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, , , ,

Pre-election train jitters

It’s a big night for rail, and well, maybe even the rest of the country. Here’s some the primary train related issues to keep your eye on if you can tear yourself away from the television. And of course we’ll be providing some analysis here at TFA when all the beans are counted.

1. The presidential election. Well, obivously. But really, this is as much about who gets put in office as who they appoint to key transportation-related posts. Are we going to have a Department of Transportation that continues to be focused singularly on highways and airports? Will the Federal Transit Administration continue to tighten its purse strings with regard to new transit spending? Will next year’s transportation bill be favorable to rail travel? I don’t think I need to articulate again the positions the candiates have taken on these issues. However, Streetsblog has a good analysis of the possible DOT picks for each canidate.

2. California High-Speed rail. If California’s Proposition 1A passes, it will be a huge shot in the arm to HSR in America. California needs to be the state leading the way when it comes to providing clean, convenient, efficient, stimulating, and future-proof transportation in these tough economic times. As always, Robert Cruickshank is the last word and best resource on all things CAHSR.

Today we’re gonna show them that a new force is here in California. A force that demands sustainable and secure prosperity for future generations, built not on imported oil and global warming but on renewable energy and mass transportation.

I will be dropping in at various times during the day, and will update with the latest vote totals as we get them from the Secretary of State. Given the high number of absentee ballots we may not know the outcome tonight. But there is one thing we do know:

We’re gonna win this thing.

3. And considering that transit and trains go hand in hand, it’s worth keeping an eye on various transit proposals that may be in your area. For instance, Seattle’s Proposition 1 would authorize a much needed build-out to a growing and progressive city (I also get the impression that they’re tired of being shown up by their smaller neighbor, Portland, in the transit space race). The Seattle Transit Blog has been pushing hard for a number of months now, and they’re always worth checking out.

So get out there!

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

Midwest HSR plan, Southeastern Corridor also looking to benefit from new fed legislation

Pat posted yesterday about Ohio officials seeing opportunity in the matching funds and incentives included in the recently passed Amtrak reauthorization/rail safety bill.

Seems like other regional rail advocates are paying attention too. Those close to the Midwest HSR project indicated that the Twin Cities – Chicago line (a route close to my heart), will likely see high-speed upgrades in the coming few years.

High-speed rail service between Chicago and the Twin Cities could begin within five years, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said this week. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, led House efforts to get the legislation passed.

Randy Wade, passenger rail manager with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said he hopes Wisconsin can obtain federal funds next year for improvements necessary for high-speed rail service between Milwaukee and Madison. “Now we’ve got a funding program,” he said of the new federal legislation.

High-speed service between Milwaukee and Madison could be at least three years away, once federal funds are obtained, Wade said. And high-speed service between Madison and the Twin Cities could begin a couple years after that first leg is completed, he said. Six daily round trips are planned.

Similarly, North Carolina officials are looking to upgrade tracks from Charlotte to Washington DC. They call these improvements “high-speed” but they don’t seem to approach the 110mph standard that tends to be the federal standards these days. The times indicated in the article would make this segment of the “Southeastern Corridor” much more competitive with automobile travel, at least.

The state wants to double-track the rail corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro. That would allow for more frequent service, and for trains to run about 10 mph faster than their top speed today, which is 79 mph. It also would have to install double track between Richmond and Washington, D.C., and it would have to build a connector between Raleigh and Richmond. (Train service today meanders from Raleigh through Rocky Mount and Wilson en route to the nation’s capitol).

Patrick Simmons, director of the N.C. DOT Rail Division, said a trip between Charlotte and Raleigh would take 2 hours and 50 minutes with the improvements. A trip to Washington D.C. would be 6 hours and 10 minutes.

Baby steps, right?

Filed under: Regional USA Passenger Rail, 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, , , , ,

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