Another Slanted High-Speed Rail Story From Anderson Cooper

Not one to back away from a terrible argument, CNN’s Anderson Cooper is sticking with his series exposing the “boondoggle” of federal high-speed rail funding. In a segment aired Monday night, he and reporter Drew Griffin hammered away yet again at their argument that high-speed rail has been a waste of money. Under the tagline “Keeping Them Honest,” Cooper and Griffin hope to raise public ire about the taxpayer money “dumped” into a program sold as high-speed rail but is really just moving slow trains “a little faster.”

After four years and $12 billion poured into high-speed rail, Griffin says it’s nothing but a pipe dream held by those who “stand to make money” from it. After all, “not a single piece of rail has been laid.”

Griffin and Cooper made essentially the same arguments as their last segment, which cast hellfire and brimstone on a successful little project in Vermont that came in on time and under budget, cutting trip times and improving performance. And Streetsblog’s response is essentially the same.

Still, I can’t help calling out a few notable points that surfaced in this week’s story.

This time, they’re focused on improvements between Portland and Seattle, which, Griffin said, cut 10 minutes off a three hour, 40 minute trip. He doesn’t say how much the improvements cost, but he does mention that Washington state got $800 million of stimulus high-speed rail money, “mostly” for these rail improvements. (A small portion of those funds were actually appropriated in 2010, separate from the stimulus.)

If it makes him feel any better, the rest of Washington’s stimulus money for transportation was spent like this:

Image: ##

WSDOT Secretary (at the time) Paula Hammond says that despite the modest trip savings, the state is pleased with the results. “Ten minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time,” Hammond told Griffin, “but when you think about the fact that you have more options for more round trips, that you know that the train will come and go reliably and on time — that, to us, is what our passengers tell us is the most important thing.”

Griffin notes that it was never Washington state’s intention to build bullet trains. “I don’t know if we’ll ever want high-speed rail, high-high-speed rail,” Hammond told him. “We want the ability of our communities to be connected so that we can provide good travel, a daily business trip between Seattle and Portland, and the opportunity not to have to fight traffic.”

So Washington state got exactly what it wanted from this project. It’s just not what Anderson Cooper and Drew Griffin wanted. But all they’ve got to complain about is that, although rail travel is booming where these improvements have been made, they’re not “Japanese- and European-style” bullet trains, and that was the vision the president sold. I agree that the White House could have done a better job managing expectations, but that doesn’t make this project any less significant.

In February 2011, the Amtrak Cascades line, which serves Portland and Seattle, ran on time less than 60 percent of the time [PDF]. In February 2013, it was on time almost 75 percent of the time. Ridership has grown more than 150 percent over the past 15 years, according to the Brookings Institution, and the line now serves 845,000 passengers annually [PDF].

Sounds like whatever WSDOT and Amtrak are doing is working.

Cooper and Griffin marveled toward the end of the segment about the “thousands of emails” they received after the last segment criticizing their coverage – an “email bomb,” they called it. (Nice job, readers!)

“There’s a network of people who really do believe, deep down — they’re rail enthusiasts — they believe in the idea of bringing the Japanese- or the European-style trains here to the U.S.,” Griffin told Cooper. And he went on, patronizingly: “But as we have explained to them, even after we got email bombed, ‘Look, you’re not getting high-speed rail,’ and they will admit it. They will admit that this administration is not investing in the actual bullet trains like the ones that they believe will bring us into future of transportation. It’s not what we’re getting, Anderson.”

If the people they heard from were anything like the folks who read Streetsblog and commented on or tweeted our last story on the issue, these were high-level rail experts Griffin was “explaining” high-speed rail to. I’m sure they were grateful for his wisdom.

Griffin said they had reached out to the people who had sent those “very critical” emails. I didn’t hear from them. Did you?

43 thoughts on Another Slanted High-Speed Rail Story From Anderson Cooper

  1. Whereas you, Bee Ben, are a completely neutral and unbiased observer, who who comes with no pre-existing agenda whatsoever, and who is only swayed by the unvarnished, objective truth.

    Do I have it about right?

  2. Problem is the Admin did sell this as high speed rail, so when otherwise good projects for intercity rail are completed, they get no press or bad press

  3. When the cost of a simple underpass is now $92 million,

    what WashDOT got for that $800 is a bargain. I’m guessing that part of the problem is that the CNN staff have no idea what infrastructure costs today?

    Take a look at what CalTrans/LAMetro is doing for $1B:
    (And it is only 10 miles long!)

