On the Fast Track
The rest of the developed world has high-speed rail. We don't. That's finally about to change.
With its soaring, arched ceilings, 20-story bell tower, and gilded frescoes, the Gare de Lyon rail station in Paris feels like a kind of church. This cathedral of transport was built for the World Exposition of 1900, a Belle ??poque celebration of the achievements in science and technology that had given birth to the Industrial Revolution a century earlier. Coal soot and dark halos of steam billowed in the rafters, symbols of the original builders' faith in eternal progress.
Today, sunlight streams through the roof, layers of caked-on coal grime having long since been scrubbed from the latticework of glass and steel. Gleaming silver-and-blue trains glide noiselessly in and out of the station, pushed and pulled at both ends by electrical "power units" that nuzzle the concrete platforms with aerodynamic, space-shuttle-like noses. These supertrains, which shoot through the countryside at almost 200 miles an hour, have transformed the Gare de Lyon from a sooty monument of the revolution that brought us global warming into something quite different. Now it's a temple to high-speed rail, a technology that some experts say is essential to helping us get out of our climate fix.
One day last fall, I stood next to a 30-foot-tall palm tree in the Gare de Lyon waiting to board a TGV-train ?? grande vitesse, or high-speed train-to Avignon. Fifteen minutes before my train was scheduled to leave, its platform number flashed up on the station's black-and-yellow departures board. I ambled to my assigned car and found my seat-no waiting in line for check-in, security, or boarding. The train, a double-decker with a capacity of 545 passengers, was about two-thirds full. Even then, it was carrying as many people as a Boeing 747, yet with far greater comfort and freedom of movement than any commercial airplane in my experience as a frequent flier.
The doors whooshed shut at the appointed minute and the train started moving-slowly at first, then gathering speed as it approached the southern outskirts of Paris. At some point during the transition from city to country, I looked out the window and realized that the train had accelerated to a speed roughly twice as fast as I had ever moved before at ground level. Trees, bridges, and electric poles appeared and disappeared before my eyes could focus on them. Trains rushed by in the opposite direction, producing a violent sonic jolt that would have been annoying had it not lasted less than two seconds. Inside the brightly decorated cars, however, the only sensation of movement was a gentle swaying. The train pulled into the Avignon TGV station exactly on schedule, having covered 463 miles in 2 hours and 40 minutes (average speed: 174 miles per hour, including slowdowns for several miles at each end of the trip). My ticket cost $75-about the same as the cheapest available airfare from Paris to Marseille (the major airport nearest to my destination), yet sans the hassle of getting to and from distant airports, not to mention the possibility of maddening air-traffic delays.
An hour after arriving in Avignon, I relaxed in the medieval quaintness of the village that was my final destination and reflected on my journey. It was not only as fast as air travel, but incomparably more pleasant. It is also safer than any other form of transportation. France's TGV service has carried 1.5 billion passengers since it started in 1981, without a single fatality during high-speed operations. (There have been fatal accidents in urban areas, where the TGV shares the track with conventional trains and moves at the same speed.) And, while the TGV runs on steel rails just like its slower-moving predecessors, my trip that day was as different from conventional train travel (average speed: 40 mph, charitably reckoned) as driving a car is from taking a horse-drawn buggy. With its speed and convenience, high-speed rail could revolutionize travel in the United States by offering an attractive alternative to cars and airplanes for regional trips.
Several states are improving existing rail lines with the goal of offering "medium-fast" (around 110 mph) service within the decade (see "Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow," this issue), but California has pulled into the lead as the probable site of America's first true high-speed (top operating speed: 220 mph) system. Supporters hope it will be whizzing passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2020. Once the technology has a foothold in the United States, its rapid spread will become more and more likely as the economic, environmental, and practical benefits sink in. State-of-the-art high-speed rail systems don't come cheap, but the price of not building them will be astronomical, in both economic and environmental terms. As far as the planet's climate is concerned, high-speed rail can't come fast enough.
