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.

  • I didn’t see the CNN report, and I don’t need to.  This article here was well written and I agree with all points.  Highway system is a money pit.

  • I didn’t see the CNN report, and I don’t need to.  This article here was well written and I agree with all points.  Highway system is a money pit.

  • Ian Turner

    CNN, like almost all TV news, is slavishly beholden to auto industry advertising. This type of reporting is the entirely unsurprising (if outrageous) consequence of that fact.

  • Ian Turner

    CNN, like almost all TV news, is slavishly beholden to auto industry advertising. This type of reporting is the entirely unsurprising (if outrageous) consequence of that fact.

  • Ian Turner

    CNN, like almost all TV news, is slavishly beholden to auto industry advertising. This type of reporting is the entirely unsurprising (if outrageous) consequence of that fact.

  • Ian Turner

    CNN, like almost all TV news, is slavishly beholden to auto industry advertising. This type of reporting is the entirely unsurprising (if outrageous) consequence of that fact.

  • Just tweeted at Anderson: [ @andersoncooper very poor reporting on high speed rail “keeping them honest” fraught with errors #cnn #hsr streetsblog.org ]

  • If they wanted to explore waste in the rail network (though the far, far bigger story is in the highway network), CAHSR and the NEC are actually decent places to start, though not where most news organizations look.

    The choice of Pacheco Pass on CAHSR, for example; the rejected SNCF proposal; investments in Caltrain signalling that are probably going to be incompatible with CAHSR; and a wretched station design at Transbay.

    Or in the NEC’s $158 billion plan: why so expensive? Couldn’t it be done more cheaply? Aren’t there more incremental steps that could be taken?

    Come to think of it, even the Chicago-St Louis line that was trumpeted so loudly. The major slowdown isn’t at the high-speed zone, it’s further south toward Alton, IL. Putting money to fix THAT would go much further to improve travel times.

    Calling out the Vermonter is lazy. It should be held up as an example of how to do rail investment right – what percentage of travel time can be shaved with a given dollar of investment? Or how many seconds can it buy? By those measures, this is a good investment, one far better than many rail projects often held up as “progress” on HSR.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Eliminating a stop at Yonkers.”

    If Amtrak and Metro North schedules were somehow coordinated, and tickets cross-honored, the stop in Yonkers would allow passengers a choice of Penn Station or Grand Central Station.  Someone should look into that for Empire Service.

  • CNN is pathetic.

  • Defending high-speed rail is making you folks look dumb. The Feds already spend more than a billion dollars a year to keep Amtrak going. The California project will never happen. There are three lawsuits that will stop that poorly planned money pit, since it’s not what state voters voted for in 2008. And Central Valley farmers aren’t likely to allow a train to plow through some of the most productive and profitable farm land in the world. And the real killer for the project: what Prop. 1A did do is prohibit any taxpayer subsidy for the project if/when it was built. Since every high-speed rail system in the world is subsidized, makes the boondoggle a no-go.

  • CNN has to defend their car and air travel advertisers somehow.

  • Oscarnelson70

    I want nothing more than to see high speed rail become a reality, but can we also agree that 150 mph is not high speed. The Acela reaches that only in a few spots. Other nations’ high speed rail projects blow that away on a more consistent basis.

  • Erik Griswold

    It is ironic too since Anderson is from the Vanderbilt family, who used to own a railroad, IIRC.

    As for the “$55 million” number, that’s a pittance.  Here’s an underpass being built in Orange County, California which will cost $92 million:  http://www.ocregister.com/news/tile-413771-patetta-business.html
    Surface transportation projects cost money.

    I’m glad you called them out on the Randy O’Toole interview.  Why not interview someone with less bias like former Washington Post transportation reporter (remember when newspapers had those?) and now Trains Magazine columnist Don Phillips?

  • Doug

    New York, NY to Burlington, VT:
     Greyhound: $55-$71, 9 hrs
     Amtrak: $65, 9 hrs 11min
    Seems competitive to me.

  • Darrelcole

    I’ve had experience with Drew Griffin before. He’s a viper. Plain and simple.

  • kevd

    Drew Griffin seems like a B Grade John Stossel – just about as smarmy and ill-informed.
    If I saw this exact report on the Daily Show I’d mistake it for a parody of shoddy reporting.
     

