The Superintendent has long maintained that North American freight railroads set the pace for the world, that Passenger Rail advocates who don't understand the freight technology hurt their own cause, that the passenger train authorities can do better by working with the freight railroads, that incremental improvements in the passenger service, including more frequent service topping out at 90 or 110 with interconnectivity has more potential than splashy bullet trains for their own sake, and that some freight railroads are unnecessarily precautionary.Author Phillip Longman begins his article with the obligatory foaming about Germany's fourth-generation Electroliners, but he takes the time to explore the rail network and educate himself.
Having arrived in Cologne faster than I needed to, I decided to take the longer, more scenic route back to Frankfurt, which costs just $72, riding the old West Rhine Railway. Begun in 1844, it’s a conventional railway that twists and turns mostly along the banks of the Rhine, passing beneath many high-perched castles and vineyards. It also provides access to such midsize cities as Koblenz and Mainz, and to such bucolic spots as the famous Rock of Lorelei, all of which the new high-speed rail line misses in order to save time.Look no further than the Chicago to St. Louis line, which the latest issue of Trains suggests will become an expressway for container trains once Union Pacific completes the Joliet intermodal yard and the state gets the 110 mph passenger trains running. That line runs alongside Interstate 55 in open country and the thought of 90 mph piggybackers and 110 mph Lincoln Service trains blowing by the road-rage set has its appeal.
Because of its more circuitous route and local stops, and because passenger trains on the Rhine Valley line also have to share tracks with many freight trains, these trains are slower than those on the new high-speed line. Yet they still max out at about 100 mph, which means that they only take a bit more than an hour longer to go from Cologne to Frankfurt even as they serve more population centers in between. The line is vibrant, with local and express passenger trains passing through any given station every fifteen to twenty minutes. By European or Asian standards, this service doesn’t qualify as high-speed rail, but it is faster on average than most American railways, and frequent enough to provide vital connectivity throughout the Rhine Valley.
My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.
But as great as it would be to have passenger service as fast and elegant as the TGV in the United States, there are many reasons not to put our first dollars into such an ambitious project. First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.Indeed.
The news tends to speak of Passenger Rail improvements in isolation. Chicago is a logical hub for a midwestern train network, heir to the Rockets and Zephyrs and Hiawathas and Arrows, provided the resulting trains are scheduled with a view toward connectivity.Here's the East Coast version of the same story.
As it is, Amtrak’s service between Washington and Boston is already highly successful, even if it does not qualify as high-speed rail by world standards. The top speed obtained by any train is 150 mph, and that happens only in a brief segment of Rhode Island. The average speed is much lower, even to the point that the schedule today between New York and Boston is only nineteen minutes faster than that achieved by the New Haven Railroad’s “Merchants Limited” in 1954. But today’s service is fast enough for Amtrak to dominate the travel market among the intermediate points along the corridor. Tellingly, almost no one rides all the way from Boston to Washington, which takes seven hours on the Acela and costs more than flying. But the trains are nonetheless full despite steep fares, and ridership continues to mount.Standard stuff for regular readers; glad to see the Influential People are beginning to catch on.
That’s because most passengers are traveling between intermediate points where existing train service is more than competitive with alternative modes, such as battling the traffic on I-95 or catching a flight. Compared to airlines, for example, Amtrak has virtually a 100 percent market share of passenger trips between Philadelphia and New York, a 60 percent share between Washington and New York, and a 50 percent share between New York and Boston. On each trip between Washington and Boston, more than half the passengers will get off at either Philadelphia or New York and are replaced by other passengers. From the travelers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether the train goes 150 mph or even 300 mph, since they will only be on it for a short time anyway. What matters to them far more is that the trains are frequent, pleasant, reasonably priced, and reliable. Recently, after Florida rejected federal money for its high-speed project, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redirected $795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily used sections of the Northeast Corridor. This money will increase speeds from 135 to 160 miles per hour on critical segments, but much more importantly it will improve on-time performance and add more seats to accommodate the continuing surge in ridership.
Frequency of service is also often more important than top speed. Only two passenger trains serve Cleveland, for example, and both come through, in both directions, between 12:59 and 5:35 a.m. It’s surprising how many people use these trains nonetheless. Recently, after business in Cleveland that kept me there late, I decided to take a sleeper car home rather than spending an extra night in a hotel room and flying out in the morning. I counted some seventy-five people in the waiting room even at two a.m. Many more would be taking the train in and out of Cleveland if only there were reliable daytime service to nearby points such as Pittsburgh, Toledo, South Bend, Akron, Indianapolis, or Chicago, all of which could be reached by conventional trains in far less time, and at far less cost, than flying. (Sadly, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich has rejected $400 million in federal stimulus funds that would have had such service up and running in short order. Republican Governor Scott Walker has waved away more than $800 million in federal money that would have brought similarly practical and thrifty passenger rail service to the Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and St. Paul corridor.) Providing connectivity to small towns and midsize cities that currently lack affordable air service, or any air service at all, is one of the most important potential benefits of passenger rail, and you don’t need 300-mph bullet trains to pull it off.Yeah.
Conventional trains running between Washington and such nearby cities to the south as Richmond, Charlottesville, Durham, and Charlotte already attract a growing ridership, and would attract a larger one if they were more frequent and reliable, as well as better integrated with trains running north of D.C. along the Northeast Corridor. The minimal investment needed in new track capacity would also improve freight service, thereby getting more trucks off the road and improving the driving experience for those who don’t want to take the train. It also would likely spur a good amount of economic development. Midsize cities such as Lynchburg or Petersburg, Virginia, which once thrived because of their strategic position on the nation’s rail map, might experience a real estate boom if it were possible to live there and still have easy access to the business opportunities and cultural amenities of Washington, Philadelphia, or New York. Projects currently under way will do the same for cities like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Springfield, Illinois, by providing improved connections with Chicago. Making such incremental improvements might not stir the hearts of Americans the way eclipsing the French or the Chinese in high-speed rail might, but it’s still a sensible course that will gradually start rebuilding a rail culture in the U.S. As more and more Americans outside the Northeast Corridor experience practical, reliable, conventional train service that beats flying or driving, the constituency for super-expensive, super-fast trains will build as it has abroad. Until then “fast enough” high-speed rail is good enough.
In Trains, columnist Fred W. Frailey makes a number of observations. Two are particularly salient to Mr Longman's argument: build more capacity in existing 79 mph passenger railroads, and don't expect the profitable freight railroads to go along with projects that will reduce their capacity.
That noted, there's plenty of potential for strengthening the Passenger Rail network and giving the streamliners free rein, once again, to 110.