Trains, even painfully slow ones powered by diesel engines, are inherently efficient compared with other ways of moving people and cargo. The reasons have to do with basic physics. Steel wheels on steel tracks have much lower rolling resistance than rubber tires on pavement. One train uses less energy to overcome wind resistance than the number of trucks or cars that would be needed to haul an equal load the same distance. A single freight train can take as many as 280 trucks off the highway and uses a quarter as much fuel as an average truck to move a ton one mile. Amtrak passenger trains, hardly paragons of up-to-date technology, consume on average 18 percent less energy per passenger mile than airplanes and 27 percent less than cars. So policies that encourage and expand rail transport will yield net reductions in both oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.
High-speed trains t
ake the environmental advantages of conventional passenger rail and supercharge them. All of today's high-speed rail systems run on electricity drawn from overhead wires, which powers motors in the trains' locomotives. Electric motors are roughly three times more efficient than internal combustion engines in converting energy into mechanical force. Recent generations of high-speed trains use superefficient motors; regenerative braking (which captures energy that would otherwise be lost as heat, then converts it back into electricity and returns it to the grid); and advanced, lightweight materials to boost their comparative efficiency even further.
Independent research commissioned by Eurostar, which operates high-speed trains between London and Europe through the Channel Tunnel, has shown that a passenger who flies from London to Paris (214 miles) or Brussels (199 miles) generates 10 times more carbon dioxide than one who rides on a high-speed train.
High-speed trains are most competitive with airplanes on trips that last up to three hours or cover distances of up to 500 miles. "Those short-haul flights are the most energy intensive," says Anthony Perl, director of urban studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of two books on passenger rail. "Getting all those tons of metal five miles up in the air going 500 mph-the amount of energy required to do that is roughly the same whether the plane is going from Chicago to Detroit or Chicago to Europe. When jet fuel prices are high, airlines lose more money on the short flights.
"High-speed train travel has, in some places, completely displaced air travel," Perl continues. "For example, you cannot fly between Paris and Brussels anymore. There's a train every 20 minutes, and it takes an hour and a half to travel the 190 miles between the two city centers. The airlines couldn't compete with the convenience and price, so they cancelled their flights on that route." By the same logic, he says, high-speed rail has the potential to take over about one-third of all air travel in the United States-including, for example, the majority of short-haul flights between heavily traveled city pairs such as New York and Washington, D.C., or San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It's little wonder that high-speed rail services have spread rapidly across the developed world. Japan started the trend in 1964 with the opening of a 340-mile Shinkansen ("new trunk line") from Tokyo to Osaka. France launched its first TGV service, between Paris and Lyon, in 1981. Next came Germany, with its InterCityExpress network. The list of countries with trains that routinely run at 125 mph or faster-the most broadly accepted definition of "high-speed"-now includes Belgium, China, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, and the U.K. Projects are under way in Argentina, India, Morocco, and Turkey. In all these countries but Turkey, which is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, high-speed rail systems are an important part of the effort to meet greenhouse-gas reduction goals under the agreement. More broadly, countries that aspire to participate fully in the twenty-first-century economy are coming to see that a high-speed rail network is as essential as a robust Internet or mobile-phone infrastructure.
So what's holding back the United States? I posed this question to more than a dozen authorities around the country-transportation officials, energy experts, rail advocates, historians, urban planners, and politicians. Their answers varied. Some said that the car culture is too entrenched here and that passenger trains bear the stigma of the past. Others pointed out that the rail infrastructure in the United States is almost entirely owned by private freight companies. "In Europe and Japan, they built their high-speed rail systems based on a passenger-rail legacy," says Scott Witt, director of the rail and marine office at the Washington State Department of Transportation. "In this country, we're working on top of a legacy of freight railroads. That makes building separate, dedicated tracks for high-speed passenger rail more of a challenge."
Passenger and freight trains that share the same tracks-which is to say, nearly all intercity and long-distance trains in the United States-are generally limited by the Federal Railroad Administration to speeds no greater than 79 mph. The speed limit goes up to 110 mph for those few passenger trains equipped with special signaling systems that engineers can read in their locomotive cabs. Without these, train operators must watch for stationary signals located beside the tracks, just as they've done since the early nineteenth century. To go faster than 110 mph, a train equipped with signals in its cab must run on tracks that have no level crossings with roads. That is, all road intersections have to be "grade-separated" from the tracks by means of bridges or underpasses. The Amtrak Acela Express, which runs between Boston and Washington, D.C., via New York, is the only train in the United States authorized to exceed the 110-mph limit. For short portions of its route, where track and traffic conditions allow, the Acela can go up to 150 mph, although it averages less than 80 mph.
