Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When it comes to high-speed rail, how fast is fast?

Question 12: What is the definition of high-speed rail?

Answer 12: Under PRIIA, “high-speed rail” is defined as “intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour” (49 U.S.C. §26105 (b)(4)). The Strategic Plan further defines the different types of high-speed and conventional intercity passenger rail service (see Page 2 of Strategic Plan).

*Advance New Express High-Speed Corridors “High Speed – Express”  Operating Speeds above 150 MPH

*Develop Emerging & Regional High-Speed Corridors “High Speed Rail – Regional” Operating Speeds from 90 – 150 MPH

*Upgrade Reliability Service on Intercity Rail Services “Emerging High Speed Rail” Operating Speeds of 79 – 90 MPH


"With high-speed trains eventually able to travel up to 110 mph. . . ."

What's going on here? How can that be high-speed?  Why 'eventually?'

"High-Speed" has become the government mantra for rail expenditures for passenger service throughout the US.  All passenger rail improvements qualify since they all would like to be able to run their trains over 90 mph, the minimum speed to qualify. Even 79 mph train plans qualify as "emerging high-speed rail" projects. (No one is left out. On our Little League team, win or lose, every kid is a winner!)

We have come to assume that 'high-speed' refers to those trains in France, Japan or China that approach, if not exceed 200 mph.  In the US, that's not the case.  What is taking place in the US, especially now that Florida is no longer involved, is no more than one single -- let's call it  'very-high-speed' rail project.  And that's in California. Those trains will be bought from overseas, manufactured by experienced and successful high-speed rail manufacturers with a 200 mph + track record.

All other rail development under the ARRA Stimulus Fund provisions is also called high-speed rail but those trains will be far slower. They are part of Amtrak's passenger inter-city as well as regional service upgrades. 

These slower train categories do not involve the development and construction of new, dedicated tracks for trains that emulate Shinkansen or TGV performance. Unlike California's intended trains, these Amtrak trains will continue to share improved rail corridors and tracks with freight.  And, these less-than-150 mph Amtrak upgrades will cost less than the intended HSR project in California.  A lot less.

What is this multi-layered definition of high-speed rail all about?  You really need to be very cynical to understand.  There are eleven rail corridors in the US identified as high-speed rail corridors. As you know, none have yet been developed for high-speed rail, unless you include Acela.  Furthermore, high-speed rail systems, like the Chinese trains, Shinkansen or TGV in France, are stunningly expensive to build and to operate.  

The US is by no means ready to construct such systems from scratch.  Why do you think that the California project is such a clumsy mess of mismanagement, improvization and lying? They keep feeding us numbers, like ridership and costs, but they make those up.  This is all new, and they don't know anything.  They will be spending billions for on the job training.

True high-speed rail for the entire United States network could cost well over two trillion dollars.  That can't happen. But, it is possible nonetheless to now have a "high-speed rail program" if you base it on more flexible definitions of high-speed.

In other words, the answer to this puzzle is marketing. Upgrading rail in the US is the vehicle for distributing federal funding to the states and congressional districts through which the intended rail corridors will run. But if it were merely a program identified as improving a decaying passenger rail system, with problematic Amtrak at the wheel, it would be considered unattractive and it would provide no mileage for politicians running for office. They require something more potent and compelling.

Since the Administration is determined to sell itself, especially for the upcoming re-election campaign with slogans like "Winning the Future," we are being promised an economic race that, with the leadership of this President and his HSR program, we are sure to win.  

This race will be like the race with the Soviet Union, which we won by being first to land on the moon.  President Obama has called high-speed rail our "Sputnik moment."  Exactly.  It's intended to be inspirational and motivating.  That's why all we need to do to launch this grand vision is to spend by government standards modest amounts of funding to launch the program.  And that's whyt the ARRA stimulus funds for high-speed rail are called, "seed money."

This way, by calling any train upgrade a high-speed rail an advanced, developing or emerging corridor, it is intended to capture our imagination and our competitive energies. We must, we are told, have high-speed trains to win the race to the future. So, put lipstick on a pig and call it high-speed rail. Of course, California is indeed intended to be the fastest in the US, slower only than what is on the drawing boards in France and China.

Do we really want and need high-speed rail?  Well, we didn't until we were told we did. OHMYGOD! Did you know that all the other industrial countries have high-speed rail and we, in the number-one-best- country-in-the-world, don't???  Without high-speed rail in our future, we could end up being only number two. 

Here, then, is a basis for spreading government pork around to politically worthy districts and states.  Illinois,the state that got this program started with former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, along with VP Joe Biden, have been key players.  Ray LaHood is their front man. (He's also from Illinois, as is the President.) And now this process is carried further by Senator Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn.  They are getting federal funding into their state; stimulus money to boost their flagging economy. 

As we've said many times, it's not about the train.  It doesn't really matter how fast it goes, just so we call it "high-speed."  What is this really all about?  The following amounts mentioned in the article below tell the story:  $1.2b, $42m, $98m, $685m, $650m.  Now repeat after me: It's about the money!  

In California, the actual costs will be several orders of magnitude larger, eventually to rise beyond $100 billion. But, now we are watching to see what Congress does about spreading the pork around?  Does California get more, or will it go to those Northeast states that will play a more critical role in the upcoming elections?  Don't go away.

Officials tout high-speed rail construction

Associated Press
12:25 p.m. CDT, March 22, 2011

CHICAGO— The next phase of construction on a high-speed rail route between Chicago and St. Louis will begin next month, a high-stakes transportation project that could create more than 6,000 jobs, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday. 

"Today's agreement marks another major step towards making high-speed rail a reality in Illinois," Quinn said in a statement. 

With high-speed trains eventually able to travel up to 110 mph, the travel time between St. Louis and Chicago would be cut to less than four hours. 

Illinois has been awarded $1.2 billion in federal money to expand passenger rail and the state has promised to kick in another $42 million. Last year, Quinn and Durbin debuted the first $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln for the high-speed route. 

The latest $685 million section of the construction project is scheduled to start April 5 and includes building new rail track using concrete ties between Dwight and Lincoln and between Alton and the Mississippi River. A modernized signal system will also be installed between Dwight and Alton, Quinn's office said. 

Trains traveling at 110 mph on the 284-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor could debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as next year, Quinn's office said. Upgrades to the Dwight-Alton portion of the corridor are expected to be finished by 2014. 

"The federally funded construction agreement announced today kick starts the next phase of the project and ushers in more than $650 million of construction, and an estimated 6,200 jobs, starting this summer," Durbin said in a statement. 

AP-WF-03-22-11 2003GMT