Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Politics of High-Speed Rail: Bait and Switch

Two articles on the same subject from two different newspapers.  The first article, from BusinessWeek, describes the problem:

The department says the money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

However, these cars, being double-deck, are not true high-speed rail; that is, over 200 mph.  They do meet the FRA HSR criterion of 110 mph.  And they are intended for Amtrak, BUT NOT ACELA,which is the only so-called HSR train in operation.

In short, they are spending HSR funds for trains which are typical Amtrak commuter routes. Otherwise, what isn't high-speed rail? All of Amtrak is -- or will be someday -- "high-speed rail" the way the DOT defines it. In effect, the DOT has made the term "high-speed rail" meaningless.

What that means is they can and will spend HSR dollars on anything they choose, such as Caltrain, for example.

The Washington Times Editorial, being conservative, takes on the entire HSR effort with gusto. I like the phrase "lofty velocities" for the faster version of high-speed rail and how, as reality unfolds in Washington (and in California), those lofty velocities appear slower and slower.

We've been told about "bait and switch" in California whereby the voters in 2008 were promised a high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, completing that distance in 2:40. 

Although they are idiotically and stubbornly persisting in claiming that same unrealistic travel time, it is obviously no longer possible with the severely reduced "blended system" plan now about to be implemented. (That's how they say they are saving us $30 billion which they don't have anyhow.)

I'm not so sure that the 'bait-and-switch' expression actually applies at the federal program level.  From the very beginning, they have been enamored of the political and public relations value of the term "high-speed rail" -- it sells.  But they were quick to define this as anything from 110 mph up. They never promised to confine HSR to the over 200 mph category.

That is to say, in Washington, the whole high-speed rail concept never had any substance to it.  It was never vetted by global HSR professionals with experience.  It was never analyzed in cost-benefit terms. In short, it was never anything more than a fancy and catchy label, like "new and improved" cereal.  

Or, sort of like a prescription label on a bottle containing placebo pills. It was meant to provide pork to "deserving" states and districts by way of the failing Amtrak system.  And the word "jobs" was attached to assure us that whether or not we wanted or needed faster trains, that was not the real intended purpose of the ARRA Stimulus program for high-speed rail. 

It never was about the trains; it was always about the money!

US spending $551M for double-deck Amtrak rail cars


The Obama administration is putting out a $551 million request for bids for 130 new U.S.-made double-deck passenger rail-cars to serve Amtrak routes in Michigan and other states.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says the cars also would serve routes in Illinois, Indiana, California and Missouri and possibly Iowa. They would be wireless-Internet equipped.

The department says the money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed and Inter-city Passenger Rail Program.

The department says it will pick a manufacturer this fall and get the cars starting in 2015. says 25 of the cars would serve Michigan. It says they'll run on the Blue Water, Pere Marquette and Wolverine routes.

Amtrak service to Michigan includes routes from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Pontiac and Port Huron.

EDITORIAL: Not so high-speed rail
President’s signature project is an Amtrak bait-and-switch
The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Trainmakers interested in getting a big slice of taxpayer cash have until May 11 to notify federal officials that they want to build America's next-generation high-speed rail cars. Over $550 million is being made available for these next-generation purchases through a program meant to fulfill the White House vision of "trains zipping along at up to 220 miles per hour in our most densely populated corridors." Like most government endeavors, this idea was already a disappointment before it left the drawing board.

Forget about ever seeing the lofty velocities touted by the Obama administration. According to documents filed on Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program will dole out half-a-billion on equipment with lower design speeds than Amtrak's current Acela trains. A team of federal and state highway officials are collaborating on standards for the first 130-passenger rail cars. California will take 42 of them and the remaining 88 will head to the Midwest - but not quickly. "The cars shall be designed and tested for revenue operation at all speeds up to 125 mph," according to the technical specifications.

That's 25 mph slower than the latest Northeast-corridor trains are capable of reaching and almost 100 mph slower than the high-speed pledge. In a classic case of bait and switch, Amtrak will receive these shiny new train cars with all the latest gizmos, but the only "high speed" feature will be wireless Internet access. This Obama administration marvel doesn't even have any impressive green credentials. It will have LED lighting fixtures - the most expensive type - and additional space for recycle bins, but that's all. The train won't run on solar power, algae or wind energy. It will be powered by 1,800 gallons of ordinary diesel fuel.

Amtrak, the failed government enterprise, would have a hard time asking for these funds straight-up. So President Obama's call to give 80 percent of Americans access to "high-speed rail" within the next 25 years was a visionary goal that disguised a massive cash transfer toward inner-city pork projects. We're borrowing billions from overseas (for example, China) to prop up the same old business model that has never worked.

Even if the Obama administration gets around to setting up actual 200 mph tracks, that doesn't mean travelers will reach their destinations any faster. Amtrak's way of doing things involves dozens of stops along each route, which would negate much of the benefit of any theoretical maximum speed.

Airplanes, by contrast, can travel point-to-point at 500 mph. Automobile speeds are comparatively modest, but the ability of cars to deliver people door-to-door makes them the time-saving champion on short and medium-distance trips. These are the true high-speed alternatives. Turning back the clock to the 19th century's rail-centered model wastes our national treasure for no real benefit. It's time to pull the subsidy on this presidential train ride to bankruptcy.

