Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Who’s afraid of rail investment? National politicians, apparently

Earlier today, Pat pointed out that Obama’s address about infrastructure and investment didn’t contain anything about rail or transit. It’s just the usual “roads and bridges.” It’s something we’ve often wondered about over the past few weeks: where’s the beef?

We here at TFA, along with practically every other blog about non-auto transportation, have been holding our breaths waiting for anything at all substantive about how the Obama administration is going to take advantage of this unique time to refocus attention on our overcrowded and underfunded transit systems. We latch onto the same non-committal comments from leaders. What’s the difference between Obama’s praise for a Midwest HSR network back in July and Biden’s comments at the National Governors Convention a few days ago? Only a few months and an election, really.

And we’ve seen all sorts of editorials recently about how excited people are about new rail investments. States and municipalities, hungry for transit dollars, have queued up in the breadlines with “ready to go” projects, but who’s to say everyone’s not getting all riled up about nothing? Do these local officials know something we don’t? My fear is that this new infrastructure investment opportunity will only benefit rail in the form of money trickling down from “highways and bridges.”

It seems to me that national politicians are afraid of proposing something so ambitious as a nationwide rail/transit investment. We’ve heard remarkably little about John Kerry’s HSR bill, and we’ve got our ears affixed firmly to the ground on these matters. The general public probably knows nothing about it. The problem is, in a country where everyone is forced to drive by necessity, that sort of spending can probably be easily characterized as liberal idealism, or just pork.

But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?

Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.

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

From the Times: Detroit bailout should make automakers “transport makers”

Robert Goodman, a professor at Hampshire college in Massachussets, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times about steeting any potential automaker bailout towards a more transport friendly economy. That is, attaching strings so that they’ll start building things like train stock for HSR in addition to fuel efficient automobiles.

The Obama administration should ask the companies, as a condition of financial assistance, to begin shifting from being just automakers to becoming innovative “transportmakers.” As Barack Obama’s new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recently said: “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do important things you would otherwise avoid.”

As transportmakers, the companies could produce vehicles for high-speed train and bus systems that would improve our travel options, reduce global warming, conserve energy, minimize accidents and generally improve the way we live.

This sounds all well and good, but unless we want to lead these companies into more trouble, we can’t ask them to make these products without creating a market for them. Which would, ideally, mean creating that first-class rail system Biden mentioned on the campaign trail.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , ,

China stimulating economy with railroads

While we’re looking at diverting some of our massive bailout to save carmakers, China seems to be investing its economic package more wisely. From Business Week via The Overhead Wire:

China is now undertaking the world’s biggest railway expansion since the U.S. laid its transcontinental line in the 1860s. Beijing plans to spend $248 billion through 2020 on 75,000 miles of new track, for both freight and high-speed passenger lines. At that point, China’s high-speed passenger network will likely be the biggest on earth.

Despite these colossal ambitions, a nagging question remains: Can anyone make money from all this? Equipment suppliers, such as China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corp. and multinationals like Siemens, certainly can. But it’s hard to profit from running a railroad on the mainland. Analysts at UBS (UBS) estimate China’s Ministry of Railways, which operates the railroads, has a net profit margin of less than one percent on revenues of about $35 billion. The Ministry maintains majority control over all rail lines and sets freight rates for farm products and ticket prices for migrant workers at artificially low levels. It wouldn’t comment for this article.

Does China need to be making a profit from its rail lines? Most industrialized countries subsidize their rail systems, I’m not sure why we’re holding ours here in the United States to a different standard. Hopefully the PRC hasn’t drifted so far into capitalism that it doesn’t recognize a valuable public service when it sees one.

And did I mention that the country is getting serious about intraurban rail transit as well? To the tune of 3,000kms (1,800 miles) and 88 billion dollars?

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , ,

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