High Speed Rail is not the starting point

From birth, Amtrak has had more than its share of problems. I've always believed its biggest was a route network whose size falls far short of critical mass. "You can't get there from here" - even in the northeastern U.S. (outside of the much vaunted N.E.C.) - remains a true, if shopworn, cliche.

Therefore, when well meaning people begin preaching the benefits of High Speed Rail, I simply consider the source. "Poor misguided souls," I think, clucking my tongue.

But, when a bad idea becomes so prevalent and supporting proposals so numerous that general acceptance follows - "Oh, everybody knows that!" - it can only be ignored at one's peril.

Of course, here in these United States, we're creating an even bigger mess by touting the concept of "HighER Speed Rail" and pretending that "incrementalism" means improvements to specific steam road corridors can eventually, over time, deliver true H.S.R. service.

This is all so fatally flawed, on so many different levels, that it's difficult to know where to begin a rebuttal!

Perhaps, as a starting point, it's time for us to define "high-speed rail" once and for all.

Although U.S. politicians tend to have a field day with this issue, gleefully making things up as they go along, we can reach a reasonable conclusion.

I realise Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said "there is no definition of high-speed rail" (during a speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois) and that many might argue his statement is true - at least in the regions under his purview. Still, he was referencing international technologies at the time, which made his comment unjustifiable.

It is far better to rely upon David Briginshaw, Editor-in-Chief of the International Railway Journal (as quoted in the August, '09 issue of Railway Age) for a definition: "What exactly do we mean by high speed rail? The baseline is normally regarded as 125 miles-per-hour."

Please note that Mr. Briginshaw translated his lower speed threshold from Metric to English measurements in order to reduce potential confusion!

Now, is that 125 m/h figure reasonable in the U.S., given current standards?

Well, C.F.R. 49 defines transition from Tier I to Tier II equipment standards as occurring at 125 m/h.

The point at which the F.R.A. begins absolutely prohibiting all grade crossings under any circumstances is at Class 8 track. Class 7 trackage ends at 125 miles-per-hour.

The International Union of Railways defines H.S.R. "on existing trackage" as starting at 125 m/h (literally at 200 km/h). [H.S.R. on new, dedicated infrastructure begins at 250 km/h.] Members of the U.I.C. include Amtrak, the A.A.R., and the U.S. D.O.T.'s own F.R.A.!

Question: why wouldn't the F.R.A. accept the official definition of H.S.R. as adopted by an organisation of which they are a member? The only logical reason is politics, which is no basis for a technical definition!

Secretary LaHood may possess various reasons why it's in the administration's best interest to play games with semantics. That's his (and his boss') business. But, for the sake of consistency and preciseness, it is unreasonable to embrace any minimum speed figure of less than 125 miles-per-hour for true H.S.R.!

So, can any one of us confidently state that the political will necessary to accomplish the design, construction, operation and maintenance of a true U.S. high-speed network now exists? I find it doubtful. Surely, as has been the case for two generations, it's likely that a "high-speed or nothing" approach will give us precisely that: nothing!

Even if such a thing was politically tenable, I don't believe the best way to allocate limited capital resources for an improved/expanded North American passenger train network is through the establishment of true high speed railway services. The idea of U.S. H.S.R. is dramatically overplayed and, although I have no doubt it would be successful, spending even the smallest amount of funds toward dedicated, passenger-only rights-of-way and infrastructure without FIRST creating a comprehensive domestic transportation/energy/environmental policy is sheer folly!

Naturally, some will say that, even without existing political support or national policy in place, H.S.R. should remain a long-term goal, helping to generate jobs and restore the country's morale. I'm not prepared to argue the case one way or the other (although I'd always prefer that ANY transportation project stand upon its own merits). Still, before we embrace the H.S.R. concept, we should accept the various intermediate steps necessary to make high-speed projects work.

First and foremost, we must realise that there is not a single location in the world where true high-speed train transportation has been developed prior to the buildout and maximisation of its conventional railway network. Not one! In order for H.S.R. to be successful, passengers must have access to local transit, commuter and regional services, and a healthy intercity system, so their trips may be completed in an efficient and timely fashion.

Many people are preaching some sort of 21st century passenger "intermodalism," where the primary purpose of H.S.R. would be to serve short- to medium-haul markets formerly covered by commercial airlines. After all, there are many examples worldwide where high-speed trains have overtaken airlines in such markets - Amtrak's N.E.C. being among them. The British government has recently gone so far as to make that a national policy goal: the formal replacement of all short-haul domestic airline services with true H.S.R.!

