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Will There Be a “Tipping Point” for High-Speed Rail in the U.S.?

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, October 6th, 2014

Innovation Newsbriefs
Vol. 25, No. 13

The editors of SPEEDLINES, a publication of the American Public Transportation Association Committee on High-Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail, recently held a roundtable entitled  “What will be the ‘tipping point’ for high-speed rail in the U.S.?” 

The publication’s publisher and roundtable organizer and moderator, Al Engel, introduced the panel discussion as follows: 

“When Japan launched its Bullet Train (Shinkansen) service between Tokyo and Osaka in October 1964 it was heralded as the dawn of a new mode of transportation. Shortly afterward, President Johnson in his January 1965 State of the Union address called for a national high speed rail (HSR) program beginning with the Northeast Corridor. But who would have imagined that 50 years later we would see this mode embraced by most industrialized nations with over 14,000 miles in service globally, and the U.S. not among them? France launched its national program in 1981 with the Paris-Lyon route. Germany opened its first line in 1992 with Spain following close behind in 1992. Other European and Asain countries followed. Mainland China opened its first line in 2003 and now has as many route miles in operation as the rest of the world combined. In this HSR 50th Anniversary year it is appropriate to discuss the question and we have a panel of distinguished thought leaders to do so.”

Reproduced below are the prepared remarks of Innovation Briefs’ editor, Ken Orski, who was one of seven panelists. A summary of the full proceedings of the roundtable will be published in the next quarterly issue of SPEEDLINES.  

Count me among the skeptics.

I doubt there will ever be a tipping point for a national program of high-speed rail— if by a “national program” we mean creating a continent-wide network of dedicated intercity passenger rail lines, and by “high speed rail ” we mean  trains running at average speeds of 250 km/hour (roughly 150 mph) or higher –the international standard for high speed rail.

That, indeed, was President Obama’s vision when he pledged in his 2011 State of the Union address to give  “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail” within 25 years. But his vision lacked realism and its implementation left much to be desired. The plan failed to convince Congress or to inspire the public, and today the goal remains as distant as it was when first announced five years ago. As the New York Times succinctly observed, the high-speed rail projects “have gone mostly nowhere.”  ($11 Billion Later, High-Speed Rail Is Inching Along, The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2014)

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood liked to justify a national HSR program by drawing a parallel with the commitment to build the Interstate Highway system. But the analogy is misleading. What made the Interstate highway program politically feasible and financially sound was the concept of a user fee collected from millions of highway users and dedicated exclusively to the program. A national rail program could not hope to have this kind of revenue stream. Instead, it would need to depend on massive federal subsidies for years to come. 

Does anyone really think that Congress would lend bipartisan support to such a venture?  All evidence points to the contrary: Congress has refused to fund high-speed rail three years in a row, most recently by ignoring the Administration’s proposal for a four-year $302 billion transportation bill with $20 billion dedicated to high-speed rail.  Nor are Congressional attitudes likely to change during the next two years. The Obama Administration has lost credibility with the lawmakers of both parties concerning  the high speed rail program and is unlikely to regain it in view of its unfulfilled promises and wasteful handling of the $11 billion program.It will be up to some other future President to convince Congress of the need to place high-speed rail again on the national agenda.       

Aside from the political obstacles, the United States lacks the geography, demographics and cultural tradition that would justify a vast, nationwide system of high-speed rail. It does not have the population concentrations, the closely-spaced cities, the exorbitant gasoline prices and a public accustomed to traveling by train —all of which have made high speed trains popular, economically viable and perhaps even essential in densely populated countries such as France, Germany and Japan.  What is more, the U.S. is endowed with a well-developed network of regional air services which serve as an effective substitute for fast train service and very likely have depressed demand for it.   

The Northeast Corridor is the most likely HSR candidate

Having said this, I do think true high speed rail service  will one day become a reality in the Northeast Corridor. Growing levels of highway and airspace congestion in the Corridor combined with rising population densities and traffic growth will make fast and efficient rail service a necessity. The crowded NE Corridor will eventually need another  travel option  besides driving or flying.

What’s more the NE Corridor possesses all the necessary attributes to make high speed rail service economically viable. Specifically:

  • The Corridor has several (6) city-pairs that are major population centers and travel generators;
  • The market for rail travel in those cities is already well-established, with 200 million annual riders according to Amtrak;
  • Distances between the city-pairs are less than 300 miles— which makes  travel by rail competitive timewise with the car and the plane;
  • All cities in the Corridor have extensive transit systems that can distribute travelers from the rail stations to their ultimate destinations; and
  • The NE Corridor is the only travel corridor in the nation where passenger trains already run on dedicated  track, without having to share it with lumbering freight trains.

But even in the best of circumstances, deploying HSR in the NE Corridor is going to take time. Amtrak, in its Vision Statement,” has proposed a phased implementation program extending over the next 25 years, through 2040. This probably errs on the side of optimism, especially if a segment of the line north of New York City as far as Providence RI is to be placed in a new, more direct alignment, as proposed in Amtrak’s “Next Generation HSR” concept.

As for other places— notably California, Florida and Texas — that are independently pursuing high-speed rail projects within their own borders (the last two totally without federal funding), only time will tell whether they will have the fiscal capacity, political support, entrepreneurial skill and underlying demographics necessary for a successful deployment of true high-speed rail service.

For now, the future of all three projects appears uncertain.  The California bullet train is mired in controversy, with prospects of continued litigation and with polls showing waning public support.  The project is facing a serious technical challenge in meeting a statutory requirement of a two hour-40 minute run between LA and San Francisco, a distance of 520 miles. Questions also remain how the $68 billion project is to be paid for, even assuming an infusion of funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program.   The hoped-for funding from the private sector  has failed to materialize.and future prospects for private capital coming to the rescue appear dim.

The Texas project, a 240-mile dedicated high-speed line between Houston and Dallas, faces no major technical problems, relying as it does on Japan’s bullet train technology, but its ability to attract private investment capital is still untested.  Florida’s proposed high-speed rail line connecting Miami and Orlando finds itself in a similar situation.

In sum, while the prospect for true high-speed services in certain heavily travelled and densely populated corridors appears plausible,  don’t count on riding European-style bullet trains in this country any time soon!  

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 25th year of publication.

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