Thinking Tech

High-speed rail is worth it

High-speed rail is worth it

Posting in Cities

I am an unabashed and thoroughly-committed supporter of high-speed intercity rail as well as a beefed-up budget for Amtrak. Anyone whose taken the Intercity Express trains in Germany, the French TGV, Bullet train in Japan or even Amtrak's Acela knows how good train travel can be.

I am an unabashed and thoroughly-committed supporter of high-speed intercity rail as well as a beefed-up budget for Amtrak. Anyone whose taken the Intercity Express trains in Germany, the French TGV, Bullet train in Japan or even Amtrak's Acela knows how good train travel can be (I'm three for those four).

Kudos to Harvard prof. Edward L. Glaser for using "cruel arithmetic" to determine that high speed rail in the 100-600 mile intercity corridors will be expensive. He is writing a series in the NY Times examining the numbers and they are not pretty which prompted fellow blogger Andrew Nusca to ask"Is high-speed rail worth it in the U.S.?"

It is absolutely.  My sense is that Prof. Glaser is for it despite the costs. And he has yet to touch on its benefits  which he promises to do.

Before I get into those, let me say that the idea that Amtrak should operate at a break-even was a dimwitted position of the Bush administration. In short, Bush was against passenger rail. Just how unimaginative and lacking in vision the Bush Administration was is now coming into the light.

Passenger rail be it commuter, intercity or long distance service hasn't operated at a profit since the early 1950s before jetliners and the federally-funded interstate highway system. Prof. Glaser raises the key question: will people get out of their cars and forsake flying to take trains? Yes, they will.

Amtrak mostly with a starvation budget has set ridership records for six straight years. With old equipment, a sometimes bad attitude and its captive positive to the freight railroads over whose tracks it trains mostly travel, Amtrak has achieved a 20% gain in ridership during the past two years. President Obama in the video below cites a high new high-speed train between Madrid and Seville that gets more passengers than cars and airplanes combined.

People want to take trains. They're fun. Amtrak has done a good job even though President Bush starved it for funds, had delusions about privatization and wanted to abandon it outright. Privatization or for-profit passenger trains do not exist anywhere in in the world.

Despite old equipment, Amtrak's ridership is steadily growing.

"No country in the world operates a passenger rail system without some form of public support for capital costs and/or operating expenses." That's from Amtrak's Fact sheet and it is entirely correct.

Granted, we already know fulfilling the dream of high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors where trains travel at 150 MPH will have to be subsidized by taxpayers. Railroads have always been capital intensive.

So let's take Prof. Glaser's number of $50 million a mile for construction that he gleaned from a March General Accounting Office (GAO) report. Would you rather spend the money just on more highways? I found a figure that pegs highway construction costs at $8 million a mile in rural areas and $39 million through cities.

Inside an Acela car.

The $39 million a mile for highway strikes me as absurdly low. Consider Boston's Big Dig. While an extreme case because so many tunnels and bridges were required, the Big Dig netted out to $16 billion for just a few miles of highway.  You and I pay for those highways.

Here's another comparison. The rehabilitated Boston-Washington rail corridor has cost $3.8 billion so far which nets out to about $8.3 million a mile. Granted Amtrak  owned the land and existing rights of way, but my point is that there's many ways to achieve high-speed intercity travel by rail. The trains don't all have to be magnetic levitation or include completely new rights of way and track. Much can be done with existing technology and track infrastructure.

The decision to build high-speed intercity rail should be a collective one as a nation to make the options for public transportation attractive enough to unclog our roadways. The airlines were subsidized by airport construction 50-60 years ago when the railroads didn't get a penny of government money. It's time for some sensible payback.

Here's a few key benefits and challenges of intercity train travel:

Benefits

--Eases traffic congestion and relieves YOU of the headache of driving.

--Downtown to downtown.

--Fast and safe without angst of flying or hassle of traffic.

--They'll be there when gasoline hits $5, $10 and $20 a gallon and makes driving impractical.

--They'll be there operating when airlines shut down from a terrorist attack, god forbid.

--Lower reliance on unstable and unfriendly oil producing nations.

--Electric trains are environmentally friendly and can use renewable sources of energy.

--Development will blossom along rights of way.

--Not all 10 corridors have to be done at once and some already have great train service.

--Promises to create 150,000 new jobs be the end of 2010.

Challenges and my answer

--High initial cost. Answer: The federal National Highway Trust can fund some of it. So can state gasoline levies.

--Land acquisition: Answer: Didn't we have to take land for interstate highways? There are also existing tracks whose capacity can be expanded as well as thousands of miles on unused and abandoned railroad rights of way.

--Uncertainty about ridership. Answer: We didn't know before committing to the interstate highway system in the Fifties if people would take to cars. In fact, it was primarily conceived on the erroneous assumption that it was critical to the nation's defense. Success was something of an accident. And now we have to fix it because it's crumbling.

--With recent accidents, trains are unsafe. Answer: Government-mandated positive train control enacted last October and to be implemented by 2015 should make train travel much safer.

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A Vision for High Speed Rail from White House on Vimeo.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure