Ray LaHood's Expedition to Europe Bodes Well for U.S. HSR Hopes

LaHood ZapateroVisits France, Germany, and Spain to see high-speed rail working first-hand

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has spent the last week in Europe, where he’s been meeting with French, German, and Spanish officials on a high-speed fact-finding tour. His conclusions — that the U.S. has a model to emulate in European very fast trains — indicates the administration’s seriousness in approaching the development of such transportation technologies in the United States. Washington, it appears, is not going to let the dream for true high-speed rail slip away.

In meetings with French and Spanish officials, Mr. LaHood could hardly restrain his excitement about his trip to Europe, telling AFP that “In America we’re just beginning what you’ve done here in Europe for such a long period of time in such a successful way. This is very impressive.” He is likely to visit Japan, the Asian model for fast trains, later in the year. The United Kingdom’s Transport Minister, Lord Andrew Adonis, made a similar trip two weeks ago.

According to the AP, Mr. LaHood was especially impressed by Spain’s relatively lower-cost system compared to more expensive alternatives in Germany and Japan. I’m not sure whether those differences are a result of the lower-wage Spanish work force or some other factor; the article doesn’t specify. What is clear is that the distinctively Spanish obsession with using tunnel boring machines (TBM) seems to be a model for the Transportation Secretary; these semi-automated devices save on both time and cost in building underground rail corridors. For example, the 3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build. That’s far cheaper per mile than any similar U.S. tunneling project, and part of the explanation is the efficient use of those TBMs.

By 2020, Spain’s plan is to have 10,000 km of high-speed rail in operation, giving it the second largest network in the world after China. Ninety percent of the country’s citizens will be within 50 km of a high-speed station. Can the U.S. commit itself to an equivalent goal?

I have been a strong proponent of truly fast high-speed rail, and Mr. LaHood’s close inspection of European trains traveling at above 186 mph indicates that he feels the same. California needs a large federal commitment to get moving on its project — the first American example of modern rail investment and a case that is strikingly similar to Spain. Will Washington climb on board?

Image above: Secretary Ray LaHood meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, from AFP

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Spain is a bad example to learn from. Most of those HSR lines have no economic justification; they’ll bankrupt RENFE just like the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen bankrupted Japan National Railways and forced privatization. It’s better to focus on HSR connecting medium and large cities, rather than ensure every small town has an HSR connecting it to the capital.

  • Alon –
    While you may have a point that Spain has over-invested in under-utilized corridors, the country’s policies aren’t going to bankrupt Renfe, because it’s not Renfe that’s investing in the lines, it’s ADIF, the national rail infrastructure builder. Renfe will simply provide the level of service to these corridors that ridership demands. Nobody’s going to go bankrupt here because the state is subsidizing the operations of ADIF with the political goal of ensuring quick connectivity to the capital for the majority of the country’s citizens.

  • I was under the impression that most modern rail lines (even in the U.S.) were tunneled with TBMs…then again, it is the U.S. :(

  • Yonah: the accounting doesn’t matter too much. The lines won’t ever pay back the construction money the government is spending; they might even not pay the cost of operations, if ridership is too low. Sooner or later, the government will have to either stop construction or get a private company to do it. If Spain suffers the same deflation Paul Krugman predicts it will, this will happen very soon. The AVE will go the same way of the IND in New York, with its unfulfilled dreams of Second Avenue Subway and a host of other new lines.

    This is bad for HSR in general, because it will make it look unprofitable on the whole. Unless the US already has up and running HSR in the Northeast and/or California by the time Spain’s HSR dreams crash, it will become very hard for pro-rail activists to make business cases for HSR even along high-demand corridors (as most corridors on your national HSR map are).

  • TrainsinTokyo

    Alon, it wasn’t just the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen that bankrupted JNR; the construction of the Tokaido Shinkansen itself and numerous unprofitable local lines demanded by politicians and bureaucrats that forced it into bankruptcy and breakup.

    In spite of that, revenues from all Shinkansen lines have been on the rise and some are even profitable (Tokaido, Sanyo). The problem really is with “lines to nowhere,” which is a problem that can be avoided with proper planning (LA-SF, NYC-DC, etc.). That Spain is choosing to ignore ROI in favor of tighter national unity by building its lines illustrates its different priorities to the U.S.

