Proposal reveals a little – and a lot – about how the administration wants to proceed with its rail programs
As many of you commented in the previous, and unfortunately inadequate, post on the administration’s high-speed rail strategic plan, the report – though significant – doesn’t tell us all that much more about how the U.S. government will spend the $8 billion approved for fast rail by Congress in the stimulus bill. On the other hand, I want to point out that the administration never promised such information: for god’s sake – the states haven’t even submitted their proposals for the use of the funds yet! I think that our collective enthusiasm for rail projects may be getting a bit ahead of reality.
But I think the report’s basic outlines of the kinds of projects the federal government wants to fund with rail money are demonstrative of the administration’s seriousness in undertaking this project. By arguing that high-speed rail is most applicable for corridors between 100 and 600 miles in areas of moderate to high density, we can be assured that the government won’t be funding just any project with the limited funds available for rail. It’s good to know, in other words, that a line between El Paso and Phoenix isn’t going to get money over the connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The report’s attempt to define different qualities of rail is also an admirable response to the fact that no one thus far has been able to come up with a concrete series of words that can be used to provide meaningful definitions of different types of rail services. I think there’s been a major problem in discussions about high-speed rail because of the lack of uniform agreement about what the term means, so it’s nice to have officially-sanctioned definitions. For the time being, I’ll attempt to incorporate them into the transport politic:
- HSR-Express – 200-600 miles apart, more than 150 mph, dedicated rights-of-way.
- HSR-Regional – 100-500 miles apart, 110-150 mph, some shared track with positive train control
- Emerging HSR – 100-500 miles, with 90-110 mph speed service – developing the passenger rail market
- Conventional Rail – 79-90 mph
- IPR – Intercity passenger rail
Several blogs have pointed out that the report’s discussion of positive train control indicates that the Federal Railroad Administration will likely alter its rail safety requirements, which currently require passenger trains running on shared track to be able to survive accidents with extremely heavy freight trains. The negative consequence of the existing policy are trains that are too heavy and too slow, making it difficult to develop faster rail in the U.S.; a forthcoming policy change by the FRA could make it far easier to implement high-speed rail.
Funds, once states have submitted their proposals, will be distributed for projects (like a specific straightening of track that is “ready to go”), corridors (like the California High-Speed Rail program), and planning (for projects not yet ready for construction). The federal government has established a schedule for the distribution of the funds, with the first round of appropriations being made in the end of September. The schedule is below.
The document also mentioned the mandated national rail plan, which will expand the discussion of the goals for train service in the United States and be released by mid-October. This document, which will be elemental in defining the future of rail in America, must be “consistent with approved State Rail Plans and national rail needs to promote an integrated, cohesive, efficient, and optimized natioal rail system for the movement of good and people… [it] will expand upon the vision outlined in this document, including identifying specific corridor goals and measures of success. The plan will likely provide an opportunity to revise the high-speed rail designation, including a new category of approved corridors, i.e., those corridors for which a detailed corridor plan and institutional framework are in place to permit development of a successful corridor that meets the national rail goals.“
Does this mean that the national rail plan will revise the much-maligned national map of designated high-speed rail corridors? We’ll have to see – I certainly hope so. But what’s clear is that today’s document is the first step towards a major national consideration of high-speed rail for the first time in decades.