Keeping CNN Honest: 10 Ways Anderson Cooper Got the Rail Story Wrong

Last Friday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran a segment about high-speed rail as part of his “Keeping Them Honest” series. Reporter Drew Griffin did an “exposé” of a Vermont rail project that spent .00006 percent of the federal stimulus money on needed track improvements and came in on time and under budget. Scandal!

It amounts to a high-profile smear campaign on the high-speed rail program from a mainstream media source trying to expose government corruption and waste where none exists. Cooper makes it clear they’re going to stay on the story; they already did a similar takedown of the California rail program.

I’ve counted ten ways this story was misreported. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any…

1. Higher-speed rail is not a failure. Perhaps the Obama administration could have done a better job making clear that their rail program was split into two halves: one for high-speed rail and one for incremental upgrades to inter-city passenger rail. Not all of the projects were intended to bring speeds up to 110 mph.

“We’ve never been very public about this but, yes, we’ve felt for a long time that the administration has done a poor job around messaging,” said Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association. “The bulk of the money went to regional projects, but they still had the secretary going around the country and calling this the ‘high-speed program.’”

The crux of the CNN story is that while the Vermont project did everything it set out to do and was a responsible steward of taxpayer money, it’s not “the high-speed rail that you or I think of.” Well, no. There’s a reason for that.

2. It takes more than three years to build high-speed rail. Cooper embarrassed himself when he ominously intoned that three whole years after the passage of the stimulus (actually, it’s been four years), “we can’t find any high-speed rail that’s actually been built.” They show images of almond trees and dairy farms in California along the planned route. “Not a single piece of track on that line has been built.”

True – they plan to break ground this summer in California. But, as House Republicans constantly complain, highway projects can take up to 15 years to complete. There are lots of reasons for that, which I won’t delve into here. But to expect something as massive and complex as high-speed rail to instantly appear like magic the minute the deal is inked is, well, a little naïve. Federal Railroad Administration Chief Joe Szabo calls high-speed rail “a multi-generational effort,” noting that it took “10 administrations, 28 sessions of Congress” to complete the interstate highway system.

3. There is high-speed rail. Cooper says they couldn’t find any high-speed rail. I guess he wasn’t looking in the Midwest, where officials just cut the ribbon on new service between Chicago and Kalamazoo. It’s the second fastest line in the country, nearing Acela speeds of 150 mph. Other trains in the Midwest can reach 110 mph in places.

And that fits the U.S. DOT’s definition of high-speed rail. In 2009, the agency made clear that they defined high-speed rail as “reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 mph.” That’s not the Japanese definition or the French definition, but it’s what DOT committed to, and it’s happening.

And even slower speeds like the Vermonter’s will build the travel market, which will then justify greater investment in higher speeds and enhanced reliability. Amtrak is joining California in buying high-speed rolling stock – clearly they’re preparing for a faster future.

Drew Griffin embarrassed himself by revealing how little he understands transportation.

4. $52 million isn’t enough to turn around decades of neglect. The improvements made on the Vermont segment that was singled out by CNN can be helpful as part of a reinvigorated rail network — but that network still has a long way to go. “Instead of complaining about this, they should be demanding more money spent,” said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. “We’ve let rail fall apart in this country to such a state that there are a lot of basic repairs that are needed as well.”

CNN’s Griffin criticized the line for its infrequency — there are only one or two trains a day — and it slowness — one passenger Griffin interviewed said it takes nine hours to get to New York, versus five-and-a-half hours driving. That’s right, Kunz readily admits: Rail in the U.S. is substandard.

“It’s the 21st century, we’re a top country in the world — why do we have such crappy rail service?” Kunz said. “It’s because we have never invested in rail in this country in 100 years.”

5. We’re still waiting for the CNN expose about the $4.7 billion highway to nowhere. The interstate system has been the beneficiary of more than $600 billion in public subsidies over and above what it rakes in from fuel taxes and tolls. Spending on highways and aviation dwarf what that nation spends on rail, and people still suffer through the frustration of congestion and delays on those modes. What if we started pouring equal amounts of cash into inter-city rail? America could have a state-of-the-art system in no time.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation spent most of its $241.2 million in stimulus money on roads. The $52 million to make some basic efficiency upgrades to its Amtrak line – which resulted in substantial time savings — doesn’t seem like an inordinate amount. And it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the real sources of waste in American transportation spending, like Alabama’s $4.7 billion zombie highway.

6. The only criterion was an environmental impact statement? Wrong. Griffin interviewed just one “independent” source, and it’s railophobe Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. O’Toole looks at the camera and tells this bald-faced lie: “The federal government had one criteria when it was passing out high-speed rail funds, and that was, ‘Had states done an environmental impact statement, so the projects would be shovel-ready’… It didn’t matter whether the project was worthwhile.”

That’s just “flatly incorrect,” said Dan Schned.

Actually, a GAO report two years ago praised the FRA for following recommended project selection practices with its high-speed rail grants. Schned notes that while RPA had recommended a highly quantitative model, the FRA’s selection process was more qualitative, but it’s still just a load of hooey to say shovel-readiness was the only thing they looked at. After all, the program was oversubscribed by a factor of 10 to 1. The FRA clearly didn’t just take everyone with an EIS.

