Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

A national rail plan based on HSR corridors

An editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle is calling for a “rational national rail plan” (that’s a knee-slapper) based on high-speed corridors rather than Amtrak’s current mix of short-haul and long-haul trains. While I disagree with the notion that Amtrak’s long-haul routes are dead weight, the article makes an interesting point: that the development of American HSR will require a national program above and beyond the current Amtrak system.

Any high-speed rail program would require massive, long-term public commitment and investment. Given today’s weak economy, a large-scale public works program of rail improvements might make both economic and political sense. However, proclaiming, “Yes, but the private sector should do it,” is simply a politically expedient way to deep-six the idea.

In sum, a rational national rail program could help ease dependence on foreign oil. But a truly rational program would require a substantial refocusing from the current Amtrak model. Even if we started today, measurable improvements are probably at least five years away. But if we never start, we’ll never see those improvements.

The article is correct in pointing out that as it stands now, Amtrak isn’t going to be the one building truly high-speed corrdidors. The problem is that the company is barely given enough money to maintain its current system, let alone develop its own expensive new lines. For this, Amtrak would require an ambitious new mandate backed by serious funding. Politics being the way they are, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Washington seems increasingly willing to aid states with their rail projects, but a federal HSR plan as the Chronicle describes would take a sort of brevity that most national politicians can’t seem to muster.

As the article hints at, the danger is that high-speed rhetoric will be used to play up pointless privatization talk and diminish Amtrak’s relevance. This can’t be allowed to happen. The transportation crisis isn’t waiting for any HSR plan to be implemented. We need better rail transport now, and that means more funding for Amtrak, not less.

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Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , ,

John Kerry says: Fix Acela speeds

It’s something of an open secret that Amtrak’s Acela high-speed service, though faster than a regular NEC train, can’t hold a candle to a true high-speed line. The reason? It runs on the same tracks that have always been there, which are old, curvy, and riddled with bridges and tunnels that were never designed to withstand Acela’s theoretical 150 mph top speed.

John Kerry has told the Boston Globe that he wants to fix all that:

“Are you kidding? That train can go 150 miles an hour, (but) it goes that for, what, a couple of miles?” Kerry scoffed. “I want America to have a first-rate high-speed rail system. A high-speed rail that really lives up to the name and gets people there in the time that we ought to be aiming for.”

Kerry plans to file in two weeks a $1 billion bill that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels and tracks that prevent the train from hitting its 150-mile-per-hour maximum and getting commuters to their destinations faster.

A billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but we have to consider that Kerry is going up for reelection soon. Is that enough money to make a difference? Or is he just trying to wow rail-riding constituents with his outrage over America’s one so-called high-speed train?

While Amtrak took in more than $1.4 billion in federal funds last year [TFA note: is this really necessary?], the curvature of the railroad tracks continues to be the main reason for the Acela’s low speed in the northeast, said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero.

Straightening the tracks along the heavily developed eastern rail would trigger many eminent domain takings, however.

“The price would probably be exorbitant,” Romero said about the number of land takings.

Modernizing bridges and other infrastructure may increase the speed by 10 to 15 miles an hour, said Romero, but probably still would not bring the line to top speed, despite Kerry’s remarks.

A 10-15 mph increase isn’t great, but it’s certainly an improvement. What do you NEC people think? Is it worth it? Is Kerry just being a politician? I glanced at the Boston Globe comments, which is basically a large pool of vitriol against Kerry peppered with an occasional “but the Acela does need to go faster…” here and there. If even making the route workable for Acela is such a challenge, will true HSR ever be acheivable along the corridor? HR 6003 will open up the door to private offers for a high-speed line along the route… that’s not looking very feasible at the moment.

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

Mixed news about Amtrak

Although the House version of a funding bill that would increase money for both Amtrak and high speed rail has recently passed committee, the organization has been troubled by other issues this week.

First, the “American Financial Group,” an owner of Amtrak shares, has sued the company, claiming that it has failed to follow a congressional order to buy back its stock from them at a reasonable price and has made itself “worthless” through its policies. I won’t pretend to be a stock expert or anything close, but considering its resources, I find it hard to blame Amtrak for its “worthlessness.” If anyone was responsible for Amtrak’s woes, all signs point to the Bush administration’s shameful rail policy.

In news that’s of more concern to Amtrak riders, transportation advocate James P. RePass points out that Amtrak will be closing the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to Boston on June 14-17 for repairs. What’s distressing about this, he says, is that the company is not providing buses or any other alternatives for its passengers and has failed to contact the governors of the affected states. He corrently points out that this is not what Amtrak or rail needs right now, and I agree. A PR disaster in the middle of the busy summer months do not happy riders (or voters) make.

Filed under: Amtrak, , , ,

House spices up Amtrak reauthorization proposal with HSR and.. hints of privatization?

Pat mentioned H.R. 6003 while discussing Representative Boozman’s shifting rail policy, but this year’s Amtrak reauthorization bill is deserving of discussion in its own right. On the positive side, it retains many of the positive aspects of its companion Senate bill passed overwhelmingly last fall: it increases Amtrak’s funding and removes the ridiculous self-sufficiency requirement stipulated in earlier years.

However, the legislation diverges from its earlier counterpart in its emphasis on high speed rail. While this is a refreshing development, the bill sidesteps Amtrak in its sections pertaining to HSR, instead outlining  grants for state rail projects and allowing for private HSR proposals along existing corridors.

Critics have, probably rightfully, called foul on this move, including unions and Amtrak chief Alex Kummant. Kummant points out that the 2 hour New York to DC objective that the government would seek private bids on isn’t that much of an improvement over the 2.5 hours offered by Amtrak’s current lines. He has a good quote about instead expanding NEC-style infrastructure to the rest of the country (where lower densities would make HSR building less expensive):

“Could we go south to Atlanta (from Washington)?… Could we develop a dozen 110-mile-an-hour corridors and, by the way, with the pocket change left over, rebuild every station, create parking, intermodal bus connections, transit connections?”

I’m inclined to agree with Kummant’s point. Amtrak is a national service, and the government needs to realize that the rest of the country deserves to have fast rail transportation every bit as much as the Northeast does. However, it’s important to note that the bill only requires the government to take these private bids. Further action would require more molasses-quick action from Congress.

Furthermore, there’s nothing all that radical about freeing up proposals for state HSR initiatives. As any regular reader of this blog could tell you, they’re happening anyway. The important thing is to get them built, and for legislators to realize how, even with these new projects,  the US lags terribly behind other industrialized countries in terms of high speed rail. The rhetoric around this bill would seem to at least indicate that it’s dawning on them.

So in the end, the passage of this bill would be a win for passenger rail. Not because of the tentative privatization openings, but because of increased funding for both Amtrak and separate HSR projects. We can hope that it signals more [positive] legislative attention for our rail network. But then, it will have to get across our famous rail-advocate president’s desk first.

More info on H.R. 6003: 1, 2, 3
More info on S. 294: 1

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

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