The High-Speed Rail Program Under Congressional Scrutiny

Ken Orski
Editor/Publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, a transportation newsletter

Crossposted on newgeography

A combative and clearly agitated Transportation Secretary Ray  LaHood defended the Administration’s high-speed rail program at a December  6?oversight hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure  Committee to discuss congressional concerns with the program’s direction and  focus. “We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics,” LaHood said heatedly.

But he convinced few skeptical committee members who believe that the Administration has bungled the program by spreading the money too thinly all over the country and on projects that are not truly high-speed. Average speeds after the $10 billion worth of improvements, the Committee was told,  will range from 60 to 70 mph. In Europe and Japan, high speed trains maintain average speeds of 150 mph and higher (average speed is considered a more accurate measure of performance and service quality than top speed for it  reflects trip duration.) “The President’s vision of providing 80 percent of Americans with access to high-speed rail service is unnecessary and isn’t  going to happen,” said Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster  (R-PA).

“We need one high-speed rail success, and our country‘s best opportunity to achieve high-speed rail is in the Northeast Corridor,”  Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) told the Secretary. This sentiment was echoed by a panel of experts who followed LaHood’s testimony. The panel consisted of Joan McDonald, N.Y. DOT Commissioner and Chairman of the NE  Corridor Advisory Commission, Richard Geddes, associate professor at Cornell  University, Ross Capon, President of the National Association of Railroad  Passengers and NewsBriefs editor Ken Orski. “The Northeast is a compelling market for high-speed rail service,” said McDonald. It is probably the  only corridor that has all the attributes necessary for viable high-speed  rail service, and where passenger trains do not have to share track — and thus  are not slowed by— freight trains,” added Orski. An abbreviated version of Ken Orski’s testimony follows below.

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Let me state at the outset that I do not question the merits or the need for intercity passenger rail service. Railroads have been an integral part of the nation’s transportation system for a century and a half and they continue to play a vital role in the economy. Nor do I question the desirability of high-speed rail— a technology that I believe we ought to pursue in this country.

What I do question is the manner in which the Administration has gone about implementing its ten billion dollar rail initiative— or what the White House expansively calls “President Obama’s bold vision for a national high-speed rail network.”

Misleading Representations

The Administration’s first misstep, in my judgment, has been to misleadingly represent its program as “high-speed rail,” thus, conjuring up an  image of bullet trains cruising at 200 mph, just as they do in Western Europe  and the Far East. It further raised false expectations by claiming that “within 25 years 80 percent of Americans will have access to high-speed rail.” In reality the Administration’s high-speed rail program will do no such thing. A close examination of the grant announcements shows that, with one exception,  the program consists of a collection of planning, engineering and construction  grants that seek incremental improvements in the existing facilities of Class  One freight railroads, in selected corridors used by Amtrak trains.

While some of the projects funded with HSR dollars may result in modest increases in speed, frequency and reliability of Amtrak services, none of the awards, except  for the California grant, will lead to construction of new rail beds in  dedicated rights-of-way. As any railroad operator will tell you, dedicated track reserved exclusively for passenger trains is essential to the operation of true high-speed rail service— such as the service offered by the French TGV,  the German ICE and the Japanese Shinkansen trains, that run at top speeds of  200 miles per hour and higher.

Lately, the Administration has toned down its rhetoric. It no longer claims that high-speed rail is “just around the corner” (Sec. LaHood’s own words of some time ago) but rather that the HSR grants are “laying the  foundation for high-speed rail corridors.” But even that claim seems overblown. While track upgrades will allow Amtrak trains to reach top speeds of 110 mph in some cases, average speeds— which is a more accurate measure  of performance and service quality, for it determines trip duration — will increase  only moderately.

