The High-Speed Rail Debate Revisited

Posted by Ken Orski on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Innovation Newsbriefs
Vol. 25, No. 12

The High-Speed Rail Debate Revisited 

Two recent columns in the New York Times (both reprinted below) have revived the semi-dormant debate about the future of high-speed rail in America. The first column, by New York Times correspondent Ron Nixon, casts a skeptical eye on the Administration’s high-speed rail program and concludes that  “despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009….the projects have gone mostly nowhere…” 

The second column, closely following the first, is an opinion piece by the Times’ editorial board. The editors may have felt obliged to respond to the highly critical assessment of the White House initiative by one of their own reporters. They did so by blaming the Congress. The main reason for the lack of progress, they opined, was that “American lawmakers have not given high speed rail the priority it deserves.”  But, as Nixon’s article makes clear, the Administration’s stumble had little to do with insufficient money. The high-speed rail initiative has failed to achieve its objective, (and has no realistic prospect of doing so in the future,) because of a series of Administration missteps. Not the least of them was to have scattered the dedicated stimulus funds among a large number of studies and  passenger rail upgrades that led at best to modest increases in train speeds— instead of investing the funds in a corridor or corridors where true high-speed rail made sense and had a pretty good chance of success, notably, the densely populated and congested Northeast Corridor.

As for states —notably California, Florida and Texas– that are independently pursuing similar efforts intrastate and 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 launch and operation of true high speed rail service. We wish them well.    

Kenneth Orski


$11 Billion Later, High-Speed Rail Is Inching Along

By Ron Nixon,  Aug.6, 2014

High-speed rail was supposed to be President Obama’s signature transportation project, but despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China.

While Republican opposition and community protests have slowed the projects here, transportation policy experts and members of both parties also place blame for the failures on missteps by the Obama administration — which in July asked Congress for nearly $10 billion more for high-speed initiatives.

Instead of putting the $11 billion directly into those projects, critics say, the administration made the mistake of parceling out the money to upgrade existing Amtrak service, which will allow trains to go no faster than 110 miles per hour. None of the money originally went to service in the Northeast Corridor, the most likely place for high-speed rail. 

On a 30-mile stretch of railroad between Westerly and Cranston, R.I., Amtrak’s 150-m.p.h. Acela hits its top speed— for five or 10 minutes. On the crowded New York to Washington corridor, the Acela averages only 80 m.p.h., and a plan to bring it up to the speed of Japanese bullet-trains, which can top 220 m.p.h., will take $150 billion and 26 years, if it ever happens. 

Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, all led by Republican governors, canceled high-speed rail projects and returned federal funds after deeming the projects too expensive and unnecessary.

“The Obama administration’s management of previously appropriated high-speed rail funding has been as clumsy as its superintending of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout,” said Frank N. Wilner, a former chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board, a bipartisan body with oversight of the nation’s railroads.

When Mr. Obama first presented his vision for high-speed rail nearly four years ago, he described a future of sleek bullet trains hurtling passengers between far-flung American cities at more than 200 m.p.h.

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” Mr. Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address . “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying— without the pat-down.

But as Mr. Obama’s second term nears an end, some experts say the president’s words were a fantasy.

“The idea that we would have a high-speed system that 80 percent of Americans could access in that short period of time was unadulterated hype, and it didn’t take an expert to see through it,” said Kenneth Orski, the editor and publisher of an influential transportation newsletter who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “And scattering money all around the country rather than focusing it on areas ripe for high-speed rail didn’t help. 

The Acela, introduced by Amtrak in 2000, was America’s first successful high-speed train, and most days its cars are full. The train has reduced the time it takes to travel between Washington, New York and Boston, but aging tracks and bridges— including Baltimore’s 100-year-old tunnel where trains come to a crawl — have slowed it down. It takes two hours and 45 minutes to travel from New York to Washington on the Acela. If the Acela were a bullet train traveling on new tracks, it would take 90 minutes.  

Another problem is that Amtrak’s funding is tied to annual appropriations from Congress, leaving it without a long-term source of money. “I do what I can do,” said Joseph Boardman, Amtrak’s president. “But I don’t sit back and wait for $15 billion to rebuild the Northeast Corridor.” For now, Amtrak is rebuilding a stretch of track in central New Jersey that will permit travel at 160 m.p.h. for 23 miles.

But advocates say they are hopeful.

