Siemens Takes Campaign for U.S. High-Speed Rail Straight to the Customer

What’s the fastest way to travel between Los Angeles and the Bay Area? How about Tampa and Miami? Or Chicago and St. Louis?

siemens.jpgSiemens is using images of its 230 mph Velaro train to make a direct pitch to airline customers. Image: Ogilvy and Mather

Any American would tell you to head for the airport. But in many airports, once you get through the check-in lines and metal detectors and put your shoes back on, you’re now met by a billboard with a picture of the Siemens Velaro, a 230-mph train that one day might offer a faster, more reliable and energy efficient option for trips under 400 miles.

“We’re placing the messages close to the consumer’s point of pain,” explained Andy Jones, the planning director for the Siemens account at advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather. The message, he said, is that high-speed rail is a better alternative to airport delays and traffic jams.

Jones admitted that Americans have bad associations with intercity rail, thanks to 30 years of experience with cash-starved Amtrak and its often substandard service. Then there’s the cost of actually building the lines: Los Angeles to San Francisco alone will require more than $40 billion to get up and running.

But intercity rail, arguably the most neglected part of the American transportation system, is finally getting some attention. At the beginning of the year, the Obama Administration appropriated $8 billion for high-speed rail projects. Back in 2008, voters in California approved a $10 billion bond to build a line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so the Golden State made a good impression on the feds and grabbed the biggest slice of the national funding pie, at $2.25 billion. That still leaves California $30 billion short if the state wants its bullet train, but rail builders now see a potential American market.

From 1956 to 2006, for every dollar invested in all forms of rail, the nation invested six dollars in aviation and 16 dollars in highways, according to research from the Public Interest Research Group Education Fund [PDF]. Current spending plans don’t change that much. But the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, wants to see high speed rail spending upped to $50 billion. That would go a long way towards building the nation’s 11 currently designated high-speed corridors, which will ultimately cost around $100 billion, according to a report by The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a group that tracks influence spending in Washington.

That kind of a shift in congressional allocations will have to contend with the $65 million that’s spent annually by more than 300 lobbyists committed to more pavement, petroleum and airport expansion, according to the CPI. With no domestic passenger rail builders, foreign manufacturers realize they have to push back in D.C. if they want the current mood for high-speed rail to become a reality — and a viable U.S. market.

The Siemens ads, which also appear in magazines and on websites, feature images of windmills super-imposed with the Velaro train, which currently runs in Germany, Spain, Russia and China. Like competing high-speed rail systems from France and Japan, the trains are powered by overhead wire, so the energy is as clean as whatever generates it.

For now, the Japanese and French competition are lobbying lawmakers and the Obama administration directly. There’s also the newly formed U.S. High Speed Rail Association, which gets money from a variety of companies with a stake in expanding the passenger rail system.

Siemens is unique in its decision to advertise to American voters — who, even if the train systems are built, won’t decide who gets the contracts. “There’s no guarantee of a result,” said Becky Johnson, spokeswoman for Siemens.

But either way, added Jones, “We’re helping to educate people on the category of high-speed rail.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    After the ATS and CBTC fiascos, I wouldn’t hire Siemens to repair a sidewalk. Somehow I get the feeling that anything they build over here is going to cost triple what it does over there, and take decades to build.

  • Moser

    If the Obama people were serious, they would have put the $8 billion into a single corridor project and tried to really get it underway, rather than spreading the money out all over the country in the usual political mode that will achieve next to nothing.

  • Panhandle Scott

    I am always confused why people think a high speed rail system would not eventually have the intrusive and time-consuming security checks like an airport. Is this not the case in Europe or Japan? Mass transit currently favors access over security, but I would think a few more Spain/London/Tokyo attacks may change that, and the stakes are higher for high speed rail, more similar to airlines. Same people packed into a metal tube, only slightly less violent consequences for destruction of the machine while in motion (plus the track gets destroyed or blocked, unlike the air). On the good side, the train is stuck on tracks, and I guess you can assume safety interlocks would prevent rail switching or speeding by a hijacker to bring about a serious crash of multiple vehicles.

  • J:Lai

    Moser – reallY? You know this is the same congress that makes sure every major defense project has at least one component manufactured in every state, right?

  • Dan Johnson-Weinberger

    I love the Siemens ads. I think they are excellent — and I hope more manufacturers and suppliers run more of them.

  • Ken in LA

    I’ve seen these pop up in airports too and I think it’s a darn time we get this thing rolling. Why do I have to be at the airport 2 hours before for a >50 min flight between LA and San Francisco, stuck in a middle seat with poor service, little leg room (I’m 6 ft 4!) and go through all the hassles with weather delays, TSA secreening and the like?

    In comparison, a the Thalys train I took between Brussels and Amsterdam was the best travel method that I’ve experienced in my life! One way trip cost 47 euros for two and half hours, with full meal service, with tons of leg room for a man of my stature. Plus it took my directly from city center to city center. On the return, I actually missed my train but no worries because the next train was 30 minutes away! That’s the fascinating part: you miss a train, you can hop on the next one because all the frequencies they have.

