Obama Speed Rail

Professionally, I am a Railroader, not a writer. I don't always know how to schedule the publishing of a column, or when to give myself a few extra days for anger to subside.

I, too, am aware of the Biblical admonition to "Curse not the king, no not in thy thought...: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." [Ecclesiastes 10:20]

Even so, there are times when situations become so outrageous that I feel something must be said!

This is one of those times.

I've waited for my emotions to calm a bit. I'm also willing to refrain from blindly casting aspersions upon elected officials or their appointees. Yet, I sincerely must wonder: are the people running our federal government absolutely insane?!

On Wednesday, June 9th, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a "high-level meeting" with railroad executives, essentially accused them of attempting to "sidetrack President Barack Obama’s signature transportation project before it even got started" (per Crain's Chicago Business).

In a brief interview the following day, LaHood said he reminded railway leaders of "the president’s and vice-president’s vision" and told them "we need to get moving on it." He insisted that some "very intense meetings" would be held over the "next couple of weeks," so that various agreements might be finalised.

Although Wednesday's meeting failed to address the "nitty-gritty detail" of issues raised by the railroads, LaHood reiterated his belief that these matters "are going to be resolved." The Secretary continued, "There’s a sense of urgency... We want some of this work to begin this year.”

Far be it from our industry not to share the administration's "sense of urgency," or fully appreciate its politically-driven construction timetable. I only wish understanding was a bidirectional affair.

When representatives of our own government begin speaking of "punitive" measures; when they begin making thinly-veiled threats, such as LaHood mentioning the "pretty significant investment" railroads have received through D.O.T. grant programs (per William B. Cassidy in The Journal of Commerce), it's time to sit up and take notice.

And what of these nitty-gritty details which seem so unimportant to Washington?

Well, in the process of planning for expanded railway passenger service, our Class I roads, along with the Association of American Railroads, have repeatedly emphasised three things: their willingness (yes, willingness!) to negotiate, the necessity of certain operational and safety constraints when using railroad property, and the fact that the majority of proposed improvements for faster/more reliable passenger services are not necessary for, nor will they positively affect, the railroad's own freight operations.

Now, we see our industry being publicly castigated and browbeaten - by the people who supposedly work for us! - because government officials have decided the companies aren't cooperating quickly enough concerning the fed's plans for the railroad's property! Furthermore, if the road's fail to behave, they'll be required to pay back money they aren't requesting for infrastructure changes they don't need - changes which will not improve their operations or profits, or make them more competitive, but which stand to increase both their taxes and exposure to liability!

[I wonder: If we're asking the railroads to accept certain responsibilities and assume certain risks, what benefits will they be receiving in return?]

Secretary La Hood insists the D.O.T. needs "our friends in the Class I freight rail business to partner with us.” So, do his Department's actions seem friendly? Is it possible for true partners to cooperate under such circumstances?

Those are both fair questions.

You see, ANYTHING our government ends up doing will require not only the railroad industry’s cooperation, but its voluntary, remunerative partnership! The U.S. D.O.T. must understand and accept reality: our railroads are private companies, answering to shareholders, paying taxes and supporting thousands of employees. Freight operations are more vital to the nation’s economy than any passenger service - true high-speed or no - will ever be! It is both unfair and unreasonable to presume otherwise.

If Ray LaHood honestly believes what he told the National Industrial Transportation League - that "the U.S. is getting into the high-speed rail business in a big way" - then this is not how we should go about it!

First of all, what we're discussing is NOT true H.S.R.! Even so-called “higher-speed rail” (what I refer to as “O.S.R.,” or “Obama Speed Rail”) at 110 m.p.h. will not happen on the vast majority of lines, since that speed will require dedicated, passenger-only trackage. The cost effectiveness of our investments would be greatly increased if we’d concentrate upon the elimination of slow stretches and bottlenecks (terminals, interlocking plants and the like) instead of attempting to arbitrarily increase top speed. Such an approach would be less "sexy," but far more practical.

Secondly, it is unconscionable for the D.O.T. to pontificate from on high, issuing orders and telling the railroad industry how to run its own business! Even now, according to The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, Robert Kulat of the F.R.A. insists that "the agency is sticking by [its] guidelines." Cavalierly dismissing opposition (while preparing for Ray LaHood's "intense meetings"), he said, “I think the whole thing’s been overblown." I have a suggestion: why don't the feds, who are the instigators of this plan, come to the table with a proverbial "win/win" solution - then, let the RAILROADS decide if the deal's going to be worth it!

Thirdly, if Washington thinks it's serious when predicting that, “two decades from now, the lion’s share of America will be connected by passenger [trains]," it needs to take a crash course in conventional passenger railroad technology - something that can be established for pennies on the dollar (in comparison to true H.S.R.), yet can give us some practical (versus theoretical) indication of the market for such service in the 21st century U.S. In addition, every investment made in existing railroad infrastructure would also serve to benefit freight operations, helping the economy and offering a viable, safe, energy saving and environmentally friendly alternative to trucking.

Finally, if Barack Obama and associates REALLY wanted make a substantial impact upon our society, they'd be working toward the establishment of a uniform, comprehensive transportation/energy/environmental policy!

But, of course, something truly "substantial" isn't the goal.

