Fred Frailey Blog

For high speed rail, manna from heaven?

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It appears that what President Dwight Eisenhower did for highways more than half a century ago, launching an interstate, limited-access network, President Barack Obama is trying to do for the passenger train. The White House yesterday proposed a six-year, $53 billion plan for extending the embryonic network of high- and higher-speed trains. For details, go here. This follows $10.5 billion already committed in 2010.
Like many of you, I applaud the spirit of what the president proposes. But do I have confidence much will come of it? No, although I wouldn’t mind at all being proved wrong. Here are my five concerns.
First, where’s the money? The newspaper Politico reported this week that Democrats are joining Republicans in the budget-cutting fiesta. Amtrak’s entire appropriation is at risk. Do I think Amtrak will be cut back to the Northeast Corridor or junked altogether this year? No, but I have to wonder whether Obama’s request to Congress for the first $8 billion of this $53 billion will go anywhere given political realities.
Second, where’s the vision? You can’t just announce something like this and expect the nation to march behind you. Somebody has to sell this idea. Nobody did last year when the first $10.5 billion was passed around, and look what happened. It became the punching bag of Republican office seekers, who profited from apparent public indifference to higher-speed passenger rail. So some serious beating of the tom-toms is needed to drum up support, or this will sink like a stone, becoming a one-day news story with no follow-through.
Third, where’s the expertise? When the high speed grants were first made a year ago, it fell to the Federal Railroad Administration to run the program. In FRA’s defense, it had no experience in this field and few if any people. A hiring frenzy ensued, and the learning curve began. I would give FRA a grade of “D” so far in getting the funded projects going. Only 40 percent of that initial $10.5 billion awarded last year has been let loose, as FRA, the states, and the Class I railroads haggle over service outcomes stretching 20 years into the future. It’s so bad that Amtrak is now doing much of the negotiating for FRA people, creating a sort of conflict of interest, inasmuch as Amtrak is a player in these grants. If the Federal Railroad Administration remains on the same trajectory of competence it now occupies, well, very little will get done.
Fourth, where are the partners? I’m coming around to the point of view of John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Mica champions public-private partnerships, in which corporations put up money and manpower to bring these complex projects to life. Florida is about to go down this path with its high speed line connecting Orlando to Tampa, by asking for proposals, unless its new governor pulls the plug on the whole enterprise. True high speed rail is too big to be brought about without involvement of the private sector.
Fifth, where are the details? Last year’s 104 grants covered every geographic nook and cranny. But the vast majority of the grants involve only consultants, to study this idea and that. Only a relative handful involved real construction, and to my knowledge, as of today, there are exactly three jobs underway, in Illinois, Maine, and Vermont. This time — this year — will significant money go to the Northeast Corridor as it did not last year? If and when the details come forth, the president’s initiative will begin to flesh out, and maybe answers to my other questions will begin to suggest themselves.
So yes, I’m supportive but skeptical. The first year of our new era of high speed rail was something of a bust. The players in this game must get a lot better. That, or we’re in for a big disappointment. — Fred W. Frailey

P.S.: Thanks to Alex Mayes for these photos, taken last year in Cheverly, Md. (top) and Bowie, Md. (bottom)

  • One question that has not been raised is since the US economy is be-

    coming more knowledge based, more of these jobs can be done by tele-

    commuting. The internet and virtual reality are ushering changes in how we work that commuting and travel will be forever altered. How

    this will impact passenger rail remains to be seen.

  • Business isn't the only reason people travel, Mr. McIntosh.  Sure in some places, such as the NE corridor, it may be the majority, but for others it may be for leisure or to visit family and friends.  I don't think that this change will impact passenger rail or travel at all outside the northeast corridor.

    I really don't see why the FRA should be in charge of determining who gets the money.  You might as well put it in the hands of the FAA or the AAA.  For all they care, the FRA is interested in moderating the freight railroads and how they interact with Amtrak, not creating a whole new system.  Why aren't people being brought in from Europe to do the planning?  That's where you get your expertise.

  • I've always thought the PPPs should take the form of: "How much do I have to pay you to design, build, operate, maintain and market a passenger rail service between A and B, with performance X, for N years?"  Winner is the one with the lowest bid.  Winner gets to keep revenue as part of the deal.  Winner would have motive to minimize construction time and costs, maximize productivity and provide good service, none of which exist to a great extent in the public works world today.

  • Fred, to what extent do you believe the Road Builder's assocition will try to sabotage this? I have been told that they are behind most of the opposition because they want all paasenger-miles on the roads.


  • #6 What are commuting alternatives? I think another reason passenger rail lost traction in the past 18 months or so are gas prices.  Prices peaked about 24-30 months ago, have steadily declined, and are now inching up again.  Rail becomes much much more appealing when a tank of gas costs upwards of $100.

