For decades prior to President Obama, the federal government invested only $4 billion to create a 437-mile High Speed Rail line in the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC-New Haven-Providence-Boston). Managed by Amtrak, that High Speed Rail (HSR) line is called Acela. Meanwhile, less than $1 billion of federal funds were applied to the remaining 22,000 rail miles and trains.
In January 2010, President Obama directed $8 billion from the economic stimulus to rail corridors selected to achieve HSR status. He also directed $5 billion to Amtrak over 5 years to address its maintenance backlog and train replacements. By far, $13 billion is the largest federal funding of intercity passenger rail. His actions suggest a poetic bookend to President Lincoln who authorized construction of the transcontinental railroad amidst the Civil War. America’s first black President, whose mantra was “Change We Can Believe In“, began upgrading intercity passenger rail amidst two wars and the Great Recession.
So what’s not to like?
22,000 MILES OF RAIL — OKAY FOR FREIGHT AND TRANSIT, BAD FOR HIGH SPEED
U.S. rail routes, to an overwhelming degree, are owned by freight train companies and to a lesser degree, by commuter transit agencies. By law, freight train companies and transit agencies lease Amtrak access to their tracks. Since leasing fees are low, freight train companies have no incentive to upgrade routes for high speed. Nor do transit agencies have extra funds lying around. Consequently, America’s passenger rail routes are plagued with Slow Zone factors that can’t support high speeds:
• curvy, bumpy tracks
• antiquated trains, bridges, tunnels, electrical wires and signaling
• too many places where people, autos and animals cross tracks
• trains traveling in opposite directions sharing a single track
• slow freight and commuter trains limiting the number of faster passenger trains sharing their tracks
Operating under Slow Zones, it is common for infrequent Amtrak trains to max at 60 mph with lousy on-time performance. Yet as bad as these Slow Zones are for Amtrak, they are fine for freight trains and tolerable for commuter trains.
Aware that $13 billion would not solve all systemic issues, Obama envisioned a bigger transportation solution like another President before him. So he called the rail stimulus a “Kick-start to an Interstate High Speed Rail System.”
FUNDING INTERSTATE HIGHWAYS, A TEMPLATE FOR INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL
President Eisenhower has the legacy of kick-starting our Interstate Highway System and funding international airport upgrades to accommodate jets. Since the 1955, the federal government has invested an inflation-adjusted $1.4 trillion for interstate highways and $475 billion in federal aviation. Our Interstate Highway System and Federal Aviation System helped vault America to global superpower while transforming our lifestyles, land-use and energy-use in ways unimaginable. Now we can’t imagine a great America without them.
Given Congress fights over every budget item, how did we build 50,000 miles of Interstate Highway System when many rural projects were not cost-justifiable and some urban projects were gold-plated?
Answer: Political vote-trading.
Here’s an example. Many in Congress objected to an Interstate Highway Tunnel & Bridge project in Boston called the Big Dig. Since that $15 billion project benefited drivers to Boston from other parts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, and New York, there would be no problem getting congressional votes from the Northeast. Meanwhile, sparsely populated Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah needed Congressional votes for their difficult to justify Interstate Highway projects. Thus, rural and urban interests traded bi-partisan congressional votes to authorize federal funding.
Presidents, appreciating the compromise to create infrastructure jobs, signed off.
The Interstate Highway System as planned in 1955, was completed in 1992. Since then, we’ve augmented it with beltways and thruways in our metro areas. By any reasonable definition, 99.9% of the “Augmented” Interstate Highway System has also finished construction. Though Interstate Highways require maintenance, America can shift a larger percentage of public funds towards other modes of transportation required for the 21st Century — Rapid Transit, HSR and improved Freight Rail.
Using cost of the Interstate Highway System as a partial guide, we need an order of magnitude more than $13 billion to build an Interstate HSR System. Could a high scale of public funding be justified?
One justification is that we already have a successful HSR story in America, despite never being properly funded. Amtrak Acela transports 12 million passengers annually in the Northeast Corridor. That’s more people than fly between the cities of Boston, Providence, New Haven, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Acela operates at a profit and has relieved demand to expand runways at Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York City, New Haven, Providence and Boston international airports.
UPGRADE OPPORTUNITIES FOR A LEGACY OF INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL
Departments of Transportation (DOT) in many states studied Acela’s modest success. They concluded that several thousand miles of legacy rail corridors can be upgraded to HSR status at a cost far less than adding airport runways or widening interstate highway. Furthermore, many chambers of commerce and the Institute for Civil Engineers say America needs a robust passenger HSR network.
