Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Veto-Proof Majorities Support Amtrak/HSR Bill in Congress

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

Congress threw down on rail today in a big way:

A nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill passed the House Wednesday as lawmakers rallied around an alternative for travelers saddled with soaring gas prices.

The bipartisan bill, which passed by a veto-proof margin of 311-104, would authorize funding for the national passenger railroad over the next five years. Some of the money would go to a program of matching grants to help states set up or expand rail service.

Besides the $14.9 billion provided for Amtrak and intercity rail, an amendment to the bill would authorize $1.5 billion for Washington's Metro transit system over the next 10 years.

The US Senate also passed an Amtrak reauthorization by a veto-proof majority. But there are some big differences between the House and Senate versions, and as Congressional Quarterly reports it might not find an easy resolution:

The $14.4 billion reauthorization measure passed 311-104, but future prospects for the legislation are less certain. An expected conference committee with the Senate could be tough...

Republicans acquiesced in the price tag exchange for language prompting privatization of a high-speed rail line in the Northeast Corridor.

The line between Washington and New York would move passengers between the metropolitan cities in less than two hours. Private companies would bid on the construction of the line, which lead proponent John L. Mica , R-Fla., says is a gold mine....

The Senate version does not have privatization language and Amtrak supporters in that chamber, such as Frank R. Lautenberg , D-N.J., are unlikely to accept it easily.

Let's be clear: the Acela, and any HSR line between DC and NY, should not be privatized. Amtrak runs that line quite efficiently. It has grabbed 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor and its ridership is rising dramatically. Acela could be improved, but not by privatization - instead by upgrading the overhead catenaries and the tracks so that the system can provide even faster service.

Still, the votes are a significant vote of confidence in passenger rail. It should suggest to Californians that Congress is very interested in supporting our own high speed rail project - and that as Democrats will gain much larger majorities in Congress this November, and with a President Obama (we hope), passenger and high speed rail will get enormous federal subsidies.

It would be nice if California's Senators - Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein - would step up and direct some of this money to our own HSR project, even if it's just a few million dollars, as a sign of support and to help shore up political support ahead of the November vote. But let there be no mistake - the feds are ready to invest in high speed rail. It's now California's turn to step up and do the same.


SixHertz said...

Amtrak runs that line quite efficiently because it holds a monopoly. I find it very hard to believe that a private company would not be able to run that line better. Take the USPS for example, another wonderfully efficient quasi-governmental body, vs. UPS.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Can you point to something specific that Amtrak isn't doing well that a private company could improve upon? The notion that private enterprise can always do better than government is an absurd statement. It has to be assessed on a case by case basis. Since the Acela is posting major ridership gains and running an 88% on-time record - much better than most airlines along that route - I do not see any evidence for your claim.

davisgrad said...

If you privatized the amtrak, it would still most likely be a monopoly. How would that be better? The private companies had their chance, but now it is government owned. Why only stick government with companies that are bleeding money, like amtrak at its creation, rather then letting them keep companies they run well(acela) and even make a profit,(which means lower taxes or more government services).

bikerider said...

Since the Acela is posting major ridership gains and running an 88% on-time record

88% on-time record is absolutely pathetic (in fact, the real number is far worse due to excessive padding in the official schedule). In any other HSR operation, managers would be fired for such a poor result. Contrast Acela with Spain, where passengers get 100% money back for late AVE trains.

Can you point to something specific that Amtrak isn't doing well that a private company could improve upon?

Design and procurement of unreliable trainsets. Massive cost overruns on the electrification project (leading to FBI investigations). Their inability to achieve 3hr goal for the NYC-Boston segment means much lower ridership numbers.

arcady said...

The trainset issue was partly a matter of the manufacturer's incompetence in making them too wide, and partly because the FRA requires ridiculously heavy trains based on the SUV safety model. I'm not surprised that the electrification project had overruns. Having had a good close look at the system, it's just overdesigned, and I would attribute part of that to inexperience, but I think Amtrak does tend to overbuild things sometimes.
Anyway, if you want to compare apples to apples, remember that UPS gets free use of highways and highly subsidized airports, while Amtrak has to maintain its own infrastructure in the NEC, and pay trackage fees everywhere else. Oh and incidentally, it's pretty much impossible to run private passenger trains on freight railroads' tracks. The required insurance is prohibitive in cost. If it weren't, I'd probably already be doing just that.

Rafael said...