Here in America, considering the complete absence of a national policy, that will be quite difficult. [Anyone care to find an elected official who'd be willing to suggest it?!] Besides, even if we did take that approach to intermodalism, it would place our new passenger train services in a ridiculously inferior position. Intermodalism has worked in the freight world because, without coercion, several relatively healthy modes joined forces and, recognising each others strengths and weaknesses, pooled their resources to make it happen. Conversely, in the domestic passenger world, trains are the lowly, unwanted stepchild. If we begin making our H.S.R. investments by concentrating upon the needs of the commercial airline industry, serving only end-point markets and creating little "planes-on-the-ground," that's all we'll ever have!

H.S.R. would end up exclusively operating to and from existing airfields, totally eschewing central city depots. This would eventually force railroad passengers, due to the location of their trains' station facilities, to be subjected to all the "security" requirements of their airline-based cousins.

I suppose all of this makes sense (in some weird and twisted way) to many members of a drive-or-fly society; however, by taking this approach, we're completely ignoring the need to address the United States' auto-centrism: the unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable over-dependence upon motor vehicle transportation.

True H.S.R. will end up competing with airways, not highways! High-speed railway networks will not offer any real alternative to the family car which is not already available by air. H.S.R. will not improve intra- and inter-urban rail-based transport; rather, the construction and operation of high-speed trains could easily consume all available capital, making even the smallest investments in other rail-based initiatives - things that are not very "sexy," but extremely vital in the scheme of things - even harder to come by.

A dedicated high-speed network of passenger trains would do absolutely NOTHING to improve service to the vast majority of destinations currently (or potentially) available to railroad travelers. In fact, it would not directly benefit existing railroad properties, whatsoever; therefore, by definition, it would do nothing to increase U.S. freight handling capacity - something which is far more important to the national economy. Any publicly funded improvements to railroad freight service would end up being a separate budget item derived from a separate set of plans and come to fruition through a completely separate infrastructure, increasing the cost to taxpayers and (presumably) making the entire programme politically unsupportable.

Without shared infrastructure, future-minded plans such as the electrification of railway main lines would be that much harder to accomplish and, in a way, even more difficult to justify, at least in the near term.

My point is not that U.S. H.S.R. should never happen. I've seen all the ill founded, unlearned arguments against it. None of them will stand against facts!

The lack of density is supposedly a serious drawback - until one realises that high-speed trains traverse a great deal of open countryside, overseas. Some will wail, "we can't afford it!" - but will seemingly support anything in their attempts to uphold auto-mobility. Others enthusiastically remind us that "the United states isn't Europe" - even though most current projects are state-centred and many U.S. states are comparable in size to European countries. [Of course, that's not what many people mean when they say we're "not Europe," as if human nature isn't a universal constant, or the way we spend our tax money is inherently superior to the way they spend theirs!]

"Government boondoggle" is a typical refrain, requiring a leap of faith to hurdle. Yet, since faith is ultimately based upon evidence (Hebrews 11:1), we gain assurance by seeing the myriad success stories, worldwide.

No, the question isn't if H.S.R. should have a role in U.S. society, but when. One learns to walk before he can run!

People are actively looking for alternatives TODAY! The sort of improvements which can be achieved through serious investment in our domestic railroad system can bear fruit in a relatively short period of time, and can prove to the skeptic that U.S. citizens will not only be willing to ride trains when gasoline is costly and traffic horrific, but will choose to ride trains simply because they're efficient, relaxing and fun!

The use of railroad technologies as political pawns may be predictable, but that doesn't make it justifiable. The longer it's allowed to continue unchecked, the longer we'll be forced to wait before any substantive improvements are made regarding U.S. passenger train service.

Certainly, High Speed Rail has its place; but, it CANNOT be our starting point!


  • Well, Garl, you've sure tried to deal with virtually all of the problems of the transportation world without actually solving any of them.  I don't mean to be unkind, but it is difficult to respond to your message thanks to its length.  Your frustration is showing, friend.

    I've been one to rail (no pun intended) against the lack of a comprehensive national transportation policy.  More recently, I've realized that we do, in fact, have one.  National policy is what we get every time Congress passes a transportation law and authorizes the expenditure of public money.  It's policy by defeault.  It may not be good policy, but it is policy.

