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Part 1 - is high-speed rail the magic bullet (train)?

This is the first of a multi-part series on the history and current state of passenger rail in the United States. I had originally hoped to publish the first part some time ago, but research, chasing photos and writing took longer than expected. Today being National Train Day, however, I decided this would be a good time to kick things off. I hope to publish a diary each Saturday over the next several weeks.

I first saw the graphic below as a Facebook meme back on March 8, posted by a group called Go Left. I clicked the "like" button with some reservations — I agreed with the sentiment at the bottom of the page, arguing the United States could "put Americans back to work and improve our economy at the same time" by "rebuild(ing) our antique infrastructure."

But I was a little put off by the photo of an Amtrak GE-P42 "Genesis" locomotive — a conventional diesel-electric locomotive — juxtaposed with high-speed train sets. It's an apples to oranges comparison.

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

One of these things is not like the others.

Then, last month, a diary was published here which made the rec list and became one of the most shared diaries of the day, with the breathless title (exclamation point included!) Amazing photos show us why the American transportation network has fallen off the rails! It included the same graphic, with the language at the bottom changed to read: "Hi-Speed Rail Around the World in 2014." Another graphic was included in the diary showing a phalanx of Chinese high-speed trains contrasted, again, with a photo of an Amtrak GE-P42 locomotive hauling a string of Superliner cars. The text above the Chinese high-speed rail photo read "The mind-boggling picture is a hi-speed rail yard in China. These bullet trains move at over 300 km an hour!" The text above the Amtrak train photo read "The train below is an American passenger train that moves at 1950's speed! This photo contrast shows how far behind America has fallen."

Next up was a Midday Open Thread entry in the first week of April with the derisive heading "American exceptionalism again — Fast new U.S. trains still slow." (There was an equally derisive reference in the headline: "High-speed trains (ahem)." That linked to a WIRED article about the new Charger passenger locomotives being built by Siemens USA for several states' regional passenger rail systems.

The final straw came in comments following a Think Progress post about the Chargers. Many of the commenters derided the new locomotives, advocating for all-new high-speed trains riding on all-new high-speed infrastructure.

It has long been fashionable on the right to attack all passenger rail as being the product of a bygone era, a relic of our pioneer past best left in the ashpit of history. But in a rush to embrace high-speed rail, it apparently has now become fashionable on the left to bash conventional intercity passenger rail in exactly the same way. In commenting on the aforementioned diary, for example, I was flamed for pointing out that Amtrak's current equipment is capable of top speeds of 110 mph, and upgrading existing rail infrastructure to accommodate that speed would be relatively easy and inexpensive. The gist of the comments flaming me (and another commenter who defended Amtrak's Acela service) was that 110 mph was laughably slow, and I'm a fool for thinking achieving that speed is a worthwhile goal. The same tone permeated the Midday Open Thread piece, as well as the WIRED blog post it linked to — that new locomotives being built for corridor services throughout the U.S. are laughable because they're "only" capable of going 125 mph.

Such derision from the left bothers me, because it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how passenger rail networks work and what the state of technology here and in other countries is. It's also decidedly unhelpful for three reasons: it ignores the fact the United States is already experiencing a renaissance in passenger rail; it is dismissive of the efforts of a lot of individuals, governments, organizations and corporate citizens to keep that renaissance going and expand upon it; and in doing both of the above, it plays into the right's opposition to passenger rail.

This series of diaries aims to change that. Follow me below the Southern Pacific Daylight Orange flourish to learn more.

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

Amtrak's southbound Silver Meteor blows past traffic at 79 mph near Seville, FL.

There's no question the United States is lagging far behind in passenger train development, mainly because the United States decided, after World War II, to put all of its transportation eggs into two baskets — building airports and interstate highways. Passenger rail service was operated by America's corporate railroads, and so was not seen as a priority for government action — passenger trains were regarded as a strictly private sector issue, and the private sector failed spectacularly to respond to a loss of market share in a pro-active way. Private sector railroads always saw passenger trains as something of a nuisance, something they were mandated to do by the government as a public service.

