Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Golden Spike

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

This article has been making the rounds of the transit blogs today - it's an op-ed piece from the Boston Globe explaining how much John McCain hates trains:

For years, McCain, in the comfort of cheap gasoline for autos and airplanes, made Amtrak a personal whipping boy. Despite the fact that governments in Western Europe and Asia zoomed far ahead of the United States by supporting high-speed trains to relieve congestion, promote tourism and now as we are coming to know, save the planet, McCain has spent considerable capital in denying the passenger rail system the capital to modernize.

In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, "There's only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system - the Northeast and the far West."

I knew that McCain was deeply anti-rail, but I hadn't realized he played such a key role in gutting Amtrak funding. $10 billion for capital funding in 2000 would have revolutionized Amtrak. Instead of a system that does the best it can with hardly any money and with severe track issues, $10 billion would have paid for an enormous amount of track improvements, electrifications, new train cars, all of which could have helped more Americans get around on the rails.

Derrick Jackson, the author of the op-ed, goes on to demonstrate McCain's lack of interest in rail, despite the clear interest from the American public:

In the section of McCain's website called "reforming our transportation sector," there is no mention of rail. There is only his clean-car challenge to automakers, his $300 million prize to design battery cars, and enforcing only existing gas mileage standards. When The Washington Post reported on how President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget did not include a subsidy for Amtrak, would kill both $20 million for the next generation of high-speed rail, and $250 million for railroad rehabilitation, it quoted McCain as saying on television, "I'm glad the president is coming over with a very austere budget."

The luster of austerity is gone. Public transportation is becoming a real issue for the campaign trail. If so, McCain has all but handed Obama a golden spike to beat him over the head with.

Not all Republicans are so misguided. Republicans like Curt Pringle, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Mica understand the value of high speed rail. But Republicans in the State Senate, like Sen. Jim Battin, don't understand it. Instead they prefer to attack trains, even though our state has desperate need for them, whether they're light rail, commuter rail, or high speed intercity rail.

John McCain will fight against federal funding for high speed rail. Barack Obama will deliver that funding. If we want this project to happen, Californians need to understand that choice. It doesn't matter what party you identify with - high speed rail has value. We welcome support from all quarters.

Republican politicians are only hurting themselves with their anti-rail stance. As voters in California and America begin to see the value of rail, and as Republican voters come around on the issue, anti-rail zealots like McCain will only find themselves deeper in the political hole. America is changing, embracing trains as a smart solution to our transportation needs, and to our energy and environmental crisis. California is leading the way. Will Senate Republicans join in - or will they follow McCain down the dead-end track?


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I love that golden spike comment in the article.

Rafael said...

The presidential election won't be decided on candidates' positions on HSR, in California or anywhere else. However, it is a useful indicator of their stance toward mass transit vs. cars in general, including participation by private investors and operators where appropriate.

It's about whether the candidate 'get' that allowing the country's business-critical transportation sector continue to depend almost exclusively on oil is in and of itself a high-risk strategy in the face of rapid economic growth in China, India and many other third world countries. Laying additional tracks is far cheaper than waging yet more war for the black gold, in terms of both human and financial cost.

Note that HSR will be an excellent complement to battery-electric cars and plug-in hybrids, because high range on grid electricity alone will always be expensive for such occasionally connected vehicles. The average daily distance driven by car is less than 40 miles, so why insist on 300 miles between fill-ups if you can recharge while parked at home or at work?

Families that own multiple cars may well decide to retain one with an internal combustion engines in spite of high and rising fuel prices, because it will remain the most convenient mode of medium-distance travel if they have to take a lot of gear along. They may cut down on the annual mileage, even though that sharply increases the total cost of ownership per mile driven.

Others will choose to adapt their lifestyle, preferring to travel light to those destinations they can easily reach with their own PHEV/BEV or, by HSR and connecting transit or a rental car. If that means visits to Mendocino, Tahoe, Death Valley or Palm Springs becomes a rare treat, so be it.

Anonymous said...

Rafael as usual writes thoughtful well reasoned posts. I don't agree with his conclusions, but I respect his words.

One of the main themes for advocates of this project is looking at the future and what a disaster it will be if we don't build this project now.

As pointed out here, cars in the future won't be like the cars of today. There will be many different types and they will be much more fuel efficient. Morshed claims HSR is 6 times more fuel efficient than going by auto. One can question exactly how those numbers were calculated, but for certain he is using mileage ratings of present day autos. The cars of the future will be 3 times more fuel efficient than present day technology.

The claim that if we don't build the project we will have to build more airport runways and 3000 miles more of highway lanes. Even by the Authority's numbers, this project is only going to remove 6% of the intercity highway trips. Can anyone believe that this 6% reduction is enough to remove the need for future highway construction?

I will not support this project. It makes no sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recognizing this article Robert. I had put it on the facebook page.