Once something gets built, then we’re going to see more projects get going,” said Ray LaHood, Mr. Obama’s first transportation secretary. Mr. LaHood said it took the Interstate System of highways decades to be completed, and he predicts that high-speed rail will be the same.

Mr. LaHood said California seemed the most likely candidate for success with high-speed rail, even though plans for a 520-mile train route between Los Angeles and San Francisco have been mired in controversy.

Despite strong backing from Gov. Jerry Brown, a court ruling had tied up state bond funding for the $68 billion project. An appeals court on July 31 threw out that ruling, which had been based on a lawsuit. But opponents are still increasing calls to kill the project, and polls show waning public support for it.

Still, California has begun construction of the tracks and put out bids for a vendor to build the trains. And the new rail project will get an infusion of funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which requires business to pay for excess pollution. 

“The Golden Gate Bridge was tied up for years in hundreds of lawsuits,” said Jeff Morales, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority . “We haven’t had quite that many.”

But Representative Jeff Denham, a California Republican and chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on railroads, said the state should not be in the railroad business. “High-speed rail can be a good idea; I just think it should be left up to the private sector,” he said. Proposed projects in Texas and Florida, he added, were better models.

In Florida, a private company, All Aboard Florida , is planning a rail line in the wake of Gov. Rick Scott’s cancellation of a state high-speed rail project in 2011. Trains are to reach speeds of about 125 m.p.h., although they will travel much slower on a proposed route between Miami and West Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale. A final leg to Orlando will begin in 2017, the company said.

The project will be privately financed, but builders have applied for a $1.5 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. Although it must be paid back with interest over 25 years, with collateral deposited in the interim, critics have called it taxpayer funding. Several counties along the route have also passed resolutions opposing the project.

In Texas, another private company, the Texas Central Railway , has proposed building a high-speed rail line with trains that could reach speeds of up to 205 m.p.h., which could cut the trip between Houston and Dallas to 90 minutes. The Texas project will use the bullet trains popularized in Japan and is planned to open in 2021, said Richard Lawless, chairman and chief executive of Texas Central Railway. 

Mr. Lawless said that the 240-mile Dallas to Houston route was ideal for high-speed rail and that it would make travel times between the two cities faster than by car and competitive with airlines. “Given the traffic, the growth occurring and the dynamics of the Texas economy, plus the movement between the two metro areas, the demand for this project is very substantial,” Mr. Lawless said. 

Still, even if the California, Florida and Texas projects all succeed, transportation experts say it is unlikely that the United States will ever have the same kind of high-speed rail systems as China or Europe.

C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said countries with successful high-speed rail projects had higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership. “So it wouldn’t make any sense to have a high-speed rail train in most areas of the United States,” he said. “The geography is different and other factors are just too different.”

But Andy Kunz, executive director of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association , thinks the United States will eventually have a high-speed rail system that connects the country. It’s going to take some years after gas prices rise and highways fill up with traffic,” he said. “It’s going to happen because we won’t have a choice.”

Making the Case for High-Speed Rail

By The New York Times Editorial Board,  Aug. 12, 2014

Most American passenger trains, including Amtrak’s popular Acela service, run at speeds that are far slower than the superfast European and Japanese trains that can zip along at 200 miles per hour or more. The main reason is that, despite modest investments, American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves.

High-speed rail can play an important role in the nation’s transportation system by reducing congestion at airports and on highways. It can also provide a big economic boost while helping to reduce pollution that is causing climate change. That is why President Obama gave it an important place in the 2009 stimulus bill, which helped kick-start projects to upgrade rail lines and build new ones around the country.

Since then, the federal government has spent about $11 billion on high-speed rail, with only a few visible improvements in American passenger rail service, as a recent Times article pointed out. That should not come as a surprise. Bringing high-speed rail service to the United States was always going to take time and money. In 2012, Amtrak estimated that updating rail lines and trains between Boston and Washington to speeds of 220 m.p.h., up from the Acela’s average speed of about 84 m.p.h., would cost $151 billion. Even getting the Acela to travel at 160 m.p.h. for longer stretches will require laying new track, building new tunnels and replacing signals.