By international standards, the Acela does not qualify as true high-speed rail. Amtrak's Acela service and the track it runs on-the 363-mile-long Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger route in the country-represent what's known as incremental high-speed rail. With this approach, existing rail lines are gradually upgraded to allow trains to operate safely at progressively higher speeds. The result is a patchwork, with some track sections fully grade-separated and modernized and other sections peppered with tight curves and grade crossings, which require trains to slow down. Freight trains also use some portions of the Northeast Corridor. Generally longer and slower than passenger trains, these can gum up the works, reducing the average speed, on-time performance, and safety of passenger rail lines, whether the Acela Express or the regional commuter trains that also ply the corridor.
Amtrak owns most of the track in the Northeast Corridor, so dispatchers give its passenger trains higher priority than freights in case of track conflicts. With most other proposed incremental high-speed rail projects in the United States, the reverse is true: freight carriers own the tracks, and passenger trains are second-class citizens. This goes a long way toward explaining Amtrak's chronically low on-time performance. It's not entirely Amtrak's fault; it's at the mercy of the Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX, and other freight companies to dispatch its trains on schedule.
This is no way to run a high-speed railroad. Like interstate highways in the United States, the rail systems in Europe and Japan were built from scratch on new rights-of-way, securely fenced. There are no on-grade road crossings, and slower-moving traffic is not allowed. Motion sensors on
bridges send warning signals if they detect objects falling onto the tracks. Curves are bigger than on conventional rail lines and elevation changes more gradual, to allow for higher speeds. The trains themselves are made of lightweight composite materials, so acceleration is more rapid. Also, all trains are articulated, meaning that adjacent cars share a single set of wheels. This allows for wider, more spacious cars and reduces the chance that they will tip over or jackknife in the event of a derailment.
With their own dedicated tracks (except in cities, where they merge with existing rails and operate at conventional speeds), high-speed trains can run safely, reliably, and frequently. In Japan, for example, Shinkansen trains run as often as three minutes apart. The average delay is six seconds. "In traveling by high-speed rail in Japan or France, I don't have to have a schedule or even know the language," says Chris Calwell, vice president for policy and research at the energy efficiency consulting firm Ecos, in Durango, Colorado. "I just show up at a station, put my credit card in a machine, and buy a reserved seat on a train that leaves in a few minutes. The trains can be closely spaced because they operate precisely on time. The train zips me to my destination, where I can get off and then link to a local rapid-transit system. The systems are coordinated, so when a high-speed train pulls into a station, there's a connecting subway or local commuter train waiting, sometimes right across the same platform."
Today Americans can only dream of such efficient, passenger-friendly rail travel. But the dream is becoming less far-fetched as a number of planets come into alignment. One positive sign: passenger trains are making a comeback in the United States. A potent combination of factors, including $4-a-gallon gasoline last summer and frustration with congested roads and airports, drove millions of Americans to the rails in 2008. Amtrak attracted a record 28.7 million passengers, up 11 percent from 2007. Local transit systems across the country also set new ridership records last summer. Americans drove an estimated 27 percent less-about 826 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled-in 2008 than in 2007. That means a direct reduction in emissions of 375 million metric tons of CO2??(around 5 percent of the U.S. annual total).
Politicians have noticed this growing interest in trains. Congress, historically hostile to Amtrak, passed an uncharacteristically generous reauthorization bill for the embattled rail carrier last fall. The legislation authorizes $13 billion over five years for passenger rail programs, nearly doubling previous spending levels. In addition to providing for Amtrak's ongoing operations and capital expenses, the legislation includes $2 billion in federal matching grants to encourage states to invest in intercity passenger rail projects, plus another $1.5 billion for development of high-speed rail corridors.
"This is the beginning of the transformation of passenger rail service in America," said James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "It's not going to lead us tomorrow to the TGV of France, the Shinkansen of Japan…or the 220-mph train service between Beijing and Shanghai in China. But it will put us on a course to get there."