  • I thought I was watching FOX

    Wow, Cooper and Griffin sound like shrill know-nothings here. I was embarrassed by how bad that was.

  • James

    The UK is a great example of a country that does not have much high-speed rail (except for the Eurostar from London to the Channel, and, well, they will have first-rate HSR from London to Birmingham in a couple decades), but does pretty good work maintaining — and investing in — an exhaustive system of regular-speed (i.e. 125 MPH and below) train service. What does that mean? Well, you can travel from London to Edinburgh in about 4 hours, a similar distance from NYC to Burlington. 

  • The I-215 is being widened right now at a cost of $800 million.  Somehow, though, only electrically-powered trains in the United States are referred to as “boondoggles.”

    The oil and highway lobbies know that once the California project is completed, the rest of the country will be clamoring for expansions of high-speed rail into other states. 

    The moneyed interests that seek to keep us all enslaved to oil have to kill California High-Speed Rail in its crib.

  • Miles Bader

    @OctaviusIII:disqus haha, Mlynarik, that you?!

    Ok, ok, not snarky enough for Mlynarik, and the “OMG SNCF!1!” whining tends to be from others.

    Still, you’ve got the whining-about-minutia thing down pat…

  • Bjturon

    I wrote this directly to CNN’s Anderson Copper 360 and have gotten
    no response back. It’s not hard to prove Randal O’Toole is a transport policy shyster;
    it took me three hours, apparently a lot longer than the average amount of
    research that Mr. Griffin does…

     

    Keeping Them Honest: When will Randal O’Toole be
    discredited by the Media?

     

    Why is the rabidly anti-rail Randal O’Toole from the CATO
    Institute with his infamous lies, falsehoods, and distortions on rail transport
    still considered by many in the national media, including CNN, to be a
    respected and authoritative expert on the subject?

     

    Please don’t get me wrong, there are some very good
    arguments you could make against investing in rail transport, but O’Toole
    doesn’t take the high road, instead he massages statistics and provides a false
    history to distort the truth.

     

    Look how he has repeatedly create a false picture of what
    is in fact the overwhelming success of the Shinkansen or Bullet Train in Japan.
    As the world’s first modern high-speed railway, O’Toole must feel that it is
    particularly important to build a false image of the famed Bullet Train in the
    eyes of the American public.

     

    Consider this quote by O’Toole from his October 1st 2010
    editorial “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed rail” in the USA Today…

     

    “Since most high-speed rail stations will be in
    downtowns, the main users will be downtown workers such as lawyers, bankers,
    and government officials. Yet less than 8% of American jobs are in central city
    downtowns, meaning all Americans will subsidize trains used by only a small
    urban elite.”

     

    “High-speed trains in Europe and Asia may be a boon to
    American tourists, but they haven’t proved transformational in those regions
    either. France and Japan have the world’s most extensive high-speed rail networks,
    yet their average residents ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles a
    year.”

     

    And a similar statement from the “Obama’s Recycled
    Moderate-Speed Rail Plan” that he posted to the CATO Institute website on
    04-20-2009…

     

    “The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but
    they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of
    Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per
    year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country –
    nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to
    premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.”

     

    Sounds pretty bad for high speed rail doesn’t it, but
    these are facts and figures without context, for example did you know that
    according to a 2007 Gallop Poll 52 percent of Americans never even flew once in
    2007. The average air traveler only made four trips annually, each trip
    averaged 1,046 miles.

     

    It also wouldn’t surprise Americans that an airline trip
    costs more than driving, or that the fare of the New York City Subway is much
    less than the ticket price of Amtrak’s New York to Washington Acela.

     

    Gallop also reports that…

     

    “Americans residing in higher income households also
    travel more by air than those who live in lower income households. Americans
    who live in households earning $75,000 or more per year report an average of
    4.0 air trip per year, higher than the average of 2.2 air trips for those
    earning between $30,000 and $75,000 per year and the average of less than one
    (0.3) for those earning less than $30,000 per year.”

     

    So by O’Toole’s logic we should abandon air travel as
    well since few citizens use it frequently, and those who do are mostly wealthy.
    Or at least by his logic all yearly federal subsidies from air traffic control
    to security. We know that air travel isn’t self-supporting from the 2011
    congressional fight over the FAA funding. On average the FAA user fees only
    cover 75% of its cost, about the same as Amtrak.

