Saturday, April 23, 2011

Failing to win the Future; Building High-Speed Rail Instead

In this article, below, Davison provides an interesting overview of the high-speed rail issue and the debate that has currently filled the newspapers, and has given hope to the HSR objectors, such as myself. 

The author's bottom line is that Obama's vision of 80% of all Americans having direct HSR access is appropriate, but the HSR promotion industry has failed in its job by undershooting its target.  I disagree with that description.

The US is a vastly spread out country. Blame it on the first Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century  and the '60s Interstate Highway System.  Also blame it on the emergence of commercial and profitable air traffic. In short, Americans travelled by the most affordable, available, convenient transit methods possible.  When one declined, it was the result of more desirable ones taking its place. 

The realities are that each transit modality, automobiles, rail and air travel, had their constituencies and marketing engines.  Furthermore, the connectivity power of highways and airways, surpassed the fixed and limited rail system, which for passengers declined.  We had a railroad system but relinquished it.

The private railroad companies carried freight and people.  They made little or no money on the people but built the world's best freight service.  They were happy to give up the passenger business and remain enormously successful in the freight business today.

Now, surprised at the glitzy recent touches to existing and dominating railroad networks in other countries and cultures, we are envious.  ("Did you take a ride on the TGV?  We ought to have that in this country!)  Actually, the most envious and active among us are those who see a huge profit in the development of those glitzy high-speed trains, and they have mobilized vast marketing powers to persuade the rest of us about the merits of high-speed rail. 

In addition, the Democrats, the Party that is the advocate for a government based high-speed rail network throughout the US, conjoin the development of high-speed rail with an economic fix for our economic troubles, including unemployment. They also find other problems that HSR will be the solution to, thereby casting HSR as a national panacea.  It's the new fad/gimmick de Jour.

It's a deeply flawed argument.  Other cultures (China excepted) never, until very recently, were automobile cultures; they were rail cultures.  They believed in the virtues and practicalities of collective transit which was, and is today, sponsored by highly centralized governments.  They evolved their railroads, adding ever greater speed as a high-end option.  Thus, the high-speed rail race began.

What's the point here?  Even though we, in the US, had relinquished passenger rail, the market for which declined precipitously as that service was relegated to the subsidized Amtrak organization, we now suddenly discover that high-speed rail has enormous sex appeal and even because of its vast costs, can become our economic "arms race" with other countries.

Hence, Obama's "race to the future" and "winning the future" is intended to be symbolized by the "train of the future."

Except it is already the train of the past, as those other nations we envy so much are re-assessing their HSR investments.  Traffic in China, France and elsewhere is a nightmare, just like ours.  Except that they have the ostensible solution to such congestion; high-speed rail.  Is there a perception problem here? Isn't the lesson here that HSR does not cure traffic congestion? China is selling many more cars than we are, even with their energetic high-speed rail program.  Their cities are totally gridlocked for great parts of each day.

Since we are all such close watchers of high-speed rail overseas, why don't we also take a look at other aspects of their cultures that high-speed rail was intended to solve, but doesn't?

Buying high-speed trains off the shelves of China, Japan or Europe is hardly the way to win any races.  As we plan to build ours to be operational in ten years, other countries persist in manipulating their rail systems and other transit modes to favor the use of the one the government has the most interest in.

And, like China and France, they are seeking to move a few of their well-heeled people with their laptops and Louis Vuitton luggage at ever faster rail speeds. Apparently, our government, and especially our Democrats, envy that.  

Many advocates talk a big train game but are in it for the great movement of dollars it will create. That is not the way to either win the future or even win the present.  The US has, in the name of profits, pushed its manufacturing capabilities offshore.

Fast trains won't bring them back.  The US, with Silicon Valley as an exemplar, has a history of great innovative developments that stimulate economies, create permanent occupations, and do in fact make the US a world leader.  That's not what building this train is about.  To the contrary.  It's just the opposite.  We are inventing nothing.  We are creating nothing.  We are laying track for train rides that most Americans won't take by spending vast amounts of our meager resources overseas to buy their trains.

High-speed rail is the icing on a railroad cake that we once had, but we don't have any longer.  It's a top-down approach with no solid underpinnings.  It's a huge mistake.

Expect Delays
Both sides painted the White House’s now-gutted high-speed-rail plan as revolutionary. If only.
By Justin Davidson 
Published Apr 17, 2011 

When Congress and the White House had finished eviscerating this year’s budget, one of the programs left glistening on the floor was high-speed rail, which lost at least $1.4 billion in the short term and much of its hope for the future. For two years, President Obama has been promising that ultrafast trains will one day ease the pressure on sclerotic airports and lighten the load of carbon spewed by cars. 

That vision inspired some passive support and plenty of passionate hostility—several Republican governors made a show of refusing Washington’s rail-directed billions, which they saw as a socialistic boondoggle and a radical attempt to force Americans out of their cars. The real problem, though, is not that the president’s bullet-train agenda was too sweeping. It’s that it’s been far too timid.

Transportation networks help nations forge their identities. Before the Civil War, railroads bound the corners of the North American continent into a whole just as the Union was coming apart. In recent decades, high-speed-rail lines have probably done more than the euro to make Europe feel unified, and they’ve been knitting China together just as that nation embraces its new role as an economic superpower. 

But the transportation project that shaped the consciousness of contemporary America was the top-down, hugely expensive, neo–New Dealish project called the Interstate Highway System, promoted and signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. The 47,000 miles of interstate and its uniform net of rest stops and interchanges allowed Americans to feel more independent and fed the romance of the open road. The highways made the car a member of the family and nurtured sprawl as drivers fanned out into the hinter?lands, along highways paid for by Washington.

Both advocates and opponents of high-speed rail try to portray it as a challenge to the highway’s primacy. Those in favor dream of emptier roads and less-carbonated skies; those against foresee a less mobile, more regimented country, bound by tracks and schedules. But Obama’s incremental approach has barely inched toward either of those futures. 

Hedging against the accusation that he’s pursuing hugely expensive programs that the country doesn’t need and can’t afford, the president has proposed short stretches of track in places they don’t belong. Shaving a few minutes off the 85-mile trip from Orlando to Tampa—the route that Governor Rick Scott of Florida scuttled—would hardly have been worth the effort. Meanwhile, along the more train-friendly Northeast corridor, laying fresh track for genuine high-speed rail has proved too ambitious, so the government has settled for paying to fix up overburdened lines and nudge the sluggish Acela.

The bi-partisan effort to paint modest, if costly, steps as revolutionary has set back the pursuit of a more genuinely transformative goal: a comprehensive public-transit network so reliable and convenient that nearly every American could take it and most actually would. It’s ironic that high-speed rail is succumbing just as the price of oil begins to leap again, making efficient door-to-door public transit more crucial than ever. 

But perhaps gas prices will eventually achieve what politics cannot and bring about an America where most people live within walking distance of a rapid-transit bus or trolley-line stop, from which they can access subways and ferries and updated airports and, yes, some very fast trains. That vision is as pragmatic as it is revolutionary and, unlike the sideshow that materialized around high-speed rail, would give supporters something real to get excited about and opponents something meaningful to hate.