Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Your High Speed Rail 501 (OK, we’re being pretty demanding) emd of term exam

A reader became as irritated, as I often do,  with some of the grain of truth but generally misleading opinion pieces we so often encounter The column under consideration came from the Boston Herald. It’s a real piece of work form a guy named Guy Darst (clever play on words, aye?). His technique is to use a scatter gun approach with half-truths, unimportant factoids, and confusion.

Since I am tied up with an academic paper these days, I have a plan to keep you people out of my hair.

OK. Settle down. Can’t anybody take a joke anymore?

Your exam is open-book. Deal with one issue raised by the column. Identify the issue properly and state your response using whatever sources you may wish to cite. Cite two for extra “points”

By the way, points are worth nothing, but everybody will know that you REALLY know your stuff. Here is the email that raises the questions/issues.

I get mad when I see stupid stuff going unchallenged.

Here are the contentious points in his article, as I see them:

“It’s doubtful there are many like that.” He says there aren’t many “shovel-ready” projects. Well, from what I’ve seen, there are many of them, even on the California HSR plan. Agree? How could I substantiate it?

“the European trains so praised by the president all eat large subsidies (about $88 billion per year overall).” I live near the current eastern end of the TGV Est line in France. From what I’ve heard, the SNCF makes an operating profit on its TGV operations, enough to cross-subsidize the rest of the network. But it’s not unusual for public transit to require an operating subsidy, much as do cars and planes, which get concealed subsidies. But this figure sounds silly and extreme. How to attack it?

“Despite their splendid trains, Europeans drive almost as much as we do.” Well, sure, but that’s specious. If there weren’t all these filled to capacity (try to buy a ticket from Luxembourg to Paris less than a week an advance and you run the risk of it being sold out) trains, where would the excess go? Back into planes and cars, in that order.

“This is hard to believe – unless the trains are to be powered by electricity generated from nuclear reactors and hydroelectric plants.” Or how about windmills or geothermic or solar? Isn’t Spain committing to drive all of its high speed trains from wind power? Has anyone written about this?

“Amtrak and private automobiles emit about the same amount of carbon dioxide per passenger mile.” This strikes me as either wrong or misleading. First of all, Amtrak uses diesels, and operates them inefficiently. But even so, I’ve heard figures of 1/3 less CO2. Am I right?

“Remember the claims for Acela?” What is he talking about? The Acela runs over barely upgraded tracks from the early 20th century. The only money spent on it went into getting trains that can go faster where possible, and keeping the electrical overhead from falling down. What is his point, anyway? There has never been multi-billion investment into the NEC. Maybe $1 billion?

My problem in dealing with this stuff is I know when it’s wrong, but I don’t have a set of facts close to hand that I’m sure of to tackle these fellow. Maybe one day.

Anyway, thanks for listening.


Filed under: Administration, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

11 Responses

  1. Allan says:

    Sorry but I can only offer bad news …

    From Amtrak and Energy Conservation in Intercity Passenger Transportation: “As can be seen from the numbers there, intercity buses use less than 40% of the energy of Amtrak (measured in Btu(4)) per passenger-mile. Automobile trips longer than 75 miles are about as energy efficient as travel by Amtrak, and the average trip length on Amtrak in fiscal year 1995 was 257 miles.”

  2. patlynch says:

    The truth is never bad news, and good work. So, how would it all work our if trains were electrified? Of course, we are in an incremental program, but it should be a goal, don’t you think?

    Good beginning and a passing grade for Allan. I await your responses.

  3. Mad Park says:

    HSR=electrically powered, by definition. No such thing as diseasel powered HSR

  4. NikolasM says:

    The Boston Herald sure isn’t the Boston Globe. Yeesh. Written by ignoramuses…

  5. patlynch says:

    Mad Park properly corrects me and gains a passing grade.

    I am afraid, however, if NikolasM is properly :”engaging” opposing views on this subject. (just foolin’ around, everybody settle down). Being right about the Boston Herald does not necessarily gain one a passing mark.


  6. NikolasM says:

    Ok. They make snarky remarks about the effort in the NE corridor being a waste of money because it hasn’t lived up to promises really low travel times, how plane travel is quicker, etc… even though Acela et al has taken 50% of the market so obviously quite a few people would disagree that it is a worthless proposition. The statement that trains are less green than auto travel is absurd as hell. The NEC is primarily powered by Hydro so it is far greener than a car. Does a truck carry a ton of goods three or four hundred miles on a gallon of gas? What is greener? 400 people on a train powered by a 5000 HP engine or 400 people in 100 cars with 150 HP (many have much more than this nowadays) = 15,000+ HP? Not only that, but then you have 100 people who ought to pay 100% attention to the road and can’t do anything else with their time, instead of one person. There are a million arguments. It is well past time to be having these arguments. Rail has been proven successful in too many places for these highway lobby naysayers to try and shut down everything with inaccurate editorials. Acela hasn’t achieved its promise because of a lot of things, all solvable with a realistic level of effort to bring our infrastructure out of the 1920’s.

  7. patlynch says:

    NikolasM, you have obviously “engaged” with opposing arguments and display an above average competence in handling information. Your skills of organization are superior. You pass.


  8. Allan says:

    Some thoughts.

    HSR is not, by definition, electric. The Spanish company Talgo has a diesel train that reached 250 kilometers per hour in testing.

    Here’s a problem I see with widespread electrification of railroads. Freight trains carry a lot of large bulky items. How high do we put the catenary to ensure clearance for freight trains?

    I think that HSR would need its own dedicated rail line and one wouldn’t want freight trains on it, but if they do share the track then the height of the catenary becomes an issue.

    Given the improving efficiency of cars and with electric cars already out like the Tesla, then it will be an argument of electric vs electric. Don’t forget that trains do use electric motors … the diesel generators are there to supply the electricity.

    Regardless, the numbers don’t lie. Trains aren’t as efficient as we’d like to believe. Other modes have greatly improved their efficiency over the years. How can trains be improved?

    How have the trains cars changed? Are they any lighter? No, they’re still heavy behemoths and that is a LOT of weight to pull around.

    The Acela may have taken 50% of the market from the airlines (trains are more efficient that planes) but has it made a dent in the automobile traffic? That’s the crux of the issue isn’t it?

    Those are my random thoughts for the day.

  9. Paul says:


    Trains and planes are safer than cars. As was mentioned above, you can be more productive when not having to navigate the auto. Electric cars do not address congestion and the resulting lost productivity.

    Chicago, IL

  10. MadPark says:

    Perhaps I overstated that HSR is, by definition, electric, but I keep these two lines of prose in mind always:
    “Only by switching from liquid fuels to non-motorized and electric transportation can we meet any of our energy independence or climate goals.

    And only by reducing dependence on individual vehicles to a greater reliance on electric mass transportation can we transition to a nation of great cities and regions.”
    Sadly, I have lost the citation, but these are the guidelines by which, I feel, we should proceed in the 21st Century.

  11. Mad Park says:

    AND… while we are fighting for every penny we can get for HSR…
    Congresspeople are subsidizing airline passengers to the max

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April 2009


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