Posted: Nov 3, 2006, 10:07 PM
Join Date: Jun 2006
Location: San Francisco & Tucson
Status of High-speed Rail in US--some good, much bad
Two interesting articles in national US publications today (probably not a coincidence). I thought it was worth posting both and offering a chance to discuss developments from various perspectives around the country.
The first was in today's USA Today:
High-speed rail service derailed
Updated 11/3/2006 12:21 AM ET
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Denny Spicher, a risk management consultant, wants to love the new high-speed electric train that started this week between here and Philadelphia. After his first ride Wednesday, however, he reluctantly reports that the train rode a lot like the rickety old diesel trains he's ridden for years on the 102-mile route.
"Don't get me wrong. I welcome the new service. But I couldn't see a major difference. It's not quite there yet," says Spicher, 52, a Dauphin, Pa., resident.
When it comes to high-speed rail, "are we there yet?" is a question worth asking. Other than the new service here and the Acela train line between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, high-speed passenger rail service isn't scheduled to arrive anywhere else in the country for a very long time.
Amtrak introduced the new high-speed rail line this week, amid little fanfare. The Keystone Service will increase maximum speeds between Harrisburg and Philadelphia from 90 mph to 110 mph and cut 15 to 30 minutes off a two-hour trip. The service costs as little as $20 each way.
The train will connect to the heavily traveled high-speed line between Washington, New York and Boston. The Acela train, introduced in December 2000, reaches speeds as high as 150 mph in parts of New England and 135 mph elsewhere on the route.
The Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg route became a high-speed route for practical reasons. It's the only rail line other than the Acela that is wired for electric trains, which reach high speeds more efficiently than diesel engines.
Kiran Mudambi, 20, of Mountain View, Calif., took the train Thursday to interview for the medical student program at Pennsylvania State University. By flying into Philadelphia, instead of Harrisburg, and taking the train to his final destination, he saved $250.
"Quite a bit for a college student," he says.
Amtrak, which receives about $1.3 billion a year in federal money, spent $145 million upgrading the track and rail switches. The federal government paid $58 million of the cost, Pennsylvania borrowed $14.5 million for its share, and Amtrak paid the rest.
Pennsylvania also pays $6.8 million a year to subsidize the cost of operating the Keystone route, in service since 1834.
"It's part of Gov. (Ed) Rendell's vision of a balanced transportation system," says Rich Kirkpatrick, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "Pennsylvania has stepped up to the plate to make this high-speed service viable."
High-speed rail got attention in the 1990s when the federal government started designating high-speed rail corridors around the country. Today, there are 11 designated high-speed rail corridors through 28 states.
Actual development of high-speed routes has slowed to a crawl or gone completely dormant. For example, Florida voters approved a high-speed rail project in 2000, then repealed it in 2004.
In other key proposals:
•The California High-Speed Rail Authority, established in 1996, wants to bring European-style high-speed trains — with speeds exceeding 200 mph — from San Diego to Sacramento. In 2004 and 2006, the state decided against asking voters for funding. A proposal to borrow $10 billion could be on the 2008 ballot.
•The Southeast corridor, created in 1992, is supposed to bring high-speed passenger rail to Atlanta, Jacksonville, Raleigh, N.C., Washington and other cities.
"The problem is there's no federal money, other than some planning dollars," North Carolina transportation planner David Foster says. It will cost $5.5 million per mile — or $2.5 billion — just to upgrade the 450-mile Charlotte-to-Washington line, he says.
•The Midwest corridor, centered in Chicago, has been getting more trains, but none that travel at high speeds. Last Monday, Amtrak doubled the number of trains running downstate out of Chicago, using $24 million in state money to add service. But the trains don't go faster than 79 mph.
"All we do is talk, talk, talk," says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a private group.
Harnish says Illinois could start high-speed rail service quickly by purchasing available rail-switching technology. "It would cost peanuts — so cheap it's embarrassing," he says.
Matt Vanover of the Illinois Department of Transportation says the state is waiting for a report on a train-control system under development. He also says details need to be worked out with Amtrak, Union Pacific, the federal government and Chicago.
Will the public get on board?
High-speed rail service in the USA is going nowhere because it doesn't make economic sense, says William Garrison, co-author of the book Tomorrow's Transportation and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
"What passenger rail lacks isn't money. It's riders," he says. "These high-speed rail proposals are big boondoggles. We're reluctant to subsidize high-speed rail for good reason: There's not a market for it."
John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor at Penn State, says the problem is lack of political will. "People didn't bat an eyelash when we decided to build the interstate system in 1956."
He says high-speed passenger rail has technical, as well as financial problems. Railroad tracks in the USA are almost all privately owned by freight companies that run slower, heavier trains. "They aren't too keen on operating a 125-mph passenger train when they're running heavy freight trains at 30 to 70 mph," Spychalski says.
