High-Speed Rail: A Conservative Appraisal

October 14, 2013 by
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Below is an excerpt, please click this link to download the full document of the paper.
High-Speed Rail: A Conservative Appraisal

By Glen D. Bottoms and William S. Lind

In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed building a national system of high-speed passenger trains, a network dense enough to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail. The President’s proposal began a healthy debate on whether high-speed rail was desirable or practical in this country,

Is it desirable? Yes. Is it practical? No, at least not the way the Obama administration may want to go about creating it.

In this study, we will propose a conservative alternative to high-speed rail, an alternative that is both desirable and practical: higher-speed rail. What is the difference? Higher-speed rail focuses not on top speed, which is expensive, but on average speed and travel time. It grows incrementally, rather than being created out of nothing at vast cost. Its goal is to provide people a desirable alternative to driving, not to compete with the airplane.

What is high-speed rail? The generally-agreed international definition is electrically-powered passenger trains running mostly on dedicated tracks that attain a top speed of at least 250 kilometers per hour, which is roughly 150 mph. The first such line in the world was Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen (literally New Trunk Line) connecting Tokyo with Osaka, which opened in 1964. The Tokaido Shinkansen, which today carries 386,000 people daily, has never had a fatal accident. Now running at a top speed of 180 mph (300 kph) and covering the 320 miles between its end points (Tokyo-Osaka) in 2 hours and 25 minutes, the Shinkansen has been successful in every respect, including financially. Not only does it make an operating profit, it has earned enough to pay its original construction costs in full.

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2 Responses to “High-Speed Rail: A Conservative Appraisal”

  1. Claude says:

    I’m almost ready to let them shut down the passenger trains completely after reading this, since the opponents want to close them all and the supporters want some small timid approach to trains that keeps them down in a quaintly useless condition. There’s something charming about slowly cruising across the landscape, but that’s not serious transportation.
    In 1806 Thomas Jefferson didn’t decide to cut a narrow wagon trail out of Cumberland, MD to the next town and slowly make incremental improvements. We built a paved road to Wheeling, WV. and then extended it all the way to Illinois.
    As you might guess, there are some points where I disagree with the article. The first would be the claim that high speed rail needs a dense network of existing rail. Airlines don’t depend on a dense network of local airlines to operate; they depend on passengers. High speed rail needs a high traffic corridor, and America has several of those waiting to be exploited. Enough for a skeletal national system along both coasts and through the southern tier of states.
    I do agree that we should advance in stages, but the goal should not be to make tiny improvements around the edges, but to keep moving toward the highest speeds practical. Serious transportation rather than refining the current national heritage rail system. First clean up the bottle necks that slow the trains down then move to 110 mph service, then diesel-electric multiple units cruising at 125 mph. LA to Central Texas shouldn’t take more than 20 hours if trains are to be a practical part of our transportation system. Twelve hours is better.
    California wasn’t a pharaoh declaring that we would have HSR. A proposal was offered and the people of the state voted for it. In stead of carping about how foolish the people doing the work are for not doing it the way the spectators would recommend, it would have been better to be in the fray at the beginning pushing for the stages that give the voters what they ask for at the best price. Single track rails running fast DMUs over the passes and double tracking as the traffic increases, then tunneling when the demand justifies it. We could have the whole San Diego to Redding service running by 2020 and be well on our way to full California Shinkansen status.
    The odds are, the California Shinkansen will be finished, at least LA to Frisco. This will almost exactly duplicate the Sanyo line, without a 19 mile tunnel under the ocean. If so the CalShin probably won’t be alone. I haven’t heard what the latest news is on the Texas T-Bone, but the Central Texas line between Houston and DFW looks like it will be completed, especially if the developer gets SouthWest to come in as a partner. If they succeed and if you succeed in killing CalShin, then the first bullet train in America will be built by JR Central. Apparently Americans don’t have the boldness to do great things anymore.
    Although they do seem to have enough vision left to dream of slowly edging up to the 20th century someday.

  2. Mark says:

    I agree with the incremental approach outlined in this paper, but have to disagree with the characterization of the Obama Administration’s approach as Pharonic. The President’s lofty vision, as refined by the DOT FRA states:

    “FRA has strategically invested in 5 mega-regions (Seattle-Portland, San Francisco-Los Angeles, Charlotte-Raleigh-DC, Midwest hub, and Northeast Corridor) that hold some 65 percent of our population and that stand to absorb the bulk of future population growth. FRA, in partnership with states across the U.S. and the District of Columbia, is currently laying the foundation for high-speed rail corridors to link Americans with faster and more energy-efficient travel options. The Department of Transportation is working with states to plan and develop high-speed and intercity passenger rail corridors that range from upgrades to existing services to entirely new rail lines exclusively devoted to 150 to 220 mph trains.

    FRA has taken a market-based approach that reflects the differing needs and characteristics of corridors throughout the nation. This is being done through a three-tiered passenger rail strategy:

    Core Express services frequent trains at 125-250+mph in the nation’s densest and most populous regions;
    Regional services service (90-125mph) between mid-sized and large cities; and
    Emerging services (up to 90mph) connecting communities to the passenger rail network and providing a foundation for future corridor development.”

    Which seems substantially similar to the approach outlined in this paper. In reality, there’s not much separating the Administration’s DOT proposal from this conservative one. There should be enough common ground to hammer out a compromise and move the project forward. Transportation is far too important to continue to engage in infantile politics that once a proposal is infected with “Obama cooties” it becomes unacceptable to the other side irregardless of the substantially similar proposals.

    In my opinion, though President Obama has made a wide range of critical blunders, credit where credit is due, this is one of the few policy positions he got right.

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