We're not ready for high-speed rail

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 8, 2012

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

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