  • Ray

    Did I read that right? A 3.5 mile long tunnel under downtown Barcelona for 180 million Euros (253 million dollars)? Seems like they got a deal. The East Side Access Manhattan tunnels are costing $428 million running from from 63rd and Second Ave. to Park and 37th. La Hood has to figure out ways to bring down costs here to European levels (or less). What are the keys?

  • TrainsinTokyo: if I remember correctly, both the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen have paid off their construction costs entirely; the Tokaido Shinkansen did so in the 1970s, before JNR’s breakup.

    Ray: the first key is to sell New York to another country. New York’s subway construction costs are singularly insane. Second Avenue Subway is budgeted at $1.3 billion per km and the one-stop 7 Extension at $1 billion per km. Even in Tokyo and San Francisco, both expensive cities in seismic regions, a kilometer of subway costs $300-500 million.

  • Woody

    Second Avenue Construction Follies. I rode my bike over to watch the work at 92nd St on 2nd Ave. Very informative 10 minutes of viewing.

    One enormous two-story-high apparatus with heavy teeth at its bottom was lowered into the hole, and eventually hauled out by a towering crane, to deposit its load of rock and muck. About a wheelbarrowful. of rock and muck, less than that as the watery part of the muck ran back into the hole. A gigantic backhoe proceeded to scoop up the rock and mud, and plop the load into a waiting dump truck, again and again and again and again and …

    I wondered if the backhoe operator was on speed or what, to scrape his hoe across the pavement long after every pebble had been lifted into the dump truck. Eventually the towering apparatus was lifted from the hole again, and it deposited a half a wheelbarrow load of rock and mud on the pavement. The backhoe operator went back to work on it, scraping away time after time, after any trace of the deposit was long gone.

    I wondered about the bill for diesel fuel, and the greenhouse gases being sent into the atmosphere, not to mention the lungs of residents nearby.

    I even wondered about doing this job with some wheelbarrows and a crew of illegal aliens, and decided that I could save money with a crew of citizens collected from the unemployment office where my roommate encounters many searchers willing, they say, to do any kind of work, any work, please.

    Well, the Second Avenue Subway is shovel ready, and I could put my crew to work with shovels and buckets and wheelbarrows, and do it for less and MUCH, MUCh faster than the one now being paid to while away a Saturday afternoon.

  • snogglethorpe

    The number I’ve seen for Tokyo’s new Fukutoshin line is about 2.5 billion dollars for the Shibuya-Ikebukuro section, which is around 10km.

    I believe it’s almost entirely bored tunnel, through one of the densest parts of the city (if you look at a profile of the line, it’s kinda crazy too, going up and down to avoid stuff like existing subway lines!).

    [It's a very very nice subway too...]

  • TrainsinTokyo

    The number I’ve seen for Tokyo’s new Fukutoshin line is about 2.5 billion dollars for the Shibuya-Ikebukuro section, which is around 10km.

    Yes, construction costs are about $262.5 million per km for the Fukutoshin Line, which includes stations with platform doors, escalators, elevators, etc. But the Oedo Line, finished in 2000, cost nearly 40% more at $360.4 million per km. Mind you the stations are clean, there are few problems due to water leakage compared to equivalent U.S. systems, and there are very few problems caused by equipment malfunctions. Still, there was a lot of criticism directed at the project for being wasteful, but capital costs are gradually being repaid through operating revenues, and I think the respective lines are worth the cost when you consider the serious issues of crowding and expected continued population growth in greater Tokyo.

  • TrainsinTokyo

    Apologies — at 8.9 km for the Shibuya-Ikebukuro segment, the cost per km is approximately $282 million km at current exchange rates. At the time of construction the yen was approximately 10-20% cheaper so this isn’t an exact figure.

  • Diego Méndez

    Alon Levy said: “Spain is a bad example to learn from. Most of those HSR lines have no economic justification (…) It’s better to focus on HSR connecting medium and large cities, rather than ensure every small town has an HSR connecting it to the capital.”

