Archive for March, 2009

In Love With the Concept of Trains

March 13, 2009

Intercity passenger trains are being talked about a lot in the public square these days thanks to the $8 billion allocated by the economic stimulus bill toward the development of high-speed rail. Newspaper editorials and pundits of every kind have been hailing high-speed rail.

Sure, there have been a few dissenting points of view. There always are and always will be. Not everyone loves trains or is convinced of their value as a means of transportation. But mainly the critics are focusing on the price tag of developing a high-speed rail system. It’s a legitimate concern and should be talked about. What are we getting for all of that money and do we need it?

Supporters cite rising congestion of the nation’s highways and airways. Long-time passenger train advocates like to talk about the need for a balanced transportation system. Inevitably they make comparisons between the United States, which has very little high-
speed rail, and Western Europe and Japan, which not only have plenty of it, but have systems that are reliable and operate with a high level of service.

Yet if you read the editorials carefully, listen to the speeches, and think about what people are saying about high-speed rail, it become apparent that they are in love with the concept with rail passenger service without having much knowledge of what it will take to make those dreams a reality. This is true with President Barack Obama, who sees development of high-speed rail as a legacy to leave behind after he leaves office. Like so many others, Obama sees the type of high-speed rail systems that exist elsewhere and wonders why the United States can’t have that.

The short answer is that this country could have that type of rail service. Yet it is doubtful that Obama or the pundits, or the editorial writers or even many rail passenger advocates comprehend what it will take to translate love of the concept of passenger rail into a
concrete system complete with trains, stations and high-speed tracks. Yes, they say they know it will be expensive. But do they understand how expensive?

Everyone says that a high-speed route ought to link Chicago and Indianapolis. But it is one thing to say this route is a natural and another to make it happen. Amtrak trains between the two cities now follow a slow, zig-zag route that involves five railroads. The scheduled travel time between Indy and Chicago is five hours.

 It may not be practical to upgrade this route for 100-mph operation or even 90-mph speeds. Another route likely would need to be created. Imagine the NIMBY opposition that is sure to come when plans are announced to put down tracks where there are none now. Imagine the outrage from some when they see the millions, even billions, it will take to cut a couple of hours off the travel time between the two cities.

Most policymakers understand that European-style high-speed rail systems will require dedicated tracks that will be very expensive to build. It remains to be seen whether policymakers have the political will to support the appropriations bills needed to pay for those tracks and the legal battles that NIMBYs are sure to launch to stop them. Those numbers are sure to make Obama and other lawmakers recoil in horror.

At some point, policymakers in France, England, Spain, Germany and Japan, among other countries, must have had similar moments. Development of the European and Japanese systems began decades ago when construction costs were lower, but the costs still must have been relatively high. What convinced them to press ahead? Is the political culture of Europe and Japan that much different from the United States when it comes to transportation development? Yes, it is.

Thus, step one is going to be transforming the political culture in this country. That means having to engage in a long fight. Rail passenger advocates have been urging such a cultural transformation for years, but sympathetic lawmakers have been unwilling to engage in much more than a battle of words. In that battle, everyone says they love
passenger trains. But few are willing to pay for them.

In the movie Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee is portrayed as discussing with General James Longstreet the cost of war. It was on the second day of battle and Lee understood that his army was going to suffer heavy casualties.

“The soldier has one great trap,” Lee told Longstreet. “To be a good solider you must love the Army. To be a good commander you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. We do not fear our own deaths, you and I, but there comes a time when we are not prepared for so many to die … We are prepared to lose some of us but we are never prepared to lose all of us – and there is the great trap. When you attack, you must hold nothing back. You must commit yourself totally.”

The Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg and subsequently the war, but Lee’s point was still valid. If he wanted to win a battle and ultimately win a war, he needed to look past the inevitable human suffering and misery. It wasn’t that Lee was callous. He just understood the cost of winning did not come easily.

No one is going to lose their life or suffer a debilitating injury in the struggle to bring about better intercity rail passenger service. But make no mistake that it is going to be a struggle, a long struggle.

No one likes to talk about it, but the cost of building a high-speed rail system in this country is going to be lost opportunities to do something else with that money. Many rail advocates might say, “it’s about time” and cite how many billions federal and state governments have spent building highways and airport runways. Fair enough, but the lawmakers who vote on spending bills don’t look at it that way. Nor will the pundits and editorial writers now calling for high-speed rail systems in this country. Those same folks at some point are going to rail against the cost of rail.

The stimulus package was at best a down payment. Much higher bills lie down the road, which is one reason why lawmakers have dodged the cost of rail development for so long. Lawmakers say they favor better rail systems, but will they still be in love with rail when they learn its cost? It is easy to be in love with the concept of better intercity railroad passenger systems. But if this country is going to have better intercity railroad passenger systems, it is going to take money, yes, but first it will take commitment. How many love affairs have fallen apart when commitment time came?

Speed, Glorious Speed

March 11, 2009

The $8 billion allocated to the development of high-speed intercity passenger rail service that was slipped into the economic stimulus bill at the behest of the Obama administration has many dreaming of fast passenger trains. What some have in mind are the type of swift and reliable trains cruising at triple digit speeds that travelers have long enjoyed in Western Europe and Japan.

