Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Taking a serious look at the Kerry HSR bill

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this excellent analysis of John Kerry’s HSR bill from Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic. If you remember, we were doing some investigating on this bill in September and it was officially announced in November.

He points out, interestingly, that the bill establishes an Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail within the Federal Railroad Administration. He’s hoping that such a move will give the FRA a new focus in passenger rail, particularly with regard to regulations requiring passenger trains to be a certain weight, limiting speed:

If passed, the bill would create an “Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail” (we’ll call it OHSR here) which would operate within the Federal Railroad Administration. This would dramatically alter the priorities of the FRA, whose principal focus in recent years has been on improving the freight rail system in the United States. One wonders if FRA’s “safety” precautions, which require passenger rail trains in the United States to be far heavier than similar vehicles in the rest of the world, will be slowly phased out as the FRA’s mission is repositioned towards high-speed rail. Such a change, which would mean great monetary savings for rail operators around the nation in equipment purchases, might be necessary if a true HSR program is to be implemented.

Here’s a breakdown of the money over the bill’s five-year lifespan, which comes to about $5 billion every year:

In a five-year period, the bill would authorize the following:

  • $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds to qualified high-speed rail programs
  • $10 billion in tax-credit bonds to “super high-speed” rail programs (we’ll get to this in a minute)
  • $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds to other high-speed rail prgrams

But rather than creating a top-down federal network and policy, like the Interstate Highway System, the money would be distributed to states and organizations applying for project funding. While not necessarily good news, it’s not terrible news either. Devolution has long been the standard with new rail projects, but that’s mostly because the federal government never cared enough to get too involved. But this means that well-organized projects such as the Midwest HSR plan and California High Speed Rail will be able to move in on much needed federal funds. Other states that don’t have their act together will probably be left out.

Also, federal funds allotted to California will probably be insufficient for the project’s need unless the bill is renewed in 2014. The CAHSR blog remains cautiously optimistic about this:

Of course we’ll likely be well into the construction phase by that point, and it’s harder to kill a spending program once it’s in place than to kill it at the proposal stage. States that have used the OHSR funds to start HSR projects will not look kindly on Congress or the White House refusing to renew their funding.

At any rate, Kerry’s bill is looking good. A nationwide standard for high-speed rail might be a better way to go, but that’s politically more difficult. It’s hard to disagree with this massive step in the right direction, but we’ll see how things play out for this plan on Capitol Hill. Also, be sure to check out the whole analysis over at The Transport Politic if you have the time. Well worth the read.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , , , ,

PBS show about sprawl features California High-Speed Rail, interviews “expert”

PBS’s “Now” program is doing a series on America’s infrastructure, and last Friday they kicked it off with a piece about America’s transportation woes. It’s a short and sweet piece that ties together long automobile commutes, lagging funding for public transit, high gasoline prices, and our current financial and housing turmoil.

In relation to HSR, they highlight Obama’s support for HSR and McCain’s dismissal of anything that doesn’t have rubber tires. They bring up California’s promising vote this November, although they follow it up with an interview with James Elliot Moore, who informs us that in his professional opinion, the bonds for CAHSR would be better spent on airport infrastructure upgrades. Clearly, this is a man with his finger to the pulse of fuel prices, climate change, and land use. He then informs us that city buses should be privatized too. Because, you know, that worked out so well for the British in the 80’s. One might also look at his University of Southern California faculty profile and see that at least half of the publications listed have to do with freeways and none of them relate to rail transportation or mass transit. Was this guy really the best pick?

This gripe aside, I’d encourage you all to give the video a watch. It’s only about 25 minutes long, and it’s a well done piece.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

America needs California High-Speed Rail

In case you haven’t been reading Robert Cruickshank’s excellent California High Speed Rail Blog, California has the country’s most important rail plan going on the ballot for its initial bond funding measure this November. The route has been finalized, construction priorities more or less worked out, and it even has Arnold’s endorsement. The stage is set for a big victory for America’s railways in November (regardless of what happens in that other race).

And yes, I said America’s railways, not just California’s. The project is already high profile, and once the San Francisco-LA spine gets built, you can bet it will attract more attention. This is precisely because the project is so ambitious. Like the French TGV, it will operate on its own electrified high-speed right of way, with its own new rolling stock. If the project succeeds, lawmakers and citizens from other parts of the country won’t have to look to Japan and Europe to see a “true” high-speed train serving the public. When travelers go to California and see HSR in action, they’ll go home and start saying “I’m sick of high gas costs and expensive airline tickets… why can’t we have a train like this in my state?”

Certainly not every state needs to have a system as groundbreaking as CAHSR, but California’s project would go a long way towards making people realize that rail can be a practical solution, not some pie in the sky ideal or archaic technology with only a whimsical value. If California rejects the funding measure, and the line doesn’t get built, the movement for high-speed rail will lose much of its wind. The CAHSR project is the epitome of what America needs right now, and if California can’t be forward thinking enough to build it, no one else will be there to lead the charge.

