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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 29, 2010


For many years, the Review has advocated a major construction of a new rail system in the U.S. - for reasons of jobs, local economic development, and transportation - especially including freight. A return to the same mileage America had in the late 19th century would be a reasonable and modest goal.

This is dramatically different than the current hoopla over high speed rail. High speed rail because of its cost and location is essentially ground business class transport for the urban elite. It is not mass transportation for the average American or the average American town now without rail.

But the media has bought the high speed argument being pushed by Obama and the Democrats  (perhaps because Washington reporters like the Acela, the cost of which they charge to their bosses) even though it falls for short of needed mass public works and fails to serve the average citizen.

NBC, Bay Area - The costs of the project to bring a high-speed train between the Bay Area and Los Angeles are skyrocketing faster than the promised MPH. . .

When voters approved a $9 billion bond measure to help build the rail line, the cost of a one-way ticket was projected to be $55. Now it is expected to cost $105. That's 83 percent of a comparable plane ticket.

Of course, that doesn't factor in the cost of getting to the airport, in time or money. A cab from San Francisco, where two-thirds of the Bay Area's high-speed rail passengers are expected to board the train, costs about $45, and even BART costs $8.10.

The fare hike, prompted by rising costs of building the system, is expected to turn off millions of potential passengers.

High-speed rail leaders admit the costs have changed, but quickly add the "spirit of what the people voted for" with Proposition 1A remains the same.

They are spinning the increases by claiming the higher fares and fewer passengers will actually add up to higher profits.

Construction is not supposed to start until 2012. The San Francisco to LA line won't be complete until 2020 and that is only if all goes according to plan, which never happens here in the Golden State.

Slate - The most prevalent criticism of Obama's high-speed rail plan focuses on its cost to taxpayers. But what about its cost to riders?

Obama has so far set aside $13 billion for high-speed rail. (The stimulus package allocates $8 billion, and the budget allots another $1 billion a year for the next five years.) But that doesn't begin to cover even one of the 11 high-speed rail corridors designated by the Department of Transportation. For example, California's proposed high-speed rail line would cost at least $35 billion to build. Upgrading all of the nation's corridors to "high-speed rail" would cost scores of billions more. Replacing the entire system with bullet trains- i.e., laying new tracks and building new vehicles that could go up to 200 mph-could reach a $500 billion.

That's not news. Cost has been a major obstacle for high-speed rail for years. In Florida, voters repealed their approval for a rail system after cost estimates reached as high as $25 billion. In Texas, a project died after the price tag hit $6.8 billion. California's high-speed-rail system has been famously on hold since 1982, largely for financial reasons.

Obama anticipated the skepticism, calling the initial $8 billion "just a first step. We know that this is going to be a long-term project."

What he did not address, though, is how much people will have to pay once the rails are built. Right now, Amtrak is a luxury product. One-way tickets from Washington to New York City currently start around $70. During peak times, that can rise to $140. On the ultrafast Acela, tickets start around $100 and quickly reach double that.

The bus? That costs $25. . . .

And the Northeast Corridor is the busiest train route in the country. In other regions, where there won't be as many travelers-say, Chicago to St. Louis-there won't be the same stream of revenue to cover costs, which means either higher ticket prices or more government subsidies.

Obama has spent his career opposing policies that disproportionately benefit the rich. But it's hard to think of a service more skewed toward the wealthy-and employees of wealthy companies-than high-speed rail. Amtrak currently accounts for about 0.1 percent of U.S. intercity passenger miles. High-speed rail, even less. That's partly because trains don't serve all cities, and they're not always convenient if you live far from a station. But it's also a question of price.. . .

Moreover, the nifty new trains wouldn't even be that fast. The term high-speed rail may conjure images of 200 mph Japanese bullet trains. But California is the only state with a proposal like that. The rest of the high-speed rail would be built using existing track, on which trains can't go much faster than 110 mph. (The Federal Railroad Administration defines high-speed rail as anything over 90 mph. Their European counterparts set the bar at 125 mph.) That's an improvement over the conventional rail speed of 80 mph, but hardly the futuristic overhaul Obama seems to envision.

High-speed rail skeptics-deniers, to some-point to other obstacles. The government would have to pay private freight companies that own the tracks for the privilege of using them. Then passenger trains would have to share the tracks with freight trains going half their speed, forcing vehicles to slow down or stop. The government would also have to buy or take land if it wanted to lay new tracks, and eminent-domain laws aren't nearly as government-friendly in the United States as in France.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Upgrading the convential rail system is not sexy enough. Obama's making a pitch to techno nerds.

January 30, 2010 6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If half the subsity given to motor freight(in the form of highway construction and other tax breaks) rails would still be a part of the landscape. One of the worst mistakes of the last 50 years was the removal of rail.

January 30, 2010 8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trains avoid the airport commute.

The carbon footprint of rail travel is one sixth that of air travel.

Weather delays are minimal for trains.

Commuter trains service many more destinations.

January 30, 2010 12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An earlier post wrote about the subsidies given to motor freight. Let's not forget the outrageous subsidies given to the airline business. If rail got half of that subsidy, we would still have affordable rail service.

Also, maybe, just maybe, we could spend a little less on our favorite pastime - war - and divert some of that money to our infrastructure, e.g. trains. Trouble is, war is so damn much fun. You get to kill and maim, all the while being virtuous. "Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant."

January 30, 2010 9:53 PM  

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