7. Griffin’s assertion that the project “only” saved 28 minutes is misleading — in three ways. First, it’s just sloppy reporting that CNN fails to put the 28-minute time savings in the context of the total trip. Is that shaved off a two-hour trip or a 20-hour trip? The FRA finally cleared it up for me: Turns out he’s talking about a 28 minutes savings on a trip that used to take 4 hours and 45 minutes. That’s about a 10 percent time savings – not too shabby.

Second, it’s worth noting that taxpayers routinely shell out billions to save commuters mere minutesseconds, even – on the roadways. So 28 minutes is actually a rather substantial amount of time to save for just $52 million.

Third, stimulus-funded rail projects along the Vermonter line will, when completed, result in a time savings of nearly 70 minutes between New Haven, Connecticut, and St. Albans, Vermont, according to the FRA. That’s currently an eight-hour train trip.

Here’s the breakdown: In Connecticut, improved track and signaling will bring speeds up to 79 mph, saving 10 minutes and, more significantly, increasing capacity. In Massachusetts, they’ll improve track and create a more direct route between East Northfield and Springfield, eliminating the need to change direction, for a savings of 28 to 30 minutes. And in Vermont, they improved 190 miles of track and upgraded the signal system on 16 miles south of White River Junction, to save another 28 to 30 minutes in travel time.

There’s the missing context for those 28 minutes.

8. Of course extending the line to Montréal would boost ridership. Griffin comes across as a know-nothing when he derides the idea that reconnecting Montréal to the Vermonter line will “somehow or another” increase travel along the line.

“It is absurd to imply that extending the train north to a major destination like Montréal would not produce a big ridership increase,” said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, in a statement. Szabo agrees: “Connecting in a major urban area like Montréal is significant and will exponentially grow ridership.”

The Vermont Department of Transportation projects the extension would generate between 78,000 and 120,000 additional riders annually on the line – roughly doubling the existing ridership.

A Canadian diplomat once blogged about his 11-hour journey between New York City and Montréal – a journey that an Amtrak agent told him could have easily been two hours shorter with “pre-border clearance, upgrading speed, eliminating a stop at Yonkers, a dedicated track on Canadian Pacific line north of Rouses Point and no engine change at Albany.” Basic improvements like this – which still don’t bring the trains up to “the high-speed rail you or I think about” — could easily make the scenic trip fast enough to compete with car travel.

9. Ridership is growing. Griffin acknowledges that ridership in Vermont is up. Amtrak ridership all over the country is up, in fact – by 49 percent over 2000. More people are choosing rail – and that’s with a decrepit, slow, unreliable system. Imagine how people would flock to trains if they were fast, elegant, and on time.

10. Vermont is a reasonable place to improve rail. Cooper and Griffin made it sound like Vermont – “a state with no big cities and little congestion” — is a bad place for rail to even exist. Indeed, it’s a strange place to highlight when you’re doing a news segment about high-speed rail, when the bigger story is what’s going on in California, the Northeast Corridor, the Midwest, and Texas.

But Vermont is a perfectly natural place for rail, and the stimulus-funded improvements didn’t just save travelers time, they enhanced reliability and safety, too. Additionally, short line railroads will be able to haul heavier loads, taking more trucks off the highways and reducing congestion.

“It is likely, at least in the medium term, what I would classify as feeder service,” Szabo told me. “And that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant; in fact it’s a very important part of a network. But it’s about feeding those smaller communities in New England to the Northeast Corridor spine. It’s the level of connectivity that builds up synergy.”

It’s not just Vermont – rail is growing throughout New England. In November, Amtrak extended service north of Portland, Maine, to Freeport and Brunswick, opening to great fanfare in those communities. The service has exceeded projected ridership and sparked new development near the stations.

  • John Dough

    Righto! A train mag writer. How could HE be biased?

  • John Dough

    Yeah. You’re probably right. You know, because of all those millions O’Toole makes from the Koch Brothers and his underhanded profits from highway contractors. Obviously, thats why he’s motivated to make stuff up.

    On the other hand, of course, those high speed train guys…they’re all on the up and up. We will all see how they will be built under budget and way ahead of schedule and will carry even more than a billion people a year and run on pixie dust.

    What could Cooper have been thinking?

  • John Dough

    Why not 3. Or 4. Or a dozen choices? Simple. Because they cost too much, they’re redundant and there’s a limit at how much tax money can be spent by the government competing with itself.

    Maybe a river boat on Lake Champlain. How about government sponsored hot air balloons just in case somebody wants that as their “choice”?

    What you’re all missing is the cost/benefit ratio of these horrendous expenditures!

  • John Dough

    Is too! Know why? People actually use the network of highways.

    Hypothetical question: Smithville has two pizza shops.

    #1 is always full…cost $1,000,000 to build and $20,000 a year to run…brings in $500,000 in sales.

    #2 is mostly empty…most of the time…cost $500,000 to build and $100,000 a year to run…sales are $20,000.

    Which one is successful?

