The Power of Speed

[I will start with a brief apology for the long silence since the last post. Suffice it to say I am uncertain about blogging and have let it lapse.]

Last night, I read a post by Yonah Freemark about French plans to introduce low-cost TGV service between Paris and Marseille. Ignoring for a moment that the French conception of regular cost varies fundamentally from the fares to which we are accustomed in America, the article included some interesting facts.

[The new service] will offer 300 km/h TGV speed at very low prices, starting at €10 for journeys between the Paris region and the Mediterranean coast (Montpellier and Marseille, via Lyon), a trip of about 500 miles. … Double-decker trains will seat 1,268 passengers … Trains themselves will be scheduled to run more often than typical TGVs, traveling about 80,000 kilometers per month, double the normal rate.

Since I am used to Acela trainsets carrying 304 people, my first reaction was to be surprised at how many people a double-decker TGV consist can carry, but when one reads about a normally configured TGV Duplex, it carries more than 500. Remove the dining and first-class accommodations, lash two together, and the capacity makes perfect sense. I also learned that Alstom has delivered more than 140 Duplex consists, which again dazzles my NEC-centric mind.

Moving past the seat numbers, the 80,000 kilometers per month figure caught my eye. I assume this figure is a press release value, lacking significant digits, but for the sake of consistency, I will convert it into miles exactly: 49,710. Since that value is twice the normal usage, the regular monthly usage is 24,855 miles. If one spelunks through Amtrak press materials and annual reports, it is not hard to derive a figure of about 14,000 miles per month per consist for Amtrak’s 20-trainset Acela fleet. When one compares the TGV Duplex train-miles to Amtrak’s monthly train-miles, it appears the French are working their trains about 78% harder. Since I am familiar with just how hard Amtrak works to obtain the usage it does from the Acela fleet, my first thought is that the French values must be impossible – there just aren’t enough hours in the day for Amtrak to run the Acelas 78% more than they do, and even if they did, there’s no market, as the trains would be traveling through the night.

Moving from the other direction, I measured the distance from Paris to Marseille, via Lyon, in Google Maps. By road, Google informs me that it is a 781 km journey. For the purposes of the back of the envelope, I will accept that value for the route distance, although I am sure it varies a bit. 80,000 kilometers a month, in 781 km increments, is 102 trips, or about 3.4 trips per day. Moving over to the RailEurope web site, I gather that the fastest non-stop Paris-Marseilles no connection trip is 3:05. If one converts the 781 kilometers to miles, one finds the average speed of this train is 158 miles per hour. Again, for the NEC centric crowd, the maximum speed the Acela operates at presently is 150 mph, and its average speed between New York and Washington is between 83 and 86 mph. For context, please take a gander at the old NYT Acela speed graphic you can find here.

If each trainset makes 3.4 trips per day, then it is in service for 10.4 hours each day, leaving plenty of time for the turns between each run, as well as for its daily maintenance. Looking then at these various numbers, all of which seem reasonable, the conclusion is inescapable – by creating a rail network capable of supporting such high speed operation, the French have enabled their assets to generate service figures inconceivable within American standards. At American speeds, the Paris-Marseille journey would take about 5:40. Four Acela trainsets, carrying 1,216 people would make one trip is just a bit less time than one TGV Duplex pair could carry 1,286 people from Paris to Marseilles and back.

None of what I have covered here is news, by itself, but it is still worth comparing what the rail network in France can do for the French. Think about moving 1,300 people 485 miles for between $13 and $110, and overlaying that on the United States. Imagine getting from Manhattan to Cleveland, to Raleigh, to Toronto, or to Quebec for $13? Or from Atlanta to Tampa, New Orleans, Little Rock, Cincinnati, or Richmond? Or from Chicago to Nashville, Kansas City, Toronto, or Pittsburgh? I know the trains and the rails do not come cheap, I know they reflect decades of public policy surrounding infrastructure and taxes and energy and transit, and I know that American geography makes my 1:1 overlays overly simplistic. Still, imagine for a moment the economic vitality that could come with this sort of safe, reliable, and affordable transportation? The employment opportunities that would open, the educational resources people could pursue, and the housing advantages of living in a world with such fluid mobility? Not to mention the safety and environmental benefits of converting so much personal transportation from automobiles to trains?

