Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The current high-speed rail situation in the US

What's important to note in this national summary is that the author is a passenger rail advocate and supporter for high-speed rail.  Therefore, his cautionary tone is particularly significant.  Even he has reservations about California's HSR project.  What he fails to do in this rail corridor listing is provide real numbers.  

The millions that the Department of Transportation has been spreading around the United States and for the eleven HSR corridors is not enough to actually accomplish anything but modest upgrades. It has already been calculated that to provide serious high-speed rail capacity for all eleven HSR corridors in the US would cost several trillion dollars.  

I should point out that when the DOT talks about HSR, they don't really mean it; they mean 110 mph, a speed that was attained by steam locomotives fifty years ago. 

The bottom line here is that the Administration has been promoting what must be called an "unfunded mandate."  That is, a government program that launches a major -- huge -- mega-infrastructure development effort but only with seed money, leaving the funding to other, but not determined, sources.  In effect, the White House is saying that we want high-speed rail -- for 80% of all Americans within 25 years -- but haven't a clue about how to pay for it.

So, mostly for political pork reasons, the government is nickel-and-diming Amtrak improvements around the country as we enter an election cycle. It may make good copy, but it's near-useless for its intended purpose.  If the federal government will not commit to the expenditure of several trillion dollars to build a national high-speed rail network, they have no business advocating it.  There is already generally acknowledged knowledge that the private sector has no interest in losing money on high-speed rail. It will be a federally funded program, or nothing.  It looks more and more like nothing. 

"Here's a hundred dollars. Now go out and buy a Rolls-Royce. America is in a race with other countries to have the most Rolls-Royces." 
"Excuse me?  I don't need one.  I thought the government was going to pay for all of it.  Even if I go into debt to buy it, I can't afford to keep and run it. It's a dumb idea."

The US high-speed rail program is not a lot different.  Is it not yet clear to everyone that high-speed rail is not for everyone, unlike the way highways are for everyone and anyone who drives? High-speed rail is only for those who can and will afford the most expensive train tickets available. 

Would you want the US to start building country clubs with our tax dollars, where the membership costs are beyond the reach of 95% of all Americans? Put that way, it sounds silly.  So, why would we want to build high-speed trains?

High Speed Rail Update, October 2011
By Christopher MacKechnie, Guide
High Speed Rail Update, October 2011
Unfortunately, future federal transportation spending is still in flux, as Obama and Congressional Democrats desire a significant increase in spending while Boehner and Congressional Republicans want to severely cut existing spending. Recently, the Obama Administration has awarded funds for rail projects in an attempt to disburse the money before it could be eliminated. While we wait for a multiyear federal transportation bill to replace SAFETEA – LU, let us survey the rail corridors to see what progress has been made since my High Speed Rail Overview in April .

Northern New England
Construction has begun on portions of the Amtrak lines the Vermonter and the Downeaster in Vermont and Maine to upgrade the lines to a faster speed.

Empire (New York)
This corridor has received additional federal funding. The Draft EIS for upgrades between Niagara Falls and New York City will be completed this winter.

This corridor has received additional federal funding. By 2013 the upgraded corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia will enable top speeds of 125 mph, which will bring the travel time between the two cities down to as a little as 1 hour 15 minutes.

This corridor has received additional federal funding. The Tier II Draft Environmental Impact statement for the corridor between Raleigh and Richmond is currently undergoing public comment; as a result of the comments, a route modification was made in downtown Raleigh.

Gulf Coast
No new updates.

This corridor has received additional federal funding, but no new updates. For background, please see my page on the Texas high speed rail project.

Construction has yet to begin on the initial portion of the line in the Central Valley. The public comment period for the draft environmental impact statements on the line in the Central Valley is scheduled to close on October 13, and lawsuits are expected from a variety of sources, including from farm owners objecting to having their property sliced in half. A revised business plan, including updates on the total cost of the line and ridership projections, is supposed to be released on November 1. If ground is not broken by next year, all federal money awarded to the California High Speed Rail project will have to be returned. Please see my page on the California High Speed rail plan for more background . That page will be updated when the revised business plan is released.

Pacific Northwest
Additional funding has been received but, according to the official website, there are no updates to report.

Chicago Hub Network
This corridor is probably the one where the most work has been accomplished to this point. Construction has begun on upgrading the Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis to be able to handle speeds of up to 110 mph. In addition, funding has now been awarded to upgrade the line between Detroit and Chicago to 110 mph. When completed, the one-way trip time between Detroit and Chicago will be shortened by 30 minutes.

Given the current state of the economy and Republican antipathy towards high speed rail, I believe the most we can expect out of these projects is an increase in maximum speeds on existing rail lines from 79 mph to 110 mph. Consider that the high speed rail project likely to have been completed first, the proposed line in Central Florida, was summarily cancelled by Florida governor Rick Scott. Consider also that the California high speed rail project, that has a budget that keeps climbing and will likely require at least $20 billion from private sources - none of which have been identified - and local governments, who are laying off teachers and other municipal employees in droves, is likely to never have enough money to be completed.

As public transit advocates, I believe we have to understand that going forward we will be lucky to receive as much money for transit from all levels of government as we currently receive. Due to the limited available funding and the unlimited number of projects that need funding, we need to prioritize how to spend the available money. I would rather spend the money on public transit within cities, which will become increasingly critical as traffic congestion continues to increase, than spend it on high speed rail projects that will cover corridors already well served by airlines, especially because the recent rail funding awards demonstrate that we can make significant improvements to our existing rail lines at a fraction of the cost of constructing high speed rail.

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