Expectations for High-Speed Rail Coming Down to Earth

Three months after the Obama administration announced the first winners of what it hopes will be the first of many federal grants to build U.S. high-speed rail networks, advocates and planners are settling in for a long battle to surmount the obstacles and unknowns that stand in the way of long-term bullet train development.

cahsr2.jpgIf they build it, will people come? An early rendering of California’s planned high-speed rail line. (Photo: Inhabitat)

In a briefing yesterday sponsored by the Environmental Institute and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), rail experts walked a fine line between espousing the benefits of high-speed train service and warning of the pitfalls that could neutralize the effect of the 2009 stimulus law’s $8 billion down payment on new rail projects.

"Absent a strong government partnership, we’re not going to have high-speed rail in this country," said Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Brubaker added that the biggest challenge facing high-speed rail is not the danger that ridership would not meet expectations — although the lack of local transit connections in Florida’s proposed Orlando-Tampa line has fueled those questions — but the appetite of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to make the bold leaps necessary to finish the job.

"There is a great deal of reluctance at FRA in terms of moving too quickly," Brubaker said, depicting his comments as pragmatism rather than a knock at the agency. "There is nothing worse, as a bureaucrat, than having your name on a bad program."

FRA chief Joseph Szabo took heat from senior senators last week over how his agency has coordinated with Amtrak and other inter-city rail players, suggesting that the $2.5 billion Congress approved last fall for high-speed rail might not be replicated this year unless a more muscular strategy is employed within the administration.

Indeed, at a congressional field hearing on bullet train service late last month, Szabo downplayed the significance of the "high-speed" aspect of inter-city rail. The federal rail program should be understood "in the context of the transportation markets served and the needs of
the passengers rather than as a race to see how fast a piece of
equipment can move," Szabo said.

That assessment is in line with the White House’s first round of grant winners, only two of which — California and Florida — plan to create rail systems that meet international standards for high-speed trains by topping 150 miles-per-hour speeds. But private-sector planner Bruce Horowitz warned yesterday that even in the case of Europe and Asia’s successful rail lines, consistent government spending was needed to help balance capital and operating budgets.

"There was a misunderstanding, largely here [in America], that those systems covered their costs," noted Horowitz, who works for the firm ESH Consult.

Petra Todorovich, director of the urban-planning group America 2050, offered a high-speed rail caveat of her own: the need to pair viable bullet trains with denser, transit-oriented land use strategies. "You can’t just build high-speed rail and expect a business district to spring up around it," she said.

Florida officials have shown signs of heeding Todorovich’s concerns, vowing this week to extend its high-speed service south to Miami and pursuing an ambitious commuter rail network in the Orlando area.

APTA vice president Art Guzzetti acknowledged the need to temper expectations for the high-speed rail program by raising a rhetorical question to other attendees at yesterday’s briefing: "Did we jump into high-speed rail before we were ready?"

Guzzetti quickly answered his own question, asserting that "the administration did the right thing." He called the $8 billion the late-in-the-game addition to the stimulus "bold" and "abrupt," but also pivotal in terms of the governmental and media interest that it generated.

Yet not all rail advocates are as optimistic as the federal program’s $10.5 billion budget would suggest. Eric Peterson, a former deputy administrator of the U.S. DOT’s research arm who now leads the American High-Speed Rail Alliance (AHSRA), lamented yesterday at a morning session of the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington that "so far … the nation is basically unprepared to deal with" the work necessary to build true high-speed rail.

Citing projections that American bullet train service could require as much four decades to complete, Peterson said: "By the time we get [our systems] built, the level of technology for high-speed rail service in the world will be at a whole different plane. That leaves us with an $8 billion expenditure for a [low] margin of rail investments."

  • Herzog

    Depressing. I have the sneaking suspicion that the money will evaporate, after most of it is funneled to making temporary, incremental improvements in existing infrastructure.

    If the U.S. actually had the bureaucratic capital to overhaul its transportation system, I think it would have already done so. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Jeff

    I think they are right to be skeptical. High Speed Rail is the culmination of a solid transportation system, not the birth of it. It’s great if you want to hop on a train in SF and get off in Irvine, but then what? A bus to Laguna Beach? Unlikely.

  • Herzog

    Jeff, I like your observation. I doubt any other country built modern, high-speed rail systems without already having a dense and far-reaching transportation network in place.

  • vito

    I’m tired of the chicken and the egg debate. Just build it!

  • Alika

    Hear, hear, Vito! Enough hemming and hawing; we’ve been doing that for decades. America achieved greatness by taking bold leaps. We must continue to do so or risk fading into irrelevancy.

    Just build it!

  • jimharper

    High Speed Rail is really a substitute for short-haul air. No huge need for busses on the ground, so long as its in the 100-400 mile sweet spot for HSR. No problem attracting passengers anywhere, except where they try to get away with a few miles of good track masquerading as HSR.

    Yes, it requires bureaucratic capital, and more importantly, the green kind of capital too. A typical line in the midwest, (say, Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis) might cost $12 to $15 billion, or the cost of our wars until Memorial day.

  • marin

    FRA/USDOT are thoroughly unprepared for the bureaucratic challenges that lie ahead. If they insist on a command-and-control, regulate-don’t-innovate model, we are on the slow train to high-speed rail

  • Jim Harper: good transit connections are crucial to success. If people need to drive half an hour to their local train station and then rent a car at the destination station, they’ll just drive the whole way. This is true for all modes of transportation, including highway and air. For example, last year, the Seoul-Busan air market started to regain market share versus HSR after Seoul opened a new subway line serving its domestic airport.

