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Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from Voices On The Square, this is a repeat of a Sunday Train from The Hillbilly Report of 4 Oct, 2009 ... about an evergreen Liebertarian talking point

Today, the focus is on one lovely rhetorical ploy used by anti-rail advocates to try to put one over on people with limited experience with trains. This relies on the false framing that "trains is trains", and uses something that is true about a particular kind of local rail transport to mislead people about 110mph Emerging High Speed Rail in particular.

... always with the shell games ...

Randall O'Toole, working for The Cato Institute (Sourcewatch), [had] completed another of his series of propaganda pieces against High Speed Rail, for the "Show-Me Institute". Sourcewatch does not have much on the "Show-Me Institute", but it does note that in 2006, a contribution of $50,000 to the "Show-Me Institute" appeared in the annual report ... of the Cato Institute.

And what is this shell game?

  • High capacity, high frequency local mass transit rail systems thrive best with high population densities
  • Therefore the higher the population density, the better for High Speed Rail
  • Therefore the Northeast Corridor shows the best that is possible for High Speed Rail

Didja catch it? Local mass transit rail and intercity High Speed Rail share people sitting in carriages with steel wheels running on steel rails - nowhere near enough in common to support the weight of the "therefore".

In reality, the Northeast Corridor could well be over the threshold where population density starts to undermine High Speed Rail operating ratios.

No, really, he does use this argument

I am not going to force anyone to actually open up and wade through the blizzard of half truths, hypothetical "if this, then that" arguments where there is no reason to expect "this", and rhetorical flourishes in place of empirically grounded argument that makes up an O'Toole "report". I'll wade in and pull out this thread of his "argument":

Despite optimistic forecasts by rail proponents, passenger fares would rarely if ever cover high-speed operating costs. Amtrak operations currently cost federal and state taxpayers more than $1 billion per year.34 According to the bipartisan Amtrak Reform Council, Amtrak’s trains between Boston and Washington lost nearly $2.30 per passenger in 2001. [35] If trains in the most heavily populated corridor in the United States cannot cover their costs, no other trains will come close.
Before jumping into the main flaw in this argument, I do want to look at the two acts of deceptive cherry-picking of information. The first is the year. O'Toole's piece [issued in 2009], and the most recent preceding attack job against High Speed Rail in another state was also [from the same year], so this paragraph was presumably written [in 2009]. Why look to 2001 Amtrak figures? After all, the table that is referred to as an appendix of a proposal to dismantle Amtrak is just the Amtrak route performance data, which they publish each year. Fiscal Year 2008 Route Performance is in the 2009 Amtrak Business Plan (pdf) (Appendix, page 8 {sheet 35}).

Except, in FY2001, the operating ratio (passenger revenue over operating costs) of the Acela line was 123%, in FY2008, the operating ratio was 129%. In FY2001, the operating ratio of the Northeast Corridor Regional services was 82%. In FY2009, the operating ratio was 96%.

Acela and Northeast Regional combined, the operating ratio in FY2001 was 96%. In FY2009, the combined operating ratio was 110%. [Always suspect a Liebertarian using data from a fiscal year including the effects of a recession.]

Second, if addressing 110mph Emerging High Speed Rail - why include the conventional rail operating ratio at all? Well, it is necessary to pool the conventional rail of the NEC conventional rail services and the "Emerging" High Speed Rail of the Acela together, otherwise even in 2001 there is an operating ratio over 100%. And this has to be on top of using outdated information, since if newer figures are used, then even taking conventional rail and High Speed Rail together, they are above 100%.

But What About the Main Argument

But critiquing O'Toole presents a problem like a dog that has flushed four rabbits from hiding: which rabbit do you chase?

Sure, O'Toole is quite clearly and blatantly trying to mislead his readers about the financial performance of the existing Emerging High Speed Rail services in the Northeast Corridor.

However, that this can easily distract from the main fallacy. How does O'Toole "prove" that performance on the Northeast Corridor is the ceiling for High Speed Rail performance nationwide?

Its proof by assertion: "If trains in the most heavily populated corridor in the United States cannot cover their costs, no other trains will come close."

As is often the case, if you don't stop to think about it and don't know better, the claim seems plausible. However, in reality its a steaming pile of bullshit.

What the statement assumes is that no other transport operator will notice that there are all those people living in the Northeast. O'Toole is, in other words, assuming an incredible degree of stupidity on the part of private and public intercity bus operators, stupidity on the part of airline management, stupidity on the part of local intercity rail operators.

