Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Amtrak, high speed rail, and political reality

In my own awkward halting way, I have attempted to bring my political knowledge to bear on the political situation in which transportation advocates exist. This is not an easy world.

I found an internet site, Moderate Voice, that fairly well, and comprehensively captures the essence of our sorry state of affairs. You aren’t going to like this. It made me very uncomfortable and I think I disagree with parts. Nonetheless, government in America does not respond to Americans.

Health Care Reform is “exhibit A” and is the general topic of the post I found so enlightening and encouraging. Stay with me. Here is what Marc Pascal had to say on medical costs and the massive paid opposition to any substantive change.

The wealthiest Americans and largest corporations control the business of this country. The U.S. has been, is, and will be an oligarchy or plutocracy (essentially the same), and our “meritocracy” simply exists to buttress this near complete control of the U.S. economic and political system. All members of Congress are so dependent upon campaign contributions for their continuing existences, that only those with enough money or the ability to raise significant amounts of money have access and effective control over the actions of Congress.

But now on to the good part.

For example, new spending on Amtrak, rail mass transit, and high speed rail has garnered broad bi-partisan support in Congress, simply because the wealthiest Americans and many large corporations now see a direct future benefit to their own bank accounts by way of ostensibly doing something good for the American public. (It also helps that the housing bubble and other investment options are pretty well discredited.) If they did not see these public investments ultimately benefitting themselves, they would not now be playing such a large role in the current and future budget plans of this Congress and this Administration.

This post is meant to focus advocates of various meritorious ideas geared to help the majority of Americans to take the realistic view that for those proposals to ultimately become enacted, they must principally get the approval of the wealthiest Americans, investors and businesses.

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

Former Nevada governors push Maglev

Republican Kenny Guinn and Democrat Bob Miller are backing a Maglev corridor between southern California and Las Vegas. Their opinions were published in the Las Vegas Sun and represent one of the clearest and most concise arguments in favor of the Maglev technology. Part is highlighted here, but you should read the whole thing.

Maglev is emissions-free, does not rely upon foreign or domestic oil and uses less energy and emits far fewer pollutants than traditional forms of ground or air transportation. This dramatically reduces CO2 emissions on the highways.

Instead of using wheels, maglev trains hover above the tracks — or guideways — levitated by magnetic force and propelled by electricity. There is no physical contact between the train and the guideway, which eliminates friction and enables high speeds with little to no noise. The base of the train wraps around the guideway and the train therefore cannot derail. Additionally, while the tracks of traditional trains require frequent maintenance and repair, the maglev train guideway, or track, is expected to be in service for 60 years or more with minimal maintenance.

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

DesertXpress high speed train ready for construction next year.

You already know this headline has a big “if.” The story runs in the Contra Costa Times reports developers will spend $4 billion in private investment for a Victorville to Las Vegas high speed rail link. This is not the Maglev proposal.

The preliminary environmental study is complete and the FRA needs to sign off. The business plan suggests a ticket price in the $50 range.

As planned, the DesertXpress line would allow Southern California passengers to board trains at a north Victorville train station and speed to Sin City as quickly as 150 mph. The line, which would generally follow the route of the 15 Freeway, would feature 183 to 200 miles of track, depending upon its ultimate alignment.

DesertXpress is still awaiting approval from the federal government. The firm has completed a draft environmental impact statement and Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Rob Kulat said the agency could make a decision in nine months.

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

Rail passengers bring Denver Union Station lawsuit

Kendra Wiig of reports on the pending development of Denver’s Union Station. It is a grand and memorable building and is, today, tragically underused. The Colorado Rail Passenger Association says current plans fail to live up to previous public promises and lack essential connectivity.

Whether or not a reconstituted Pioneer is split at Denver, this is a story of national importance. Some parts of the plan, including expensive underground facilities, seem strangely inappropriate.

The Association cites the plans for underground bus bays as a short-sighted and costly development that will not allow for future transportation options or expansion, something that would be more feasible with an above-ground structure. In addition, the organization is concerned that the resources needed to power and maintain the underground station combined with its low-lying flood-prone location will make it unsustainable in the long term.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

To airlines: Don’t fear the trains

A [very interseting] article on Streetsblog yesterday off-handedly mentioned Ray LaHood keeping mum about any threat that high-speed rail might pose to the airlines. A link was provided, and I clicked through to find a post on a blog called “Things in the Sky.” It’s certainly well-written and interesting, but, naturally, holds views rather divergent from TFA. And geez, take a look at some of the other posts. How come no one talks about rabid “plane-fans”?

