Does Senator Bond Have it Right?

» A minimal investment in rail between Chicago and St. Louis won’t get Americans excited about fast trains.

Since Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail in this year’s stimulus bill, Illinois has been pushing hard for improvements along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which they contend should be the first investment in a Midwest-wide network of fast railways. Now governors Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois and Jay Nixon (D) of Missouri are pledging to work together to fund the corridor connecting their two states. But for now, their efforts are focused on an anemic project that will ramp up speeds to only 110 mph, reducing the journey time between the two cities from five hours today to less than four. Mr. Nixon said yesterday that he’d like to eventually speed trains to 210 mph, but the $8 billion authorized for projects around the nation won’t be nearly enough to pay for such improvements.

Missouri Senator Kit Bond (R) asserted last week that the federal government’s plans for high-speed rail investment lacked vision, and pointed out that Washington would be better off finding a select few projects to fund fully. In a Senate subcommittee, he said “My concern is that… we will be spreading the money so thin and wide that we will have nothing to show for it.” Implicitly, he was arguing for investment in express high-speed rail in a select number of corridors at speeds above 150 mph, rather than a hodge-podge series of minor improvements along a number of corridors.

Mr. Bond raises a legitimate concern. If the line between these Midwest cities were improved, it still would be only slightly faster than travel by automobile — at a higher cost for passengers. No mass of people will choose to travel on trains between these cities if they take four hours to make the trip; the route is hardly competitive with car travel and much slower than air routes. A far-off promise for 210 mph trains is no promise at all.

Indeed, the Chicago-St. Louis line would be a legitimate candidate for a much greater investment on the scale of California’s 220 mph high-speed program. Compare the basics of the route with that of the Paris-Lyon TGV line, one of the most successful in the world:

Chicago-St. Louis vs. Paris-Lyon
Line Metro 1 Pop Metro 2 Pop City 1 Pop City 2 Pop Distance
Chicago-St. Louis 9.6 m 2.8 m 2.8 m 0.4 m 300 mi
Paris-Lyon 11.2 m 1.6 m 2.2 m 0.5 m 290 mi

Both pairs of cities are roughly the same distance apart, and their respective metros and inner-city areas have similar populations; neither route has major population centers between the termini. Yet while TGVs take the trip between France’s capital and second city in two hours, Illinois and Missouri officials are promoting a rail system that will take four. The Chicago-St. Louis project lacks the appeal of the French line, and it will therefore be unable to ever produce the kind of ridership numbers that are now standard between Paris and Lyon. A 110 mph line will never make up its cost; conversely, a 210 mph line, with much higher ridership, could potentially break even.

The United States must get its investment in rail right from the start if we are to envision a long-term program of fast train projects, because we need to build public support for the program from the beginning. Spending a few billion dollars on a project that will only slightly improve commutes and attract few passengers is the wrong first step. Senator Bond has it right — we must find the resources to ensure that our initial investments will produce tangible, visible results; otherwise, in ten years, we’ll be calling high-speed rail yet another “failed” government program.

25 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Yes, but be careful: the Paris-Lyon TGV was never about Lyon. From the beginning it was operated with trains flowing through to all the main cities of the southeast and the Riviera, serving a combined population comparable to that of Paris. And it served cities that were already dense and centralised, with strong local transit systems to bring people to the train.

    I would not jump to the conclusion that anything like the French performance would happen on a comparable line Chicago-St. Louis. Not that it isn’t a great project.

  • I’m not a big train fan, so when I saw the train track map of the US and Europe put against each other, I was shocked. Europe’s so much more developed! Now the reason is that in Europe, less people fly to their destination, because it’s expensive. At least significantly more expensive than a train. And most of the time, less comfortable.
    Seriously, US needs to pick up the pace and start working on it’s rail transport. Till to day it its by far the most cost efficient way of transporting people and goods.
    A light rail like this would be a great start.

  • Chris G

    OK. But the Senator should remember that by his very good argument all the money should go to California and the NEC (ok ok, just California but like all others I’d like some benefit).

    The thing with comparing anywhere to Paris Lyon is that that line was build as TGV only after it was already at capacity. Its not that we must have TGV speeds immediately.

