UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 26, 2009

HIGH SPEED, HIGH COST, HIGH INCOME RAIL

Sam Smith

There's nothing wrong with high speed rail
except that when your country is really hurting, when your rail system largely falls behind other countries' because of lack of tracks rather than lack of velocity, and when high speed rail appeals more to bankers than to folks scared of foreclosing homes, it's a strange transit program to feature in something called a stimulus bill.

One might even call it an $8 billion earmark.

I watched this development with a sense of deja vu. Long ago, I was a rare critic of DC's Metro subway plans, not because I was against mass transit, but because it was a highly inefficient way of spending mass transit funds compared to light rail or exclusive bus lanes. At the time we could have had ten times as many miles of light rail for the same price of the subway system.

The other day I was struck by Metro bragging about its record ridership during the Obama inauguration. I was one of the few people in town who noticed that Metro had finally achieved what it had, at the beginning, promised the federal government would be normal. We needed a first black president to get that many riders. Further, Metro doesn't even have the capacity to handle that many people on a regular basis.

Other problems I correctly projected included the fact that Metro wouldn't really compete with the automobile but with its own bus lines, that it was more of a land development than a transit scheme, and that auto traffic would increase as the subway encouraged new buildings but that a majority of the new users of these buildings would still come by car.

I mention these examples because they illustrate the sort of complexity that transit planning involves, a complexity that rarely gets any attention in the media or by politicians. There's nothing like something as streamlined as a bullet to make everyone put away doubts, analysis and comparisons and just sit back and say, "Wow."

The problem became permanently embedded in my mind after I asked a transportation engineer to identify the best form of mass transit. His immediate answer: "Stop people from moving around so much." So simple, yet so wise and so alien to almost every discussion of the topic you will hear.

If we were really smart, we would be spending far more effort, for example, on redesigning neighborhoods so travel isn't so necessary. What if every urban neighborhood had minibus service to help people get to necessary services? Or a business center with high quality video conference and other equipment so that more people could work at home often?

Instead we are planning to spend $8 billion so that people who already travel more than they should can do it faster and easier.

Of course, there are plenty of political reasons for this. The extraordinary power of the highway lobby remains undiminished, as does the fear of the trucking industry that freight trains might take a major portion of their business away albeit making more sense economically and ecologically.

One map of proposed routes shows not only high speed service to Las Vegas, home of the Senate majority leader, but a surprising number of routes spreading out from the Chicago of Barrack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.

Admittedly these are just proposals. But the power and pressure are there. For example, Howard Learner, president of the Chicago-based, high speed rail pushing Environmental Law Policy Center, notes that the Federal Railroad Administration thinks a plan connecting Chicago and 11 other cities is the project most shovel ready.

Wrote Jon Hilkevitch in the Chicago Tribune: "The ambitious project proposed for the Midwest would cover 3,000 miles in nine states. All lines would radiate from a hub in downtown Chicago. The cost of a fully completed Midwest network is estimated at almost $8 billion. . . Modern, comfortable, double-deck trains with wide seats and large windows would churn along at top speeds of 110 m.p.h. The faster trains would shave hours off trips, delivering passengers from one downtown to another hundreds of miles away. Amtrak trains in most of the Midwest now operate at up to 79 m.p.h., although average speeds are much slower, especially around Chicago due to freight traffic." And there's also the plan to electrify the route between San Jose and Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco.

The truth is that conventional rail and bus riders aren't powerful enough to get what they need. Even upscale liberals prefer air or high speed rail. In the end, there's no strong constituency for the ordinary rider.

As a result of such things, we can expect more than a fair share of hype and hokum as the high rail projects get underway. But here are a few real things to also keep in mind:

Building new conventional rail lines would have had a much stronger effect on the economy than merely speeding up existing routes. Beyond the benefits of construction and the system itself, there would be the economic opportunities created along the route, just as happened when we first built rail and our country at the same time. Philip Longman in an excellent Washington Monthly article, writes, "Railroads have gone from having too much track to having not enough. Today, the nation's rail network is just 94,942 miles, less than half of what it was in 1970, yet it is hauling 137 percent more freight, making for extreme congestion and longer shipping times."

When moving freight, speed is just not that important. An example can be found in a towboat pushing more freight up the Mississippi River than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's time. Why does this lethargic system work so well? Simply because it's not the speed but the capacity that matters. As long as what's on the barges keep coming, how fast it comes doesn't really matter.