    Nowhere was it mentioned that the Talgo trains used by the Cascades service can go at speeds up to 330 km/h (205 mph) with the right tracks and locomotives.

  4. Get up to 200 mph out of Seattle and you then have to start slowing down immediately for Tacoma. But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-great-great-grandson doesn’t know how trains work, or what building right-of-way from scratch takes or how long the New York Central took to build or that there are labor and environmental regulations that must be complied with today.


  5. Funny how CNN is complaining about $800 million to shave 10 minutes off a trip. About 10 years ago there was talk of widening the Long Island Expressway through Queens. If I remember correctly the cost would have been well over $1 billion, people adjacent to the expressway would have lost their front lawns, and there would have been construction chaos for years. The calculate benefit? An average of 30 seconds saved for the typical Long Island commuter. Thanks to protests by Queens residents the project never came to fruition, but the point is we’ve spent ridiculous amounts on road projects just to shave mere seconds off the travel times of car users. 10 minutes for $800 million sounds like a bargain by today’s standards.

  6. The work was also important in keeping Washington’s ports’ business from leaving for another state or British Columbia.

  7. Four years and trains are only “a little faster”, yes, but:

    “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
    ? Confucius

    Was the Interstate Highway System built in four years? No…

    Did we get to the moon in four years? No, it took ten, but then afterwards we couldn’t afford to go back. Today, though, forty years later, we’re moving towards returning and having a good reason to actually stay.

    Hell, just three miles of brand-new Interstate-grade freeway for the yet-to-be-completed I-840 in NC took *20 years* to design, approve, budget, and build!

    Big projects take time, proper planning, and millions of itsy-bitsy little necessary steps

  8. Sign of the times. People think infrastructure pops up in the real world as fast as it does in Sim City. Not helping matters are the many steps of environmental review, plus the endless court challenges which can by mounted by NIMBYs.

  9. So why does the administration even call it “high speed rail?” LaHood kept insisting that high speed rail is a good thing and justified his railroad improvement efforts on that basis. I like trains. I use them all the time between DC and NY. But I don’t like being lied to.

  10. The latest Washington State DOT quarterly performance report notes that
    performance of Amtrak Cascades has reached the 80 percent on-time goal for the first time since 2001, but that fourth quarter ridership is down compared to the previous two years.

    A few context points:

    Competition from private sector BoltBus in the Amtrak corridor has arrived and is doing well: . It joins a variety of other scheduled and charter buses that run on I-5 parallel to the train tracks for service that is usually as fast and reliable as the train. Buses use HOV lanes to move pretty well in peak traffic periods.

    At the same time, leaders and fans of the local bus service in Tacoma and Seattle that one might want to use to get to the train stations are screaming for additional taxpayer funding to avoid planned service cuts. However, in the overall funding picture across all of the many transit funding silos, transit funding in Western Washington State is generous.

    For example, Western Washington’s regional Sound Transit agency has plenty of money to run some lightly used, limited schedule Sounder weekday commuter trains on the same tracks as Amtrak Cascades, including unsafe winter service on landslide-prone tracks. There is an argument for consolidating the resources and management of State DOT’s Amtrak Cascades and Sound Transit commuter rail into one agency focused on safer, more cost-effective inter-city rail mass transit in Washington State.

  11. Many would contend that although they haven’t built a new Hi speed route yet, they have made incremental improvements which gives us taxpayers a bigger bang for our bucks. CNN could have shown the traffic crawling on Interstate 5 while Amtrak train zips by at 79 mph. That’s high speed enough for most & much more relaxing and energy efficient. CNN could have reported from Dwight, ILL with the Amtrak zipping toward St. Louis @ 110 mph. Please CNN, show more truth in your journalism and spare us the hype like you are trying to compete with Fox Noise.

  12. These pieces are right about one thing: infrastructure costs in the US have grown out of control. Unless we’re able to reign in those costs, expect more of this kind of anti-transit pushback.

  13. And then there is the the rather glaring omission of failing to mention the purchase of the new trainset that was part of the $800 million HSIPR grant. That will bump up the roundtrips from 4 per day to 6 per day. Not to mention upgrades which will improve on time performance. For a traveler, that is much, much bigger than the 10 minutes off the trip time.

    Just a bad job of reporting. What’re the chances we get a correction?

