Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Florida still struggling for rail options

A recent article in the Herald Tribune discusses Florida’s troubled history with high speed rail. The article is a good example of how DOT’s are wont to continue down the usual path of highways, highways, highways, which inevitably leads to more traffic, and how shortsighted politicians are unwilling to take the initiative to break this vicious cycle. What got my blood boiling is how former Gov. Jeb Bush effectively ignored a popular mandate to institute high speed rail in the state:

For more than 30 years, lawmakers and state officials have ordered studies proposing a passenger system to connect cities, including a 1984 report that said it was a necessity for the 21st century. Not one shovel has hit the dirt.

In 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating a high-speed rail system in the state. But Gov. Jeb Bush led a charge to veto the amendment in 2004, which effectively killed the high-speed rail authority as well.

The public desire for HSR is there. The challenge for politicians is to listen to and take a far sighted estimate of our transportation system rather than blindly obeying the dictates of the air and auto industries. Florida in particular could benefit from commuter and intercity rail, with its large elderly population who can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be driving, as well as its multitude of tourist destinations. Fortunately for the state, the article indicates that many seem to be gravitating again towards rail due to today’s usual impetus of sky high fuel prices.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , , , ,

As airlines buckle, leading Democrats look to rail

2008 hasn’t been a good year for airlines. And it’s beginning to set in with the public and the media that these artificially cheap local flights are soon going to be a thing of the past. Luckily, more and more policymakers are beginning to see the steps America has to take if it doesn’t want to be left behind, and initiatives such as the new Amtrak authorization bill are a good start.

In a column for Newsday, Democratic strategists Bruce Reed and Paul Weinstein Jr. have taken this thinking to its logical conclusion, advocating high speed rail as an efficient and environmentally sustainable alternative to continued overuse of air travel.

Today, however, with the cost of energy skyrocketing, and our air-travel system reaching its limits, demand for rail is outpacing supply.

That’s why the next president and the new Congress should commit to building five new high-speed rail corridors in the next 10 years. The corridors would be selected based on three key criteria: geography (the flatter the terrain, the faster the train); a high probability of use (densely populated corridors with significant levels of highway and airborne traffic); and a commitment by the private sector, states and localities to share in the cost of construction. Wherever possible, the high-speed rail corridors should connect to major air hubs.

As for energy savings, even the most conservative studies give trains an advantage of 4 to 1 over cars and airplanes. According to studies done in Japan, high-speed trains produce one-tenth the carbon-dioxide emissions of airplanes

What’s significant about this is that Reed is president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group in the Democratic Party most closely associated with former President Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats.” This just goes to show that in this age of high oil prices and concern about carbon emissions, American bullet trains aren’t just for the hardcore rail nuts anymore, especially considering the bi-partisan support behind the Amtrak funding bill.

However, their proposals for funding these projects seems conservative, including “carbon-offset purchases; a 4.3-cent diesel gas tax on the railroad industry that would raise about $200 million a year; ticket surcharges; and/or matching contributions from states served by the new rail lines.” I hate to say it, but if the feds want a good rail network, they’re going to have to pay for it. States should certainly contribute as well, but using carbon offsets or a piddly and burdensome rail diesel tax is just wishful thinking. Funding aside though, getting these moderate strategists behind HSR can’t possibly be a bad thing.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

Mixed news about Amtrak

Although the House version of a funding bill that would increase money for both Amtrak and high speed rail has recently passed committee, the organization has been troubled by other issues this week.

First, the “American Financial Group,” an owner of Amtrak shares, has sued the company, claiming that it has failed to follow a congressional order to buy back its stock from them at a reasonable price and has made itself “worthless” through its policies. I won’t pretend to be a stock expert or anything close, but considering its resources, I find it hard to blame Amtrak for its “worthlessness.” If anyone was responsible for Amtrak’s woes, all signs point to the Bush administration’s shameful rail policy.

In news that’s of more concern to Amtrak riders, transportation advocate James P. RePass points out that Amtrak will be closing the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to Boston on June 14-17 for repairs. What’s distressing about this, he says, is that the company is not providing buses or any other alternatives for its passengers and has failed to contact the governors of the affected states. He corrently points out that this is not what Amtrak or rail needs right now, and I agree. A PR disaster in the middle of the busy summer months do not happy riders (or voters) make.