    I do know something about intermodal.  The freight intermodal system doesn't work because various partners came together to offer the service.  It works because customers, real, live, paying customers made it clear over an extended period of time that they had needs and would patronize those who satisfied their needs.  All of the individual players still are "doing their thing," and none has had to sacrifice his role in the process.  In the early days, it was simply providing a through bill of lading that enabled once discreet services to be offered as a single through move.  Then, as critical mass was achieved, it involved replacement of "circus ramps" with efficient intermodal terminals that could justify some real capital investment that resulted in the ability to handle even more volume efficiently.  The point is a service is being offered that people are willing to pay for.  Few have quite figured out where intermodal passenger service comes in.  Many cities have efficient transit between central city and airports, but try to check baggage through to your final destination in the central city.  You used to be able to do that in London.  It was great.  Check out of your hotel in the morning, check baggage near Victoria Station, enjoy a few more hours in London, hop on the Tube and head to the States where you are reunited with your baggage.  I suspect the security system has destroyed that service.

    You inveight against what I'll call policy by politics.  Sorry, Garl, but we live in a political world.  In the matter of HSR, I am quite certain that there is far more stupidity than cupidity among members of Congress.  Few even know what it might cost to develop a HSR system; fewer are prepared to allocate funds for it, especially as it would require either more deficits, definitely not popular these days, or reduced spending for other programs that already exist and have been approved by Congress.  I'm convinced that this country eventually will raise the retirement age as a means of keeping Social Security solvent.  Anyone think an elected member of Congress will choose HSR over a Social Security fix?  

    We can have HSR in this country.  We just don't have the political will to make it happen.  The Obama Administration is focused on economic stimulus, and unfortunately is not coming at the HSR issue from a true transportation perspective, but one of "creating" jobs.  Remember that no rail passenger system anywhere in the world pays for itself out of revenue.  Other developed nations, for reasons that apply to their own societies, have determined that provision of the service justifies the public subsidy required.  Our country has not come anywhere near that, and may never.  Those Americans, thery are a funny race, as someone once said.  It's OK to subsidize highways, but not rail service.

    A final note for now:  When you comment on Amtrak's lack of a true national system, don't forget that Amtrak eliminated one-half of all the passenger trains that were operating on the day it was activated in 1971.  There is a myth about the railroads trying to kill passenger service.  Not so.  The railroads were quite willing to continue running more than 500 daily trains - if the public subsidized them.  That was politically not possible in 1971 and so the Nixon Administration signed off on creation of Amtrak as a fictional private sector solution to the passenger rail crisis.  The late DOT Secretary John Volpe actually said on Day 1 that Amtrak would be profitable within two years.  He knew better because his professional staff told him better.

  • Thanks Garl and Larry, this is the "meat and potatoes" of the entire US transportation situation: logic does not rule, politics(emotion) does.  In the mid 60's, I was at Columbia B School & studied and wrote about the rail systems of other nations.  The swing & sway of the GB rail service over the years of changing political scene demonstrate the role of politics vividly.  My fear is that basically, Amtrak is a structurally flawed organization not capable of effectively and efficiently operating in a real world of profit based railroads and does not have the funding mechanism which would permit it to operate as if it too were a profit based entity.  Amtrak is a fish out of water.

    Eisenhower started the national interstate system using the argument that it was needed for national defense.  I traveled by train on Sept. 13, 2001 from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon when no planes were flying. I had reservations but we did pick up just about anyone along the way and I arrived 20 minutes early in Portland, OR along with a whole lot of very anxious people who otherwise could not have gotten to whatever they needed to attend to in those scary days. Perhaps the emotional argument of fear would work on those unshaken by the logic of an integrated national rail passenger system? But, even with a convinced political environment, the alien nature of the Amtrak structure will deny it the role of integrator of public need with private profit.

    Surly, this nation of innovative people who can legally combine banking with gambling can come up with an entity which will address the traveling needs of the public, the need for profit on capital, the need for environmental security, the need for economic growth/strength and need for this old guy to get comfortably from one coast to the other in a reasonably timely, affordable manner.

  • I agree that Amtrak is structurally flawed.  It's board of directors represent various interests rather than the interests of stockholders.  That there are no real stockholders is immaterial; they are representing interests, and the interests of Amtrak as an institution and its riders as customers are sendary at best.  Can you conceive of any corporation in any other industry where the BOD loyalties are not to the stockholder?  Even where unions have taken a seat or two on some boards - very rare, too - they don't have control.

    Eisenhower sold the Interstates as a defense expenditure, supposedly because he had seen the autobahns in Germany (before or after he had them bombed into oblivion?) and had led a truck convey across the country as a young officer, blah, blah, blah.  Of equal or even greater importance, he needed a "story" to get approval for a then sharp increase in federal fuel taxes.  Before the Interstates, most highway programs were designed, funded, and built by states.  I may be a rail advocate, but I think the Interstates were necessary then, are necessary now, and it would be the height of malfeasance not to maintain them properly.

  • Thanks Garl, Larry, and Oamundson.  I enjoy following these discussions.  I have a technical (engineering, infrastructure) background and, of course, my own views on these matters.

