Trains For America

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So, now we’re partners? – Garl B. Latham – MyProgressiveRailroading

So, now we’re partners? – Garl B. Latham – MyProgressiveRailroading.

Mr. Lathan takes Transportation Secretary LaHood to the woodshed over something that transportation professionals have done a damn poor job of explaining to the public. Namely, there is a real distinction between conventional passenger trains and true High Speed Rail. Latham persuasively argues that good conventional trains on good schedules are cheaper and marketable.

Then, he said a few more things which indicated his continued ignorance of the issues at hand and the administration’s real intent behind its persistent proposals.

Regarding the feds’ fatuousness, LaHood indicated that the current administration “strongly supports” both “high speed rail and freight rail.” For whatever reason(s), the DOT remains unclear on the most basic concept of all: true H.S.R. is literally incompatible with existing Class I railway infrastructure and operations!

Read it all at the link above.

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

4 Responses

  1. Woody says:

    The problem of understanding and language probably tracks back to two worthy efforts from about a decade or more ago: the CREATE plan to untangle the mess of rail and roads in and around Chicago, and the various incarnations of the Midwest regional rail plan.

    Illinois politicos like Obama, LaHood, and FRA head Swazo would have become familiar with these plans.

    CREATE includes large benefits for commuter rail and Amtrak, promising to speed up the schedules of most Amtrak long-distance trains passing thru ChicagoLand by 20 or 30 minutes. But the greatest beneficiary, and the greatest emphasis, was on the freight traffic.

    The plan for Midwest regional rail, consisting of spokes from Chicago to Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other cities, was put together in the George Bush era to be done on the cheap. While Chicago delays were being reduced, upgrades along the spokes would raise the top speeds of the Amtrak routes to 90 or even 110 mph, and frequencies would go up from 1 or 3 a day to 4, 6, or even 8 trains a day. All the passenger trains would run on existing but improved freight tracks, which would be much, MUCH cheaper than building new TGV-type high-speed lines.

    The Midwest regional plan was estimated to generate more than 12 million riders a year, and more or less break even on operations, for an investment of billions that could be counted on your fingers.

    The plan was essentially for a vastly improved Amtrak-type system. But without a good model of an improved Amtrak service to point to, and because Amtrak has been under on-going attack from its enemies, they were promoted as a new type of service, more comparable to HSR.

    When the Illinois politicos (and Amtrak-fan Biden) took over way back in 2009, they began serious funding for CREATE and for Midwest passenger rail. They also wanted to spread new-and-better rail projects around the country, and they wrapped their plans in the glamorous banner of HSR. (In fact, the legislation for the stimulus funding stipulated that money should go to every level of passenger rail, conventional as well as HSR, but who heard about that?)

    But true HSR trains are very high-performance and a bit temperamental. They cannot use the same rail and tracks that carry freights hauling 100 cars of coal. And trains that can carry the heavy tonnage can’t bank around curves the way HSR trains must do. Even conventional diesel passenger trains with a top speed of only 110 mph may have trouble sharing tracks with the heavy freights. (Europe’s HSR trains do share sections of conventional tracks in urban areas, but they aren’t going fast, and European freights are smaller and not nearly as heavy as those in America.)

    So true HSR trains are not only expensive, they are basically incompatible in the U.S. (There might be sections where tracks could be built to allow HSR trains to operate at lower speeds along with freights, but not so long as FRA regulations prevent it.)

    I’m not sure that anyone got the time to explain to Obama, Biden, or even Ray LaHood back in early 2009 that in the U.S., our HSR trains will only run on HSR tracks. After all, the top guys were dealing with economic crisis back then, not to mention failed wars, health care reform, and other issues.

    But now we are looking at end-to-end corridors only, or cross-platform transfers at best, causing big problems in California already and more to come in the NEC.

    I’m sure that Ray LaHood now well understands the problems of using freight tracks for more and faster passenger trains. But at this point, it is difficult to change the announced path. The Republican haters in the House are doing everything they can to destroy President Obama and every program that he supports. So they are closing off every option for federal support of any form of improved passenger rail, no matter what it is called.

  2. gblatham says:


    I appreciate your comments and I find myself in agreement with much of what you wrote – until the final three paragraphs.

    As I was composing my essay, the idea that I should formulate a politcal screed rather than an honest review of the facts never once entered my mind. Had Ray LaHood’s speech been made several years ago by, say, Norman Mineta during George W. Bush’s administration, my opinion would have been precisely the same.

