Sunday, March 6, 2011

On trains, getting there ought to be half the fun. Not so on HSR for most of us!

A highly provocative article by Matthew Stevenson, a rail maven and book author.  You may not agree with his myriad suggestions about how to bring back regular passenger rail in the US, but the underlying intention and direction is right on the mark.  The article makes some compelling points about the realities of HSR as a government project and why it is there in the first place. But, we also want to make some other comments here.

Here's the basic premise.  High-speed rail is opulent luxury. That is invariably the case all over the world.  It's the icing on the railroad system cake in most countries, and is becoming the same in China which has already over-built its rail system and isn't stopping.  Their trains are running half empty.  However, as their urban population enters the prosperous middle-class, there will be more HSR customers just as there is a waiting line at the high-end auto dealers.  High-speed rail is undoubtedly for the well to do.  

It is NOT basic transit for the mass public.  It is stunningly more costly to build, to operate and to ride, than regular rail.  Stevenson makes that point.  Should this reality not raise the question of why the United States is determined to build "icing" when we have, figuratively speaking, no cake?  What business does the government have, using tax dollars to build luxury travel for the rich?  This is a fundamental question.  Should the government not be involved in the development and construction of projects that benefit the many, not merely the few?  As Stevenson puts it, the government ought to be in the basic transportation business which serves the largest number at the lowest cost.  That's certainly not what high-speed rail is about.

It would appear that this stunningly costly project is OK to do, approved by the well-to-do Democrats who are happy to distribute tax dollars for mega-infrastructure projects that appear to be the government doing good for the country's economy and the unemployed. They are the ones who will tell you that they have been to Europe or Japan and taken trips on their high-speed trains. . . . How wonderful they are, and why can't we have them here.  Such thinking is the consequence of a lack of information and a willingness to believe the sales pitch of the HSR promoters.  All those assumptions of being good and doing good need to be challenged with hard data and facts. 

Stevenson is right in the sense that high-speed rail will not replace anything in the US, and certainly not in California.  It won't replace flying and it won't replace driving.  To persist in saying so is highly misleading and a failure to understand mobility practices in the US.  Yes, there are many who would argue that it is the whole point of high-speed rail to change those mobility patterns. 

To begin with, that's social engineering, something the United States is very bad at. Second, there is a deep flaw in the argument since high-speed rail will take today's technology and put it on tracks that won't be completed for another ten years. And, that technology is being compared to the aircraft hardware and flight patterns of today, and the motor vehicle products on today's highways.  Those are going through enormous transformations and will both be radically different in ten years.

In other words, a game which the HSR advocates love to play, is comparing apples with oranges.  It can be argued that the high-speed rail system being constructed will be behind those of the rest of the world since they are also upgrading right now what we hope to emulate ten years from now.  What we hope to build is already obsolete. 

There may be a lot of disagreement about what, if anything, should be built instead of high-speed rail.  Stevenson argues for privatizing and expanding regular rail with diversified business opportunities.  Perhaps.  At this point in time, we should devote our thinking to terminating the high-speed rail project because it is a bad idea.

Then we should have a broad discussion about the entire state of the United States as a transportation nation.  All those who have been pushing high-speed rail have avoided such larger strategic and policy considerations.  We need to stop listening to them and start thinking for ourselves.


by Matthew Stevenson 03/05/2011

Ever since Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, and Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired their first legislatures, railroads have been best understood as political networks, rather than as transportation lines. The Obama administration is hyping high-speed rail (HSR) with a $53 billion proposal not because the president is a trainspotter or because he collects back copies of the Official Guide of the Railways (like I do). Rather, it's because politicians understand that the states blew their money on generous pension plans, pretentious sports stadiums, and bridges to nowhere, and now need billions to plug their budget deficits. 

It's easier to funnel money into tapped–out state capitals under the smoke and mirrors of a feel-good rail project than it is to announce that the federal government stands behind states’ subprime debts. The Government Accounting Office estimates unfunded state liabilities at $405 billion, which is probably what HSR would, in the end, cost. Think of it as the Stimulus Express.

