Thursday, January 28, 2010

Medium Speed Rail to Nowhere

On Tuesday July 26, 1966 the president of the New York Central railroad Alfred E. Perlman issued a memo stating the following:
A New York Central jet-powered test car, M-497, established a new United States rail speed record by averaging 183.85 miles per hour during research operations last weekend..
Sixty four years earlier the "20th Century Limited" passenger train was riding those same NYC rails between New York and Chicago in 20 hours, averaging 49 mph. Today, in 2010, Amtrak's "Lakeshore Limited", using the same line, makes the run in 19 hours, an improvement of one hour in almost 100 years.

A year after the NYC set the record in 1966 they were dismantling most of their passenger network; the 727s and the Eisenhower interstates were too much competition. Perlman knew that it would take something like a jet-powered train going over 150 mph to get the riders back but such upgrades could not return their investment and would also compete and hinder the more lucrative (and necessary) freight operations. The government took over everything a few years later.

Today Obama was out peddling a 'high speed rail' initiative in Florida, ironically in the same state where thousands will soon be out of jobs as the Space Shuttle ends and the moon/mars initiative gets the budget axe (not the scalpel). Here's part of a report:
Though the administration bills the program as "high-speed rail," most U.S. projects won't reach the speeds seen in Europe and Asia. California's trains would be by far the fastest, exceeding the 200 mph achieved by some trains overseas.

Some of the money will go toward trains with top speeds of 110 mph, while other funds -- such as the $400 million allotted to Ohio to connect Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati -- will be for trains traveling no faster than 79 mph.
Does every Democrat program have to have a misleading title? Nothing going slower than NASCAR, or motorcycle traffic in Memphis, can be called 'high speed' anything.

In many of these projects the existing tracks are simply being upgraded for faster speeds and cannot be considered HSR in any sense of the term. These trains will be fighting for spots with freights and will tie up highway traffic just as now--albeit for less seconds. Obama might not characterize them as such but think of them as Amtrak on steroids, or in the case of Ohio, think of them as Amtrak itself.

The only project that seems worthwhile is in California. People WILL ride a 200 mph train. They will. Well, maybe not from Little Rock to, er, anywhere, but in California and back east, yes. Right now a 200 mph train would beat any airport or interstate travel for a 200-400 mile trip due to parking and security alone.

The Cal project will require a separate track apart from freight meaning much more bang for the buck in construction stimulus. Also, with potentially more ridership it may act to stimulate online communities and spur growth. Same goes for a proposed HSR line from LA to Las Vegas, which could work. There are some nice scenic views on that route.

But as Perlman and the others knew, HSR will not return it's investment unless people are willing to pay non-competitive fares just for the privilege, and they aren't, so the government has to subsidize. Even with subsidies, if the price is too high ridership will suffer. In the normal business world such an entity would quietly go out of business but in the world of government-run, such an entity will ask for a bigger monetary request in the next budget. And there's no competition from other HSR lines to keep them honest, only from airlines (who run the risk of bankruptcy) and federally-funded highways, which will never be torn out until teleportation comes. And probably not even then.


Debbie said...

I heard Joe Biden talking about this, all the jobs it will create IMMEDIATELY, shovel ready, permits already obtained, ....

But as you say, it's not really HIGH speed, it's going to be expensive, and probably not going to be used like it should. Another boondogle that sounds good coming from Obama's mouth and resting on gullible ears.

Cross country might be an idea, IF it was cheaper, easier, quicker than flying or driving. Might be.

Be careful on the ice tomorrow. I won't be driving on it unless it's a must. They don't do anything to the roads here. We live on a steep hill by the river, almost like a driveway. If it ices over it will stay that way until the weather warms up enough to melt it.


Right Truth

A.C. McCloud said...

The only thing that makes sense is true high speed in the high density population areas on the west and east coasts. Everything else is gravy and political payback.

Weatherwise, we got about an inch of sleet overall, and about a 1/4 inch of freezing rain. Power still on, obviously, so we thank God for that.

Stay safe up there.