John McCain's policy on transportation seems to do more with energy than with actual transportation. He needs to realize that public transportation creates greater output in benefits per dollar invested than do highways. He has not recognized that this isn't just about energy anymore -- its about the entire transportation industry. The transportation industry is one of the backbones of the American economy, and we can't keep up heavy-spending on a mode of transportation that does us more harm than good.

You made a comment about how such a strong supporter of public transportation is John Mica (a republican). He happens to be congressman of my district and he has been pushing for public transportation and commuter rail in Central Florida for literally his entire term there. He is far and away one of the biggest public transportation proponents in the country. However, he also has an anti-Amtrak record. He isn't trying to kill Amtrak, but replace it with something that is far more efficient. We all have to admit that Amtrak is a complete disaster, but it needs to reformed to succeed. Mica has also been a bit touchy on HSR. Being a congressman, he often looks at HSR from the federal perspective. He's not a 'super pro-activist' so to speak but he is a supporter and he's very realistic about it. He supports additional funding for Amtrak's northeast corridor, and it another HSR project proves itself, he says he would back that too.

Quoting something from the Boston Globe article

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi warned that Amtrak "is guaranteed and doomed to failure if we don't give it an opportunity to succeed. If you don't have modern equipment, if you don't have the new fast trains, if you don't have a rapid rail system, it will not work."

That essentially sums it up right there. Amtrak is not successful because of its lack of funding. If you give it sufficient capital to make it (or just a general passenger rail network) a state of the art system, it can be successful.


The future of American cities in the eyes of modern urban planners is not the same sprawling world we have now. It'll be far more public transportation and pedestrian friendly with more compact and mixed development. Medium distance transportation isn't something you're going to see by automobile a whole lot more. Public transportation is expanding and communities are building around it. To be honest, I doubt the automobile will play a central role in our lives by the end of the next half-century.

@car lover

There's a lot more to transportation than just energy. And no matter how you spin it, no matter how you make the car, it will always be less energy efficient than public transportation by the very fact that it relies on individual transportation versus en masse. At the same time, it also encourages a more efficient manner of development. So you're getting more yield per dollar in development. And because roadways are far less organized, because they cater to individual vehicles, they are not only less efficient in terms of energy, but just the 'go-to factor'.

Anonymous said...

car lover,

In the past 20 years, average fuel economy of the US vehicle fleet has improved by about 30% for cars and about 15% for pickup trucks/SUVs. No doubt the average fleet mpg will increase somewhat as some people shift from larger trucks to smaller cars, but that doesn't get you anything close to a 200% increase. What makes you predict that technology over the next 20 years will advance almost 10 times faster than technology did over the last 20 years?

Furthermore, HSR technology isn't standing still either. The current TGV Duplex is around 50% more efficient per passenger-mile than the original 1981 TGV Sud-Est.

As for 6% of intercity automobile trips, the question is, what is the alternative? Upgrading Highway 99 to Interstate standards is estimated to cost ~$25 billion. But even that spending would increase total state highway capacity by only 2% (from around 50,000 lane-miles to around 51,000 lane-miles). So you'd need three projects of that magnitude just to equal the gain from HSR, and then there are all the airport expansion're talking a total cost of well over $100 billion. And all you get from that spending is business-as-usual: it's either much slower (in the case of cars) or much less reliable (in the case of air).

It's fine to oppose the project on the grounds that you don't think mobility should be a top priority - that I understand. But the numbers you're throwing around just don't add up.

crzwdjk said...

I just don't like the idea of cars. I pay my taxes, yet the transportation system I get from the government requires me to pay even more to buy a car, pay for insurance. And don't forget the hours of unpaid labor of driving the car: the sheer waste of time is a huge negative externality pushed onto everyone.

Brandon in California said...

My problem with Amtrak, and perhaps McCain feels the same, is that it will never be productive and worthwhile from a cost perspective to remote and sparsely provided communities.

Certainly, residents of North Dakota or Montana would feel differently, but there just are not substantial enough numbers to warrant Amtrak level investments in such locations.

I understand the political reality... that representation demands investment in those locations.

But, in my opinion Amtrak and commuter rail services should be provided to urbanized areas of sufficient quality first, before rural areas. Only when urban areas have sufficient quality... should fluff service be operated to sparse areas.. if enven then.

High Speed Rail is the same. From time to time I see on the net ideas of a national high speed rail network. As if... as if cross country HSR makes any sense! The distances are too far to be attractive for any one... except those averse to flying, or have 2-3 days to spare.

Anonymous said...

Not to defend McCain, but we have 30 years of Amtrak history to tell us that it matter not which party controls the White House or Congress. Both major parties have been equally horrible when it comes to supporting Amtrak and intercity rail.

Let's not forget the Obama voted for the Bush/Cheney energy plan, and favors subsidies for coal and ethanol. Obama is not going to change the status-quo, at least far as this country's transport and energy policy goes.