     

    What O’Toole is cleverly doing is playing a shell game
    with statistics, by conflating local travel including your daily commute, with
    long-distance intercity travel. Because the vast majority of all travel is
    local, it statistically dominates long-distance travel. This is why in fact
    88.8 percent of all passenger travel in the USA occurs on highways while
    airlines account for only 10.6 percent (2005 estimates by the Bureau of
    Transportation Statistics).

     

    This is true even in Japan, for while rail transit
    dominates the daily commute into the center of Tokyo; for most journeys
    nationally up to a 100 miles the car is actually the dominate mode of
    transport. From 100 to 400 miles the train dominates the domestic travel
    market, beyond 400 the airplane takes over as the dominate mode.

     

    This is all very logical and consistent with individuals
    making rational transportation decisions that fit the needs of the particular
    journey they are embarking on based on factors of cost, distance, destination,
    and travel times.

     

    Finally consider this O’Toole statement from the August
    21, 2012 Christian Science Monitor article “Obama plan for high-speed rail,
    after hitting a bump, chugs forward again”…

     

    “The problem with Obama’s high-speed rail is that
    it’s an obsolete technology that doesn’t make sense today,” says Randal
    O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that,
    along with the Heritage Foundation and the Reason Foundation, led the fight to
    nix the rail plan. And just because it works in other countries does not mean
    the United States should automatically climb on board.

     

    “High-speed rail was successful in Japan because at
    the time it was developed only 12 percent of Japanese were driving,” he
    says. “It makes no sense today when cars go where you want to go when you
    want to go. Just because other countries built this and are driving themselves
    into bankruptcy doesn’t mean we should.”

     

    First of all no nation as driven itself into bankruptcy
    by building high-speed rail, remember that despite building many hundreds of
    miles of high-speed rail Spain’s national debt was very low and its budget
    balance before the 2008 economic crisis. Their problem is the common currency,
    and besides Germany is also very big on high-speed rail (and autobahns!) and is
    a model of fiscal prudence.

     

    As for the idea that Japan built the Shinkansen in the
    early sixties because it lacked the need or ability to build modern highways is
    clearly ridiculous.

     

    In 1956 the national government established the Japan
    Highway Public Corporation to construct and manage a nationwide network of
    expressways. In 1957 construction commence on the Meishin Expressway linking
    Nagoya and Kobe, with the first section of which opened to traffic in 1963.

     

    The car company Toyota was established in 1933 and by the
    early 1960s was expanding overseas, the first Toyota built outside Japan was at
    Melbourne, Australia in 1963. By the end of the decade, Toyota had established
    a worldwide presence, as the company had exported its one-millionth unit.

     

    At the time of the construction of the Tokaido Shinkansen
    which opened in 1964 many in the press and government called it a “white
    elephant”, a completely unnecessary project in the “jet age”. These critics
    quickly change their minds as ridership soared.

     

    Today the Tokyo-Osaka Tokaido Shinkansen carries 145
    million passengers each year, some 4.9 billion passengers since 1964. With a
    daily ridership of 400,000 and 323 daily trains the bullet train accounts for
    85.7% of JR Central Railway annual revenues in 2009.

     

    In 2009 the railways in Japan carried 22.7 billion
    passengers, of which 340 million traveled on the nationwide Shinkansen
    high-speed system. In stark contrast airlines in Japan carried only 84 million,
    less than passenger ships that moved 92 million people.

     

    These numbers are even more impressive when you consider
    that in the US with a population of 315 million domestic airlines in 2009
    transported 618 million passengers (+149 million international) compared to the
    Shinkansen’s 340 million for a nation of 127 million people.

     

    So is high-speed rail (or railways passenger or freight
    in general) really an ineffective obsolete technology? Clearly Randal O’Toole
    either doesn’t know what he is talking about, or he is a charlatan who is
    deliberately misleading the public on the reality of rail transport.

     

    A bit of research can easily prove this beyond a shadow
    of a doubt, yet Randle O’Toole stilled remains a reputable transport expert in
    the eyes of the national press, including CNN.