Passenger rail capacity
is also important. We don't know what the real capacity of these high speed systems will be but we can guess that the railroads won't have large numbers of spare trains waiting around for the Christmas season. Conventional rail uses easily coupled old equipment to adjust for peaks, but high speed rail is so expensive that it is more likely to fall short. For example, Trains for America describes the problem with the high speed Acela: "The trains now run with an engine at each end. While that step speeds turnarounds when the Acela finishes its route and then reverses direction, reconfiguring trains to add coaches would be 'very difficult and very time consuming,' spokeswoman Karina Romero said. Amtrak also doesn't have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches, she said."

The trucking lobby. Philip Longman notes that "In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation's highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emission by 38 percent and oil consumption by 22 percent."

High speed trains can become a pollution problem. The progressive journalist George Monbiot has reported: "Though trains traveling at normal speeds have much lower carbon emissions than airplanes, Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University shows that energy consumption rises dramatically at speeds above 125 miles per hour. Increasing the speed from 140 to 220 mph almost doubles the amount of fuel burned. If the trains are powered by electricity, and if that electricity is produced by plants burning fossil fuels, they cause more CO2 emissions than planes."

Where the Japanese model stumbles. A letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out that "The population density of the major fast-train-using countries averages two-plus times that of Ohio (Japan's is 3.3 times); gasoline prices are 2.2 times the Ohio price; airport congestion is worse; and regulated airfares to convenient airports are higher than comparable U.S. destinations. What's more, arrival at a train terminal in a European or Japanese city often places you within walking distance of the major commercial and tourist locations. Not so in the United States. . . I have used high-speed trains many times and they are great, but building and operating them would be a major financial drain in Ohio."

The cost factor: Based on the only example we have in the United States, high speed rail is substantially more expensive and serves a wealthier class of riders. For example, making a reservation on one conventional Amtrak train from Washington to NYC today would have cost $52 less than the high speed Acela. More startling is that conventional business class is $16 cheaper than Acela even though in conventional business class you get more leg room, much more space to stow your gear, a free newspaper and free coffee and soft drinks. And all this costs you is one extra half hour ride under more pleasant conditions.

Cost of building high speed routes. Here's what the NY Times had to say the other day: "[The stimulus bill] will not be enough to pay for a single bullet train, transportation experts say. And by the time the $8 billion gets divided among the 11 regions across the country that the government has designated as high-speed rail corridors, it is unlikely to do much beyond paying for long-delayed improvements to passenger lines, and making a modest investment in California's plan for a true bullet train. In the short term, the money - inserted at the 11th hour by the White House - could put people to work improving tracks, crossings and signal systems." A completed California system alone is expected to cost about $45 billion.

A major reason for the high cost: building exclusive tracks for the high speed trains. Even though Acela, for example, can theoretically hit 150 miles an hour, it only averages 84 mph between NYC and Washington, in part because of stops and in part because it uses improved conventional tracks. It only hits full speed on about 35 miles in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But this raises an important and almost entirely undiscussed question. Is the huge expense of exclusive track high speed rail preferable to spending the money on expanding conventional service to many times more passengers?

Ridership - Costs are changing, however, thanks to other problems. Back in August, the Boston Globe cheerfully reported:

"Amtrak may add cars to its Acela, the fastest US passenger train, and raise fares as riders fill coaches on the Washington-to-Boston route, chief executive officer Alexander Kummant said. Demand for the high-speed service also may spur Amtrak to levy a surcharge to help buy additional equipment, Kummant said."

But with the new year, Trains for America was telling a different story:

"While Amtrak ridership, generally speaking, has continued to look fairly healthy despite the poor economy and lower fuel prices, the same cannot be said of the its Acela high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor. The recession has led to a decrease in business travel, prompting the company to reduce Acela fares in order to bring in more leisure travelers. From Bloomberg: 'Amtrak will offer one-way nonrefundable Acela business-class tickets for as low as $99 between New York and Washington, down from $133 or more, and as low as $79 between Boston and New York, from $93 or higher. The prices are available for travel from March 3 through June 26 and tickets must be purchased 14 days in advance.

'Acela ridership dropped about 14 percent in January from the same month a year ago, and about 10 percent for the four months ending in January from the same period last year, spokesman Cliff Cole said in a telephone interview from New York.'

"If anything, this highlights the huge variation in the services Amtrak runs. Standard routes, and in particular those considered long-distance, have continued to see high levels of ridership. One wonders if many travelers aren't fleeing air carriers and high-speed services like Acela for a cheaper, if longer, journey on a train."

Even before the downturn, however, the Acela ridership reports were less than stunning. For example, in the last fiscal year the conventional northeast coast regional service rose 9.5% while Acela ridershp only went up 6.5%. Seventy percent of the ridership along the northeast corridor remained with the slower, cheaper trains.