The Northeast Corridor is the only part of the national rail network that Amtrak actually owns and also, the only one that is fully electrified. However, Amtrak is required to sell trackage rights to freight companies, which is why the FRA slapped such onerous regulations on the design of the Acela train.

True high speed intercity passenger service - top speed at least 186mph - requires relatively straight track dedicated to passenger trains. Creating a brand-new alignment in the Northeast Corridor would be a Herculean task. In many places, virtually the only possibility would be along the median of or else, an aerial structure above (see Figure C.5 here) existing freeways, principally I-95 and I-295. Only in New York City would the line have to leverage existing track - which rules out maglev technology.

Another option would involve sealed tubes anchored in the bedrock under the Hudson river, Raritan Bay, Delaware river, possibly even the Chesapeake Bay. The alignment would approach Washington via Annapolis. Underwater tubes would avoid a lot of land acquisition and environmental justice issues, but their design & construction would be a technological tour de force of the very highest order - cp. the BART tube across the SF Bay, only far longer. In addition, the stations in NYC and Philadelphia would have to be submerged as well - that has never been done before anywhere in the world. Given enough money, the engineering issues of leakage, heating and condensation could surely be solved. However, convincing customers of that would quite another matter.

Construction-related issues aside, the principal issue with these approaches is that it would not leverage existing train stations and their associated local and regional transit connections. Recognizing the enormous difficulties associated with the construction of a brand-new dedicated alignment, H.R. 6003 calls only for a 2-hour express service between Washington D.C. and NYC (~220 miles). Considering that Acela Express currently takes 50 minutes longer and serves 7 stations in-between those way points, that sounds ambitious but feasible.

However, increasing the speed and on-time performance of passenger trains in the NEC will require slightly narrower and especially, much lighter tilting rolling stock. Above all, this means instructing FRA to harmonize its safety regulations with international standards, which focus as much on avoiding accidents as they do on surviving them by advanced design. Extensive computer simulations and actual crash tests will be required to ensure this harmonization maintains or increases overall safety.

Note that commuter and freight rail operators on the NEC would also have to accept some retrofits to their equipment and/or changes to their operating procedures. Implementation would be severely complicated by the early introduction of additional operators on the NEC. Privatization should therefore be deferred until the corridor is set up to support it.

Rafael said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rafael said...

Sorry for the double post.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I think bikerider inadvertently made a great pro-HSR argument by pointing to the AVE's spectacular on-time record. That shows what happens when you build true HSR. The Acela, as I've repeatedly stated, is *not* true HSR, but it is still a stunning success in spite of its handicaps.

Other commenters have done a good job showing why it's not Amtrak's fault the Acela isn't faster and even more on-time. Those problems will be avoided here in California if the project is allowed to proceed unmolested.

Brian Goldner said...

the Acela, as many note, is not true HSR...sure amtrak could do some track upgrades to make it HSR-BUT THEY HAVEN'T. I see no reason why letting another HSR line be built wouldn't be advantageous to ppl in the NE corridor. As long as the Acela line still exists, it'll probably complement the service quite well and offer (hopefully) a faster, cheaper, alternative

Luis D. said...

Here is a link concerning CHSRA Vs. UPRR:

Rafael said...

@ brian goldner -

even straightening the existing NEC tracks would be a major undertaking involving lots of money and no doubt some eminent domain proceedings to obtain the required land. That's why the Acela Express is a tilt train...

If a brand-new passenger-only true HSR alignment were ever built in the NEC, the existing tracks would be reserved for commuter rail and freight. It's not just individuals who are feeling the pain at the pump but trucking customers, too.

@ luis d. -

your URL is broken. Perhaps you meant the report on CHSRA's latest staff meeting?

Unfortunately, I don't think the message that freight and passenger trains coexist perfectly well in Spain is going to convince anyone in the US who isn't already positively disposed toward HSR. The FRA is beholden to US freight operators, who consider all passenger rail on their rights of way a necessary evil that is detrimental to their bottom line. This is especially true of Amtrak, which by law enjoys low trackage fees and certain privileges that other passenger railroads do not.

mike said...

Re: the UP ROW issue - if you do the math on this, the monetary costs of acquiring land next to UP's Central Valley ROW are trivial. The main advantage to having UP's cooperation is that it's easier to negotiate with a single entity than with hundreds of property owners.

