Trains For America

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Kerry’s high-speed rail plan: The whole letter

Trains for America has obtained a copy of the letter that Sen. John Kerry sent to his senatorial colleagues about his high-speed rail initiative. The letter is dated July 23, 2008. It doesn’t give many more concrete details than what we got out of the snippet from yesterday’s post, but it’s interesting to see his rhetoric and the ways he plans to market this bill.

Dear Colleague:

With gas prices over $4 a gallon, I believe the sense of urgency has finally arrived, and the time is ripe to make a long-term investment in passenger rail – and make the United States a world leader again in high-speed rail. It would reduce the congestion on our highways and in the skies, reduce our use of foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. High-speed rail would be the fastest and most reliable way to get from downtown to downtown for most city pairs between 100-500 miles apart, saving up to an hour per trip when compared to air and cutting trip time by more than 50 percent compared to driving. Perhaps most importantly, the bill would create tens of thousands of good new jobs and help stimulate the sluggish economy.

That’s why I am writing to ask for your support for the High-Speed Rail for America Act. The legislation creates the funding mechanism to create a world class high-speed rail system in the United States, and establishes an office of high-speed rail in the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure we have the leadership needed to keep this mission on track.

I know that you’ve heard the skeptics and cynics dismiss the idea of high-speed rail for decades. But recently, we have seen a shift in the way Americans are using transportation that indicates the time is ripe for a big change. The American Public Transportation Association recently reported that streetcars, trolleys and other light rail experienced a 10.3 percent increase in ridership for the first quarter of this year. It’s no secret why this is happening: According to a 2007 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion continues to worsen in cities across the country, creating a $78 billion drain on the U.S. economy with 4.2 billion lost man hours of work and 2.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel. In 2007, domestic flight delays cost the economy $41 billion and consumed about 740 million additional gallons of jet fuel. Passenger rail is an effective alternative to highway and air transportation. Americans want alternatives – and we can deliver them.

I believe the High Speed Rail for America Act helps to point the way forward. The bill provides a consistent source of funding – over the course of six years, this bill provides $200 million per year in grants, $3 billion in tax exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure. The legislation is designed to fund high-speed passenger trains that can reach a speed of at least 150 mph as well as passenger trains for shorter distances which can reach a speed of 110 mph.

We have ignored our rail infrastructure for far too long and this bill is an important step towards creating a modern and reliable transportation network in the United States. If you would like to be an original cosponsor of this legislation or need additional information… [contact information omitted].

What I like about this letter is that it links the success  of intracity transit, particularly light rail, with intercity rail service. It’s certainly true that if we can get people from city to city without putting them in a car, local transit systems will reap the benefits (and don’t tell me that air travel fulfills this.. not when you need a car to get from the airport to the city). However, I feel that by quoting light rail usage statistics instead of equally impressive Amtrak gains, Kerry sidesteps what the role of our current passenger rail provider will be in this new system. It’s also possible that he just wants to avoid mentioning Amtrak because of potential negative connotations it might have for other lawmakers.

Although it’s not exactly clear, the letter seems to hint that this HSR infrastructure would be all new.. new tracks and possibly even new stations. If so, I question whether the funds Kerry is proposing would be adequate to cover the massive cost of such a plan.. especially for a nationwide implementation. The estimated cost of the California High Speed Rail project is $40 billion, after all. To be fair, California’s trains will travel much faster than the speeds mentioned in the letter. But considering the large scale of this legislation, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

I’m also surprised that the letter doesn’t harp on the potential environmental benefits of high-speed rail. Sure, it mentions the waste caused by delayed flights and congested automobile traffic, but references to rail’s inherent energy efficiency and electrification are nowhere to be found. This might indicate that these high-speed trains would be diesel powered. Do we want to be building a system that’s not future proof? Electrification should be a priority in these days of expensive fossil fuels.

Kerry’s letter indicates that this might be a promsing proposal. It’s still hard to say without some concrete details. We’ll be anxiously awaiting an official announcement and more details on the plan.

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

9 Responses

  1. Wil says:

    I will be happy when I can ride the freaking things. I must admit this seems to be a step in the right direction. If they can just convince the Conservative van gaurd, then we will see stuff happen.

  2. Loren Petrich says:

    Great news that he’s taking that initiative, though I will concede that I’m tempted to only believe it when I see it about his proposed trains.

    I recall something about a proposed southeast corridor in this connection — a Washington – Richmond – Raleigh – Charlotte – Atlanta HSR line. It could turn the Northeast Corridor into the Atlantic Corridor.

    That reminds me of when I created a Google Earth overlay of several high-speed-rail proposals: the FRA’s, the MRRI, the Ohio Hub, etc.

    I found that there are two big zones, the Atlantic-Gulf Belt from Maine to Georgia to Texas, and the Chicago Hub (Greater Chicagoland?), with several lines radiating out from Chicago, including a Canadian one eastward from Detroit/Windsor. These two zones are connected at Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Montreal.

    West of them are four smaller ones: California, Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and Calgary-Edmonton.

    Between them, these zones cover most of the larger North American cities, and most of the better-populated areas. A plan for HSR corridors in those areas should therefore have plenty of pork-barrel value for much of Congress.

    But to solidify support, it will be necessary to have some pork for the less-populated areas. Perhaps improvements in Amtrak’s long-distance routes will do — adding passing sidings, additional tracks, etc.

    And perhaps some additional long-distance routes, like ones to places without Amtrak service like Nashville, TN. Or a north-south Rocky-Mountain route: Missoula – Pocatello – Salt Lake City – Las Vegas – Los Angeles. I considered Phoenix and Tucson, but that would be a bit roundabout.

  3. Jet Graphics says:

    I like the “idea” of high speed rail. But as I researched into the subject, I learned of several obstacles that hinder American rail renaissance.
    1. Federal regs are 19th century oriented, especially the axle loading and limits to superelevation. They are the reason why Amtrak can’t match the speed of European or Japanese trains, while using the their technology. The whole system is geared toward slow, heavy freight, and is incompatible with HSR.
    2. Lack of electrification. It should become a national mandate that all rail lines be electrified. In fact, this might be the ideal time to dovetail expanding the electrical grid to handle windpower farms as well as electro-rail.
    3. Private ownership of rail rights of way. A public authority should take over rail rights of way, eliminating the tax burden on railroad companies, and eliminating the penalty that resulted in reduced track mileage. Also, we must eliminate the inequitable subsidy for paved roads. Open the rails to all carriers, commercial and private.
    4. Nationwide support for the urban streetcar / tram as the solution to urban traffic jams. Rebuild urban rail systems ASAP.
    5. Then, let us support segregated high speed lightweight passenger and freight systems.

  4. A. Schirmer says:

    As a fellow ardent supporter of HSR for the US, I hope not to be misinterpreted here. I am in agreement with Kerry that the time is ripe to do this. In my mind, it has been “ripe” since the 70’s, but in talking to many, many people on the subject, I find that there are 3 schools of thought:

    (1) There is those I call “Nostalgia Riders”, who remember or would like to have lived the “Glory Days” of train travel in the US (1900 – 1960). I get the feeling that if these folks got their way, and the $ to do it, they would restore a bunch of steam locomotives and run the whole system for pleasure alone.

    (2) There are the ones that think that Amtrak has demonstrated that HSR would not work in the US, without giving any more thought as to why that is, but rather blaming it all on “mis-management”.

    (3) There are those that (with reason), believe that the US has been “built around the automobile”, spreading out in such a way that makes it impractical to effectively serve all the population with a train system. In principle, this is somewhat true, but it does not address the key issues of today: Population increase, rising fuel prices, fuel dependency, air pollution, road congestion, airport security & delays, etc.

    (4) There are the believers in HSR.

    In giving consideration with the logical arguments presented in (2) above, I do agree that whatever system we come up with has to be somewhat taylored to the US present needs and infrastructure, but it also must be visionary (i.e., how do we want HSR to shape our cities? what sort of density and layout should the US cities have in the future, so that HSR becomes both viable and profitable?. Maybe this is an organic thing, but history has shown us that without proper planning, “organic growth” can be “chaotic growth”.

    Secondly, we need to be a little humble on our approach. Sure, this new HSR system can certainly be “Made in USA”, but why reject the lessons and experience of countries that have had HSR systems for decades? Unless we are driven by cost to re-invent the wheel and implement something like what JR Crawford has suggested (http://www.jhcrawford.com/energy/interstaterail.html), why not save us some money and hardship by implementing systems, processes, and even hardware already at work in Germany, France, Japan, etc?

    Finally, I think it is incumbent on us, the HSR believers, to put pressure on the government to make this move now. But this won’t happen unless we work with the (1), (2), and (3) goups of people above, influencing them so that they can join out ranks. This can be done through clear communication and logical reasoning. At this poit however, I just don’t see it any other way but through a grass-roots effort on our part. Let’s start talking!

  5. […] Very kindly, Logan Nash over at Trains4America obtained that very document and posted it here. Rather than copy it, I will encourage you to read it over […]

  6. Read the full bill at:

    Click to access Rail%20Safety.pdf

    Highlights for high-speed rail (and maglev) fans:

    1: Title V: High-speed rail, begins on p. 287
    2: Sec. 502, “Additional HSR projects,” begins on p. 296
    3: On p. 299, line 3, it states that any private-sector proposal shall include… “the type of equipment to be used, including any technologies, to achieve trip time goals” so even maglev technologies are acceptable if they can be part of a proposal for a corridor.

  7. Allan says:

    Laurence – in most, if not all, cases, maglev would be the better way to go for high speed.

    “What I like about this letter is that it links the success of intracity transit, particularly light rail, with intercity rail service.” – Light rail, in many cases, is a boondoggle. If congestion isn’t a problem then buses are usually the better choice. If congestion is a problem, then for LR to be effective it must be on a grade separated track (not run in the streets!) or use a monorail to elevate above the traffic.

  8. […] the Midwest – will be stimulated by an Obama Administration. Senator John Kerry’s gigantic future high speed rail bill – which was leaked in September – will be introduced in next year’s session. An Obama White […]

  9. Glenn Edward Roy says:

    Democrats and NeoCon Republican politicians alike love pork… especially when it means jobs in any one’s respective Congressional District or State. President-Elect Obama likewise can be relied upon to assist in promoting and not vetoing bills which would rebuild our decaying rail infrastructure. As President, Obama may be our best hope for reopening U.S./Mexico rail border crossings such as Naco and Douglas, Arizona — which were shuttered under the negelectful watch of Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona. Why the neglect? Illegal immigration and drug smuggling are political hot potatoes. It’s time for politicians to deal with border issues now! It’s also time for public works projects much like the Great Depression’s WPA road and bridge building successes. Freight and high-speed rail will be the impetus to successfully heal the border and get people back to work in a new “New Deal” for America.

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