Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Kerry’s high-speed rail plan: The whole letter

Trains for America has obtained a copy of the letter that Sen. John Kerry sent to his senatorial colleagues about his high-speed rail initiative. The letter is dated July 23, 2008. It doesn’t give many more concrete details than what we got out of the snippet from yesterday’s post, but it’s interesting to see his rhetoric and the ways he plans to market this bill.

Dear Colleague:

With gas prices over $4 a gallon, I believe the sense of urgency has finally arrived, and the time is ripe to make a long-term investment in passenger rail – and make the United States a world leader again in high-speed rail. It would reduce the congestion on our highways and in the skies, reduce our use of foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. High-speed rail would be the fastest and most reliable way to get from downtown to downtown for most city pairs between 100-500 miles apart, saving up to an hour per trip when compared to air and cutting trip time by more than 50 percent compared to driving. Perhaps most importantly, the bill would create tens of thousands of good new jobs and help stimulate the sluggish economy.

That’s why I am writing to ask for your support for the High-Speed Rail for America Act. The legislation creates the funding mechanism to create a world class high-speed rail system in the United States, and establishes an office of high-speed rail in the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure we have the leadership needed to keep this mission on track.

I know that you’ve heard the skeptics and cynics dismiss the idea of high-speed rail for decades. But recently, we have seen a shift in the way Americans are using transportation that indicates the time is ripe for a big change. The American Public Transportation Association recently reported that streetcars, trolleys and other light rail experienced a 10.3 percent increase in ridership for the first quarter of this year. It’s no secret why this is happening: According to a 2007 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion continues to worsen in cities across the country, creating a $78 billion drain on the U.S. economy with 4.2 billion lost man hours of work and 2.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel. In 2007, domestic flight delays cost the economy $41 billion and consumed about 740 million additional gallons of jet fuel. Passenger rail is an effective alternative to highway and air transportation. Americans want alternatives – and we can deliver them.

I believe the High Speed Rail for America Act helps to point the way forward. The bill provides a consistent source of funding – over the course of six years, this bill provides $200 million per year in grants, $3 billion in tax exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure. The legislation is designed to fund high-speed passenger trains that can reach a speed of at least 150 mph as well as passenger trains for shorter distances which can reach a speed of 110 mph.

We have ignored our rail infrastructure for far too long and this bill is an important step towards creating a modern and reliable transportation network in the United States. If you would like to be an original cosponsor of this legislation or need additional information… [contact information omitted].

What I like about this letter is that it links the success  of intracity transit, particularly light rail, with intercity rail service. It’s certainly true that if we can get people from city to city without putting them in a car, local transit systems will reap the benefits (and don’t tell me that air travel fulfills this.. not when you need a car to get from the airport to the city). However, I feel that by quoting light rail usage statistics instead of equally impressive Amtrak gains, Kerry sidesteps what the role of our current passenger rail provider will be in this new system. It’s also possible that he just wants to avoid mentioning Amtrak because of potential negative connotations it might have for other lawmakers.

Although it’s not exactly clear, the letter seems to hint that this HSR infrastructure would be all new.. new tracks and possibly even new stations. If so, I question whether the funds Kerry is proposing would be adequate to cover the massive cost of such a plan.. especially for a nationwide implementation. The estimated cost of the California High Speed Rail project is $40 billion, after all. To be fair, California’s trains will travel much faster than the speeds mentioned in the letter. But considering the large scale of this legislation, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

I’m also surprised that the letter doesn’t harp on the potential environmental benefits of high-speed rail. Sure, it mentions the waste caused by delayed flights and congested automobile traffic, but references to rail’s inherent energy efficiency and electrification are nowhere to be found. This might indicate that these high-speed trains would be diesel powered. Do we want to be building a system that’s not future proof? Electrification should be a priority in these days of expensive fossil fuels.

Kerry’s letter indicates that this might be a promsing proposal. It’s still hard to say without some concrete details. We’ll be anxiously awaiting an official announcement and more details on the plan.

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

Developing: A big HSR bill from John Kerry?

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an interview with Senator Jonny Isakson (R-GA)  about new legislation sponsored by Senator John Kerry called the “High Speed Rail for America Act.” Apparently Kerry has sent a letter to his congressional colleauges about the proposal, which the AJC quotes:

Kerry’s office wouldn’t answer questions about the measure, dubbed the High Speed Rail for America Act, but a letter he sent to colleagues talks big: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax-credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds for rail infrastructure.”

I can’t find much more information about the proposed legislation, but I’ll be working to get the full text of the letter tomorrow. A high-speed rail initiative in this country would be great if executed well, but we don’t want any nascent project to siphon funds and support away from our already functioning Amtrak system.

I won’t be passing judgement until we get more details.

Edit after some more thinking: From the article I get the impression that the bill might involve all new track.. but I’m not sure. The way Isakson talks seems to point to a European-style system where a public entity owns the infrastructure, which private-ish operators then rent. Again, hard to make any assessments until we get some more details.

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

More details on Air France/KLM high-speed rail venture

Earlier this summer we posted about how Air France-KLM (or whatever they’re called in these days of airline mergers) was considering getting into the high-speed rail business when the EU liberalizes international rail travel in 2010. That plan took a more solid form today when the airline publicly announced its intention to begin offering high-speed train service in partnership with environmental services company Veolia. The company has apparently been in talks with Alstom, developers of the TGV stock, about purchasing a more advanced version known as the AGV.

