High-speed half-truths from Washington


If you ask anyone with any experience in railroad administration, railcar construction or laying railroad tracks, the current administration hoopla about starting to move toward constructing high-speed rail and putting people to work, is just that — hoopla. The total, $8 billion, is not enough to construct even one high-speed rail line, let along grants to 31 states for 13 “high-speed” rail projects.

More amazingly, the major media’s slavish reporting about high-speed rail with photos of bullet trains adorning their pages and websites, gives Americans the wrong impression. This kind of rah-rah reporting will only come back to bite the administration who is proclaiming one thing for public consumption and at staged events while explaining something entirely different back at the Department of Transportation.

The scenes of politicians beaming with joy at cornering some of the rail stimulus moola is sad. The reporting is disappointing at best.

The Obama White House released a statement that said, “Through the Recovery Act, we are making the largest investment in infrastructure since the interstate highway system was created, putting Americans to work rebuilding our roads, bridges and waterways for the future.” It went on to note, “That investment is how we can break ground across the country, putting people to work building high-speed rail lines, because there’s no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains when we can build them right here in America.”

From politicians, this kind of statement touting their “intentions” rather than more mundane reality, can be expected. But from reporters who are supposedly letting voters know what might actually happen, repeating only the rhetoric is irresponsible.

Here is my understanding after spending time with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) back in the spring when these plans were coming together. Plans might have changed since then, but the amount of money involved has not changed by a penny.

In discussions with then Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Karen Rae and a handful of her cohorts, we all admitted that bullet trains are not at all feasible, even one test project, with $8 billion. The expansive discussions illuminated the path toward high-speed rail through improvements to current rail lines, additional rail sidings and new signal equipment. Ms. Rae spoke of incremental change and the ability to shave something like 20 minutes off the travel time by train between Washington DC and New York City.

That is responsible reality. She is an administrator who can be believed and who will probably actually make a difference in our national rail plans. Her assessment is far more accurate that the vision of bullet trains according to other rail experts with whom I have discussed the high-speed rail projects.

Even Sen. Rockefeller, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation couched his statements carefully, noting that these funds will be spent “developing the groundwork” for high-speed rail. He is selling no fantasy of bullet trains zipping across the desert and along the California coast.

Back in the spring, the discussions were also centered on whether the $8 billion should be spent on one project to test the feasibility of a bringing a high-speed system to fruition, or whether the $8 billion would be spread across many projects, which would be far more incremental.

It appears that the multi-state, multi-project proponents won the day. This will insure that the impact of these funds will be barely seen on the rail transportation horizon. This is not to say that the money will not strengthen the infrastructure, just that it will certainly not result in a bullet train zipping across the country in the foreseeable future.

Here are some specific grants included in this rail stimulus package. These present a more realistic view of the rail development situation. Notice, none of these even mention high-speed rail until I get to the California and Florida grants.

Connecticut will get $40 million for double-tracking a 10-mile stretch of the corridor between New Britain and Newington.

Maine got $35 million to extend Amtrak’s popular Downeaster service from Portland to Brunswick.

Vermont will get $500,000 to boost train service frequency between Rutland and Albany, N.Y.

Massachusetts is expecting $100 million for track projects affecting Western Massachusetts where there is nothing close to high-speed rail.

Michigan is in line to get $40 million in stimulus funds to develop the corridor between Detroit and Chicago.

The big winners were California and Florida. California was awarded a total of $2.3 billion, while Florida received $1.25 billion.

The Florida funds will add 84 miles of new track connecting the cities of Tampa and Orlando, two of the top-20 U.S. metro areas, with a combined population of 10 million. Though Obama stated that he planned to ride on the high-speed rails, the high-speeds will be more like around 160 mph than the almost 200 mph reached by European high-speed rail. Most planners are not expecting the Florida high-speed system to be finished until Obama is well out of office, even if he wins re-election.

Most of the money is going out in drips and drabs across the country. Notably, Texas, with its perfect flat high-speed terrain was a big loser in the funding scrum.

To put this “amazing spend,” as the politicians put it, in perspective, Spain is currently building a high-speed rail network and their plans have them on track to spend about $150 billion, by 2020. Spain is only about the same size as Texas, so you can imagine the impact of the current $8 billion national budget.

Look for some incremental change in travel times. Expect more workers to be laboring on switches and signals. Plan on plenty of lawyers making millions on environmental impact statements. Plan on plenty of engineering studies. Anticipate new track laid where right-of-way already exists. And suggest to friends that they buy some stock in freight lines who own most of the track in the U.S.

But, don’t plan on waiting for a bullet train to come barreling down new straight, high-speed electrified tracks anytime within the next decade or so.

No matter the President Obama’s and VP Biden’s rhetorical hyperbole, America will be in “second place” (or third, or fourth place) behind China, Japan and Europe when it comes to rail transportation for the foreseeable future and certainly our leaders’ lifetime.

  • Robert

    California’s 2.3 billion will go toward the 43 billion high speed rail project planned between San Francisco and Southern California. CA voters approved a 10 billion bond measure in 2008 so now CA has about 12 of the 43 billion or so it needs. Environmental impact studies will take another 18 to 36 months before they can even dig the first sovel full of construction dirt. The 2.3 billion will sit in the bank (or US Treasury) for at least that time. It’s not what I would call a stimulus right now.