The United States needs to think seriously about the costs it has imposed on itself from decades of automobile-centric policies, and genuinely consider alternatives that would enable its people and its economy to take better advantage of the array of talents and opportunities that exist here now. We are mad if we turn a blind eye to the advantages offered by rail. While decades of substantial public investments in highways and an auto-centered lifestyle have delivered indisputable benefits, they have long passed a point of diminishing returns. How best to change course from one pattern to another is no easy feat, especially in an era when politicians vary between being unwilling and unable to govern, but people, businesses, and states should make it clear that they expect a more responsive national transportation policy that will deliver the sort of mobility the nation needs to compete and produce effectively.

Seven Minute Primer on the future of US high-speed rail program

Yes, I know this is from FOX television, but the content is not partisan. Melissa Lafsky, of Infrastructurist.com, recently appeared on FOX to discuss the plans and the players behind the current administration’s push towards HSR.

Not much new here if you follow this stuff, but helpful for someone getting up to speed.

As an aside, notice how little mention is made of Amtrak. Surprise, surprise. Also, very little talk of how small the current $8 billion is in relation to what would need to be spent by 2015 or 2020, given the scope of the plans Lafsky details.

Hat tip: Trains for America

Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for Federal rail funds

In today’s Boston Globe, Alan Wirzbicki writes an article entitled Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for federal rail funds. The point he makes is that other regions of the United States, such as the Southeast, the Midwest, and the Northwest, have spent more time, money, and effort in recent years preparing the plans, and associated political links, for high-speed rail than the Northeast has. Thus those regions are better positioned to receive Federal stimulus funds, which can be seen as ironic given the Northeast’s premier place as the home of America’s fastest trains since the advent of the Metroliner, if not before. (I am sure some kind foamer can nail that down for me.)

The article notes that President Bush encouraged the states to band together to improve the Northeast Corridor, and the states intentionally refused to cooperate with that to dodge having the financial burden of the NEC placed upon them. While that strategy may have made sense at the time, it may turn out to have been a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

In the absence of a more comprehensive plan, the article notes various efforts to propose local corridors as candidates for funding. Corridors like Boston to Brunswick, Maine (population 21,000), Boston to Concord, New Hampshire (population 41,000), or better still Boston to Hartford, Connecticut (population 125,000) via the Inland Route. While I am sure those plans would serve valuable local needs, akin to the existing Downeaster from Boston to Portland, it is ludicrous that when the nation is discussing a new generation of high-speed rail corridors that the New England response is to put forward routes that are 138, 70, and 100 miles long respectively. The obvious place to invest is the spine, from Boston to Washington. If you are brave and visionary, you might even say from Portland to Charlotte, but the costs skyrocket as one contemplates the North-South Rail Link in Boston and electrification south of D.C.

As I have mentioned before, the Northeast will continue to be underserved by the Northeast Corridor until they take over control, responsibility, and the cost for operating this national asset.

Rather than waste time and money flirting with private industry, a more sensible approach to me would be to form a multi-state agency, akin to a port authority, of the following states: NC, VA, DC, MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, NH, and ME. Have them pool their interests and accept a gradual and proportionate reduction in Federal highway funds over a 20 year period as they invest their own money in the NEC, which they would acquire from Amtrak. Initially, I imagine they would lease access to the NEC to their commuter agencies and to Amtrak, but one could imagine them absorbing those roles themselves. The greatest problem the NEC has had for the last 35 years is the fact that any political support of improvements there came with the quid pro quo of political support for long-distance trains all across America. This has forced Amtrak to underinvest in the NEC while it kept the rest of the country mollified. To free the NEC to achieve its maximum economic utilization, one does not need magic private enterprise fairy dust – one needs to be free to invest the necessary capital in the NEC without having to keep off-corridor constituencies happy.

