Enough.

Today, the Detroit News quotes Tim Hoeffner, administrator of the Intermodal Policy Division of Michigan’s Department of Transportation:

“Everyone talks about high-speed rail in terms of speed. When you take a plane, you don’t care about how fast it goes; you care about when you leave and when you will arrive. Can I leave when I want? Can I arrive when I want? Travelers need a modern transportation system. They want modern cars with comfortable seating, European styling and amenities like Wi-Fi service.”

I’m not sure I know where to begin.

Why don’t customers complain about the speed of planes? Because they go quickly – very quickly. And there aren’t competitors on the market advertising faster airplane service, so it’s not as if there’s an option to pick a slower-speed airplane if only it has “European styling,” whatever that means. Does Mr. Hoeffner not acknowledge that more people would take the train if came even close to the one-hour flight time offered by airlines between Chicago and Detroit? Or would he have us believe than the current five-hour train ride between the two cities would attract more customers if only the train cars were more gussied up?

What does high-speed rail mean if it doesn’t mean fast trains? And what does it mean when a senior administrator in a state DOT fundamentally doesn’t understand what advantages true high-speed rail can bring? The truth is that most people who choose to take fast trains in Europe don’t do so because the trains look pretty or feel nice – they do so because trains get them to their destinations faster than either automobiles or airplanes would. Denying that the “speed” element of the system is what makes it attractive is ludicrous.

Mr. Hoeffner isn’t alone in his ignorance; his companion Janet Foran, a spokeswoman for the aforementioned agency, said:

“Many people are unaware of this, but right now Michigan is the only state outside of the Northeast that has a section of high-speed rail where trains can travel at more than 80 mph. It’s on a 45-mile stretch of track between Kalamazoo and Niles. We’re hoping to extend that higher speed ability all the way to the Indiana border.”

She’s referring to the 95 mph that some Amtrak trains reach in western Michigan. That is not – in any way – high-speed rail. That is what should be considered typical for most train service, and it’s not acceptable for a corridor that would likely be one of the most-used in the country, if only trains serving it traveled at acceptably competitive speeds.

I suppose part of the reason these transportation officials have fallen into such a state of delusion is that the American rail network has been allowed to deteriorate so significantly that it’s considered an astonishing success when trains reach somewhere close to 100 mph. We have such low expectations for our train service that we assume that “comfortable seating” and “amenities” will somehow convince people that taking a train in four hours, rather than five, between the cities makes more sense than driving the same route in an equivalent amount of time.

We need to have a national conversation about what high-speed rail means before the money starts gushing out of the Federal Department of Transportation. Upgrading many corridors around the country to adequate service is not providing high-speed rail, and doing so would provide little of the long-term, mobility changing progress that occurs when European or Asian rail networks begin offering service on specific, highly traveled corridors at 150 or 200 mph. We should stop being so overwhelmingly modest about what we expect out of our trains, and start believing that we, too, can build true high-speed rail; then we should act on it.

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Sorry, I think Hoeffner is right.

    The key part on which you can probably agree is “They care about their departure times, they care about their arrival times.”

    Departure and arrival times of today’s trains in Michigan are unacceptable.

    But it might be possible to slash trip times without raising top speed at all. In fact, it might be a more efficient use of dollars to raise the lowest speeds rather than raise the top speed.

    Maybe it would be clearer to say that trip time matters, but speed limit doesn’t.

  • “Upgrading many corridors around the country to adequate service is not providing high-speed rail, and doing so would provide little of the long-term, mobility changing progress that occurs when European or Asian rail networks begin offering service on specific, highly traveled corridors at 150 or 200 mph.”

    I don’t follow. Can you establish that European and Asian rail networks were in a sub-adequate state when their high-speed transformations occurred?

  • anonymous

    I don’t get what your objection is. Hoeffner just seems to be enumerating ways to make HSR even better than it is–more frequent service and better amenities.

  • As the other commenters note, this is not as simple as you make it out to be, but I do understand your point. You’re very focused on an objective definition of HSR that can be applied in any case. That kind of standards-driven planning is an important conceptual tool; I use it all the time in my transit planning work. The fixed definition allows particular cases to be defined as deficient or not, and that simplification can often be motivating.