Also note that it was during reign of "Clinton I" when the FRA enacted rules on high-speed rail that made it prohibitively expensive. These rules were bitterly opposed by Amtrak, and basically ruined the Acela project. As well, California is now looking at a $40+ billion price tag on a project that should have only cost $25B.

無名 - wu ming said...

the very definitition of a public good is something that may not be profitable, but is necessary for modern society to function.

large swathes of rural america do not have access to airports for long distance travel, and medium-range driving will gradually become impossible as oil prices continues to rise. while those train lines may not make a profit in a commercial sense, they are critical infrastructure for those places, same as water or power utility infrastructure, or the interstate highway system.

while it's nice that the SF-LA leg of HSR will be both profitable and a necessary public good, it does not follow that the whole middle of the country should be abandoned as "fluff." people have to grow and harvest the wheat and corn that you eat, after all.

when the airlines really start to crater down the line, it may yet be necessary to start extending HSR networks out from the initial urban and regional systems so as to connect them. although just fixing up the regular tracks, rolling stock, and laying more right of way to make amtrak long haul trips more on-time would be a huge improvement.

don't be so quick to turn things into a zero sum game. our fates are all more connected than we assume.

Anonymous said...


Could you explain what FRA rules you are talking about?

Rafael said...

@ anonymous @ 5.02pm -

he's talking about US crashworthiness standards for passenger trains that share track with freight trains. In effect, FRA treats passenger trains as freight trains, the freight being people. As a result, Amtrak, Caltrain, Metrolink, Coaster etc. all have to operate much heavier locomotives and rolling stock than passenger rail service operators in Europe or Japan.

The Acela Express serves the Northeast corridor, which Amtrak owns on condition that it sell trackage rights to the freight operators. The corridor is electrified but also contains many fairly sharp corners. Single-level passenger trains can actually safely take many of them at speeds well above 79mph, but the lateral accelerations would make passengers uncomfortable.

The solution Amtrak opted for was a tilt train, but FRA insisted on adding so much extra steel for "safety" that the Acela Express actually turned into a tilting Sherman tank on rails. Various parts of the original design now wear out much faster than the contract specified.

HSR in California is a different proposition. It will run on dedicated track on its entire network, except at certain stations. CHSRA will petition FRA for a waiver with guarantees that it's off-the-shelf European or Japanese trainsets will be reliably separated from freight traffic via geometry or signaling.

Caltrain is already preparing a similar petition of its own, which includes computer simulations of standardized crash tests.

Anonymous said...

Single-level passenger trains can actually safely take many of them at speeds well above 79mph, but the lateral accelerations would make passengers uncomfortable. The solution Amtrak opted for was a tilt train.

This is one of those myths that keeps popping up. Amtrak opted for a tilt train for purely propaganda reasons ("look we have tilt trains too!"). There was never any technical or engineering purpose behind the decision. In France, non-tilt TGVs go through tighter curves, at higher speeds, and greater superelavation than Acela without any visible discomfort.

The solution Amtrak opted for was a tilt train, but FRA insisted on adding so much extra steel for "safety" that the Acela Express actually turned into a tilting Sherman tank on rails. Various parts of the original design now wear out much faster than the contract specified.

The much larger problem is that a heavier train cannot go around curves as quickly -- tilt or no tilt. So we have this bizarre situation where the train is being bulked up, making it run slower around curves, and at the same time a tilt mechanism is installed, supposedly to make the train more comfortable as it "speeds" around the bend.

HSR in California is a different proposition. It will run on dedicated track on its entire network, except at certain stations. CHSRA will petition FRA for a waiver with guarantees that it's off-the-shelf European or Japanese trainsets will be reliably separated from freight traffic via geometry or signaling.

The FRA has been slow to come around to the idea of using modern computer-controlled signaling. Physical separation seems the more likely outcome.

The whole reason for doing steel-wheel HSR is so the trains are backwards-compatible with existing ROW. Because of the FRA, we don't get that benefit. Unlike Central Valley farmland where it's no big deal to build new track, in built-up urban areas FRA rules will needlessly add tens of billions to the cost.

Anonymous said...

bikerider -

No, believe it or not, tilting is not simply "propaganda." I used to commute semi-regularly between Boston and Baltimore/DC (once every couple weeks). Normally, US passenger trains are allowed to run at speeds that results in up to 3" of underbalance through curves. From New Haven, CT, to Boston, MA - the curviest part of the NE Corridor - Amtrak has a special FRA waiver that allows them to run conventional Amfleet equipment at up to 5" underbalance through curves. Acela is further allowed to run at up to 7" underbalance through curves because of its tilt.

I am not someone who generally has problems with motion sickness on trains, but I can tell you that I would sometimes feel woozy after riding on the Amfleets on that stretch, particularly if I was working at the time. In contrast, when I was on Acela, I had no problems even though it was running even faster through the curves than the Amfleets.