True, the railroads outwardly embraced passenger trains when they were making money. They were put forth as the railroad's public face, and promoted heavily in the name of public relations. But when they began bleeding red ink after World War II, the corporate railroads were all too happy to let them languish while they concentrated on their far more lucrative freight business.

So it wouldn't be a stretch to say the near-death of passenger rail service in this country was the product of malign neglect on the part of the railroads and benign neglect on the part of the federal government.

Let me be clear at the outset: I support high-speed rail, but I recognize our lack of progress in that area is only one symptom of a bigger problem, not the problem in and of itself. I also support doing high-speed rail in a thoughtful, well-planned and coordinated fashion, lest we play into the hands of those who forecast its failure by proving them right.

In order to proceed properly, then, it's vitally important for all passenger rail advocates to understand fully where we've been, where we actually stand today and how we got here. It's also important for us to know where our real deficiencies are compared to the rest of the world's passenger rail services. In the coming weeks, I'll address all those issues.

But today, I want to make a simple point, and it's one I'm sure will meet a lot of resistance, because it stabs straight into the heart of the derision I've mentioned above. Of all the areas where the United States lags behind the rest of the world in passenger rail service, speed should be of the least concern. Ouch! I'll bet I just hit a nerve there! Let me explain.

Reading many of the articles, blog posts and Facebook photo memes comparing U.S. rail service to that of the rest of the world, one could be forgiven for believing all the world's trains zip along at 200 mph or more, while ours toddle along at 79 mph (aka "1950s speeds").

This actually distorts the truth, by a great deal. Here are some fun facts:

• Europe has the most highly-developed high-speed network in the world, with 4,584 route miles classified as true high-speed linking most major cities as of Nov. 1, 2013 according to the International Union of Railways, an organization which advocates high-speed rail development worldwide. But that's still a tiny fraction of the overall European rail network. Germany alone has 20,945 route-miles of railroad track, most of it hosting trains operating at speeds comparable to those which are considered unacceptably slow by many high-speed rail advocates in the United States.

• China's vaunted high-speed service, the fastest and longest high-speed network in the world, serves just 36 cities. The rest of the country is served by conventional trains (and conventional trains classified as "Fast" in China have a top speed of 74 mph). Riders have to pay extra to ride in an air conditioned coach or in a regular seat (seating in "hard seat" coaches consists of rows of straight-backed vinyl benches). Until China made a concerted effort to modernize rail passenger service in advance of the Beijing Olympics, some passenger trains were still being pulled by steam locomotives (China manufactured its last coal-fired steam locomotive in 1999).

• Japan's Shinkansen network, the oldest and most respected high-speed rail network in the world, is currently close to 1,483 miles long, with trains operating at speeds up 200 mph. But the total Japanese rail network includes 12,449 route miles of track, meaning a full 88 percent of Japan's railroad routes never see a "bullet train."

• Switzerland has no dedicated high-speed rail lines, and no plans to build any. Despite that, the Swiss are the world champions for the number of rail miles traveled per person per year (I'll delve more fully into the Swiss rail experience in a future diary in this series).

Simply put, while high-speed trains garner a great deal of attention and capture the imagination, the vast majority of trains throughout the world operate at the same speeds as their U.S. counterparts. But the United States unquestionably lags behind the rest of the world in train ridership. Why? The reason is simple, and it has almost nothing to do with speed. Instead, it's about access and convenience. Passenger rail systems in most developed countries serve far more cities with far more trains than the American system does.

Consider the Northeast Corridor. On a normal weekday, Amtrak operates about 50 trains in each direction on at least some portion of the line connecting Boston and Washington, D.C. Other railroads, such as New Jersey Transit, also work NEC tracks. The fastest of those trains is the Acela, which, while qualifying as high-speed rail by the European Union standard of 125 mph top speed on conventional track (it's capable of 150), only averages around 70 mph along the corridor's entire length. Yet despite the relatively leisurely pace of NEC trains, rail accounts for 65 percent of all intercity trips in the corridor, leaving airlines, automobiles and buses to fight over the remaining 35 percent. Nationally, passenger rail hasn't enjoyed that kind of market share since the 1920s.

