High-speed rail in the Northeast

Since my work with railroads began twelve years ago, one of the most common questions I hear goes like this: when will we get fancy trains (like Europe and/or Japan) here?

It’s a fine question, and I used to ask it, too, before I learned what I know now. Those fancy trains overseas reflect a whole range of conditions that we don’t have here, so the comparison is really futile. The geography is different. The politics are different. The regulatory and safety environments are different. The societies’ willingness to pay is different. The urban planning and infrastructure are different. The impact of aerial bombardment on our urban centers is different. The presence of massive, free foreign capital is different (e.g., the Marshall Plan). The mixed operation of freight, commuter, and intercity rail lines is different. The relative power between city, state, and Federal government is different. And on and on…

So of course, to lay all of those differences at Amtrak’s feet is to miss completely the scope of changes that will need to occur before the United States can place in to service truly modern high-speed rail. Yet the media simply does not understand any of this. And so you have an example like the following, where Forbes.com takes a decent Associated Press wire account of Amtrak President Alex Kummant’s Congressional testimony last week, and runs it under the following headline:

D.C. to NYC in 90 Minutes? Not on Amtrak

Agenda over reality is not responsible journalism.

More detail from the article:

The Washington-New York segment currently takes 2 hours and 45 minutes on the Acela. Investing $625 million in upgrades would allow Amtrak to reduce that time to 2 1/2 hours. A full overhaul, including several new tunnels and bridges, would cost $7 billion, but even that would only achieve a trip time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, with an average speed of 97 mph, Kummant said.

Building a dedicated line for high-speed service like France’s TGV would cost $10 billion, and that doesn’t even include the amount that would have to be spent on real estate acquisition in some of the most urbanized parts of the country, Kummant said.

Update: Interesting to see comments on this issue from a rider’s perspective.

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