Fred Frailey Blog

We're not ready for high-speed rail

  • Comments 39

My friend, the historian Carlos Schwantes, has written a slew of rail-related books, including The West The Railroads Made and Just One Restless Traveler: Reflections on Trains & Travel. I’m prepared to accept his word on just about anything and was taken aback by his views on high-speed rail in the United States. He spoke last week at the annual meeting of the Lexington Group, in Peoria, Ill.

Schwantes, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, maintains that outside of the Northeast Corridor and some parts of California, the foundations to help insure success for HSR are just not in place. His critique begins with the fact that we don’t have complementary transportation infrastructure that exists in Japan and most of Europe. Germany, for instance, operates local and regional trains and city trams in conjunction with its high-speed rail network; from near your home or an airport (such as Frankfort), you can get almost anywhere else in Germany by rail. The same structure of rail transportation exists in Japan. Concludes Schwantes: “It is unimaginable to have stand-alone high-speed rail.”

Secondly, the U.S. is not train-conscious, although that is slowly changing. Schwantes: “Japan has no school buses. Even first graders go to school by train and subway. Half of those in my classes at UMSL have never even ridden a train. Railway engineers in Japan are still heroes. My kids at school don’t think about trains unless they’re stopped by one on the way to class.”

He faults the Chicago-St. Louis 110-mph passenger train project for having no direct connections in Chicago with O’Hare or Midway airports or in St. Louis with Lambert Field. Airports, says Schwantes, are ideal feeders into high-speed rail networks. “In Frankfort,” he says, “you are minutes away in the arrival hall from HSR at the airport.”

This leads into his critique of California’s HSR. “I hope California works, but I am skeptical. Phase 1 is $68 billion. Where do those billions come from? California is deeply in debt. So is the federal government. And there is no connection to LAX.”

This gets Schwantes into an interesting reflection. The Vietnam War, he says, cost $111 billion, the Gulf War $61 billion, and the Iraq War $715 billion. “We’ve spent a trillion dollars to police the world since 9-11. If we had not policed the world and spent the money instead on high-speed rail, how much of the network could we have built already?” To put it another way, I thought to myself, just a bit of our defense spending would have paid for a fine passenger rail network. Of course, you could say the same about the magnitude of our spending on highways.

Schwantes concludes that the U.S. needs to build out its conventional passenger-rail before it launches new high-speed rail projects. The former, he says, will feed into the latter. “If people have to go from O’Hare to downtown Chicago to board a train, it diminishes the appeal. If we want to high-speed rail to be done right, we can profit from the experience of other nations. They have good ideas we can lift right off the shelf. We should look for the best of those ideas.”

I couldn’t help but contrast his message with the manner in which President Obama, with all his good and earnest intentions, launched his HSR initiative. Educate the American people on the benefits of fast and frequent trains? No. Risk any of his political goodwill with the electorate by defending his initiative with more than passing phrases in speeches? No. Ride a train himself once in a while? No. Come up with a plan to enhance the present Amtrak network as a feeder into HSR? Not really. The HSR program became an organizational mess and, unfortunately, as a result got politically savaged.

Sure, blame my fellow conservative Republicans for their shortsightedness; I do. But also accept that the HSR program was just thrown out by the White House with the assumption that voters would love and cherish it, when it fact they didn’t even understand it. Carlos Schwantes is right. We’re not ready for HSR beyond what we already have. As farmers in his home state would say, before we plant, we have to prepare the field well. — Fred W. Frailey

  • Love it when we agree!

  • Fred, your comments in your penultimate paragraph regarding Obama tells me that  political reasons nothing much is going to change toward  establishing a functional passenger transport system nationally or regionally. The United States has destroyed so much of its once great railway public transport system that it seems unlikely that it is ever going to be able to rebuild it.

  • I was immediately struck by a few thoughts after reading this:

    Regarding HSR connections with airports: We are very accustomed to trains bringing us right into the heart of a metro area; planes drop us off on the outskirts and then we have to travel into town via some other form of transport (cab, subway, bus, commuter train, rental car). Very few major airports exist within a "downtown" area. While high-speed lines can go past an airport, often the airport is close enough to the center of the town that a high-speed train would have a very difficult time attaining "high" speed between the airport and the city center. In cases such as that, does there really need to be a HSR connection to an airport?

    In retrospect, here in Wisconsin, the undoing of the high speed line from Milwaukee to Madison may have been the right move. In the wake over the high-speed rail euphoria brought by the Obama administration's plan, people failed to grasp the idea that with no train-riding culture between those cities (and only a modest culture between Milwaukee and Chicago), the investment required build the high-speed line would never have been recovered in a thousand years.

