Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

NYTimes: Guns on Amtrak? No thanks.

Conservative lawmakers love to bemoan the federal government’s stake in Amtrak as the quintessential icon for big-government waste. However, they have no qualms about using this authority over the company to make it adjust its policies to comply with their impractical political whims. Case in point: a recent amendment to the budget bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development requiring Amtrak revoke its post-9/11, post-Madrid bombing ban on guns in checked luggage. The reasoning? Well, if you can have a gun in your checked airline baggage, why not on Amtrak as well? The New York Times has the obvious answer:

Amtrak has none of the hermetic procedures where airport passengers are screened shoeless at detectors while their checked baggage is separately secured. Trains stop at stations and passengers come and go. Amtrak presently has a system of checking passengers and screening baggage at random, much the way New York police monitor mass transit.

And lessened security isn’t the only reason reason train riders should be concerned:

The budget cudgel was approved despite pleas from Amtrak that it lacks the manpower, equipment and extra financing to effectively meet the deadline and that it faces a shutdown if federal funds are lost. Among other changes, baggage cars would have to be securely retrofitted and manpower increased. The warning cut no ice with the majority as the chief sponsor, Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican of Mississippi, intoned a lock-step mantra: “Americans should not have their Second Amendment rights restricted for any reason.”

Gotta love those unfunded mandates. TFA will keep an eye on this issue. Hopefully this is the kind of nonsense that gets shaken out during conference committee.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , ,

NPR’s All Things Considered considers HSR in a series this week

I just heard All Things Considered’s first piece on HSR. There’s at least one more part that airs tomorrow, but I can’t tell if that’s it or if they’re doing a week-long series. There’s nothing  too revolutionary in there, but it’s a good assessment of the merits of high-speed rail as well as how it’s likely going to take shape in this country. Unfortunately, like every news report on HSR these days, some extremist from a right-wing think tank is interviewed and presented as a credible dissenting voice on the issue. Couldn’t they at least pick HSR opponents with a little more credibility?

What is rather insightful is NPR’s take on incremental HSR upgrades. The piece largely takes the position that a grand “proof-of-concept” project (read: California) is necessary in addition to quicker, less drastic improvements:

“To make rail a major part of the equation is going to take years of proving to the public that this mode is here,” says Joe Schwieterman, professor of public policy and director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

Schwieterman says an incremental approach — such as upgrading existing Amtrak service to 110 mph on routes like Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit — if it’s done well and soon, can help pave the way for other high-speed trains in the future.

“The public sees it works, they see the ridership, they see the trains, they see the advantages,” Schwieterman says. “Then, that second phase of investment can begin.”

He and others say it took five decades to build the interstate highway system into what it is today. Developing a true high-speed rail network will likely take decades, too.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail

Interview with Midwest HSR’s Rick Harnish, discussing true Midwestern HSR, Obama paradigm shift

Yesterday I had the chance to talk with Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. As frequent readers probably know, both Pat and I are big proponents of bringing faster trains in the Midwest. Along with California, it’s currently one of the most promising regions for high-speed rail.

But when TFA praises the Midwestern HSR plan, it’s often because of its proposals to incrementally upgrade existing routes to “high performance rail” 90-110mph standards.  Rick made sure to remind me that the true goal of the organization is implementing so-called “European-style” routes that will connect the region’s major cities to Chicago in less than 2.5 hours. High performance routes are necessary, but they’re not the total solution.

It’s an issue of missing the forest for the trees. Rick pointed out that politicians, journalists, and rail advocates often see plans for 90-110mph “high-speed rail” as a huge accomplishment and are losing sight of getting truly fast trains into our largest cities. The problem is often terminology. High-speed rail is an exciting term that has obtained wide usage in the public (the loose federal definition helps). High performance rail? Rapid rail? Not so much.

Of course, the fact that high-speed rail is now such a desirable thing to have mentioned in your political speech or your newspaper is surprising and wonderful, but Rick makes the good point that confusion and low standards are a threat to the radical change we should be striving for.

He said that MWHSRA’s recent successes on incremental speed and service improvements in downstate Illinois had been a recent focus because of the unfriendly federal political climate at the time. But with Obama’s new outlook on rail, he thinks the time is right for a more ambitious proposal that will show the capabilities of true HSR, such as the 220mph Chicago-St. Louis route his organization proposed earlier this summer.

Besides the obvious windfall of funding, a friendly federal executive could have some other rather exciting possibilities. Rick talked about Spain’s Alvia trains, which can run on both the standard gauge Ave lines and the wide gauge track used on Spanish regional rail lines. This means that regional trains can take advantage of the high-speed lines when traveling down a main corridor. And though FRA regulations currently prohibit such a system here, reforms could mean that a 220mph line to St. Louis would also be able to bring cities such as Memphis and New Orleans much closer to Chicago.

It was a good discussion, and thanks to Rick for taking some time out of his schedule to chat.  The Midwest High Speed Rail Association clearly has a lot going on these days, with the Chicago-St. Louis route in Illinois, plans for incremental improvements in other states, and goals for well-connected station areas, especially in Chicago. They’re all necessary parts if we want world-class high-speed rail in this country’s future, and in the current favorable climate we have to, as Rick said, “aim high” in our ambitions for better passenger train service.

