CorridorVision (Grid and Gateway, part 3)


There are several fallacious arguments related to the (re)development of domestic passenger service that just won't go away. And, to be fair, perhaps they shouldn't. After all, ideas like high density development and congestion mitigation and airline-competitive scheduling certainly have merit on some level.

Problem is, a lot of folks want to end the debate at that point, eschewing all other possibilities and, in the process, any alternative approaches to the above-mentioned trio.

One of the reasons the Pennsylvania Railroad (The Standard Railroad of the World) was able to do so much with their New York/Philadelphia/Washington main line (today's Northeast Corridor) stems form the fact that, as a private company, they fully understood the concept of "good enough."

For the company's shareholders (beneficiaries of Wall Street's longest running dividend record), the Pennsy's penchant for serving northeastern cities with long, heavy trains at high speeds (but not true "high speeds") paid quite well. It was only when the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 was enacted (followed in short order by the creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation) that what we now know as the Northeast Corridor came into being, complete with Metroliners and TurboTrains.

Billions of taxpayer's dollars later (over $4 billion in direct federal funding under the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project alone), Amtrak emphasises speed and frequency (which is fine, if your primary target audience is the commercial airline traveler), leaving congestion relief to the local commutation authorities (and the intercity motor coach - which is another topic, altogether).

Even at that, overall terminal-to-terminal running times really aren't that spectacular. According to Amtrak's current timetable, the fastest Acela carding between New York's Penn Station and Washington, D.C. is 2:42. This unfavourably compares with the advertised two-and-a-half hour non-stop run of the first Metroliners some 43 years ago. [Granted, both PC and AMTK consistently found literal "non-stop" corridor trains to be far less profitable than those willing to call on Newark and Philadelphia and Baltimore.] Even the Congressional of 1935 behind the venerable GG-1 locomotive made the trip, with several stops en route, in 3:35.

The former NYNH&H shore line between New York and Boston has seen greater improvement in running times, but that's due as much to the completion of electrification beyond New Haven (and the corresponding elimination of the required engine change) as it is to top speeds. The Merchants Limited of 1949 made the trip in 4 hours, flat. The new Turboliner of '69 (still serving Grand Central) took 3:44. The best Acela time in 2012 is 3:25.

Although such an outlook is really too simplistic, one could hardly be blamed for believing that a lion's share of the multi-billion-dollar price tag did nothing but buy us 19 minutes of time.

So, if U.S.-style corridor construction and operation tends to offer negligible benefit when balanced against a project's sheer expense, what alternative(s) do we have?

The PRR approach to high density "corridors," with long trains operating at sufficiently fast speeds to handle express traffic, is certainly one way. But, today's N.E.C. is a unique situation, serving a market which has been in existence for a long time, supported by infrastructure which no contemporary government body would try to justify duplicating.

At least I can't imagine it.

No, we need to honestly look at the various ways moderately busy corridors, connecting city pairs of moderately large size, can be served along the rights-of-way already in place. One might safely presume that additional trackage, newer signaling systems, improved (or eliminated) junctions and the like must needs be budgeted; still, our starting point involves the conventional "steam road" plant. We don't build from nothing, we build from where we are.

That being said...outside of the Megalopolis, what would the railroads do (or, more precisely, what did they do)?

Let's go back to visit the Pennsylvania for a moment. Oddly enough, I think of them (and the Central, for that matter) every time I see the proposed Midwest High Speed Rail map (a.k.a. the Chicago Hub Network). With the exception of a route indicated from Cincinnati to Cleveland via Columbus (for which "starter" funding was shot down by Ohio Governor John Kasich), the entire system is just as the name intimates: a hub-and-spoke arrangement, with Chicago at the centre.

Years ago, I had reason to travel between St. Louis and Indianapolis upon occasion. Naturally (knowing me), I always took the train. Both the PRR and the NYC offered direct, multiple daily departures via long haul services. The Pennsylvania route survived the Penn Central merger and, to the end, advertised four hour running times. Some of the trains continued east out of Indianapolis to Pittsburgh and others to Cleveland. All of them, operating at conventional speeds, made the direct run faster than anything but a true Shinkansen-type H.S.R. train could ever do if traveling by way of Chicago.

The Santa Fe effectively owned the Chicago/Kansas City market. That Railway offered a wide variety of choices well into the 1960s, averaging one train every three hours, 'round the clock. Even as late as the day before Amtrak was born, the AT&SF carded 5 services (with two usually combined into one train) - all of them sporting modern equipment, hot food, cold drink and easy riding. One run went to Texas, the remainder to the west coast (via two different routes). All were long haul trains; all covered several vitally important intermediate "corridors."

