Out of all the areas in the north west Portland to Seattle and even on up to Vancouver, British Columbia seem like a great corridor to run high speed rail (HSR). Obama has now pledged HSR for the country, on a massive scale. Obama’s plan, or support of the plan that has existed for years, is written up on The New York Times, US News, ABC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and well pretty much every news outlet on the planet. I decided I’d take a look at the map and give my two cents on the various lines.
This is an area where many train aficionados and I start to disagree. I am first and foremost pro-economically intelligent infrastructure. The economic viability is often more or just as important as how technologically capable and environmentally clean a resource is. High speed rail is definitely one of the top items in the list of options. It by far is superior to pretty much anything else available for distances of this sort. So let me lay into each section a bit.
Since I live in the north west, I’ll tackle that first. south of Portland is an absolute 100% waste of money economically. The density and number of people is just not available yet. Maybe in 30-40 years there might be reasonable density, but right now it is a mere pipe dream. If one where to read what I wrote back in October of 2006, “Market Demand Cascades Service – ROUGH DRAFT” I point out how things could be achieved through private company means, or at least with MINIMAL Government tax and spend. I threw in a bunch of non-high speed corridor service too, which is what would be ideal for the Eugene to Portland stretch of the corridor. Between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver (BC) high speed rail is almost ideal. Seattle definitely has the population, and Portland is most likely high enough to reasonable have high speed service between the cities. If we look at airline service between the cities there is the potential. However it would absolutely decimate air travel in that corridor. For this reason I’d be rather unhappy to see all those private sector jobs go away and be replaced with public sector jobs, which is what looks like would happen under the current plan.
In California I’ve written on that in the past too, and it is absolutely worth the money. If you’re curious about how far this effort is along, go check out the Interactive Rail Map on the www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov site.
Now the Texas corridors are completely whacked. There needs to be a triangle, not the weird connections to Little Rock and such. That’s just absurdly stupid, there isn’t enough people to put in a few cars let alone a high speed train service. The same, unfortunately goes for New Orleans being connected to anything. If New Orleans did get connected, it needs to be connected directly to Atlanta, and that city absolutely should be connected with the north east, DC, etc. Florida on the other hand may be able to use HSR, but it is highly unlikely at this juncture. Maybe in 20-30 years in might be validated. The only place that seems to have the density is Miami. Tampa probably wouldn’t bode so well, Orlando is a sprawling catastrophe of a city, which would probably garner a very low ridership. Jacksonville and Miami however, if connected along the FEC corridor, would be ideal. Those cities are cities that would do business and actually have decent passenger counts if for any other reason because they could be connected to the north east, and the north east would provide a large passenger count.
One of the other stretches I’m hard pressed to support is the stretch out to Kansas City. My response to that is simply, “you have got to be kidding”. Does KC even have a million people in the city yet? Maybe in the metropolitan area? St Louis absolutely, just because it would be reasonable and easily used service into and out of Chicago.
To really summarize, it amounts to this. Expand the north east corridor down in North Carolina and into Georgia to connect Atlanta. Expand it another way straight down toward Jacksonville, Florida and on down to Miami. Forget all that snaking back and forth though. I wouldn’t even mess with trying to connect South Carolina’s capital. Create a regular slower speed service to the HSR service would be a better idea. Otherwise it isn’t worth the time cost for the meager ridership it would provide. Besides that northern and eastern stretches absolutely get Chicago connected to the surrounding cities. Cali & the north west, as mentioned, should be connected minus Eugene.
So that’s my 2 cents on the various sections. Now for some other thoughts…
New Sprawling Expanses
Would high speed rail enable more sprawl further from cities? What would it do to the core of cities? Transit system in urban areas help keep a city compact and more human oriented instead of pavement and auto oriented. The key to keeping sprawl in check is to create real and honest town centers around these train stations that have real and viable urban transit. If they’re nothing but massive park and ride stops like airports are, we’ll have absolutely zero positive impact from high speed rail. If we don’t build intelligently around these centers, there is zero reason to build high speed rail and the money would be better spent increasing airport throughput and building new airports. That might sound sickening to some, or awesome to others, but it is the simple fact. The high speed rail lines can NOT be park and ride type stations.
So what about all the other areas of the country? Considering that the VAST majority of riders and payments would be retrieved from citizens in the areas connected, really the whole “don’t tax me” complaint is moot. On that note I’m stepping right into what a more valid issue might be. What about all those unconnected areas? Denver? Phoenix? I’d say the later might not be a valid place to live by the time high speed rail arrives, but regardless, it’s still a curious thought to wonder what would happen to these cities if these others receive high speed rail service. Just the mere connection of these cities with HSR and the decreased necessity to drive while experiencing a much more comfortable, safe, and economically and environmentally reasonable choice of travel will make a huge impact. But these other bustling cities will all of a sudden become even more of a haven for anti-urban, pro-sprawl, pro-acre lot houses that the drain on the surrounding land, surrou
nding cities (that may be 100s of miles away) could be horrifying detrimental. If this system starts to be built, we shall see I suppose.
Another thing that is not mentioned in very many of the write ups is the fact that this isn’t going to be built with the $8,000,000,000 or $13,000,000,000 dollars that has been made available. The real cost of a network like what is shown is probably a lot closer to $1,000,000,000,000 (That’s 1 trillion btw). The original rail system of over 225k miles was built primarily by the private industry and privately funded, cost over $12,000,000,000 in today’s dollars and did NOT have the inefficiencies or lackluster investment of public dollars. A few of the transcontinental lines got some tax dollars, but even that was of negligible help in the grand scheme of things. There is a historically relevant item to measure here, what we got for private money is absolutely different than what we get for public money. The public money buys less, provides lower service, and will probably become a boondoggle as the motive interests of people working under the public funding regime are absolutely not motivated as private funding regimes. Operations of course become and entirely new topic, but of similar issue to this cost concern. Amtrak if run under the same funding, staffing, and employee efficiencies of Virgin Rail (yeah, I’m using them as an example again) would be profitable (yeah profitable) to the tune of $50-300 Million per year! That’s more than enough money to start paying on the needed repairs that the passenger system needs, and to start purchasing equipment for increased and more frequent service. Instead though, it maintains a public funding stance and is by all means, a very poor service by any measure against buses or airlines in this country. Both of the later receive vastly lower subsidies than Amtrak.
I think it is a grand and good idea. I however think there are major and very possible barriers to this getting built. There has to be more private interest and more prospective private funding and investments by are cities and people. I’ll put it simply, without a drastic increase in private input by citizens and especially companies for financing and operations this is truly a non-starter. Looking at the 30+ years of Amtrak operations and such lead me to see that high speed rail without these things would be the most expensive and costly form of transportation America has ever alighted upon. As I’ve said, America NEEDS and should WANT high speed rail, but we should do it in a truly American way and make sure that it is funded, operated, and properly implemented to meet actual and necessary market demand. Otherwise, it is mere fool’s folly to even dream of such a thing.
So far though, Obama seems to be no fool, and is prepared to encourage and push for this private involvement that I make mention of. In that vein, hats of Mr. President, and keep up the good work.