Wow, for some reason this week seems to be HSR Denier Week in the media. First we had Daniel Goldberg's moronic argument as to why California's passenger rail system is perfect just the way it is. That was a blog post on a relatively small newspaper's site, and came and went pretty quickly.
Late this week, however, a much bigger piece of HSR denial hit the national media in the form of an AP article by Deborah Hastings that was carried in the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other major papers. The article, titled "Billions for high speed rail; anyone aboard?" gives considerable space to letting noted HSR denier Joseph Vranich space to attack high speed rail without rebuttal. So it's our job to provide what Deborah Hastings wouldn't - facts.
But this country has never built a high-speed "bullet" train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.
Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.
This is simply not true. As her own article shows, the actual reason is simple and singular: the United States has not shown the political leadership necessary to see HSR projects through to completion, largely because passenger rail has for the last 50 years been starved of funding in favor of roads and airports.
California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready—it's still seeking local approvals—but it's farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama's high-speed pie.
This is also untrue. In addition to the already-identified list of projects the California HSR project can begin by 2011, it is believed that large chunks of the system can be ready by 2012 or 2013.
It doesn't help that Hastings steadfastly refuses to point to the role of Republican HSR opponents in killing these projects. Jeb Bush played the leading role in 2004 in killing Florida's project, and George W. Bush did the same while Texas governor in the mid-1990s. Southwest Airlines' opposition to the Texas project also played a significant role.
After misleading readers about the fate of HSR in Texas and Florida Hastings then lets Vranich spew some HSR denial:
"In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards," says author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association. In 2004 he wrote a highly critical book titled, "End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains."
He's equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.
"Here's what's going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs—to this project and that project—and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time."
Current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.
Nobody expects Obama's HSR stimulus to all by itself produce true high speed rail in this country. But if it is accompanied by a real national strategy - and Obama's budget plans suggest he is interested in doing that - then the HSR stimulus can help initiate that project, which is all anyone ever expected anyway.
Trying to make American trains run faster will always go off the rails, Vranich says, as long as planners keep trying to recreate overseas systems. "We're not Europe. We're not Japan. We're looking at shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher."
Wait a minute. I thought the flaw with HSR in California and the US is that we had too little population density for the ridership to be there. Now the flaw is that we have too much?
It's hard to keep HSR denial straight these days.