The Washington Times
© Copyright 2012 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

COMMENTS: (I removed a few of the snarky ones)

High Speed Rail has moved from an economic outcome to High Bulk Pork, In the Midwest members of the HSR Association are being proselyted to support AMTRAK, the California project and the Florida line, weakening the economic case for a hub and spoke system with Chicago as the hub and several large Metropolitan areas (St. Louis being he first one) within a radius of 400 miles.-- and most important

a. with Federal, state, local government and private transportation companies having skin in the game;
b. Displacing primarily air traffic, not road traffic by creating competitive travel times city center to city center;
c. Maximizing system use by including not only passenger trains but also freight on an overnight basis, accommodating FedEX, UPS and the USPS ground services.

Lowering the speed to that of Acela offers no advantages when terminal to ultimate destination is considered, It plays into the hands of both AMTRAK and the competitor airlines. Such an outcome can only be described a Pyrrhic victory. 
The expenses of constructing lines for "Medium Speed Rail", now in the bill, buying "Medium Speed Equipment" is the wrong approach to transportation efficiency,

What is essential is the system have the participation of government at each level as well as the private sector putting capital at risk with High Speed Rolling Stock and the purchase of Departure and Arrival slots at each end of the line.
In Atlas Shrugged the first part of the movie...depicts a hi-speed rail!.that is about as close as the USA will become on celluloid !. Didn't they talk about the measly 225 mile stints in Nevada and Florida and what happened.The French engineering firm chosen for the Florida project ran across reluctance and usually obstinate investors..And a glorified and cosmetically attired train with a LED lighting panel and many interior bells and whistles is not what is tracks are necessary and "Not so high speed rail" idea ,kind of defeats the purpose.....Good lord what a boondoggle..China is scheduled to lay down to 6,000 and up of train tracks and are having some problems with the trains..and Spain with about 3,000 miles is number 2..but are experiencing recession and financial loss, though they both can do more with their policies, then this country can with a fake and phony policy to even distribute a half-*** effort..What a boondoggle..
If high-speed rail is such a good idea, why aren't private investors throwing buckets of cash at it? 

Would anyone reading this be silly enough to invest in this project?

Keep in mind that if this horror is ever built, it will have massive TSA checkpoints at each station and this will completely negate any time savings. Who wants to head to a train station two hours early to catch a three hour trip?
Of all the highspeed rail boondoggles world wide, only 2 are profitable. 2. And neither one is in the US of A. Why are We forced to throw money at this global failure?
Another waste of borrowed money.
High speed rail works in Europe because lots of cities are closer together so a 2 hour trip is worth it in comparison to air especially when you take into account city centre to city centre and no arrive early for security. 

3 to 4 hours you are getting in to a debate as to whether it is better to fly.

Anything over 4 hours and people fly, or poor sometimes use long range bus, but rail is not normally the answer. 

High speed in Europe means 250 mph now, maybe 300 mph next generation, so your 2 hour trip gets you out to 500 miles maybe a bit less if you add in a few stops. 

At 125 mph sorry but that is standard trains in Europe, and people will be choosing the airports even for trips as short as 200 miles. 
No, it does not. The only profitable European rail venture runs from Lyons to Paris. All of the rest lose money. Some lose a lot more than others. In total, they lose Billions annually. Look it up.
It depends what you mean by works!
The Rail companies are all either public sector or public subsidized, but most Airlines these days have public subsidies, they are just sometimes hidden better, most Airports may be managed by a profit making company but who built the Airport in the first place or provides the ATC, roads are not all Toll roads, so there are public subsidies on both sides of the Atlantic to Road and Rail and Air, 

My point was if you are going to do it will have some benefit in some parts of the US if you get to real high speed. For most of the US the distances are so great people are going to fly regardless. What the article seems to be describing is the worst of all worlds expensive new trains, but so slow that except for very short distances no one will use them whatever the price because flying will be better.
I currently live in Germany and Obama seems to be going off the European model for rail. One of the many reasons taxes are so high here is massive subsidies towards rail. To some people it is more economically feasible but only because the cost of driving is so high(because of taxes on anything auto related and fees for licensing, plates, and on and on). I say more economically feasible but not cheap. 

Cologne for instance is a two and a half hour drive by car. For that medium sized trip you first have to go to the train station. It is 20 minutes by car if someone drops you off or 40 by bus. The bus fair is about 5 euro in cost. After you catch your train and switch trains and finally arrive you have spent another at least 3 to 4 hours traveling. The cost of the train ticket 50 euros. Round trip your looking to spend at least 110 euros(130-140 dollars). That is not including any extra bus fair you might have to spend getting there. And that 2 and a half hour trip now became at least 4 hours depending on how long your stuck waiting on the bus and your first train.

Those above prices aren't even for the high speed trains. To end up on one of those and maybe save a half hour of your total trip time it costs about 20 euro each way more. And fast isn't anywhere near fast at least not for long periods of time. You might be able to get away with going over 100mph in rural areas but it will not happen where anyone lives. Its just not safe.

On the time thing that is if everything goes smooth. One train running 5 minutes late can cause you to miss your next train and wait for up to another hour. You would be surprised how easily something that can run on a normal schedule can get so easily sidetracked. Breakdowns, something or someone blocking the tracks, or several other causes can start screwing up the timeline quick.

Also you just mentioned subsidies for of airports and roads. In order to make rail travel available to 80 percent of the people to where it becomes there main source of transport plan on laying a lot more track and building a lot more train stations. Sorry I have to agree with the author that traveling by rail is the 19th century model and should remain there. Still great for freight though.

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