    People railed against then-Gov. Doyle's original plan to route the line northeast of downtown Madison and to place the station near Madison's airport, with the ultimate goal that the line would later be continued along the existing alignment north to Portage, and from there on to the Twin Cities. The critics felt that not having the station in downtown Madison (having lived there, I can tell you even the remaining Milwaukee Road depot is several blocks from "downtown") or, perhaps more importantly to them, nearer the University of Wisconsin campus was a travesty; eventually the Doyle administration relented and altered the plan accordingly. Of course, if and when the line was extended, reaching the Madison station would have required a lengthy backup move either into or out of the station. It would seem, based on Schwantes's argument outlined by Mr. Frailey, that in addition to being more efficient for that future extension, the original station location was actually rather prescient in terms of unifying the transportation infrastructure.

    Could the argument be made that some passenger service to Madison was a good long-term investment? I believe so. However, to plunge in and make it a high-speed line seemed a bit ridiculous.

    The reality is, whatever we do with HSR, we have to do it within our existing infrastructure in and around cities. We are stuck with our cities as they have evolved over many, many years, whether efficient or not. We don't get to start over just so we can lay out our cities to achieve a maximum of transportation efficiency. We can't undo the divestiture of passenger infrastructure carried out over the last half-century by the freight railroads; nor does it really do any good to pine about how it used to be, because the nostalgia is lost on anyone who is under a certain age and/or who has had little or no contact with railroads beyond having to wait for a slow-moving freight at a grade crossing.

    I know I'm not the first to make this statement, but if we are going to have thriving passenger rail system, it has to start locally. Many communities and regions have discovered this in the last 10-20 years, California is a prime examples. In a Trains article published within the last few years focusing on Amtrak's service in the Pacific Northwest, the author (not sure who that was, can't find the copy) made what was, in my opinion, a very logical case for establishing regular, reliable service; building a train-riding culture; then worrying about aspects such as developing faster, and ultimately, high-speed service. Had the Obama administration approached the issue in a similar fashion, some of the proposed routes might have gained enough traction to actually get off the ground. Of course, that doesn't make for very exciting political theater, now does it?

  • Far better to spend scarce [unfortunately] funds on "last-mile" issues.  California is prepared to spend a fortune on HSR, while local transit systems reduce service and increase fares.

    The state-supported train services [Capitol Corridor; San Joaquin; Pacific Surfliner] are great examples of  getting lots of bang for the buck.  HighER-Speed-Rail is better.  Need to walk before we run. Schwantes is correct, I think.

  • I agree.  But New York and Chicago do have decent public transportation systems, not up to say Frankfurt or Paris or Cologne in convenience and coverage, but pretty close.   Upgrad of Amtrak's Lake Shore route, the entire route, to the standards that are in progress along the Empire Service, NY - Buffalo, and ugrading Metro North's segment between Poughkeepsie and Spuyten Dyvel Juntion (a lot easier done than the New Haven MN-CDot division!) could provide a ten hour running time NYC-Penn - Chicago, with stops in all major cities.   It would be really a series of short-distance corridors strung end-to-end, taking people out of autos between Buffalo and Erie and Cleveland, Cleveland (inlcuding Clevland Airport!) and Toledo (connection to Detroit  by bus until traffic increases) Elkhart, Sound Bend (transfer station to South Shore both for intermediate stations, Miichigan City, Gary, Hammond, to Chicago and to the South Bend Airport), etc.   125mph top speed with 90mph average should do it.   Most of the cities along the way, like Rochester and Buffalo, have invested in improvements in local transit, even if mostly or entirely bus.   After such a system is running, with coach and business class, and meals similar to first clss air servied at seat or in a cafe car that serves snacks and drinks as well, then the great experiment of also offering overnight sleeper service can be attempted, borrowing from the history of interurban line sleepers, with one leaving each end point on the last or nest-to-last train of the day(9pm), which probably only runs to Buffalo from New York and to Cleveland from Chicago, is set off, and then picked up by the first of the moring trains to depart from those poinsts at 6AM.   With a six-hour layover, the sleepers' running times would match the old Century.

    The same thinking could apply Wshington - Florida and Wahington - New Orleans.

    The incremental approach.

  • This makes total sense to me.  It explains why the recent NEC extensions seem to work well, for one.

    A couple of thoughts on application.  Perhaps, the emphasis should be on local and regional transit first.  Perhaps a city like Atlanta or Nashville needs to have a robust, integrated, all hours, rail, bus and transit network before they think about getting rail connected to the rest of the southeast.

