Rail Expert Reutter: White House Misfired on High-Speed Rail Stimulus

Mark Reutter, author of the industrial tome Making Steel and a veteran editor of Railroad History, can safely be called an expert on the train industry. And in a new memo for the Progressive Policy Institute, he is issuing a warning to the Obama administration on its high-profile push for high-speed rail.

speeding_train.jpgCalifornia’s high-speed rail project, above, got $2.25B last month for a line expected to cost at least $40B. (Photo: CAHSRA)

If high-speed rail thinkers can be divided into two
schools of thought — one envisioning an all-in push for nationwide
service, as epitomized by U.S. PIRG, and another preferring to focus on building out one or two successful systems — Reutter is strongly in the latter camp.

He argues that the U.S. DOT misspent its first round of high-speed rail funds by focusing too much on upgrades of existing Amtrak line that are not expected to top 150 miles per hour, putting most U.S. projects a cut below true bullet trains in Europe and China.

Reutter asks why Florida and California — the only two states pursuing dedicated passenger rail lines that reach international speed standards — did not receive more significant amounts of money, and he lays the blame at the feet of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA):

There was no precedent for what it had been tasked to do by
President Obama. Awarding high-speed passenger projects was a new
responsibility for which the agency was largely unprepared and
unequipped.

Because it lacked personnel with backgrounds in HSR, the FRA fell
back on what it knew best – conventional railway operations – to
evaluate grant applications from the states. And the state applications
were mostly dusted-off commuter-rail or incremental Amtrak projects,
because most state DOTs have no more experience in executing HSR
projects than the federal government.

Out of this confluence of modest state applications chasing humble
FRA guidelines came a welter of small-scale upgrades – fixing signal
systems here and adding a new siding there – that collectively do
little to advance a new mode of intercity travel in America.

We have to do better.

Will Reutter’s criticism sway the course of future federal rail investments? Much may depend on how quickly infrastructure companies move forward with new factories and other job-creating work in states with bullet-train money to spend. If the private sector holds off until Florida and California can show that their rail projects are fiscally viable in the long term, the next round of $2.5 billion in high-speed grants may well look more targeted.

  • if the feds were covering the operational cost, too, he might have a valid argument. the thing he’s missing is political angle: FRA gave california and florida just enough to push existing HSR plans forward, while spreading the remaining seeds in state governments across the rest of the country — kansas, alabama, missouri, michigan, ohio. those relatively conservative states will have to walk before they can run since they’re footing the cost of operations.

    also, there’s a strong indication that states that sponsor passenger rail may also get better at supporting urban transit in a sustainable way.

    what obama really needs to do is make sure there’s a dedicated HSR title in the next transpo bill (something we’ve never had). that would set the course for sustained HSR development nationwide.

  • Great points, Dave. I agree.

    It’s also worth pointing out the history from Europe and parts of Asia — HSR was often constructed within a very short time period, but usually followed calls for more traditional rail upgrades.

    You have to build a political constituency before you launch into a major project, and given the relatively short amount of time it takes to create a HSR system (at least in other countries) we should not despair just yet.

  • Alexei

    Given the amount of money in play, incremental upgrades seem reasonable. If we were talking tens of billions, enough to build entire networks, then we would be talking about that.

  • Obviously, someone who knows that saying “the Administration screwed up” is the inside track to get into the media.

    And also a clear demonstration of the massive holes in the “build a big demonstration project” reasoning.

    Note that the allocation to California covers only a small part of its total budget – but all of its requirements for 2011 and 2012. And the funding has been provided for half of Florida’s first stage.

    Meanwhile several of the incremental upgrades will be running by 2012, when California and Florida will need to have further funding in place.

    Reutter, being a “rail expert”, is out of the loop as far as the expectations of ordinary people. If 110mph trains start running, and provide a clearly and obviously appealing transport option in the corridors where they run, and their ridership projections turn out to be on or under the actual results, swing voters will not say, “but that’s slower than the train I rode in France.

    The vast majority of swing voters never RODE a faster train in France.

    Basically, what Reutter is complaining about is an allocation that makes it reasonable to expect that the Florida and California projects will both be completed, because a large number of Congressmen will be from districts and Senators will be from States that either have systems and want them expanded or don’t have systems and want to get them expanded, and the California and Florida delegations will be a voting block that says “you can’t have Emerging or Regional HSR systems unless you also fund Express HSR systems”.

