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The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.

2/9/10

REPRISE: THE PROBLEM WITH HIGH SPEED RAIL

Sam Smith, February 2008 - 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've 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.

I was struck by Metro bragging about its record ridership during the Obama inauguration. Metro had finally achieved what it had, at the beginning decades ago, 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 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.

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 isn't that important.

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. "

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 also 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."

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. "

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.

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.

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?

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.

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 . . ."

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.

Let's hope it doesn't take that long to improve conventional rail.

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