GAO Questions DOT's HSR Strategy

Director of Infrastructure points to lack of true strategic plan.

Today at a hearing in the U.S. Senate, General Accounting Office Government Accountability Office Director of Physical Infrastructure Susan Fleming described her concerns about the government’s distribution of high-speed rail funds. She focused on the Federal Railroad Administration’s unwillingness thus far to lay out specific goals for American fast train strategy and argued that the Department of Transportation must establish a coordinated, long-term plan for providing funds. Meanwhile, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman and Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo continued to mistakenly argue that U.S. plans match those of European countries.

Ms. Fleming’s statement comes three months after the release of GAO’s major report on high-speed rail, which advocated a major federal investment in the transportation mode. Emphasizing that that report pushed the DOT to pinpoint specific goals for rail improvement, Ms. Fleming argued that the Obama Administration’s actions so far were little more than a “vision,” rather than “a strategic plan.” The U.S. must “define goals for investing in high speed rail,” she said, and describe “how these investments will achieve them, how the federal government will determine which corridors it could invest in, [and] how high speed rail investments could be evaluated against possible alternative modes in those corridors.” Ms. Fleming said that the FRA largely agreed with her opinions. In fact, DOT has been planning to release a draft national rail plan by mid-October; however, that is a month after the FRA will release initial stimulus bill grants to applicant projects for rail investment.

Mr. Szabo, the head of the FRA, said that U.S. plans were similar to those already achieved in Europe. Yet the U.S. government has yet to commit to even one high-speed corridor, nor has it established a reliable and objective framework for national planning.

Mr. Boardman, meanwhile, claimed thatWith high-speed rail, speed is not the issue. Convenience and trip times are.” This rhetoric is dangerous on several counts. For one, it will allow the U.S. to distribute funds to projects that are ill-suited to high-speed rail, but which are politically popular. The Senate’s strong rural bent means that unworthy projects may be given the green light ahead of more valuable ones if the DOT’s guidelines for resource distribution aren’t based on projected passenger ridership and cost effectiveness.

Second, the repeated claim that speed “doesn’t matter” may result in less-than-popular completed projected. It is worth again mentioning what I wrote yesterday: if the U.S. doesn’t get high-speed rail right the first time, it may be decades before the mode is politically acceptable enough to promote again. The Obama Administration has a rare opportunity to advance a major train investment program, but it’s digging a hole in ignoring the reality that trip times can only be significantly reduced to compete with air travel if speed is increased dramatically. While improving train lines to maximum 110 mph operation would be helpful, people are not going to switch in droves to rail travel unless trains are averaging much higher travel speeds.

Ms. Fleming’s statement, then, is a wakeup call to the DOT, which should push forward a proactive plan for rail investment in America — before October, before any grants are distributed. We need to know more about how high-speed rail is going to work in the U.S. before the shovel hits the ground.

17 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew in Ezo

    I agree with you in regards to building high speed (200+mph) lines sooner rather than later. As many have commented, California is the perfect candidate- a completely new line, built from the ground up using proven European and/or Japanese HSR technology. It will serve as an invaluable showcase as currently HSR is just a concept to most Americans- they haven’t experienced it firsthand. 110mph lines are ok and are vital to a (future) total rail network, but priority should be given to building the CA line first.

  • Mr Boardman’s interest in “convenience and trip times”, as opposed to “speed,” is interesting. It is true that trip times matter more than maximum speed, and in urban transit these can be quite different things. As BART was being designed in the 60s, for example, there was a lot of emphasis on its ability to hit a top speed of 80 mph, but in practice it rarely does this because of the spacing of stations.

    However, this is less of an issue with HSR, which has long segments of nonstop operation. I wonder if Boardman is thinking that America’s sprawling cities are going to need multiple HSR stations for them to be “convenient” in terms of access. Adding more stations, if well sited, can have the effect of improving trip times for average trips even as it slows down our idealized downtown-to-downtown trip.

