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High-and-Higher-Speed Rail on Track

August 21, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

A heated debate broke out this month over America's high-speed passenger rail dreams —between two icons of the so-called "lamestream liberal media." 

First, the New York Times, in a news article written by my former Star Tribune colleague Ron Nixon, reported that despite nearly $11 billion in federal spending since 2009, "the projects have gone mostly nowhere." Nixon cited critics who say the Obama administration "made the mistake of parceling out the money to upgrade existing Amtrak service."

This drew a quick rebuttal from Michael Grunwald in Time. He noted that while Congress has appropriated $10.5 billion for the program, only $2.4 billion has actually been spent, "much of it on planning, design and other pre-construction work. The big construction spending has just started, and will continue through September 2017."

Even the Times' editorial board waded into the fray, arguing that the main reason our passenger trains are put to shame by China's, Japan's and Europe's is that "American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves."

Indeed, since right-wingers assumed the U.S. House majority in 2011 following the Tea Party landslide of 2010, Congress hasn't put up a dime for anything called high-speed rail. And conservative policymakers at the federal and state levels have remained unswerving in that stance, with even the new House majority leader from California vowing to stop his home state's underway bullet train project.

Earlier, right-wing governors in Florida and Wisconsin turned down combined billions of federal dollars for passenger rail improvements, making "the $45 million their states spent beforehand," Grunwald said, "the only inarguably wasted high-speed rail money." 

There are several reasons why this has become a partisan wedge issue. The first is the long-term, overarching conservative campaign to stem the growth of government or shrink it however possible, which has had adverse consequences for public investments in transportation, even though many such initiatives are supported by the right's traditional business constituents. A second is our nation's autocentric culture, fertile ground for anti-rail, "lean backward" appeals to the vast motoring majority.

Conservatives, said California Gov. Jerry Brown, "have decided that it's better to treat high-speed rail as a political football than as a great civic opportunity.

Not to be overlooked, though, is fundamental semantic confusion over the term "high-speed rail," which President Obama inartfully promised to bring most Americans by the 2030s. For years, however, I've been using "fast rail" to describe more accurately most of the plans to improve U.S. passenger train service, including some in Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest. Grunwald said the 2009 program, a small part of that year's economic stimulus enacted by progressives, "should have been called 'higher-speed rail.'

"It was mostly about improving slower-speed Amtrak routes so they would be incrementally faster and more reliable," he added. "America's freight rail system is the envy of the world, but our passenger rail system is awful; the goal of the program was to make it less awful —a more realistic alternative to long drives and short flights."

This was and is a sensible endeavor in a spread-out country without the dense populations, high gasoline prices and lower car ownership rates where real bullet trains have thrived. But making the system "less awful" would also build ridership long term, perhaps paving the way for state-of-the-art rail as the U.S. population heads toward 400 million at mid-century—putting "an incredible strain on the nation's highways and air-traffic system," the Times editorial said. 

Lower-speed projects "don't look like much, but they're providing tangible benefits," Federal Rail Administrator Joe Szabo told Grunwald, who added: "Bridge and tunnel repairs, projects to upgrade and straighten tracks, sidings and double-tracking to help passenger trains pass freight cars, and other incremental improvements can all make rail travel more attractive."

Grunwald listed faster Amtrak trip times, new and expanded passenger services and renovated train stations in 32 states from coast to coast, including St. Paul's Union Depot, as products of the federal program. "You need a pretty crimped sense of 'somewhere' to argue that the money is going 'mostly nowhere,' " he concluded.

It's even going to some real high-speed rail, which technically means faster than 125 miles per hour: California's reviving effort to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than 3 hours and a stretch of track in central New Jersey that will get the nation's only current 125 m.p.h.-plus train, the Northeast Corridor Acela, up to 160 for 23 miles. Despite occasional bursts of speed, the Acela now averages only 84, but still has been a booked-to-capacity, money-making success for Amtrak, carrying three times as many passengers as the airlines in the corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, prospects for both the California project and one in Texas to connect Dallas and Houston at 205 m.p.h. have brightened with interest from private investors. The Sacramento Business Journal reported feelers from nine "mostly large construction, engineering and infrastructure firms" offering financing help for the $68 billion California initiative. "We fully expect this is just the first wave of private interest," said a High-Speed Rail Authority official.