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-51301154:disqus The idea of ending subsidies sounds good on paper. In practice it couldn’t work for the simple reason building major transportation networks nowadays of any kind are multigenerational efforts which often NEVER give a return on investment. Therefore, private industry wouldn’t be interested. The fact that there were robust rail networks a century ago operated by private enterprise has little to do with today. Remember years ago we practically had slave labor to build and run the railroads. And capital equipment was a lot less complex, therefore less expensive. Those two factors are the only reason private industry could make money in the rail business. Even freight railroads, which incidentally are the only form of transportation which today pays for equipment and infrastructure repair without subsidies, essentially got their rights-of-way for free decades ago.

    The problem in a nutshell is people can’t think of transportation in isolation, as an entity which needs to or should make a profit. Rather, think of it as the lifeblood which powers the rest of the economy. A dollar spent on highways might generate five times that amount in economic activity (and sadly probably more in negative externalities). A dollar spent on rail might generate ten or twenty dollars of economic activity. In those terms, it makes sense to subsidize transportation. The key however is to subsidize the mode most appropriate to the area in question. Spending money on highways in rural farm areas makes sense because the farmers in those areas need to get around. Moreover, the farms serve a vital function. Spending money on highways so people can live in suburbia makes no sense. Suburbs serve no vital function. If people really want to live there, then they should spend the true cost of getting around by car. Continuing this line of thought, it makes no sense either to spend money on anything except local roads in major cities. Local roads are needed to deliver goods, and also for buses and emergency vehicles. Local road design/capacity should reflect this reality. People don’t need to get around by car in urban areas, and road design/parking policy should reflect that. Most of the transportation subsidies in urban areas should be spent on subways, light rail, and commuter rail because those modes are what give the most return on investment in dense urban areas.

    For long distance transport, high-speed rail costs the least per capita and has the fewest negative externalities. Therefore, it should receive the bulk of the subsidies. Long-distance highways are largely no longer necessary given the advances in rail technology over the last three decades, and so should no longer be subsidized. This is all a very complex subject, but at its heart the concept of “fund the best mode for the circumstances, let private industry build anything else” should be the guiding mantra. When looked at from a purely logical perspective, it actually turns out that private automobile only makes sense in rural areas. Certainly there’s little reason to subsidize auto travel in big cities or even suburbs (which incidentally wouldn’t have existed in the first place without subsidized auto travel) given that the HUGE negative externalities far outweigh any potential benefits to auto users.

  • Joe R.

    @ea1809617b00430091318d0e92a6ef00:disqus Regardless of how much people ostensibly like the door-to-door convenience of cars (which incidentally helped cause the obesity epidemic), they’ve shown time and again they’re unwilling to pay the true cost of their driving habit. I’m not even talking about negative externalities like pollution/accidents/congestion/land use here. Motorists won’t even accept a higher gas tax which would at least cover the cost of repairing roads, much less a higher tax which covers everything. If we really charged the true cost of driving, which would equate to a $5 to $10 per gallon tax on gas, there would be few takers.

    Now subsidies, which is why car travel is relatively inexpensive, are not necessarily a bad thing as I alluded to in my last post. They’re only a bad thing if you fund the wrong mode. In urban and even pre-WWII suburban areas auto travel is probably the last thing you should subsidize. There just isn’t enough space in these areas for everyone to get around by car, hence the resulting congestion from our autocentric policies which has a huge economic cost. And over longer distances, high-speed rail is far better than auto even if it may not go door-to-door. It can connect at either end with local public transit, or even rent-a-cars if the destination has no viable public transit. There’s little reason to make the entire  journey of hundreds or thousands of miles by car. It offers no advantage to either those making the trip, or to those who must pay for the highways. HSR offers far faster door-to-door journey times compared to driving over any distance. It’s also a lot more comfortable in a train than it is being cooped up in a car, needing to make average-speed reducing stops even just to go to the bathroom. Subsidize one mode only, the mode which makes the most sense for the circumstances. 99% of the time that mode *won’t* be private auto. Private auto really only makes sense in rural farm areas where rail transit just can’t work due to the very low densities. Everywhere else you can use some combination of high-speed rail, commuter rail, subways, light rail, buses, bicycles, and walking.

  • Joe R.

    Regarding the 28 minute time savings, it might actually be even better than the 10% mentioned. Few people take a train between both endpoints. Consider for example if improvements on the NEC cut 16 minutes off the running time from NYC to Washington. Now this is only about 10% of the total running time. Suppose however that those 16 minutes was cut from the NYC to Philadelphia segment, which incidentally sees more passengers than NYC-Washington. For those passengers this cuts the travel time by 25%, which is huge. If 20 of those 28 minutes mentioned were cut from a popular portion of the run which used to take 80 minutes, then this will drive a lot of people to use the train on that segment. That in turn could fund further improvements elsewhere.

    You actually gain a lot more in terms of minutes saved by speeding up 30 mph sections to 80 mph than you do increasing 90 mph areas to 110 mph. Sure, we should do both, but if faced with a limited budget, speed up the slowest sections first, even if it doesn’t mean any sexy PR opportunities.

