Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why is the US Falling Behind on Transportation?

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

I still haven't forgiven Tom Friedman for his continued cheerleading of the Iraq War. But every once in a while he strolls back into reality and today's column is no exception. In it, he argues that the primary concern in most Americans' minds is the desire for "nation-building" here in the USA - a sense that our country has fallen behind the rest of the world, teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. The sorry state of our rail transportation figures into his thinking:

If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

That's a stunning statement. The US "won" World War II but 60 years later, the rest of the world is passing us by while we sit here stuck with a 1940s vision of the world and of our country. It was in the late 1940s when America's rail network began to decline and over the next two decades it collapsed, its loss lamented by few. Americans deluded themselves into thinking that their postwar prosperity was endless, especially the cheap oil and cheap cars that went along with it. We invested hundreds of billions of dollars in freeways while Germany, France, and Japan invested tens of billions in rail.

The 1970s should have served as a wakeup call, but Reagan came along and told Americans that if you didn't admit there were problems, then there would be no problems. Ignorance was bliss. Cheap oil returned, if only for a short while, and the initial investments in rail made during the '70s were either scaled back or dramatically limited. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Americans began to ironically repeat its fate - hardening into a Brezhnev-like denial of the need to change the way things were done, convinced that the easy global dominance of a society built on cheap oil would last forever.

Here in 2008 it is impossible to continue that charade. 8 years of relentless gas price hikes have proved once and for all that the era of cheap oil is over. And the stagnant economy shows that the era of prosperity that accompanied that cheap oil is vanishing too - unless we accept reality and admit the need to change. Automobiles and roads will continue to exist, but it is time we stopped making them the center of our transportation network. Rail, as Barack Obama explained, is a necessary component of our country's future.

So why do we lack the will to build HSR even as it booms around the world, as Agence-France Press asks?

Amtrak says lack of political will -- as well as Americans' fierce devotion to privately held land -- could doom such projects.

"Private property is sacred in the United States and it's very difficult to impose eminent domain to acquire property to build highways and high-speed rail," Black told AFP.

"And if you don't have the political will, it's a moot point."...

This year the US Department of Transportation set aside 30 million dollars in matching federal funds for state or local rail projects. By comparison the government budgeted 39.4 billion dollars in federal aid for the highway system.

I would argue that we have political will in the US - the will to cling to obsolete assumptions of how our transportation system can work even in the face of mounting evidence that our priorities must change. The critics of HSR never provide an alternative to our dependence on expensive oil - they deny that anything has changed. To them it is forever 1970. They'll freak out about $10 billion for HSR but never acknowledge the far larger costs of doing nothing.

California can change that. California can provide the political will and the leadership that this country so desperately needs. If we approve the $10 billion HSR bond this November we will show Americans that we really can tackle the challenges of the 21st century, instead of pretending that the 20th century never ended.


Anonymous said...

European countries have indeed invested many billions in rail since they started at virtually zero after WW2. Indeed, they have invested heavily in transport infrastructure generally and, continue to do so within the TEN-T framework.

What no European country has done is maintain standing professional armed forces that are simultaneously large, extremely well equipped and superbly prepared - at least for combat in far-away lands.

After the Cold War was over, many thought that a new American Century had dawned. In truth, the interests of the US and her allies have slowly diverged ever since, as have the methods for achieving them. The US wants the rest of the world to follow its lead in spreading political liberty in the Middle East, by force if need be. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is quietly getting on with getting richer and safer via mutually dependent trade.

Today, the regular Pentagon budget stands at $515 billion, on top of a rapidly accelerating run rate of $2 billion/week for the war in Iraq. Defense contractors must think they have died and gone to pork barrel heaven.

Small wonder then that comparatively cheap transportation infrastructure projects are considered low priority: political campaign contributions are roughly proportional to the sums Congress appropriates. Naturally, this leads to rampant inflation in media buys - principally TV - with every election cycle.

Nothing will change until and unless US voters realize just how corrosive the crass commercialization of its election processes has become. You can have 30-second attack ads or, a high-quality infrastructure (e.g. HSR) for your economy - but not both, even if you could afford it.

Anonymous said...

9 min video showing the genesis of the 700T high speed rail trainsets for Taiwan. Note how leaders and people there consider their HSR system a proud symbol of their modern nation.

Anonymous said...

By contrast to the national-level project Taiwan, the development of HSR in the US is hamstrung by local politics, e.g. in the case of Franklin, NC. Running HSR tracks along old rights of way through the middle of small towns that will not be served invites NIMBYism.

