Reduced Travel Times Require High Speeds

Perhaps Amtrak President Joseph Boardman needs a lesson. Here’s what he told the Illinois House Railroad Industry Committee yesterday, according to the Chicago Tribune:

“It’s really not about the speed. It’s about reduced travel times and more frequency.”

I hate to point out the obvious — something I’ve had to do in the past — but reduced travel times can only be achieved through (a) reducing the distance traveled, or (b) increasing the speed of trains. Since I’m assuming Mr. Boardman wasn’t suggesting that customers simply start taking shorter trips, the only way you can reduce travel times is by increasing speed. So it really is about the speed. Sorry, Mr. Boardman.

Mr. Boardman used this argument to inform the committee that it was infeasible to build true high-speed rail (that is, “HSR-Express,” as we’re calling 150+ mph service these days) at the scale needed for the United States because of its high cost, and said that speed improvements to service at 110 mph were more realistic.

I have no problem with steadily improving train speeds, nor of course with increased frequency. But we should be investing in much faster speeds along the country’s most important corridors, like San Francisco-Los Angeles or Washington-Boston. Those lines, among others, deserve the same level of rail service as is provided in European and Asian countries, and there’s no reason to think that the U.S. is simply incapable of building them. Whether or not some trips taken by Americans are transcontinental, the fact is that the majority of long-distance trips are made by people traveling between cities 100 and 600 miles apart. Those distances are ideal for high-speed rail.

Fortunately, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood seems to disagree, telling the media that California’s high-speed rail project is “way, way, way ahead” of others — and implying that it will get the bulk of the recovery act’s fast train funds. He seems to be optimistic about that proposed 220 mph project. I’m not sure Mr. Boardman should be on his team.

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Rockfish

    Hi- Just dscovered this site and it’s great. Keep up the good work.

    I am concerned that too many people are obsessed with the bullet-train glamour and we are ignoring a lot of low-hanging fruit in the process.
    The fact is, “Acela” class travel would be more than adequate for the vast majority of this country. Hell, the Indian railroad system would a big improvement!
    I have been riding the NE corridor trains for 30 years. The biggest gain made by the Acela train was not its speed, but the rather the elimination of stops. Amtrak could have run express trains with their old equipment and had nearly the same travel times. As it is, the Acela train still has significant speed improvements available. It is limited through most of CT by the continued presence of a couple of grade crossings (a few million $ to fix, but not yet done) and elsewhere by poor track conditions (again, a few million$). Just doing this would increase average speeds substantially.
    The cost and complexity of building true HSR will ensure it never gets done. The $8B in recent funding would go much farther in existing infrastructure upgrades to allow Acela-like service (along with improved local service) in vast areas of the country.

  • Yonah: I believe the argument is that the top speed matters less than eliminating slow zones and the likes. The Acela is capable of 200 mph by technology and 150 by FRA regulations and track capacity; however, the Connecticut curves limit it to an average of 52 mph.

  • orulz

    I think Boardman’s comment can be read as: “It’s really not about the top speed.”

    While you’re right that top speed does make a difference, You can trim a lot more travel time per dollar off of intercity trips by doing things other than just worrying about that “top speed” of 200+mph. Such things include:
    -Adding track capacity to reduce delays (which force you to add padding to the schedule)
    -Repairing old, decrepit rails, ties, bridges, crossovers, etc that force slow speeds or break often causing delays
    -Making station stops shorter and more efficient (High platforms, etc)
    -Improving signaling to allow for closer spacing of trains
    -Doing minor curve realignments and adjusting superelevation such that trains can maintain a constant speed of 110mph (or even 79mph) rather than having to slow down to 45mph to round a bend.

    And, any money spent on improving capacity and efficiency for conventional trains within metropolitan areas is money well spent, since those improvements will also be applicable when a higher speed line is built between the metro areas.

  • Adam

    Agree with Alon and orulz. You get the same time savings from increasing the average speed from 45 mph to 85 mph as you do from 85 mph to 125 mph for probably an order of magnitude cost less. So yeah, it’s about the speed, but it’s really really about the average speed. I want 150 mph and 220 mph top speeds as well, but I also don’t want to wait 15 years before I see large trip time reductions from Raleigh to DC.

