news commentary
March 6, 2009


High speed, high cost, high-income rail — ordinary rail and bus riders aren't getting what they need
by 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 Washington 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 Acela high-speed train at the
Boston South station
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.

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 videoconference 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.
As the map indicates, the high-speed Acela travels from
Boston to Washington DC

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-speed 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.

The blog 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,'” said spokeswoman Karina Romero.

“Amtrak also doesn't have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches,” she said."

As for the trucking lobby: Philip Longman notes, "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, as a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out: "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 Southwest Chief at Apache Pass in Arizona. The train travels from Los Angeles to Chicago, 2,256 miles, with two stops daily at Union Station in Kansas City.
Then there’s 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.

As for the cost of building high-speed routes, here's what the New York Times had to say: "[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 comes from building exclusive tracks for the high speed trains. Even though Acela 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.

According to Trains for America: "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.

"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."

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, MA, 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.

Philip Longman, in his Washington Monthly 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.

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 un-exotic rail service for ordinary folks. Today you can hardly even get Democrats to talk about such things.

Stan Smith is editor of The Progressive Review. His article is posted here with permission and edited for length. Contact Smith at


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