Meanwhile other conventional service was booming. The Keystone Service, which operates between Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York City, rose 20 percent. The Downeaster, operating several times daily between Portland, Maine and Boston, Mass., grew 31 percent, despite being slower than an express bus because of all of its stops. Chicago-Wisconsin Hiawatha service was up nearly 26 percent. And the Kansas City to St. Louis route grew more than 30 percent.

Some other traditional train routes that grew more than twice as much as the high speed Acela: Oakland-Sacramento, Northern California's Capitol Corridor service, and Chicago-San Antonio.

Other uses: - Philip Longman, in his Washington Montly article, reminds us of alternative uses of conventional rail that seldom get mentioned. Some past examples: "The Pacific Fruit Growers Express delivered fresh California fruits and vegetables to the East Coast using far less energy and labor than today's truck fleets. . . . The Railway Express Agency, which attached special cars to passenger trains, provided Americans with a level of express freight service that cannot be had for any price today, offering door-to-door delivery of everything from canoes to bowls of tropical fish to, in at least one instance, a giraffe. . . . High-speed Railway Post Office trains also offered efficient mail service to even the smallest towns which is not matched today. In his book Train Time, Harvard historian and rail expert John R. Stilgoe describes the Pennsylvania Railroad's Fast Mail train No. 11, which, because of its speed and on-board crew of fast sorting mail clerks, ensured next-day delivery on a letter mailed with a standard two-cent stamp in New York to points as far west as Chicago. Today, that same letter is likely to travel by air first to FedEx's Memphis hub, then be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto another plane, a process that demands far greater expenditures of money, carbon, fuel, and, in many instances, time than the one used eighty years ago. . . Another potential use of steel wheel interstates would be auto trains."

o

The big advantage of high speed rail is that the media, politicians and upper class love the idea and are happy to promote it without asking any of the hard questions. But it's worth remembering that after Washington and San Francisco blew huge sums on subways, city planners finally got wise and started looking at less expensive transit systems that were more efficient in every regard except speed. And so, Washington is today finally working towards having its first light rail route in 47 years.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about how the Obama administration is a second New Deal. But the first New Deal would never have spent huge sums on super trains for the better off; it would have expanded decent if unexotic rail service for ordinary folks. Today you can hardly even get Democrats to talk about such things.

9 Comments:

Blogger Gar Lipow said...

You can download the PDF of the study referenced in the Washington Monthly article here

February 27, 2009 10:18 PM  
Blogger Jay Alt said...

Chicago was the biggest rail hub long before Rahm or Obama's great-grandparents were born. Train tracks don't shift of their own accord, so there's little reason to think the track setup needs changing.

February 27, 2009 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It makes little sense to invest in high speed rail on separate rights of way focused solely on passenger operations. It makes more sense to upgrade existing rail corridors with improved signaling and multiple tracks allowing passenger train speeds above 100 mph. New infrastructure investment should go toward bring rail lines into regional airports with the goal of significantly reducing short flights. We need an integrated surface and air transportation policy to capitalize on the ability of rail to serve multiple communities along its route and deliver passengers to major airports where they will transfer seamlessly to long distance flights.

February 28, 2009 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mixing high speed and low spped trains on the same track reduces the capacity of the tracks dramatically. Having long distance passanger trains run the same speed than freight trains lead to long journey times. In France high speed trains travel on high speed rails where there is a lot of traffic. High speed traffic is so dense there - there are 20 trains per hour and direction on some tracks. When the traffic diversifies into several destinations high speed trains continue to travel on low speed tracks. Through this system travel times are reduced substantially while high speed tracks are only built for a small portion of the rail network.
High speed tracks are an essantial part of a modern rail network. For efficiency reasons however it is wise to built them only where enough passenger trains will use them to justify the designated track.

March 1, 2009 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mixing high speed and low spped trains on the same track reduces the capacity of the tracks dramatically. Having long distance passanger trains run the same speed than freight trains lead to long journey times. In France high speed trains travel on high speed rails where there is a lot of traffic. High speed traffic is so dense there - there are 20 trains per hour and direction on some tracks. When the traffic diversifies into several destinations high speed trains continue to travel on low speed tracks. Through this system travel times are reduced substantially while high speed tracks are only built for a small portion of the rail network.
High speed tracks are an essantial part of a modern rail network. For efficiency reasons however it is wise to built them only where enough passenger trains will use them to justify the designated track.