  • are you kidding.  it aint gonna happen in our lifetime. no matter how much money they throw at the project, unless global experts from europe and asia come on board, nothing will get done

  • Excellent post Fred.  You nailed it this time.

    I just read Biden's speech from his website and I'm disappointed.  This announcement makes this administration appear completely inept!  A $53 billion plan with no information at all as to where this money might be spent?  It would be a simple matter to say, "We propose spending $1 billion in 2012 improving the overhead power distribution system on the Northeast Corridor so that the Acelas can reach speeds of 150 mph between New York and Washington" or "We're going to fund a new tunnel through Baltimore that will increase capacity and cut travel times by 10 minutes."  Or how about, "We're partnering with Michigan to fund purchasing a substantial segment of the Chicago-Detroit line from Norfolk Southern.  This will facilitate infrastructure improvements to the ROW to permit higher speeds and more reliable Amtrak Wolverine service."

    That would've been smart.

    The "vision" (such as it is) instead seems to be simply one of "let's spend a lot of money!  We don't know where but we'll figure it out.  Trust us."  And that's not going to sell well on Capitol Hill or with the public.

  • Remember "the vision thing" spoken by Bush,Sr.? Seems like it is a bi-partisan failure possibly coming from something in the WDC air. Why on earth hasn't Amtrak, FRA, DOT and/or liaison in the White House been constructing implementation details in consultation with the concerned parties such as the railroads, state DOTs, passenger groups, etc? Just another mystery of life within the Beltway. Move Amtrak, or a successor entity, to Chicago's Union Station/Post Office Building so senior management gets a feel for being in the US where they brush against real working people as they commute to their homes on real trains.

  • High Speed rail, at least in California, is a disaster in the making. Serious problems with the California High Speed rail project have been identified by numerous observers as indicated below:

    In April 2010, the State Auditor released a report stating the High Speed Rail Authority risked delay or an incomplete system due to "inadequate planning, weak oversight, and lax contract management."

    In January 2010, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office told legislators the Authority's business plan lacked sufficient details, inadequately addressed funding and market risks and that it's timeline was "uninformative." It also said it's funding plan appeared to violate the law:

    State Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, a supporter of High Speed Rail "Done Right," expresses his continued frustration with Authority's lack of responsiveness in addressing issues raised by the State Auditor, the Legislative Analyst's Office and other non-partisan organizations here:

    The UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies report says the data used by bullet-train planners is so "unreliable" that it is impossible to predict whether the project will be successful or lead to "severe revenue shortfalls." To view the study, click here:

    Unless CHSRA promptly addresses these issues, the agency will not have any credibility going forward.

  •  The NEC must be kept and improved PERIOD!

  • Kudos to Fred (from me also) for this one - this quote sums it up best: "a one-day news story with no follow-through."  Otherwise - "what niagara484 said".  

    - Paul North.

  • High speed rail in Vermont? The northern half of the route is dark territory. To the best of my knowledge the funds advanced for the project only cover track work, not signals. 59 mph is the max. The southern half between Brattleboro and White River Jct.will qualify as a thrill ride at the proposed 79 mph around every twist and turn of the Connecticut River. The deal here is the New England Central gets its track rebuilt at taxpayers expense in the name of slightly improving one of Amtrak's emptiest trains.

  • This reminds me of "Lets pass this bill so we can find out what is in it!"  It is definately, the cart before the train.  That is why we can't even get the railfan community behind it.

    The public has spoken: First get the financial house in order before spending more money.  Once we have a surplus, we can start new spending if the private sector does not recognize a need and fill it.

    Logic tells me, we first need a National Transportatioin Policy, followed by a logical plan recognizing cost/benefits and finally prioritizing expenditures.  

    This is a spend the money first nonplan!

  • Great article Fred!  

    I've always believed HSR would best be served in popular short haul commuter air travel lanes.  That in my opinion is what HSR is designed to replace.  The Fed Gov't has the data so it shouldn't be that hard to determine where to start a truly dedicated High Speed Rail route.  Cities with very large/busy airports would seem to be a natural starting point.  Atlanta comes to mind as one that would probably like to have less of the smaller commuter jets taking up much needed space for the larger more profitable jets.  HSR lines extending out from these major metropolitan areas to smaller nearby metro areas with smaller airports would seem perfect in this case. Just like the TGVs run out of Paris.

    Examples:  Atlanta - Charlotte, Atlanta - Birmingham, Atlanta - Chattanooga, Atlanta - Jacksonville and even Atlanta - Orlando


For high speed rail, manna from heaven?