Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Heritage Foundation gets it all wrong

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, published an online policy paper stating that HR 6003, the Amtrak reauthorization bill, “would be the costliest bailout in Amtrak’s 40 years of federal subsidies.” The cleverly woven spin in the report naturally misses the point of why Americans value rail travel, and why it’s important to our future.

Of course, they point out how Amtrak relies on federal subsidies:

Despite this massive subsidy and endless promises of improvement by a series of recent managers and board members, Amtrak is no closer to service sustainability today than it was 38 years ago, in large part because its passengers value the service at only a fraction of what it costs to provide it.

That’s basically a very economist way of saying that Americans like their travel to be affordable. And why not? I value my college education, but if the government didn’t subsidize it, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. Why shouldn’t effective transport be similar? And why can’t we spare money for our trains when we can hand out $20 billion to the oil industry each year? Those defending the oil subsidy would say those companies are providing a service to the country. Isn’t that what Amtrak is doing to an even greater extent? This report by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General also points out how piddly Amtrak’s public funding is compared to its European counterparts.

The Foundation also mobilizes its oh-so extensive environmental credentials, claiming that trains don’t offer that much of an environmental advantage over planes. What they fail to state is that increased energy efficiency in planes doesn’t come close to equating with decreased environmental consequences, not just from CO2, but also from other pollutants that are particularly potent when released high in the air. They also don’t consider that trains compete with car trips, which, in addition to consuming a large amount of energy per person, are incentive for the construction of more huge roads and hence more traffic congestion.

For this reason, the report’s conclusion rings pretty hollow:

The transportation challenges confronting the United States over the next several years will be unprecedented in their scope and difficulty. As congestion worsens and undermines the economic vitality of some metropolitan areas, voter skepticism about the competence of federal and state transportation officials has increased and in the process has discouraged efforts to increase the public resources available for transportation investment. Legislation such as H.R. 6003 deepens that skepticism by demonstrating that Congress is more interested in pandering to influential constituencies than in finding solutions to mobility and congestion relief.

So how do we meet this unprecedented challenge? What so-called “solutions” would they suggest? The answer isn’t continuing the self-perpetuating cycle of widening our roads. Americans want real cures for their transport woes, not bandages applied by those interests too afraid to end automobole hegemony for the greater good.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , ,

International roundup

It’s late Saturday night, and I thought “what the heck!” Let’s see what’s happening around the world on the high speed rail beat. Here goes.

From the Times of London.

This week Tom Harris, the Rail Minister, poured cold water on the idea of building more high-speed lines to Scotland and the North. He said the environmental case was weak and argued that Britain’s “economic geography” was unsuitable. His wrongheadedness is matched only by his narrowness of vision. This country may not be able to commit itself to putting anyone in space, but it should commit itself to bringing Glasgow within three hours by train of London – and within five of Paris.

A (perhaps too insightful) clip from, of all places, Sri Lanka.

The alignment of this corridor should be such that it should be capable of laying railway tracks capable of modern TGV speeds of 350 kph or much higher speeds when magnetically elevated trains come into operation in Europe or Japan but never in America where the motor car industry will not permit it.

Patrons along the Sunset route take note, when trains into Paris run late that’s news!

The head of Eurostar promised swift action Friday after a high-speed cross-Channel train carrying British rocker Pete Doherty limped into Paris almost five hours late.

Let’s be fair about this. Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, has been in France and is still on the right side of sensible transportation. If you read the entire story, however, you will see that Texans are held hostage by Southwest Airlines. The Dallas Morning News has the story.

Props to Senator Obama too. Here is the latest from USA TODAY.

“We could connect the Midwest with a high-speed rail system that would provide immediate jobs,” he said, adding that it would also be a “much more energy-efficient” alternative to air transport.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has a plan that could be put into effect tomorrow and provide marvelous efficiencies and fast (not European style) trains on existing railroads. By contrast, Senator McCaain promises to destroy Amtrak. The presumed Republican nominee will undoubtedly soften his position between now and the election. He will say anything to get elected. Just watch.

Meanwhile, in Portugal thee is this development.

According to the latest forecasts, the TGV will be up and running on Portuguese territory by 2013.

The projected, but not specified delay, however, would mean that speeds of up to 300kph would only be achieved on the south bank of the River Tejo to Madrid.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has not yet confirmed when the high speed line between Madrid and Badajoz will be completed.

The Spanish Minister for Public Works, Daniel Salado, has officially said that the government hopes to have the line completed by 2010.

Bringing the high speed train across the 25 de Abril bridge would, claim RAVE, be relatively easy and only involve an interconnecting mechanism on the tracks at Porceirão, adding around 35 minutes onto the journey time from Madrid’s Atocha station to Lisbon’s Oriente station.

Thai officials were in the Netherlands just the other day discussing proposed improvements.

The Government has implemented measures to stimulate the domestic economy, including tax incentives to boost domestic consumption. We are investing in mega-projects to upgrade our infrastructure. These include the mass transit system in Bangkok and its vicinity with plans to build 9 subway lines, the high-speed trains and the double-track rail projects, which will link our rail system with southern China in the North and Dawei Deep Sea Port in the West. We are also in process of studying the Land Bridge project to connect the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean with the Gulf of Thailand.

Italy? Of course there are new services on the way.

Half of the new high-speed Pendolino tilting trains will be introduced when the timetable changes in December and the rest by the middle of 2009.

They will offer increased comfort and cut travel time – shaving up to 45 minutes off journeys between the Swiss cities of Zurich, Geneva and Basel and the Italian city of Milan, Cisalpino head Alain Barbey told journalists.

You may be suffering at the gas pump, but, according to Forbes, these are good times at Bombardier.

