Railroad stimulus: How to spend $14 billion to improve U.S. rail
(The following story by S.E. Kramer appeared on the Popular Mechanics website on April 9, 2009.)
High-speed rail has long been a dream to those looking for an outside fix for airline and car congestion. With stimulus spending, some money to start building those lines—$9.3 billion so far—is now available. The Federal Railroad Administration has not yet announced what sorts of projects it will prioritize when it allocates the funds, but according to Rob Kulat, a representative for the administration, many of its choices will depend on what the states want. States will submit proposals and the FRA doles out funding after evaluating them. The cash infusion is sparking an important debate among rail advocates all across the country—is it better to retrofit existing but slower lines to speeds of 120 mph, or to lay new, European-style high-speed tracks so that new trains can go twice as fast?
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is betting on high-speed rail. The Authority is planning to build an 800-mile steel-wheel bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This new line is designed to make train travel as convenient as airplane travel, says Quentin L. Kopp, chairman of the Authority. The state's plans were designed "in the context of California having 50 million people by the year 2030," Kopp says. "The equivalent of what the high-speed rail will deliver would require 3000 new miles of freeway plus nine runways and 90 new gates at airports."
While Amtrak could potentially upgrade the speeds of its existing California-based trains to 110 miles per hour (from a 79-mph average), at that speed they won't get travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2-1/2 hours—as fast as an airplane would if you count time for check-in, security and transport from airports to city centers. Still, the price for the bullet train line is far higher than all available funds from the stimulus. This project will need at least $27.5 billion ($12 billion to $16 billion in federal dollars, $9 billion from bonds raised by the state of California and $6.5 to $7.5 billion in private capital) just for the first phase—building track that will run from San Francisco to Anaheim (San Diego and Sacramento are not included in this phase). The total cost for the project is estimated to be between $40 billion and $45 billion.
This kind of hefty price tag has experts outside California thinking twice about a future American landscape full of high-speed trains. The U.S. doesn't need new 200-mph-train routes to divert passengers from airlines, says John Stilgoe, Harvard professor and author of Train Time. Stilgoe believes that there will be a huge resurgence in train travel in the next fifty years, without high-speed projects that require entirely new track to be laid down. His research models, based on real-world travel patterns, show that "a lot of people want to travel at [speeds no faster than] 100 miles an hour for distances up to 150 miles," he says. "Improving the current train infrastructure, and in some places really upgrading it (so there can be Acela trains between cities like Chicago and St. Louis or between San Francisco and L.A.) can be done with existing technology."
Cliff Black, Amtrak's head of communications agrees. "Absolute top speed is not as important as reduction in operating time," Black says. "An incremental speed improvement from 79 mph, which is our normal top speed outside the Northeast, to 110 mph will give us many hours of reduced running time over a broad spectrum of routes."
While Amtrak plans to spend most of the stimulus money earmarked for it specifically on projects that fix deteriorating infrastructure, such as replacing a 102-year-old drawbridge in Connecticut, it will use some of the funds to upgrade running times. For example, $60 million of Amtrak's $1.3 billion is dedicated to advanced signaling technology that will help minimize delays on routes between New York and Washington and between Indiana and Michigan.
While trains are expensive, so are roads, highways and airports—California's plan relies on the idea that investing in trains now could save money on other transportation infrastructure changes that it would otherwise need to make down the road. Other parts of the country, however, have dense networks of neglected railroads that need to be repaired and upgraded. The best solution for rail in the United States is not likely to be found in one technology—with bullet trains, maglevs or advanced signals winning out. The way trains have historically been successful is when they serve the transportation needs of local populations (see the Long Island Railroad, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad)—accommodating growth and competing with road traffic and local airlines.
Monday, April 13, 2009
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