A few billion dollars (not yet appropriated) is not much in the grand scheme of things. A single new freeway interchange or bridge, by comparison, can cost anywhere from $500 million to more than $2 billion. Even so, the law represents a sea change in federal policy. For the first time, it gives intercity passenger rail projects the same entitlement to federal funding-however tenuous and temporary-as highway and airport improvements, which have been matched for the past half century by a four- or fivefold amount in federal grants. Publicly owned intracity light rail, metro and subway systems, and bus rapid transit have also routinely received federal matching grants. But intercity passenger rail services like Amtrak, which use privately owned rail infrastructure, have had to settle for dribs and drabs of federal funding from one-time grants and short-lived programs for modest projects, such as adding more drop-down gates to road crossings.
Many conservative lawmakers object as a matter of principle to using public money to subsidize improvements to property owned by private companies. They also believe that Amtrak, which was created in 1971 as a quasi-public corporation, should (miraculously) generate a profit-or at least not require operating subsidies. So they starve Amtrak of the funds it would need to entice its host railroads to do things like add more rail sidings and double track. Such upgrades would help Amtrak improve its service and performance, thereby attracting more riders and bringing it closer to financial independence. As things stand, however, the private railroad companies-which are legally obliged to let Amtrak use their tracks for a fee-regard passenger trains as unwelcome interlopers on their freight rail systems.
This policy stalemate has kept U.S. intercity passenger rail at a near standstill for decades. "We're working with a rail system built in the 1890s," says Eugene Skoropowski, who manages the Capitol Corridor, an independent passenger-train agency run by an eight-county authority in northern California. "It's about up to the 1930s now in terms of operating safety and technology."
Under Skoropowski's leadership, the Capitol Corridor has become one of the country's most successful passenger-rail services. The 170-mile route links San Jose with the state capital, Sacramento. "Ten years ago, we started with four round-trip trains a day and fewer than half a million riders a year," Skoropowski says. He is standing on one of his trains as it pulls out of a station near Oakland, bound for Sacramento. "Over the last 10 years we've gradually stepped up the frequency. Every time we add a new train, our ridership jumps disproportionately. Now we're up to 16 round-trips a day, and in 2008 we carried 1.7 million passengers. We're Amtrak's third busiest route. The message is that people will ride trains in this country, even at conventional speeds, if you provide them with a true travel choice."
On average, 70 trains a day-35 in each direction-run on the double tracks between Oakland and Sacramento. The majority of them are Skoropowski's trains, plus a few Amtrak California Zephyrs bound for Chicago. The rest are long, sluggish freights operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks and underlying rights-of-way used by the Capitol Corridor. "We're pushing the capacity limit on our piece of track," Skoropowski says. "We're limited in our growth by the fact that we have to share nicely with others. For a travel market that's much larger than ours, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, you need a TGV type of train. You need a true high-speed rail service on its own dedicated track, with nothing e
lse on it."
The scenario Skoropowski describes is now taking shape. Last November, California voters approved Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond measure that started the wheels moving on what is likely to become the nation's first true high-speed rail system. The initial phase of the project, a 432-mile stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco, scheduled for completion around 2020, will allow passengers to travel from one city center to the other (projected fare: $55) in 2 hours and 38 minutes. That works out to an average of 170 mph, although the trains are expected to operate at sustained speeds above 220 mph. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), which is responsible for planning, building, and operating the system, says that the initial $10 billion in state bonds will cover about a third of the phase-one construction costs. The rest would come from private investors, cities along the route, and federal sources. The entire planned system, which will stretch 800 miles from Sacramento to San Diego, is expected to cost more than $40 billion.
A ridership and revenue forecast commissioned by the CHSRA projects that when the high-speed rail network is complete in 2030, it will attract 90 million to 117 million riders a year and generate about $4 billion in annual revenues. The idea is to set fares at about half the cost of an airplane ticket (not that you can fly commercially between all the cities on the high-speed rail route). No operating subsidies will be required. In fact, the system is expected to net a profit of $1.4 billion a year, and this is projected to grow as ridership increases.
