Archive for Friday, March 27, 2009

Billions in stimulus for high-speed rail; anyone aboard?

March 27, 2009


To Americans, high-speed trains evoke the gee-whiz factor of a trip to Tomorrowland: Ride futuristic cars that zoom you to a destination in a fraction of the drive time — without having to fight your way through an airport. Read a book, do paperwork, take a nap while you whoosh ahead in high-speed comfort.

To governments, they evoke benefits to the common good — reduced freeway traffic, lower carbon pollution and more jobs.

But this country has never built a high-speed “bullet” train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.

Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.

Yet President Barack Obama, intent on harnessing new technology to rebuild the devastated economy, made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan.

Better than nothing

It sounds good, but that amount isn’t enough to build a single system, or to dramatically increase existing train speeds, transportation experts say.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready — it’s still seeking local approvals — but it’s farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama’s high-speed pie.

There are rail advocates who say anything is better than nothing when it comes to modernizing U.S. train transportation, which needs all the help it can get. Others say the stimulus injection is like adding a teaspoon of water to the ocean and calling it high tide.

Roughly six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of getting some of the $8 billion award, according to U.S. Transportation Department officials. The spurs include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

Officials in those areas have said they’d be happy to take part of the president’s offer, even though they don’t have high-speed systems to pump money into. Talking with reporters recently, Obama said he’d love to see such trains in his former state of Illinois linking Chicago to Wisconsin, Missouri and Michigan.

The economic benefit is enormous, the president said. “Railroads were always the pride of America, and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame.”

The need for speed

New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman also from Illinois, said developing high-speed rail is the country’s No. 1 transportation priority.

“Anybody who has ever traveled in Europe or Japan knows that high-speed rail works and that it’s very effective,” LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press.

What exactly is “high-speed”? It depends on the location. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 90 mph. The European Union standard is above 125 mph.

And many overseas bullet trains — most powered by overhead electricity lines — run faster than that. In France, for example, the TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”) covers the 250 miles between Paris and Lyon in one hour, 55 minutes at an average speed of about 133 mph. A 25,000-horsepower French train reached 357.2 mph in 2007, setting a world record for conventional train systems.

In Japan, which opened the first high-speed rail in the 1960s and carries more passengers than any other country, Shinkansen trains hurtle the countryside at an average of about 180 mph. Japan’s magnetically levitated train — different from conventional wheels-on-rails technology — holds the overall world speed record at 361 mph.

Super-fast trains also run in Germany, Spain and China, at speeds up to 140 mph, according to a 2007 survey in the trade publication Railway Gazette.

Lagging behind

The only rail service that qualifies under America’s lower high-speed standard is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.

The trains are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only average about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. On the densely traveled line from New York City to the nation’s capital, the Acela arrives just about 20 minutes earlier than standard service, at more than twice the cost during peak travel times.

For instance, a one-way Acela fare leaving New York at 11 a.m. is $155. The same departure on a regular train costs $72.

“In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards,” says author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association. In 2004 he wrote a highly critical book titled, “End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America’s Passenger Trains.”

He’s equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.

“Here’s what’s going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs — to this project and that project — and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time.”

Current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.


madameX 9 years, 2 months ago

If they're going to be installing high-speed rail lines, I think they should be considering a Kansas City to Denver route. I'm thinking that through most of western Kansas and Eastern Colorado there would be no problem with putting in tracks that are straight enough for the trains to go as fast and they are built to go, and judging from the number of travelers there were on I-70 when I made the drive this winter there would be plenty of potential riders. Especially as so many people travel to Colorado to ski, loading all that equipment onto a train is probably easier than either cramming it (along with passengers) into a car, or having to deal with the hassle of check-in and/or weight limits at the airport. Plus, they now have trains running from Denver to several of the ski towns in the mountains, surely the two systems could be linked.

Betty Bartholomew 9 years, 2 months ago

I'd be more interested in seeing the money distributed to states to encourage mass transit systems on local levels rather than trying to set up another large-scale project ('cuz Amtrak's doing so well). Kansas City/Lawrence/Topeka could benefit greatly from systems like N.California has with BART and CalTrain, which use rail and buses to make it easier and more convenient for people to work, shop, and tour the cities and towns serviced. And a KC-Denver line as mentioned above would benefit most of Kansas, especially if there were buses with off-shoot routes to reach areas that aren't on the central line.

But the likelihood of any of that happening any time soon is pretty much nil, as far as I can tell (unless gas prices sky rocket again, and even then, still slim chances). Most people simply find scheduling their activities and travel around each other far too troublesome. And there seems to be a stigma attached to using local mass transit, as witnessed by the fact that so few people are apparently using the Topeka bus system that they are going to be cutting service after 6:30pm on weekdays and offering no service at all on Sundays. Not exactly encouraging news.

SettingTheRecordStraight 9 years, 2 months ago

Remember that Kansas tax dollars go to pay for Northeasterners to ride Amtrak. What a deal!

madameX 9 years, 2 months ago

So? Works both ways: Northeasterners' tax dollars probably go to pay for Kansas interstates. Doesn't necessarily make it a better deal, but not getting to use each and every little thing that funded kinda goes with the territory of taxes.

KCKANSAN 9 years, 2 months ago

There is one fundamental problem with genuine (Japan-Euro) High Speed Rail in this region. While our prairie flatlands have excellent potential for a high speed roadbed (and these are complex structures) the railroad, any railroad, and this case the Union Pacific would have to have cantenary overhead wires put in place along the entire route. Now, those double stacked flatcars are taller than average so the pickups on the passnger locomotive would really have to extend very high to make contact. The simple fact of this matter is that it really is cost prohibitve to reengineer the entire route for this type of passenger operation, and the host railroad, whether it is UP or BNSF, would/could never do this and Amtrak (by circumstances) owns very little track outside of the Northeast. At present, it is only the electric-overhead wire passenger trains that reach hyper speeds beyond 120 mph.

Now, the good news is that speeds up to about 115 mph are easily reachable by adjusted gearing on diesel-electric locomotives. These engines generate about a million horsepower (exagerration) on a few gallons of diesel fuel by running a super efficient electric generating plant and great phenomenal fossil fuel gas mileage; the real limitations on their speed has to do with public safety associated with crossings. The law requires grade separation (i.e. bridges-over/underpasses) at all crossings for anything above 115 mph.

Is 115 mph fast enough? I think so, I've been on these and they are fast, e,g. you can cover the distance between Topeka and Manhatten in about 30 minutes, keep that up for a few hours and you'll be in Denver in about 5 hours. Again, it is fast; such trains accellerate and slow down about the same as semi-tractor trailer.

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