High Speed Rail

Experts say that virtually no [high speed rail] HSR lines anywhere in the world have earned enough revenue to cover both their construction and operating costs, even where population density is far greater than anywhere in the United States. Typically, governments have paid the construction costs, and in many cases have subsidized the operating costs as well.

High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States, by David Randall Peterman, John Frittelli, and William J. Mallett, CRS Report for Congress R40973, December 8, 2009 (35-page pdf PDF)

Amtrak–officially, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation–is the nation’s only provider of intercity passenger rail service. Amtrak is structured as a private company, but virtually all its shares are held by the United States Department of Transportation (DOT). Amtrak was created by Congress in 1970 to maintain a minimum level of intercity passenger rail service, while relieving the railroad companies of the financial burden of providing that money-losing service. Although created as a for-profit corporation, Amtrak, like intercity passenger rail operators in other countries, has not been able to make a profit. During the last 35 years, federal assistance to Amtrak has amounted to approximately $30 billion.

Amtrak: Budget and Reauthorization, by John Frittelli and David Randall Peterman, CRS Report for Congress RL33492, February 6, 2009 (12-page pdf PDF)

But the problem with America’s plans for high-speed rail is not their modesty. It is that even this limited ambition risks messing up the successful freight railways. Their owners worry that the plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. “The freight railroads feel they are under attack,” says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virginia.

America’s railways are the mirror image of Europe’s. Europe has an impressive and growing network of high-speed passenger links, many of them international, like the Thalys service between Paris and Brussels or the Eurostar connecting London to the French and Belgian capitals. These are successful–although once the (off-balance-sheet) costs of building the tracks are counted, they need subsidies of billions of dollars a year. But, outside Germany and Switzerland, Europe’s freight rail services are a fragmented, lossmaking mess. Repeated attempts to remove the technical and bureaucratic hurdles at national frontiers have come to nothing.

High-speed railroading: America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it, The Economist, July 22, 2010

Although there’s an almost surprising lack of organized opposition to high-speed rail, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still hurdles to clear. In April, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that mass transit executives in Southern California objected to the state’s plan to run high-speed rail on exclusive new tracks. They claimed that doing so would require condemning hundreds of homes and businesses and add $2 billion to the price tag.

Meanwhile, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the Republican leader of the House Transportation Committee and a supporter of high-speed rail, questioned why so many awards were going to conventional rail projects rather than to raising speeds on Acela trains — the closest thing the United States has to true high-speed rail — between Washington and Boston.

“I’m pissed because they didn’t do the Northeast corridor,” he said. The Northeast received $1.2 billion in stimulus money, of which less than half a billion was for high-speed rail projects. “We’re doing everything we can to push this country into the 1960s of passenger rail service,” said Mica.

U.S. high-speed rail’s ship finally comes in, by John Rosenthal, The Washington Post, April 25, 2010

As California advances with what is easily the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project – and, Californians say, the largest public works project in the United States’ history – El Palo Alto’s uncertain fate is just one hint of the complexities of building 800 miles of new infrastructure in a heavily developed, densely populated state. How does a state pay for such a system? Who operates it? Where do you put the tracks and stations? And how do you minimize disruptions to the environment and to communities that suddenly will have trains speeding through them at up to 220 mph?

With all the enthusiasm for high-speed rail in Washington, D.C., it would be easy to miss that California does not yet have answers to all of these questions. What’s more, answers the state does have are making many people unhappy – nowhere more so than in Palo Alto. The United States may be on the cusp of a high-speed rail renaissance, but if that’s going to happen, California must make all the right moves over the next decade.

The federal stimulus package included billions in grants to states to build high-speed rail – or at least higher – speed rail. In reality, most of the money will fund things like additional tracks, upgraded signaling systems and improved grade crossings. Trains will travel somewhat faster, but they won’t be anything close to high-speed by international standards.

High-Speed Rail: Transit Solution or Fiscal Disaster? by Josh Goodman, Governing Magazine, May 2010

U.S. trains may not be the best at moving people, but they’re great at moving everything else. More than 40 percent of U.S. freight miles are done by rail, compared with less than 15 percent in Europe, according to Christopher Barkan, a professor who heads the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In terms of carbon footprint, that’s a great statistic. The railroad industry likes to brag that it can carry a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of diesel — three times better than a truck can do — but even that is just an average. Some freight lines manage 517 miles.

The problem is that freight track and high-speed track are built with completely different considerations in mind, making it difficult for a country to maintain both a world-class freight network and a first-rate passenger system.

Stimulus funds give high-speed rail a kick in the caboose, by Brian Palmer, The Washington Post, July 20, 2010

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