    See also my riff on the word “convenience” here: http://www.humantransit.org/2009/06/unhelpful-word-watch-convenient.html

  • Jarrett, I read Boardman’s statement to mean that the most important thing is to get rid of slow zones, rather than improve top speed. The simplest example of this in action is the two segments of the Northeast Corridor, New York to Washington and New York to Boston. New York to Boston trains have the higher top speed, 150 mph, but only attain that speed briefly, and are slowed down elsewhere by sharp curves; New York to Washington trains top at 135 mph, but maintain that speed for most of the trip. Thus, Acela trains take 3:30 to do NY-Boston, but only 2:45 to do NY-DC, which is the same track length.

  • Brian

    For the record, the GAO is no longer the General Accounting Office but is the Government Accountability Office.

  • Chris G

    To Jarrett: Part of the problem with the true HSR (200mph or so) is that every little town, suburb, etc is going to want a stop. These trains are best used going minimum 30 minutes and ideally an hour between stops. The outcry that the train doesn’t go where I want it to is going to grow if we start with only true HSR without increasing the frequency and speed of “local” trains first.

    To Alon: I agree totally that Mr Boardman’s statements are technically correct, even if they take a lot of thought to get to the meaning. Slow areas, curves and stations are what slows the trains down. But besides just decreasing trip time by bringing up average times, he hits on one of the most important issues. The rolling stock. We MUST have train car orders, large and now. People won’t care as much if they are riding “acela” style trains that it goes 110 or 135. They will be comfortable. Not packed into an 80 seat cattle car Amfleet car.

    But the main point of the article is a good one. We need a national plan, and everyone needs to be able to see it. We should get going on building it and realize for the next 10+ years the only place that will have real HSR is going to be California.

    The real market for getting people on the train is to make the trip faster than their car. Not competing with the airlines. Airlines already gouge the small markets. Only people who can afford to fly there really do it. The rest mostly drive.

    The PRR used to have standing orders, when the train is along side the highway, it goes faster than traffic. To make it seem like it was the best mode. Things like this, need to be thought about and done. We’re fighting to get this system off the ground and I can assure you the car and highway folks have no problem using and bending every bit they can.

  • Chris, Shinkansen stops are spaced very close together. However, all except the most important stations have bypass tracks, and the majority of trains run express, skipping the lesser used stations. However, even super-express trains stop at major suburbs like Yokohama and Kobe.

    This principle can extend well to the major potential HSR corridor in the US. For example, in California, all major cities are served, and the LA Basin and SF Bay Area have multiple stops serving (more or less) the major destinations. The Northeast Corridor already serves practically every East Coast city. Chicago-St. Louis hits multiple secondary cities.

    HSR competes with both air and cars. At least, it has to cannibalize the air market, in order to be able to make money off of business travelers, who are willing to pay the most. Beating air can be predicted easily from the difference between train and plane times; any difference of 2 hours or less is favorable to HSR, and a difference of 1 hour is enough to completely kill air service. Beating cars is more gradual: HSR is less convenient than cars because it requires getting to and from the station, so the more hours it’s faster than cars by, the better it will fare.

  • Rockfish

    The article has several good points. If in fact there were a real plan, we may not have so many questions about what, where, and how.
    A real plan would deal with priorities – we’d know what is being done first, where and why.
    A real plan would address system-wide issues. Wouldn’t it make great sense to install local tracks alongside whatever HSR right-of-way you build? Certainly the incremental cost can’t be that much higher. Thus people in places along the “express” route would not feel disenfranchised and could get a train to the nearest express stop, among other things.
    A real plan would address the lead time for identification of the best systems and procurement of rolling stock.

    Instead, we have wishes and desires, and $8B of pork going to “studies.” You want to kill HSR? Watch a Congressman running for re-election in 2010 wave around a 2-foot-high stack of paper that is all the US taxpayers got for their eight billion dollars…

  • Deacon

    God I hate Politics. Would someone(House and Congress) somewhere(DC) sit their ass down, and come up with a real plan. @ Rockfish: I agree.

    It would seem that no politician wants to go ahead and say right this is how we’re gonna go about implementing these wishes and desires for re-building our railway system. Why?