    I wonder what is a small town for you. If you connect Madrid (pop. 6 million) with Seville (pop. 1,5 million), it is logical to build a couple of stations along the way. As there are no big cities in between, smallish Puertollano (pop. 50,000) and Cordoba (pop. 300,000) got connected; but the line was not built for Puertollano and Cordoba, they just happened to be along the way.

    The same happens on almost any other line. While there are plans to connect a couple of small towns laying out of economically justified lines, those lines just won’t be built. In fact, as a Spaniard, I’d take the plans to build 20,000km by 2020 with a grain of salt. It will probably end up being 10,000km by 2025 (which will be the largest in the world, anyway, as the Chinese have no spending power to buy HSR tickets; existing HSR in China have been utter failures).

    By the way, I’d bet the US has not a single operational HSR line by 2025.

  • My complaint isn’t about the intermediate stop in Cordoba; it’s about the new lines to Soria, Ourense, Ferrol, Coruña, and Almeria, and the two separate lines to Albacete. Who asked for those?

  • Woody

    Alon , you so silly. Who asked for train routes to small remote cities in Spain?

    Well, who asked for that multi-million dollar airport in Johnstown, Pa., and the annual subsidy of flight to Washington, D.C., the only city served from Johnstown? Don’t they have the equivalent of powerful Congressmen in Spain? Aren’t they gonna get some gravy for their constituents, not to mention convenient connections for their important selves? Or is it self-important selves?

    Lessee. The first line Madrid-Seville was built as part of Spain’s big party for the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus. Native Americans weren’t in a mood to celebrate, but Spain had the World’s Fair in Seville and the AVE to Madrid, and the Olympics in Barcelona. I think they got some European Union infrastructure funds for the first AVE, too, because when Spain joined it was considered poor. To the surprise of critics it immediately began showing an operating profit, even paying off the debt for the new trains in short order.

    The success of the first line gave momentum to other lines, Barcelona-Valencia, Madrid-Barcelona, and now Madrid-Malaga and Madrid-just about everywhere. Putting aside capital costs for a moment, they have to be making huge money on Madrid-Barcelona now, probably enough to absorb losses on some smaller links.

    Diego seems to think the building of new lines will slow down and not reach all the proclaimed targets. If they simply finish the main ones underway, like Madrid-Lisbon and Barcelona-France, they will have pretty well accomplished their stated goal of unifying the country with rail.

    That’s a matter of national pride, apparently, not unlike the Olympics and World’s Fair stuff almost a generation ago now. And if that involves uneconomic routes into some backwater corners, I’m not sure it’s a bad way for a government to “waste” its money.

    I wish our country cared as much about mobility for its ordinary citizens in places like Battle Creek and Toledo, or Macon and Tuscaloosa, or Monroe, Shreveport, Alexandria, and Baton Rouge. Or even Johnstown, PA, which of course would benefit from better train service Pittsburgh-East Coast.. We spend billions subsidizing air travel for our business user ruling class. Why can’t we spend billions on rail for the masses, even those in Fargo and Missoula and the rest of FlyoverLand?

  • The Interstate mentality is all about the mobility of citizens in Battle Creek, Toledo, and Tuscaloosa. It just so happens that the US chose to waste money on roads while Spain chose to waste it on HSR.

    Of course, the US can do a 180 and waste money on rail instead of roads. However, this won’t solve the core problem of subsidies from successful urban areas to dying rural areas. These subsidies are rarely based on need; if you compare the subsidies delivered to Philadelphia and Baltimore with those delivered to Wyoming and Montana, which are far better off, you’ll see that the cities are getting shortchanged. What the subsidies are based on is the disproportionate representation that rural states get in the Senate, plus the idea that paying farmers is morally superior to paying inner-city teachers.

    Roads to nowhere perpetuate this mentality. The US already has a communist transportation system, with state-owned roads built by legislative fiat; nowadays there’s even a state-owned automaker producing Trabis Chevys for the people. In principle it can extend the same model to HSR construction – there’s nothing inherently wrong with throwing a few hundred billion in HSR money to tobacco growers in Asheville and ranchers in Lubbock so that they can take fast trains to Washington to lobby for more agricultural subsidies. It just means that New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and the other cities that power the US economy will be burdened with paying more taxes to support activities that for all intents and purposes are burning money. And when that happens, the first groups of people to suffer will be the ordinary citizens of the South Bronx, East LA, and North Philadelphia.