    Yet standards-driven planning can easily allows us to make the perfect the enemy of the good. To insist, as you do, that lesser improvements are just not worthwhile, you’d have to be able to show that the ridership benefits of strictly-defined HSR accrue only when the standard is reached, whereas it may be the case that partial improvements achieve parts of the HSR benefit and may be worth doing as steps along the way.

    Hoeffner’s comment also contains an important point about frequency. Leaving when you want and arriving when you want is a matter of frequency, not just speed. If you’re going to proclaim standards for HSR and judge projects as passing or not — and I agree that this approach has some value — you should also proclaim a frequency standard. How close to my desired time of travel will an HSR departure be? 15 minutes? An hour? Three hours? It makes a BIG difference, more so on shorter runs.

  • anonymouse

    I’d like to propose a new term for rail service with speeds of up to 125 mph: Normal Speed Rail. That’s how fast perfectly ordinary trains of Amfleets can run on perfectly ordinary tracks with perfectly ordinary 30 year old electric locomotives. Anything slower is part of the “legacy rail system” or something, but definitely not up to modern standards.

  • “Can you establish that European and Asian rail networks were in a sub-adequate state when their high-speed transformations occurred”

    Yes – they were bombed into the ground during WWII. QED.

  • Patrick M

    Yonah- you’re correct that we need to avoid the BRT-ization (triumph of hype, marketing and cheapskate-ism over real quality transit planning and engineering) of HSR, but Jarrett above also makes a good point.

    I propose a different standard to cut through the sex appeal of the HSR term and get to the nitty gritty- average speed over the distance between two cities.

    Rightly or wrongly, most people believe the Acela is true HSR. But here are the average speeds for Acela Express city pairs:

    BOS-WAS: 73.3 mph
    BOS-NYP: 65.7 mph
    BOS-PRV: 85.7 mph
    BOS-NHV: 74.6 mph
    NHV-NYP: 53.1 mph
    NYP-WAS: 82.9 mph

    Now let’s compare/contrast with my local rail corridor service, the NC Piedmont, which has a considerable track improvements/straightening program underway.

    Current RGH-CLT: 54.9 mph
    Current RGH-CLT Goal (2:50 min over 173 miles): 61.1 mph

    The goal above includes conventional improvements, most of which raise lower speed segments than raise the top speed.

    Now, as part of the Southeast High Speed Rail Project, there is a target time for this segment (probably using tilt equipment and 110 mph top running speed instead of 79) of 2:10. Here’s the outcome:

    2:10 RGH-CLT: 74.1 mph

    In short, if NCDOT hits this goal, the Piedmont will be, on average, about 1 mph faster than the Acela from BOS to WAS, without ever breaking 110 mph.

    Average speeds on the TGVs heading west out of Paris that make 2-3 stops en route to the western terminus are about 110 mph. So while 186-219 mph at the roof is important, equally important is not having to slow to 40 mph for a few miles here and there. Look at New Haven to Penn Station above! Ouch.

    The Boston-Providence section of the Acela averages over 85 mph. That’s not European/Japanese speed, but it’s quite good. That’s 1.43 miles per minute. If we need to pick an incremental American standard to shoot for, I’d say raising this to 90 mph (1.5 miles per minute) would be a goal worthy of the HSR name in the next ten years.

  • Chris G

    Patrick here actually makes my points fairly well. Although he left out one majorly important part about Acela in the NY to Boston Market.

    Even at these pathetic average speeds Amtrak takes more than 50% of the market that isnt going by car. Meaning even at these slow speed they’re beating the airlines into the ground.

    Better rolling stock and the most important more frequencies WILL get people off the planes and onto the rails.

    I agree however with you that we need to stop calling anything above 79mph top speed high speed rail. It will hurt us in the end.

  • t joey

    Transportation planners today suffer from thinking too small and or being convinced that they can’t be too bold.

    Don’t settle for incrementalism. The planners and engineers who pushed for the Erie Canal, the TransCon Railway, and the Interstate Highway System certainly weren’t incrementalist.

    Their visionary ideas and plans transformed this nation and now its rail’s turn again. High Speed Rail will not make it by muddling though little incremental tweaks to existing 100+ year old rails.

    No one suggested we cheap out on the highway system and we didn’t. The original plan of 43,000 (check that?) from 1956 was built just shy of a couple miles. There is no reason we can’t do the same today.