After all, think about demand in any market. Everything else equal, the more alternative choices available, the more responsive customers are to changes in prices, and so the less a seller can rely on margin per item and the harder they have to chase volume.

Suppose a region is as densely populated as the Northeast Corridor. What does that mean for the transport market? It means more options: a greater variety of more frequent transport services available. Airline shuttles, specialized intercity bus services, commuter rail services that run between distinct cities - there is a wide range of intercity transport options.

Now, compare it to a less densely populated region. Consider Ohio, which has an overall population density similar to Germany. Taking that notch down in population density means more expensive and less frequent commuter airline routes that would be shuttles in the Northeast. Taking that notch down in density means a once a day Greyhound through route operates where a higher population density would support multiple dedicated intercity bus routes.

Just in terms of private operators, taking the population density down a notch means that there are fewer transport services as an alternative to driving, and those that exist are much less frequent.

And that lower population density also means that there is less political demand for subsidies to alternatives to driving, which also translates into fewer local and state public subsidies for intercity transport.

The total transport market increases in size with population, but there are both positives and negatives in that for the financial performance of a High Speed Rail service. Which means it is absurd to make the claim that O'Toole does. Instead, you have to evaluate each corridor on a case by case basis.

So O'Toole's argument here (as is true so often) is little more than a bluff. He hopes that you follow along his argument as he has framed it, and accept an authoritatively stated claim as if it is self-evidently true.

Given how strongly O'Toole states his bluff, we can be confident that it is false to say "If trains in the most heavily populated corridor in the United States cannot cover their costs, no other trains will come close."

For intercity rail, the more likely truth is, "If High Speed Rail covers its operating cost in the most crowded intercity transport market in the US, we should find some corridors that can do even better."

Consider, for example, the Ohio Hub

One advantage of the "do another study" approach used by the Bush administration to delay the introduction of High Speed Rail is that a lot of these corridors have been quite extensively studied. So it is that the Ohio Hub has not only pretty maps to look at, but Sample Timetables available in its detailed modeling.

Consider a sample main afternoon Express service on the Triple C corridor:

  • Cleveland (dep): 2:00pm
  • Columbus: 3:38pm
  • Dayton: 4:33pm
  • Cincinnati: 5:28

Which is to say: Cleveland|Columbus in 1:38, Columbus|Cincinnati in 1:50, Columbus|Dayton, Dayton|Cincinnati: 0:55. For comparison, Google Maps gives driving time Cleveland|Columbus 2:20; Columbus|Cincinnati: 1:49; Columbus|Dayton: 1:17; and Dayton|Cincinnati: 0:55.

So with the Triple C tying together three 1m+ metro areas, it is most time competitive for Cleveland|Columbus, while on the Columbus|Cincinnati route, the 500K+ metro area of Dayton lies along the route to provide additional patronage.

And of course, the Ohio Hub is developing in the context of the development of the Midwest Hub, which will provide 110mph rail service Cleveland/Toledo/Chicago and Cincinnati/Indianapolis/Chicago, providing through passengers at the ends of the routes to fill in for passengers taking shorter trips to destinations in the middle of the corridor.

So it is no surprise that in the financial projections for performance in 2025 in "Cleveland Hub" layer of the system - Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo, Niagara Falls and Pittsburg - the Triple C corridor performs the best.

What [would be surprising to someone who read O'Toole uncritically would be] the projected operating ratio of 199%. According to O'Toole, this is unpossible - no rail corridor in the country could conceivably outperform the Acela services on the Northeast Corridor. Yet what stands out in the projection is the limited range of travel alternatives that Ohio travelers are faced with. In the Ridership and Revenue Forecast, 78% of trips diverted to rail were originally car, 13% by air, and 9% by bus.

And yet this implies rail dominating bus and air transport in this corridor: 199% operating ratios are when 96.86% of total transport is by car, 1.95% by train, 0.80% by air, and 0.39% by bus.

And this is what gives the greatest confidence that once this corridor is brought up to 110mph, it will be very successful. A ridership of 2.56m would be a runaway success in terms of financial performance - but that is against the conditions in the transport market in 2005.

What will happen when the next oil price shock hits? Clearly, when people are looking to economize on gasoline purchases, the sticker shock for a longer distance trip is more dramatic, and it is normally less difficult to make a switch of transport for a single long distance trip than for a daily commute.

So, just as happened in 2007 and 2008, when the next oil price shocks hit, these projections are going to turn out to be conservative.

What is the Strategic Implication of all of this?

What difference does it make? First, none of this should be confused with "running at a profit". Given massive capital subsidies to road and the capital subsidies to air, expecting rail to cover all of its capital costs is unrealistic.

