Nov 9, 2009

High Speed Rail in the USA

America loves the car. This is not news to anyone over 16 with a drivers license. But is the car the best way to move people in the USA especially either within urban areas or between urban areas.
Much of the rest of the world moves people much cheaper, perhaps safer, and with less global warming impact than we do with strong rail infrastructure. Sadly, we have in the past, spent more money on wars and nation building than on our own infrastructure. A solid intra and inter city rail system would greatly reduce the aggregate oil and gas requirement that the wars and nation building call for since transportation costs are spread more smartly.

In central Florida where we live, there have been numerous attempts to establish a commuter rail on existing cargo and passenger rails owned by CSX. The populace is largely for it but the legislators hijacked by everyone from personal injury attys to bickering by the entertainment companies here have deep sixed the most recent efforts.

The death of this rail is hurting the implementation of a intercity rail between Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. The thinking is that the populace must be familiar with and use commuter rail in order to buy into intercity rail.

These rail projects are very expensive, surely one thing that makes them hard to start.

Below are a few articles on the state of rail in the USA and in other countries where rail is important and works

below from
Posted on Friday May 29th by Jebediah Reed

Ray LaHood is over in Spain, snooping around their high speed train system for ideas. Today he took a jaunt on the AVE from Madrid to Zaragosa and then hung around in a railway control center with the transport minister for a while. Tomorrow he’s meeting with prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the guy who’s has really been the force behind Spain’s recent investment. Maybe Zapatero will whisper some secret clue in his ear about how to get things in the US moving on the, um, right track.

The NY Times has seized the news peg of this visit and posted a story highlighting the successes of the Spanish rail program. Even for those of us who have already read several dozen stories about the successes of Spanish rail, it’s still worth reading. A few choice passages:

“Spaniards have rediscovered the train,” said Iñaki Barrón de Angoiti, director of high-speed rail at the International Union of Railways in Paris. “The AVE has changed the way people live, the way they do business. Spaniards don’t move around a lot, but the AVE is even changing that.” [...]

Here in Lleida, a town of 125,000 in northeastern Spain surrounded by plains that produce half of the country’s apples and pears, the inauguration of a high-speed route to Madrid in 2003 cut the journey to the capital to two hours from five and a half, and the extension of the line to Barcelona last year halved that trip to one hour.

Ángel Ros, the Socialist mayor of Lleida, said the AVE had transformed the town. The number of tourist visitors has increased by about 15 percent, he said. Demand for business conventions has risen 20 percent each year, and the city is building a 50 million euro ($70.5 million) convention center. The 13th-century town hall is in the midst of a 100 million euro public works project to transform the area around the railway station with gardens, bridges, a shopping center and parking lot.

“The AVE is a high-end railway, and simply by virtue of being on the route, your city becomes a high-end destination,” Mr. Ros said. [...]

“High-speed rail is good for society and it’s good for the environment, but it’s not a profitable business,” said Mr. Barrón of the International Union of Railways. He reckons that only two routes in the world — between Tokyo and Osaka, and between Paris and Lyon, France — have broken even.

There are doubters though:

Critics say the money being channeled from other infrastructure priorities toward high-speed rail would be better spent improving Spain’s interurban transit system and collapsed cargo network, or building affordable trains that travel at lower speeds. [...]

“It doesn’t make sense to make trains inaccessible to middle- and low-income Spaniards,” said Joan Herrera, a lawmaker for the Initiative for Catalonia Green Party. “Meanwhile, our cargo transit system is a disaster,” he said, referring to the preference of many companies to ship by road in Spain because the cargo railways are poorly maintained.

Given the hefty public investment, experts and officials say, effective public relations and rigorous planning are crucial to success. Stations should be in the city center, they say, using ticketing systems as efficient as the trains. The Madrid-Barcelona AVE, for example, has been criticized because two stops on the route are well outside the towns they serve.

A smart article, except for some crazy musings at the end about how trains=cowboys, or something like that. The conversation about all this in Spain seems very lucid in contrast to our own, where the political system is so debilitatingly gridlocked that we can think in the smallest terms. Keep in mind that this a $150 billion project for a country with an economy one-tenth the size of ours. So if we were doing things on the Spanish scale, we’d be devoting more than a trillion dollars to passenger rail. Imagine what that debate would sound like in Congress and on talk radio.

below from 11-6-09

originally from

By CleanTechies - CleanTechies
By Alex Lennartz

The first series of this column was written on high speed rail in America. With an introduction to all the nation's proposed corridors covered, this series will focus on the state of high speed rail around the world. An examination of already established high speed networks in industrialized countries and growing networks in developing countries will be compared and contrasted to what is being done (or just talked about then postponed) around the US. The purpose of this series is to highlight how far America is falling behind the rest of the world in giving its citizens mobility.

These articles are meant as alarm bells to policy makers in Washington, warnings that the current state of rail is both a national embarrassment and a detriment to the quality of life of its citizens.

Policy makers are not the only audience for these pieces. The series will also touch on why good public transportation is not a popular topic for average Americans, despite its fundamental importance in providing a vital freedom: the freedom of movement. Only progressives stump for high speed rail and they are in the minority. A poll conducted in 2008 showed that 60% of Americans consider themselves "conservative". Millions of these conservatives are the people who do not believe in supporting quality public transportation, but paradoxically use the words freedom and liberty in every topic of debate. This will be addressed.

There are two requisites necessary for building such infrastructure:

1.) The money - Check. This country is rich...really, really rich. The US is richer than Japan, richer than France, richer than any nation, or any combination of nations, on the Earth. Money is there and can be redirected from wasteful expenditures such as war and corporate subsidies to something with more ROE for the voter, such as building mass transit and alternative energy infrastructure.

2.) The will to do so - Not there yet. For the past few decades freedom of movement has been pegged to the automobile. The turn of the last century was a time when municipalities where concentrating on destroying mass transit rather than expanding and improving metro networks. The urges of political leaders to gut mass transit to keep areas segregated or distort the transportation market towards a car based paradigm are gradually fading. Demographics and the critical mass of congestion are chipping away at these obstacles.

One factor that is stoking the political will to improve mass transit is that car ownership is becoming a large burden in this recession. Many car owners sacrifice a large chunk of their earnings monthly to keep their cars from being repossessed, full of gas and insured. A person of modest means can be severely set back by a car break down or accident that can suck hundreds or thousands of dollars out of a working class person's wallet. As economic pressure increases, so will the calls for better public transportation.

Mass transit is in its dark ages in the US. Let us look abroad in order to usher in a transportation Renaissance.

We will continue this review of how and why we should focus more on rail in the future in upcoming blogs

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