The high-speed scheme is a dream of superfast trains, traveling at 150 m.p.h., linking Portland, Maine, and Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago with St. Louis and Kansas City; the Orlando corridor in Florida (which the governor there has rejected); and express trains in Texas and California. 

Another way to look at the proposed HSR network is to imagine it connecting the cities and states that Obama needs to carry if he is to have a chance of winning the 2012 election.

Along the high-speed tracks-to-be are stops in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania, which are key 2012 electoral contests. Red states west of the Mississippi, by contrast, will have to wait for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to arrive three hours late in Dodge City.

Before the U.S. goes into hock over HSR, it might consider making a virtue of low-speed rail. Slow food has it followers. Why not the same for slow trains, since that’s the best that Amtrak can offer? Herewith are ten ideas that will get more (fare-paying) Americans back on the (less-than-perfect) rails. Implementing them wouldn't cost anywhere near $53 billion. Done right, they would even make money.

—Privatize the corridor services between Boston and Washington, Chicago and St. Louis, and San Diego and Los Angeles. But mandate that at least two competing companies operate passenger service on the lines. If American railroads are not interested in the job, French or German national rail companies would bid on the service.

—Sell off the franchise rights to Amtrak passenger cars to mall stores, restaurants, and bars. A movie car could run between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and a discotheque (Pullman 54) could operate, for example, on the night train from New Orleans to Atlanta. I am sure the Outback restaurant chain would want some cars in the West. Who cares about speed if you are having fun or can use the time productively? I would happily ride the Barnes & Noble to Charlotte or the L.L. Bean to see my family in Maine. Why can’t Amtrak add a few FedEx Kinko cars?

—Auction off Amtrak’s sleeping car services to Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites or Motel 6. They know more than Amtrak does about making beds.

—Instead of catering to the gun lobby (Amtrak now allows passengers to pack heat), work with the car rental agencies to create a car-sharing alliance at Amtrak stations to solve the problem of getting anywhere from far-flung places like the Richmond station, which is located miles from downtown.

—Spin off Amtrak Vacations to Outward Bound, the American Youth Hostel Association, Carnival Cruises, the Boy Scouts, or the Green Tortoise (a hippie bus tour company), and let them offer rail cruises to national parks, jazz festivals, fall foliage, major league stadiums, and jamborees.

—Create Amtrak University, and outfit trains to take high school and college students to places like Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, Bunker Hill, the Grassy Knoll, Mark Twain’s museum in Hannibal, Missouri, and Marion, Ohio (where Warren Harding ran the local newspaper).

—Invent a clean steam engine that runs on scrubbed American coal, and market passenger railroads as green travel, locally grown.

—Retrofit some baggage cars to carry bicycles easily and cheaply, and develop a national network of “Rails and Trails,” so that passengers can have a seamless connection between the train and their bikes. At the moment, it’s easier to ship a gun on Amtrak than it is to take a bike.

—Deregulate passenger service, to encourage the flourishing short-line rail industry to carry passengers on some of their freight lines, as the Housatonic R.R. Is proposing to Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

—Invest surplus funds in commuter rail projects, including the proposed Hudson River tunnels that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie turned down. Commuter rail is a proven, if dreary commodity. High-speed rail dreams are the stuff of State of the Union addresses, but the top ten commuter systems together transport about 1.63 million passengers daily (Amtrak has 74,000 a day).

Most commuter systems need nicer stations, easier links to other lines and buses, and to provide comfort zones with better coffee (not a federal budget concern), clean restrooms, and Wifi. I love the coming Long Island Rail Road link to Grand Central and the new BikePorts of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Had the United States integrated high-speed rail into the Interstate Highway system — imagine tracks in the median strips — the idea might have worked. Imposed on a society addled with cars and planes, it has the risk of becoming a cost-overrun nightmare of $82 million a mile versus $2.4 million for traditional rails.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place to develop a national revival of low-speed rail, at a fraction of the costs of subsidized HSR. The trains we have can be privatized, franchised, hot spotted, double-bedded, and showered, and no one will care about the engine speed. To save billions, if not to make money, why can’t the U.S. subscribe to the words of author Paul Theroux: “Better to go first class than to arrive.”
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine