A HIGH-SPEED RAIL SYMPOSIUM. The New York Times invites five experts, some with their prejudices on display, to assess "Will We Ever Have High-Speed Trains?"

Economist Jan Brueckner notes the habit-persistence hurdles and density requirements.

While these conditions are satisfied in Japan, where the bullet train network runs through densely populated areas and is now operated at maximum capacity, it is doubtful that the new systems being considered in the U.S. can meet this test. For example, the proposed high-speed system linking Los Angeles and San Francisco will face numerous hurdles in attracting passengers.

First, people are used to flying or driving between these cities, and habits are hard to change. Moreover, car users, who now can use their vehicle to get around Los Angeles or the Bay Area upon arriving, would need to rent a car following an rail trip to have adequate mobility at their destination (especially if it's L.A.). Will current car users be willing to incur this extra cost and inconvenience, or will they simply shun the rail option?

In the Chicago area, many car users are switching to commuter rail for trips into the city, including family trips to a museum or sporting event, or to go shopping. So far, American Girl dolls don't have to buy tickets ...

Faster, more frequent conventional trains are already inducing the same substitutions in California. Air travelers already face the choice of renting a car, or in increasingly many cities, using rapid transit. More frequent, more dependable passenger trains that can meet or beat the air travel times have a lot of potential. That the air carriers seem bent on antagonizing with fees those passengers already antagonized by the security checks and the stockyards experience of loading and unloading through one ramp can't hurt.

Another economist, Keith Poole, suggests the potential for cooperation with the freight railroads.

Existing diesel and electric locomotives can easily reach speeds of 80 m.p.h. or more, which is more than sufficient if the train does not have to slow down for highway crossings.

For distances of 200 to 300 miles this would be very cost effective because most freeways between major cities are clogged with traffic. This would also be beneficial to the freight railroad, which would have exclusive use of the right-of-way at night when there would be no passenger trains.

Indeed, the freight railroad should run the trains. That is what they do. Unfortunately, this is a practical solution and not a “sexy” one, so it does not appeal to politicians. But it could and should be done.

The right infrastructure contracts with railroads could easily make 110 to 125 mph running on grade-separated existing railroad lines feasible. And, indeed, the freight railroad runs the trains already: on some of Chicago's Metra commuter lines the operating crews are freight railroad employees, and the freight railroad's dispatchers dispatch, or delay, Amtrak and commuter trains coast to coast. The passenger rail operating authorities hire a schedule slot from the freight railroad, and provide a reliable consist. It shouldn't be too hard to provide reliable consists with free rein to 110 or 125, as in the age of steam. It shouldn't be necessary to limit the freight trains to using the tracks at night, not with intermodal and autorack trains capable of the 70 or 80 mph the freight diesels top out at, not with judicious placement of a third track. The cost of providing trackage capable of Acela-type speeds buys only a few minutes saving in stop-to-stop times (compare today's Boston to New York schedules with timings of the early 1950s). The generalization to providing German or French type speeds is left to the reader as an exercise.

One Wisconsin Now makes its case for speeding up the trains on the Chicago to Madison route, one logical candidate for the incremental approach.

Although the video does feature some of the ultra-costly, 220 mph-fast European trains, it does make the case for providing better connectivity in the thickly settled parts of the Midwest.

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