    First I'd like to point out that while Amtrak, the FRA and other American entities are "members" of the UIC, they remain very passive affiliates or associates.  

    You may or may not be aware of the gross difference in track standards which apply to the different systems.  Right or wrong, the European standards are much further to the left side of the scale (i.e. tighter tolerances) than the American standards. I've been in this business for 25 years and I have worked on systems built and maintained to both standards.  The amount of public subsidy, the levels of privatization, and the volumes of passenger traffic appear to be the main factors contributing to the distance between standards. I'm convinced that there is room and a need to move the American standards to the left. The movement to the left of our standards will require significant capital investments.  The good news is that improving the standards will actually lead to lower operating and life cycle costs associated with the physical plant and rolling stock.

    If the Administration is interested in moving forward with a national rail plan, which includes increasing passenger intercity routes and speeds, they need to focus first on tightening standards and secondly on providing the capital for the private companies to bring the infrastructure up to the new standards.

  • An interesting perspective, Blaine.  I suspect that a major reason for differences in standards is that in most of the world, the right-of-way and other infrastructure are considered strategic assets of the state.  So, just as with our Interstate system, the whole thing can be sold to the public as "in the national interest."  Chicken/egg: which comes first, better track structure and then higher speed operation; or, higher speed operation followed by more maintenance effort.

    If we are going to continue to have the kind of system we have now, in which private companies own the rail infrastructure and are responsible for its proper upkeep, the significantly higher (tighter) standards required for HSR passenger operations will have to come from somewhere or someone.  The railroads are not likely to expect either their shareholders or their customers to subsidize passenger operations by paying for track standards that are beyond a level needed for excellent freight operations.  So, we're back to government.  I noticed just today that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which spends a fair amount on behalf of short line railroads, is close to broke and may not be able to come up with the match needed if it is to apply for a federal HSR grant.  No one wants to pay more in taxes.  Everyone wants government services.  A conundrum?  You bet.  It's why we have elections.  Of course, here in Colorado where two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for a Senate seat are trying to out-conservative each other, the putative leader yesterday listed abolishing Amtrak as one of the ways he'd cut government and taxes.  Yeah, right after he eliminates the Departments of Eduction and Energy.  Next, he'll probably make the soldiers and marines being shipped to Afghanistan pay for their passage.  Some have already - with their lives.

  • AMTRAK was originally created as a giant model train layout...

  • Ho ho ho; ha ha ha.  You're just not up to being funny.

  • What is the starting point?

    I have suggested on another forum that the biggest bang for the buck is in high-speed commuter systems.

    Is it time to discuss alternative avenues to achieve the goals of high-speed inter-city travel? For example:


    Nationalization of Rail Infrastructure?

    Formation of an informed political lobby?

    Formation of a new political party?

    Demand platform policies from political leaders?

    Greater transparency of government plans and political agendas?

    Laws mandating retiring air service in favour of rail service as in China?

    Massive reduction of national defence budget?

    Better international cooperation with the developing world?

    Higher taxes?

    More effective lobbying and education?

    I'm not really interested in why it can't work; I'm only interested in how its going to work. What's the price? Who pays? Who sacrifices? Who starts?

  • SP"Is it time to discuss alternative avenues to achieve the goals of high-speed inter-city travel?"


    Seriously, look at your list: how much of that is using HST to drive other agendas?

    How much is chucking out the baby with the bathwater?

    How much is taking HSR as a good in itself, rather than a way of meeting real goals?

  • A superb reply, anmccaff.  I was going to post a series of one-liners for each of the points raised by Mr. Pushak.  Now I don't have to.  Thanks.

  • Anmccaff: Cynicism doesn't cut any ice with me.

    Let's hear your proposal. None of the talking points is necessarily required is it? Which, if any do you favour?

    The baby and bathwater analogy is particularly baffling.

    The real goals:

    1) available and affordable rail transport

    2) pollution and waste reduction

    I think the baby is Capitalism and the bathwater must be the oil spill in the Gulf. ;-)


  • Mr. Pushak, allow me to join in this "discussion."  You appear to be making an assumption that HSR can be provided profitably.  It is a fact that rail passenger service, including HSR, is not profitable anywhere in the world.  If you or other HSR adherents have evidence to the contrary, please provide it.  

    Just to establish my bona fides, when I worked in New York and lived in various New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey suburbs, I was a purchaser of monthly commuter passes and a faithful rider of rail commuter service.  I also made sure at least once each month to thank my fellow taxpayers for subsidizing my daily ride into Manhattan.  The subsidy, as I vaguely recall amounted to around 40% of the cost of the transportation.  I received a bargan, having to pay only 60% of the actual cost of the service.

