Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

House spices up Amtrak reauthorization proposal with HSR and.. hints of privatization?

Pat mentioned H.R. 6003 while discussing Representative Boozman’s shifting rail policy, but this year’s Amtrak reauthorization bill is deserving of discussion in its own right. On the positive side, it retains many of the positive aspects of its companion Senate bill passed overwhelmingly last fall: it increases Amtrak’s funding and removes the ridiculous self-sufficiency requirement stipulated in earlier years.

However, the legislation diverges from its earlier counterpart in its emphasis on high speed rail. While this is a refreshing development, the bill sidesteps Amtrak in its sections pertaining to HSR, instead outlining  grants for state rail projects and allowing for private HSR proposals along existing corridors.

Critics have, probably rightfully, called foul on this move, including unions and Amtrak chief Alex Kummant. Kummant points out that the 2 hour New York to DC objective that the government would seek private bids on isn’t that much of an improvement over the 2.5 hours offered by Amtrak’s current lines. He has a good quote about instead expanding NEC-style infrastructure to the rest of the country (where lower densities would make HSR building less expensive):

“Could we go south to Atlanta (from Washington)?… Could we develop a dozen 110-mile-an-hour corridors and, by the way, with the pocket change left over, rebuild every station, create parking, intermodal bus connections, transit connections?”

I’m inclined to agree with Kummant’s point. Amtrak is a national service, and the government needs to realize that the rest of the country deserves to have fast rail transportation every bit as much as the Northeast does. However, it’s important to note that the bill only requires the government to take these private bids. Further action would require more molasses-quick action from Congress.

Furthermore, there’s nothing all that radical about freeing up proposals for state HSR initiatives. As any regular reader of this blog could tell you, they’re happening anyway. The important thing is to get them built, and for legislators to realize how, even with these new projects,  the US lags terribly behind other industrialized countries in terms of high speed rail. The rhetoric around this bill would seem to at least indicate that it’s dawning on them.

So in the end, the passage of this bill would be a win for passenger rail. Not because of the tentative privatization openings, but because of increased funding for both Amtrak and separate HSR projects. We can hope that it signals more [positive] legislative attention for our rail network. But then, it will have to get across our famous rail-advocate president’s desk first.

More info on H.R. 6003: 1, 2, 3
More info on S. 294: 1

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

Hell freezes over! Boozman backs Amtrak and HSR

It was only last year that Arkansas Republican Representative John Boozman drew some attention to himself by suggesting that Amtrak caused pollution. I have an extensive interview with him posted on my Lynch at Large blog from that episode. It’s the old Blogspot blog, so scroll down when you get there. It is in two parts.

Well, here is the latest item passed along from the nation’s capitol.

Mr. BOOZMAN. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I enthusiastically support this resolution recognizing National Train Day. The ceremonial golden spike hammered on May 10, 1869, marked the completion of one of this Nation’s greatest engineering masterpieces, and marked the birth of what would become the greatest rail network in the world.

The United States now has 140,000 miles of railroads, making up the transportation backbone of this Nation. These railroads are environmentally friendly, producing significantly less pollution than competing modes of transit. In fact, a train can haul one ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel, and is three times cleaner than a truck. Furthermore, trains help alleviate congestion on our crowded highways. One train can take 280 trucks off the road.

The recently introduced Amtrak reauthorization, H.R. 6003, will make significant enhancements to Amtrak’s growing business. The legislation will give Amtrak the funding it needs to continue improving its service while also creating innovative programs to enhance passenger rail service.

The State grants provision in the bill will give a greater say in how Federal funding is utilized for capital projects, and a private operator pilot program will increase innovation and competition in passenger rail service.

Additionally, H.R. 6003 includes a plan to create public-private partnerships to construct true high speed rail corridors all over the Nation. High-speed rail promises safe, fast and convenient service, all the while helping to alleviate aviation and highway congestion. I urge passage of H. Res. 1176.