"All around the world, high-speed rail has a net positive cash flow," says Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University and a past chairman of the CHSRA's board of directors. "We don't say ???profit,' because you don't use that word in government. But after you deduct operating and maintenance costs, all those systems like the TGV and Shinkansen generate a positive cash flow. The surplus revenue then goes into expanding the system or paying off debt on prior construction. There's no reason we shouldn't expect the same kind of financial performance here in California."
Critics of the initiative aren't so sure. High-speed rail has no track record in the United States, they point out, so the ridership forecast is speculative. The only available ridership data come from parts of the world where population density is greater than California's, and where people are generally more accustomed to train travel than to hopping reflexively into their cars. So the success of high-speed rail in other countries, the critics say, will not necessarily be repeated here.
Dependence on the automobile is precisely the problem, rail and mass transit advocates say. Californians, and ultimately all Americans, "need to focus on the costs of??not??building a high-speed rail network," Diridon tells me during a conversation in his office, a mini-museum of railroad memorabilia. The shelves along one wall display engineers' caps, model steam trains, a golden spike or two, Union Pacific signage, and a scaled-down TGV train from France. "The state's population is set to double to over 60 million people by 2050," he says. "If we don't build a high-speed rail system to accommodate future growth, then the engineers tell us we'll need to build 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and two more international airports. That would cost around $100 billion, more than twice the cost of high-speed rail. Then at midcentury we'd have to expand the roads and airports all over again. With high-speed rail, all you have to do to add future capacity is add more rail cars and locomotives."
According to CHSRA environmental-impact studies, California's proposed system will save 12.7 million barrels of oil in 2030 by reducing air and auto travel. It will also eliminate 12 billion pounds of CO2 emissions-the equivalent of taking a million vehicles off the roads.
This is not to say that high-speed rail is carbon-free. The California system, when complete, will consume nearly 1 percent of the state's electrical load. With California's current mix of fossil fuel and clean energy, generating that much electricity would create slightly more than five billion pounds of CO2 emissions. That's still a net yearly reduction of seven billion pounds, and the CHSRA hopes to do much better. Last September the authority's board adopted the goal of using 100 percent renewable, carbon-free electricity to run the system by 2030. This is technically and economically feasible, according to a report released last summer by Navigant Consulting, based in Chicago.
Proposition 1A was approved in November not just on its environmental and transportation merits. It managed to pass in the midst of worsening economic conditions because, Diridon tells me, "most important for us right now, it's a jobs measure. The estimate is that it will create 160,000 construction-related jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs. Without it, we will fall further and further behind the rest of the world in terms of our economic capacity, because congestion will get so bad that we won't be able to get people to and from work, or products to and from the marketplace efficiently."
California's arguments for high-speed rail apply with equal validity to the United States as a whole. Congestion all over the country has grown to epic proportions. Since 1982, the amount of time Americans spend in their cars has more than doubled. According to a 2007 report by the Department of Energy, drivers in U.S. metropolitan areas wasted 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2005, the equivalent of 105 million weeks. These same drivers also wasted nearly three billion gallons of fuel, equivalent to a week's supply for the whole country. Traffic congestion costs drivers $78 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel, to say nothing of the costs to the environment.
Thus overburdened, the country's transportation infrastructure has deteriorated to the point where it is exerting a powerful drag on the economy-just when brakes are the last thing it needs. Almost a quarter of the country's major roads are in "poor to mediocre" condition, according to the Urban Land Institute. More than a quarter of our bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. Poor road conditions are to blame for some 14,000 annual highway fatalities-a third of the total. Meanwhile, government spending on infrastructure dropped from 3 percent of our gross domestic product in 1960 to 2.4 percent in 2008. China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure; in Japan the figure is 10 percent. The main source of money for U.S. road and transit refurbishment, the Highway Trust Fund, has dried up. A time of reckoning has arrived.
On top of the twin crises of increasing congestion and decaying infrastructure, there is the enormous challenge of climate change. Transportation accounts for one-third of the country's total CO2 emissions; as a producer of greenhouse gases it is second only to the electric-power industry, and its emissions are growing faster than those of any other sector.