However, there is a silver lining: the mayor of a neighboring town appreciates the grade separation a Southeast HSR Corridor would bring to traffic and air quality on his Main Street.

Anonymous said...

In London, high speed rail has led to an GBP 800 million improvement in St. Pancras International station. UK politicians now focus on the low carbon footprint of HSR, a far cry from the europhobic crowd that tried to prevent the construction of the Channel Tunnel back in the Eighties.

Ridership and profits have both jumped since the refurbished station was opened.

Commuters appreciate how the investments has improved the quality of regional rail service. Connecting services matter a lot, but so do the wider platforms, elevators and other architectural features. Good station design makes riding a train something you actually want to do.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cruickshank, I commend you on your eloquence and skill in writing, even as I disagree with your premises and contentions.

“The critics of HSR never provide an alternative to our dependence on expensive oil. . .”

To meet your challenge, my first suggestion is electric, or hydrogen powered cars.
You yourself acknowledge, “Automobiles and roads will continue to exist. . .”
Then let us take the predominant transit mode for most Americans and reduce, and eventually eliminate, their oil dependence.

Furthermore, I for one am not opposed to all high speed trains. Just this one. Back to that in a moment. I am very much in favor of rail freight. Taking huge Diesel trucks off the road as soon as possible, as much as possible, is a first rate idea, especially since rail freight transit is already profitable. Inter-city passenger rail in the US has always been a “loss leader” for the rail industry and this fancy train will not be any different.

Converting our air carrier system to far greater fuel efficiency, already technically feasible and in production is another step toward fuel efficiency. This topic can be expanded hugely but this is not the place for that.

This high-speed train, the one you so passionately advocate is wrong not because it is a high speed train, but because it is the wrong tool for the wrong job. California is in desperate need of mass transit. I assume you and I agree. But a north-south fancy train is the bottom of the needs list, while urban and regional multi-modal transit networks are at the top of the priority list. And, I mean in the two major population regions of the state, not an expensive train ride between them. In other words, it’s a very lousy way to spend what will be as much as $100 billion (not the often-claimed $40 billion). By the way, with as much reading as you have done, you should know even better than I what the real development costs will be, not what Kopp and Diridon tell you to believe. And saying that such costs, no matter how high, are justified, is social engineering approaching authoritarianism.

One final point. Japan is always used as the paradigmatic prototype (Obama included). The Shinkansen connects metropolitan Tokyo, population 38 million, with metropolitan Osaka, population 17 million. It therefore becomes a commuter train, but again, for the “salarymen” with their laptops and ability to pay the high fares. Like Europe, Japan did not emerge as an automobile culture. With their extremely high population densities, Europe and Japan already had a well-established rail system in place, to which adding high speed was icing on the cake. We have no cake. And what you are asking for now, with this particular train, is icing!

One final question, Mr. Cruickshank. Have you read the history of the political process
involving Mr. Morshed, Diridon and Kopp in pursuing the state’s involvement in the train bond issue? If you wish, I can give you some illuminating sources.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Ah, I was wondering when you'd return. I saw you left a similar comment over at the California Progress Report.

There are two major problems with electric and hydrogen cars. The first is technological - hydrogen cars are far from ready for prime time. That leaves eletrics. How are we going to power all those cars? Wouldn't HSR be a more efficient use of the available electricity (especially considering that over the next two decades we need to reduce our electricity consumption to deal with both peak oil and global warming?)

Also, even if the environmental and energy issues don't materialize (and you HSR opponents never admit the reality of both problems), shifting to electric cars simply means more cars on the roads. Which brings us back to the congestion issue - expanding roads to handle that load will cost at least $40 billion just for Southern California alone.

As to air travel - fuel efficient airplanes are a holy grail for that industry but they have yet to materialize. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner has experienced ongoing delays related to the fuel-efficient design, causing it to be overbudget and overdue. Even if fuel efficient planes are created, they WILL still rely on oil - they can't run on alt fuels. Which means sooner or later they're going to be hit with a crisis. Scroll a few posts back on the blog and you'll see that the crisis appears to be hitting sooner.

As to this HSR project, you're either being disingenuous or dishonest when you say this train won't help commuters. It will provide high speed travel connecting the entire Caltrain corridor from Gilroy to SF. It will do the same for the heavily-traveled CA-14 and I-5 corridor from LA's northern burbs into the city center. It will help commuters coming from the Inland Empire and Orange County get to LA.