    I hope these ads start popping up more and more regions where it’s needed. Next step would be to place billboards on the Interstates between major cities. “You just drove two hours from San Francisco heading to LA. You would already be there by high speed train.” Or the like.

  • Omri

    There already is the annoyance of having to show ID when you board the Acela in Boston, but I doubt it will get much beyond that.

    You cannot hijack a train and redirect it.

    You cannot hijack a train and fly it into a skyscraper.

    You can bomb it, just like you can bomb a bus, a plane, a movie theater, or anything else where people gather. It just doesn’t have the cinematic je ne sais quoi that terrorists look for.

  • GetReal

    The reason trains don’t need security is because there are so few passengers on them, they aren’t high impact targets for the bad guys.

    Rail transportation in America will never compete with air for long trips or highways for shorter trips and trips with families and/or gear.

    Highways and airports are paid for with user fees. Rail is a is nothing but a sink hole for gobs ab
    Nd gobs of money.

  • political_incorrectness

    If the administration was serious, we would have had a bill of 80% being placed on rapid heavy rail, high-speed rail, and improvements to urban transportation. Huge projects, huge job numbers, more disposable income to people meaning more sales and the benefits go on from there. We need a shift to rail investment and we need it NOW.

  • Is this not the case in Europe or Japan?

    No. Please actually ride a real train before bloviating.

    the stakes are higher for high speed rail

    Again, no. Carlos the Jackal placed a bomb on the TGV in 1983; the death toll was in the single digits. Since then, terrorists have preferred to focus on higher-value targets: planes, train stations, subways.

  • @Larry: Siemens America does hatchet jobs, it’s true. However, the Velaro is produced by Siemens Global, which is generally competent. It’s not the best high-speed train in the world, but it’s the most popular one.

  • Nathan H.

    That’s an interesting theory, GetReal, but Amtrak trains on the northeast corridor are in fact crowded, all the time. They have more intrusive security than they need, but much less than airports have. Other train routes around the world are also very much crowded, and yet allow passengers some semblance of freedom and privacy. I also wouldn’t equate the presence of security procedures with the need for them, by the way.

  • Robert in California

    For Dan Johnson-Weinberger,

    It’s interesting and that you like the Siemans ads, since to the extent that they are successful you will be paying increased federal and possibly, depending where you live, state income taxes to pay for purchasing the cars promoted in those wonderful Siemens ads.

    Financial masochism.

  • Roger in LA

    On the security issue, a jet plane has a thin aluminium skin and is full of thousands of pounds of volatile fuel. That’s why a shampoo bottle of explosive liquid can spell utter disaster. And that’s why we have security checks for planes, but not for trains.

  • Joe in DC

    To ‘Get Real’ who continues to spread the same lies:

    “Rail transportation in America will never compete with air for long trips or highways for shorter trips and trips with families and/or gear.”

    “Highways and airports are paid for with user fees. Rail is a is nothing but a sink hole for gobs of money.”

    1. Rail transportation already competes with air travel in the places where we have a halfway decent train – the northeast corridor, and that is not even high speed. The worse that airlines get and the higher that gas prices get, and as we build true high speed trains they will quickly be the choice of riders of trips up to 800 or so miles. Every single corridor that put in true high speed rail in country after country has seen immediate results: rails quickly captured more than 50% of the business in the first few months of operation, and usually more than 80% of the business by a year or two. It is such a far superior way to travel compared to the nightmare that flying and highway driving has become in this country.

    2. If highways were paid for with user fees than why is the highway trust fund broke and needed an $8 billion subsidy recently? User fees didn’t pay the trillion dollars spent so far building all the highways, they don’t pay all the road maintenance, all the support roads, the millions of parking spaces, highway patrol, police, fire, etc all involved with patrol and accidents. They don’t cover the billions in medical costs incurred from all the accidents, or the 43,000 annual deaths each year from these accidents, or the millions of people who are crippled in them. User fees don’t cover the costs of operating the US Dept. of Transportation, or any of the 50 state DOTs. They don’t pay for the massive military operations we continually run to secure the flow of oil to fill our SUVs, or the Gulf clean up or fisheries and tourism losses. They don’t pay the climate change effects of all the exhaust from our 300 million cars, and on and on. User fees covering all roads and car transportation is the biggest lie perpetuated by a very small group of anti-rail think tank types from Cato, Heritage, and Reason Foundation. Here’s more:

    Here it is straight from the Texas DOT:
    A study in 2008 from the car-loving Texas Department of Transportation that boldly stated: “There is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads … pay for considerably less.”

    Another point… our highway system is in need of a trillion dollar repair job because it is in a D grade state of disrepair nationwide… that obviously won’t be paid for by user fees when the highway trust fund is already broke now.