I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. BOOZMAN. Mr. Speaker, in closing, I also want to urge adoption of this resolution. I want to thank the gentlewoman from Florida and the ranking member, Mr. Shuster, for bringing it forward. I also want to compliment them and their staffs for the hard work that they are pursuing now on the Amtrak reauthorization.

Again, I urge adoption.

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

Maglev company closes doors, returns to parent corporations

Siemens and Thyssencrup have announced that they are dissolving their joint maglev technology company, Transrapid. Transrapid’s system was used to build Shanghai’s 20 mile airport train, an oft-cited example of a functioning commercial maglev train.

The decision on Thursday, May 8, came after the city of Munich decided in March to abandon plans for a 37-kilometer (23-mile) line linking the city center with the airport.

Despite the dissolution of the company, “the core competencies of the Transrapid technology” would remain in the possession of Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, they said.

The companies said they remained dedicated to promoting the system and were continuing talks with possible customers in China and the United States.

Though the article makes it clear that Transrapid’s assets will be reabsorbed by the parents companies, who will continue to promote the technology, this has to be something of a blow to maglev proponents.

A number of readers of this blog have argued that more conventional high speed rail technology is imminently more practical and affordable, despite lacking that ‘ooh.. ahhh’ factor of magnetic levitation trains. Most conventional HSR stock is capable of running at reduced speeds on old tracks, and there is more competition and real-world precedent for fast steel wheels. Despite this, maglev has it own advantages. Trains run more silently, have fewer moving parts, and perhaps most importantly, capture the public’s attention in a country where no one seems to give passenger rail a second thought. Perhaps standard HSR is more practical for America’s new rail projects, but it pains me to see a competitive and interesting technology such as this flounder.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , ,

Gas tax holiday reaction signals good news for rail transit

This past week has seen quite a political hubbub arise over proposals by presidential candidates John McCain and Hillary Clinton to suspend the federal gasoline tax during the summer period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That such a short sighted idea could arise from a hotly contested election race shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but what is shocking (and refreshing) is the cool reception this vote-pandering policy is receiving from the public, politicians, and experts.

Hopefully this signals that the country as a whole is looking beyond cheap gas and endless pavement to a more varied transit future. People realize that one summer of tax breaks isn’t going to dampen the energy crunch in the long-term, and that the $30 they save may not be much to them, but the $10 billion it contributes to the federal budget could help build these more efficient alternatives. And fortunately, this has gotten people talking about passenger rail. This not only includes Barack Obama, the only major candidate not supporting the tax holiday, but also Delaware senator Thomas Carper. McCain has even had to awkwardly backpeddle on the issue, clarifying that this is not a permanent fix but only “a little bit of a break.”

Perhaps this will get lawmakers thinking about putting that money to a better use than simply building more highways. Just a sliver of that $10 billion could double Amtrak’s budget and, in doing so, provide a service to taxpayers that could actually help remedy the escalating cost of travel. Is that going to happen? Probably not, but anything that gets voters (and candidates) thinking about rail travel as a sustainble alternative is a step in the right direction.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, , , , , , , ,

Obama talks up high speed rail, Amtrak

Some interesting news for those who are wondering how passenger rail transit will be playing into this year’s presidential race. During a lunch/political event with a family in Beech Grove, Indiana Obama lamented America’s lack of high-speed rail in comparison to other industrialized countries. Further, he supported the idea of implementing high-speed rail between the major Midwestern cities… “Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis.” To my chagrin, he forgot Minneapolis/St. Paul, but I’m willing to overlook that. If you can set aside the cynicism generally necessary when hearing campaign promises such as this, it’s a pretty encouraging read.

On HSR in the Midwest:

“The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities – Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.”

On the advantages of rail and America’s lag in HSR implementation:

“This is something that we should be talking about a lot more,” Obama said. “We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don’t’ have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have high speed rail. We just don’t’ have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.”

And of course, Obama’s policy compares very favorably to McCain’s staunch anti-rail position.

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

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May 2008