Even if transportation emissions were cut in half in the next decade, it wouldn't be enough, says Daniel Kammen, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. He says we will need every tool at our disposal. That includes millions of plug-in hybrid cars, a federal low-carbon fuel standard, a tax on vehicles with low fuel efficiency, denser urban development, and, not least, high-speed rail. "High-speed rail looks like an essential feature of a viable twenty-first-century transportation system," Kammen says.
Admittedly, high-speed rail is not a panacea. Earlier attempts to build high-speed rail systems in California, Florida, and Texas foundered, in part because of opposition from environmentalists concerned about disturbing sensitive ecosystems and promoting sprawl. Choosing routes and station locations is of paramount importance in determining how a high-speed rail system will affect patterns of land use.
The recently approved California project provides a case in point. Amanda Eaken, a land-use policy analyst in the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), recalls that "there was a lot of concern about a proposed station south of San Jose, around Pacheco Pass. It could have had devastating sprawl implications in an area where there's a lot of important grasslands habitat." NRDC originally supported a different routing between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, but this would have required building a new bridge or tunnel across San Francisco Bay. The organization ended up fully backing Proposition 1A after the CHSRA decided not to locate a station in the undeveloped grasslands of Pacheco Pass.
"If you locate stations only in areas where there's already a high population density," Eaken says, "then high-speed rail can reverse the trend toward sprawl by encouraging even denser, mixed-use development around transit stations." Creating pedestrian-friendly urban communities where cars are not a necessity eliminates even more vehicle miles traveled-and the accompanying CO2??emissions-than high-speed trains do by themselves. People who live in "walkable" urban neighborhoods close to a variety of transportation options reap a number of green benefits: they drive 20 percent to 40 percent less and emit 20 percent to 30 percent less CO2??than those who live in "drivable" suburban areas.
Locating stations in midsize cities that have experienced economic decline-Eaken cites Merced, Fresno, and Modesto in California-can help reverse the downward trend by encouraging what urban planners call transit-oriented development. Denser development around high-speed rail stations will stimulate (and, by increasing the tax base, help pay for) improvements in local transit systems, and this will benefit people of all income levels, whether they ride a high-speed train or not.
?????????????????????????????? Arguments in favor of bringing true high-speed rail to the United States fell on deaf ears during George W. Bush's presidency. But the old prejudices against rail are losing ground. "There's a growing awareness that something has to happen other than building more and bigger roads and airports," says Scott Witt, rail office director for the Washington State Department of Transportation. "Passenger rail will be an increasingly important part of the mix."
There has never been a more propitious moment for a radical reshaping of U.S. transportation policy. As of press time, President Barack Obama is committed to jump-starting the economy with massive investments in public infrastructure. In his economic stimulus package, the initial round of infrastructure spending is focused on projects that can be tackled immediately-which means, in large measure, road and bridge projects that have already made their way through state engineering and approval pipelines. Green transportation initiatives such as mass-transit and high-speed rail projects were notably lacking in early drafts of the stimulus plan, but leaders of several environmental organizations, including NRDC president Frances Beinecke, have vowed to work with Congress and the Obama administration to remedy that omission.
The stimulus package isn't the only big opportunity to push transportation policy in a greener direction. At the end of September, the $286.4 billion transportation bill that became law in 2005 is set to expire. The act, grandly titled the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, is widely referred to by its acronym, SAFETEA-LU (pronounced "safety-loo"). The debate over a new bill will shift into high gear this summer. The old law was a colossal bouquet of earmarked projects (including Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere") that, despite its impressive price tag, failed to set out a coherent national transportation policy.
??This year's reauthorization of the transportation bill offers a chance to do much better: to set out a clear blueprint for a transportation network that meets ambitious goals regarding mobility, energy, climate change, and economic prosperity. "Re-auth," in wonk vernacular, is the opportunity of the decade to carve out a permanent place on the national agenda for high-speed rail.
For starters, rail advocates say, the Obama administration and Congress should make sure that California's high-speed rail system gets the $12 billion to $16 billion in federal financing that it needs to move ahead. In the current economic climate, this could prove challenging. But high-speed rail has some powerful friends on Capitol Hill. Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill in November-the High-Speed Rail for America Act-which would help finance the California project, make improvements to the Northeast Corridor, and encourage rail infrastructure projects elsewhere. The Kerry-Specter bill is now cued up to frame a bipartisan debate at this watershed moment for rail transportation.
