Tuesday, July 7, 2009

High Speed Rail: Do We Really Need 220 MPH Trains?

According to a feasibility analysis that has just been published by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, trains running as fast as 220 MPH between Chicago and St. Louis are doable. The Association pegs the cost at $11.5 Billion in 2012 dollars, not including new trains or maintenance facilities.

A plan to run service at 110 MPH, which would reduce the trip on the current route to 4 hours, would cost only $2 Billion.

At first blush, this is very good news. I use Amtrak to travel to St. Louis frequently, and right now, rail travel between the two cities often takes six hours and involves several miles of single-track operation on badly-maintained track belonging to freight carriers, and frequent delays from standing on a siding for 20 minutes to let another train pass. Additionally, service is infrequent, even though more trips have been added to meet the greatly increased demand. Right now,though, it's easier to catch a plane to St. Louis than it is public transit to many Chicago suburbs.

The trouble with most plans for rebuilding the U.S. rail system is that proponents just can't leave the words "high speed" out of it. The idea, of course, is to make rail competitive with air travel, and promoters are looking at the example set by Europe and Japan. What many people are not looking at is the cost of the super-high speed service in France and Japan, and the doubts that exist regarding the sustainability of these systems, given expense involved, especially as fossil fuels become scarcer.

Note that the cost of building a true high-speed system that runs at more than 200 MPH is at least five times the cost of a line that runs at 110 MPH. Can we really justify this massive difference in cost when we are confronted with so many critical needs at the same time we are also facing a terminal decline in fossil fuel supplies and the workout of trillions of dollars of bad debt?

A train does not need to run at 200 MPH to be competitive with a plane that flies at 325 MPH, even when travel-time is the only consideration, for flying time includes many hours on the ground: the trip to and from the airport, time spent checking in and going through multiple security checkpoints. These major time-wasters can add four hours to the time spent in-flight.

Grandiose programs involving major technological upgrades and much less fuel efficiency ought to be reconsidered in favor of more practical plans that might actually be feasible within a few years and whose cheaper cost might make the difference between a system that covers all cities and major towns, and runs frequently enough to be a reasonable alternative to air and auto travel, as opposed to one that is very flashy, but too expensive to build and operate to provide extensive, reliable, and frequent service. We arguably don't need a high-tech showcase that is so expensive to build and operate that there is no chance it can ever operate profitably, and will end up being just as intermittent and unreliable as the sad service we have now. If the fuel usage and operating costs approach those of our airlines, which are failing rapidly in spite of receiving $14 Billion a year in government subsidies, then it is clearly unworkable.

The U.S. rail system of the early 20th century was the envy of the world, and private carriers were able to run profitable operations running trains at 100 MPH during the 1920s, while providing a level of luxury and creature comfort that has never been equaled by the airlines. If we could once more have railroads that operated as well and efficiently as those of that era did, we'd be well off, and it matters more to have frequent, reliable service to all cities and major towns, than it does a glittering showcase that serves few people relative to its cost.

The focus on grandiose plans to the detriment of what is practical and proven is typical of development driven by government policy rather than private enterprise that has to respond to market demands in order to survive. Instead of diverting part of the outrageous subsidies for highways and airlines to Amtrak, we would do better to remove regulatory obstructions that now strangle our railroads, and level the playing field between the various modes of transportation so that we can clearly see which is more economical and efficacious, by rolling back the subsidies that are keeping our airlines aloft and maintaining our monopolized passenger rail.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Laura. Even when the government attempts to do the right thing they get the manage to get it wrong.

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