Trains For America

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Amtrak, HSR win big in final stimulus bill; Obama to thank?

The stimulus, which we were mourning only last week, has come out of conference committee mysteriously flush with passenger rail money. The big surprise is that funding for HSR has jumped from John Kerry’s $2 billion in the Senate bill to a whopping $8 billion in the final version. And check out who’s behind it according to the Associated Press:

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

There are certainly more important routes to focus on right now than the LA-Las Vegas route, but we won’t get into that right now. Chalk it up to typical politician behavior. The big news is that perhaps President Obama will be doing more than just paying lip service to passenger rail.

Amtrak also gets a significant bump from the Senate’s $850 million to $1.3 billion. This, however, comes at the cost of $300 million of passenger rail grants to states. This is bad news for states like Vermont, which is struggling to maintain the subsidies for its popular Amtrak lines amid the economic crunch.

Unfortunately, although rail and transit are both parts to a more sustainable whole, local non-auto transportation got stuck with the lower levels of funding set aside in the Senate bill. Streetsblog describes it as a slap in the face. It’s a shame, but, as the Transport Politic points out, this is the single biggest federal investment in American passenger rail ever. This hopefully signals a more positive attitude about sustainable transportation in general under this administration. This year’s transportation bill will be the critical test of that.

But for now, all of you who contacted your legislators should give yourself a pat on the back. This looks like a rather surprising victory for passenger rail.

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

16 Responses

  1. Cal says:

    This is what is needed ..a big boost for construction and spent on something that will make a huge difference and last..I dont want this money spent on funding transit sytems operations..that is the states and cities job.

  2. Dave says:

    How about some for Nashville.TN. The nearest train station to Nashville, is 240 miles away..

    We ” Can’t get there from here “

  3. F.K. Plous says:

    What do you mean when you say, “There are certainly more important routes to focus on right now than the LA-Las Vegas route…”? According to USDOT, L.A.-Las Vegas is the second busiest city pair in the U.S. (after L.A.-San Diego). Las Vegas counts for a huge proportion of the congestion at the L.A. airports and on I-15. Although I am not from California or Nevada and have never even visited Las Vegas, I say go ahead and link these two cities by HSR now. At 262 rail miles L.A.-L.V. is ideal for conversion from both air and auto to HSR. The environmental and energy payoffs from building HSR on this route probably exceed those in any other corridor. I come from a state that has plenty of passenger rail needs and will benefit strongly from the rail portion of the stimulus bill, but I must nevertheless recognize that L.A.-Las Vegas is one of the fattest, juiciest and lowest-hanging pieces of fruit on the national logistics tree. Failing to pluck it would be a scandal.

  4. Ray says:

    Mr. Plous – Let me explain all the reasons why the LA->Vegas doesn’t add up. (I lived in California for 20 years and consider myself a huge HSR proponent). First, the LA to Las Vegas is NOT on the California DOT’s radar for subsidized traditional train service. Even the experts think its a waste of public funds.

    This line is a dream of Nevada casino owners, property developers and others who rely on the tourism taxes paid by Californians. Thus, Nevada government agencies have jumped on the bandwagon (and a small cadre of beneficiaries on the California side). Sorry Harry Reid!

    Plainly – LAX to LV is a tourist route – with miserably high volumes on Fridays and Sundays alone. The agony drivers experience between the two cities occurs well within each sprawling metropolitan area (and at a bottleneck in Barstow). The USDOT figure is derived from the fact there is one interstate connecting the two cities.

    Anyone who has done the drive knows that the territory between the two cities is desolate desert with ZERO probability of development (Federal lands). Hardly a gas station. Its the home of Death Valley. The potential for intermediate stops or connections is NIL. There is no GREEN hit here. Electric cars, buses will be fine to resolve environmental concerns.

    Airlines are ALL READY aggressive. These are very low priced volume markets with flights under 50 minutes in the air. One way fares are as low as $60 (or even lower with subsidized hotel packages). There is nothing BUT capacity at McCaran International Airport in Las Vegas. And with the economy on the ropes plenty of take off space at LAX, Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, John Wayne Airports (all of which serve Las Vegas). In fact, airlines over serve Las Vegas – with flights every 20 minutes (on multiple carriers). Trust me – its nothing like the LAX-SFO or BOS-LGA-WASH shuttles which are packed at all hours.

    The economic interchange is purely tourist; the cities have no inter-relationship other than a buyer/seller of leisure product. Such a line would be a giant bridge to no-where. There are no commutes, no new permanent jobs (of a high paying variety), no ADDITIONAL long term balanced economic benefits that will come from connecting these two cities.

    Finally, neither California nor Nevada deserve this funding. Let’s call it. In this part of the Southwest they have done NOTHING to discourage sprawl or any alternative forms of modality. There are no tolls, no congestion pricing schemes, no discouraging parking taxes, no smart zoning, nothing. Thus our investment will be wasted as there will be no incentives to climb on board (other than the bar car!).

    Let’s start by requiring California and Nevada to demonstrate how much they want this. Swallow this pill. Put a $25 per car toll on the I-15 in each direction. That money could be used to institute their magic tourist train. (Or… follow another’s example – NJ Transit is running ACES to the resort community of Atlantic City from New York’s Penn Station – and guess who’s principally funding it – THE CASINOs either thru direct subsidy or thru casino tax revenues).