     

    I’m just “keeping them honest”…

     

    USA Today: “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed
    rail”; 10-01-2012

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-10-02-otoole01_ST_N.htm

     

    Christian Science Monitor: “Obama plan for high-speed
    rail, after hitting a bump, chugs forward again” 08-21-2012 …

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2012/0821/Obama-plan-for-high-speed-rail-after-hitting-a-bump-chugs-forward-again

     

    Gallop: Security Hassles at Airports Are Air Travelers’
    Biggest Complaints; 01-15- 2007

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/26134/Security-Hassles-Airports-Air-Travelers-Biggest-Complaints.aspx

     

    Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications:
    Statistical Handbook of Japan; 2012

    http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook/c09cont.htm

     

    JR Central Railway: 2009 Annual Report

    http://english.jr-central.co.jp/company/company/others/data-book/_pdf/2009.pdf

     

    Osaka Sangyo University/Kyoto University: THE RECENT
    PROGRESS OF HOKURIKU SHINKANSEN AND ITS WAY TO COMPLETION

    http://www.osaka-sandai.ac.jp/ce/rt/19xx/02/02ICIT.pdf

     

    RITA USDOT: Passengers All Carriers – All Airports

    http://www.transtats.bts.gov/Data_Elements.aspx?Data=1

     

    CATO Institute: Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail
    Plan; April 20, 2009

    http://www.cato.org/blog/obamas-recycled-moderate-speed-rail-plan

     

    http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/highspeed-rail-is-no-solution

     

  • Bolwerk

    If the news media wants a story that isn’t talked about outside of transit forums, it might be FRA regulations.

  • I agree it is wrong to subsidize automobile travel, but it is simply poor logic to point to one government failure to justify another. At one point in this country, we had high speed rail linking many of our cities. Even before the 20th century, there were steam trains going 110 mph hauling passengers and interurban transit networks in virtually every city and town in this country. Then the government entered the transportation business. Instead of begging for more subsidies from our broke government, rail advocates should really call for less subsidies, period. That way people will decide for themselves what type of transportation suites them best, and our scarce resources will be allocated most effectively. 

  • Miles Bader

    @855717ad1af08fd80e3a9bfde1e9027e:disqus O’Toole has the manner down pat.  He may be enormously clueless and downright dishonest, but he’s very good at acting like an “expert.”  Outfits like the Reason Foundation are very skillful at deception; their techniques for misleading may be clear to a real domain expert, but are often not at all obvious to someone who’s not.
    Given that they also know to echo what makes news outfits (which even when they’re “liberal” are often very wedded to the status quo) comfortable, and it’s not at all surprising that they manages to worm his way into the media.

  • Jackson Strong is wrong about the history of railroads in the US. In fact passenger rail simply stopped being profitable in the 20th Century, which is why the government got involved and created Amtrak. Ponder this: why didn’t Warren Buffett invest in passenger rail instead of freight rail?

  • steven kennedy

    Keeping you honest: Acela Express—the highest speed they attain is 150 mph (240 km/h), though their average is less than half that speed.

  • How can people “decide” to use rail if the infrastructure isn’t in place? If we invest only in one mode of transit the people have only one choice: drive a car or stay at home.

  • @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus Hah! No, were I Mlynarik I’d write something along the lines of, “This was the dumbest, most idiotic thing. The only reason these nitwits can qualify as “journalists” is because America is run by morons.” I write The Greater Marin instead.

    I chose those particular projects because some of them are on the scale of this Vermonter thing but are actually worth reporting. The MSM shouldn’t report on all the technical things we grumble about but it should report on some of them, and monumental wastes of money ought to qualify.

  • Joe R.

    Compared to other methods of moving people over medium (>100 miles) to medium-long (500 miles) high-speed rail wins hands down in terms of overall travel time, energy use, comfort, and environmental impact. The only downside is the one-time infrastructure cost. If you want to make an argument against high-speed rail, then about the only rational argument you could make is that it’s unnecessary because traveling over distances of greater than maybe 100 miles is largely a want rather than a need for most of the population. If that’s the case however, then you don’t need airliners or interstate highways, either. Remember 200 years ago the majority of people lived and died within 50 miles of where they were born. Long-distance travel may be nice, but when you come down to it, it’s hardly essential, especially in this day of instant connectivity. That’s really the question anyone against high-speed rail should be asking-do we need to travel more than 50 or 100 miles from where we were born? If they can honestly come up with good reasons to say no, then we don’t need to build high-speed rail. We can also stop investing in all forms of long-distance travel except maybe freight railroads and cargo ships. I would however be curious how the general populace would feel about never being able to visit relatives in distant places again, never being able to take vacations, etc. Sure, these are all wants rather than needs, but at this point people take long-distance travel for granted. I can however make a great argument against business travel. The majority of business travel is totally unnecessary from a business standpoint. Business travel continues simply because lots of employees like to travel on their company’s dime, and therefore rationalize their trips as “necessary” to their company’s line of business even when they’re not. Nevertheless, we might do well to eliminate the business travel deduction just to make companies think long and hard about sending their employees on trips. A lot of long-distance travel is business. In most cases there are viable alternatives to travel such as teleconferencing. We could save lots of energy and congestion just by eliminating unnecessary business travel. There might not be enough long distance travel left after that to justify ANY form of long-distance transportation.