Math: In the Central Valley, HSR needs a 50' ROW that's around 250 miles long from Sacto to the Tehachapis. That works out to just over 1500 acres. California farm land was $4,160/acre in 2005 (source: USDA). Generously assume it has increased 50% to $6,240/acre. Now very generously assume that CHSRA pays 10x the market value because they just want to get things over quickly and keep the number of eminent domain proceedings to a minimum. At $62,400/acre, CHSRA pays $93.6 million to acquire the ROW. Basically a rounding error in a $40 billion project.

No doubt there will be billions spent on ROW acquisitions if this project moves forward, but the real costs will be in the urban areas. Acquiring land adjacent to UP's Central Valley ROW will not be a significant cost.

Luis D. said...

@ rafael

Well we can't expect the building of the first true HSR in the U.S to be smooth. There are a lot of obstacles in the way and I doubt this one (UPRR) will be the last.

I have hopes though once we get to the elections these obstacle will be delt with and hopefully we will set everything up for future HSR lines around the U.S.

Rafael said...

@ mike -

that just leaves the teeny problem of getting to the downtown stations...

@ luis d. -

yes, if HSR projects in other countries are anything to go by, there will be lots of other problems. A bottleneck in Orange County. Getting FRA to let CHSRA buy off-the-shelf technology. Eighty miles of tunneling. For starters. The list is long, but they'll git her dun!

bc said...

One of the biggest problems with Amtrak is that it needs Congressional approval for its funding needs. So Representatives from rural areas demand that Amtrak run these cross country lines that stop in their districts in return for their vote. But rail funding needs to be concentrated in dense urban areas. As long as Amtrak's budgets are dependent on Congressional approval, much money will be wasted on rural areas that would be better served by airplanes and the places that need rail most will get short changed.

Robert Cruickshank said...

bc, those rural lines are by no means a waste. Without cross-country Amtrak many states and many Americans would have zero alternative to driving to get around - and in those states mobility is a big issue.

Further, the cross-country Amtrak lines help create public support for train funding and better investment in our nationwide passenger rail system.

Besides, the cross-country lines are also experiencing rising ridership.

This should not be seen as a zero-sum game. Rail is valuable in both rural and urban areas and both should be funded.

Michael Kiesling said...

The NEC is pretty well-laid out. The major slow points that would need improvements and bypasses to get the line up real high speed would be the approaches to Baltimore and Wilmington and the drawbridges between Baltimore and Wilmington. I would assume all trains stop at Philly, so approaches there could remain as-is.

There are some curves that would need to be "eased" but in most cases there's not much in the way of that. The drawbridges could be replaced with parallel high level bridges, less of an issue with 4% climbing HSR than freight. Baltimore would need a new alignment, but there's a orphan freeway ROW that could be used for part of the way. There's a straighter freight bypass around Wilmington station.

By the time money and politics would be ready, the NEC infrastructure installed in the 70's and 80's would be a end-of-life anyway. All new 25kv electrification would be nice, but not necessary. Depends on if the upgraded trackway replaces or is built next to the existing track.

Of course, this upgrade would be on the order of billions of dollars, at least a dozen of them.

Rafael said...

@ michael kiesling -

$12 billion to get Acela running 30% faster? I think that's not a terrible deal, but only if the cities served don't come back a few years later to ask for a brand-new true HSR alignment.

As for the drawbridges, I say leave them in place for the freight trains. They can't handle more than 1% grade. Build a dedicated high bridge or tunnel across the Susquehanna river for passenger trains. No other bodies of water are unavoidable.

Not sure if Acela can handle 3.5% grade in its present state, FRA forced a lot of weight increase on Amtrak. Then again, I don't think it's ever going to meet the two-hour target without busting Amtrak's budget unless it uses lightweight EMU rolling stock.

A double-decker design (Kawasaki/Hitachi E4 Max, Alstom TGV Duplex) would support the required daily capacity with fewer trains and lower operating costs on this congested corridor. However, the speed target implies an expensive single-level tilting design (Siemens ICE-T, Bombardier X-2000, Fiat Pendolino) unless the track is straightened.

Chase said...

The quality of passenger services at the present time is rather important. The company should necessarily operate across the whole country to be able to stay on the market. At I found out that Amtrak is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The company operates passenger service on routes across the continental United States of America connecting hundreds of destinations in 48 states; routes to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. In addition to the passenger service, Amtrak expanded into freight transportation market and now operates a captive bus service. I think the company is worth trusting.

sexy said...