Vol. 23, No. 25
Last year, in congressional testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on high speed rail, we cited the Chicago-to-St.Louis “high-speed rail” project as an example of the Administration’s wasteful use of its economic stimulus money. We pointed out that the $1.4 billion program of track upgrades will allow top speed of 110 mph but will raise average speeds of Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis by only 10 miles per hour, from 53 to 63 mph. The four-and-a-half hour trip time will be cut by a mere 48 minutes, to three hours and fourty minutes. In France, TGV trains between Paris and Lyon cover approximately the same distance (290 miles) in a little under two hours, at an average speed of 150 mph. Yet, federal officials did not hesitate proclaiming the Chicago-St. Louis project as “historic” and hailing it as “one giant step closer to achieving high-speed rail passenger service.”
Now, a Chicago Tribune story, reproduced below, confirms just how “ridiculously expensive” and “uneconomical” this project is turning out to be. As the editorial points out, the project stands to “drain funding from mundane projects that could make a much bigger difference.” Something that the California High Speed Rail Authority has belatedly recognized in diverting almost half of the initial $10 billion stage of its bullet train project to upgrading “mundane” commuter rail services in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Kenneth Orski, Editor/Publisher
Higher and Higher
You thought high-speed rail already was a boondoggle? Listen to this.
September 28, 2012
High-speed rail service linking Chicago with other Midwest cities always has struck us as a ridiculously expensive dream. Many other transportation projects would provide far greater bang for the buck. But there is something about a bullet train that has proved irresistible on Capitol Hill.
In recent years, under the banner of economic stimulus, the federal government has spent a ton of money getting the tracks ready for those speedy locomotives. In the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, for instance, Uncle Sam has poured at least $1.4 billion into crossing improvements and other upgrades. Between Chicago and Detroit, more than $400 million has been spent.
How would you feel, taxpayer, if we told you that some of the work might need to be torn up and redone?
Angry? You bet.
A debate over just how fast high-speed trains should operate could turn very costly very soon.
The issue comes down to 15 miles per hour.
The rail corridors in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Oregon have been aiming to accommodate trains with a top speed of 110 mph, up from the current average peak of roughly 80 mph. Call it a-little-higher-speed rail.
A technical panel advising the Federal Railroad Administration is leaning toward locomotives with a top speed of 125 mph. For the trains to run at that higher speed, a host of costly infrastructure improvements would be needed, such as overpasses and underpasses at grade crossings where barrier systems are impractical.
So why even consider it?
Proponents of the 125 mph standard believe it is necessary to ensure that the high-speed rail system being designed today doesn’t become obsolete in a relatively short time. These locomotives will last for decades, the theory goes. They need to accelerate swiftly and travel fast so that passengers still will consider them modern and efficient 30 years from now. A few minutes less travel time supposedly could make a big difference.
The 125-ers also contend that faster locomotives would be more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient, although we have seen no persuasive proof of that. And they say that much of the current passenger rail system already can accommodate 125 mph trains. The problem, of course, is the expensive renovations needed for the parts of the system that can’t.
We suspect there is some train envy going on here. In Europe and Asia, trains routinely travel much faster than 110 or 125. The politically powerful supporters of high-speed rail in America are determined to build a world-class system, not some putt-putt version available at a lower price.
Congress is divided. The Senate version of this year’s transportation bill included a provision requiring consideration of the 110 mph locomotives, but the bill’s rail section was dropped in conference committee. A recent story in Bloomberg News quoted Joseph Boardman, chief executive of Amtrak (the train system that would run the Midwest lines), saying that the benefits of 125 mph locomotives are overrated: “Amtrak doesn’t need any more than 110,” he said.
Yes, you can get angry now. Why in the world did the U.S. rush to pour billions of dollars into sort-of-high-speed rail before it was settled on how fast the trains should go?
Can you spell s-t-i-m-u-l-u-s?
We don’t pretend to be experts on the future of railroad technology. Our concern is that high-speed-rail projects will prove uneconomical. They stand to drain funding from mundane projects that could make a much bigger difference. High-speed rail won’t reduce rush-hour traffic on the roads around Chicago. It won’t provide an inch of additional room on a packed CTA train. It won’t make the bus arrive sooner when the snow is falling.
It does make money fall from the sky, though.
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 22nd year of publication.