The lesson to be learned here is that when trains are plentiful and available to enough people, they become the preferred mode of transport.

This is not meant to say high-speed rail has no place in the United States. There are plenty of corridors here where the optimum conditions exist for HSR. A group called America 2050 did a careful analysis of 27,000 city pairs in the United States (for those unfamiliar with transportation-speak, a city pair is simply any two cities connected by a transportation system, i.e. Philadelphia and New York).

They identified six criteria they deemed necessary for the success of a high-speed rail system:

• Dense city and metropolitan area population at both ends of the corridor.

• A minimum distance of 100 miles and a maximum of 500 miles between end points.

• Access to existing local and regional transit systems in the served metropolitan areas.

• A high per capita GDP in the served metropolitan areas — the higher the better.

• A high level of auto traffic congestion in the served metropolitan areas.

• The location of the served metropolitan areas within an existing "megaregion."

Most of those are self-explanatory, though some readers may not be familiar with the "megaregion" concept. America 2050 identified 11 "megaregions" in the U.S.; that is, areas where large metropolitan areas are merging into combined areas of shared interests and resources. Those regions include the Northeast Corridor, the Piedmont Atlantic, Florida, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Texas Triangle, the Front Range, the Arizona Sun Corridor, Southern California, Northern California and Cascadia. For a map of these megaregions, follow the link above to the referenced study. The megaregion map is on page 3.

Using those six criteria, America 2050 ranked all 27,000 city pairs in order of suitability for high-speed rail service, and published the 50 city pairs they deemed most suitable for high-speed rail development. For the sake of brevity, I won't list all 50 here. But I will point out that six of the top 10 city pairs are already served by Amtrak's Acela service — New York-Washington, Philadelphia-Washington, Boston-New York, Baltimore-New York, Boston-Philadelphia and Boston-Washington.

Based on their findings, America 2050 highlighted three high-speed rail corridors they believe should be developed first. One of those, the California corridor linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, is already under development, but is running into opposition. Another, the Northeast Corridor, is part of Amtrak's long-range plan to develop a true high-speed rail corridor separate from existing NEC lines. The third would be a hub system radiating out from Chicago, connecting it to St. Louis, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul via Milwaukee. But while it's been heavily promoted by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, it has also run into political roadblocks in some states. Instead of high-speed rail, then, an inter-city system of trains running at speeds up to 110 mph is being planned, with true high-speed rail to come later.

It's worth noting a system I heavily supported (see my sig line), and which could have been the first in the country completed — the Orlando-Tampa HSR line killed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott — actually ranked 100th in America 2050's rankings, and was only recommended for development as part of Phase II of their high-speed rail plan (and then only as part of a line extending south to Miami, which was the intent all along).

The Federal Railway Administration's 2009 High-Speed Rail Plan envisions three levels of high-speed rail development. HSR Express would operate primarily on dedicated tracks in corridors 200-600 miles long, with a top speed exceeding 150 mph. The system currently being planned in California falls into that category.

The second category would be HSR Regional, which is where the Acela falls. These trains would operate on a mix of dedicated and conventional tracks alongside slower passenger and freight trains at a top speed of 110-150 mph.

The third category would be Emerging HSR, consisting of corridors of 100-500 miles in length operating on conventional tracks shared by freight and commuter rail services at speeds of 90-110 mph. The idea behind these corridors would be to build a market for intercity rail over time, and with incremental investments, evolve them into true high-speed service. Regional lines for which the Charger diesel-electric locomotives being built by Siemens fall into this category.

America 2050 points out that the third category would not be considered high-speed rail anywhere outside the United States. And while that's technically true, all three levels of service have analogues in Europe (and elsewhere).