    And another point is the TGVs between Paris and Lyon are almost entirely non-stop. The will run the distance much quicker by that alone. There are other slower trains that make the intermediate stops. ie, we must have both.

    If you can tell me that 110mph on a non stop train is barely faster than car travel, your police force should all be fired. Get out there. Enforce the speed limits. Government killed the passenger train network with the huge subsidy of the auto and plane, now its time for government to do its job and show the public just how large that subsidy is. I’m sick and tired of reading comments around the country how trains are subsidized and the others are free market.

    We need more passenger trains everywhere in this country. These arguments are just making the point that his Highness Obama underbid with only 8 million.

    But I love how Senator Bond thinks his line should be built from scratch with this money. As if it could be.

    I’m from the east coast, but if we’re going to concentrate the money on a project to excite people and show it can be done, it is in California.

  • We would all like for there to be more money, but Americans won’t be convinced to give it up for railroads until they experience the utility and comfort for themselves. With a basic level of service restored to that route, by rail it would be significantly faster than interstates and vastly more reliable (immune to congestion, and most winter weather). And regional air travel is going to stop being a distraction, at all, for the middle class in the near future.

    As the dead-ends and crippling costs of automobile and airline air infrastructure become broadly evident, the case for serious HSR funding is only going to get easier to make. The worst course for now would be to hold out for unavailable amounts of money, sticking current passengers with third-rate service for many more years. There are no “wrong steps” in the right direction.

  • Andy Lynch

    I would agree that the current plan lacks vision. It’s hard to know what to expect for any region when it comes to potential rail speed. Here’s some general ideas. If I’m driving in a car that runs parallel to a rail line, the train should run fast enough that as it whizzes by I wish I was on it. Also, if I’m at a branch office in St. Louis and need to go the HQ in Chicago for a quick meeting, it should be fast enough for me to take an early morning train, do the meeting and lunch and then make it home in the late afternoon/early evening. Turn a trip that would have been an overnighter into a long day.

    Perhaps thats a standard we should be looking at, quality of life.

  • Rockfish

    I agree with Sen Bond’s concern that the $8B will be spread so thin we will have nothing to show for it. I also agree that Cali is the only place worth building a dedicated demonstration project. One role of the demo project is to show that HSR works – you need to hit an absolute home run, and LA -SF will have huge ridership numbers. If nobody rides the STL-CHI train, it will only serve to prove to critics that HSR “doesn’t” work.

  • political_i

    We need to establish a true HSR link as soon as possible in order to demonstrate its capabilities. When the public takes a look at it, the enthusiasm to build more will take off like a rocket. The force to hold back high-speed rail will thin out eventually, but work needs to begin now and not later.

  • lpetrich

    On the other side, distributing the money widely is good for getting political support. It’s what has helped Amtrak keep going for all these years.

  • NCarlson

    I agree that we need a demonstration of true HSR as soon as possible, and that California is the place to do it, but by the same token we do need a project SEPERATE from HSR funding to do the sort of work proposed by Midwest HSR.

    This kind of service of upgrade, that brings speeds up to ~200 km/h (yes yes, I live in Canada ATM, and our numbers are rounder and more impresseive sounding :))results in the fastest trains we can realistically get with lineside signals and (more importantly) mixed passenger freight traffic. In the end this is the kind of service that will actually bring effective passenger service to most of the country. As much as HSR is better and is needed, any form of acceptable rail service is also needed, and can be done faster and cheaper.

    What I’d really like to see is some kind of federal rail upgrade program, that grants funds for projects on existing lines to bring them up to set of standards along the lines of an interstate; e.g. double track and 110/125 mph design speed and frequent passenger service. This should be a seperate parralell program to HSR, which should (for now) focus on getting individual projects moving and showing that HSR can really work here.

    The kind of result you’d see in this is that the HSR program would put all the money into California, the NEX and Florida, while the upgrade program (call it Rapidrail maybe?) would go ahead and fund incremental work on the Midwest, Cascades, Texas and Crescent corridors.

  • simple

    Jarrett — I agree that the Paris-Lyon connection is integral to supporting travel to further destinations, not just Paris-Lyon, but so could be CHI-STL. A CHI-STL HSR trunk line (via Champaign and its major university and Springfield with the state capitol) could form the base for improved service to Kansas City, Memphis, and even Indinanapolis-Cincinatti-Lousiville-Nashville (by branching off near Champaign).

