Thursday, March 10, 2011

High-Speed Rail will not bring back "the good old days and The Romance of Rail."

This map and chart are from the English language Der Spiegel. By clicking on it, you can increase its size and legibility.

The map goes with a great article by Philip Bethge not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say.  To begin with, look at the two pie charts on the map.  Now consider the high-speed rail argument that we MUST have high-speed rail in the United States because it's so popular in Europe.  

The article and this argument sustain that notion with statements about how much more gridlock we will have when the US increases its population by 100 million more people.  That's why, Ray LaHood will point out, we MUST have high-speed rail.

One question to ask of course, is what these 100 million more people will be doing for jobs? Working on the railroad all the live-long day? But, let's set that issue aside.

The graph shows that Europe is far less smitten with rail transit than most of us have come to believe. In the European Community, 7.3% of the population travels by train, while 83.3% travel by car.  That doesn't sound like trains, including the high-speed ones, are that popular! 

So, after the US "invests" over a trillion dollars to connect those dots with the red and purple worms on the map, we will increase our train use by only 7% of our population? After the US copies Europe with a bunch of high-speed rail corridors, 83% of us will still be driving or taking the bus?  Is that what you are trying to tell us, Mr. Secretary of Transportation? Then, what's the point?   Are you crazy?

We have been saying for years that HSR will not -- WILL NOT -- reduce vehicle traffic from America's roads and highways.

Why not? Because If you overlay this high-speed rail map with a US map of the Interstate Highway System, you will see that the short, little red lines are a mere fraction of the routes Americans drive daily. And with the interstate highway system you have to include all the other roads and streets that are covered over with our automobiles.  To all that car traffic, high-speed rail is totally irrelevant. 

Or, are we being asked to set our clocks back to the good old days?

The article makes a big case for what I like to call The Romance of Rail. (play soft music) Yes, it is fun. Yes, it is luxurious to go to a fancy dining car, sit in plush seats, have a drink in the club car, etc.  IF you can afford it.

However, please note that the author is not talking mostly about trains today, he is talking about trains from "yesteryear" when movie stars, glamour and high fashion were part of the passenger railroad scene. In those days, people paid a lot for exclusivity and luxury, and for train speeds in the 80s and 90s. 

But that is not today. And that earlier era cannot and should not be brought back.  Clearly, high-speed rail is the luxury train version of today. Today they pay for speeds in the 175 to 200 mph range with exclusivity and luxury, but it's the speed that costs so much. Then and now, these are the most expensive tickets. Presumably, compartments and sleeping cars are no longer needed due to the high speeds and short trips.  And, who has time anyway; there's work to be done on our laptops.  

What the author neglects to point out is the enormous costs of tickets for such trains then, and the high costs of high-speed train tickets today.  Therefore the question must be asked; in the United States, is this the business the government should be in?  Is this the rail system the government ought to be spending tax dollars on; luxury trains for the well-to-do?

My point here is that the author misunderstands completely what the rail issue is and will be.  High-speed rail is totally inappropriate, even if other passenger rail, particularly commuter public mass transit, is still a necessary part of the urban and regional landscape.  

High-speed rail is the luxury premium rail ride in Europe, or Japan, and even China.  It costs the most.  But, it's not the only transit option available and most of the population will not ride HSR due to its costs. 

Now, most of us will have to learn that reality before we throw all our tax dollars, for many generations, into this huge mistake.


Ditching Cars for Bullet Trains
Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?
By Philip Bethge

President Barack Obama wants to upgrade America's transport system using high-speed trains, bringing a taste of what is a part of everyday life in Europe and Asia to the United States. But the car-obsessed nation is divided over the plans. Is the mammoth project doomed to failure?

US Vice-President Joseph Biden is America's most famous commuter. It has earned him the nickname "Amtrak Joe." Several times a week, Biden takes an Amtrak train from Wilmington, Delaware to the historic Union Station in Washington, DC. It has been claimed the Democrat now knows the first name of every ticket inspector on the line.

Biden must have been pleased when he unveiled the government's new high-speed rail plans at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last month. The administration plans to spend $53 billion (€38 billion) on passenger trains and rail networks over the next six years. The lion's share of this has been earmarked for new high-speed connections. The aim is that 80 percent of Americans will have access to "bullet trains" by 2035.

Such gleaming high-tech marvels could race between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour). The planners hope to cut the journey times between Washington and Boston to less than four hours. A T-shaped line in Texas would connect Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan foresees raising hundreds of kilometers of this so-called "Texas T-Bone" off the ground so that longhorn cattle can pass underneath the rails.

"It's a smart investment in the quality of life for all Americans," says Rick Harnish of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Industry insiders like Ansgar Brockmeyer, of the passenger rail division of Germany's Siemens Mobility, are thrilled about this locomotive renaissance. "There's reason for optimism," he says.
America's Legendary Railroads

However, the country's conservative forces are determined to derail US President Barack Obama's technological vision. No fewer than three newly elected governors (from the states of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio) have completely rejected Washington's planned cash injection for the country's railways.

In fact it's difficult to say whether America's long-neglected trains can ever make a comeback. Large parts of the network are in a desperate state, and most Americans have long-since switched to traveling by car or plane instead.

And yet the railroad enabled their forefathers to open up the Wild West. Train services were profitable in the US right up until the 1950s. Many lines were legendary, such as the Santa Fe Super Chief, which brought its passengers from Chicago to Los Angeles in luxury. Film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart slumbered in the elegant sleeper cars, and dined in five-star style.

The California Zephyr is another classic service, with its route stretching for almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the Midwest to San Francisco. In better times, "Vista dome" cars gave passengers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. An elite team of hostesses, dubbed the "Zephyrettes," served drinks and even offered to act as babysitters.

The Zephyr still runs to this day -- but the 51-hour journey makes this more of a treat for diehard railway fans. One such fan is James McCommons from Northern Michigan University. The academic spent a year crisscrossing the US by train before chronicling his experiences in a book. "It's embarrassing," he says. "We were the greatest railroad nation in the world, and now we don't even build a railroad car in this country ourselves."

American author James Kunstler complains that "Amtrak has become the laughing stock of the world." He jokes that the company was clearly "created on a Soviet-management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy's Law to ensure maximum entropy of service." Indeed, Amtrak trains currently take more than 11 hours to cover the 600 kilometers (375 miles) from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It hardly helps either that the train is called the "Coast Starlight."
A Wake-Up Call

The high-speed rail plans have therefore come as something of a wake-up call in these circumspect times. Many Americans are amazed to discover that President Obama appears to be serious about investing heavily in the railways. "I don't know what this fascination with trains is about," says Michael Sanera of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank. He has only one explanation: "I think there is a lot of frustration primarily by men who maybe didn't get that train set when they were kids, and now they want to play around with trains."

Taking a closer look, it's easy to see how serious the situation has become. America is facing gridlock. According to a study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, the US will need nine new airports the size of the gigantic Denver International Airport and will have to double the number of miles of interstate highways if demand for transportation continues to grow at the current level in the coming decades. In 2009, commuters in the US spent 5 billion hours stuck in traffic jams. That's seven times as long as in 1982.

"Four decades from now, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people," warns US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood. 

"If we settle for roads, bridges and airports that already are overburdened and insufficient … our next generation will find America's arteries of commerce impassable." He considers high-speed trains essential.