Things in the Sky points to the huge decrease in Madrid-Barcelona plane traffic after the high-speed line went into service. Here’s what they say about what HSR might do to America’s air carriers:

Some airlines here in the States could definitely be hurt by a high speed rail expansion. Any further improvement in the Northeast Corridor could negatively affect the Delta and US Airways shuttle operations, and I agree with Marshall that Southwest would get hurt (I think the intra-Texas and intra-California routes especially).

If this is ends up being an expansion of Amtrak, I’m very worried when it comes to competition with the airline industry. The air carriers are motivated by profits and losses (as they should). If a route isn’t performing well, the airline will adjust accordingly by either eliminating the route or trimming capacity, and the opposite happens on successful routes. Meanwhile, a government-funded train system with guaranteed funding can continue operating despite being unprofitable, making true competition difficult.

Let’s just ignore for now the many times that airlines have received large bailouts from the federal government. And yes, high-speed rail and trains in general should be supported by government; the service rail provides to communities large and small is more equitable, clean, and efficient than air and car travel. The mistake that air carriers in the past, including, as the blog mentions, Southwest, have made is that they view high-speed rail as competition rather than an opportunity. Let conventional/high-speed rail take over these short/medium haul routes and make sure that there are connections to the airports. This way, passengers can be funneled into the more profitable long-haul routes and the carriers don’t have to subsidize the connecting flights.

And airlines are realizing this. As our friend Robert Cruickshank points out over at the CAHSR blog, none of the major carriers have opposed either the SF-LA project in California or the renewed Texas HSR plan, which Southwest helped kill years ago. European carrieres, such as Air France/KLM are even looking at getting into the HSR business themselves. If airlines find that they are hurting because of high-speed rail, they will have no one to blame but themselves. No one’s saying that trains will replace planes across all routes. What TFA and other progressive rail advocates are working towards is a situation where one can take the train across distances where rail makes sense and flights across distances where planes make sense. Let’s work together to make sure these systems connect rather than inconveniencing travelers through unnecessary competition.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail

A response to Mr. Rose’s “targeting” proposal for federal HSR funds


This post started off as my response to a reader in the thread below dealing with the BNSF CEO’s concept of “targeting” all the HSR stimulus money into a single project.  It is a very good discussion and I thought I would move my thoughts to the front page for wider consideration.

Rose’s position is similar to some political positions which support the concept while imposing conditions making its implementation impossible. It’s like the guy for Georgia who thinks the time has come for HSR and it should pay for itself. (I plan to post on this idea soon.)

America’s railroads were built on the basis of a public-private partnership. The corporations generally got land and tax breaks in exchange for the promise to provide a necessary transportation service.

An earlier poster observed the advantages of “targeting” the northeast corridor. While this has some advantages, the idea also exposes an interesting aspect of Rose’s formulation.

Pouring $13 billion into the Washington-Boston corridor is a political impossibility. This geographic region represents everything middle America hates. Those of us who follow rail transport instinctively feel slighted by the neglect of our long distance trains.

Satan will ice skate across Hell when the northeast corridor gets $13 billion.

Let me clarify that I am not speaking to the merits of the above post concerning the northeast corridor. It has a powerful basis in fact.

These decisions are always political and politics is the science of the doable. Spreading the money around like peanut butter is politically easy and we need to be aware of this.

I think spreading the money across a regions, such as the Midwest High Speed Rail Association routes, makes very good sense. That may be too narrow, from the political viewpoint.

For most Americans, health care and the Middle East are first order political priorities. For airlines and highway interests, killing competing forms of transportation is more important than anything – anything. They will stop at nothing.

It ought to be noted that BNSF is probably not an enemy of Amtrak or HSR. They are not friends either.BNSF owns a business and rightly expected to be compensated for use of its facilities.

Expect the enemy to favor HSR in principle and propose the methods that result only in our demise. Our goal must be to get Americans on trains and that means making trains available.

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

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May 2009