  • Amen Brother

    It seems the responses so far are stuck in the stone ages, while the rest of the World is leaving the USA in the dust. Get real people. Slow rail is NO competition to regional air trips unless you have plenty of time to waste. Europe and Asia are moving ahead with the future while we continue to build midddle 20th Century rail technology. The rest of the World is licking their lips ready to take away the USA’s number 1 economic position over the next 20 years and we keep opening the door so they can do it.

    Mr. Reutter is RIGHT ON TARGET! If you build one or two real high speed rail corridors in the USA, then others will join in the effort across the Country. The only corridor ready to go is Florida. Florida is currently looking in the mirror trying to sort how what to do with half a loaf. That is not stimulus nor innovation by the Administration.

    Change is very difficult. I hope that more US citizens realize the World is fast leaving us behind on innovation, technology, infrastructure investment and finance. In a few years we will all be saying, “Oh those good ole days when the USA was an economic superpower in the 20th Century”.

    Time to get out of our comfortable lifestyles and innovate or those lifestyles will be going backward.

  • Kenney

    Bruce and Dave have the best points so far. Reutter is a bit whiny, and missing the bigger picture. Or is it the smaller picture he’s missing? Anyhow, the main issue just comes back to this: $8 billion is simply too small a pot of money for this undertaking. Would I blame Obama for this? No. Under the circumstances, by securing $8 billion for HSR was a stellar achievement.

    All Reutter’s talk about the FRA and states not knowing what they are doing is misses the point. The US eventually just needs to commit a larger lump sum of money for HSR, say $150 billion. If you’ve got a sum like that on the table, watch how quickly FRA’s and the states’ supposed ignorance turns into expertise!

  • saxman

    “Slow rail is NO competition to regional air trips unless you have plenty of time to waste.”

    The point of higher speed rail is not to compete with air trips, but to compete with the automobile. Europe and Japan have fast bullet trains because they already had a network of conventional slower trains doing the ‘local’ runs. Over time they upgraded their rails to be good for bullet trains and they successful because they have feed to and from conventional transit. Building bullet train that doesn’t get feed is like going for your PHD before getting your bachelors.

    One thing that make rail great is its ability to serve small to medium size cities, where there is no air service or very expensive air service. Many true high speed trains will skip these cities. People that live in these smaller cities matter just as much as the big cities.

    So which would you rather choose?:

    True HSR:
    $20 to $40 million per mile construction costs
    New equipment, expanded/new stations
    Only serves major cities, no small to medium size cities
    Earliest you can ride will 10+ years from now

    Or HrSR:
    $5 million or so for construction costs
    Use existing equipment
    Ability to go to smaller towns
    You can ride it in less than 5 years
    $5 to $10 million contruction costs

  • Low-speed intercity rail isn’t feeder for HSR; urban rail is. And with intercity rail, you get what you pay for. Building Amtrak-style trains that don’t go any faster than they did in the 1930s will get you Amtrak-style ridership.

  • saxman

    “Building Amtrak-style trains that don’t go any faster than they did in the 1930s will get you Amtrak-style ridership.”

    ….which is the highest its ever been. (ok except for 2009 because of the economy)

  • Mr. Transit

    As an incrementalist I dont’ agree with Mr Reutter. Continued speed and reliability improvements on many rail lines around the country are better politically and serve more riders. The NY to DC trip doesn’t need greatly higher speed, it needs consistent and reliable service with modest travel time reductions. Similar segments around the country would do quite well with reliable 90 to 110 mph train service leaving just a few long corridors for truly high speed service. High speed trains, making few stops, will have to be supplemented by regionals making collector stops at smaller cities and towns on the same corridor.

  • Caarsten C

    The reason they went with a wide distribution of small amounts of money is simple: that many more congressional districts get goodies. Which means that many more congressional votes for his plan. If he’d tried to just focus on California, the rest of congress would have killed the plan. It’s a shame. Even Bulgaria is planning true HSR. But we’re broke, fighting two wars and beset by a political opposition that wants to “shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub” (Grover Norquist). A shrunken, drowned government cannot build 21st Century infrastructure. So we’ll stick with cars, painfully slow trains and awful airlines.

  • I agree with Dave. If Obama would name a HSR title in the next transpo bill it would be better. I hope too that such a measure would set the course for sustained HSR development nationwide.