  • Joe, while I believe you present a rational, coherent argument I am not convinced whatsoever based on my knowledge of transportation. You’re incorrect to say that large transportation projects never generate a return on investment. Highways DO pay for themselves along routes that have high levels of traffic, and yes, private companies do finance them when given the chance. As for rail, there are certain corridors that exist today that are profitable. If we had private companies running them, they would use their profits to enhance their network and provide better rail service as opposed to subsidizing other parts of the country where rail is not highly used by the public, therefore not providing an equal value to people as has been spent to operate them. I’m not going as far as to say that county governments shouldn’t be building local roads or using sales taxes to fund local transit systems, but as far as large scale projects, I absolutely do believe the state’s role in transportation is in acquiring rights of ways (which also gives the state say in the planning and urban development which will take place as a result of new transportation), not financing infrastructure. If it cant pay for itself, then people obviously do not find it worth the cost of building it. And remember, a lot of those interurban lines built in cities were not to make money from the actual trolley, but were built by developers who wanted to increase land values so they could build housing, or today we would call that transit oriented development. Of course, the free market built mass transit and TOD long before the government totally sabotaged the process of urban development by involving itself in transportation, urban renewal, low income housing, and restrictive zoning policies. Instead of begging for more funding from our categorically broke government, if you really believe in mass transit and better transportation options for the public, you should advocate against more federal spending on transportation altogether. Given that we’re running deficits of greater than a trillion dollars every year, now is not the time for everyone to ask for more. It is the time for everyone to sacrifice more.  

    As for your claim on long distance high speed rail, I cannot disagree more. The California high speed rail project, as planned, is a horrific investment that would never take place in an economically free society. Basically you’re taking the population to pay for a rail system only the wealthy are going to be able to afford to travel on. Talk about screwing the 99%! Think of how foolish the investment sounds, when you’re talking about spending over $60,000,000,000 to transport 260,000 people a day (based on very lofty and questionable projections). Why not spend a fraction of that to open up more transit lines for daily commuters within metro areas, which would transport far more people? 

    If we had a robust free market system that provided services such as transportation to the public, we would not be using obsolete technology such as steel wheel rails. We would be using maglev trains that go far faster, use far less energy, and do not require subsidies. 

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-51301154:disqus You inadvertently hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that private companies could make a profit by basically picking only the busiest lines. That pretty much leaves everyone else with no or substandard transportation. That’s why we can’t have private enterprise in charge. Everyone needs transportation but if private enterprise ran the show only those most able to pay for it would have it. To reiterate, transportation doesn’t need to make a profit. It generally pays for itself in terms of increased economic activity unless you fund really poorly thought out projects, such as the so-called bridge to nowhere.

    Now I agree that restrictive zoning laws have caused more problems than anything else. You’ll have NIMBYs who don’t want the neighborhood near their train station built up. End result is the train has a lot fewer riders than it otherwise would have. Government’s role therefore should be first acquiring the rights-of-way for large scale projects, and then basically overruling NIMBY concerns which would tend to reduce ridership on the new line. However, government’s role doesn’t end there. I can agree with you that in many cases private enterprise can make a profit running a new line, but only if government first pays for the infrastructure costs. For example, there are many profitable bus lines. The fares cover vehicle and driver expenses, but not the capital expense of building the roads, not should it. So why have a different standard for rail? In some cases, the government will also need to provide operating subsidies, perhaps only temporarily until development along the line increases ridership. Again, nothing wrong with that. In fact, nothing is wrong with permanent operating subsidies if the line generates enough economic activity to warrant it.

    Why are you using the California HSR project as representative of high-speed rail in general? There are plenty of great examples of successful HSR lines. Part of the reason the problems you say exist with California HSR is due to NIMBYism. Another issue is the first phase of the line goes pretty much nowhere. HSR can be very successful and pretty much replace most highway travel and most domestic air travel. That’s the goal we should set for it. Increase HSR funding in stages. As more of the network is built it becomes useful to more people. When enough of it is built, you start tapering off highway and air funding. At the same time, you also fund connecting local transit, which of course will also be useful for short trips not involving high-speed rail.

    As for maglev, the problems are twofold. One, you need a completely new right-of-way everywhere it goes. High-speed trains can operate for part of their route over any track, albeit at reduced speed. Two, maglev isn’t all that much faster than HSR (300 mph versus 225 to 250 mph). The limiting factor is the point at which it becomes uneconomical to go faster due to energy concerns. I’ve studied maglev quite a bit. I’ve come to the conclusion the only way it makes sense is if you build it in an evacuated tunnel so that you get a lot more speed for the investment. And we may yet build evacuated-tube maglev in 20 or 30 years which spans continents and oceans, running at speeds of several thousand mph. For today’s needs, the uses of maglev are pretty limited. Maglev works best over runs of some tens of miles where its superior acceleration results in greatly reduced travel times. The Shanghai maglev is a perfect example. Maglev might even work over a route of a few hundred miles where you need to stop fairly frequently. That’s why Japan is considering building one between Tokyo and Osaka. Other than those limited scenarios, maglev isn’t any kind of panacea. Rail may be an old technology, but we have yet to find any other way to move people or goods with less energy. Maglev uses significantly more energy than HSR. Part of it is due to the slightly higher speeds. The rest is due to the electromagnetic suspension.

  • Erik Griswold

    John Dough: He would be a balance to the usual Randy & Wendy show.