    Also, I don’t think Mr. Boardman is on Mr. Lahood’s team right? Amtrak is technically separate. If the FRA administrator was making these comments, I’d maybe be a little concerned. But as it is, Boardman isn’t making policy. If congress and the white house tell him to invest in HSR, he’ll have to do it.

  • Good points everyone. This is why there’s a comment section…

  • Woody

    I left Chicago on the 8:30 a.m. Wolverine, and got to Kalamazoo about 3 1/2 hours later, but in time for the luncheon and the afternoon session. At 3:35 the big boss announces that he had to leave for New York, and the meeting is over. I’m free to get the next train back to Chicago. Of course, that’s a 3 1/2 hour trip, but now I’ll be back in time to tuck in my little one … Hey, wait a minute. the next train leaves at 8:52 p.m.? I’m not waiting 5 hours to take that train.

    In fact, in the real world, I never got on the 8:30 morning train. knowing there is no reasonable return schedule

    If Boardman is saying that we can cut travel time if I don’t have to hang around Kalamazoo for 5 hours until the next departure, then he’s right. More frequencies will get me home faster than any more speeding up of trains on the 100-mile stretch in Michigan that Amtrak owns.

    But adding a lot more frequencies will require a lot more cars. So maybe Boardman is trying to start making a case for a major expansion of the number of trains, and the number of routes and corridors, and for the major order for the hundreds of new passenger railcars those improvements will require.

    Lessee. California High Speed Rail estimated cost of $45 billion for 800-mile system. Allow me to round up to $600 million per 100 miles.

    Hmmmn. Get 1,200 new railroad cars and double the number of Amtrak trains outside the NEC, or build a few hundred miles of one HSR line. You don’t want to make me choose.

  • Woody

    Excuse myself. I forgot the time zone change again. It’s 2 1/2 hours from Chicago to Kalamazoo, and vice versa. All the less possible to cut the trip time by speeding up the train — a 20% cut is half an hour, no biggie. But adding enough trains to have departures every 2 hours, that would cut the trip time for sure.

  • Adam

    What I am concerned about is that Mr. Boardman appears to have stopped paying attention federal highway policy in 1994:

    “”One hundred and ten is double the national speed limit” of 55 m.p.h. on highways, noted Boardman, who was administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during several years of the Bush administration.”

    Uh….Mr. Boardman, we don’t have a national speed limit anymore and haven’t for the last 15 years.

  • NikolasM

    Then we need to change the goal from 110 mph to at least 140 ;-).

  • Zed

    I would rather see the nation invest in new, high speed, publicly owned passenger rail corridors. I have a hard time seeing public money spent on improving private freight railway infrastructure where passenger trains will always be given last priority, I know that by law passenger trains are supposed to be given priority over freight, but that doesn’t always happen in the real world. No matter what improvements are made, passenger trains are still at the mercy of the companies controlling the right-of-way.

  • Jason

    Boardman is absolutely right…but he should have said “top speed.” That is what it meant.

    Run the math on the difference in travel time impact of increasing 5 miles of track from 25 to 80 mph vs increasing the top speed of 25 miles of track from 80 mph to 150 mph.

    Then consider the costs.

  • If it’s about top speed you right. Average speed can be improved with reduce of needed stops.
    I think Mr. Boardman did a little mental shortcut here.

    Cyk

  • Really nice post, enjoyed reading it! last time i ever took the Amtrak I was on a 7+ hour holdover outside of Omaha. never again

  • OceanRailroader

    The biggest thing that turned a four hour train ride from Richmond VA to Lancaster PA for me into a eight hour one was the bottle necks, the Phili catenary anomily and the Washingtion DC catenary anomily. First going from Richmond our train couldn’t go more then 25 to 40 miles on hour do to CSX. You reach Washingtion 40 minutes late you then wait to swich from oil to eletric which ate up 30 minutes. You run down to Philli change trains and wait for the twice a day train to come which wastes two hours. You then get on it deal with changing from eletric to oil again.

    To fix this the trains could simply go from 25 and 40 to 50 and 80 miles on hour by adding a third track from Petersubrg to Washingtion then adding over head catenary wires down to Petersburg to get rid of the catenary change over. They could have added two or three more round trips a day so if you do miss your train you don’t spend three hours at the station.

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