Where to build high-speed rail

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I don’t harbor much hope that our $13 billion commitment to high speed rail ($8 billion now and $1 billion each of the next five years) will be spent rationally. The Federal Railroad Administration is analyzing applications for more than $50 billion in projects. Because there will be more losers than winners, political log-rolling is almost guaranteed.

But wouldn’t it be nice to put the money to work where it would do the most good? In that regard, Eugene Skoropowski has a great idea. Skoropowski, executive director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority that runs Amtrak service between San Jose and Sacramento, Calif., recent wrote this to friends:

“Forget population, forget density, forget distance. If there is a large travel market between two major endpoints, then rail ought to be looked at seriously. Then the ‘art’ will be determining the technology/speed necessary to capture a substantial portion of that travel market on rail and the most cost-effective level of investment to capture that market (very high speed, higher speed, conventional speed etc.).”

A great suggestion, Gene, and It turns out that the data exists. A “national household travel survey” in 1995 (updated in 2001) lists the most heavily traveled city pairs. Here are the 10 busiest, and my comments:

  1. Los Angeles-San Diego — Already served by more than a dozen Amtrak round trips a day.
  2. Las Vegas-Los Angeles — Planning for a high speed train using private funding is already well along.
  3. New York-Philadelphia-Washington — Amtrak desperately needs new catenary to support 150-mph speeds, plus new high speed tunnels in Baltimore.
  4. Los Angeles-San Francisco — California is already committing $9 billion toward this corridor.
  5. Sacramento-San Francisco — Amtrak’s spectacularly successful Capitol Corridor needs more cars, trains.
  6. Dallas-Houston — Talk about a crying need! This market is totally forgotten by Amtrak.
  7. Portland-Seattle — A budding state-supported Amtrak corridor could use more investment.
  8. Norfolk-Washington — Virginia is missing an opportunity by emphasizing a Raleigh, N.C.-Richmond corridor.
  9. Los Angeles-Phoenix — Another market Amtrak ignores.
  10. Dallas-San Antonio — The Texas Eagle hardly qualifies as high speed rail.
So these are the places people really travel. It seems to me that California (the state we all love to hate) deserves some credit and federal support for putting $9 billion on the table. Amtrak does, too, if it will replace the 70-year-old catenary that holds down speeds between New York and Washington. The Las Vegas-LA people aren’t asking for federal dollars, to my knowledge. LA-San Diego and San Francisco-Sacramento already are served heavily by Amtrak.

That leaves, among the top ten city pairs, five forgotten or underserved rail markets: Dallas-Houston, Portland-Seattle, Norfolk-Washington, Los Angeles-Phoenix and Dallas-San Antonio. Along with LA-San Francisco and New York-Washington, these five city pairs offer the most opportunity for getting the biggest bangs for the taxpayers’ bucks. When the grants are awarded, supposedly early next year, let’s see whether my cynicism was warranted.
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