Filed under: Amtrak, , , ,

Even oil baron countries working on high speed rail

Though American drivers may be feeling the pressure of high fuel prices, in the oil exporting Gulf countries, gas is still stupendously cheap due to government subsidies (yes, subsidies). Hence it’s not surprising to hear that cities like Dubai are plagued with automobile congestion issues. Yet apparently planners in the UAE are realizing that just building more roads isn’t going to solve this issue. They’ve committed to building not just a high speed rail network (beginning with a connection between Abu Dhabi and Dubai), but also light rail and metro systems in the two cities.

Of course, the UAE is a much smaller country than the United States, but it’s disheartening to see that even such an oil addicted nation is pulling ahead of us in terms of rail infrastructure development, both on the regional and national level.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Spanish airlines feeling the crunch due to high speed rail

The AFP reports that Spain’s extensive development of its high speed rail network is putting the crunch on short-distance air carriers. The article contains a number of facts about Spain’s bullet trains that should make anyone who’s ever had to sit on a crowded airplane drool:

The government plans to have 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) of high-speed railway track in place by 2020, meaning 90 percent of Spain’s population will live less than 50 kilometres from a bullet train station.

The high-speed AVE trains, which are fitted with video and music players and chairs that can swivel in the direction of travel, can make the 660-kilometre trip between Madrid and Barcelona in about two and a half hours.

Passengers say bullet trains have more roomier and comfortable seats than planes, faster check-in times and have the advantage of arriving and departing from downtown cores.

If you can get over the sad fact that Spain’s policy is light years ahead of anything Congress could even dream of, there’s plenty of good news to be found for American HSR. Primarily, it proves that people want and will use high speed rail. That’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone reading this blog, but it seems to be a lesson that politicians in California and Washington have yet to pick up on.

And while news like this will certainly strike fear into the hearts of the airlines, this could actually be good for them in the long run. The article says that the area where HSR is seriously competing are the trips that would take 3 hours or less. These are the distances that never should have been ceded to the air industry in the first place. And allowing these routes to fall to high speed rail will free up space at our crowded airports, hopefully alleviating problems with delays and ultimately increasing customer satisfaction on the long haul flights that airlines should be paying attention to.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Travel Woes, , , , ,

California already gearing up for HSR battle

Although the state bond measure that would approve the initial $9 billion in funding for California’s proposed high speed rail corridor won’t be appearing on the ballot until this November, rail advocates and other groups are already preparing for a PR battle in the state. Their opponents will be the usual suspects: the automotive industry, the airlines, sprawl developers… all the groups that have kept America’s attitude toward transportation backwards for decades. They’ll be trying to turn the public’s misconceptions about HSR and funding against the project, and, if history teaches us anything, their war chest is going to considerable. Steve Blackledge of CalPIRG, a California public interest group, has written an eloquent call to arms for the project:

I’ll bet dollars to donuts our opponents will buy television time and hire consultants to meet with newspaper editors, do TV and radio appearances and roll out propaganda campaigns to stop high-speed rail, especially in the fall, when there will be a bond measure on the ballot.

What can we do to counter that onslaught? What we do best. Have face-to-face conversations with tens of thousands of Californians to cut through the hype and give them the facts about the benefits of high-speed rail. We estimate that we have the capacity to talk to 100,000 Californians face-to-face this summer about the high-speed rail project.

Right now more than half of Californians don’t know about the high-speed rail project. They don’t know that it will slash pollution, reduce traffic (reducing up to 92 million cars trips in California per year), and they don’t know it will cost less than the highway and airport expansions we’ll need without it. But if we let our opposition tell their side of the story first Californians may never hear the full story.

Companies that make a lot of money on bigger highways and airports stand to lose a lot from high-speed rail. Several years ago Southwest Airlines helped kill a similar high-speed rail proposal in Texas.

Robert Cruickshank has a similarly well-written deconstruction of a typical anti-HSR sentiment, including funding concerns, on his California High Speed Rail blog. It’s well worth a read.

This project isn’t just important for California; if built, it will obviously serve as a model for similar systems throughout the country. A loss in the country’s most progressive state, in this period of surging fuel prices would be devastating to American rail.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

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