    I would personally love to see a national high-speed rail network. At the same time I would also love to see the Interstate highways and domestic air travel completely disappear. I feel in the end, once you eliminate unnecessary business travel, there might only be enough long-distance travel left to justify one mode. High-speed rail fulfills this function best, perhaps even for a coast-to-coast trip. Realistically, a person traveling from NYC to LA is not returning the same day. In fact, once you count everything, including flight time and getting to airports, the trip probably takes 8 or 9 hours. Now if you make the same trip by HSR, it might take 15 or 16 hours. That just means instead of boarding a plane in the early AM you board a train in the late evening the night before, and sleep on the train. Pretty much the reverse is true coming home-you sleep one night on the train instead of your own bed. Practically speaking, when you consider the amount of energy saved and the relatively small numbers who do this kind of travel, it makes more sense to do these types of trips by train instead of air. Also, HSR has a potential for 250mph cruising speeds (225 mph average speeds from NY to LA). This actually brings overall travel time within a few hours of air.

    Sure conservative institutes will lobby against HSR. If it turned out to be half as popular as I suspect it would be domestic air and car travel would take a nosedive, along with fossil fuel use. This scares lobbyists for these industries. Nevertheless, there are times when society needs to accept new ways of doing things, even if it means those invested in the status quo will lose big time. This is one of those cases. We can no longer afford the direct and indirect costs of a transportation system largely based on fossil fuel use. By delaying the inevitable, those fighting rail transport in any form are only digging a deeper grave for their descendants.

  • Joe R.

    “Does anyone else see a huge problem with this quote from O’Toole: “It makes no sense today when cars go where you want to go when you want to go. Just because other countries built this and are driving themselves into bankruptcy doesn’t mean we should.”
    He neglects to mention that car travel has a huge price of entry-you need to buy the car and also get a license, as opposed to simply paying for a train ticket, which anyone can do. Nobody can suggest with a straight face that car travel is a viable answer for much of the population because of these inconvenient truths. The fact that many people may have cars and licenses is irrelevant here. They have them because in many cases they had no choice. Faced with a viable set of choices, I wonder what percentage of the population would choose to own a car or even get a license. If NYC is any indication, that number might be well under 50% even for the latter. I think it’s odd how the same people who preach about the free market have already hand-picked a mode of transport which can receive subsidies without question. It’s also odd that this particular mode has strong lobbyists who are heavily invested in the industries related to it. If you’re going to preach free market, then either subsidize all modes equally, or subsidize nothing. On a level playing field, rail in all its forms generally wins because the operating costs are low, travel safety/reliability/quality is very high, and infrastructure costs are relatively low on a per capita basis. 

  • Joe R.

    @facebook-51301154:disqus You’re rewriting history a bit here. The US never had a system of high-speed rail, at least by the accepted definition of trains operating over 125 mph. There weren’t any steam trains which regularly went 110 mph, either. 80 or 90 mph was actually more common, perhaps 100 mph for some crack expresses. Average speeds however were seldom above 60 mph because those old steam trains took a really long time to get up to speed. I’m talking about several minutes to reach 60 mph (an N700 Shinkansen does 0 to 60 mph in 37 seconds).

    Furthermore, yes, there were tons of interurbans, trolleys, you name it connecting large cities, small cities, even large towns. This worked fairly well, at least until government got involved, but not in the way you mentioned. Starting in the 1950s, the government decided to invest huge sums in road transport. This gave the old rail-based networks a disadvantage. What sealed their fate was the government turning a blind eye to companies like GM buying interurban networks for no other reason than to shut them down. At first they replaced some of them with buses, but in time even the buses went away. Basically, the government and GM set the stage for a society where the average person was virtually forced into automobile ownership because there were few viable alternatives. In the few places where rail transit continued to serve large numbers of people, it of course needed subsidies because of the uneven playing field. Those subsidies were grudgingly given, mostly because places like NYC couldn’t operate without rail transportation.