As a result, state DOTs convinced a large number of Democrat and Republican governors and mayors to support HSR projects. That support was measured by 37 governors of both parties who applied for $75 billion in federal grants for intercity passenger rail projects that they plan to add state funding to complete.
The Great Recession demanded that our Congress and President use more than one-time economic stimulus to quickly create jobs, while fixing infrastructure. Prudence demanded that only merit-based projects receive funding from the U.S. Department Of Transportation (USDOT“). With the 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill up for renewal in Summer 2010, the President and his Secretary of Transportation set a larger vision for an Interstate HSR System that provides service to 80% of Americans, like the Interstate Highway System.
Just as prior Presidents did for the Interstate Highway System, Obama planned to spread Interstate HSR funding around to states who passed merit-based criteria. Wisely, Obama’s USDOT anticipated that states still wanted a majority of federal funding for Highway maintenance, followed by Transit, then HSR. His proposal allocated funds accordingly. With broad support from governors and mayors, Freight-Commuter-Amtrak routes needing upgrade, completion of the Interstate Highways System, Interstate HSR funding fit the geographic criteria for Congressional vote trading. Even the federal deficit didn’t seem too big a hurdle, since the federal government collects over $2 trillion in taxes each year and the next transportation funding proposal could be less than 5% of federal budget — a percentage below its historical high.
With high unemployment, opportunity for vote-trading seemed right because few in Congress could argue against sound job creation benefits. Or so it seemed.
To open budget negotiations with Congress, President Obama proposed a $556 billion 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Bill that would allocate $9 billion/year for HSR, $20 billion/year for Transit and $63 billion/year for Highways. If Congress approved, that amount would represent less than 5% of America’s federal budget. Every dollar of it would recycle in the economy 4-5 times, creating about two million jobs and more taxes returned to federal and state budgets. Since good transportation improves economic productivity and long term jobs, fixing & building transportation infrastructure can more accurately be described as “investment” rather than expense.
As is common in budget negotiations with Congress, the new President’s first proposal was rejected.
Unbowed, Obama and his Transportation Secretary talked with more Congresspersons over the next 9 months. Obama then issued his 2nd 6-Year U.S. Surface Transportation Proposal, reduced to $476 billion/6 years. It included tweaks to please more Congresspersons. Planned HSR funding was reduced to $47 billion/6 years. Combined with the previously committed $13 billion from the economic stimulus, $60 billion in federal funding would invite roughly $25 billion in state, local and private funding. In total, about $85 billion allocated from 2010-2017 would create a de facto Phase 1 for the Interstate HSR System.
Unfortunately since 2010, hyper-partisan politics have made Congressional vote-trading nearly impossible for major budget initiatives. Democrats in the House of Representatives could only reach a compromise with their Republican counterparts to allocate $2.5 billion more for HSR, $10 billion more for Transit and $44 billion more for Highways. All numbers were well below those requested by Obama, the U.S. Senate and governors. And well below typical levels of transportation funding.
Meanwhile, the $710 billion/year Defense budget remained gold-plated with numerous obsolete weapons and programs.
Congress caught a lot of public flak for cutting Highway and Transit funding, but none outside the Northeast Corridor for cutting HSR funding. That’s business as usual in America, where intercity passenger trains have been orphaned since 1945.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH HIGHWAYS AND JETS DESTROYS A LEGACY
From its founding in 1830 through 1920, railroading was America’s largest industry. Despite the Great Depression closing most railroad companies, some survived because the nation still needed to transport heavy equipment, materials and people over long distances. From 1920-1941, freight trucks and intercity buses started siphoning more business from freight and passenger trains, putting some railroad companies out of business.
World War II triggered a brief resurgence in railroad profits because the nation needed to transport soldiers, weapons and postal mail long distances. Afterwards, American freight trains fared better than intercity passenger trains. Why?
In 1945, the Great Depression ended after World War II. Incomes increased. The G.I. Bill enabled more veterans to buy a house in the suburbs, which required more people to buy cars. More cars increased gasoline demand. More oil discovery and gasoline refining triggered population growth in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Many veterans who fought in the Pacific relocated to California. More elders retired in Florida. Military aircraft companies in the states of Georgia, Washington, Missouri and Maryland shifted to building more commercial planes.
American officers who served in Italy and Germany marveled at the convenience of their non-stop “fast roads” (intercity highway systems) compared to our lousy national highways. When our officers returned home, they influenced politicians to build a handful of fast roads in California, New York and a few other states.
In the early 1950s, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Seattle, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa Bay boom cities and the suburbs of NYC, Philly, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis triggered suburban sprawl that required more boulevards and highways. More driving to the suburbs triggered a decline in streetcar patronage feeding downtowns.
Movies, music and TV programs celebrated the freedom of driving one’s own car on boulevards and highways. Songs like Route 66 mythologized the joy of driving one of America’s most scenic national highways from Chicago to Los Angeles. Since gasoline cost under 10 cents/gallon, it was cool to drive at higher speeds on highways.
With the Korean War behind us in 1955, the economy was finally generating a federal budget surplus that funded 80-90% of the early Interstate Highway projects. To accelerate highway projects, states rapaciously used imminent domain law for land acquisition. As longer segments of Interstate Highway intersected, more drivers unfettered by stop-lights, stop-signs or road crossings went hundreds of miles at 70-85 mph. Freight truckers often carved up the road for 5-8 hours non-stop as a new ecosystem of auto service stations, roadside diners and motels formed around Interstate Highway exits.
Though publicly-funded Interstate Highways cut demand for intercity passenger trains, federal railroad regulations also played a role.
Sprawling suburbs created more places where roads crossed tracks and more autos to cross them, more accidents occurred. Slowing down trains to reduce auto accidents became a priority of transportation regulation. With the exception of the NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor that already built overpasses, 110 mph passenger trains were slowed to 79 mph or 60 mph when crossing roads.
That slowdown made journey time on intercity passenger trains less competitive with journey times on interstate highways for 200 miles or less.
In 1958, the Commercial Jet Age began. Passenger jets not only flew faster, they were pressurized to fly higher, longer and smoother than turboprop airplanes they replaced. From that year forward, aviation attracted significantly more business travelers switching from long-distance intercity passenger trains. Public sentiment towards aviation increased as more people got airline and airport jobs. With public sentiment backing them, politicians often bragged about attracting federal funding for airport expansion that increased regional jobs.
In the 1960s, the bottom fell out as intercity passenger trains lost long-distance postal contracts to jets and remaining intercity passenger trains became money-losers. Since railroad profits plummeted, many companies closed passenger lines and still went bankrupt. The few remaining companies survived by cutting costs to the bone, cherry-picking routes from bankrupt competitors to focus on freight loads unfeasible for high-volume transport by freight trucks — coal in particular.
In the 1970s, America’s growing economy required more high-volume freight transport that permitted freight trains to hang in there. But there was no savior revenue for intercity passenger trains.
Embarrassed that America’s intercity passenger rail legacy since 1830 was near death, Congress and President Nixon formed Amtrak in 1971 and its subsidized operation. Without a lobby for federal funding to build train overpasses and speed up trains, however, Amtrak was little more than a PR stunt that saved a handful of passenger trains.
THE EMERGENCE OF ANTI-HIGH SPEED RAIL FORCES
By 1978, auto, oil, aviation, freight trucking and freight rail lobbies mushroomed in Washington. They helped convince federal and state governments to boost funds and public land for highway and airport expansion. Aviation and oil lobbies convinced Congress and President Carter to deregulate air travel for lower ticket prices and more regional flights, which by the way, consumed more oil-based jet fuel.
In 1979, OPEC’s second oil embargo hit America. Considering the long lines to refill gasoline tanks, people refused to drive long distances. The second oil embargo tossed Amtrak a lifeline when tourism nosedived. For a moment, public officials considered investing in Amtrak High Speed Rail (HSR). They had three HSR models to analogize for the possible success in America.
Japan was enjoying patronage success with electric-powered 130 mph HSR introduced during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and had since boosted speed to 155 mph by 1979. Italy introduced the first electric-powered 155-mph HSR line in Europe. France was nearing completion of an electric-powered 168 mph HSR line between its two largest cities. With that impetus, President Carter and several Congressmen proposed an electric-powered HSR demonstration project in America.
Aware that high speed intercity passenger trains were successful in Japan and Italy and likely to succeed in France, oil, airline, auto and freight trucking industries saw HSR as a threat to their profits, as well as highway and airport investment. So they funded think tanks to mislead news media about the benefits of HSR.