Construction has started in the Central Valley since an appeals court overturned a ruling blocking California from issuing $8.6 billion in bonds for high-speed rail. In addition, legislators appropriated $250 million from the state's cap-and-trade carbon emissions collections for the project, with a future commitment for an estimated $3 billion to $11 billion through 2020. Based on these state and private resources for the bullet train, Gov. Brown has forsworn seeking any more federal money.

While California is heading toward public-private financing partnerships that could include concessions to companies to operate the trains beginning in 2022, the Texas Central Railway is spurning all domestic government financing for its multibillion-dollar bullet trains. "We think we can build it cheaper and faster than ... if you were depending on public funds," TCR advisor Thomas Schieffer told the Japan Times

Schieffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, apparently helped connect the firm with the Central Japan Railway Co., whose pioneering shinkansen bullet train has whisked passengers from Tokyo to Osaka at 200 m.p.h. for 50 years without a single fatal accident. The Texas project "may turn out to be a transformative event in the history of the nation's transportation system," enthused the Texas Tribune.

Maybe so, but the TCR enjoys some advantages hard to find elsewhere in the United States. The Houston and Dallas metros, already home to more than 12 million people, are also two of the nation's three fastest growing, expected to double in size over the next two decades. Air travel between them is among the nation's busiest.

Just as important, the Tribune noted, "the land between the two cities is largely flat and unpopulated, making real estate acquisition a cheaper prospect [not to mention more politically feasible] than it would be in other major metropolitan regions. Even the 230 miles between the two cities is considered an ideal length to take advantage of bullet train technology."

"It was the most innately financeable corridor," TCR President Robert Eckels told the newspaper. Nonetheless, financing hasn't yet been lined up to keep the project on track for a 2021 launch. One angel candidate is the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, a state-owned entity similar to the U.S. Import-Export Bank that promotes exports such as shinkansen technology. 

The Chinese want a piece of that kind of action, too, as Premier Li Keqiang told Bill Shuster, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during a visit to Beijing last week. "We will promote advanced technologies and equipment such as high-speed rail to international markets," Li was quoted in the China Daily.

Does all of this mean Minnesotans will be zooming down tracks to Chicago or Rochester anytime soon? Not really. Our corridors aren't as ripe for investment in high-speed rail now as those in California and Texas or even the private higher-speed rail project in Florida. But we should cheer them on. If they succeed while more modest passenger rail improvements take hold elsewhere, it could turn our dysfunctional transportation politics and habits upside-down, leading eventually to a brighter, less car-dependent future for all of us.

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  • Jim Spensley says:

    August 25, 2014 at 10:28 am

    History repeats itself.  Transportation modes from sailing ships to covered wagons to steamships to steam locomotives to interstate highways to airports and airliners each had a turn at the government teat.  Infrastructure for each mode was expensive and risky, capital needs are a sizable piece of the national gross economic product. Federal policy is short-lived and political. Budgets and regulation are dysfunctional. There has never been a level playing field.

    Billionaires are made and corporations subsidized for a period, and the government lobbyists move on to the next opportunity.  High-speed rail and air transportation are competing for trips formerly served by airlines— less than two hours terminal to terminal, 400 to 800 miles, but not so many passengers as a train.

    Can we afford Next Gen and high-speed rail?  Is need (demand) driving both, or are industry lobbyists?

    Some big corporations (GE comes to mind) are deep in both air and rail technology.  Others airline and railroad operating companies are “all-in.”

  • Sandy Ahlstrom says:

    August 25, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    This article “gave me a lift in my hope” for a more sustainable transportation system for my state of MN and the country!
    At 73 yrs., I have traveled to the European continent several times, Scandinavia and smaller Central American countries where we have traveled without a car.  Wow, what a difference not to be stuck in traffic like a “parking lot” with idling cars spewing out carbon!
    Cheers for all the work being initated and planning for the future!  I can travel by light rail in the Twin Cities now thru several cities and suburbs!  What a treat to leave the car at home and meet my community on the train or bus feeding the train!

  • Joe Sperber says:

    August 26, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Time to look at what is brewing in Minnesota again. It is not all what it appears to be in the press.

  • Bill Graham says:

    August 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, freight railroads abandoned and tore up thousands of miles of railroad.  Now with fast rising demand for freight service, there is insufficient track capacity on some routes to accommodate even conventional passenger service.  It might well make more sense to invest in new, dedicated passenger track that can be designed for service above 120 mph, than to spend tax money on replacing the freight trackage which the freight railroads removed.  I question whether high speed passenger service can be justified to Rochester.  However, if it’s part of a longer route to Madison and Chicago, that might well make sense.