However, the road system requires massive operating subsidies as well, while High Speed Rail - even, in the right corridors, 110mph High Speed Rail - is able to cover operating costs and yield an operating surplus. And operating surpluses mean that a state can finance further improvements out of operating revenue, rather than out of the general fund.

So, to take an example near and dear to my heart, once the Triple C corridor is up and running and has built up its ridership - a process that normally takes about five years - that provides a stream of revenue that finance electrification of the line and construct dedicated track (shared with high speed but not heavy freight), and build it up to a full 125mph Regional HSR system.

This is why O'Toole [continues] roaming the country on a mission to issue a rehash of his misleading claims and cherry picked information for each state in the nation. Because the opponents providing travelers freedom of choice have to act now.

Once they have had a chance to prove themselves, it will be too late to stop them.

Midnight Oil: Truganini

And the world it won't stand still

Originally posted to Sunday Train on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 05:35 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If only the Liebertarians could ... (29+ / 0-)

    ... restrict themselves to sweet little lies.

    Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

    by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 05:35:09 PM PDT

  •  Great diary, thanks. (7+ / 0-)

    I've ridden Greyhound from Toledo to Cleveland To Detroit and into Canada and a rail service would be great. I hope it happens.

    "Let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this nation....It's how we are as Americans...It's how this country was built"- Michelle Obama

    by blueoregon on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 06:22:02 PM PDT

    •  Yes, the shortest alignment ... (6+ / 0-)

      ... from upstate New York to Chicago is via Toronto, but it seems at present the Toronto and Montreal bound trains stop at the border for border control instead of checking things while the train is in motion (as they used to do in Europe).

      But reconstructing the corridor between Toledo and western Detroit and establishing a daytime service from Detroit to Toledo to Cleveland is a natural complement to the 3C corridor.

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      by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 06:29:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I suspect we'd need a Schengen Zone. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Aunt Pat, raines

        At least the Lake Erie ports corridor. You would definitely want to stop in Detroit AND Windsor, and probably in Buffalo and Ft. Erie (or the two Niagara Fallses).

        In some places, international train stations would work. Vancouver's Pacific Central Station and Montreal's Gare Centrale are set up so that if the US wanted to operate preclearance inspection stations, the space is waiting. Toronto's Union Station might be able to accommodate one. I don't think it would be like the Eurostar, where you have preclearance stations at both ends, and I suspect that intermediate stations in Canada would be difficult to cover that way.

        Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? -Paul Krugman

        by Judge Moonbox on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:00:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Its possible to run different stopping patterns .. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Aunt Pat

          ... for different trains ... Buffalo - London - Port Huron - Detroit, for instance, would have plenty of time to complete processing of people debarking or embarking at London

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          by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:25:56 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Amtrak actually uses Pacific Central (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          thomask, BruceMcF, Judge Moonbox

          The Amtrak Cascades service from Vancouver to points south in WA and OR does in fact do preclearance at Pacific Central Station. I believe the US border agents are stationed at YVR airport and commute to PCS for the twice-daily Amtrak departure. It's pretty much the same space within the station that is used by Canadian border agents for clearance upon arrival. The train does stop briefly at the border but if I remember correctly all they do is collect customs declaration forms there (passport control was already taken care of).

          Of course, this means once the train leaves PCS it must be kept sealed, and that precludes any further station stops between Vancouver and Blaine.

          •  Yes, and getting the second service ... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Judge Moonbox

            ... to Vancouver required negotiation with Canada regarding Canadian border control / customs agents for the second northbound service.

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            by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 03:59:43 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Thank you. The last time I was in Vancouver, (0+ / 0-)

            They were just starting to run trains to Seattle back in 1992. I had read that they didn't see enough traffic any time soon to justify using the Preclearance Inspection Station that sat unoccupied.

            And if Amtrak saw a market in Surrey (or wherever, they could build an international station there, like the Eurostar has in Ashford, England.

            Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? -Paul Krugman

            by Judge Moonbox on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:26:38 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  And bear in mind ... (0+ / 0-)

          ... in Europe, they did clearance on trains before they had a Schengen Zone.

          Run the locals to the border and do clearance at the border, and run the Expresses with enough time between stops on opposing sides of the border to clear passengers.

          Of course, it requires sufficient frequency for the border control / customs officers to get back to do it again. And it requires will on both sides of the border to see that the trains provide effective service and run on time.

