by Robert Cruickshank
Joseph Boardman was in Chicago talking to Illinois lawmakers about high speed trains, and threw cold water on hopes of implementing a California-style HSR system in the Midwest:
Introducing ultra-fast passenger trains to the Midwest is less important than the need for more frequent service between cities, reliable schedules that beat the time spent driving and rail connections that permit travel across the United States, Amtrak's chief official said Monday in Chicago.
True high-speed rail clipping along at 200 m.p.h. or faster would be prohibitively expensive to build on the scale needed to serve the U.S., and such systems work best only when the number of stops are limited, Joseph Boardman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, told Illinois lawmakers at a hearing in the Thompson Center on the passenger railroad's agenda.
"It's really not about the speed. It's about reduced travel times and more frequency," he told the Illinois House Railroad Industry Committee. "The competitive advantage is with the train."
Boardman said plans in the Midwest for trains traveling up to 110 m.p.h. on corridors stretching over nine states make more sense. He said the immediate focus must be on modernizing infrastructure to increase train speeds in the Chicago area that currently are as slow as 5 m.p.h. because of freight-train congestion and antiquated track and signaling equipment.
Getting up to even 40 m.p.h. on stretches between Chicago and cities less than 50 miles away, such as Joliet, would be a big improvement, Boardman said.
"One hundred and ten is double the national speed limit" of 55 m.p.h. on highways, noted Boardman, who was administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during several years of the Bush administration.
To which Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic offered a strong reply:
I hate to point out the obvious — something I’ve had to do in the past — but reduced travel times can only be achieved through (a) reducing the distance traveled, or (b) increasing the speed of trains. Since I’m assuming Mr. Boardman wasn’t suggesting that customers simply start taking shorter trips, the only way you can reduce travel times is by increasing speed. So it really is about the speed. Sorry, Mr. Boardman.
Mr. Boardman used this argument to inform the committee that it was infeasible to build true high-speed rail (that is, “HSR-Express,” as we’re calling 150+ mph service these days) at the scale needed for the United States because of its high cost, and said that speed improvements to service at 110 mph were more realistic.
I have no problem with steadily improving train speeds, nor of course with increased frequency. But we should be investing in much faster speeds along the country’s most important corridors, like San Francisco-Los Angeles or Washington-Boston. Those lines, among others, deserve the same level of rail service as is provided in European and Asian countries, and there’s no reason to think that the U.S. is simply incapable of building them. Whether or not some trips taken by Americans are transcontinental, the fact is that the majority of long-distance trips are made by people traveling between cities 100 and 600 miles apart. Those distances are ideal for high-speed rail.
Boardman believes that improvements in Chicagoland can increase speeds from 5 to 45 mph, and that if you can get trains to accomplish 110 mph, you can bring enough people to trains to make it worth your while.
But that's the key issue here - "worth your while." Sure, you can get more people to ride a train from Chicago to St. Louis at 110mph, but as much as would drive or fly? And would a 110mph train change travel habits as much as a 200mph train would?
If you look at Spain you might get a sense of the answer. Madrid and Barcelona have long been connected by fast trains operated by RENFE above 110mph, but it was only when the AVE was completed to Barcelona-Sants in early 2008 that you started to see a big shift in travel habits away from the airlines and towards the train. Of course, there's about 100 miles difference in the distance between the two cities (Chicago-St Louis is about 300 miles; Madrid to Barcelona is about 400 miles) and that might make some difference.
Still, there does seem to be a solid case that true high speed rail - above 150mph - really does make a big difference in terms of ridership. I think Boardman should not be so prejudicial in his comments against that kind of HSR in Illinois or the Midwest, and I hope he doesn't wind up having any influence over the decision about which HSR projects get funded - because here in California, we ARE going to have trains going over 200 mph, and it's the right thing to do.