The quest for faster passenger trains is as old as rail transportation itself. It may be hard to fathom today, but railroads of the middle 19th century were slow and dangerous. Trains could run 15 miles per hour, which some in that era considered reckless or contrary to
how God intended man to travel. But rail travel was faster than walking, riding on horseback, traveling in a horse-drawn wagon or going by boat. Despite the qualms of some about speed, travelers and shippers wanted faster trains. By the 1850s trains were capable of 30 mph.

In the late 19th century, a wave of mergers and consolidations created a network of trunk railroads and competitive pressures prompted them to speed up their passenger trains. I say some of them because for all of the attention paid to the “limiteds” of that era with their opulent coaches, sleeping cars and diners, most trains continued to move rather slowly in terms of trip time.

The development of the air brake helped make faster speeds possible, 60 mph or better. But among the other measures implemented to speed things up were better roadbeds and track, signaling systems and making fewer stops en route, hence the name “limited,” as in
limited stops. The public loved it. News accounts of the late 19th century and early 20th century were replete with such descriptions as fastest schedule yet.

In those days railroads used speed to attract long-distance travelers. Personifying this was the celebrated 1902 launch of a pair of speedsters between New York and Chicago. The Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad and the Broadway Limited
of the Pennsylvania Railroad made the 900-mile trip in 24 hours. Eventually this would fall to 16 hours. These trains captivated the public imagination and defined rail travel.
Railroads had speed limits that engineers were to adhere to, but it was common for management to look the other way when engineers exceeded them to make up lost time. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The legendary Casey Jones was trying to
make up lost time when his train struck the rear of another train in Mississippi in April 1900. Jones died in the accident, but no one else did, largely due to Jones trying to stop his train until the bitter end.

In the 1930s railroads began another effort to speed up their passenger trains, this time to win back passengers lost to airlines, buses and the private automobile. Railroads introduced streamlined passengers trains, some of which were pulled by internal combustion locomotives. These new trains were lighter and able to operate at speeds of 80 to 90 mph while other trains were held to 70 to 80 mph.

During World War II, the government forced the railroads to slow their trains to conserve fuel and for safety reasons due to the heavy volume of war-induced rail traffic. Following the war, the speed restrictions were lifted and many railroads increased the speed limits
for passenger trains.

Then the government stepped in again to slow the trains. The Interstate Commerce Commission in 1947 mandated a top speed of 79 unless the track was equipped with an automatic train stop, automatic train control or a continuous cab signal system. Most
railroad routes lacked this and railroads were not inclined to spend the millions needed to install such an apparatus.

By the late 1950s, many railroads had lost their enthusiasm for passenger trains. Making them run faster was no longer a priority or even a goal. In some places, trains ran slower because financially pressed railroads cut costs by skimping on track maintenance, if not
skipping it altogether. The safety systems that some railroads had installed following the ICC order of 1947 gradually were removed on many lines.

The mid-1960s saw the emergence of a new push for high-speed passenger trains, this time originating within the government. The result was the development of the electrically powered Metroliner between New York and Washington, and the ill-fated Turbo train between Boston and New York. Unlike earlier movements to speed up passenger trains, the idea now was to attract short distance passengers traveling between urban centers.

For much of the Amtrak era, the issue has been less about how fast do the trains go, but whether they operate on time. In some instances, railroads have demanded, and gotten, Amtrak permission to increase the travel time in the name of better on-time performance. While some Amtrak trains in the northeast corridor hit 150 mph, Amtrak trains elsewhere seldom top 79 mph, if that.

Now another push is originating within the government to speed up passenger trains. Actually, this movement is not new. There have been numerous proposals for high-speed rail corridors since the 1970s, but aside from appropriating money for studies, Congress
has never approved the kind of big bucks that it would take to develop these corridors. The $8 billion of the stimulus package notwithstanding, it still hasn’t.

What does this short history of the quest for high-speed rail mean for today’s developments? For one thing it offers a cautionary tale. The efforts of the 1960s to develop high-speed passenger rail failed to spread beyond the northeast corridor. There are many reasons for this, but the list starts with the fact that the freight railroads that own
the tracks “out there” saw no need for the kind of blazing speed that the planners and policy makers had in mind.

Much of the quest for speed over the years had come from within the railroads, first in an effort to remain competitive, and then in an effort to compete with other modes of travel. Finally, the railroads decided they didn’t want to compete with those other modes of
travel and gave up on rail passenger service, fast or otherwise.

The latest attempt to develop high-speed passenger trains comes from outside the railroad industry. Interestingly, those who support the push for high-speed rail argue that highway and air travel have become too congested. Hence, they argue that we need fast passenger trains. In fairness, not everyone who advocates expanded intercity rail passenger service is saying that we need 100 plus mile per hour passenger trains. But speed is never far from the discussion and it is what attracted President Obama to the cause.

Yet aside from a few stretches here and there, most of the routes identified as future high-speed rail corridors involve tracks owned by freight railroads. The new fast trains are either going to have to use those tracks or there will need to be built dedicated high-speed
passenger tracks.

Coal, grain, chemicals, or even trailers and containers do not need to move at triple digit speeds on the open road. Indeed railroads have reoriented themselves when it comes to the concept of speed. The culture of haste that motivated railroads to think of moving trains over the road as fast as possible has given way to way new ways of thinking about how to provide reliable and efficient service. It is not that speed doesn’t figure into the equation, just that it does not in the way that it once did when moving passengers was part of the railroad’s business plan. And for most railroads, moving people at any speed is still not in their long-range plans.