    Simply put that would mean he/she/it/they would be held accountable for whatever transpires, Oh the horror,accountability! So rather than doing what we voted them to do, their public service and come up with something tangible that makes sense and puts our tax dollars to good use. Inside the one side spars with the other until everybody gets to the point of “F@#k this for a game of soldiers lets build a highway”

    CAHSR has a plan, it was voted for. So build the damn thing. If you don’t know how, call Japan, Germany, Spain, France, South Korea their systems work just fine. People WILL use it and it WILL be worth it.

  • Adirondacker

    Wouldn’t it make great sense to install local tracks alongside whatever HSR right-of-way you build?

    Only after they have enough traffic to justify it. In the mean time they can schedule locals in between the expresses.

  • Rockfish, the world standard for local and express tracks is to have two-track mainlines, but then split into four tracks at every local station, two local and two express. The express trains can overtake the locals at the station, given smart scheduling.

  • Sean

    The $8 billion for HSR is absolutely not going to studies. It will go directly to track upgrades. California and the Midwest will get the lion’s share of the HSR stimulus funds and both of those areas have highly developed, well thought out plans.

  • political_incorrectness

    Here would be a plan, have Citi freaking repay us all the money they’re swindling and direct it right into HSR. It would be best to obtain 220 mph corridors first in order to keep up the enthusiasm and will, then start improving on the shorter end. Even though it will take more dollars and reach fewer places, 110 mph between two major cities (Chicago and St. Louis) is not going to amount to that much excitement. Many want a train comeback but the convenience needs to be added back in with reliable operations of trains.

  • In several Midwestern corridors, including Chicago-St. Louis, 110 mph is easy to upgrade to 220 later, because the right of way is straight with few curves, all of which can be eased later with little difficulties. Going to 220 will require electrification and probably additional track upgrade, but no construction of a new line from scratch as in France or California.

    A more or less complete list of such corridors, where full HSR can be overlaid in the future on existing tracks is NY-Philly (and to some extent Philly-DC, which requires a few easements in Maryland and a brand new tunnel in West Baltimore), Kingston-Boston (which is already HSR, just not cutting edge HSR), Rome-Buffalo-Cleveland-Chicago (except for a few problem curves between Syracuse and Rochester), Chicago-St. Louis, Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, Chicago-Indianapolis-Louisville (but there are some nasty curves near Lafayette that need to be bypassed), and Chicago-Milwaukee-Waukesha.

  • Chris G

    A follow up to polical_incorrectness.

    I disagree with your statement that 110 will not generate excitement St Louis to Chicago. I think its more than enough to start and get people taking the train. 110 is faster by far than what should be allowed on the roads. People may claim they drive 85-90 etc, but if they’re averaging speeds like that they’re driving off peak and the police there is not doing their job.

    Also, the key to these corridors (and i hate using that word) is to increase frequency and upgrade the trains. Comfort and choice will do more to increase ridership than top speed. Throw in the upgrades to increase average speed by reducing slow areas (example CREATE) and 110 will be an excellent start. 110 will allow more station stops.

    I know we all want 200+, but 110 right now would be a huge increase over the 79 we have now and we can do more of it for the same amount of money.

    That said, if the government puts out a plan, i’ll support it. We shouldnt be arguing amongst ourselves. (not saying we are here)

  • I think it’s important to clarify that 110 mph would be the top speed, not the average speed. This is an important difference. A four-hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis means an average speed of 75 mph. Not much faster than the average car trip, in other words.

  • Chris G

    Too many station stops Yonah.

    If they went about the frequency increases they could run trains express and help that situation on at least some runs.

    But yes, i was using top speed instead of average and that turned to be misleading.

  • Chris, at 110 mph, the time cost of a single station stop is 3-5 minutes. Amtrak already runs an express Chicago-St. Louis train, which makes 5 stops, and, since it only runs at 79 mph, saves only 10 minutes versus local trains, which make 10 stops. If such an express train, run at 110 mph, can’t maintain an average speed of at least 90 mph, it’s because of slow zones, not stops.

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