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          by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 03:57:52 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Quebec (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        BruceMcF, Aunt Pat, ozsea1, Judge Moonbox

        govt (and, I thus think Canadian) are trying to make the Montreal-NYC train more efficient. Perhaps passport control at the Montreal train station but on the train would be great.

        Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

        by A Siegel on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:37:26 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Should also plan for service to Boston. (0+ / 0-)

          I don't know the demographics for sure, and the train would run through mountainous country, but I supsect that a Montreal to Boston train would be worth while, as well as boosting international traffic at Gare Centrale so the train to New York wouldn't bear the entire cost of Customs and immigration inspections.

          Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? -Paul Krugman

          by Judge Moonbox on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:36:04 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I've seen the density argument used so stupidly. (7+ / 0-)

    WaPo columnist wants us to think of density as being the average of the whole country.

    To picture the absurdity, imagine that Australia had been cut in two parts, the Eastern coast being 1/6th of Queensland, half  of New South Wales, and most of Victoria and Australian Capital Territory. That slice would have well over half of Australia's population. Would cutting up the country make a high speed line from Brisbane to Melbourne any more attractive? Some of the critiques are that illogical.

    And you have the opponents of the California High Speed Rail Authority who can't get Cali demographics right. To read them, you would think that the proposal would connect Alturas and Yreka. Fresno County had 938 thousand people, Kern Co. (Bakersfield 730K, Tulare(Visalia)  had almost half a million. That's hardly the middle of nowhere the articles describe.

    A couple of weeks ago, WaPo ran a George Will column about the CaHSR, and it seemed strange. I realized that Will didn't mention the demographics at all, probably because one or more of the newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley carries his column and he couldn't edit the misrepresentation out just for them.

    Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? -Paul Krugman

    by Judge Moonbox on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 06:38:49 PM PDT

    •  This is the 'trains is trains' ... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel, Aunt Pat, ozsea1, Judge Moonbox

      ... where we get "wonderfully" heroic leaps like (1) the HSR connecting Northern and Southern California is somehow going through the "middle of nowhere" by going past over a million people ...

      ... yet (2) it makes sense to build a subway to avoid disturbing the rural idyllic bliss of El Camino Real.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:09:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  when they say the san joaquin is "nowhere" (4+ / 0-)

      what they are really saying is that the millions of people there are nobodies, un-people.

      which has important racial overtones, given the huge and rapidly growing latino population in that area, many of whom are also referred to as non-persons by conservative rhetoric, regardless of their actual immigration status or nationality.

      •  They were originally taking ... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        KenBee, Judge Moonbox

        ... advantage of the Madero to Corcoran end points where the original Initial Construction Segment was to be built.

        That was weakened when it became "Fresno to Bakersfield", as far as propaganda impact, but it still likely had the kind of bite that you say among the tea party and fellow travelers.

        Which suggests the Governor's office knew what it was doing when it highlighted the Initial Operating Service between Merced and the San Fernando Valley rather the Initial Construction Segment from north of Fresno to north of Bakersfield. Its a lot harder to cast Burbank and Sylmar as "the middle of nowhere".

        Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

        by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 04:04:39 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  these jerks will call anything "nowhere" (4+ / 0-)

          i keep waiting for democrats to wise up and use that opening to milk the central valley inferiority/persecution complex to their advantage. "they say you're nobodies, that your communities are nowhere. they'd rather just let you all rot out here in the valley while they pocket your tax dollars for tax cuts and stuff in the LA suburbs, but we say everyone in california is part of the same state, and the valley deserves a world class infrastructure too."

  •  A question inspired by the map (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Judge Moonbox, BruceMcF, Aunt Pat

    I see a route running Pittsburgh-Columbus.

    I'd have assumed it would then go Columbus-Indianapolis-Chicago. Or perhaps keep going Indianapolis-Champaign-Springfield-St Louis-Kansas City. Or something.

    But the map has no dotted line or anything it suggest a possible Columbus-Indianapolis connection. It just stops, where it meets the 3-C line bending down to end in Cincinnati.

    Surely there was a Columbus-Indianapolis route in the past, but were the tracks torn up and the old right of way plowed into cornfields?

    So what's up with that potential Pittsburgh-Indianapolis route, or the lack thereof?

    •  Yes, there was one in the past ... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Woody, Aunt Pat, ozsea1, Judge Moonbox

      ... which I believe may have been  part of the Penn Central system, and so was run down as part of the long decline of the Penn Central.

      In any event, that corridor has been torn up. The Ohio Hub project looked at an Indianapolis route, in the planning for the Ohio Hub, but AFAIR, the cost/benefit didn't pencil out at either 79mph or 110mph, because of the cost of rehabilitating the abandoned corridor.