    In an effort to clarify some of the rhetoric, I'll stipulate that rail is environmentally superior to the private automobile, in fact, it is generally environmentally benign.  Where commuter service is electrified, the actual propulsion fuel tends to be natural gas and/or coal.  Both can be cleaned and made more environmentally friendly than even a well-maintained and properly tuned automobile.  

    So, rail passenger/HSR service has many societal positives.  That does not deal with its costs, which are enormous.  Personally, I would be inclined to support expansions of service and consider the required construction and operating subsidies to be smart investments on behalf of the taxpayers.  The libertarian, Ayn Rand adherents, however, do not agree with me or others who advocate more public transportation.

    You say in your comment above that you have posted in other forums that HSR provides the biggest bang for the buck.  Perhaps.  But you have offered no proof.  You have provided a laundry list of one-word and one-line questions, but offer no answers to your questions.  I offer points that may be challenged by others.  Rail passenger service must be subsidized by the society; that is a given.  Some people understand the need for good mass transportation - think of what the New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco communities and economies would be like if people only could get to their places of employment by driving the family flivver.  Others, who hate taxes on principle and who would posit that free citizens should freely pay for everything they get and use, do not agree with this fundamental thesis.  That, sir, is what must be resolved by our elected representatives.  Socialism has nothing to do with it.   Nor do a series of on-word questions, if that's what they are, contribute much to the discussion.  I'm sorry if this offends you, but I choose to live in the world that is rather than try to live in a non-existent world that may appear to be superior.

  • SP"Anmccaff: Cynicism doesn't cut any ice with me."

    How very nice for you.

    SP>"Let's hear your proposal."

    Let me know when you've caught up with the site, OK?  Then you might know what ideas of mine (and others) you might find already posted.  Hell, you might even agree with some of them.

    Coming out of nowhere with a manifesto is no way to get respect, especially when you are almost certainly dealing with some people who know more than you do about the subjects at hand.

    SP>None of the talking points is necessarily required is it?

    No, not particularly.  For certain scenarios, obviously.

    > Which, if any do you favour?

    Have you stopped beating your wife?

    Oh, sorry, that's a different logical fallacy, isn't it?

    SP>The baby and bathwater analogy is particularly baffling.

    To you.

    SP>The real goals:

    SP>1) available and affordable rail transport

    Why?  Even when another for of transport makes better sense in a particular situation?  And even when "affordable" is a shell game, with hidden costs passed on to others?

    SP>2) pollution and waste reduction

    Again, there are any number of situations where rail is less efficient and less green.  Should we use it then anyway?

    SP>"I think the baby is Capitalism and the bathwater must be the oil spill in the Gulf. ;-)"

    It would take about three more of them to equal the results an at least nominally socialist country managed to achieve almost yearly in its heyday.  Much of the old Eastern Block gives a new dimension to "brownfields."


  • If you can go to a July 6, 2010 column in the Baltimore Sun by Charles H. White "Opinion: A new plan for high-speed rail" either thru the Sun site or on the BLET site, you will find a very interesting point of view expressed by someone with lots of experience in railroading.

  • oamundsen:  OK, I've read Mr. White's column.  I am somewhat familiar with Mr. White.  Where should I begin.  Frankly, at this point, I don't feel like rebutting his point by point, so I'll leave it to someone else to start a conversation.  A couple of things do need to be said.  White says the passenger trains withered away in the 70s.  Not so.  It was in the 50s and mostly the 60s.  Amtrak, which everyone seems to like as a punching bag, was created on April 1, 1971.  On that day, it terminated one-half of the remaining passenger trains in operation.  The railroad companies had offered to retain their common carrier obligation - if the government would subsidize 80% of the losses.  That would have saved half the trains that Amtrak eliminated.  But, no, that was politically undoable.  We can't have the government subsidizing private companies, especially when we've beaten the living hell out of them and made them the bad guys in the demise of rail passenger service.  Sorry, I don't do guilt at all well.  Amtrak never has been funded even sufficiently for the service it does provide.  Let's not blame Amtrak, though, as Mr. White does.  It was the Congress and the various Administrations (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, GWH Bush, Clinton, GW Bush) that beggared Amtrak.  Nowhere in White's paper is there any reference to fundamental economics; the fact that passenger trains lose money everywhere in the world that they operate.  White is a lawyer.  I'm sure he rperesented his ICC and later STB client quite well, but he demonstrates in his paper a lack of knowledge of economics.  Either a lack of understanding or for some unstated reason a conscious ignoring of economics.  Let's hear from someone else now.