  • Woody

    “The first groups of people to suffer will be the ordinary citizens of the South Bronx, East LA, and North Philadelphia.”

    I’m sure they will continue to suffer, but whether more or less from more better rail service, I dunno.

    I’ve seen a couple or more business plans for high speed rail that conclude with raising the ticket prices “in recognition of the better service”. Or to raise the ticket prices to get those big fat black women off the train, sort of like half acre-lot zoning keeps the riff-raff out of the better suburbs.

    That’s one reason I keep talking about improving regular trains with more frequent service, new routes, etc. If the business user ruling class decide they need high speed trains they will get them without my help needed.

    I’m not so hot to subsidize the big cities that you say will power the economy. In that case, the black people will get gentrified out of Harlem and … Oh, wait. That is happening already.

    Anyway, in a democracy composed of 50 states and 50 delegations in Congress, you gotta give something to almost every district or it ain’t gonna happen. So I’m thinking that subsidizing another train through Tuscaloosa is more likely to help ordinary people there than some of the other programs you mention, like the agricultural subsidies to big landowners.

    And as the biggest cities like Atlanta and Chicago continue to grow, the young people will continue to leave the small cities like Tuscaloosa and Fargo. Linking those smaller places to the big cities will be a public good. So as I said, if that is how Spain is wasting some of its money, I’m OK with that.

  • Diego Méndez

    Woody,

    “The first line Madrid-Seville was built as part of Spain’s big party for the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus. Native Americans weren’t in a mood to celebrate…”

    Well, they DID celebrate. In fact, they celebrate it every year in Latin American countries (Día de la Raza – Day of the Spanish-speaking Race, known with the PC name of Columbus Day in the US) since more than a century ago, and officially since 1913. It is a sign of maturity to celebrate your own defeat and put it in a positive light; that’s why Spain will celebrate its own defeat (200 years ago) by Latin American independentists in the next months.

  • Diego Méndez

    Alon,

    “It’s about the new lines to Soria, Ourense, Ferrol, Coruña, and Almeria, and the two separate lines to Albacete. Who asked for those?”

    1) The line to Soria is not economically viable and will not be built. The famous blueprint with a line to Soria was a proposal, not a final project; that blueprint will be reviewed this year and the line to Soria will disappear for sure.

    2) Tthe line to Orense connects Vigo (metro pop: 670,000) and Coruña (metro pop: 410,000) to Madrid (metro pop: 6 million) and the Portuguese metro areas of Porto (metro pop: 1,2 million) and Lisbon (metro pop: 2,8 million), so it makes economic sense. Orense was just lucky to lie in between.

    3) The line from Coruña to Ferrol does not make economic sense and will probably not be built.

    4) There is a huge movement of people between cities in the middle of the country (especially Madrid) and the Mediterranean coast (including Almería) every long weekend, on holidays and in the summer. Huge as in “millions of people getting to the coast at the same time”, so it is economically justifiable. Albacete (expected metro pop in 2020: 300,000) got a good deal, indeed; but I still think all its lines will be economically viable.

    I am surprised you didn’t point out other obviously uneconomic links such as Madrid-Ávila-Salamanca or the Northern corridor Coruña-Oviedo-Santander-Bilbao. None of them have economic sense. They won’t be built, either.

    Anyway, small towns (in the 100,000-200,000 range) out of the AVE network will probably get some upgraded rail link, which suits them better in ticket price and freight-rail compatibility.

  • Woody: black people are by and large not gentrified out of Harlem. The statistic everyone keeps pointing to is that in this decade, Central Harlem’s white population went from 3% to 7%, or something like that. Either way, it’s tiny. My block, which lies in the richest census tract of Central Harlem, is maybe 15% white.

    But in any case, the impact of gentrification shows that you don’t help inner cities by spending money on megaprojects, least of all megaprojects that primarily benefit rural areas; you help them by spending money on teachers, cops, and doctors, and by reducing pollution. HSR is not a social program but a business investment, and should not be used to move money away from social programs. It’s a public good insofar as it’s used by large numbers of people to get from one place to another; if it doesn’t so that, then it’s as useless as I-90 in South Dakota.

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