Freight rail was in survival mode, so it only fought to protect its interests. In 1980, the freight rail lobby convinced Congress and President Carter to deregulate most freight rail with the Staggers Act. Although the act was good for freight rail, it preserved regulation unfriendly to intercity passenger rail. For example, passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains must have higher weight locomotives to pass federal safety regulations.
Unlike HSR trains elsewhere in the world, bulkier, less aerodynamic Amtrak locomotives burn more energy per mile. Since energy costs are the second highest train operating expense, they cut Amtrak profits. Lower Amtrak profits represent more ammunition for anti-HSR forces.
Publishing a stream of reports, TV & radio interviews, and op-ed news placements, Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks accomplished their disinformation objective using soundbites painting HSR as a boondoggle without context for its larger societal benefits. Their central argument was, “If HSR made business sense, private train companies would build it.”
Of course Cato, Reason and Heritage refused to apply the same critiques towards unjustifiable interstate highway and airport projects.
Absent the public understanding larger HSR benefits and that three major corridors already had demographics to forecast HSR success, the resolve of President Carter and Congress wilted. By failing to fund a HSR demonstration project, they created a seed of doubt that HSR could ever succeed in America. That seed blossomed into a thorny bush.
CAN HIGH SPEED RAIL SUCCESS ABROAD BE DUPLICATED IN AMERICA?
Japan is a great example of HSR funding commitment by a market economy having strong citizen rights. It has the most experience integrating retail and office development within their popular train stations to make Shinkansen HSR very profitable for Japan Railways Corporation and train builders like Hitachi.
Though Japan provides technical proof that HSR works in an advanced nation, its gasoline economics, geography and demographics are too different from America to help forecast HSR success here.
Japan never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline. By 1980, it had 117 million people living on a mountain island chain the size of California. It had a series of super-dense cities only 75-200 miles apart. Having expensive tolls on 4-lane expressways between cities and a 62 mph (100 kmph) speed limit, relatively few leisure travelers drove over 93 miles (150 kilometers). These are perfect conditions for passenger high speed rail to succeed.
At the same time, America still had plenty of cheap domestic oil. And even though the Iranian Revolution spiked oil prices in 1979, other OPEC nations were quick to sell us more oil at favorable prices that kept our gasoline prices cheap.
We had three dense population corridors, but our 227 million residents were spread over 10 times more land than Japan. U.S. Senators, Representatives and governors from sparsely populated states had zero interest in HSR because their number one transportation objective was to complete the Interstate Highway System predominantly as freeways, rather than tollways.
So when transportation negotiations occurred, highway funding always won out, followed by airport funding. Furthermore, President Carter was pressured to return interstate highway speed limits back to 70-80 mph.
None of that sounds like Japan.
By 1980, Italy had a democratic market economy, a fantastic 81-93 mph (130-150 kmph) Autostrada intercity highway system of tollways and freeways. Italy had no large oil fields for cheap gasoline. Its household income was lower than America, so it has fewer cars per household. Italy is a small peninsula-shaped country with over 75% of its 56 million population concentrated in a single 408-mile corridor (Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples). Population density in a single dominant corridor and modest household income convinced the Italian government to maintain 106-112 mph intercity passenger trains. With that popular service in place, it was a no-brainer to upgrade the Milan-Naples rail corridor to 155 mph (250 kmph).
Italy’s dynamics for successful passenger HSR, bore little resemblance to America’s passenger rail dynamics.
HSR IN FRANCE, A SUITABLE MODEL FOR HSR IN AMERICA’S NORTHEAST
Even though it never had large oil fields for cheap gasoline, France was otherwise shared many similarities to America’s Northeast.
Its democratic market economy produced a French household income high enough to support a strong auto-culture among its population of 54 million residents. So the French built Autoroute, an excellent 81 mph (130 kmph) 4-6 lane intercity tollway system. Few single-passenger drivers could justify paying tolls and expensive gasoline to drive hundreds of miles. But driving one’s family several hundred miles made economic sense. Hence, intercity passenger trains would have to compete with intercity tollways.
Paris and Lyon, France’s largest metro areas, are only 274 miles apart. Autoroute tollway between them clogged during holidays. Population density in NYC-Philadelphia-Baltmore-Washington corridor was higher than Paris-Lyon and only 226 miles long. The fastest drive between NYC and Washington required a 70 mph tollway & freeway route that clogged during holidays.
