Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The New York Times and its High-Speed Rail Debacle Acknowledgement

The New York Times travel writer, Joe Sharkey, has come to terms with the fact that the California high-speed rail project is worthless and needs termination. I don't think I'm overstating his observations. 

It's the wrong project and it's being done wrong in as many ways as possible. But, high-speed rail for the US in general has always been more of a fantasy than a plausible reality.  That does not deter politicians when large sums of tax dollars are involved for the spending, as we all know.

The point here is that this is a New York Times train-rider who, despite the strong pro-HSR editorial bias -- this being a Democratic Party paper -- sees the handwriting on the wall for this project, certainly in California.

What I find strange is the reluctance on the part of travel and rail experienced writers like Sharkey to not see the obvious; that HSR is best developed in an evolutionary way, based upon existing passenger rail service.  That's how it happens pretty much everywhere else. Furthermore, such high-cost, high-speed service is best provided in high-density population transit corridors first and foremost.

No wonder everyone throws up their hands when they hear that California's super train begins in the rural Central Valley between the two major population centers of the state.  Yes, their argument is that you 'gotta start somewhere.'  In which case, why not start where people live and work in the greatest numbers, where the traffic is the most congested, where getting around is the most difficult, where such a train will find the greatest pent-up demand, if there is such?

The FRA -- with rail authority agreement in order to get the funding -- insisted on starting in the Central Valley. For that, there can be only one explanation. Throw those dollars where they will do the most political good; which is, to get Jim Costa, a Democratic Congressman, re-elected.  They did, and he did.

It is stunning that the Democrats cannot yet see that the persistence in sustaining this effort in the face of such overwhelming contrary indicators, is going to be hugely costly to them.  Not only the embarrassment, instigated by the arrogant incompetence of the California rail authority, but by the hollowness of this entire HSR conception as the solution to anything. 


December 26, 2011

Airlines Are Retrenching, and Alternatives Are Slim
THE coming year will be a time of reckoning in business travel, as airlines reduce service at many airports and prospects fade for practical alternatives to flying, including the long-term promises of high-speed rail.

Consider the new realities of air travel. Competition is decreasing, fares are rising and airlines are adjusting routes (and charging extra fees) in ruthless calculations to extract the greatest possible revenue per mile flown.

Michael Boyd, the president of the consulting company Boyd Group International, sums up the phenomenon succinctly. “The cost of flying airplanes across the sky has eclipsed the ability to support it at many communities,” he said in a recent forecast. In 2012, he predicts, airlines will accelerate the mothballing of smaller 50-seat jets, the workhorses for connecting service between many midsize airports, and even some big ones.

Many airlines will continue shrinking overall capacity and trimming domestic routes in 2012, and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of AMR, the parent company of American Airlines, will merely exacerbate the situation. In 2012, American will “ground some planes and resize our network,” the company’s chief executive, Thomas W. Horton, recently told employees.

In addition, John P. Heimlich, the chief economist of the trade group Airlines for America, said, “Capacity reduction is one of the steps the industry is taking to preserve profitability.”

Some business travelers are driving more often on some trips for which they would once fly. But what about trains? I got a lot of enthusiastic reader reaction a couple of weeks ago, after I wrote about taking a pleasant overnight trip in a cozy sleeper compartment on Amtrak’s Silver Star from Tampa to New York City. The fare was $480.80.

Measured by time and money, that’s not remotely competitive with flying, where the best one-way fare I found for the same trip was $301, on a flight that takes about two and a half hours, airport to airport.

On the other hand, the train fare included four meals in the diner car, as well as the overnight accommodations. For business travelers like Gary Brown, a consultant, such a rail option sometimes works.

Last year, Mr. Brown took trains round-trip from Minneapolis to Tampa, with stops in Chicago and Washington. “Yes, a long, long ride, but I loved every minute of it,” he said.

Mr. Brown said the rail alternative could make sense on itineraries where the train was convenient even if time-consuming. With cutbacks that often require more connecting flights, and given the need to arrive at airports well before departure time, Mr. Brown says he often has to fly the day before a business meeting and “stay overnight if I’m to give my customers a full day of my consulting.”

He added, “With Amtrak, I can often spend the night on the train instead of in a hotel room.”

Ah, what a joy it would be if the trains in this country actually went to all the places we need to go. 

Since we’re dreaming, let’s add that it would be such a joy if the trains went there a lot faster, too — as in high-speed rail, which is usually defined as about 150 miles an hour or more.

Remember, my pleasant train trip from Tampa to New York City took 26 hours. Google Maps informs me that driving the same 1,125-mile route would take 19 and a half hours. The train is obviously more comfortable, but the fact is that the automobile goes faster, all things considered.

Alas, I predict 2012 will also be the year when we come to the collective realization that for the foreseeable future we may be stuck with the air, train and car transportation system as it is, given economics and politics.
Prospects are dim for improving existing train travel, let alone expanding it into national networks of high-speed intercity routes.

A week after my overnight train trip, the House Transportation Committee held another hearing on the rapidly dimming prospects for domestic high-speed rail. It focused on the most ambitious major project that is still alive, the proposed high-speed system linking California cities from San Francisco to San Diego. At a cost now estimated at $98.5 billion, that project, still in the planning phase, is already 13 years behind schedule.
It also appears to be as dead as the Concorde supersonic jet. The project is a “disaster” that’s “imploding,” said John L. Mica, the committee chairman who, like many other planners, now thinks our best bet for intercity rail service is to improve it in the one place where it demonstrably already works well, the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington.

E-mail: jsharkey@nytimes.com

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