    The taxpayer shouldn’t have to stimulate the casino business. They do that well enough on their own.

  5. Ray says:

    Cal is right as well. Federal (debt) dollars for infrastructure only. States have to step it up and do things that are not always popular. They have no trouble levying a tax on gas or asking for tolls to pave roads.

  6. Cal says:

    This funding should be used only for the corridors selected by the DOT on the high speed list..LA-Vegas is not on that list. This money should go to California HSR ,the Midwest,Southeast HSRfirst as all 3 have plans that are far enough ahead to break gorund by 9-31-12
    I think Amtrak also can apply from these funds for its NEC

  7. One reason to install a high-speed maglev line (not a rail line) between Vegas and Anaheim is to finally test out the system in the USA, where no previous line has been built yet. If people need to be able to go ride a maglev, they can go to Las Vegas. Without such a line, maglev opponents will always be able to say the technology won’t work in America for one reason or another — cost, complexity, lack of interoperability with rail, etc.

  8. Ron Pilani says:

    40,000 Americans are killed in auto accidents. It will be good if more Americans would travel by rail

  9. Rich says:

    It’s so much more important to upgrade the Boston-New York-Washington-Richmond/south corridor to a true high-speed rail line than build an incompatable Mag-Lev between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. With traditonal rail capable of almost matching the speed of Mag-Lev, why would we want to invest in such an expensive product?

    Acela has to be upgraded. Hell it’s only a couple of hundred miles between the city pairs of Boston/New York (231) and New York/Washington (226). That’s only an average speed of 77 and 75 mph respectively to achieve a 3 hour schedule between each city! It is absolutely rediculous that we can’t do that.

  10. Rich says:

    I must add that a two hour schedule between each city pair would require an average speed of only about 115 mph. It’s pretty sad that we can’t reach that goal.

  11. Ran says:

    Rich – not long ago I wrote up a summary about NYP-BOS travel that ties in closely to your comments: http://rbiii.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/train-speeds-on-the-nec-part-iii/. I welcome your feedback.

  12. #9: Rich, I’m confused when you say traditional rail is capable of almost matching the speed of maglev. I know TGV has conducted one-time speed runs to maintain its Guinness Book records, but maglev has an operational speed advantage of at least 25% (not to mention acceleration/deceleration, cant and climb advantages of at least 300%) over today’s 200-mph trains, based on the Shanghai commercial maglev line. That’s not a small gap.

    And when you ask why would we want to invest in such an expensive product, I’m tempted to ask in return: How much more expensive do you think maglev is?

  13. Rich says:

    According to the US Department of Transportation, Maglev cost $40-$100 million per mile which is $11-$19 million more per mile than new high-speed rail. Additionally, the DOT states that Maglev will cost 4 to 9 times more than incrementally upgrading existing rail lines to HSR. Not sure if these numbers would be even higher in the congested Northeast Corridor.

    You can’t ignore the present infrastructure situation and the enormous expense and time required to build a completely new Maglev right-of-way and new stations between and in Boston, New York and Washington.

    To be financially practical and see a true high-speed rail system in our lifetime, you have to take full advantage of what now exists. Incremental upgrading of Acela for instance, allows the immediate use and the corresponding lower cost of using existing infrastructure such as Penn Station in New York and the Hudson and East River Tunnels.

    Once outside of major metropolitan areas land cost and the work needed to straighten some curves, build fly-overs, separate freight tracks and commuter rail tracks, etc. is just a matter of will and much less money.

    Again the distances are not that great. HSR averaging 200 mph would create a 67-69 minute schedule between the BOS-NYP-WAS city pairs. While a 250 mph average Maglev system would result in a 54-55 minute schedule. Even a 300 mph Maglev would result in a 45-46 minute schedule. Not much difference for the additional expense and construction time.

    Also the incompatibility of using different rail systems must be addressed. Right now, we can easily extend the Northeast Corridor to Newport News and Raleigh and even Florida if we wanted to. Using a unique system like a Maglev between Baltimore and Washington for instance, only makes it much more difficult and expensive to expand the system in the future.

  14. How to poker says:

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  15. Sea Toby says:

    Amtrak stimulus package is for 130 Viewliner cars:
    25 sleepers
    25 baggage dorms
    25 diners
    55 baggage

    70 optional Viewliner cars:
    10 sleepers
    15 baggage dorms
    15 diners
    30 baggage cars

    The first batch will replace every long range Heritage cars in Amtrak’s fleet. Sleepers are being ordered to add another one to current train sets. The old Heritage cars are slowing Amtrak down, especially on the NEC.

    The second batch is for possible expansion to be decided later. Possibilities include replacing Superliners on the Capital Limited, increasing frequency of the Cardinal, and/or reinstating the former Sunset Limited route east of New Orleans with another new named train of Viewliners.

    The baggage car fleet would be entirely replaced, for Superliners as well as Amfleet/Viewliners and Horizons.

    As noted above, the Amfleet coaches and dinette/lounges remain as these cars were built around 15 years earlier by the Carter administration. The Viewliner 1s were built by the Clinton administration. The Viewliner 2s will be built to finish the job of replacing Heritage cars. Any future Viewliner orders would most likely address replacing Amfleet coaches and dinette/lounges.

  16. Anonymous says:

    dude who cares abour HRS get MAGLEV
    WAY BETTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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