Sunday, November 14, 2010

High-speed rail

As governors-elect in Ohio and Wisconsin prepare to hand back high-speed rail money to the US Department of Transportation, it's a little disheartening to read this article about objections to a new high-speed rail line in Britain. On the other hand, I don't think that this situation is analogous to objections raised by the opposition to high-speed rail in the US, and would hope that this article isn't used in that argument (although I'm not naive enough to think it won't).

The article is about the residents of towns along a proposed high speed rail corridor between London and Birmingham. They object to having their view despoiled, to the noise and mess of construction, and other general complaints of NIMBYism which I was inclined to dismiss at first, especially given the beauty of iconic images like the Shinkansen under Mt. Fuji. However, Y pointed out that the faster the train goes, the more it disturbs those around it due to increased noise and danger in case of obstruction. In addition, the increasing numbers of towns it must pass by to maintain those speeds and the need for straighter right of ways, which reduce flexibility in route planning, create real costs attributable to increasing speeds. These problems are mentioned obliquely in the article as well and they seem like reasonable claims to me.

For one, the distance between London and Birmingham is exactly the same as the distance between Charlottesville, VA and Washington, DC, and shorter than the distance from DC to Philadelphia by 10-15 miles. The British train would cover the distance between the two cities in 49 minutes at a speed of up to 250 mph, and stop nowhere in the middle. Comparably, in Amtrak's pipe dream plan for the Northeast Corridor, only the fastest service, reaching speeds of 220 mph, would go direct from DC to Philadelphia without stopping in Baltimore. There is a difference of 19 minutes in the proposed travel time from DC to NYC between the Super Express (which stops at only the four hub stations) and the Express (which stops at 8 additional stations between DC and NYC). My guess is that, if this plan is carried further, a rigorous cost-benefit analysis will find that a fraction of those 19 minutes aren't worth losing ridership to and from Baltimore, and times will slow a little. Many will object, saying that the US should have the fastest trains out there, but this article would suggest that they are wrong. Since our highway building extravaganza of the 1950s and 60s, I would hope that US transportation planners have learned something about listening to the concerns of those who live near corridors. A 180 mile an hour train that can curve to avoid important places and stop in a couple more cities can compete just as well as a higher speed train that generates resentment and fear among its neighbors, who become avid non-consumers because of poor planning and communication. US trains should continue their reputation for being an enjoyable way to travel for those both on and off the rails, even if it means letting France hold its fastest train award.

More importantly, Britain already has the 180 mile an hour train as an option, with upgrading, and a great rail system even without an upgrade. The reason it is RIDICULOUS for Ohio and Wisconsin to give up their rail money is that that money, while incorrectly labeled high speed rail, would have permitted upgrades that would get them close to the level of service currently provided in Britain. Yes, it is a smaller step than it was sold as. Perhaps the money should have been called "Viable Rail", an attempt to make rail a good option for travelers before we run out of oil and/or space to build highways in cities and need electrified rail desperately. The highways in Cincinnati and Chicago are already clogged (they may be in other cities that turned down rail money too, but I've only been in those two so I can't say for sure), so it would strike me that they may already be at the point of really needing another choice. This is a choice that would not require the acquisition of much new right of way, just upgrades to existing infrastructure. It's not comparable to Britain's decision, which is more about being faster than France than about providing better service between Birmingham and London.

Look for a future post on why it is also ridiculous for Amtrak to propose two New York stops on even the Super Express train.