The company attributed the quarter’s strong sales to European rail orders, which continue to chug ahead. Late last May, Sweden’s state railway said it would increase its fleet of high-speed environmentally-friendly trains, placing a contract worth $349.0 million for 20 new four-car trains from Bombardier. The contract included the option to add an additional 20 train

You get the picture, right?


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

Las Vegas Maglev gets its federal dollars for environmental study

President Bush has signed into law the revision of a 2005 transportation bill that authorizes $45 million for the LA-Las Vegas Maglev project. The revision corrects a technical error made in the original draft that prevented the project from getting its money. In the interim, proposals for a more traditional high speed train along the route have garnered attention.

The AP has some background details on the route:

The train is meant to ease traffic on increasingly clogged Interstate 15, the main route for the millions of Southern Californians who make the 250-plus-mile drive to Las Vegas each year. There is no train on the route—Amtrak’s Desert Wind between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was canceled in 1997 because of low ridership.

It’s interesting that Amtrak’s route was done away with in the cheap-gas 1990’s. With any luck, a high speed route could bring these riders back. One of the issues with rail travel in the United States seems to be just getting people to realize that it’s there as a viable option. Hopefully a highly visible hubbub about futuristic train technology will do the trick along this route.

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

Union Pacific Blocks California HSR Project

Many obvious questions arise from this apparent setback for high speed rail in the Golden State. I will leave that for your comments and discussion. The Los Angeles Times reports the latest developments in detail. Here is the highlight.

Officials at Union Pacific railroad recently told the California High Speed Rail Authority that they have safety and operational concerns about running a bullet train close to lumbering freight trains.

“Just look at what happened in L.A. a few years ago,” said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific vice president, citing the 2005 crash of a Metrolink passenger train that killed 11 and hampered rail operations.

Of course, the big question is: what is one of those fancy new trains ran off the end of the earth?

Turning HSR Development over to the State Department of Transportation is the same as handing it over to trucking interests. Truckers and airlines are in a life-or-death struggle to maintain the old way of doing things, even if gas hits $6 a gallon. Their representatives in state legislatures are bought and paid for.

Union Pacific’s argument should be taken seriously, and it should be taken for what it is: an argument.

The railroad, first, wants to be absolved from liability in case of an accident. This is a legitimate concern and something lawmakers and proponents need to face. High speed trains operate around other transportation and population all over the world without incident, so everybody needs to take a deep breath and move on.

Taxpayers will be called on to make improvements to railroad property, and that is noting more than the cost of doing business. It may be that California will have to buy some rail lines. 

It is a question of individual freedom. Will we continue to be held hostage by industrial special interests and foreign oil barons? 

Finally, let us all remember that the nation’s rail system was built by a public-private partnership in which rail carriers got subsidies in the form of land and other valuable considerations. In return, we get a transportation system which should be available for public use.

Comments, anybody?

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

Great modern train stations

Some really great stuff shows up in my mailbox, and for this item, I am truly grateful.

The Municipal Art Society just posted a video from a recent panel discussion about train station design. Major themes of the discussion included the concept of “civicness” in station architecture, sustainable design, retail, political and financial challenges, and other issues related to building Moynihan Station. I think it might be a good fit for your blog.

Alex Washburn, chief urban designer, New York City Department of City Planning, and a former aid to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan moderated the discussion. Christopher Brown, author of Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Stations traced the development of the urban train station from its beginnings in the 1820s to the end of the 1950s using his visual survey of stations from St. Louis to Istanbul. Architect Andrew Whalley, partner at Grimshaw Architects, drew on his experience as partner-in-charge of Paddington station and Waterloo’s Eurostar terminal in London to discuss the design of today’s train stations worldwide. 

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

Nancy Pelosi talks transport infrastructure, passenger rail

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave the keynote address to the American Public Transit Association’s Rail Conference on Sunday, making some interesting comments about transportation and railways. A few selections with comments (she’s a politician, so take this all with a spoonful of salt):

“The question is not whether we must invest in our nation’s [transit] infrastructure, but rather, how do we pay for it? How do we proceed in a fiscally sound way?

“One idea being considered is an infrastructure development bank to promote public and private investment in projects of regional and national significance, including public transportation projects. The bank would be an independent federal entity that would evaluate major infrastructure proposals and finance the best of them using a variety of financial tools.

This sounds  like a good idea, it would give states and municipalities more leverage when funding regional rail projects. Just as long as it doesn’t supplant the federal grants already often provided to these projects under organizations such as the Federal Transit Administration.

“House Democrats are committed to robust public investment in public transportation. We are committed to advancing a bill that – at a minimum – honors the historic 80/20 funding split between highways and transit. The reduction of transit’s share below 20 percent that occurred in the 2005 reauthorization will not be repeated.

An 80/20 split is already sounding archaic in this day and age. Congress actually went below this in 2005? Shameful.

“It is essential that the environmental and economic development benefits of rail transit become fundamental criteria in the decision-making process for New Starts. We see with each new light rail system – whether the location is Dallas, Minneapolis, or Portland – a tremendous upsurge in transit-oriented development around rail lines and stations. Transit and the high-density development that accompanies it both have tremendous value in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and putting us on the path to a low-carbon economy.

Excellent point here, especially for a national politician. Rail transportation encourages denser development: interstate trains usually serve stations in the downtown core of cities, and regional and local rail promotes dense growth within walking distance of local stations. Dense development lets people walk and take transit to more of their destinations, meaning they make fewer car trips. Giving people the means to use their cars less is going to be crucial if we want to reduce our national impact on the environment. We can start by investing in Amtrak and passenger rail.

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

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June 2008