  14. Do the computations on (No. of beneficiaries) X (amount of benefit) and you’ll come up with VASTLY different assessment of the LIE vs. Washington State Amtrak (where travel time to Portland is 3 hours 40 minutes, btw, a *lot longer than an average commute in Queens). You can’t judge a project solely by the # seconds or minutes saved by the average user. You must multiply by the # of users.

  15. Well it’s our benefit too once the work is done. I’d also argue that it’s a matter of design; American infrastructure tends to be overbuilt.

  16. “You must multiply by the # of users.”

    And in the case of the LIE project such the negative externalities for the people whose lives would be affected by the extra traffic, construction, and cost of losing their front yards. Also, in one case the time savings of 10 minutes can be significant, especially for those not going the entire length of the route. In the other case, we’re talking about taking 30 seconds off a commute that takes at least 1.5 hours each. There’s more variability in day-to-day travel times than the average times savings would have been. Nobody would have noticed 30 seconds. Also, when roads are expanded eventually traffic levels rise to make them just as congested as before, dropping the effective time savings to zero. Once you upgrade a railway, the time savings becomes permanent (provided you maintain the track).

  17. The decline in ridership could be directly attributed to the cancellation of 48 departures with 275 seats per. Also the drop was only about 12,000, so not really *that* dramatic. As for BoltBus, last time I checked, they do not stop in any Washington State city apart from Seattle and Bellingham (and Bellingham probably only because the U.S.-Canada border is so stupid now, they would be fools not to at least provide service to the last U.S. city they pass going to Vancouver. Cascades service stops in 12 Washington State cities and does the trip from Seattle to Portland as the Express BoltBus does. It is called the State DOT for a reason. And this is a bus that runs on a toll-free, federally financed (90% match) roadway only open to motor vehicles, which is maintained by the now Bankrupt Highway Trust fund, the user fee for which (fuel taxes) have not been raised for 20 years.

    Sounder trains are run by the district that voted to fund those services and capital improvements. Sound Transit would not have garnered the votes necessary if it had been put on a statewide ballot; Google “Cascade Curtain” sometime. And while you may be correct about the Everett to Seattle trains at this time, you are certainly misleading those in the rest of the country if you say that the Seattle-Tacoma-Lakewood trains are “lightly used”.

    P.S. While BoltBus does claim to have a working wheelchair lift on all buses, the ADA passenger is limited to their seat underway and cannot use the restroom; a reservation in advance is “recommended”. The Talgo trains not only have accessible restrooms, but also an accessible food service car. The walk-up ADA passenger will always have a place on the Talgo trains; on the bus?…better hope the lift is working today.

  18. Probably because the old-fangled FRA insists that anything above 79 mph requires special signalling and is thus “high-speed”. Well, it might have been in the steam era when we had locomotives that could go a top speed of 120 mph and were named for Anderson Cooper’s Great-great-great-grandfather:

  19. “What infrastructure costs today” is exactly as much as the criminals fleecing the public — meaning the contracting mafiosi and the “public” employees who do their bidding — can get away with. It’s a quite literally criminal system, with the public costs, private profits, and lack of any public benefits that are exactly what you’d expect.

    Nobody in the USA is getting any “bargains”, and dipshit mush-headed nonsense about how a useless train is cheaper than a useless freeway or a useless stealth bomber isn’t going to change that. Exactly the opposite, in reality.

  20. Not to mention that Japan and Europe had (and still have) significant high-quality lower-speed rail networks in place before building their high-speed rail systems, and having that infrastructure and culture in place played an important part in making high-speed rail successful. They didn’t start out from zero, hire some consultants, and go from an auto-soaked wasteland to high-speed rail paradise overnight.

    That doesn’t mean the right thing to do is replicate the paths those places took, but I do think the experience gained by doing things incrementally can be very helpful in improving the final product.

  21. The design and quality of American infrastructure is in no way better, and is often worse, than that built in other countries for much less money.

  22. Think back to 2009, when the Stimulus bill was proposed. If Obama’s team had proclaimed, “And $8 to 12 billion for a better Amtrak!” they probably would not have got 1¢. So, OK, there was some political hype. But for political talk it wasn’t so much of a lie as a gross oversimplification. To see why the subject needs simplification, read on. LOL.

    Of course, $3 or $4 billion actually has been granted to California for true HSR.

    And Illinois and Michigan are getting $2-3 billion for tracks and trains to go up to 110-mph. It’s not true HSR but almost twice as fast as “Amtrak average” speed and that ain’t a bad step. These two lines alone will add another half million riders when most of the upgrades are finished.

