Friday, June 26th, 2009
There was a lot of excitement in high speed rail circles when $8 billion in stimulus funds were allocated to high speed rail. The fact that some versions of the new transportation bill would allocate a further $50 billion really got people talking.
However, there’s a growing realization out there of what I’ve long been saying, namely that virtually none of the projects angling for this money are high speed rail at all.
There has been a veritable parade of officials taking trips to Europe to check out high speed rail and tout its benefits to the public. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association put together a trip to Spain for its members. Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin took a trip to Spain as well. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was recently in France and did a photo-op featuring him in the cab of a TGV train.
But the rail systems proposed in the United States are NOTHING AT ALL like the ones in Spain or France. Those system travel at nearly 200MPH on dedicated, fully electrified trackage, with light trainsets, operating with an array of passenger amenities and 99%+ on time reliability. There is a grand total of one proposal in the whole US that is like this, namely California’s.
The proposed Midwest system is typical of what we see around the country. It would operate at a top speed of only 110MPH, half that of Europe, with average speeds much lower. Its travel time would be similar to driving, meaning door to door journey times would be worse. Worst of all, it would be operated by Amtrak.
If you want a 4-5 hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis, you can get it today cheaply, conveniently, and with wi-fi (are you listening Amtrak??????) on Megabus. Indeed, Megabus has proven popular from everyone from 60 year old Moms coming to visit their kids in Chicago to hipsters making road trips. Best of all, Megabus is here today, with no government spending.
If all you want is “Amtrak on steroids”, you’ve got it now with Megabus.
I’m not going to suggest it is totally a bad idea to go with this 110MPH system. There can be virtue in incrementalism and starting small. I personally happen to think it occupies a “sour spot” on the spectrum and is a worst of both worlds solution that both costs a fortune and won’t deliver much in the way of benefits. But I can respect the other point of view.
What I have a serious problem with is labeling this “high speed rail”. Having officials use European systems to sell HSR to the public, then giving them Amtrak on steroids is false advertising. It could ultimately ruin the brand of high speed rail in the United States. By setting expectations so high that they cannot possibly be delivered on by the solution proposed, high speed rail in the Midwest is already set up for failure.
Also, I think this system mistakes high speed rail as a transportation solution with high speed rail as a technical system. Most advocates system to want some type of high speed rail system. So however they have to define it in order to get something funded they can call high speed rail, that’s fine with them. But the scope shouldn’t be a “declare victory” system. The scope should be the benefits.
Given the extremely high cost of high speed rail, I’m not sure there’s a business case for it. However, I can make a prima facie argument for the benefits. But those benefits depend on game changing reductions in travel time, not something that merely replicates what we have today using another mode. We need to focus on the benefits, and from what we’ve seen in Europe and Asia, the benefits from from game changing journey time reductions.
Unfortunately, with Amtrak in the lead, we appear to be headed for another fiasco, no matter how well intentioned the program. President Obama could have high speed rail as a true legacy the way Eisenhower did with the interstate system. But to get that we need a change of direction from the current Amtrak on steroids approach.
I have written extensively on high speed rail, and developed my thinking on the benefits case and the solution in a series of two postings focused around how to connect Midwest cities better with Chicago:
The business case for high speed rail: Metropolitan Linkages
Now real high speed rail has transformed Spain: Confessions of a high speed junky (The Guardian)
The high speed rail solution: High Speed Rail
GAO Questions DOT High Speed Rail Strategy (Transport Politic)
The High Speed Rail Game: Is $13 billion and 110MPH Enough? (Streetsblog) – NO