    The issue is that HSR needs several times the traffic of air to succeed. Without diverting a lot of highway trips, it can’t get enough ridership to profit. The busiest air corridors in the world (LA-SF, Sydney-Melbourne, pre-HSR Madrid-Barcelona, etc.) have about 10 million annual passengers each. For HSR at those corridors’ ranges, 10 million is an abject failure; 30+ million for the line, including intermediate pairs, is closer to success, but may still not be enough. That Eurostar traffic is 9 million per year is one of the reasons it’s financially struggling, even as it has more than double the traffic of the pre-Channel Tunnel London-Paris air market.

  • Brandi

    I hope the next allocation specifically includes money for the Northeast Corridor. Also I think the next pot should really be divided between true high speed rail at speeds in excess of 150 mph and intercity rail. Both are important. I often wonder though if it would have not been better to spend some of the ARRA money to start building true HSR lines instead of upgrading certain existing lines. Though given the funding situation I understand some tough choices had to be made.

  • BOB2

    The California High Speed project is going to have to be based on incremental “needs based” planning from now on, if it is to be a success. “Visions” based on no effective market analysis or good cost benefit analysis is what has got us into the current mess, more of “my route is better than your route” or deciding based on what “seems” cool at the moment has not produced good results, thus far. The recent audit shows the need for significant staffing and oversight changes in California’s High Speed Rail program.

    The first change indicated by the new majority on the CHSRA Board is for a complete rethink for both the approaches to Sou Cal from the north and south, the penninsula, and a reexamination of Altamont, in order to pay for fully grade separated shared points of entry at modest (110-125) high speeds on a fully shared set of facilities fully integrated with our intercity and regional rails services that already handle over 30 million trips annually.

    This significant change toward a “cost effective” design will produce much more benefit and sustainable access into the urbanized areas. These “minimum operabale segments” will have benefits from improved speed, safety, and service for all users, and will form an important link to an ultimate highs speed component. These should be done with the first installment of funding.

    As to what FRA will or won’t permit, the US is so far behind the rest of the world, that it is now becoming a true embarrassment. The FRA will just have to get off its ass and start looking for real and cost effective solutions. That is why some of us work on things like PTC, so the choo choo’s don’t crash into each other in the first place? This allows for lots of possibilities to improve both passenger and freight safety in cost effective interoperable modes of operation. If money only grew on trees, we could do all sorts of things that gold plated cost plus consultants would get a percentage to promote? We need real and cost effective solutions now.

    The private sector investment oriented firms who have built high speed links in Europe have always been very interested in potentially bidding for the franchise rights to invest in the rural high speed segments (but have been put off by the incompetent mismanagement at CHSRA), they have not been that interested in building the very high cost (gold plated and plainly foolish) urbanized linkages demanded by the CHSRA until now. Desert Express comes to mind as a potential entrant, based on that much sounder business approach which could result in a “real” public private partnership.

    Reform and restructuing the CHSRA is the key to an effective investment in California. Replacing the utterly clueless and often incompetent management team was step one. But, among the remaining crew there are still some who apparently look at this as the same old racket. The confusing responses to the audit, by some CHSRA insiders, shows just how out of touch some of these folks are, even to the changes on their own Board.

    Keep with cost effective, sustainable, and shovel ready incremental projects. Effectively improving existing services, adding high speed links, grade separating urban access points, all can be done incrementally. FRA needs to work with States to integrate passenger rail planning and to set up processes to assure effective and timely programming of funds. Standards are needed from a pro-active FRA, and safety improvements like PTC should be among the first priorities for funding.

    The nation and California supports and deserves an effective, safe, fully integrated system of regional, intercity, and high speed service, based on competent planning, to meet real travel needs, done in a transparent and cost effective manner, with accountability to the taxpayers. The woefully mismanaged CHSRA in California, and the lack of planning and leadership at FRA has not yet delivered on that commitment. A properly staffed and lead FRA, reformed and properly managed State efforts, with real competitive opportnuities for real private sector investment are the way to deliver on that goal. We should not settle for anything less.

  • BOB2: California can’t do it incrementally. The mountain passes are slow and choked with traffic, forcing long mountain tunnels. The infrastructure you need just to tunnel through the passes is the bulk of the project’s costs.

  • Eric L

    Alon, will the mountain tunnels be single track or double track? It seems crazy to me that a short fraction of the distance covered would be the bulk of the cost of the system. This is, what, a 600-mile system? How much of that is tunnels?

  • MarkB

    Prop 1A precludes an incremental approach. It clearly specifies downtown San Fran to downtown L.A. in under three hours with a design capacity allowing for 5-minute headways. You just can’t do that using standard rail technology. You can’t do that on shared ROW. You certainly can’t do that by tinkering at the edges with the state’s current rail network.

  • Eric L

    5 minute headways? seriously? Does any inter-city rail service over this sort of distance run at that kind of headway? Granted wherever you share the rails with a commuter rail service you want that, but to make that a requirement everywhere is a little crazy.

    By design capacity, does that mean the actual built system has to support that or that they must design a system that supports that and what is actually built must be compatible with (allow expansion to) the design? For example, can you build a single track tunnel through the mountains (insufficient for 5 minute headways but maybe good enough for 1 train an hour), but design the second tunnel and build the switches that will connect the track to the second tunnel later? Since Prop 1A doesn’t fully fund itself it seems a little crazy to forbid building the system incrementally. Granted, it’s hardly worth building if you don’t connect SF and LA and the FRA doesn’t allow the sort of trains you want to run to share track with freight trains so there’s a limit to how incremental it can be.

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