In Category 1, there are trains we all know and love, like the TGV, EuroStar, Thalys, Railjet and ICE services. But Category 2 corresponds neatly to Europe's Inter-City trains, which look similar to their high-speed brethren but operate on conventional tracks shared with slower trains at speeds very close to that of the Acela.

Category 3 corresponds to European Inter-Regional services, which use the same conventional tracks as the Inter-City trains, but make more intermediate stops and operate at speeds very much in line with Amtrak's current, and potential future, long-distance trains.

Why do those slower categories exist?

The answer lies in the one thing that defines high-speed rail — speed. Speed has three big enemies when applied to railroads. The first two are curves and grades, and they the reason high-speed trains need dedicated lines — they need the tracks they run on to be as straight and flat as possible, and what curves there are need to be wide radius and super-elevated (with the outside rail gradually rising above the inside rail, similar to a banked curve on a race track). Roadways must be built to either pass under or over the tracks to eliminate the risk of grade crossing accidents. And there's a reason America 2050's map of proposed high-speed corridors shows no routes crossing the Appalachians or the Rocky Mountains — high-speed rail grades are generally limited to no more than 4 percent (4 feet of climb for every 100 feet of length), which makes mountain high-speed railroading problematic at best.

Those technical issues can be dealt with by building infrastructure dedicated to high-speed trains and building it where the terrain will accommodate it. But what high-speed rail will never handle well, even with the best infrastructure and fastest trains, is the third enemy of speed — a large number of intermediate stops.

Compare the Paris-Lyon TGV with Amtrak's Acela from Washington to New York. Their top speeds are only 36 mph apart — 186 for the TGV, 150 for the Acela — which, over a 250-mile trip at top speed, means a separation of just under 20 minutes. Yet the TGV makes its 264-mile trip in 1 hour, 53 minutes at an average speed of 146 mph; while the Acela takes 2 hours, 47 minutes to go just 230 miles, averaging just 83 mph.

Apart from the fact the TGV travels mostly on dedicated track and the Acela travels on conventional rail, the other glaring difference comes in the number of stops between each train's point of origin and its destination. The TGV makes only two intermediate stops. The Acela makes four — twice as many over a shorter distance. For every stop, the train has to slow down, stop at a platform, wait while passengers get off and on, then accelerate again to full speed. Each time it does that, its average speed drops.

That's the downside of including lots of intermediate stops along a railroad route. But there's an important — indeed, crucial — upside as well.

Look again at that list of six of the top 10 city pairs for high-speed connections in the America 2050 study: New York-Washington, Philadelphia-Washington, Boston-New York, Baltimore-New York, Boston-Philadelphia and Boston-Washington. Put in geographical order from north to south, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington are all currently linked by a single multi-track line, the Northeast Corridor route. And therein lies passenger rail's secret weapon — its flexibility, as demonstrated by its ability to link cities large and small all at once with a single vehicle (or train set, if you will), a flexibility which is lost when you begin eliminating intermediate stops.

Amtrak's current network is best described as "skeletal." It encompasses the heavily-traveled Northeast Corridor, 15 long-distance routes, a number of regional corridors, and a "Thruway Bus" network operated by private charter services under contract with Amtrak. That network currently serves 835 cities and towns in the United States — which sounds like a decent number until you understand there are more than 20,000 incorporated cities, towns and villages in the U.S. It gets worse when you realize that on those 15 long-distance routes, most stations are served by just one train a day in each direction, and some are served only three days a week.

Yet that network, as poor as it is compared to Europe's, connects 347,778 city pairs nationwide. The train I've traveled on the most, the New York-Miami Silver Meteor, makes 29 stops between its point of origin and its destination, adding up to 465 possible city pair combinations served by just two locomotives and nine to 11 passenger cars.