So, basically: Yes on prop 1!

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

Electrifying the rails

Via (appropiately enough) the Overhead Wire [2] comes a piece by Alan Drake about electrifying America’s railroads. The article is over a year old, so I apologize, but it’s certainly pertinent to passenger rail right now, particularly considering rising diesel fuel costs.

Electrifying railroads and transferring half of the ton-miles of trucks to rail should save 6.3% of US oil consumption. Japanese and most European railroads are already electrified. The Russians finished electrifying the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Moscow to the Pacific, in 2002 and electrified to the Arctic Ocean at Murmansk in 2005. So there are no technical limitations. Electric railroads are cheaper to operate and can carry more freight because they accelerate and brake faster (and can generate electricity while braking, saving energy), and have no delays for refueling.

Drake’s article focuses on freight travel, which is certainly important, but it’s clear that electrification would be a boon to passenger rail as well. Depending on the area, electricity can be drawn from a number of fuel sources, including oil, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, and geothermal. Not only does this mean fewer carbon emissions right now, but electrified trains could eventually run completely on renewable sources of energy. From an environmental standpoint, that’s important in terms of preparing for a carbon-neutral future, and from a business standpoint, it’s a great thing to put in advertisements.

Of course, electrifying long-distance tracks is no easy task, but Drake indicates that given the right incentives, freight rail companies would do this on their own. This could potentially benefit Amtrak if it was allocated the resources to invest in new rolling stock. In addition, new passenger lines implementing electrification(and HSR projects such as California’s) would be partially insulating themselves from rising fuel costs… savings which they could pass on to customers.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

State projects (Ohio, California) energized by passing of HR 6003 in House

Last Wednesday the House of Representatives passed HR 6003, which, in addition to increasing Amtrak’s budget, frees up grants for rail projects designated as high-speed. While President Bush has threatened to veto this forward thinking legislation for the benefit of his buddies in the oil, air, and auto industries, the bill has now passed both the House and the Senate with veto-proof majorities.

Although the House version, which has the language pertaining to high-speed rail, still needs to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart, states are already looking forward to the boosts their projects might receive if this legislation becomes law. California, which, as readers of this blog know, has been a focal point recently in the battle for fast trains, sees itself as one of the beneficiaries, but it’s not the only one. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says that planners of Ohio’s proposed rail system see hope in federal funds.

“This is a huge step,” said Stu Nicholson of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. “A bill like this could make the difference between a plan and a project.”

Ohio began working on the hub plan more than a decade ago with a mission to improve both passenger and freight rail service.

The plan includes more than 1,200 miles of track and 46 stations. The seven corridors would connect to planned or existing networks in neighboring states and southern Ontario

With the federal government hesitant to invest directly in high-speed trains, it’s good to see that regional projects are getting ready to take advantage of federal funds. This may be how America sees it own high speed rail network getting built: region by region, state by state. Let’s just hope that other states will catch on to this trend and not be left behind.

Ohio rail project site: here

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

Nancy Pelosi talks transport infrastructure, passenger rail

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave the keynote address to the American Public Transit Association’s Rail Conference on Sunday, making some interesting comments about transportation and railways. A few selections with comments (she’s a politician, so take this all with a spoonful of salt):

“The question is not whether we must invest in our nation’s [transit] infrastructure, but rather, how do we pay for it? How do we proceed in a fiscally sound way?

“One idea being considered is an infrastructure development bank to promote public and private investment in projects of regional and national significance, including public transportation projects. The bank would be an independent federal entity that would evaluate major infrastructure proposals and finance the best of them using a variety of financial tools.

This sounds  like a good idea, it would give states and municipalities more leverage when funding regional rail projects. Just as long as it doesn’t supplant the federal grants already often provided to these projects under organizations such as the Federal Transit Administration.

“House Democrats are committed to robust public investment in public transportation. We are committed to advancing a bill that – at a minimum – honors the historic 80/20 funding split between highways and transit. The reduction of transit’s share below 20 percent that occurred in the 2005 reauthorization will not be repeated.

An 80/20 split is already sounding archaic in this day and age. Congress actually went below this in 2005? Shameful.

“It is essential that the environmental and economic development benefits of rail transit become fundamental criteria in the decision-making process for New Starts. We see with each new light rail system – whether the location is Dallas, Minneapolis, or Portland – a tremendous upsurge in transit-oriented development around rail lines and stations. Transit and the high-density development that accompanies it both have tremendous value in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and putting us on the path to a low-carbon economy.

Excellent point here, especially for a national politician. Rail transportation encourages denser development: interstate trains usually serve stations in the downtown core of cities, and regional and local rail promotes dense growth within walking distance of local stations. Dense development lets people walk and take transit to more of their destinations, meaning they make fewer car trips. Giving people the means to use their cars less is going to be crucial if we want to reduce our national impact on the environment. We can start by investing in Amtrak and passenger rail.

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

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