    In the end however, efforts to kill off rail were unsuccessful. It’s making a comeback despite having had an uneven playing field for the last 60 years. Now if you propose ending subsidies, I might go along with that, but end subsidies for ALL forms of transport. Increase the gas tax to cover the true cost of not only road repair, but foreign wars to secure oil supplies, and also the medical costs of air pollution. While we’re at it, add in a charge for land use to reflect the loss in real estate taxes. Do all that, and road users will be paying the true costs of their mode. To be fair, do the same for rail and air. My guess is when all is said and done, rail will win hands down in most markets because the externalities are low. So are the operating costs. I actually think it bodes well for the future that we couldn’t kill off rail, despite trying for over 60 years.

  • @ea1809617b00430091318d0e92a6ef00:disqus “Defending [federal and state subsidized roads] is making you folks look dumb. The Feds already spend more than [15] billion dollars a year to keep [federal and state subsidized roads] going. . . Since every [road] system in the world is subsidized, makes the boondoggle a no-go.”

  • People still talk to O’Toole?

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t watched CNN for years. It used to be good, now it is just sensationalism and jingoistic crap.

  • Tanya,
    An excellent response, thank you. I’d like to offer a technical correction to your point #3. The Chicago-Kalamazoo service reaches 110 mph in places, just like the new Chicago-St. Louis service. Existing service from NYC to Albany approximates those speeds. These are, for now, the fastest non-electrified rail services in the US. The electrified Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania matches their top speeds. These corridors don’t approach Acela’s 150 mph current peak speed (which may soon increase by about 10 mph). However, Amtrak’s electrified Northeast Corridor Regional service hits 125 mph. If anyone has a technical correction for me, please chime in.

  • Jake G

    Rob Anderson, HSR is no more a boondoggle than supporting a network of highways. Point blank.

  • Anonymous

    The real outrage is the fact that CNN foisted off the crackpot Randall O’Toole on viewers. This is the guy who was recently testified before a Congressional Committee that the air traffic control system should be privatized!

  • @DustyW:disqus I agree! This is the “transportation expert” that said after Sandy, NYC should replace its subways with underground buses.

  • Btoan

    I think it would be helpful to point out exactly how much, that is to say, how little highway upgrade you typically get for $52 million.  I know there are figures for the average cost of upgrading an interstate highway per mile.

    I think it was telling that Mr. Cooper asked what the Obama Administration or the DOT had to say about this and Mr. Griffin quoted a comment made by Ray LaHood at the inauguration of the improved service, but CNN didn’t seem to think it necessary to ask anyone to give a contrasting view.  If this were the PBS Newshour, two parties would have been interviewed to assure “fair and unbiased” reporting. 

    I used to find AC good at getting to the truth, but now he’s just becoming the Geraldo Rivera of his time, using his good looks and airing supposed scandal where there is none to woo an albeit large audience of viewers who have no critical thinking skills.

  • I am not wrong at all. Passenger rail stopped becoming unprofitable, as stated, because government got involved and subsidized automobile transport. Had that not happened, passenger rail would have continued to operate absent subsidies. 

  • Susan, your post makes it clear you lack any understanding of how a market economy operates. If we stop subsidizing different types of transport, entrepreneurs will make investments based on what they feel will provide the most value. End the subsidies, and infrastructure investments will be allocated based on what provides the highest value to the most people, as opposed to a political criteria. 

  • Joe, I’m not rewriting history at all in fact. While not every line enjoyed high speed, there are numerous instances of steam trains exceeding well over 100mph over 100 years ago. This was because companies competed for passengers, and part of the selling point was faster service. Certainly most train lines operated at greater speeds than they do today under Amtrak. 

    I am well aware of the governments involvement in subsidizing automobiles through various means (not just highways, but militarily, municipal zoning & planning policies, ect) and basically forcing the public into auto dependency  I do not advocate for ANY of that whatsoever. I am simply being consistent that I do not think we should subsidize any form of transportation and the governments role should be primarily limited to the acquisition of rights of ways, so that urban development can be coherently planned. 