  • Everyone, don’t sell the NEC short. The line was operationally profitable until this year, when the recession killed ridership. If it were rebuilt at HSR speeds, it would make Amtrak as a whole profitable, creating a ready source of funding for further HSR construction.

    Web design in Miami, European flights are actually cheaper than American ones. The European low-cost carriers are much cheaper than the American ones. Ryanair can get you from Paris to Marseille for 12 Euros, whereas the TGV does for 99; however, the TGV is so much more convenient that it has more than two thirds the air/rail market share.

    Simple, the line to St. Louis will only be able to serve other destinations in the Midwest and Upland South if the existing lines are electrified. High speeds require electric locomotives.

  • Avi

    Alon, the NEC obviously has the greatest potential for ridership and profit. The problem is the cost to build a true HSR line would be astronomical. You’re talking about buying land and building a new right of way in the densest most expensive region in the country.

    To build a TGV class line for the NEC would require 20 years spent mostly on lawsuits and billions to buy land via eminent domain. The political capital to required to build the line would be immense.

    Better to start with CA where you have some open land and the public already supports it. Once CA is proven and excites the country then you have a shot at pushing it through in the NEC.

  • Avi, between New York and Washington, the ROW is mostly straight enough for HSR operation. It has a few nasty curves, but mostly in rural parts of Maryland. To increase speed, Amtrak needs only to replace the Depression-era catenary with modern catenary, which should cost under $1 billion. This will be enough to increase speed to 150 mph. If the FRA revises its regulations, then the existing trains will be able to travel at 165, while Amtrak will be able to buy newer trains that can do 200.

    In Connecticut, you’re right that true HSR will require a new right of way. But even there, few takings are necessary – the train can switch between the existing ROW, U.S. 1, and I-95. It will be more complicated than south of New York, but it’ll still cost vastly less than in California, with its seismic faults, tunnels through the mountains, and need for new tracks.

  • Avi

    The other issue between NY and DC(especially NY and PHL) is there is too much traffic on the tracks. There is Amtrak Acela, Amtrak Regionals, Amtrak Keystones, random other Amtrak trains, NJ Transit express, NJ Transit Local, and Septa.

    Improving the catenary would help improve the speed on all of them, but if you want Acela to go much faster than the other trains you’re going to need more than the 4 lines that exist there right now.

    Also, I believe the caternary work would cost more than 1 billion. It may only be a couple billion, but it’s more than 1.

  • Avi, there are parallel rights-of-way to the Northeast Corridor the entire way from New York to Boston. Eminent domain would only be necessary in cases where curves need to be straightened. The main expenses would be grade crossing elimination and electrification.

  • Avi, the electrification portion of the NEC improvements that led to the Acela cost about $3.5 million per mile. This translates to $800 million from New York to DC.

    There is a lot less traffic on the NEC than you’d think, because almost all traffic has to share tracks with some non-NEC traffic when entering the 2-track tunnel into Penn Station. For example, between Newark and Rahway, there are, I believe, 16 tph at rush hour. In addition, in New Jersey there’s still room for 6 tracks; the line used to have 6 tracks but has since been reduced to 4. Similarly, in Maryland, the line has been reduced from 4 tracks to 2, but there’s still room for 4. If the former capacity is restored, which should by itself cost $1-1.5 billion, depending on how much four-tracking Maryland needs, then the Acela will run on dedicated tracks from New York to Washington except near the major stations.

    Cap’n Transit, the parallel rights-of-way have to be extensively repaired for high-speed operation. Even medium-speed operation requires more precise track geometry and more modern signaling than is available on American rail lines outside the NEC. Those lines are also less straight.

  • Alon, I agree with you that we should restore the Northeast Corridor trackage that was taken out. And I agree that the Housatonic and Putnam lines are old and curved. But the Connecticut Air Line and the West Trenton Line look pretty straight to me on the satellite and aerial photographs.

    I think I read that the Air Line is straighter than the Shore Line, but for the Acela project Amtrak decided to spend less and upgrade the Shore Line instead of putting in all new tracks, catenary and bridges.