    There has been some modest attempts to connect existing rail service to air service.  There is the Liberty stop on the NEC for example.  But, there is some low hanging fruit.  SEPTA has a direct route from the Phila airport to Center City, but not since Amtrak's short-lived code share with Midwest to Atlantic City was there anything other than shuttle service to the city.  It would be fairly easy and cheap to have the Amtrak Phila-Harrisburg and NJT AC trains start there instead of 30th St. (or, at the least, have some through ticketing)

  • First, there is considerably more to decisions of where to locate rail or HSR routes than one's ability to look at a map.  It is not just lines on a map, but any number of legitimate economic factors that must be considered.  You know, things like population density, service frequency, etc.  What we seem to have here is a lot of map-gazing but very little serious route or market analysis.

    As for stringing any number of end-points together to create a "system," there once was an executive at the predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration (UMTA) who admonished the administrator one day that "you can destroy any system if you put enough stops and transfer points into it.

    I'm puzzled.  Why do we use the word "investment," when discussing HSR or other public transportation projects?  Considering that none of these proposed projects will ever provide a return to taxpayers, there is no "investment" to be considered.  It's an expense, and we need to come to grips with that.  As long as these projects are carried out by units of government they always will be expenses.

    Mr. Schwantes is even more accurate than he may realize.  In detailing our expenditures for several of the wars this nation has fought (what, not calling them investments?), let's get real and face the fract that the Iraq War was the first war this country has fought in which we made no effort to pay the cost of the war.  In WWII there was a thing called "excess profits tax."  Corporations paid as high a rate as 90%.  President GWB stupidly decided not to make any effort to pay for his war, and note that I'm not even beginning to discuss whether it was a worthwhile war or not.  Wars cost money.  Lots of money.  They are not investments.  They are monstrous expenditures.

  • Wait a minute, Fred.  Have you forgotten Barak Obama  took a train from Chicago to Washington DC for his inauguration and followed Abe Lincoln's route as well as he could.  He gave speeches along the way.  No doubt the duties of being President don't allow him much train riding today but it does not follow that he doesn't want to.  But do not for a moment doubt either his commitment to or his love of trains.  

    I agree with you and Professor Schwantes that we can and should do more with the technology we have.  We could run our present trains much faster if we could just cut through the bureaucracy.  I will leave to you the daunting task of pointing out to your fellow Republicans that if we can afford $715 Billion for the Iraq war we can afford enough money to have an efficient passenger rail system.  

    And as for High Speed Rail, it is true that President Obama's reach exceeded his grasp.   After the mid term elections it was dead in the water.  But the President has given us the vision of what our rail system can be and should be.  That is important.  

  • Fred,

    Great coverage and the comments make sense.  When Chicago Metra has asked for feedback and comments over the past five years about the Star Line and other route options/upgrades my feedback is get commuter service into O'Hare to connect downtown and the suburbs to the airport anyway you can.  Midway would be a great connection too.

    As for High Speed Rail getting into large city centers it would take some concentrated effort from the Federal Government and the Freight/Commuter/Transit world to designate an existing line as the connector from the suburbs into the city center and build out capacity on the other lines to accommodate the offset to get HSR downtown.  This is the only way it would work in Chicago, LA, San Fran and other cities to get the intermodal affect you get in Europe.  It would mean someone with vision, leadership, and support from government and a proven market to make this work.  Chicago to St Louis is not going to prove this, not enough people to drive volume in the market required to run enough trains to prove we can get a line up to 110-125 mph.

  • As I write this from the 0500 N/B Acela Express I know I'm not doing high speed. As I return from this year's Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference in Washington I know that "High-Speed Rail" dreams are being replaced by "High-Performance Rail" pragmatisim. Dr. Schwantes is correct; we are no where near ready for High-Speed Rail. This is a point we have made repeatedly at "This Week at Amtrak." A quick study of true HSR around the world shows a history of a gradual build-up and build-out of conventional rail. When the time came to expand beyond the capacity constraints of convention is when the next step of higher speeds was reached.

    One must learn to walk before one can run and one must learn to crawl before one can walk. We have been crawling, sometimes barely, since the end of the "golden age" in the 1950's. The idea of building a high-speed rail line where no practical conventional line currently exists (Tampa - Orlando & San Fransisco - Los Angeles come to mind) is infantile and immature at best. HSR is concept that will not come to reality in years or decades but rather generations. As such it is not well suited to the political cycles. Only when passenger rail is separated from political hypepole will something of any substance be started. Remember, political footballs seldom cross a goal line.