  • Erik Griswold

    Meanwhile the Federal Government quietly spends $2.3 million per year to subsidize the Essential Air Services flights on 8-seat (9 seats when they run with only one pilot) Cessna 402s: into the Lebanon, NH (Close to White River Junction, VT and Hanover (Dartmouth College), NH) airport from Boston-Logan and White Plains, NY:

    This amount does not include the subsidies to the airport’s traffic control tower:

    but requires an annual enplanement of 10,000 passengers, something which was only pulled off in 2012 by using steeply discounted fares during the last week of that year:

    This made for a fun (and immensely subsidized to the tune of $230 each way ($2.3M divided by 10,000)) day trip for one member of who wrote a trip report about it:

    Oneway fares on these flights are normally in the $150 range:;f=LEB;t=HPN;

    Give me the $55 one way fare to New York (price for travel tomorrow) especially if this train can also transport passengers from and to any of the multiple city pairs possible on the route.

    There are no flights from White River Junction to, for example, Amherst, Massachusetts or  Essex Junction, Vermont, and there are increasingly few bus operators on these kinds of small city to small city routes:

  • Miles Bader

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Privately-run mass transit can work quite well, indeed, rather better than publicly-run mass-transit, given the right circumstances and opportunity.

    As usual, my example is Tokyo, where most transit is privately owned, operated, and financed… and vastly better than anything in the U.S.

  • The buses do pay for the capital costs of the roads when the highways are tolled, with the fares going towards amortized payments. All highways should be tolled, gas taxes be raised to reflect the cost of infrastructure, elimination of minimum parking requirements, and less zoning restrictions that prohibit development conducive to pedestrian environments. Take that away, and more people will naturally choose to use train & bus systems; no government subsidies needed. 

    I don’t know where you do research on maglev but you have a lot to learn on the subject. You are incorrect on both points. First, maglev does not require new rights of ways (unlike, for example, the California HSR). Please do not use the transrapid as an example, because that system uses electromagnets whereas domestic technologies, including patents by the same engineers that conceived the maglev under construction in Japan, use superconducting magnets that create a field with aluminum loop panels which can easily be installed along existing train tracks. That’s in addition to being able to travel over narrow concrete beams which can also be easily installed along virtually any right of way, particularly among the broad easements of most highways. Secondly, as far as speed, maglev trains travel faster than the fastest steel-wheel trains. But speed is not the most important aspect of the technology. The most important aspects are minimal maintenance (proven on maglev systems; there’s no friction and therefore no need for vast resources to be allocated towards maintaining the track infrastructure) and low energy needed to propel the trains. Using linear synchronous motors, energy is restored into the grid as trains decelerate  leaving only air resistance as the primary drag on trains. You are categorically incorrect to say that it uses more energy than HSR. It in fact uses only a fraction that HSR does! With high temperature superconducting magnets, you only need liquid nitrogen to bring the magnets to superconducting temperatures, which is inexpensive and abundant. If you were to use this technology in say, the NYC subway system, the MTA would no longer need subsidies because the number one cost, maintenance, would be dramatically reduced. It would use less energy, more trains could run, and yes, it would absolutely be a panacea given our old and pathetic technology that’s in use. 

    You simply are not knowledgeable about maglev technology innovation. You sound like the same type of person that would discourage sailors from attempting to cross the Atlantic because you think the world is flat. You want to maintain the status quo with obsolete technology that needs subsidies to survive. All I need to build a maglev is a government permit to construct it along highway ROWs, and revenue from passenger and more importantly, freight, will pay for it without seizing people’s wages to pay for train systems that only the affluent can afford to use. 

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-51301154:disqus I have a BSE degree from Princeton University in electrical engineering. I took a transportation engineering course during my studies. Trains are one of my lifelong interests. I’ve studied all types of train technology extensively, including maglev. I’m very knowledgeable about the physics involved.

    Let’s disect things point-by-point. When I said “right-of-way”, I meant the physical track the maglev moves along. Obviously you can build a maglev route along a highway median or any other existing ROW. Nevertheless, you need a brand new guideway wherever you intend to run maglev because it cannot run on existing train tracks. What you describe with aluminium loop panels on existing train tracks is not maglev. It’s termed a linear induction motor, and the vehicle still needs steel wheels to guide it along the train tracks. It also won’t be running any faster than a traditional train when using steel wheels on regular railroad tracks. Now maybe such a vehicle can also be engineered to run at higher speeds along the narrow concrete beams we usually associate with maglev by retracting the steel wheels. Whether it would make sense to do this depends primarily upon economics. To me it makes more sense to just switch to a conventional train at the point where the maglev guideway ends.

    Getting to speed, yes, maglevs can have service speeds 50 to 75 mph faster than the fastest conventional trains. They also accelerate far faster, which is my opinion is their biggest strength as it’s average speed which matters more than top speed. Nevertheless, you can’t change the laws of physics here. The power to overcome air resistance increases in proportion to speed cubed. All other things being equal, it takes 2.37 times as much power to go 300 mph as it does to go 225 mph. Of course, things aren’t equal. A maglev vehicle is typically smaller than a high-speed train, and much lighter, so the power usage my be lower. By the same token, the number of passengers carried is far less, so the energy used per passenger is higher. Remember high-speed trains are pretty much as streamlined as it’s possible for them to be. I imagine the same is true of maglev vehicles.