      If there was a 220mph corridor Chicago / Indianapolis / Cincinnati, then a connector Pittsburgh / Columbus / Dayton / Indianapolis would work out. However, given the distance that such a corridor would run through Indiana, its not going to be a foundation corridor ... its a prospect that requires other corridors to get built first, until  Hoosiers start asking, "why can't we have one of those?"

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:20:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Speaking of Ridership, this from NARP (5+ / 0-)

    I got this a few days ago:

    "Amtrak breaks ridership records, but Congressional attacks continue

    Amtrak announced this week that it has experienced 11 consecutive monthly ridership records in the current fiscal year, setting its highest ever single month ridership record in the month of July.  However, that good news didn’t stop Congressional critics from going through with a hearing attacking Amtrak’s involvement in commuter operations a day after the announcement."

    More at the NARP Blog.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:18:28 PM PDT

  •  Amazing that O'Toole is such a lazy liar (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BruceMcF, elfling, Judge Moonbox

    For the Acela trains, 2001 was the first full year of operation. Who expects any business to turn a big profit in its first year?

    In the first 10 months of the current fiscal year (thru July), Amtrak reports the "fully allocated contribution" of the Acela line to be $139.6 million. Even the Regionals on the NEC break even so far this year, with a "fully allocated contribution" of $5.5 million.

    For comparison, the 15 long distance trains are making a "fully allocated contribution" of ($543.3 million), a loss in other words. Of course, they have considerable worth that does not appear in the profit and loss statements.

    The rest of Amtrak's operating loss comes from the short distance routes ($170 million), net interest ($80.2), depreciation ($491.9), and a couple of smaller items, totaling over $1 billion.

    O'Toole and his allies like to scream about Amtrak's cost to the taxpayer per passenger (which, as you point out, for the Acela is actually a plus per passenger in recent years). But another way to look at the annual operating loss is that it's less than $4 a head for the U.S. population of 300 million plus. BFD, I'd say.

  •  Full disclosure- I'm a rail skeptic. (0+ / 0-)

    My question, which I think is agnostic about HSR, is whether there are statistics on through vs. point-to-point traffic on these nominally crowded corridors, e.g. in Ohio.  It's not enough to say that X people go from Cincinnati to Cleveland every day if 3/4 of them started in St. Louis and they're headed to Buffalo.  HSR would compete only for the trips that start and finish along its route and I don't have a sense of how significant that is.  One thing about the NE Corridor is that, at least in my imagination, a high proportion of the traffic starts and finishing within the corridor rather than starting in the Carolinas and ending up in New Brunswick.

    Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

    by Rich in PA on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 03:55:46 AM PDT

    •  No, intercity travel doesn't work like that. (0+ / 0-)

      The larger number of the trips on the 3C corridor are Cleveland / Columbus, Columbus / Cincinnati, Cincinnati / Dayton, and Columbus / Dayton ... interstate car travel is similar to rail travel in that sense, the under 3hr trips that allow for same day trips there and back have a substantial kick over the 4hr-6hr trips.

      The details of the Ohio Hub planning ridership modeling is part of the public record, Chapter 4: Travel Demand and Forecasting (pdf) and Chapter 5: Ridership and Revenue Forecasts (pdf).

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:15:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Corridors are open to trains from outside. (0+ / 0-)

      There may be corridors in Europe that non-corridor trains can't use. The big hangup would be with running electric trains beyond the electrified line. Trains from NY to south of Washington would stop for over 10 minutes to switch locomotives. There are some lines in France where they simply slap a diesel locomotive on the front of a TGV train.

      Where you don't have special tracks and you don't have electric trains, like the corridors in Ohio, there's no problem with trains from outside using the tracks.

      Just how stupid does Mitt Romney think we are? -Paul Krugman

      by Judge Moonbox on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:53:14 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  And then there's D-FW - Houston (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, BruceMcF, Judge Moonbox

    with over 6 million peple at each end, and local rail and bus transit offering the choice of not necessarily needing a car at on end, th eother, or both (depending on your origin and destination within the two metropolitan areas).

    And little reason to stop (relatively low population) in between.  Oh, and it's real FLAT!  AND, Texas weather would not usually affect a HSR train (as it does Southwest Airlines' and others' air service for a 250-mile trip, whether at one end or the other - -thunderstorms/lightning/hail shut the airports down real quick.  Mucks up the rest of the air travel system, too.

    Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

    by tom 47 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 11:33:50 AM PDT

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