Trains For America

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Obama high-speed rail press conference

Now could you have imagined this happening a year ago? Obama, Biden, and LaHood were all present to go over the administration’s vision for high-speed rail in the United States. If you’re looking for substantive new information, for instance how the upcoming general transportation bill may affect HSR, or how exactly stimulus money is going to be doled out (wait until this summer, apparently), you might be disappointed. The rhetoric, however, was delightful, touching on convenience, jobs, congestion, the environment, and the connections with good public transport. Here’s some quotes, courtesy of the White House website.

What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.

And from Biden:

With high-speed rail system, we’re going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks. We’re going to loosen the congestion that also has great impact on productivity, I might add, the people sitting at stop lights right now in overcrowded streets and cities. We’re also going to deal with the suffocation that’s taking place in our major metropolitan areas as a consequence of that congestion. And we’re going to significantly lessen the damage to our planet. This is a giant environmental down payment.

It’s great talk, and hopefully it means more action in the future. Unfortunately, there was no talk of restoring routes such as the Pioneer and the full Sunset Limited as part of America’s secondary routes. The new route map presented by the administration is basically a prettier version of the old map. And as the CAHSR blog points out, further HSR funding will have to go through the same congressional process as highway and other “surface transportation projects.” So don’t worry, there are still lots of legislative battles to come.

Further reading: New York Times, the official press release

UPDATE: Naturally, not everyone is happy to see progress in American high-speed rail. In fact, some people still think it’s a waste of money, even though it has proven remarkably successful and popular in other developed (and, embarrassingly, developing) countries. Such regressive thinking is only possible at a handful of places in the entire world, one of them being the Cato institute. Pat just recently pointed this out in an e-mail to me, it’s from ABC News:

It’s a huge investment that Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, called “just ludicrous,” given the tanking economy.

“If California voters want to throw money down a rat hole for high-speed rail, then let them,” Mitchell said. “At least that is not going to cost the taxpayers of Minnesota and South Carolina any money.

“You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles,” Mitchell added. “That’s probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail.”

The Cato Institute probably thinks nuclear powered bicycles are another “weird European thing” that people ride around on in the Netherlands… while eating baguettes and singing The Internationale.

As Pat says, the weakness of his argument is made apparent by the desperate rhetoric. Yep.

AND FURTHERMORE! Pat Lynch here. In view of the intense interest in the story and the giddy willingness of some opponents to lie make unfortunate and unfounded misstatements of known facts, here (again) is a bit of informaiton concerning distances between American cities as compared to European cities where trains routinely travel at 200 mph.

This comes from the “comments” section on a post below. It states the obvious, but does it so perfectly, I moved it to the front page.

You can look at a map and see that many American cities are well situated for true European style HSR. Here are a few facts (with thanks to  Loren Petrich.

I suggest demanding numbers from anyone who makes such density assertions. once worked out some numbers, comparing Paris – Lyon to Chicago – St. Louis:

Paris: 12m
Lyon: 1.8m
Distance: 289 mi / 466 km
Chicago: 9.8m
St. Louis: 2.8m
Distance: 297 mi / 479 km

To which I add London – Paris and NYC – DC:

London: 14m
Paris: 12m
Distance: 289 mi / 465 km
New York City: 19m
Washington, DC: 5.3m
Distance: 227 mi / 366 km

Additional sets of cities I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Populations are of metropolitan areas, distances are Google-Maps driving distances from the first city to the second.

As always, follow the money. Opponents of rail improvements get their money from highway, trucking, and airline special interests.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail, ,

8 Responses

  1. Jon Davis says:

    This is, of course, great news. Equally important to a strong, viable national passenger rail network is strong, viable public transit allowing, say, Cubs and Cardinals fans to easily take the L from Union Station to Wrigley Field, or MetroLink over to new Busch Stadium, after their 2-hour 40-minute ride on the (oh, say…) “Lincoln Flyer.”

    Keep the heat on the Obama administration and your state and federal legislators. Let’s not lose this opportunity to bring U.S. high-speed rail and transit up to where it should have already been.

  2. Mad Park says:

    Before the excitement levels get to a fever pitch here…
    A reality check: US$8B will be barely enough money to buy some new equipment for a corridor or two and do ROW work to raise speeds to 80-90 MPH over some stretches of some corridors. NO high speed “system” will built for US$8B or even US$80B, and no system will be completed even in an 8 year Obama Administration. Remember, Japan started in the 1960s, France in the 1970s, other European nations even later. Only Spain has pushed so hard to have a more or less complete system built in about 15 years. It will require a major change of national will and investment priorities, and, say, a trillion dollars over 20 years or more to develop true high speed with hourly frequencies on all the routes on the map.

  3. Michael Barata says:

    Ummm….journey….uh…begins with a….ummm….a first step….right?

  4. David Galvan says:

    Obama acknowledged that this is just a first step. What IS exciting is seeing clearly that he is definitely trying to make this a signature policy of his administration. It represents a change in direction for the U.S. transportation system, and it’s exactly the direction we need.

    Besides, the ARRA stimulus $8B is not the only source of funding that could become available for this. John Kerry has a High-Speed-Rail bill sitting in committee that could provide billions more, and the big Department of Transportation bill will be going through Congress this Fall, so that’s another place to get money for this. As far as CA goes, we’ve already got $10B, we need $10B from the fed somehow, and hopefully private companies will put in another $10B when they see that the system will actually get built, and we’re on our way to building the Anaheim-to-S.F. line. If that goes well at 220mph fully grade separated, it will be a shining example for the rest of the nation and could change Americans’ minds about trains in this country.

    Yes, we should temper our excitement with realism, but Obama getting behind this really is a big deal.

  5. MadPark says:

    Michael and David – I could not agree with you more – this journey DOES begin with small steps along the lines of what has been happening in WA, CA, NC and other states. But a Presidential speech is not an appropriation by the Congress – once that happens, THEN let us celebrate. I’m old enough to have ridden the “real” Empire Builder, North Coast Ltd, El Capitan and others in pre-Amtrak days, and have also ridden what passes for HSR in England. Much work need to be done to restore our long distance trains, and much more work needs to be done to get roadbeds ready and trains built for even moderately high speed service. I was only suggesting that we not get too excited too soon, hence my “reality check”.

  6. cal says:

    You write you have ridden pre-Amtrak trains and I read some Railroad boards and am quite surprised to read more than a few outright anti-HSR comments on these its a waste of my taxes..will never work ect. I think the younger generations are all
    for HSR and we will get it built. These posts of those boards seem to be from people that do remember 1950s passenger trains and think thats enough ..when of course its not.

  7. MadPark says:

    Cal – you are correct. You will find near unanimous support for HSR across the transportation community. Not to be ignored, however, are those long distance trains which will play a crucial role in connecting smaller cities and towns to the HSR grid. Those long distance trains also provide overnight and cross country services which have been downgraded over the last decade or so by Amtrak, with some exceptions. I’m not saying that the level of luxury or service of the 1950s ought to return, sadly it cannot. But the “Hotel Train” services are also needed and are as important to many in the US as HSR will become to others. What is most glaring in the plans announced yesterday is the lack of a dedicated Trust Fund (similar to that which built the Interstate highways) going out 20-30 years to build and maintain the HSR system and improve the current infrastructure.

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