France built train overpasses for Paris-Lyon passenger trains to maintain 106-112 mph (170-180 kmph) and keep patrons. NYC-Philadelphia-Baltmore-Washington rail corridor had train overpasses to support 110 mph and save patronage.
The French TGV would connect to popular Metro rail systems, buses, taxis and shuttles to train stations, transforming them into popular multimodal transportation centers. HSR in America’s Northeast Corridor would connect to extensive Metro rail systems, buses, taxis and shuttles at popular NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington train stations.
FRANCE SHIFTS TO ELECTRIC-POWERED HSR
In 1971, the French government began constructing a High Speed-Only Line called “LGV” (Line à Grande Vitesse) for High Speed Trains called “TGV” (Train à Grande Vitesse) between Paris and Lyon. They initially planned oil-powered trains. But when the first OPEC Oil embargo also hit France in 1973, they determined that oil would not be a long term solution for mass transportation. Instead, they shifted to electric-powered TGV trains drawing energy from nuclear power plants.
Alstom, a French transportation manufacturing company got the contract to build TGV trains and create jobs.
In 1981, French President Mitterrand inaugurated 168 mph (270 kmph) Paris-Lyon TGV service with standard pricing for leisure travel and premium pricing for business travel. The lack of diesel fumes in TGV-Metro stations were enthusiastically welcomed by passengers and retailers. Attractive standard ticket prices didn’t hurt either.
Given its similarities to Paris-Lyon, America’s Northeast Corridor should have begun the upgrade process to HSR the same year.
FRANCE ENJOYS OTHER HSR BENEFITS TOO
By 1988, Alstom TGV trains were upgraded to support 186 mph and train frequency was increased. Everyone realized that TGV’s speed, limited stops and frequent trains made Paris-Lyon journey time shorter and more convenient than flying, plus taxi to city center.
By 1990, most Paris-Lyon travelers abandoned air travel and cut Autoroute congestion. Now, due to patronage popularity and profitability, France is expanding the TGV System to every region and across borders.
Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Lille and Le Mans rapidly expanded their electric-powered Metro Subway and Light Rail systems, which conveniently feed more patrons to TGV stations. Due to the popularity of TGV-Metro stations, companies built office-retail-hotel centers around them, increasing local tax bases.
Given electricity for TGV and Metro rail comes from less expensive nuclear power, France imports much less oil per person than America, allowing a larger percentage of energy money to circulate at home rather than transfer to OPEC nations.
Alstom, now a $20 billion company, became one of the world’s most successful power generation and train builders exporting products and services abroad. France also discovered that LGVs repay construction costs in 10-12 years and remain profitable.
Here’s a benefit every French taxpayer enjoys due to TGV success. TGV attracts private companies to cover 25-40% of LGV expansion costs and/or significant license fees to run their TGV-compliant trains on them.
Here’s a benefit that every traveler to Europe can appreciate. The TGV partners with 10 international airlines enabling a single-purchase transaction for flights to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport plus transfer to TGV via the Airport-TGV Station. As more cross-border TGV connections complete this decade, you’ll be able to fly into France, then conveniently train ride throughout France and Western Europe.
Observing these French and Italian HSR benefits Spain, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom got on board with HSR projects of their own.
CLINTON FUNDED OUR FIRST, POORLY EXECUTED HIGH SPEED RAIL ROUTE
Rewind back to 1993. Every American traveler that rode French, Italian, Belgian, German, UK and Spanish HSR trains could sense that HSR trains had a popularity transferable to some corridors in America. Yet anti-HSR pundits were telling those travelers, “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”
President Clinton didn’t believe those pundits. Envying HSR benefits seen abroad, Clinton used economic stimulus funds to kick-start the Northeast Corridor HSR line in 1993. Unfortunately, Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation followed that wise decision with critical mistakes detailed on this linked page, Amtrak Acela HSR . The short story follows.
Instead of focusing federal railroad funds on HSR, the only high speed train technology in commercial operation, the Clinton Administration split funding with a competing train technology called “MagLev”, short for Magnetic Levitation. MagLev was taken from concept to test operation status by Germany and Japan, dazzling all who rode at 250-270 mph on its short test tracks.
The Secretary of Transportation was so dazzled, he convinced President Clinton to authorize about $1 billion on MagLev train studies and only $1 billion was spread across the 437-mile Northeast Corridor HSR project. The Clinton Administration should have ignored MagLev until Germany or Japan commercially operated MagLev in their own country.