  • The West Trenton line is less straight than the NEC. Between Newark and Philadelphia, the NEC has exactly one bad curve, at Metuchen. The West Trenton line has several curves, for example in Middlesex and Penndel.

  • Adirondacker

    The Royal Blue made it from Jersey City to Washington DC in four hours. The Pennsylvania had similar travel times. There’s a lot of work to get close to current NEC speeds.

    But does it have to compete with the NEC? It has to compete with taking a train from a local station, Plainfield or Jenkintown, versus driving to a NEC station. It has to compete with driving from Jenkingtown to NY or driving from Plainfield to Philadelphia. . . start slow. Restore commuter service between West Trenton and NY. Run a few NY-Philadelphia trains a day each way during rush hour – during rush hour slow trains beat slower cars. When that works out, electrify the line. . .

  • Adirondacker

    I think I read that the Air Line is straighter than the Shore Line

    Not by much and Air-Line has a serious fault. There’s no rails on it.

  • Where is the Air Line, anyway? I tried looking on Google Maps, and the only alternative I saw to the Shore Line is going through Hartford and Springfield, which adds detours and is actually more curved.

  • railtec

    WE NEED IT ALL.

    220 MPH HSR, a layer of 110-150 MPH MSR (medium speed rail) and a wide web of commuter rail 80-90 MPH LSR (low speed rail); all those freight tracks and they are everywhere with speeds of 20-25 need to be upgraded dramatically (grade separations, signalization, double track.)

    The ARC tunnel should be redesigned to include rail freight passage to Long Island & passenger service through the lower level of Grand Central Terminal.

    Most of all we need to make a full throttle commitment to. transcontinental hsr (the crown jewel of our new sustainable transportation grid)- Jacksonville, FL to San Diego in 12 hours ; Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, LA; New York-Miami; D.C.-Atlanta.

    The next layer is infill mega-region rail networks (discussed above.)

    We need to bury domestic airlines (and interstate highway system) – just as has been done in Europe. Flying should be primarily for flights overseas, Alaska & Hawaii.

    All this hsr needs to be fully bicycle accessible (bikes on trains) I understand ICE in Germany is making plans to retrofit train cars for bicycles. America needs to include them in the initial design.

    Finally, the first rail-related infrastructure investment should be to fund the restoration of Michigan Central Terminal; Detroit is in tatters & nothing would create a more symbolic boost to the concept that America is ready to “rail.” than to restore this glorious disused & dust-bitten Motor CIty train terminal ( http://www.railtec.org/Site/Whats_new/Entries/2009/2/4_Rosa_Parks_Michigan_Central_Terminal.html ).

  • Alon –
    Here’s a nice website with a history and some maps of the Air Line:
    http://pages.cthome.net/mbartel/ARRhistory.htm

  • adirondacker12800

    The ARC tunnel should be redesigned to include rail freight passage to Long Island

    It wouldn’t have the capacity, too many passenger trains in the way during the day and most of the night. Looks like they have settled on Jersey City to Brooklyn as the solution.

    http://www.crossharborstudy.com/index.htm

    passenger service through the lower level of Grand Central Terminal.

    ARC is designed for service to Grand Central someday. They aren’t doing anything about it today because because it would come too close to Water Tunnel 1. When Water Tunnel 3 is completed, providing redundancy to the water supply, they can extend service to Grand Central.

  • Avi

    Cap’n Transit, as a cyclist I hope they don’t put tracks back on the Putnam line, but if they do the route into Penn Station is easy. The Putnam line can’t enter Vancortland park via it’s old route since the area has been declared a wetland. They won’t even put down a gravel bike path so they will never put down new train tracks. Once you have to divert the train, just run it west to the Hudson line and take that straight into Penn Station on Amtrak’s active tracks. You would need to double track the Manhattan portion, but that’s trivial compared to what else is being described here.

    In regards to the West Trenton line, it’s not HSR, but NJTransit is at least in the initial planning stages of restoring passenger rail on the line. Restoring Service to West Trenton would make a NY trip a lot easier for residents of the northern PA suburbs. Especially if they ever decide to run some trains straight through from Philadelphia to Newark.

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