    I agree fully that we should end all subsidies that distort people’s transportation decisions. When we let the market decide, what we have is everything we had a century ago (which is way more than we have today in terms of rail transportation) and much more, because the technology has evolved and would evolve to a much greater extent absent foolish government policy. 

  • Jackson: Passenger rail failed in the US because it couldn’t compete with cars. It may be galling for the anti-car movement to contemplate, but people like the mobility and convenience of cars. Both our economy and individuals now depend on the mobility. For example, tourism is SF’s largest industry, and tourists rely on cars to get around in the city. Many fly in and rent cars at the airport. Many others drive their own cars to get here and move around once they are here.

  • Your point is entirely irrelevant to my argument. I’m saying politicians shouldn’t decide what type of transportation we use but the market should. If what you say is correct, then let people drive their cars if they are willing to pay for its costs. But what is absent from your point is why they couldn’t compete with cars, and you cant say with a straight face that all of the government built highways, using the military to ensure the supply of oil, and zoning regulations which mandate parking lots and other building characteristics to create environments incompatible with pedestrians didn’t play a significant factor in people’s choice to abandon travel via rail. 

  • Jackson:
    The gas tax paid for the interstate, and it stills pays for a lot of roadwork. You seem to ignore the assumption that people actually wanted/want cars and that that kind of mobility is also good for the economy. Rail simply couldn’t/can’t provide people with that kind of door-to-door mobility. Trains are essentially a 19th Century technology. See for example China, where former peasants gave up their bicycles and now are buying cars. Should the Chinese government stop paving the roads and discourage people from having what they want?

  • Anonymous

    Rob,

    No, the gas taxes paid for part of the Interstate Highways.  The best that the gas taxes ever managed was covering 71% of the costs of the Interstates, and that was back in the mid-60’s.  As of 2007, fuel taxes and other direct fees were only managing 51%.

    And while you are correct that people enjoy door to door mobility and other aspects of the car, heck I do too, you overlook the biggest factor that influenced the transition to cars.  Government subsidies made it appear cheaper than getting on the train.  People compare price points, but rarely dig into the underlying costs.

    Even today, most people looking to go from A to B compare the cost of a plane ticket and maybe a train ticket to the cost of the gas in their tank.  They never consider the other costs of driving, insurance, wear & tear, interest, purchase price, etc.  And they never notice the money that government slipped out of their back pockets to build those roads & highways.

    People will however choose other ways to travel if the cost is cheaper than driving or if the costs can be kept down somewhat and the alternative provides other benefits over driving.  This can be seen by the ever increasing ridership on trains, and I don’t mean just Amtrak.  The number of people riding commuter trains, subways, light rail trains, and so on increases with each passing day thanks to front end costs be lowered by subsidies and the fact congestion makes the train faster or at least comparable in travel times.

    Besides, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that people actually do want trains too.  Back in 1973 Americans took 1.921 billion rides on trains, not including Amtrak.  In 2011 Americans took 4.5934 billion rides on trains.  So why should the US government stop helping to build railroads and discourage people from having what they want?

    This is especially true when that spending, like in the Vermont story under discussion, not only helps passenger rail, but also benefits freight rail too.

  • margret

    I tired to like CNN I really did nd I tried to like u too Anderson but u remind me so much of msnbc which isz the worst so called news station they have the worst and so do y’all. Nobody isz suppose to love their politician including our president more than our freedomsz nd the truth nd y’all r to one sideded u twist stories u can’t b trusted just like msnbc nd its ashame thts y I was hopin u took regis job so I cld like u on a different formatt but we the ppl can not trust our own news ppl or our government to tell us the truth nd they wrk for us nd u shld kno tht of all ppl jus fake nd phony jus like the rest of them so we all shld sign off on CNN nd msnbc my kids r biracial nd they hate hearing all this racist one sided crapp they hav a white nd a black parent do any of y’all hav any shame Wen y’all disrespect biracial ppl my American biracial family hate CNN nd msnbc

  • Maybe it will be a good thing that this piece came out in the end, it brings needed attention to waste and transit policy, here online at least. The CNN comments would be interesting too.

  • John Dough

    Prius, I-87, 6 hours, $24, wife & 2 kids go free, wheels when you arrive.

    Ahhhh…. Life is good

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