    The cost shouldn’t be the downside either. When the highway system was proposed in 1956 the estimated cost was 13% of that year’s GDP. In today’s terms the highway system would’ve cost 2% of today’s GDP. Of course the system wasn’t built in a single year’s budget outlays anyway. Oh and the national debt was similar between 1956 and today too. They were still paying off war debts.

    The author above is right – we need to get serious about high speed rail and get our terms and goals straight before we start spending money on more trains like Acela whose average speeds are a joke – but who’s fares are disproportionately higher for not that much faster travel.

  • Cock D: Europe and Japan rebuilt their normal-speed systems first. The original, pre-Shinkansen Kodama did Tokyo to Osaka in 6 hours 50, a distance of 550 km. At 80 km/h, the average end-to-end speed was on a par with that of today’s Connecticut section of the Regional.

  • Patrick M

    t joey – I used to think like you do now. Then I spent years and years offering bold plans to elected officials and getting the door slammed in my face. I appreciate that you want to see bold action, but most politicians are risk averse. California, with its powerful ballot laws that give major citizen referenda the ability to strengthen the backbones of cowardly pols, is an exception.

    Every other HSR program in the country is incremental. This reflects the fact that we have had no rail policy in the USA until a few months ago, when PRIIA 2008 passed.

    The Midwest, North Carolina and Pac Northwest programs, which are all positioned to make some movement forward, have been incremental efforts.

    Less Bold and Buildable beats Bold and Unpolitically Feasible every time. The legislation that passed for HSR is $8 billion and stimulus and another $1.5 billion a year in the Obama budget forecast. While I’m excited, this is, as you say, “cheaping out.”

    Another key difference between now and the 1950s, is that in addition to the skepticism of the political class of large public works endeavors, the countryside has been considerably developed between cities with suburbanization. It was easy to get land for interstates because there was not much out there. The roads could be made mostly straight with gentle curves. HSR over true straight, fast, rights-of-way is easier in countries which have not developed pell-mell like the USA. The cost of takings of such projects through suburban US areas between cities would be breathtaking. Running along legacy lines at lower but improved speeds with high reliability is a more persuasive business case to your average pol.

    Finally, Europe and Japan have decent public transportation systems in most of their cities. We have pretty feeble local networks. All of these factors combine to lead us towards a near term future of 110-125 mph HSR before a 220 mph HSR world.

    We’re not getting the TGV here, I know. But other than in CA, where many obstacles remain still, the political will to build the TGV doesn’t exist. We can either sit around and wait for the politicians to become more courageous long term thinkers (good luck) or we can get to work on trains that have peak speeds 40-60 mph above most highway driving under normal congestion, and average speed 20-30 mph above.

    Here’s to muddling through. Good 110 mph services will pave the way (and help pay the way) for more line-straightening and electrification, and 125-140 mph stretches of service in the long run.

  • Adam P

    Regional trains on the NEC do up to 130mph and aren’t called high speed rail so why should a train in Michigan, Upstate New York or elsewhere be called high speed at only 110mph?

  • No, actually regional trains are held to 110 mph.

  • “Yes – they were bombed into the ground during WWII. QED.”

    Even Latin can not save logical fallacies bolstered by historical distortions.

  • statelypenguin

    I don’t buy this “walk before you run” strategy. Not in the least. It doesn’t make sense to spend large amounts of money to upgrade a system to ‘acceptable’.

    Its like I have an old old computer running Windows 3.1 and I decide to upgrade to Windows 95. Its better, but still terribly out of date, and still generally worthless.

    Sure, upgrading systems to [the US HSR standard] 90 mph is good, but if I need to get from Cleveland to Chicago, I’m still not taking a train if I could drive there in the same amount of time, or pay the same amount for a plane which gets there much quicker.

    Hoeffner’s point of departure/arrival times seems to be making the very point he’s arguing against. If the trains are faster, that time shrinks significantly. And if it gets there fast enough, business types would LOVE it because they can use the internet on the trip.

    I live in Ohio and we’ve got this big proposal (the Ohio Hub) that utilizes “high speed lines” that top out at 110mph. Sure that sounds great, but the projected trip times for most routes are only slightly (as in 15 minutes) quicker than driving. Even the longest trip you could take, Cincinnati to Toronto Ont., would only save something like 45 minutes over driving. That’s a 500+ mile trip and these trains, which have a top speed nearly twice that of a car, will save me something like 8 seconds a mile over driving. So why wouldn’t I drive. Or fly?