    To intimate that top-ranking elected officials might receive a free pass regarding transportation issues simply because there are more pressing matters at hand is fundamentally flawed. This is especially true since, in the U.S. administrative branch, a cabinet-level position has been specifically created to cover transport concerns! I seriously doubt that LaHood, even as a “top guy,” loses too much sleep over wars, heath care, the economy or other crises du jour. As Secretary of Transportation, he’s responsible for dealing with one thing: transportation – including railroading – whether his bosses believe they personally have time deal with it, or not.

    Insofar as LaHood’s level of understanding, I strongly disagree with your observation. I believe he (and the others) are basically ignorant of the situation, the technology and the industry. To be candid with you, I’d honestly like to think that’s true! You see, if you’re correct when you postulate the Secretary simply finds it “difficult to change the announced path” and, therefore, can be justified in his continued attempt to present the current plans as reasonable, that makes him (and the entire administration) guilty of purposefully misleading the public.

    As for me, I don’t really care what the ultimate problem might be. Whether LaHood is lying or merely ignorant of the facts (or both), it should cost him his job.

    Regarding the “Republican haters” and other miscreants (of all stripes) within the political process, I’d rather not accept the burden for that particular judgement call. Amtrak has had over two score years to grow and develop, under many different administrations and Congressional majorities, and they’re STILL floundering, rudderless. If nothing else, there’s blame enough to go ’round.

    Garl Boyd Latham
    Dallas, Texas

  3. Andrew in Ezo says:

    I am in total agreement with Mr.Latham that true HSR and the current Class 1 railroad infrastructure and operating paradigm are completely incompatible. But many politicians and even quite a few railroad-savvy commentators are fixated on the European model of HSR running on both dedicated high speed lines and running on conventional tracks in urban areas or when the money or real estate isn’t there. This is fine in Europe where freight trains are shorter, have lower axle loads, and brake and accelerate faster than their behemoth counterparts in N. America. But a true HSR trainset is a different creature from anything running on US rails today, and running them on track shared with freight and slower commuter trains will require drastic changes in FRA rules, unless you’re willing to run an overweight pig like the Acela. As mentioned, it’s more realistic to speed up conventional rail, and if the market (and funding, either public or private) is there, build a completely grade separated, dedicated high speed line. If this would be California, then you need to get waivers from FRA to run non-compliant commuter stock on the SF peninsula on the same track. Also get all freight off. I would much rather have no sharing of track, but it is what it is.
    Another thing, and this is addressing the general ignorance of the subtleties of high speed rail operation- there are no easily available, technically correct/detailed but understandable to the layman publications in English explaining modern international (i.e. outside of the US, namely Europe and Japan) passenger operation, including the PTC systems- among them ERTMS/Digital ATC, Programmed Route Control, running to a schedule, string diagrams, and other “taken for granteds” in modern, profitable passenger train services. In Japan, you can get numerous books on the matter at the bookstore (much like a “modern train operations for dummies”), and even my local public library has books on railway scheduling complete with algorithms and details of the operation of trains down to five seconds(!). Rather than publishing another book or article on railroads and their efforts in WW2, a topic that seems to be rehashed by Trains magazine ad infinitum, somebody needs to write something for modern passenger railways similar to what John Armstrong did for freight railroads in his “The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does”.

  4. Joe says:

    Amtrak is hopelessly behind the times. It wasn’t that many years ago that even the Northeast Corridor was still running on wooden ties. It was within my lifetime that they changed them to concrete to accommodate heavier, faster trains and even now the trains still aren’t that much faster because the NE Corr. is still shared with Conrail and state operated commuter trains that run at much slower speeds than Acela. In other parts of the country outside the major metro areas the situation is even worse. They have to share the track with slow freight trains carrying coal, oil, or grain a hundred or more cars long. The Acela only runs 120mph along the fastest stretches of the line that run past my house and they think they are going to introduce TGV/Bullet/ICE style trains along those lines going 150+?? The NE Corr. is currently the only line that Amtrak runs that turns a profit and if it were ever privatized, the whole system becomes subject to taxation and loses it’s government subsidies resulting in higher fares for commuters or the closure of lines. Passenger rail just does not work in any form or else the private sector would be out there doing it already. The first patents recorded for technologies that are used in mag-levs date from the 1900’s and by the 1960’s most of the essential parts had been patented so the technology has been available for a high speed rail network for some time. It is just not viable to build the required infrastructure only to have it operate at a loss and I will be very disappointed with the government if they should ever start digging this money pit.

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