Germany couldn’t make the financial numbers pencil out so it licensed its MagLev technology to China for cost recovery. China welcomed the technology because its labor, land, legal and energy costs were extremely.
Another clue that MagLev wasn’t ready for primetime in America was that hyper-dense Japan was rushing to finish its national HSR network well before MagLev moves from technology demonstration into commercial operation. Apparently, the numbers for MagLev don’t pencil out until 2027, when Japan’s first short commercial MagLev line runs from tokyo to Nagoya. It will reach 2042 before the same MagLev line extends a total of 272 miles between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s two largest cities.
If the Clinton Administration simply ignored MagLev until it was commercially proven, Congress could have focused our Demonstration HSR project deliver in three confidence-building phases:
PHASE 1. NYC-Philadelphia
PHASE 2. Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington
PHASE 3. NYC-New Haven-Boston + Springfield-Hartford-New Haven + Harrisburg-Philadelphia
Phase 1 should have consumed the entire $2 billion in 1993 to upgrade NYC-Philadelphia corridor with a high speed-only line.
Phase 2 would have benefited from our economic recovery in 1995, helping Clinton convince Congress to allocate $6 billion/6 years to be matched by $3 billion/6 years in state and local funding. Completing by 2000, Phase 2 would include purchase of 185 mph trains to produce a 2-hour Journey Time between NYC and Washington. That Journey Time would have doubled patron demand and permitted lower standard pricing that would double operating profits compared to Acela today.
With that kind of patron demand and profitability, the subsequent Congress and President Bush II would have been compelled to allocate another $6 billion/6 years of federal funds and to attract $3 billion state and local sources to complete Phase 3 construction by 2007.
By 2000, there was enough worldwide transportation history to prove that private investment gravitates to high passenger-volume multi-modal transportation centers. On that basis, another $10 billion would be needed to complete Phase 3, but private money would have invested $3 billion on property owned by and surrounding Metro-HSR train stations for retail, office and hotel construction. Property taxes, hotel taxes, sales taxes and rental fees would offset station upgrade and operating costs. Upon completion, public & private investment in the Northeast would have totaled $18-19 billion instead of only the $4 billion spent. But Amtrak Northeast would be generating over $2.5 billion per year profit (4 times current profit) and tax revenues would be double or triple. Over 10 years, the public investment would have been repaid.
Like the French who saved money not widening Autoroute, America would have also saved money by not widening Interstate Highways in Northeast Corridor. Trade unions would have got behind Interstate HSR like they quickly threw supported behind Interstate Highways in the late 1950s. With that scale of success in the Northeast, expanding HSR south to Atlanta, west to Cleveland, North to Montreal and northwest to Buffalo would have been no-brainers.
Since anti-HSR forces did not want the Northeast spawning a successful Interstate HSR System, they increased HSR disinformation to exploit Clinton Administration mistakes. Without pro-HSR think tanks at the time, anti-HSR narratives dominated the media with unfair funding criteria, biased lies and opinions misused as facts:
• UNFAIR FUNDING CRITERIA: Unlike Highways, judge HSR solely as a business decision based on raw construction costs without context for Cost Per Passenger Mile or oil saved or the higher alternate cost of widening highways
• BIASED LIES: Claim that HSR takes funds from highways and airports
• MISUSE OPINION AS FACT: “If HSR is not super profitable in America’s densest corridor despite spending $4 billion, then we should not build it elsewhere“
• MISUSE OPINION AS FACT: “Americans won’t ride trains because they prefer to drive highways or fly“
With Clinton missteps and prevailing disinformation narratives, anti-HSR forces convinced Congress to underfund Amtrak Acela, thereby delaying upgrades that would have made the Northeast Corridor a TGV-scale success.
Without Acela as a TGV-scale success, survival became paramount for Amtrak executives. To obtain enough financial support from Congress and governors to keep the lights on, Amtrak was forced to run many low-patronage routes that have no chance to become high-patronage, profitable routes. Highlighting those low-patronage routes in 2004, President George W. Bush tried to kill Amtrak. Only a cross-section of Congress and governors and the modest success of Acela saved Amtrak.
That brings us to our current situation mixed with frustration and progress. Acela only received enough funding for small sections of 135-150 mph top speed that still limits demand compared to 185-200 mph over the entire corridor. On the bright side, Amtrak’s survival tactics saved intercity passenger train service in corridors that can one day become high patronage, profitable HSR routes.