As I recently said on the Dallas Morning News transportation blog, "...it's fascinating. Sometimes, 'supporters' can achieve things detractors can't!"

I wholeheartedly support all forms of passenger train service, yet I am disgusted beyond description.



  • This exchange has evolved into looking at two areas that are not the same thing.  One of the points is government using its leverage to get what it wants and the other is what it actually wants.

    The arguments about what it wants appear to be the easier part to analyze.  Most of these arguments themselves seem to revolve about the two things.  Government does not know marketing and bureaucrats are generally not engineers.  Engineers clearly see that maximum speed and average speed are two quite different things.  They also generally understand the basic marketing tenant that passengers need to want to travel by service being offered at the price quoted.

    There was a previous blog in this forum about VIA’s “Ocean” and the comment above from oamundsen about Amtrak’s “Lake Shore Limited” (Amtrak’s because Canadian National used to have one also, and VIA may have used the name as well.)  Both of these discussions indicate that there are niches where the train works well today outside of the Northeast Corridor, the California corridor services, and some other corridors.  But niches are not the majority of traffic nor are they voluminous enough to make a visible effect on highway traffic on the parallel turnpikes.  (OK, there is nothing like the Massachusets Turnpike through most of New Brunswick.)  The reason that the Northeast Corridor carries the volume and percentage of the overall traffic that it does is because it has numerous departures throughout the day, both going and returning.  If one needs to return early, there is a train.  With the Lakeshore, if one needs to return early, go rent a car.

    Then there is speed.  Average is what counts for trip time.  Short bursts of high top speed are a waste of energy and money to maintain track if that speed is just frittered away waiting at a station or because the turnouts at the entrance of Pennsylvania Station (be that in New York or Baltimore) allow only 10 mph rather than 30.  As to the slow average speed of the Acelas between Boston and New York, the speeds of conventional equipment would be lower, even with electric locomotives.  The tilt-body design and acceleration was designed into the equipment for the Shore Line.  The sections south of New York where there is more top speed running could have been handled without the tilt features.  The original MU Metroliners fo the late 1960's achieved nearly the same running times between New York and Washington without tilt or the track "improvements" of the last 40 years. Besides, part of the slower operation north of New York is because of the maximum allowable speed between New Haven and New Rochelle.  The volume of commuter trains on the section of line owned by the State of Connecticut does not allow room ahead of the Acela trains to reach their maximum possible speed.

    Which brings us back to government.  No matter what the President says and no matter what laws Congress passes, they cannot change the laws of physics.  Only so many trains will fit into a given amount of space and those trains can only be operated safely up to a certain speed.  No amount of political leverage will change that.

  • Thanks, "A Railroader Who Remembers," my storytelling is not as clear as your articulation.  You hit the nail about the laws of physics and Larry nailed the "money thing." Garl's original piece about "mindlessness" sort of brings us full circle, passenger rail must be a part of a sane national transportation plan and its part will vary place to place, there is no "one size fits all" solution.  I will be long gone by the time it all is resolved, if ever, but I would like to see some real incremental improvements in civil discourse between freight railroads, all govt. parties, passenger advocates and urban planners.  Most of my work life was spend getting disparate parties to hammer out something in which all are losers and all are winners.  LBJ is said to have admonished some congressmen with this: "Don't spit in the soup boys, we all have to eat."

  • Thanks for reminding us of the original Metroliner.  The original contract was with PRR and then PC following that brilliant merger (sarcasm intentional).  Even as PC was headed into Sec. 77 bankruptcy and having trouble maintaining its R-O-W, one could operate Washington Union Station to Penn Station in two hours, 29 minutes.  Try that today.

  • Regarding the subject at hand...

    The latest from Ken Orski's "Innovation Briefs" is a real gem, entitled "Is the High Speed Rail Program at Risk?"

    Cascadia Prospectus' web site has a direct link to the column:


    Toward the end of Mr. Orski's piece, he stated his belief that "there are ways of protecting the public investment without imposing draconian conditions and unrealistic requirements that would lead to endless disputes and litigation - and delay completion of the work past the 2012 elections."

    And that, my dear friends, should be enough to tell us all we need to know.

    As with (essentially) every other politically-driven programme in the history of these United States - perhaps in the history of the _world_! - the end result desired has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the product itself, or its viability.

    These things are meant to grease pockets and pay back political favours and "put people to work" (on the taxpayer's dime) and settle scores...and position the elected official(s) for his/their next run for office.

    Does "High[er] Speed Rail" really work? Does it make sense? Is that the most cost effective way to spend our limited transportation dollars?


    As long as no one "delaySleep completion of the work past the 2012 elections," we're cookin' on the front burner!

    I know I'm repeating myself; but, "I am disgusted beyond description."


  • Disgust is a legitimate emotion, Garl. Don't feel you need to be apologetic for feeling disgust.  This one isn't really going to happen.  The current $8 billion and some pittance additional from the surface transportation program that hasn't even been introduced yet and probably won't be passed for at least another year just isn't going to fund a whole lot of HSR.  And when they try to get the necessary amount out of Congress, just wait and see how fast the honorables can run away from that one.  Can they come up with an HSR network that would affect 26 states, perhaps a sine qua non for getting 50 votes in the Senate?  I doubt it.  I could go on, but i am tired of being negative, perhaps more tired of writing negative thoughts than you all are of reading them.