    Speed is the ONLY answer to our rail troubles. Without speed, there’s no incentive.

  • Donald Arthur Monteith

    To: Editor(unnamed) Detroit News – Re: Enough (Tim Hoefner)
    It’s too bad that the unnamed author of the article about HSR, is so un-informed! The “unnamed”author should review what’s happening in the world.
    First, none of the projects was accomplished overnight. How long did it take to build the (inadequate today) U.S. Interstate (Road) System – it was started during the Eisenhower administration, and when was it completed? (You might be surprised!)
    Lets take a look at recent Rail events called “HSR”. Take the English “Chunnel” London to Paris route. 2 years ago last November, It first ran. Within a few weeks after it started, it had 17 trains running, per day, each way, making that trip, at a cost of aproximately 80 English pounds, per rider. The trains cover the 420 rail mile plus trip in 2 hr 15 min. The flying passenger, from the time you get to a airport near London and the plane takes off, after loading, the train is already in downtown Paris! All airline competition quit that market approximately one year later
    A recent example in the US – On Monday March 9th, California’s “North County Transit District” celebrated their first anniversary of the “Sprinter” light-rail system. This 15 station, 22 mile line that runs from Escondito to Oceanside similar to the trip from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, runs Diesel-powered MU trains. During the first 11 months of operation, the “Sprinter” trains carried approximately (avg) 7,300 trips each weekday -, more than 2 million passenger in those 11 months. This was over 4 times the number of riders carrid on the old express bus route that this TRAIN replaced!
    The point here is; these weren’t done in one year; but the following things are evident – These sucessful operations, move more people per unit of energy, saving between 20 to 29% of the energy, much less polution than car/bus operations provide, are safer than car/bus operations (remember, we kill about 40,000 people each year driving/riding on our roads in the US, relatively un-affected by weather, and definitely less expensive, per passenger mile, than road travel – if you include the acqusition/maintence costs of the roadways, and the fuel costs, and insurance costs of the vehicles, plus the billions of dollars for of the cars/buses they replaced. Also, the people didn’t have to sit waiting for traffic jams to clear, and the ride is much mor enjoyable, and when you get to be 75, you still have a way to travel! Think about your proposal !?
    Sincerely, Donald M.

  • AlexB

    I get it. HSR needs to be built at 220+ mph all around the country and it needs to be done yesterday. However, as someone who has taken the 9 hour train ride from New York City to Buffalo, I will take some cheap incremental steps that could shave hours off that trip. Electrify it, improve track conditions, whatever.

    In France and Japan they invented HSR because existing track was at capacity. That is not exactly a problem in the US. HSR can always be built next to existing track at a later date. In fact, because it’s so much better, it basically needs its own track anyway. Improving existing lines is not really a waste of money and it doesn’t cost that much.

  • anon.

    I agree with the people who repeatedly point out that top speed is not really that important.

    It’s the *slowest* sections of the system which really determine the trip time. For instance, consider Chicago to Detroit. Speeding up the very long 30 mph section from Chicago to Gary, IN would cut probably half an hour off. In contrast, speeding up the 95 mph running to 200 mph would give rather less bang for the buck.

    I think the rail we really want, the real “high speed rail”, is rail with high end-to-end speeds, high average speeds. High top speeds make good headlines, but speeding up to 300 mph for a few seconds just doesn’t help much if you have to crawl at 10 mph for an hour. Once we’ve eliminated all these very slow bottlenecks — most of which are in dense urban areas which we can’t bypass with new “TGV-style” track anyway — *then* it will be profitable to speed up the maximum “countryside” speed. For NYC to Buffalo, for example, speeding up the slow, twisty NYC-Albany section — or the sluggish downtown approaches in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, etc. — cuts a lot more off trip time than speeding up the 80mph suburban Buffalo-suburban Rochester section.

    If end-to-end trip times are the same as cars, most people will take the train in preference to the car. Why? Well, because you don’t have to *drive* — you can sit back, read, sleep, eat or work!

    If end-to-end trip times are the same as the airplane, again most people will take the train in preference, for similar reasons of comfort (cramped airplane seats, airline security, etc.)

    It’s not about top speed — it’s about average speed.

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