Today, the Detroit News quotes Tim Hoeffner, administrator of the Intermodal Policy Division of Michigan’s Department of Transportation:
“Everyone talks about high-speed rail in terms of speed. When you take a plane, you don’t care about how fast it goes; you care about when you leave and when you will arrive. Can I leave when I want? Can I arrive when I want? Travelers need a modern transportation system. They want modern cars with comfortable seating, European styling and amenities like Wi-Fi service.”
I’m not sure I know where to begin.
Why don’t customers complain about the speed of planes? Because they go quickly – very quickly. And there aren’t competitors on the market advertising faster airplane service, so it’s not as if there’s an option to pick a slower-speed airplane if only it has “European styling,” whatever that means. Does Mr. Hoeffner not acknowledge that more people would take the train if came even close to the one-hour flight time offered by airlines between Chicago and Detroit? Or would he have us believe than the current five-hour train ride between the two cities would attract more customers if only the train cars were more gussied up?
What does high-speed rail mean if it doesn’t mean fast trains? And what does it mean when a senior administrator in a state DOT fundamentally doesn’t understand what advantages true high-speed rail can bring? The truth is that most people who choose to take fast trains in Europe don’t do so because the trains look pretty or feel nice – they do so because trains get them to their destinations faster than either automobiles or airplanes would. Denying that the “speed” element of the system is what makes it attractive is ludicrous.
Mr. Hoeffner isn’t alone in his ignorance; his companion Janet Foran, a spokeswoman for the aforementioned agency, said:
“Many people are unaware of this, but right now Michigan is the only state outside of the Northeast that has a section of high-speed rail where trains can travel at more than 80 mph. It’s on a 45-mile stretch of track between Kalamazoo and Niles. We’re hoping to extend that higher speed ability all the way to the Indiana border.”
She’s referring to the 95 mph that some Amtrak trains reach in western Michigan. That is not – in any way – high-speed rail. That is what should be considered typical for most train service, and it’s not acceptable for a corridor that would likely be one of the most-used in the country, if only trains serving it traveled at acceptably competitive speeds.
I suppose part of the reason these transportation officials have fallen into such a state of delusion is that the American rail network has been allowed to deteriorate so significantly that it’s considered an astonishing success when trains reach somewhere close to 100 mph. We have such low expectations for our train service that we assume that “comfortable seating” and “amenities” will somehow convince people that taking a train in four hours, rather than five, between the cities makes more sense than driving the same route in an equivalent amount of time.
We need to have a national conversation about what high-speed rail means before the money starts gushing out of the Federal Department of Transportation. Upgrading many corridors around the country to adequate service is not providing high-speed rail, and doing so would provide little of the long-term, mobility changing progress that occurs when European or Asian rail networks begin offering service on specific, highly traveled corridors at 150 or 200 mph. We should stop being so overwhelmingly modest about what we expect out of our trains, and start believing that we, too, can build true high-speed rail; then we should act on it.