    That left a few billion to be sprinkled, a few tens of millions here and there, across other states and Congressional districts — because that’s how politics works in the real world. (So for example, the now-30-minutes-faster ‘Vermonter’ train route, or the beginning-this-year work to double-track about 20 miles west of Albany, saving maybe 20 minutes for the many trains heading toward Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Toronto, and Chicago.)

    Meanwhile, Obama’s team (including Repubs Joe Boardman, Pres of Amtrak, and Ray La Hood, Secty of Transportation) have been working on a better Amtrak — the thing they dared not say aloud 5 years ago.

    In that time, the on-time arrivals have improved from shameful to actually pretty good — now in the mid-80 per cent range. (Notice nobody talks about “always late Amtrak” any more, where it used to be in the first paragraphs of any write-up.) Wi-Fi has been added to most of the trains that carry more than 3/4 of the passengers. You now can use e-ticketing.

    Purchases of food and beverages is all by credit/debit cards now. That simple modernization frees up staff time that used to be spent, to so speak, counting up the dollars, nickels, and dimes. Now the staff can use its time serving customers. And to tell the truth, none of those cash dollars, nickels, or dimes will stick to anyone’s fingers now, if you know what I mean.

    Some 90 wrecked rail cars, which had been stored on a back lot due to lack of funds for repairs, were completely rebuilt with stimulus finds, adding a bit more capacity on a system with frequently sold-out trains.

    Meanwhile, working with the states, service has been extended on the Downeaster train in Maine, on the ‘Lynchburger’ train in western Virginia, and to Norfolk via Richmond. Amtrak has actually added miles and cities to its network for the first time in many, many years.

    A small order for 130 new cars to be delivered next year will allow Amtrak to replace ‘Heritage’ diners and other equipment (mostly baggage cars) inherited from the private railroads when Amtrak was created over 40 years ago. This antiquated equipment, some dating from the 1940s !!!, is very costly to maintain, and actually slows down trains on the Northeast Corridor.

    Another order was placed for 70 new electric locomotives that will be so efficient Amtrak expects them to pay for themselves in about 6 years!

    An order for 100+ Next Gen bi-level, more efficient coaches has been placed for the faster corridor trains out of Chicago, and in California.

    This year expect an order (already funded) for new, lighter, quicker-accelerating Next Gen diesels, to speed up and cut costs in the Midwest, California, and on the Cascades route Seattle-Portland (where two more train sets will go into service, increasing frequencies from 4 a day to 6 a day).

    Next Amtrak needs to order another thousand and more Next Gen coaches to replace the rest of its aging equipment, as well as many more Next Gen locomotives, to cut costs and improve service all across its system.

    Meanwhile, if you want HSR and nothing but HSR, lessee (besides California), a billion on a new bridge over Connecticut’s Niantic River opening this year, and a billion being spent to improve reliability and speeds between New Brunswick and Trenton. And serious planning underway before it’s possible to build new tunnels thru Baltimore, new wider bridges across the Susquehana and other rivers in Maryland, the new Gateway Tunnel and related work into Penn Station, $10 billion for work on Union Station in D.C.

    Well, they say, a billion here, a few billion there, and it gets to be real money. That’s what is needed: billions and BILLIONS of investment. Even a half of half of half of half of what is spent on highways every year could transform Amtrak and start to give you some more HSR.

    Now it’s obvious that Amtrak is getting better. A million more passengers year after year, higher revenues, lower costs, less subsidy needed. So spending money to make a better Amtrak should be a no brainer.

  23. He incorrectly states that $800 million bought 10 minutes. That is, as I said, incorrect. It bought a new trainset and new locomotives, as well as increased reliability.

    The $12 billion “outlay” is actually a $12 billion obligation. Only around $2 billion of that has actually been spent by states and Amtrak (on logistically simpler projects, such as the Cascades corridor, the Vermonter, and Chicago-St. Louis. Billions of dollars worth of projects are currently in the pipeline, and many of them will begin construction this summer–such as California’s SF to LA train.

  24. Nobody’s seriously talking about HSR on the Cascades route any time soon. A Washington State transportation official described the problem succinctly: The route has “hundreds of curves.” Don’t recall if he mentioned landslides.

    But two big points:

    So putting in true 200-mph HSR on this geography would be a huge expense. You’d get much more bang for your buck on flatter land like Chicago-Cleveland, Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati, or L.A.-Phoenix. The Cascades route is far down the wish list for a multi-multi-billion true HSR line.