You have no evidence or logic to back up the $100 billion claim. You pulled that number out of the air. Yes, inflation of construction materials and the devaluation of the US dollar WILL make the final price tag for HSR higher than $40 billion. But it might not be as high as $100 billion, and of course your argument totally ignores the far higher cost of not building HSR.

European HSR lines aren't "loss leaders" - they all generate profit. They are used by business travelers, average folks, and tourists alike. Here again your basic assumptions and evidence have proved to be flawed.

Finally, you have it in your head that I'm either a messenger from or responsible for Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon. I've never met either one, never communicated with them or anyone at the CHSRA, and don't much care about their motivations. You have a hard time accepting that Californians such as myself have applied their reason to this project and support it wholeheartedly.

PS: It's kind of silly to start a website that doesn't allow comments or even provide email addresses for its proprietors. This isn't 1995.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we need an ALTERNATIVE of transportation other than the car and plane for traveling throughout the state. I get so tired of the same person calling this a boondoggle on every forum possible, under different names to boot.

This project is not meant to replace the car or plane, but to have other choices. And people seem to forget how many jobs this will create at a time when the state could use more. The best way to help/stimulate a state economy is to have state spending. Why not kill two birds with one stone (instead of sending rebate checks to millions, create jobs with the spending on infrastructure). Everyone remember FDR's "New Deal" during the depression? ( I am 33, didn't live through it, but understand it)

We need this HSR project, even if it goes over budget. But lets not forget, when private investors participate and invest billions of dollars for a project like this, they will expect a return on their money. In return, they keep the pork barrel spending in check and try to keep it within the budget plan. If people try hard enough, it can be done.

Don't get me wrong, I love cars and love having the option to go out and burn gas when I feel fit, BUT, I also believe we need more alternatives. I personally would be willing to pay more gas taxes for more alternatives, such a high speed trains and this train is something we need.

Vote yes in November!!! It's time for alternatives.

Anonymous said...


DB said...

The AFP article you link to does not even tell the half of it -- "213" miles in two hours and 15 minutes does not give enough credit to what the Chunnel has done.

Geography forces the train to go northeast to Lille, and then take a 90 degree turn to the west. After all, a straight line between London and Paris crosses a wide part of the Channel and would have required something close to a 100 mile tunnel. The actual distance on the train line is about 300 miles. That's right, they're averaging 140mph including the stops and including the slow down to make the Chunnel.

bmfarley said...

I have never been accused of being narrow-minded or short-sighted, but I have yet to hear a credible argument against HSR that would merit reconsideration, let alone shelving the project.

- still cheaper than alternatives
- still cleaner than other modes
- still faster than other modes

Additionally, it offers economic stimulus and greater flexibity of travel.

Robert said...

Speaking of the US falling behind, check out this story from the UK's Independent from April 11th describing the historic boom on the railways that has taken place since 1994.

Passenger miles have surpassed 30 billion, rising 67% from 1994 levels. And there have been 13 consecutive years of growth. Toward the end of the article they discuss how the network is being so heavily used, that prices are starting to rise faster than inflation, and how the network will need to be expanded. A problem we here in California would surely love to have once our system gets built. So many people riding the trains that they need to add more train sets and expand the network. That would sure make the critics look foolish.

There is also a wonderful graph that shows rail miles traveled every year since the first train appeared in 1829, for those that are more visually oriented. Looking at that graph for 20 seconds makes you realize the degree to which train travel is starting to replace plane travel in areas where the two compete.

Other Robert

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

My problem with cars is that they still cause land use patterns that waste space and resources. You can put lipstick on a pig...

Anonymous said...

@anon on May 4 7:51pm -

HSR does not preclude improvements in regional rail services. In fact, the ballot initiative reserves some $950 million for improving it, as it represent the feeder infrastructure that will make the HSR network useful for those who don't live or work in the immediate vicinity of one of its stations. Indeed, in the wake of the Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass discussion, CHSRA is proposing an commuter rail overlay structure linking Stockton and Modesto to Oakland and San Jose - though this idea needs to be fleshed out.

And even that is really just one piece of the puzzle, as individual counties currently without passenger rail service (e.g. San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz) will have an incentive to re-activate old lines and rights of way.

The proposed SMART service in Marin & Sonoma counties would initially rely on connecting bus or ferry services to get passengers to San Francisco Transbay Terminal, but there is the option of adding a line from Novato to Sonoma town and on to Sacramento and Oakland.

Existing regional passenger rail services that will share corridors with HSR (Caltrain, Metrolink, North County Coaster south of University City) should benefit from the upgrades that come with it: electrification, full grade separation, modern signaling, nice stations, improved metro/bus connections, improved bicycle access/storage and broadband internet access corridors.

