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HSR = DOA

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, February 15, 2013

"Do not be dissuaded by a few detractors," Ray LaHood, the soon-to-be former secretary of transportation, told the U.S. High Speed Rail Association this week. LaHood spoke after learning that Florida Republican congressman John Mica will again try to privitize the Northeast Corridor. But the fact is, high-speed rail is dead in the water in the U.S., aside from Amtrak's NEC and the California bullet train. And the people I blame the most are not the John Micas of this world but the so-called friends of high-speed rail, namely Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Ray LaHood. They have it within their power to at least try to break the political inertia and choose not to.

Did you listen to the president's State of the Union address? I did, anxious to hear him at least give lip service to the notion of a second round of federal HSR funding, following the $10.5 billion in grants awarded to states in 2010. Here is the totality of his reference to high-speed rail: "Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet, high-tech schools and self-healing power grids."

In 2009, with Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, it was easy to plant the seeds for at least higher-speed passenger rail. That's when we saw that first $10.5 billion passed out, as part of the stimulous package aimed at ending the Great Recession. In 2011, with the economy recovering and Republicans back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, getting more HSR funds appropriated was no longer easy. It would require some work and commitment on the part of the Obama administration. And what did Obama and his people do? Essentially nothing, other than occasional lip service. And now even lip service seems to be lacking.

If the president really wants to work toward a high (or higher) speed rail network, he'll have to invest a little time and political capital. I may support the idea, but the public does not yet do so, at least in numbers large enough to move some Republicans to reconsider their opposition. I'd like to see Obama ride the Acela to New York, Biden a 110-mph Chicago-Detroit train, and the successor to LaHood the Capitol Limited overnight. While Obama is in California raising money in Hollywood, he might make a speech about the benefits that state already reaps from its investment in passenger rail and endorse the bullet train.

But the president and his people have done none of these things, and I assume they never will. Hence, the corridor between Chicago and St. Louis will languish, half-completed, Amtrak will finance improvement in the Northeast Corridor through ad hoc appropriations secured by friendly legislators, and whatever gets accomplished will be through state governments.

Ceding leadership on development of a passenger rail network to the states is not an entirely bad idea, incidently. LaHood's Federal Rail Administration made a hash out of passing out the first $10.5 billion. FRA tried (with some success) to make host railroads agree to repay the grants if specified improvements in frequencies, speeds, and on-time performance are not maintained. It took literally years for a couple of the freight railroads to get on board and make those commitments, and I doubt that any Class I railroad is willing to do so again.

But look what happens when states deal with railroads in good faith to expand passenger rail. It took six months for Virginia and Norfolk Southern to start a new service between Washington, D.C., and Lynchburg. A more ambitious plan, to run three round trips between DC and Norfolk, began after 24 months and $114 million in state money for infrastructure additions to the NS line (adding the other two round trips will require the blessing of CSX, the other host railroad for this route). Compare those times to the federally funded route additions permitted by that $10.5 billion stimulous appropriation, all taking years longer to implement. Examples: 84 months and $127 million per train slot to add two round trips between Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; also 84 months and $181 million per slot to add two round trips between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and 60 months and $62 million per train slot to add two round trips between Chicago and the Quad Cities.

What I'm trying to say is that even if President Obama succeeds in prying another $10.5 billion out of Congress for high-speed rail, I doubt that CSX, NS, or Union Pacific would be interested in going through the FRA negotiating meatgrinder again and accept being the guarantor of specific results. Frankly, there's very little in it for the railroads, because the government wants to reserve for itself the capacity it adds. So here we are, at stalemate. - Fred W. Frailey

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