19.10.09

CHANNELLING COLD SPRING SHOPS. The latest Destination: Freedom cautions Passenger Rail advocates to beware the recent enthusiast.

The “incremental upgrade” approach that most applicants for FRA grants (as well as the FRA, apparently) are taking, seems to make sense. A train that can go from Chicago to St. Louis in four hours would be a vast improvement over the current schedule of five hours and twenty minutes, or more. A true high-speed train could make the trip in two hours, but a four-hour schedule is far easier and cheaper to attain, capital-investment-wise, than a two-hour schedule for that 284-mile trip.

California has an ambitious plan, and others will also insist on true Euro-style high-speed rail, but until America develops a funding mechanism to build such systems, “incremental upgrades” are the key to improving our rail system. Trains should be faster and more frequent than they are now. There should be more of them, going to more places. As more people ride trains, more people will support rail expansion with their patronage and with their votes. Eventually, true high-speed rail will form part of America’s transportation scene, but beware the arriviste High Speed Rail advocates, because the perfect is the enemy of the possible – and the opponents of rail of any kind are well aware of that fact, and will exploit it to the hilt. They will be funding new “High Speed Rail” advocacy groups you never heard of until yesterday ---- prepare for that ---- and will decry incrementalism. Unfortunately, politicians are fair game for that sort of lobbying, because they [usually] lack the technical skills to analyze those proposals.

While many Americans may view high-speed rail as science fiction, today’s science fiction often becomes tomorrow’s reality. Jules Verne wrote in the 19th Century about “20,000 league” submarines, rockets to the moon, and going “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Those notions, and many others of that time, were science fiction then, but many became reality. In the case of high-speed rail, the nation should build, mostly, “higher-speed” rail systems that work NOW at four hours between city pairs, rather than wait [forever] for a two-hour schedule that, if forced to front to the exclusion of what may actually be done today, may never arrive.

On the other hand, if the highway lobby's fifth columnists move the debate in the direction of restoring the timings of the late 1930s (which is what "work NOW at four hours": make that 65 minutes for Chicago - Milwaukee) with incremental improvements in the track structure and signalling, perhaps encouraging the freight railroads to work with the passenger train authorities on implementation of positive train control and on dispatching that keeps the passenger trains moving, the resulting passenger train projects might be running sooner and with lower setup costs.

Some of those routes to additional places might work well as limited-stop commuter trains on memory pattern schedules. An extended Metra service into Wisconsin, for example, with one route offering limiteds calling at Evanston, Waukegan, Kenosha, and Racine and terminating at Milwaukee, and another offering limiteds making Park Ridge, Barrington, Crystal Lake, Woodstock, Harvard, Beloit, and Janesville, and possibly on to Madison, is likely to have a higher benefit-cost ratio than a full-on intercity service with Talgo trains and the other trappings of 110 mph running.

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