Friday, November 25, 2011

19th Century Infrastructure and High-Speed Rail

Take a different track on high-speed rail
William Fietzer
Minneapolis Baby Boomer Examiner
November 23, 2011

“A vast majority (80 percent) believe the country would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system.” Howard Learner, Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, concurs. “Americans recognize that we can’t build a 21st century economy on a 19th century infrastructure. People want modern, fast, clean and comfortable rail transportation options.”"


Here is a fundamental disagreement with Howard Learner, Willian Fietzer, the article author, and all the other high-speed rail promoters.

 “Americans recognize that we can’t build a 21st century economy on a 19th century infrastructure."

That fact is that the railroads are 19th century infrastructure.  Those countries that embrace it, are embracing a dollop of 20th century whipped cream on their 19th century railroad infrastructure ice-cream.

But, let's made a further distinction here.  Let's separate railroad infrastructure from railroad operations.  Infrastructure is all the stuff on the ground that doesn't move. Tracks, electrification, signalling, power stations, train stations, etc.  What we can see now is only the most modest of upgrades from what we where building at the beginning of the 20th century. By the time of the Second World War, the US passenger rail system was magnificent and cast a vast network over the entire country.

What has been changed since then is the evolution of drive power; from steam, to Diesel to electric. That evolution still roots the basic infrastructure in the 19th century no matter how streamlined and whizzy the new trains look.  And, it's that fixed, rigid infrastructure that's the problem. And, most important, that Golden Age of Passenger Rail declined. Bringing it back is an attempt at a Twilight Zone reversal of time itself.

Highways, as we know, have been with us even longer, millennia longer.  Their upgrades have also been relatively modest, from animal paths, to Egyptian and Roman roads, such as the Appian Way, to our modern Autobahn in Germany with all its "smart" digital electronic data and control capacity. And, while that fundamental roadway infrastructure has not changed, the amount of highway has increased so overwhelmingly that the very quantity constitutes a qualitative change. The US has over 50,000 miles of interstate highway.

And that's the point of this discussion.  We also had around 50,000 of railroad track, but no longer.
If all the currently surviving track, now primarily used by freights, were to be occupied by high-speed rail, it still wouldn't make much difference to us. Even with fully occupied rail for passengers, we still would not have the autonomy or flexibility that driving and flying provide.  Inter-city rail can't provide that in the US. 

The US has lost thousands of miles of rail track. That's not merely random bad luck or karma.  Our golden age of passenger railroads is pretty much behind us, save for the urban public mass transit systems in our population centers, and even there, costs have become so enormous that we are disposed to constructing ever less in rail modality, and at the same time increasing other modalities however we can, such as BRT (bus rapid transit) for its far greater cost/effectiveness.

Even as the world, the United States and California become ever more paved over, it becomes that much more difficult to increase the number of miles of RR track or highways.  So, the best we can do with those modalities is improve their existing capacity. But, cost-effectively. See: Amtrak. 

High-Speed Rail in California fails by that measure. It's reach is too far and in the wrong historical direction. HSR is gold-plating a 19th century technology, making it suitable for the affluent.  Californians could have had more rail, and yes, even much faster rail if they had wished it during that 20th century Golden Rail Era. Apparently, they didn't.

Today, inter-city passenger rail service in California is scant and insignificant. Most rail is within, not between major, regional population centers. Expanding it in those centers has become an enormous challenge, demanding tunneling or massive elevated viaduct structures, both stunningly expensive.

While "modern, fast, clean and comfortable" are important criteria for all passenger transportation modalities, as the article suggests, there are other more important ones, such as convenient, cost-effective, practical, and market/demand-driven.

And finally, given that HSR is based primarily if not exclusively on government funding, it needs to meet the criterion of "the greatest good for the greatest number" and here is where high-speed rail flunks, hands down.

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