Even if the California High-Speed Rail Authority cleared its remaining financing hurdles tomorrow, a decade will pass before the first of its trains shoots through the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, then up the Central Valley, veering west to Gilroy (Garlic Capital of the World) and up the peninsula flanking the bay to downtown San Francisco. I can imagine the journey: the TGV transplanted to a uniquely American
landscape. Instead of medieval hill towns, the scenery flashing by at unnatural speed will be sagebrush, wind farms, tomato and artichoke fields, Silicon Valley office parks, and the Pacific Ocean. The CHSRA logo reads "Fly California. Without ever leaving the ground." That's how it feels to ride the rails at 200 mph. You're flying, but at an altitude of less than 10 feet. Once a large number of Americans have experienced this way of getting around, the collective lightbulb will flash on. In millions of minds, the words will take shape: "Why didn't we have this before, all over the country?"
Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow
Since Japan opened its first high-speed rail line in 1964, superfast rail services have spread across Europe and Asia. But the U.S. government has taken a more conservative approach, appropriating small sums of money to help states make scattered improvements to existing rail lines. This fixer-upper approach is known as incremental high-speed rail. The Amtrak Acela Express, which runs between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., is its poster child.
The Department of Transportation has designated 10 new incremental high-speed rail corridors around the country, and as more federal funding becomes available, these will stand at the head of the receiving line.
The Southeast High-Speed Rail??corridor, known as SEHSR (pronounced "Caesar"), is a four-state project led by North Carolina's Department of Transportation (DOT). SEHSR is a grand design to extend the Northeast Corridor (the Acela's domain) 450 miles to the south, from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte, North Carolina, and eventually down to Atlanta and beyond. "The cost-benefit of the TGV-level, independent-right-of-way type facility just didn't pencil out for us," says Patrick Simmons, director of the North Carolina DOT rail division. "Our judgment was that we could get 90 percent of the benefit for 25 percent of the cost."
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative??(MRRI) has used the same reasoning. Since 1996 nine states have worked together to develop a 3,000-mile passenger rail network with Chicago as its hub, focusing mainly on upgrading existing rights-of-way that are shared with freight and commuter trains. The network includes several Amtrak routes, such as the popular Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee. The goal is up to 100-mile-per-hour passenger service on most routes, which would cut the 85-mile journey between Chicago and Milwaukee from 90 minutes to one hour. Plans for the MRRI are being coordinated with those of another proposed network, the Ohio Hub, which in turn will link with the Empire Corridor in New York State and the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania.
In the Pacific Northwest, another designated high-speed corridor runs from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and Portland. Since 1994 Washington State and Oregon have spent more than $300 million to improve service on this 467-mile route — home to the Amtrak Cascades service — by adding sidings and beefing up the safety of road crossings. They plan to spend $6 billion more in the next 14 years to upgrade track owned primarily by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
When fully upgraded, incrementally improved passenger rail lines have the potential to replace millions of car trips, relieving congestion and producing significant net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Still, with a top speed of 110 mph (half that of true high-speed trains) and average speeds of under 60 mph, they will rarely be time-competitive with airlines, and capacity growth will be hampered by the needs of the freight carriers that own the track. Most incrementally improved services use diesel engines and have no plans to convert to electrified operations. Hence, they cannot run on carbon-free energy from renewable sources such as wind- and solar-powered generators.
The main advantage of the incremental approach is that it costs less. Upgrading existing rights-of-way runs about $1 million to $10 million per mile, whereas building a 220 mph TGV-style system costs from $10 million to $45 million per mile. Still, advocates of true high-speed rail believe that in the long run, the incremental approach is not the bargain it appears to be. "If you've ridden on the Acela, you know that it's marginally better than the Metroliner, which is marginally better than what preceded it," says Chris Calwell of the energy efficiency consulting firm Ecos. "But a ticket to ride the Acela is significantly more expensive. Is the incremental improvement worth it? For lots of people, no. But if you build a TGV or Shinkansen type of service you can achieve an economy of scale and offer a much better service at a lower cost." Not to mention achieving reductions in fossil-fuel use and emissions that half-measures simply can't match.