    Train physics is very interesting. Most of the aerodynamic drag is from the first unit punching through the air, and the last unit dragging a wake behind it. Maglev doesn’t eliminate this. You can only decrease aero drag by either making the vehicle more streamlined (lowering the drag coefficient), and/or decreasing the frontal area. Given the constraints of a practical vehicle, you can’t do too much with the frontal area. As mentioned, drag coefficients are already pretty much optimized for both high-speed trains and maglevs. After that it’s just a matter of punching in the numbers, and maglev loses on a per passenger basis. The lower vehicle weight per passenger really only matters as far as saving energy when accelerating. However, both maglevs and high-speed trains can recover a significant fraction of that energy via regenerative braking so the advantage maglev has isn’t that big. Besides, most of the energy in both cases is used overcoming aerodynamic drag. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself here:

    Maglev does has a slight advantage at speeds of 350 km/h and more, but high-speed trains don’t run that fast in service anyway. If you have a need to go over about 350 km/h or so, then maglev is the only game in town. In any case, maglev doesn’t use a “fraction” of the energy HSR does. A maglev train may use far less than a high-speed train, but only because it’s shorter and carries far fewer passengers.

    Finally, you’re 100% wrong that I’m against new technologies. If it were up to me, we would build a system of evacuated tube maglevs tomorrow to totally replace air travel, along with high-speed rail feeder routes to these maglev trunk lines. That to me is a terrific use of this wonderful technology. I’m lukewarm about using maglev to do a job which conventional steel wheel on steel rail is still capable of doing. If there are individual circumstances where you need rapid acceleration due to frequent stops, or maybe just a quick point-to-point journey of some tens of miles, then maglev may make sense. Maglev to replace the subway is ridiculous. Subways don’t run at high speeds. And the savings in maintenance would take literally decades to recover given the huge capital expense of switching over to maglev. I assume here you meant the usual maglev on a concrete beam. If you’re going to change the subway to linear induction motors, then you can still use the same tracks, but the vehicles would continue to ride on steel wheels with all the maintenance that entails. Besides all that, personnel cost is the MTA’s biggest line item. Unfortunately, thanks to sweetheart deals made with the union, we’ll be stuck paying huge pension and health care costs for decades to come.

  • Joe R.

    @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus The system of largely privately run railways in Japan has good and bad points. As you mentioned, it’s very reliable and works exceedingly well. The ugly downside is that fares are considerably higher than for a journey of equivalent length here in the US. In fact, if we ever decided to do as Jackson Strong mentions, and end transportation subsidies altogether here in the US, then we had better be prepared for sticker shock. In NYC the subway fare would probably jump to $6 or more, basically no longer making it an option for low-wage workers. Commuter rail fares would probably jump even higher because they have a lower fare-box recovery ratio. My guess is we’ll be seeing a lot of people on bicycles should we ever totally privatize transportation here. Come to think of it, that’s probably why bicycle use in Japan is fairly high. Those trains are nice if you have the money, but quite a few people don’t.
    There are good reasons for transportation subsidies. The only time this creates problems is when costs aren’t contained, as with the MTA. The city never should have allowed subway workers to unionize. In fact, any public service workers shouldn’t be allowed to form unions because this artificially drives up costs for the taxpayers. Japan I think doesn’t have as big a problem in this regard, which is why their system works, at least for those who can afford it. Ironically, a tourist can get around more economically by train there thanks to the Japan Rail Pass. No doubt this is artificially discounted, perhaps on the theory the tourist will spend far more than giving him/her reduced fares will cost. Also, since the trains are running anyway, the incremental cost of an additional passenger is close to zero.

  • The technology I described is a linear synchronous motor, where the acceleration of the vehicle is provided by the frequency of the alternating current as opposed to propulsion from individual linear motors. Because the magnets used are quadrupole as opposed to dipole, the vehicle remains levitated at very low speeds; you do not need wheels. Installing it in the subway in fact makes perfect sense, because you only need the aluminum loop panels installed on both sides of existing tracks, which is easy and inexpensive. The maintenance costs will be recouped within a few years, not a long term horizon as you suggest. You underestimate the amount of money and resources that go just to maintain the system  What if we could free up those resources so that we can use them for something more than just maintaining existing infrastructure! Again, its not about the high speeds. Its about using a lot less energy and far less resources. The few maglev systems in operation require very little maintenance  the transrapid has required a total of two weeks of maintenance in its entire history of operation. Even though it serves a low number of passengers, it doesn’t require operational subsidies. The technology I speak of (please see: ) wouldn’t even require subsidies for the capital cost, because its operational costs are very low. You are completely incorrect to say the energy used per passenger is lower. Assuming air resistance is equal to existing trains, the energy needed for propulsion is a fraction of conventional trains.  You have assumed wrong about using a concrete beam in the subway. Please refer to the link to see a diagram of how it would be installed along existing tracks without any major installation or modification of existing tracks. 