OBAMA FINALLY IMPROVING AMTRAK
Since President Obama broke the funding logjam, even former critics acknowledge that the Northeast Corridor merits further investment for Acela to become a TGV-like route. Now however, taxpayers must upgrade the route when materials, labor and land cost far more.
With the change in Presidential and Senate sentiment, Amtrak seized the opportunity in 2012, by updating its Vision for the Northeast Corridor. By 2017, Acela will operate at 160 mph in the NYC-Phiadelphia corridor segment.
Amtrak says $34 billion more is needed to enable NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington segment to operate at 200 mph and open Moynihan Station to permit faster, higher capacity boarding in New York City by 2022. The NYC-New Haven corridor segment would increase to 125 mph and New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor segment would speed to 185-200 mph by 2025, enabling Amtrak to triple Northeast Corridor patronage compared to 2009.
Yet, when you click on the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program map to see a larger version of our investment, ask yourself why is Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinati corridor, which has tailor-made intercity HSR conditions, not underway? Why does planned construction stop in Charlotte, rather than Atlanta, Orlando and Miami? Why doesn’t fast-growing Texas have a construction plan listed?
TWO INDUSTRIES REMAIN HIGH SPEED RAIL ENEMIES
Between 2008-10, momentum shifted towards Rapid Transit and HSR in two industries that formerly fought against it and towards compromise in another. Unfortunately, the other anti-HSR force, plus one new opponent dug in against HSR and Rapid Transit.
President Obama increased MPG requirements for all autos and used economic stimulus to kick-start more private investment in battery technology. When Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler, he stipulated that electric and electric-hybrid cars be a larger part of their future. With intense competition from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and VW, and increasing demand, Ford was nudged to do the same. In this manner, the close-knit relationship between oil and auto industries producing gas-guzzlers has been fractured. The inevitable majority of new auto sales are headed towards 100 MPG mostly electric cars next decade.
Airlines are going green too. After labor costs, oil-based jet fuel is their second largest operating expense. Thus, airlines eagerly await next generation jets designed for algae-based biofuel and solar panel technology to boost fuel efficiency. There’s another reason airlines have dropped resistance to HSR. Surrounding communities don’t want more runways.
As air traffic increases due to population growth, airlines want to allocate their share of runway slots for higher profit, longer distance flights. For example in 2013, the law requiring Southwest Airlines to maintain a certain number of local flights in Texas expires. Southwest wants to use those gates and runway time slots for longer, more profitable flights.
Since road congestion increases their fuel & labor expense and they don’t want to pay higher road maintenance taxes, Freight Truckers would prefer that more leisure drivers have an alternative to highways. Additionally, intense competition with Freight Trucking is pushing Freight Rail towards partnership with funded HSR projects. Its become clear that reducing freight rail bottlenecks for lower transport cost is intertwined with improving intercity passenger rail. In return for sharing more route capacity with HSR trains, the Freight Rail industry wants more bottlenecks removed and route capacity increased.
President Obama is permitting more drilling for America’s vast natural gas reserves, a boon to oil companies who own the most lease rights to drill. But Obama wants to eliminate oil subsidies, more safety regulation of deep sea drilling, another round of auto MPG increases, more Rail Transit and HSR that reduce oil consumption. That angers oil companies.
Obama also attracted a new enemy when he announced energy plans to spur wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear and natural gas energy to fuel electricity generation plants, which of course, would power electric cars, Rail Transit and HSR. Demand for coal to generate electricity would be greatly reduced. That angers coal companies.
I reveal more insights about oil and coal industry antipathy towards Green Transportation in Part 4 of this article.
OTHER LEADING AND EMERGING NATIONS RAPIDLY BUILDING HSR
As yet, I haven’t explained why Cato, Reason and Heritage think tanks are right to scrutinize HSR construction and operation details, but diabolically wrong to criticize HSR in general. Nor have I explained why benefits-to-costs are so compelling that America should build an Interstate HSR System.
In addition to France, Italy and Japan, every other leading or emerging nation is racing to complete HSR systems — even amidst global recession. China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, India, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are investing single, double and triple-digit billions of dollars. In fact, the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is building an Intercity HSR System.
Given the huge financial investment, it takes more than a joy ride on TGV, Italo or Shinkansen to win over so many minds and wallets. Bigger motivations are driving them to complete Intercity HSR Systems this decade and next. I address those motivations in following parts of this article. Oh yeah … there’s a pretty good Cato, Reason and Heritage smack-down too!