    So what. The trip time now is only 3 hours 30 minutes Seattle-Portland. That means the Cascades trains at 79-mph speeds already “GO FASTER THAN” the longer 110-mph lines Chicago-St Louis and Chicago-Detroit, city to city. Both of those routes will still take more than 4 hours by Election Day of 2016.

    At 3 hours 30 minutes, the Cascades trains already compete with air travel, city to city, counting early check in, shoe removal and other Security Theater, etc. Meanwhile trains offer Wi-Fi and the space to use it comfortably, snack cars, and all the other bonus features of rail.

    The Cascades trains are running FULL now, for all practical purposes. Adding two more daily departures will add much needed capacity. Additional trains will also chop the waiting time between departures, from 3 to 4 hours now, to only 2 or 3 hours after they come into service.

    Further track upgrades (with future funding) may slice off another 5 or 10 minutes here and there, eventually getting the Portland-Seattle trip time down to 3 hours flat. When that happens, Cascades trains will carry many more passengers than planes — or buses.

  25. Somebody should put together a CNN iReport on why Anderson Cooper’s reports are so bias.

  26. I can’t say whether that’s true or not (don’t know much about previous eras), but it’s certainly clear that the U.S. at one time had a world-class passenger rail network.

    Unfortunately that was so long ago that most of the accumulated knowledge/culture/knowhow (not to mention much of the infrastructure and rights-of-way!) is long lost.

    In addition to this, things like city design/layout and public mindshare have drifted quite far from their more rail-friendly state in earlier eras (whereas in Japan, for instance, cities and towns are still quite influenced by rail networks).

    In many ways, the U.S. is basically starting from scratch…

  27. The US isn’t starting from scratch. Seattle might only be 15 years into the game but there are plenty of other cities that held on to most of their rail infrastructure and/or have been building it back up over the last 40 years.

    The NEC isn’t perfect (in terms of speed) but much of the current problems with it comes from archaic FRA regulations, 100 year old catenary and a massive lack of funding. Still, when a drive from Philly to DC takes 2.5 hours on the best of days a 1.5 hour train ride is high speed enough.

    The great regional rail networks of Boston, Philadelphia and NYC (and Chicago) may have changed names several times but they never went away. The culture never went away either and some of the routes carry more people now than they ever did in the past even if the speeds are sometimes slower than they were in the 1920s. Even DC has a regional rail system. It doesn’t run on the weekends but it’s still there. That culture of great rail hubs like Union Station, 30th St., Penn and Grand Central, South Station, etc that never went away in the NEC was never a part of life in many Southern or Western cities – some places like Phoenix or Charlotte were mere dots on a map 100 years ago.

    What works well in the NEC might not work well for Seattle or Portland and each region of the country will have to figure out their own way without hackneyed criticism from Cooper, et al.

  28. Great rundown! And add to it the only reason it’s costing billions and billions to get Amtrak up to speed is because of 4 decades of deferred maintenance.

  29. Why is nobody in Washington State talking out loud about adding trains to serve the folks on the other side of the Cascade Curtain?

    The Empire Builder coming WB from Chicago and the Twin Cities gets to Spokane well after midnight. There it splits, one section leaving at 2:15 a.m. for Seattle, the other at 2:45 a.m. Pasco-Portland. And EB the sections arrive after midnight again and depart at 1:30 a.m.

    Despite the horrible arrival and departure times, Spokane had more than 62,000 passengers use the station! Surely there’s a market for at least two or three daylight trains here. (There’s a third potential route: Spokane-Pasco-Yakima-Seattle.)

    Hey, there’s a couple of excess and surplus Talgo trains parked in Gov Scott Walker’s storage shed in Wisconsin, paid for and unused. LOL.

  30. Recent pronouncements from D.C. have referred to investments in “high-performance rail”, rather than “HSR”. That term better fits the plans.

    With the $800 million upgrades, the Cascades trains will be 10 minutes faster, and of course, that doesn’t give us HSR.

    But with a trip time of 3 hours 30 minutes, getting down to 3’20” is a big deal. The sweet spot to compete with planes is on trips around 3 to 4 hours, door to door.

    Running six Talgos instead of just four (plus the Coast Starlight), will cut waiting time between departures, from roughly 3 hrs to about 2 hrs. With two added Talgos each way, you’ll get a 50% increase in seating
    capacity (in nicer trains). And schedules will be much more reliable.

    Today the Cascades carry 850,000 passengers a year. After the new improvements, it will be more like 1,250,000 pax. That will be a “high performance” on the investment.

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