  • I agree as far as the public sector labor force shouldn’t be allowed to unionize, and I also agree that costs would be higher, but that is if we still continue to use this obsolete technology! If you look at the maglev I describe, it can be built very inexpensively and because maintenance costs are lower and less labor is required, fares would not have to increase substantially for it to be paid for w/o subsidies, if at all. 

  • if you give me until later today, I’m almost finished with diagrams depicting exactly how they’d be installed in the subway system so you can see for yourself how non-intrusive modifying the tracks would be for maglev. But it is most definitely a maglev system; there is no friction.

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-51301154:disqus I’m curious to see how the system you mention could be retrofitted into the subway. The bottom line though is even assuming it worked as advertised, I see several issues. I know for a fact that there would be little or no energy savings. Subway trains run at low speeds, so air resistance is a non-issue. That mainly leaves rolling friction. A steel wheel on steel rail has about the same amount of friction as the magnetic drag of a maglev-roughly 0.001 to 0.002 of the vehicle weight. Maglev doesn’t have “no friction”, although it’s pretty close to zero. Let’s call it a wash. About the only thing left then is energy required to accelerate up to speed. You might save a bit there if the maglev vehicle could be made significantly lighter, but I’m honestly dubious if it would be worthwhile.

    The second issue is, ironically, the labor savings, if any, from reduced maintenance. These workers are under contract and *can’t* be fired except for wrong-doing or gross incompetence. The only way in theory to shrink the labor force is through attrition (which would take decades), but even that’s a nonstarter because the contract stipulates a certain number of maintenance workers. Bottom line-the MTA is stuck paying these people and their replacements forever, so you might as well have them doing something useful, like fixing trains. I’d love to think the MTA could negotiate a better contract in the future but I’m dubious. Union contracts are never retroactive. Maybe new workers could have lower pay or less job security, but not current workers. Moreover, the union fiercely defends its existence by negotiating contracts which ensure there will always be x number of employees in any given position, regardless of the MTA’s actual personnel needs. It’s a mess for sure. I highly doubt it will be fixed in my lifetime, or perhaps ever. Just look at how long it took freight railroads before they could finally get rid of firemen. Same situation here. That’s why I strongly dislike labor unions in public service. They make workforce flexibility impossible.

    The only thing which *might* favor a switch to maglev is the potential for much faster schedules, assuming of course the signaling system could be redesigned for that (the present signals don’t even allow conventional trains to run to their full potential). If you shave even 20 seconds off between stops, you could be talking 10 minutes off a typical ride of maybe 30 minutes. That’s huge, actually, and would certainly attract more riders. Really, the major issues here are more economic than technical. Could we make the subway maglev? Sure. Would it have a reasonable payback period? I really don’t know. I do know this idea has never been proposed. With the MTA’s conservative management and the even worse unions, I can tell you with near certainty it would be a nonstarter.

    I do applaud you for thinking out of the box here. Evenually those who think outside of the box do in fact have some of their ideas adopted, and society is the better for it.

  • Jay Seegmiller

    Joe R… I love when critics of
    labor unions use examples that are 50 years old to criticize current labor.  The fireman issue is a half century old.  The blame for the fireman issue is as much a
    management issue as it is a labor union issue. 
    Labor agreements are negotiated agreements between labor and management.  In the last 30 years rights for self-help by
    labor organizations have almost been completely stripped from labor,  giving management and upper hand in
    negotiations.  Strikes are rare, and very
    short lived in the rail industry.   The truth is that crew sizes have been greatly reduced in the
    rail industry over the last 25 years, making the US rail labor force the most
    productive in the world.  Railroads, like
    Union Pacific and BNSF, make huge annual profits even in economic downturns
    because they run 12 to 15 thousand foot trains with 2 crew members when just 25
    years ago they used 8 crew members to move the same amount of freight.  .It could be argued that this is done at a
    serious safety risk to the communities the trains go through, but until there
    are enough incidents to bring attention to these risks the railroads will
    continue to take these risks.

  • I’m working on the renderings of what the installation would look like. Please reach out to me at if you’d like me to send them to you. As far as the labor unions, perhaps you’re right, there’s literally nothing that can be done. Perhaps. But absent that issue, you would not need an army of construction workers working around the clock just to maintain the system. Instead you could put that labor towards improvements. Also, it would work well to reduce the maintenance workers via attrition because the maglev would be installed in sections as to not disrupt the entire system at once. You’re questions regarding the viability and practicality of the system are all relevant, but I’ve heard these questions raised before, and I sincerely believe this technology addresses them. As far as signaling, it simply wouldn’t be used in a maglev system because the trains are operated by an AC current in the loops, not by a conductor (except for emergencies). This would also allow for much closer spacing of trains and there would also be the benefit of faster speeds between express stops. You could comfortably get the trains going over 100mph under Queens Boulevard or between 59th and 125th. That said, I’ll be happy to share with you exactly what I’m talking about depicted in a diagram. 

  • Mainiac1946

    Anderson Cooper, like ALL media people is not interested in what is HONEST, and or TRUTHFUL; he is interested only in what makes him popular and if he can make the government look bad in the process , all the better for his ratings . 