Today, California has become quite the success story. Of the top 5 Amtrak corridors (after the N.E.C.), three are located in California: the Pacific Surfliner (San Diego/Los Angeles/San Luis Obispo), the Capital corridor (San Francisco Bay/Sacramento) and the San Joaquin Valley service. None exceed 79 miles-per-hour, save for some 90 m.p.h. running in Orange and San Diego counties. Furthermore, the entire Capitals route and the Surfliner north of L.A. are part of established long haul ("national network") lines. They've made a sizeable dent in the market (and numerous fans) by fielding clean, comfortable, frequent trains, supported by connecting motor coaches.

It is postulated by some that the best way to generate political support for passenger train service - a vital necessity in our current age - would be to concentrate investment upon large cities and congested markets. There may be some truth to that idea; but, such an approach would also be the most expensive and time consuming, replete with NIMBYs and BANANAs, and burdened with myriad arbitrary limitations regarding the passenger train's ultimate role.

Let's not attempt to decorate the branches before the trunk has been established! A national network of even modest size could act as the foundation for comprehensive growth, enabling all the needed corridors to develop while offering some semblance of service to the continent as a whole.

Some people are drawn to the promise of "new-and-improved" as a moth is to a flame (or as a child, mesmerised by a TeleVision screen, is drawn into a vacuous world where imagination and critical thinking skills prove unnecessary).

If we allow ourselves to be swayed by CorridorVision, we'll have lost sight of what's best in terms of our budget, the logic of true incremental growth, the needs of multimodalism (yes, and true intermodalism) and the things which will make our railroad industry become the willing, cooperative partner it must be - presuming any of this is going to happen in the first place!

The Pennsy was right. So was the Santa Fe.

There's a lot we might learn, if only we'd allow history to teach us.



  • All very interesting - and a good capusle history essay.  Here are some observations that might be helpful.  Just about every example of speedy, good service cited by Garl was offered in the days of regulation when the railroads were responsible for passenger services.  Those wonderful trains cited by Garl may have been speedy, but they were bleeding their operators right into bankruptcy court.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, and after suffering the losses -- and having made almost super-human efforts to provide services that people would use -- the railroads began to file at the ICC for permission to shed the worst of the losers.  That led to the creation of Amtrak, which never has been properly funded.

    Any essay on passenger rail also must include reference to the ideologues in Washington who would be quite willing to see service disappear permanently rather than pony up the subsidy to cover the losses of passenger train service.  Don't believe me?  Just look at the current silliness of getting a surface transportation bill reauthorization through this Congress.  The tea party newcmers accept no responsibility, choosing to live by the code that "any government spending really isn't necessary, my mind is made up so don't confuse me with facts, and if you don't stop challenging me I'll stamp by feet and throw a tantrum."  

    The world is not static.  Change occurs.  In the Post-World War II years, passenger service began to fade as airlines truly became flying busses for the masses.  By the late 1960s, it was a rout, and Amtrak took over passenger service in 1971, eliminating half the remaining trains on Day 1.  For the past 40 years, Amtrak has had little or no capital for improving the facilities it uses, although Congress allowed it to pile up considerable debt purchasing rolling stock and new power.  You'll now Amtrak is doomed when Congress gets around to not providing enough subsidy to pay the existing debt.  But, gasoline is never again going to be as cheap as most of us remember.  Air travel is not very pleasant, between the TSA version of the Gestapo, crowded airplanes, uncomfortable seats, and less-than-superb in-flight service.  That may present an opportunity for a reconstituted passenger rail service.  I don't know, and neither does anyone else at this juncture, but perhaps passengers will pay more for train rides than in the past, which would mean less subsidy would be needed for each passenger.  Not all competition is based soley on competitive fares.  That also might trigger another debate.  Should taxpayers subsidize those who might like to ride a train?  I can see the process working in dense corridors where highway and air traffic congestion already are a concern, but we probably never again will see the kind of service Garl cites.  In our society, you have to be threatened with complete cessation of service before our elected representatives will step up and address the problem.  And there is no guarantee that if they do we will like their decisions.

  • Larry and all:

    What is the feeling about the FEC proposed or under consideration private passenger in Florida? Is it feasible?

    More here:

  • I don't think anyone is really in a position today to provide definitive answers to your questions, Jerry1066.  FEC is not known for being a bunch of crazies, so the fact that it is considering investing its own (private equity owns FEC) money suggests that project is serious.  FEC has hired a leading proponent of passenger service to head its venture, another positive sign.  