    A final word on aviation – it is heavily subsidized as well:
    “Aviation not only receives billions for basics like Federal Aviation Administration operations, airline security, noise mitigation funds for homeowners, and air service to small communities, but airports themselves benefit from tax-free financing on everything from cargo buildings to retail stores — not to mention that the FAA covers 75 to 95 percent of airport planning and development costs in outright grants.”
    -from: http://www.miller-mccune.com/politics/taking-high-speed-trains-into-the-future-20305/

  • Thomas

    Was just in Spain, and they do have a bag scanning machine at the entrance to each of the high speed train gates… it took literally 10 seconds to drop your bag on the belt, walk past the machine, pick up your bag and get on the train. There was no line, no scanning your body, no taking off your shoes, belt, coat, opening all your carryons, etc. It was safe and secure and didn’t cause a minute delay.

  • Julie

    More on the subsidies of roads and air… just found this on the US High Speed Rail Association website:

    -Here’s the price Americans pay for a transport system that has become overcrowded, wasteful, slow, and expensive: $87.2 billion a year lost in automotive gridlock, more than $750 for every U.S. traveler. That’s more than 2.8 billion gallons of gas wasted – three weeks worth per traveler. And time wasted in traffic jams totals 4.2 billion hours – nearly one full workweek for every traveler.

    -The cost of domestic air-traffic delays, according to a 2008 analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, is as much as $41 billion annually, including $19 billion in increased operational costs for the airlines and $12 billion worth of lost time for passengers.”

    -The environmental price tag has become starkly clear ever since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 people and spilling 210 million gallons of oil. More than 57,000 square miles of the gulf, rich in fish, shrimp, oysters, and crabs, remain closed to fishing because of the disaster.
    http://www.ushsr.com

  • In case anyone wants corroboration for the traffic congestion numbers from an organization that isn’t a Reason-grade lobbying flak, here you can get them straight from the horse’s mouth.

    Although in general USHSR is a worthless organization, whose output consists of drawing colored lines on a map and sponsoring overpriced conferences, its facts in this case happen to be true. This is a reminder that there are some hacks who state correct facts; it’s just that Wendell Cox, Randall O’Toole, and Ron Utt aren’t any of them.

  • Having ridden the Spanish AVE, I can tell you that security is a far cry from the insanity you run into at airports, even Spanish ones.

  • And having ridden the TGV, the only HSR system to have had a terrorist bomb its trains, I can tell you that there’s no security theater, at all. If you want, you can bring a bomb on board; you’ll just kill an order of magnitude fewer people than if you detonate it on the RER.

  • Doug G.

    And even if you had to go through the madness of airport-style security to board a train, if the journey begins and ends in the middle of a city, you’ve eliminated the need to get to an airport. Try getting to LaGuardia on a Friday afternoon and you’ll instantly see one advantage a train has over planes, even if you have to take your shoes off to board.

    I’ve taken multiple trains in Spain. The Spanish AVE is easily accessible by subway and bus lines and check-in ends 2 minutes before the train leaves, not 30 minutes prior to departure as with planes.

  • JK

    “intercity rail, arguably the most neglected part of the American transportation system” If you mean by the feds. No. Look at funding support per bus passenger. Laughable. Can the US political system actually build HSR given congress’ history of unfunded service and labor mandates and starving the most viable corridor — NE — to subsidize German tourists and Times reporters on joyrides through rural Texas? How do you square massive HSR capital investment with disinvestment in the urban transit systems which are already carrying people? This mania for gold plated transit for affluent choice riders while screwing captive/current riders should bother people. There is no such thing as a free lunch and within transpo funding politics, transit and rail are usually lumped together broadly vs roads and planes. That means there is some degree of zero sum within the larger rail/transit funding pie.

  • inconvenient_truth

    @GetReal, here’s some reality for you:

    The high capital startup costs of airports and highways were paid for in the 1950’s by taxes on rail passengers. Imagine a 10% passenger facility charge . . . that goes to build another mode (and destroys the one you depend on).

    Karma’s a . . . well, I don’t have to finish that sentence, do I?

  • inconvenient_truth

    It’s not “financial masochism” to want to see myself pay equivalent, if not higher taxes, on cap. gains vs. earned income.

    I foolishly spent several years seeking those lower tax cap. gains which I could have spent improving myself, but why “earn” income when it’s taxed so much (payroll taxes, income taxes) vs. the beautiful financial waste of casino capitalism?

    No, I say we disincentivize speculation and incentivize innovation (of the non-financial variety). Tax the heck out of rentier income and invest it in capital infrastructure (psst: like trains). I’ll gladly start using my brain for something more wholesome . . . and my soul will be at ease as well.

  • Lisa

    Seems to me USHSR (US High Speed Rail Association) has a lot of value… they have helped change the vision of rail in America to a first rate system comparable to what France now has and what Spain and China are building. They have done a tremendous amout of work in raising awareness of high speed rail as a solution to many major problems, and have brought together numerous groups to get on the same page who were never talking before. No one was doing any oth these 1 year ago. They have also helped bring in many of the leading makers and operators of high speed systems to showcase their systems and advantages as well as how those countries were greatly improved by high speed rail. I have attended 2 of their conferences and would say they are the best I have ever attended and the money was well spent. I plan to attend the upcoming one in New York as well.

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