Some passengers will be riding the entire route from New York to Miami. Some will get off the train in Richmond, VA or Rocky Mount, NC. Some may board in Philadelphia and ride to Orlando. Still others will get on in Washington, D.C. bound for Fayetteville, NC, Charleston, SC or Palatka, FL.

And that's if you stay on that one train. A businessman from Miami might detrain at Washington Union Station and catch the Acela to Boston South Station. Another passenger might get off at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, grab a cheesesteak sandwich for lunch, then board the Pennsylvanian headed for Altoona or Pittsburgh. Still others might ride the Meteor to New York's Penn Station, then take the Lake Shore Limited to Albany, Buffalo or Chicago.

High-speed trains, in order to maintain a high average speed, can't offer that kind of flexibility. They excel at connecting large metropolitan areas of more than half a million residents, not small towns. The Silver Meteor, in contrast, connects those sprawling metroplexes to smaller metropolitan areas like Savannah, GA (metro pop. 347,611), moderately-sized cities like Winter Haven, FL (pop. 33,874) and small towns like Yemassee, SC (pop. 1,027).

The bottom line — a high-speed train covering over 1,000 miles and stopping 29 times (an average of one stop every 35 miles) would lose its high-speed advantage. So even as we develop high-speed rail here in the United States, we need to improve and expand conventional rail. Our goal should be to keep the 835 cities and towns now served by Amtrak plugged in to the national network with improved and more frequent train service, and to then add even more cities and small towns to that network. The name of the game should be providing as many people as possible with as many transportation options as possible.

Despite filling nearly 6 pages in my word-processing app so far, I've only scratched the surface here. In subsequent diaries (hopefully one a week, and hopefully shorter), I'll go more in-depth into the history of passenger rail service in the United States from its beginnings through the 1960s; discuss the progress (and mistakes) made by Amtrak from its inception in 1971 through today (including my own perspective as an Amtrak rider since 1978); look at Europe's total rail network with a special focus on Switzerland; explain why emulating China's rapid development of high-speed rail might not be a good idea (and likely isn't possible); show how Amtrak trains are being tied into local transit networks nationwide; look at the political twists and turns in my home state of Florida's attempt to be the first state in the nation to develop a high-speed rail corridor; and review in detail a proposal by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (of which I'm a member) to improve and expand Amtrak's long-distance rail network.

I'll close today with a personal story.

In 2003, as a journalist working on a two-part series for the Lake City, FL Reporter about the Sunset Limited, I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with then Amtrak President David Gunn. Right-wing pundit Lou Dobbs, who frequently railed against Amtrak as host of CNN's Moneyline, had decided just days earlier to do a phone-in and on-line poll of his audience in light of Gunn's threat to shut down the entire Amtrak network — including the Northeast Corridor — if Congress failed to fund the long-distance trains. (It was a move Gunn had made the year before, and it was such hard-line tactics that eventually got him fired by Amtrak board members appointed by George W. Bush — but Amtrak is still with us, in no small part because of Gunn's fierce defense of the entire system).

Dobbs gave his viewers three choices: Congress should cease funding Amtrak entirely; Congress should restrict Amtrak to the Northeast Corridor and privatize the rest; or Congress should increase funding for Amtrak to at least $2 billion and expand the national network.

While this was an unscientific poll, one would expect Dobbs' conservative viewership to be as hostile to Amtrak as he was. But Dobbs was surprised (and admittedly so was I) by the results: an overwhelming majority — 85 percent — of Dobbs' viewers favored at least $2 billion in funding for Amtrak.

I asked Gunn about that poll during our interview. He hadn't heard about it, and he chuckled when I told him the results. But unlike Lou Dobbs and me, he wasn't surprised. "The public is ahead of the politicians," he told me. "They get stuck in traffic, so they know the system is congealing. And they know there's an asset in those two steel rails wandering through the weeds that needs to be used."

This series of diaries will, I hope, give more Kossacks a sense of the value of "those two steel rails wandering through the weeds." They are, as Gunn said, an asset we need to use. I hope you'll come along for the ride.


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