Amtrak is already doing some of that, but more federal support is needed. California’s plan to link Los Angeles to San Francisco by high-speed rail is expected to cost $68 billion. Critics argue that such services cannot survive without public subsidies and that the United States has few of the dense urban areas that have made such train services successful in places like France and Japan. But these arguments fail to acknowledge that most forms of public transportation are subsidized somehow by the government; the federal government puts up most of the money to build the interstate highway system. Skeptics also greatly underestimate the country’s long-term transportation needs. The Census Bureau estimates that the American population will cross 400 million in 2051, and the country is becoming more urban , not less. California’s population is predicted to top 50 million in 2049. That growth will put an incredible strain on the nation’s highways and air-traffic system.

High-speed rail can help ease some of that pressure but only if Congress starts investing in it now. The Obama administration has proposed dedicating $19 billion for rail programs for the next four years as part of its Grow America transportation proposal, but Congress has shown little interest in such smart investments. In fact, since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, Congress has appropriated no money for high-speed rail.

In some states, the promise of high-speed rail remains alive and well. California recently started building the first phase of an ambitious project in the Central Valley, and it won an important legal victory that should help clear the way for an $8.6 billion bond issue. It has also dedicated a quarter of the revenue from its cap-and-trade program, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to the undertaking. Meanwhile, in Florida and Texas , private businesses are planning to build and operate lines between Orlando and Miami and Dallas and Houston. These efforts should be an inspiration to Congress.

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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One Response to “The High-Speed Rail Debate Revisited”

  1. Robert Benson says:

    California is using Federal funds. In fact, the Calif. High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is planning on getting nearly 60% of its funding from Federal sources. (2012 CSHRA Business Plan). Prop. 1A funds as well as private capital to aid in the system construction will also be used. However, an important source of funds in the years ahead will be 25% of the environmental cap-and-trade funds. Once the system begins operation in 2022 then operational profits will contribute to system growth (although the full Bay to Basin trip capability using the HSR cars won't come online until 2029). While most passenger rail systems need subsidies to operate, HSR systems turn a profit. Thereafter, expansion of the system in Phase 2 will extend it north to Sacramento and south to San Diego. There’s no timeframe for those extensions as yet, however.

    The Florida effort is already seeking Federal support of its private venture, and the Texas private effort is still trying to get its money together, so it is entirely likely that Federal support might be solicited, too. HSR systems are expensive, even in fairly simple scenarios like the Texas venture. The Florida venture barely qualifies as HSR, since its speeds are so low, and it is planned to use existing track.

    The California venture is truly ambitious in linking the major economic areas of the state together. It is about 800 miles long versus 230 for the Texas effort, goes over much more varied terrain, and also goes through major metropolitan areas. There is no reason why it cannot succeed technologically since it is based on existing technology, and in doing so it will be transformative of transportation in the state for decades to come.

    The Texas and Florida ventures, in contrast, are modest steps that will have some beneficial effect, but will not have nearly as much impact on their states.

    One other thing of note in the California plan is that it is part of a state-wide passenger train system upgrade. That is, the HSR Authority will upgrade existing passenger traffic at the same time that the new construction occurs, and then tie into it when it comes online. Thus, the HSR track in the Central Valley will be used by existing passenger trains going to Sacramento, significantly reducing their travel times, until such time as the HSR trains begin operating. Likewise, the “Bookend” investments in the SF and LA metropolitan areas will benefit local passenger traffic in preparation for the arrival of the HSR trains. This practical approach will benefit passengers throughout the state for years before the full HSR system is operational.

    The controversy surrounding the California HSR plan is typical of major, forward-looking developments. The Golden Gate Bridge suffered through much of the same types of debates, doubts, and years of lawsuits before it could be built. No one today would say that it wasn't worth the effort, but back then many said it wasn't. HSR has proven itself across the world, and it will prove itself in California as well.

    It should also be noted that most HSR systems proposed in the US do not have the advantage of being within a single state. This greatly compounds the difficulties in constructing and operating the HSR system. (In fact, that is one reason why all three current efforts are entirely within their own states). However, it is quite probable that in 25-30 years there will be a major push in the US to build HSR systems — overcoming the political and financial barriers — based in part on the success of the California HSR system, and the clear need for a HSR network in the US. (I think it’s also likely that perhaps the first multi-state true HSR system will link Las Vegas with the California HSR in Palmdale, perhaps within 20 years.)

    Since Federal funding is being used in California, the train sets will need to be constructed here, which will for the first time give the US a manufacturing capability to construct HSR products. This could be a vital benefit for US industry and its competitiveness in this area in the future.

    Clearly, the California HSR system will be a case once again of California leading the nation.

    — Robert Benson

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