March 1, 2009 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mixing high speed and low spped trains on the same track reduces the capacity of the tracks dramatically. Having long distance passanger trains run the same speed than freight trains lead to long journey times. In France high speed trains travel on high speed rails where there is a lot of traffic. High speed traffic is so dense there - there are 20 trains per hour and direction on some tracks. When the traffic diversifies into several destinations high speed trains continue to travel on low speed tracks. Through this system travel times are reduced substantially while high speed tracks are only built for a small portion of the rail network.
High speed tracks are an essantial part of a modern rail network. For efficiency reasons however it is wise to built them only where enough passenger trains will use them to justify the designated track.

March 1, 2009 10:09 AM  
Blogger BruceMcF said...

You contradict yourself in pulling your list together.

"When hauling freight, speed is not important". That is true for the class of freight that railroads currently attract. Then you cited, "he Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure". The "to $500b" part of that study was the establishment of 100mph Rapid Freight Rail paths, which is key to gaining a majority market share for rail for long haul freight ... the current Heavy Freight rail paths simply cannot offer the speed or reliability to compete in enough freight market segments to meet that target.

"High speed trains can become a pollution problem" ... except that you imply that "High Speed" means over 125mph, when the Midwest Hub and Ohio Hub trains are both 110mph Rapid Rail systems. The California system bullet-train system is a 220mph system, but it will be powered by renewable power sources.

"Where the Japanese model stumbles." looks at population density, but average population density is about the viability of a high capacity local mass transit rail line, not about the viability of a HSR line. What matters for HSR is the travel times between the population center, and a 110mph system achieves effective travel times between Cleveland and Columbus, Columbus and Cincinnati, and Cleveland and Cincinnati.

"The cost factor" looks at some of the most heavily used, completely built rail rights of way in the country and uses that to project to Ohio or Illinois. That is silly. Here in Ohio, we have plenty of rights of way with ample space to build in ... we can get the triple-C corridor up and running for less money than it will cost to straighten out some curves in Connecticut to let that Acela go closer to top speed.

You write as if the legislative language was a silly as the normal newspaper reporter ... but the fact is, the legislative language makes the perfectly sensible decision to include both bullet trains and Rapid Rail as "High Speed Rail", and in Ohio, that means we finally have the chance to have the restoration of the Triple-C line which we lost because of the accident of timing of Columbus's growth during the heyday of anti-rail federal policy.

March 3, 2009 4:16 PM  
Blogger Grandpa D said...

The thrust of the post is to build and then attack a straw man: more money for modern high speed rail means less for conventional rail. There is no reason this must be true any more than building more airports means less money for highways or more money for health care means less money for education. The unsound thread of this argument jumped out as I read one comment so clearly false that the entire factual basis of the post is undermined:

“But it's worth remembering that after Washington and San Francisco blew huge sums on subways, city planners finally got wise and started looking at less expensive transit systems that were more efficient in every regard except speed.”

I can’t speak for DC but as a long time resident of the Bay Area, I can attest that the region’s transportation would have long since ground into permanent gridlock if it were not for the BART (our version of Metro) system. Ridership is often 2 million or more trips per week and this is with daily traffic jams on all the freeway and bridge arteries that connect the communities in our area. Millions were definitely not “blown” and in fact it is almost inconceivable as to how we would have coped and what the economic damage would have been to a major US population center if those of us who voted for BART had been misled by specious arguments like these.

The bottom line is that the post is just wrong in claiming that our nation is a one trick pony. We need true HSR as well as major improvements in regular passenger and freight rail and local light rail and bus service. In short we need and can afford the same kind of integrated transportation network that most of the first world takes for granted.

March 5, 2009 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos to Sam Smith for daring to remind anyone that the Washington Metro definitely increased suburban sprawl and traffic levels. Bethesda Metro station is a great example of this dynamic, some of the Virginia stations had this, too. When a subway stop becomes an excuse for building lots of tall office buildings populated by worker bees who still drive to work, then what exactly is the point of the subway? And the completion of the Metro didn't stop regional governments from pushing highway expansions such as the Inter County Connector ...

"Growth for the sake of Growth is the Ideology of the Cancer Cell."
-- Edward Abbey


Whatever train systems are built would be easier to take seriously if the feds were not also paying for hundreds of billions in highway upgrades and new construction. It appears that not a single city anywhere in the US has recognized that the end of cheap oil and the start of climate change means plans for more highways should be stopped. Unfortunately, the Democrats merely support more Amtrak IN ADDITION TO more highways, not as a substitute to more highways.

Mark Robinowitz
www.road-scholar.org
www.naftahighway.org


Peak Traffic: the Achilles Heel of highway expansion plans
Planning NAFTA Superhighways at the End of the Age of Oil
Troubled Bridges Over Water: time for transportation triage

March 9, 2009 4:30 PM  

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