  My guess is it means they want the funds to come to their state and congressional district regardless of the merits -- or lack thereof -- of this project.

One of the best responses to this thoughtless push to build HSR comes from Randal O'Toole, a professional transportation and rail analyst and critic.  He says, "Fundamentally, transportation technology improves when we come up with technologies that are faster, more convenient and less expensive than old technology, and high-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving and five times more expensive than either one." Yes, I'm aware of the arguments against this position; trains are faster, driving is worse and it costs less.  All three arguments have been dismantled numerous times already.

One of the more misconceived analogies comes from high-speed rail advocate William Schroeer.  He compares it to the Internet, saying that refusing HSR is like refusing Internet connections. No, that's not right.  The Internet is sustained by private industries, not the government. It if wasn't a profitable undertaking with universal; that is, global use, it wouldn't survive.

Furthermore, as a user, I can "ride" the Internet for free in a net-neutral web environment. I can even write this blog for free for you or anyone to read. HSR will have to be sustained, as it is around the world, by host governments and therefore taxpayers.  And, unlike the Internet, HSR will never serve everyone; only those who can afford a ticket to ride. 

And finally, the article cites our friend Fred Frailey with whom we are already familiar.  He raises the Northeast corridor issue; that this is where HSR should first be built and operated. He also points out the economic constraints of the current Recession and the lack of funding or sensible prioritization for the dispensation of severely limited resources.  And finally, he also mentions that we would need to buy everything for this train from everywhere else.  How will that stimulate the US economy?

At the end of the article, Anthony Perl is quoted and makes a somewhat more sensible point that building the train won't make us the world leaders (a prospect that is gaining more ground among realists). However, he does think it ought to be built.  I strongly disagree, if only on cost/benefit grounds.


High-speed train system has a long way to go
By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY

The Obama administration is proceeding at full speed with plans to create a national high-speed rail system, proposing billions in next year's budget to help lay the groundwork. But political opposition and hefty costs could mean the ambitious program goes nowhere fast.
President Obama's 2012 budget unveiled Monday includes $8 billion for high-speed rail next year, part of a planned $53 billion investment in enhanced train service over six years.

The money would further Obama's vision of providing high-speed train access to 80% of Americans in 25 years.
Vice President Biden trumpeted the initiative last week at a historic train station in Philadelphia, and the administration previously allotted $10.5 billion for rail projects from California to Florida that it says will create thousands of jobs, relieve congestion and improve the nation's ability to compete with countries where trains surging over 160 mph are the norm.

But the plans have met resistance from Republican lawmakers. GOP members of the House voted last week to eliminate $1 billion in funding for high-speed rail in this year's budget. And in response to Obama's proposed budget for 2012 on Monday, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said that "we don't have the money" to pay for "trains and windmills."
Lining up against high-speed rail

Opposition to the president's plan to give American business and leisure travelers a high-speed rail alternative to their cars and airplanes has been emerging out in the country, too.

The Transportation Department in December redirected $1.195 billion intended for Wisconsin and Ohio to high-speed initiatives in 14 other states after their newly elected Republican governors rejected local rail projects. Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio's Gov. John Kasich cited concerns that taxpayers would be saddled paying for overruns and operating costs while getting little in return. They said rail funds would be better spent on improving roads and freight service. Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott has also questioned a rail project in his state that would connect Tampa to Orlando.

Even support for the nation's existing passenger rail service, Amtrak, could be in jeopardy.
House Republicans have proposed cutting Amtrak's budget back to 2008 levels to save $224 million, or 14%. And a Republican Study Committee has said that Amtrak should go by the wayside, and private operators should run trains instead.

That's as the number of passengers riding Amtrak trains has risen each of the last 15 months, culminating with more than 2.1 million riders climbing on board last month — its most successful January ever.

Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute who has written extensively about transportation issues, says that high-speed rail's future is in doubt if Florida follows Ohio's and Wisconsin's lead. And he says that it would be a good idea to shelve a costly system that he believes ultimately will not save travelers time or money.

"Fundamentally, transportation technology improves when we come up with technologies that are faster, more convenient and less expensive than old technology," O'Toole says, "and high-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving and five times more expensive than either one."
Interstate system once faced opposition, too

The political jousting over high-speed rail is to be expected, some experts say, and is reminiscent of the creation of the Interstate highway system, which was given a green light by federal legislation in 1956 but not completed until the 1980s.

"We need perspective on how the U.S. works on transportation infrastructure and development," says Anthony Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. He says he thinks many critics of high-speed rail could change their minds within the next decade if there is tangible proof of its benefits.

"All it takes is one part of the system to get it right," he says. "If we can get one effective passenger rail operation going on a scale that can't be ignored ... the momentum will pick up."

But continued sparring could dramatically slow down progress, says William Schroeer, policy and research director for Smart Growth America, a coalition of state organizations that are focused on improving neighborhoods and that support high-speed rail.

"Refusing high-speed rail is a little like refusing high-speed Internet," Schroeer says. "You're saying you don't want to be connected to people in a fast and convenient way. The questions are will we give up those benefits over the next 10 years and put off the day we can enjoy those fast convenient connections, or will we get it sooner?"

There is demand for it, he says, noting that in the not-so-distant past, many Americans could travel long distances without hopping in their cars.

"A lot of that was (because of) rail, and I think people want to get back to that without having to stand in airport security lines," Schroeer says.

But others worry that high-speed train travel may soon be stopped in its tracks.

"My instincts are it's not going to happen," says Fred Frailey, a columnist and writer for Trains magazine, who has covered that sector for more than 30 years.

"Start with the fact there's no money," he says. "All the pressure right now is to cut the budget, and the first place people look is the transportation side. No. 1, they haven't sold this idea. People are indifferent. You can run (to be) governor of Ohio or Wisconsin and one of your central aims is to give back close to a billion dollars in high-speed rail grants, and (you) win office. There was no political pain suffered by anybody."
Hurdles to face, but possibilities, too

Frailey says there's validity to some Republican criticism, such as a need to funnel more money into improving roads. Implementing a high-speed rail network will be extremely expensive, from the laying of track to the installation of signals.

He also expressed concern more money hasn't been dedicated to the busy Northeast corridor, which has a start on high-speed rail. Amtrak's higher-speed Acela trains, which travel from Washington to Boston, for instance, are capable of going 150 mph in parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but are prevented from going maximum speed elsewhere because of overhead wires that need to be replaced.

A lack of expertise will likely require the U.S. to seek assistance from partners in Europe and Asia to put high-speed trains in motion, Perl says.

"You could probably order everything from Segways to aircraft carriers and there's a set of people in the U.S. who know how to make it, and that just doesn't apply to trains," he says.

But while it may be a long haul, Perl says, he believes a high-speed system would be worth the effort.

"We're not going to win this race in the sense that the U.S. will lead the world," he says. "But I think we can catch up effectively and have something of great value to our transportation (system) and our economy."