What’s interesting is that the sources I’ve read don’t seem to be talking about this as just a useful way to connect flights. Air France seems to want this to be a money maker. According to Deutsche Welle:

The diversification amounted to a “change in flight direction for Air France” which was responding to “the difficult position of airlines for journeys of less than three hours.”

This is great, but I can just imagine that misguided politicians here are going to start pointing to Europe saying “Look, rail can make money over there, why does it need public funding here?” What they fail to understand is that new operators such as Air France will be using tracks that were built with public money, tracks that are rented from a public company. Amtrak’s situation is very different from those of the European rail carriers, but many tend not to realize this when they cry “Privatize!” from the rooftops every year.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , , ,

Maglev-HSR conflicts and other China rail news

There’s lots of rail related news coming out of China this week.. not surprising considering the massive investments they’ve been putting into the technology in recent years.

The first item relates to the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev extension we talked about last week. According to the mayor of Hangzhou, the maglev line may face delays due to a conventional HSR route also being planned to connect the cities. He seems adamant that the project will go ahead.. but one would think that this sort of redundancy with such expensive proposals would put one of the lines on the chopping block eventually.

In a more dangerous example of bad coordination, an archaeological site containing ancient artifacts was badly damaged by construction of China’s newest HSR line, connecting Beijing and Shanghai.

The builders of the railway, which will allow trains to travel at 236 miles a hour, discovered shards of pottery and bones in the Yuhuatai district of Nanjing last October, during an initial site survey.

A subsequent survey found a 250,000 sq ft area filled with “countless relics dating back to the Shang (16th to 11th century BC) and Zhou (11th to second century BC) dynasties.” Nanjing has been the capital of China on several occasions in the past.

However, the company never replied and simply proceeded with the construction, destroying around 20,000 sq ft of the site in the process.

Municipal authorities have now halted the work and are likely to fine the building company up to 500,000 yuan for the damage. Mr Yang said the area had been “severely damaged”.

A spokesman at the Ministry of Railways said the mistake “should not have occurred”.

According to the BBC, this new HSR route will be the longest in the world and will go up in only four years.  In this country however, environmental studies and legal red tape can drag out construction time tables in the best of circumstances. Yet it’s examples like this archaeology hiccup that remind us why we undertake these studies in the first place.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, , , ,

Airlines “can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly”

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this piece from the Washington Post about travellers switching to Amtrak. Inevitably, the article discusses the inconveniences and costs associated with flying these days. Unsurprisingly, many of these frustrated consumers are turning to Amtrak for their summer travel plans.

However, for those patiently awaiting the return of cheap flights: don’t hold your breath. The Post says this about the state of the air industry:

Amtrak’s growth has come as airlines are retrenching, trimming flight schedules primarily in response to high energy prices. The flight cuts started showing up this summer and will intensify through the year. Airlines are trying to recover higher fuel costs with higher fares and charging for snacks, luggage, in-flight entertainment, even pillows and blankets. The fees aren’t likely to go away soon either, analysts say.

John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s Washington lobbying group, said the changes represented “positive steps” for carriers working their way back to profitability. He said airlines are sacrificing volume to focus on the profitability of remaining flights.

“We simply can’t afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly,” he said.

This underscores the need for trains, and particularly high speed rail. If airlines aren’t interesting in hauling John Q. Public from place to place in this country anymore, who is going to pick up the slack? Do we expect everyone to be okay with driving large distances only to have to deal with the hassle of a car at their destination? Do we start subsidizing the airlines more, ignoring the environmental issues inherent in air travel? Or maybe we just concede that long-distance travel is the exclusive domain of the wealthy who are willing to pay more for air tickets.

The obvious answer is none of the above. Rail needs to be a viable travel option here as much as it is in the rest of the developed world (or at least the developing world, please). It’s not a matter of posterity or nostalgia. Everyday Americans needs to be able to affordably get around their own country and trains are the most sustainable and civilized way to do so.

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

Amtrak trying to expand Acela service

Via the Boston Globe, Amtrak CEO Alexander Kummant says that the company is looking to increase the number of cars run on its Acela trains. Unfortunately, Amtrak would need to buy new cars for the route, as the Acela can’t use the normal Amtrak stock (which aren’t exactly easily available anyway). What does this mean for passengers of this very crowded service? Well, possibly ticket surcharges to fund the purchase of new coaches from Bombardier.

“We’re out of capacity,” said Kummant. “Most people know that’s a pretty tough ticket” because seats are hard to find except at “way-off-peak” times.

The Acela’s top speed of 150 miles per hour is drawing travelers who want to avoid rising airfares and highway congestion in the Northeast. Acela ridership climbed 7.7 percent in the first 10 months of fiscal 2008, part of Amtrak’s 11 percent gain.

The trains now run with an engine at each end. While that step speeds turnarounds when the Acela finishes its route and then reverses direction, reconfiguring trains to add coaches would be “very difficult and very time consuming,” spokeswoman Karina Romero said. Amtrak also doesn’t have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches, she said.

Trains are “running full and the demand is there,” said David R. Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers consumer group. “They have been under pressure to act like a business, and this is how private business acts.”

Higher fares alone wouldn’t produce enough money to expand the Acela, for which Amtrak agreed to pay $800 million in 1996 for 20 trains and maintenance. Such a step would require more funding for Amtrak, a “political football” that has struggled for aid in President Bush’s administration, said Kummant.

So there you have it, supply and demand. It’s amazing how even very flawed high-speed trains like Acela can generate so much increased traffic.

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

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