Selected regional rail upgrades are already happening without HSR, but it that project accelerates the process by adding state and federal funding - in addition to delivering an environmentally benign alternative to long-distance car journeys and short-hop flights.

Anonymous said...

Wow, check out the new fixed up CA HSR authority website

Robert said...

Anonymous is correct when he points out that there will always be cars, but simply changing their source of fuel from oil to electric doesn't address the congestion problem as Robert points out later.

I have no problem with the concept of switching the fuel source for cars from gas to electric, I'm all for it. But this shouldn't be done instead of HSR but in addition to it. You have absolutely got to get fewer cars on the road because sitting around in congestion is a great waste of peoples time. It is going to be expensive enough to maintain the current interstate highway system for the foreseeable future, let alone constantly trying to expand it because of the growing population. I see the HSR system, and mass transit in general, as a way to provide a much needed and more sustainable alternative to cars and planes.

Concerning car culture in general... A lot of people who are against HSR bring up the idea of the "American Car Culture". This is the idea that here in the US, we grew up aspiring to all have our own vehicles, because they offer great individual personal travel freedom, and thats what our fathers had. This is very true, but from a historical perspective, it has all come about in only the last 50 years or so, as described by many posters both here and at the "Oil Drum" blog. Great blog there BTW. Here is the thing though, deeply ingrained behaviors like this can be changed over time.

Let me give a couple examples from my own life, and everyone over the age of 30 could probably provide a similar kind of example. I'm 47, and when I was growing up in the Midwest, nobody ever thought of wearing a seatbelt. Once I started wearing them after moving to California, I feel completely naked if I don't have one on. Recycling is another behavior change. Once you start recycling, it seems like such a complete waste to not do it given the small effort required. Now it abhors me to see people throwing away cans or bottles in the trash stream. Granted, automobile use is a much bigger issue than either of the things that I mentioned, and would require a much greater sacrifice in terms of quality of life than would be required to simply take a few minutes a week to recycle things.

But, the important thing to keep in mind in that regard is that the goal is not to force 100% of the population to give up their cars and start taking transit. The goal is to provide a viable and worthy alternative so that those choosing to do so can do it if they want, and by doing so they reduce the demands on the infrastructure (roads) and resources (oil) that are going to be in ever shorter supply. You just have to provide the right conditions (HSR, transit), and the gradual switch over time will take care of itself. See my earlier post concerning the soaring use of rail in the UK.

In my mind, there is no doubt that HSR is coming. It's just a question of when. The longer we wait the more it is going to cost. People are getting so fed up with traffic, airport delays and the never ending gas cost increases that I really believe we will pass it this year. If it fails, then it will surely be revisited in 2010 when gas hits $6 per gallon for the first time, and the elusive $39 airline fares from LA to SF that people tout here disappear faster than the airlines that are offering them...

Other Robert

Robert Cruickshank said...

Many excellent comments here. I really like the comment from "other Robert" on alternative fuels - he's right that we should develop those alongside HSR. We really need to do both. Alt fuels, though, aren't a substitute for HSR, as the deniers want us to believe.

pantrograph trolleypole is also right about the need to start reshaping our living patterns as well. Alt fueled cars will be needed for those sectors of society and the economy that aren't going to be served by transit anytime soon - especially rural areas - but for the metros, it's long past time we stopped building for the car and started building for rails.

My own thinking on all this is that we should be working toward an urban model where a car is not a necessity. Where cars are owned by hobbyists and for pleasure trips, and not as the backbone of our transportation system. I love me a nice Sunday drive around Monterey County, but there's really no good reason for me to be driving to and from work every day.

Car culture should be a weekend thing - not an everyday thing.

Jack Duluoz said...

Thank you for addressing the car culture issue. I for one will be among the last Californians to give up my 40 year old, Smog Exempt, vintage cars (and nasty two-stroke scooters).

But this argument is about choice. I love my cars, but choose to drive them sparingly, while relying on a combination of bicycle, bus, BART, and Caltrain to get about on a daily basis.

In fact, last year I put less than 2000 miles on my '68 BMW (driver) and about 500 each on my '67 Camero and '72 Vespa. If we really loved our cars we sure wouldn't drive the hell out of them the way we do and then throw them out after 5 years.

Anonymous said...

Though those like Cox & O'Toole want people to wear out their cars faster and deeper in debt, thus giving more money to big auto/big oil.