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

Streetsblog’s Ryan Avent addresses Glaesar’s HSR criticisms in NYTimes blog

This is from Wednesday, but it’s so good that it merits playing catchup on. Some of you have perhaps been following Edward L. Glaesar’s economic analysis of high-speed rail prospects in the New York Times economics blog over the past few weeks. The last post in the series (although he says he might revisit the topic later) appeared on Tuesday and purports to address misconceptions that high-speed rail would have a signficant effect on land-use patterns. Now, of course, we here at TFA believe in challenging ones own viewpoints, and Glaesar provides some very readable points against HSR investment. But thankfully, Ryan Avent from Streetsblog has gone to the trouble of going a little more in-depth and refuting Glaesar’s dodgy economic logic. The post speaks for itself, but I quote its conclusion as a nice summation:

If we instead build new highway and airport capacity, then that will influence future development patterns and mode share. I challenge Glaeser to demonstrate that that future is greener and better off economically than one in which rail is built.

This is the principle shortcoming of Glaeser’s analysis — that it fails to take into consideration the alternatives.

I believe that increasing metropolitan congestion, rising energy costs, changing demographics, and new transit investments will generate a shift in housing and transportation preferences in coming decades. I think it’s wise to accommodate this shift by building high-speed rail.

Glaeser seems to believe that in coming decades congestion costs will cease rising; otherwise he’d build future increases into his model. He seems to think that the addition of over 100 million new Americans need not lead to any new infrastructure investment; otherwise he’d compare the economic benefits and life-cycle emissions of rail investments to alternative investment plans.

I think those beliefs are daft and indefensible. And four posts into his high-speed rail series, Glaeser hasn’t given any of us reason to think that his analysis is worth taking seriously.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Blogs and Transportation Resources, United States High Speed Rail

New video by Onboard Midwest promotes HSR for St. Paul Union Depot

On the heels of the news earlier this summer that Ramsey County had approved the purchase of St. Paul Union Depot from the Postal Service and that its revitalization would be a part of the state’s application for rail stimulus dollars, comes this video by Onboard Midwest. Onboard Midwest seems to be a Twin Cities-based advocacy organization for Midwest High-Speed Rail, and they indicate that that Union Depot will be the terminus for the Twin Cities spur of the project.

I couldn’t find much in the way of hard evidence to either confirm or deny this. Any insights from TFA readers? In the past I’ve heard that Amtrak would be unlikely to want to move to Union Depot because it doesn’t have the service facilities that its current ugly/awful Midway Station has. Let’s hope Onboard Midwest is right about this one.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

Madison debates city station, airport station for HSR stop

My Wisconsinite boss for the summer over at the Congress for the New Urbanism, Stephen Filmanowicz, tweeted about this a few days ago, so a big H/T to him. Madison, WI is one of the major cities to be part of the Midwest HSR project, but a number of activists are uncomfortable about the idea of having the city’s sole train station be at the regional airport outside of town. One man in particular is raising a fuss, much to the ire of many government leaders, who don’t want the city’s chances of getting federal HSR money to be put in jeopardy. From the Madison Capital Times:

Shorter travel times were a key factor in 2002 when officials with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sent a letter to then-Mayor Sue Bauman, saying a “single airport station best serves the interests of the Madison community and the overall service goals of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.”

City of Madison officials initially balked at the decision and at one point talked about pursuing two train stations: one at Monona Terrace and another on the east side. But eventually the issue faded as rail dollars failed to materialize, gasoline prices fell, and talk of trains went to the back burner.

With federal rail money looking likely, however, the question over station location has come up again — much to the chagrin of some state and local officials who were hoping to keep things quiet to avoid any last-second controversy.

One initial problem identified with a station downtown at Monona Terrace was the need to back trains out to rejoin the main line, adding 30 minutes to the trip and creating traffic snarls downtown. But the Yahara Station plan avoids that hang-up by sticking to the mainline route, eliminating the need for trains to reverse course out of the downtown.

Even the mayor is backing the airport site, stating that there might be two stations for the city in the future. I don’t think that’s going to appeal to Amtrak and Midwest HSR planners, who are going to want to limit the stops to keep travel times down. The whole airport vs. downtown station discussion is one we’ve featured before on TFA. On one hand, one of the biggest benefits of good passenger rail is the downtown-to-downtown connectivity that is convenient for passengers and good for local economies. On the other hand, connections with other modes of transport, including air travel, are also important, particularly if airlines are to be convinced that they stand to benefit from improved train service.

And the pragmatists have a point that it would be a shame to muck up a bid for federal HSR money. But that’s not a good enough reason to not think ahead when placing critical infrastructure. Connectivity is going to be key. If the station ends up being placed at the airport, they need to make sure that there are convenient connections to downtown and vice versa if the urban location is chosen. Taxis don’t count. And the article mentions commuter rail; it would be extremely shortsighted of the city to place this intercity station without an eye to how it could connect to local rail service in the future.

A sticky issue to be sure. Thoughts?

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

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