For  example, while a $1.1 billion program of track upgrades between Chicago and St.  Louis will enable Amtrak trains to increase top speeds to 110 mph, average  speeds between those two cities —slowed by frequent stops and the need of  Amtrak trains to share track with freight traffic — will rise only 10 miles per  hour, from 53 to 63 mph. Travel time will be cut by 48 minutes, to 4 hours 32  minutes (Illinois DOT announcement, December 22, 2010)

In France, TGV trains between Paris and Lyon, cover approximately the same distance (290 miles) in a little under two hours, at an average speed of 150  mph. Yet, federal officials did not hesitate proclaiming the Chicago-St. Louis project as “historic” and hailing it as “one giant step closer to achieving high-speed passenger service.”

Had the Administration candidly represented its HSR initiative for what it really  is — an effort to introduce useful but modest enhancements in existing  intercity Amtrak services— it would have earned some plaudits for its good  intentions to improve train travel. But by pretending to have launched a  “high-speed renaissance,” when all evidence points to only small incremental improvements in speed and trip duration, the Administration, I believe, has suffered a serious loss of credibility. Its pledge to “bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans” is not taken seriously any more.

Lack of a focus

The Administration’s second mistake, in my opinion, has been to fail to pursue its  objective in a focused manner. Instead of identifying a corridor that would offer the best chance of successfully deploying the technology of high-speed  rail, and concentrating resources on that project, the Administration has  scattered nine billion dollars on 145 projects in 32 states, and in all regions  of the country. (A complete list can be found here). Only a few of these awards (CA, IL, NC, WA, NEC) are of a sufficient scale to  produce any appreciable service improvements. The remaining grants will support minor facility upgrades, preliminary engineering, and planning and  environmental studies. Indeed, the program bears more resemblance to an attempt at revenue sharing than to a focused effort to pioneer a new transportation  technology.

The Northeast Corridor

Ironically, the Northeast corridor, where high-speed rail has the best chance of  succeeding, has received scant attention. And yet, this corridor is probably the only one in the nation that has all the attributes necessary for effective and economical high-speed rail service. It also is the only rail corridor in the nation where passenger trains do not have to share track — and thus are not slowed by— freight trains.

In sum, no other travel corridor in the nation offers better conditions for successful implementation of high-speed rail service, or a more compelling case for moving forward with an ambitious investment program.

To its credit, the Administration has belatedly recognized the  deployment potential of the Northeast Corridor and tried to make up for  its past neglect by awarding two major grants for track and catenary  improvements in the Corridor. These grants are a small beginning in what will hopefully become a redirected HSR program, with a focus on the Northeast  corridor. Its goal should be to raise average speeds between city pairs  to 150 mph—the generally accepted standard for high-speed rail service.

The need to involve the private sector

In  view of the constraints on the federal budget, any such program will of  necessity require substantial participation of the private sector. The density of travel in the NE Corridor and its continued growth should, in principle,  generate a sufficient stream of revenue to attract private capital and create  opportunities for public-private partnerships.

However, this is still an untested hypothesis. We simply do not have enough experience with public-private partnerships in the passenger rail sector to make confident  predictions about the response of the private investment community— its  assessment of the risk, rewards and expected rate of return on investment in  such an enterprise.

Thus, I believe that an early step in the process should focus on thoroughly exploring  the potential of private financing and ascertaining the private investors’  interest in this venture— both domestically and internationally. This should include an examination of the lessons learned from the Channel Tunnel project —  the largest rail infrastructure project in the world totally financed by the  private sector.

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While the Administration’s handling of the high-speed rail program has—  understandably and justifiably— made Congress reluctant to support this  initiative any further, I do hope that under the Committee’s leadership, and  with the help of the NEC Advisory Commission, Amtrak and the several  participating states, a reformulated high-speed rail initiative— focused on the  NE Corridor and involving a public-private partnership— will soon begin taking  shape.

One often hears these days that we, as a nation, have lost the will to think big—  that we no longer have the ambition and imagination to mount “bold new  endeavors” that capture the public imagination— the kind of motivation  that caused our parents’ and grandparents’ generation to build the Hoover Dam,  the Golden Gate Bridge and the Interstate Highway System. Launching a multi-year public-private venture to usher in true high-speed rail service in  the Northeast Corridor, a project of truly national significance, offers us an  opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong.

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