    Co-Editor, This Week at Amtrak

  • Dallas has a down town airport, Love Field, which Southwest airlines operates many daily flights from.  DART built a light rail line on a former railroad line on the west side of the airport.  Unfortunately the terminals were on the east side of the airport.  DART applied to the feds for funding and approval to tunnel under the runways and build a terminal in the airport.  The feds in their infinite wisdom (?) denied the request.  Now DART has a station on the west side and runs a shuttle bus to the terminal.  An unnecessary mode change which drives passengers to the taxi stand.  If we want effective airport transportation we need to get the feds in line with rail airport access.

  • In re:  ccltrains (10-12-12) concerning DART

    I live in Dallas and made the Love Field Connection you describe just last week.  It worked perfectly for a retired guy like me with plenty of time (two hours for an 8 mile trip) and almost no luggage.  Besides, my DART reduced fare pass for seniors only cost $2!  What a deal!  (Way cool:  DART covers all of 15% of it operating expenses from the fare box.  I would have gladly paid $10. The concept of ROI in the transit business is unknown.)

    So praise be to the fed guys who turned down the absurd idea of tunneling to get closer to the Love Field gates.  The Dallas market is so totally autmobile oriented (wisely so) that the idea of the typical air-traveling Dallas resident using DART is a fantasy.  Love Field is 5 miles and 15 minutes by car from one of the most lucrative airline passenger neighborhood markets in the U.S.  That's why the old "Wright Amendment" restraints on service from Love will end in 2014.  The rest of Dallas and the east end of the Metroplex is a mere hop-skip-and-jump from Love by car.

    And as for business travelers visiting Dallas ... imagine trying to use DART (even with a "close" gate-to- DART walk) to get to the Anatole (15 minutes by taxi on a bad traffic day).  Or getting to the Adolphus vis the Orange Line to Union Station then by DART bus down Commerce Street.  Laughable.

    Hopefully, the Amtrak/transit subsidy train is about to be dispatched to the museum of failed economic policies.

  • All you who "hate" subsidies (listen up, 466lex).  Here is a perfect example of how the system works and airlines are highly subsidized.  Just why do you think the infamous Wright Amendment was passed all those years ago.  This is the law that allows only Southwest Airlines to continue to use close-in Love Field, while all other commercial airlines are required to use Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW).  Love Field was SWA's principal hub and SWA had "friends in high places."  The idea was that by forcing everyone into DFW, DFW effectively would be subsidized by landing fees and other revenue that would not have materialized for years (2014?), but the subsidy would not be obvious or noticed by most travelers.  The transit infrastructure at Dallas may be crazy or even insane.  And 466lex probably is correct that tunneling under Love Field runways would be a ridiculous waste of money.  Perhaps when the whole house of cards was being planned a better system design might have been economically more defensible.  Once again, though, we have the air mode being subsidized by forcing people to use an airport for which there was little demand when it was built, and those who hate subsidies can inveigh against DART.  I guess that means everyone gets to be happy.

  • In re:  Rail Pundit ("listen up, 466lex") 10-13-12

    My ears are ringing!  LOL!  

    Your response is, I believe, a non sequitur.  My opposition to subsidies is in no way contingent upon the political vagaries associated with regulation. The CAB (remember that compatriot of the ICC?) was the source of machinations leading to the construction of DFW and ultimately the Wright Amendment.  See a history here:  "Subsidies be banned!" is my mantra.

    Scrappy Soutwest Airlines necessarily played the regulatory and legal games masterfully in order to survive at Love Field.  And, no, Southwest was not granted exclusive use of Love Field.  United (nee, Continental) and Delta also provide service, and American did until fairly recently, and apparently intends to return in 2014 upon expiration of the Wright Amendment.  (Note that capacity at Love will be limited to 20 gates, total, at that time.)

    A related note:  Love Field is owned by the City of Dallas, and on the Love Field website one reads:  "Love Field is self-supported through reasonable user fees and charges, with no cost to the taxpayer."  I can't vouch for the accuracy of that statement, but I believe it is true.  Now, if only Dallas could improve the performance of DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) to even remotely compare with Love Field economics:  a mere 15% of DART operating expenses are covered by fare box receipts.  FY 2010 subsidy was $2.98 per passenger (primarily from a 1% sales tax).  Shades of Amtrak!

  • 466lex:  "Subsidies be banned," may be your mantra, but as you have not had anything to say about subsidies to truckers, inland waterway operators, farmers who grow numerous subsidized crops, and save your venom for transit, you'll have to pardon me for taking your protestations with a rather large lump of salt. If you can, tell us how you determine that some subsidies apparently are quite acceptable and others are not.  Love Field very well may be operating profitably, but just as I reject the arguments of many rail operators that high speed rail is profitable, I reject Dallas' claims.  Does the city of Dallas account for the sunk capital?  the current value of the land?  It probably has an operating profit, but I am skeptical that it is profitable.

We're not ready for high-speed rail