The second article was in today's Wall Street Journal:
Amtrak Is Switching Tracks
In a High-Speed Bid to Survive,
States Are Asked to Pitch In More
By DANIEL MACHALABA
November 3, 2006; Page B4
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Beyond the Northeast, where Amtrak's Acela trains reach speeds of 150 miles per hour, America's passenger trains rarely leave the slow lane. But that is changing as Amtrak encourages states to upgrade railroad tracks for faster trains -- and helps to foot the bill.
Amtrak began running express trains Monday between Harrisburg, Pa., and Philadelphia that shave 30 minutes from what was a two-hour trip. Trains on the 104-mile route now hit 110 mph, following a $145 million overhaul funded equally by Pennsylvania and the nation's passenger railroad. Train experts say thousands of additional miles could become fast-train corridors -- and more standard-speed trains could start running -- if such federal-state partnerships spread across the U.S.
"This is the face and future of Amtrak," Alexander Kummant, who became Amtrak president and chief executive in September, said recently at a train depot in Champaign, Ill., between Chicago and Carbondale, Ill., where a new train started running this week, funded by the state of Illinois.
Amtrak's encouragement of high-speed train service -- despite costing roughly $1 million a mile -- offers a glimpse of the railroad's wider survival strategy. Amtrak, which has never made a profit, depends on federal grants of about $1.3 billion a year to stay in business. Last year the Bush administration sought to cut off its federal funding and force the railroad into bankruptcy. Congress voted to maintain the subsidies and keep the railroad running, but political pressure remains on the railroad to cut operating costs.
Instead of fixating on financial black holes like long-distance trains, railroad officials are looking to score smaller victories. Even modest successes are likely to give Amtrak more time to deal with problems ranging from aging train cars to costly union work rules.
The speedier passenger trains still are slow compared with supersleek trains in Europe and Asia that glide along at nearly 200 mph. And no one is betting the tens of billions of dollars in funding needed to build just one dedicated European-style route will emerge anytime soon.
Still, "there is a lot we can do at 80 mph to 100 mph," said Mr. Kummant, 46 years old, who previously held executive positions at Union Pacific Corp. and other industrial companies. Those speeds are a big improvement over the 79 mph speed limit on most U.S. rail lines, which was put in place more than 50 years ago after a string of crashes involving trains moving at higher speeds.
Operating faster trains typically requires upgrades to track and signals, and a system to avoid interference with slower trains.
Amtrak says its faster trains are ideally suited for short hauls between cities. Meanwhile, clogged roads, high gasoline prices and security-snared airports are giving state governments new interest in pumping millions into alternative transportation modes. The $145 million price tag in Pennsylvania was about the same as the cost of a major highway interchange, said Allen Biehler, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A few other states have established partnerships with Amtrak, led by California, which spends more than $70 million a year on its system of intercity passenger trains operated by Amtrak.
In an interview, Mr. Kummant acknowledged he doesn't know exactly how Amtrak and various state governments will pay for future upgrades. Potential funding sources include state tax revenue and bond offerings. Some states are pushing for matching funds similar to those offered by the federal government on highways and local transit.
Mr. Kummant said he doesn't plan to tear apart Amtrak's national network of long-distance trains, but will consider changes in some routes and services.
Amtrak's financial contribution to the fast-train partnerships has varied, partly because the railroad doesn't have the money to spend, and in many cases doesn't own the tracks. In Pennsylvania, Amtrak owns the track and provided locomotives, cars and half of track-rebuilding costs, using funds from its federal grant. In Illinois, Amtrak is providing technology assistance and has operated test trains, for which it was reimbursed by the state. Illinois doubled its passenger train budget this year to $25 million from $12 million, aiming to double the number of state-supported Amtrak trains it runs.
There still are plenty of kinks. Fast trains sometimes are slowed down by freight trains that get in their way. Amtrak also has sparred with Canadian National Railway Co. over access to the railroad's tracks in Illinois. Canadian National said the additional passenger trains could disrupt its operations, but the railroad backed down after Amtrak threatened a lawsuit and Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) accused Canadian National of reneging on a commitment to allow additional trains to use its tracks.
An effort involving Amtrak, the state of Illinois, the freight-railroad industry, equipment makers and federal safety regulators to develop a sophisticated signal system for 110-mph trains on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor has run into problems. The system has failed to provide reliable information about train locations, and Illinois officials say they may have to replace the technology to run faster trains. Trains continue to travel the route at speeds up to 79 mph.
Sticker shock may keep the speedier service from reaching routes where it could have the biggest impact; it would cost more than $1 billion to create a bypass around a 40-mile stretch of track between Chicago and Detroit that is clogged by freight trains, said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a rail advocacy group.
Write to Daniel Machalaba at email@example.com
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