    Most important, the proposed FEC service would be about 240 miles, too short a haul for airline cmpetition, and long enough to negate passenger auto advantages.  I think the key is frequency; people just don't like having to sit around for half a day or longer waiting for the one train a day that we have on most routes and most major cities.

    My short answer, Jerry1066, is yes, it is feasible.  Beyond that, I don't know if the numbers will work for a private rail operation with no public subsidies.  I'm sure there are plenty of knowledgeable people who read this blog who will tell you just as sincerely as I just did, that FEC's proposed service is looney and doomed to failure.

  • My most recent comments have not appeared.  They appear to be the subject of moderation?

  • Blaine,

    I'm sorry. This has recently happened with some of Larry's comments, too...and I have no idea why.

    I'm running late for a meeting. I'll be back later; maybe we can get to the bottom of this.



  • Garl,

    No worries.  Indeed this has happened at least 2-3 times in the past for me as well.  



  • It gets stranger:  I posted this, I'm pretty sure, on this thread, and it showed up on another.

    "anmccaff wrote re: Oh, to be compliant

    on Fri, Mar 30 2012 11:15 PM

    One time in the past, I found that the site had switched comments on my blog to moderator hold, and it didn't even bother to tell me about it.  It happened during one of the larger attacks by spammers, so that might be behind it."

  • Some publications choose - as is their right - to moderate comments to blogs.  Others do not, while reserving the right to remove comments for the use of crude or obscene language.  

    Personally, I prefer the latter.  In fact, I feel quite strongly that as long as I maintain a certain degree of decorum, no editor should be deciding that my thoughts are worthy of sharing with readers.  It's called censorship, and it's wrong.

  • I second Larry's comments.  

    Although I'm not convinced that the length of time used to compile commentary or the length of the commentary itself is not heralding some form of programming glitch.  

  • To all those in this string: There's been very little "censorship" (or even moderation) of posts, particularly in the past couple years, and certainly nothing of the "idea" variety has been removed. To my knowledge, none of the posts referenced in this discussion were intentionally deleted.

    In the few instances where posts or strings were deleted over the past couple years, participants were notified (it's part of the software - one can't delete without notifiying at least the original poster) ... although it's possible that a few comments were deleted in a string, and all the commenters weren't notified. Again, though: I can count on one hand the number of posts/strings that have been deleted in the past couple years ... and some of you know which ones those were.

    Technical glitches may be responsible for at least some of the mysteries referenced here. But I wouldn't be so quick to presume lurking censors here.

    In the future, please contact us if a post isn't showing up or has disappeared. We'll try to figure out why it's happened. And if something is removed, you'll be notified.

  • Tomorrow (Sat, May5) is the Spring Meeting of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association if anyone wants to attend.  See their website.

    Chicago - Kansas City certainly had fast and frequent service in Santa Fe's heyday; but those were were long-distance trains to additional more distant markets.  How many, or what proportion of passengers were just traveling between Chicago and Kansas City?  Was this ridership an adjunct to the long-distance service; or would the volume justify its own train today?  

    At 437 miles, rail hardly is competitive with flying both in time and fare, so not much driving would be diverted to trains.  Also, the Amtrak Southwest Chief route serves no sizable intermediate population center past suburban Naperville.  

    If Kansas gets a train to Fort Worth, TX,  maybe a Chicago - Wichita train would work with it, along with the connections between the Missouri River Runners.  The last Amtrak train through Kansas City and Fort Worth was the Lone Star.  In 1976, the trains passed through Kansas City in the dead of night with a schedule oriented more between Chicago and Texas.

    A daytime Pittsburgh - Chicago train would be a welcome addition for the Midwest.  At least the Chicago - Cleveland segment is on the high-speed corridor map as well as it being on a current Amtrak long-distance route; at 581 miles Pittsburgh is little farther than Kansas City from Chicago through Saint Louis.  Existing stations are along the Chicago - Pittsburgh route; but without cooperative state support, a potential interstate corridor is undermined.

    Improved Chicago - Cincinnati service also would be possible along the existing route of the Cardinal; but without state cooperation, another potential interstate corridor is undermined.

    Cleveland - Columbus - Cincinnati is not on an existing Amtrak route; but maybe an overnight service from New York through Buffalo would build demand for additional corridor services that a governor could not oppose.  

    The in-state Chicago - Moline proposal first morphed into Chicago - Iowa City, and more recently into interest in a Chicago - Omaha Corridor.  There is the California Zephyr on the BNSF through Iowa; but this route misses much population and notably, Des Moines.  A preferred alternative was chosen for the EIS sharing BNSF out of Chicago and continuing for most of the way on the Iowa Interstate, the former Rock Island.