  • Miles Bader

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus  Hmmm?  Fares aren’t particularly higher in Tokyo; they’re distance based, so for short trips, they’re considerably lower than NYC (about $1.30 minimum fare), and for long trips, they’re higher, but I think not absurdly high.Fare levels in Japan are regulated by the government, though, so I don’t know what the levels would be if they were left entirely to the railways.

  • Anonymous

    Speeds were only recently increased on the line.

  • Anonymous

    No wife, no kids, no Prius … no car at all. Yes, I live a good life in NYC without a car. So my life isn’t exactly like yours, John Dough, but why you hating on me (and my trains) just because I live a modest lifestyle?

    And no, I’m not taking the bus, even if it is the cheapest, most torturous way to get my aging body delivered to the loading dock at the Soylent Green processing plant.

  • Anonymous

    Because he used to cover ALL modes of transportation? You think it’s better to interview only a bogus “expert” on the payroll of the oil interests? You seem to be self-deceiving, or addicted to Kool Aid or what. Because your every comment is biased against trains and favors either the status quo where highways and air travel are massively favored, or a fantasy world where politicians do not favor one group over another. Get real, man.

  • Anonymous

    At CNN, all their monitors are tuned to Faux News, and their coverage runs along behind, offering up a soft of crazy-lite take on issues, but usually coming down on the right. I quit watching, even in airports. LOL.

    And poor Anderson Cooper. He’s lives in NYC, he’s gay, he’s had a charmed life with good looks, intelligence and education, connections. And yes, he’s descended from a great railroading mogul. Now he seems to think that by attacking Amtrak he can pretend to assert independence (from something, god knows, maybe from Obama) and gain favor with the crazies.

    It won’t work. He can betray his rail heritage with every segment and they’ll still hate him.

  • Anonymous

    “Given that we’re running deficits of greater than a trillion dollars every year …” Hey, thanks for claiming that bold untruth, thereby showing that you and the other propagandists for the super rich don’t know what you’re talking about, to put it kindly.

    The federal deficit peaked in the triumphant last year of the George W Bush administration, after following “conservative” economic policies for eight years, and it’s been going down, down, down.

    So, fiscal 2009, which began October 1 of 2008 after the meltdown of the banks in September, and which included Bush’s plan to buy toxic assets and bail out the banks, that was the peak year for red ink, at $1.4 trillion. Then fiscal 2010, the first budget year completely under Obama was almost as bad, but down a bit to $1.3 trillion, as was the next one, 2011, again $1.3 trillion.

    Lately, the deficit has been shrinking rapidly (while the economy still stagnates due to affects of the austerity).

    So fiscal 2012 was $1.1 trillion. The current fiscal year ending six months from now will come around $0.9 trillion, or $900 billion.

    Sadly, unless and until we have a couple of years with deficits over $2 trillion a year, $3 trillion would be better, won’t not get the economy back on track and restore work for millions of Americans.

    At this point, with Obama’s wimpy policies, it looks like we’ll have to wait for a new Repub administration to get the scale of deficits we need for an economic turnaround.

    Believe me, fearless forecast: The next Repub President will agree with Vice President Dick Cheney who said, not so long ago, “Deficits don’t matter.” Promise you, as long as it’s not that “Black Man in the White House” doing it, government spending will soar — and the economy will take off.

  • Anonymous

    WRONG again, Baby. The original HSR line between Paris and Lyon was spinning off so much operating surplus that France was gonna use the funds to build more HSR lines, one at a time. (Then the Lesser Depression hit, and France decided a good investment was to build more than one HSR line at a time. Oh, those French!)

    I don’t pay much attention to stuff in Japan. But I know that major bullet train routes have been privatized, and counting real estate development around the stations, they require no government subsidy.

    On an operating basis, not counting repaying the cost of construction, I’m betting that Seville-Madrid and Barcelona-Madrid show a surplus. Probably Milan-Rome as well (or why else would a private company go into competition with Trenitalia?) And others.

  • Anonymous

    The morning train will leave St Alban’s at 9 a.m. instead of 8:30. If you have to drop the kids off at school, or the spouse off at work, or pick up your copies at FedEx-Kinkos, that extra half hour in the morning could be a lifesaver. Then the train will arrive at 9 instead of at 9:30 p.m. A much nicer time to drive home in the dark and snow, and you’re likely to get home in time to kiss your wife good night, and maybe even help put the kids to bed. Improvements of “only” 28 minutes can make for much better train rides.

  • Anonymous

    CNN mis-report #11: They fail to mention that with Wi-Fi on this train, you can use your time. But CNN talks about how much longer the Vermonter takes to get to NYC than driving does, without mentioning that on the train you can get a lot of stuff done. Of course, when driving, you’re not supposed to do any other work, so your time is wasted — besides leaving you tired.

  • Anonymous

    This article is pretty dumb. All it’s doing is talking about how the Vermont train was under budget, then downplaying and saying “I won’t delve into” the other problems. Don’t you think those problems should have been discussed before money was spent on it? I don’t expect to build Rome in a day but one piece of track might be nice.

    Family of four, round trip cost between Washington DC and New York City:

    By Amtrak: $1200, not door-to-door can only bring as much as you can carry, no traffic.
    By car: $150, door to door, can bring as much as you can fit in your car, possible traffic.

    I’ll drive.


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