A wish to be railroaded

I'm on a train. Not a proverbial train of life, or some other such metaphor, but a real train - the New Haven to Grand Central Station Metro North train I always ride when going to New York City.

It smells terrible. It's old. It's dirty. The seats are ripped and broken. The windows are blurred by years of grime and dust. The fluorescent lighting is depressing and almost useless. Most importantly, it's slow # very slow.

For all the talk over the years on The David Pakman Show about transportation, energy, fast European and Asian trains, and political nonsense around the development of faster American rail, there's no better wake-up call to our sad reality than spending over 100 minutes covering less than 100 miles.

In casual conversation over the years, I've realized that while many do see the problem with America's slow trains, putting aside the sparse availability of Amtrak's slightly faster Acela, too many do not. Some do consider the forces impeding development of advanced technology high-speed rail transportation here, but too many don't.

One impediment is politicians, often lawmakers from the Midwest, even more often Republicans. When specific proposals for development of high-speed rail come up, often 10- or 15-year plans to start laying down tracks that can support higher speeds, these elected officials often decline to participate. This is one specific negative result from the blanket "power of states" so often lauded in conservative and Libertarian ideology.

Another often-ignored or missed factor in the lack of momentum on rail is the involvement of transportation lobbies - specifically airline and automobile. My particular location and situation is a perfect illustration of what both of those lobbies want to avoid by preventing high speed rail development.

I often travel to Washington, D.C., a 400-mile trip from my home in Massachusetts. I live about 40 minutes north of Bradley International Airport, my "home airport." If I want to drive to D.C., it takes me anywhere from seven and a half to nine hours, depending on traffic. The train from Springfield to Washington takes about eight hours.

If I first drive to New Haven (90 minutes) or take a slow train from Springfield to New Haven, and I time it correctly, I can potentially catch the aforementioned Amtrak Acela, which would cut down my travel time somewhat. If I am to take the one-hour flight to DCA Airport, the most convenient airport of entry for downtown Washington, the entire trip from door to door, considering check-in, security and getting out of DCA, takes about three and a half hours, assuming no delays.

Currently, my preference is to fly - in fact, I've not gone to Washington any other way since I was 10 years old. It costs about $230 assuming I purchase my ticket early enough, and with parking at the airport for three days, plus the cost of gas getting to the airport, we're talking about $275.

This keeps both the automobile manufacturers and airlines happy, because if the train were faster and more convenient, I would certainly opt for it. If trains were faster, airlines would lose out on exactly this type of short trip. Further, for those who live in metro areas, faster trains would mean not only that many people would fly less, they would drive less, maybe even eliminating their cars altogether. For the sake of comparison, let's consider a 200-mile-per-hour train, by no means even close to the fastest trains in the world, which would make the 400-mile trip in about two and a half hours, or slightly more assuming a few stops. Immediately, I would no longer consider flying on this route, assuming a similar train ticket cost to the $275 I would pay to drive and fly, and the ticket cost could realistically be lower.

As you can see, airline and automobile lobbies have the strongest of interests in preventing the development of high-speed rail, as do oil giants, as increased rail travel would decrease individual fuel consumption and people's carbon footprints - both of which would be great from the point of view of the environment, logic and reason.

What will it take to really get fast, advanced trains in the U.S.? Even if the country finds the political will to start today, we're still years and years away.

David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program, "The David Pakman Show," writes a monthly column. He can be reached at davidpakman.com.

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1 Comment

Not enough corruption in it yet? Two steps out, one back.

I agree with you but also empathize. I know your route. 

Back in the 90s, cash-starved Amtrak decided it could no longer afford to maintain the double track right of way between New Haven and Springfield. So they ripped out one side and added a few sidings to allow trains to pass each other, occasionally.

It took four months to dramatically reduce the capacity of that line by much more than the 50 percent reduction in track. Scheduling a single track is magnitudes more difficult than double. Imagine the loss from the old rail corridors with quaduple track.

So now, we are beginning the process of double-tracking that same route and it will take four years. It is harder to build than to destroy.

You mention Asia and Europe, true enough, But it's not just the big, rich countries. Spain of the wide gauge is well advanced with an extensive standard gauge AVE system, a true high speed 203mph system. Hourly from Madrid to Barcelona and many other points. You can take a train from London to Barcelona or Madrid with only a train change in Paris. The Spanish (aside from gauge-changing Talgos) are nearly (about 10 miles) done with high speed track to the French border and have an agreement with the French for completion on that side. Eight hours by rail, London to Paris or much less is possible.

Argentina and Russia of all people are going high speed rail. 

Germany has very good trains, but compared to France fewer true high speed corridors due to mountains and, given higher population density,  debates over stops (which slow). The TGVs which enter Germany must slow. The Siemens trains which cross into France reach their full potential on French high speed track. Metro North has trouble dealing with dual voltages, German cross border trains can deal with six voltages from low voltage to 25-30 KV.

An example of the difference is the Reduction of the Frankfurt-Paris rail time from 6 hours 15, to 3 hours 50. That time will be reduced again when it is high speed track and power all the way.

Metz in Lorraine, which I have reason to visit, was 2:45 from Paris; it is now 1:25 for right at 200 miles. The odd note there is that all but 55 minutes of that is devoted to accelerating and slowing in this direct non-stop train. And TGV can be run at slower speeds over conventional or improved track until it's upgraded.

I use Metz, because it's an example of high speed rail's importance to business development. At 5:30 hours, the trip took too much time for a day business trip and make frequent trips difficut. Flying was little better given airport delays, security and travel to airports. It's almost commutable now, in fact, the trip time is considerably less than that of many NYC rail commuters.

The truth is that what we've done in the last few decades was to dehub our great regional cities from their. With many air hubs, business in secondary regional centers (or remote ones) saw new opportunities. The reality of air travel is on us, fewer hubs, more connections and expensive service subject to security interupts.

Automobile traffic worked to cheapen family travel and it was perhaps as fast as old rail, but we're in a different era in which Europe is much more integrated (Euro and language aside) and becoming more so through transit and population concentrations.

Gov. Scott Walker was one of the foolish governors who turned back federal high speed rail money to have his state discover the result would be much more costly and from state coffers. He wasn't alone. But few areas could benefit more from high speed rail connections that the "rust belt" states. It would restore cohesion to one of the most productive regions in the country and tie togther the better interests of many cities. Higher speed commuter/regional rail would benefit everyone. In France, perhaps the most complete system to date, regional rail is planning to reopen stations closed for many decades, serving either shorter trip or feeder travel. 

New England is another strong case, but at least the area has considerable support for rail. There's no really good reason we can't have 2 hours between Boston and NYC, less between NYC and Washington and as probably little more than three hours for Bos-Wash direct. Major improvements in adjoining freight-only lines would lower the cost of doing business and open the NE market to double stacks almost anywhere.

High speed rail is not easy, especially in a country that has largely abdicated any technology. The conflicts in California over HSR are probably inevitable, but are primarily a product of politics. We should consider doing what the Russians have done which is to hire a company such as Siemens to design, build and maintain (for a fixed period) a full line system. 

The cars, locomotives, etc. could all be built here and we could begin recovering the expertise we need in high speed rail technology. We've never managed to successfully adopt a European high speed system because we place so many obstacles. 

Lastly, the French, with a relatively low population density, have built completely new rights of way for high speed at a relatively low average cost of under 13 million Euros a mile. Some more recent trackage has been considerably higher, but primarily due to very difficult terrain. Without freight, high speed track can be built more cheaply.


by bamjack 2011-12-15 05:05PM | 0 recs


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