8.10.07

RELIABILITY MORE IMPORTANT THAN RAPIDITY. The standards for high speed trains have been set higher.
“The global rail industry now defines ‘high speed’ as starting at 150 mph,” [Texas Rail Advocates' Paul Mangelsdorf] said. “The newest TGV line in France has a cruising speed of 198 mph. Britain is considered a laggard in the high-speed rail movement.”
That may be, but the British trains clip along at those laggardly speeds on infrastructure dating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Hudson. Electroliner envy is fun, but is it necessary?

In Britain, Mangelsdorf noted, the national government owns and maintains the track and signal network, but train operation is conducted by private businesses that compete for long-term rights to use the track based on their service levels and the amount of their revenues they are willing to return to the government. Virgin Rail, owned by Virgin Group owner Richard Branson, holds the London-Coventry franchise along with several other routes.

“Many of Virgin’s trains bring passengers from the English Midlands or Scotland to Gatwick or Heathrow airports for easy transfer to international flights,” Mangelsdorf said. “Service is fast, frequent and increasingly popular. When service began the Virgin trains had a 30% share of the domestic market and air carriers had a 60% share. Now these percentages have flipped. The only steady number is 10% for automobiles.”

Mangelsdorf said that in Manchester the air carriers actually are “delighted that Virgin trains are taking business away.”

“The airlines urgently need more gates for international flights at Manchester Airport-- that’s where the profits are,” he said. “When domestic passengers switch to rail, that leaves more gate capacity for wide-body planes that make money.”

The same phenomenon has surfaced in the U.S., where Amtrak’s high-speed Northeast Corridor now carries the bulk of shuttle traffic between New York and Washington, Mangelsdorf said.

By all means, let's introduce public funding for corridor trains as an alternative to continued corporate welfare so that the operators of flying puddle-jumpers cannot so easily make common cause with large corporations and aviation hobbyists to raid the public purse. But let's not get too carried away with the Electroliner envy. The Metroliner began to divert passengers from The Wings of Man back in Penn Central days when the Electras and Constellations came out on busy days. That on Reconstruction Finance Corporation infrastructure good for maybe 110 mph in some stretches in New Jersey and Delaware. The Hiawatha has the potential to make Glenview a suburb of Milwaukee for State Line residents who'd like a chocolate chip on the way to Las Vegas. Sure, there's a time value in faster trains, but there's a lot of potential for making more expeditious use of the existing infrastructure. Take Texas. Please.

“And the same thing could be happening between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio if we had the right tracks and signals,” [Mangelsdorf] said. “Texas isn’t the frontier anymore. It’s one of the nation’s most densely populated and busy collections of intercity corridors. The Texas economy would grow faster and in a healthier way if people weren’t forced to choose between flying and driving in the Texas Triangle.”

The most appealing thing about the Texas Triangle, Mangelsdorf says, is that it’s essentially compact and densely populated.

Its demographics, city pair locations, and topography are very similar that of France. The French TGV high speed trains have made travel very easy and pleasant.

“We could connect the seven biggest cities in the state with only seven hundred miles of track,” he says. “You could travel from the DFW Metroplex to Houston or Austin in two hours, talking on your cell phone or using other electronics the whole way with minimal security inconveniences. In addition to the big-city-end points, the trains would serve intermediate stops such as Waco and Bryan/College Station, something that planes can’t do. You could get to Oklahoma City in about an hour and ten minutes.”

That's seven hundred miles of new track? I submit that more cost-effective methods exist.

By contrast, Mangelsdorf says, current transportation infrastructure proposals such as the Trans Texas Corridor represent retrogression to 1950s thinking.

“The TTC backers are doing a great job of helping Texas get ready for the 20th century,” he says. “However, we should be more forward thinking as many Asian countries have done when it comes to transportation improvements.”

There are economies of scope in combining intermodal trains with passenger trains on the same track, and a good dispatcher ought to be able to keep a two- or three-track line fluid. A debate between the dedicated high-speed passenger line advocates and the advocates of less costly combined freight-passenger-toll truckway projects brings with it the risk that no rail improvements will be forthcoming. That leaves Texas with the impossibly slow Heartland Flyer and Eagle and the try-weakly Sunset Limited, all of which made better times with handfired Harriman Standard 4-6-2s and their counterparts.

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