I truly believe that the coastal states in such a compact would see substantial improvements in train service that would permit reductions in fares, vastly increased numbers of passenger miles, the adoption of newer equipment that would permit faster trips with more modern amenities and the most progressive safety standards. Highway congestion and its associated costs would go down, the cities along the corridor would see their competitiveness rise as reduced travel times expanded both business and leisure markets. This would have substantial environmental benefits, from decreased fuel consumption and pollution to improved quality of life.

When one thinks of the unused capacity that exists in the NEC now, this is one of the most cost-effective steps the Northeast can take to make itself more competitive as a region. Instead of seeing the railroad as pure cost, these states need to see it as the backbone for their communities and, ultimately, their economy.

A post for another day: the political anthill associated with combining the operations and the crews of the various state commuter agencies with the interstate trains.

Hat tip: Trains for America

Good coverage of the Kerry HSR bill and Clinton’s 1992 failures

Since September, I have been following news of John Kerry’s proposed high-speed rail legislation. I covered it in some detail here, but that was when it was first announced, and details were sparse. As more information has appeared, The Transport Politic has beaten me to the punch and written up a good synopsis of the bill and some of its strengths and weaknesses. The Daily Kos linked to some of my articles right before Thanksgiving, leading to my highest traffic figures ever on this teeny tiny blog. I am pleased that there is sufficient interest on the web to drive that sort of traffic, and sincerely hope that such interest will form the foundation for sufficient support to have these plans move forward.

While I am mentioning the Transport Politic, I should point out another post they have which covers Bill Clinton’s grand high-speed rail and maglev promises from 1992, followed by his spectacular failure to do anything for rail but accept the late Amtrak President George Warrington‘s absurd claims of economic self-sufficiency at face value. For those of you who are sure Obama’s inauguration is about to herald a new day of passenger rail in America, this reminder of previous broken promises (promises made in a much more prosperous environment that today) is a worthwhile cautionary tale.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Starting in the spring, the news has carried a series of stories about Florida Representative Mica’s ideas about the private development of high-speed rail in America. Building on those stories, please see the following from Progressive Railroading today:

Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Today and tomorrow, U.S. Rep. John Mica R-Fla. will conduct briefings with high-speed rail stakeholders to review pending U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue a request for proposal for high-speed passenger-rail service.

Last month, President Bush signed into law legislation that enables private sector participation in the development, financing, operation and maintenance of high-speed rail service in the United States. Originally proposed as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 H.R. 6003, the legislation — introduced earlier this year by Mica and other Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members — was included in the Rail Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 H.R. 2095/S. 1889.

The bill requires the USDOT to solicit project proposals by Dec. 15 from the private sector for the 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Governors and mayors, freight and commuter railroads, labor organizations and Amtrak will evaluate the proposals for each corridor.

Briefing participants will include representatives from financial investment firms; train and railroad equipment manufacturers; federal, state and local governments; private rail operators; labor groups; and Amtrak.

I have covered this idea in several previous posts. Given Mica’s initial briefings which spoke about pursuing such an idea in the NEC, I began with some basic questions about scope and practicality here. After that, I turned to a discussion on train speed on the NEC (including Mica’s consistent lies about Amtrak’s top speeds) here. The train speed post was extended with a comparison to HSR speeds in France here. Still an unanswered question is how Mica’s efforts will mesh with those oh Sen. Kerry. For more on Kerry’s plans, see this post, Kerry’s letter to his colleagues, and this recent update.

Kerry pushes high-speed rail

From Kerry pushes high-speed rail

Senators John F. Kerry and Arlen Specter introduced a bill today to fund high-speed rail lines along the East Coast and in several other key areas of the country.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the legislation would help repair the nations crumbling infrastructure, and at the same time create jobs when the country appears headed for a deep economic recession.

“At a time when our economy desperately needs a jumpstart, we need an effective national investment that puts Americans back to work,” Kerry said in a statement. “A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again.”

The bill would provide money for tax-exempt bonds to finance rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour. It would include $10 billion over 10 years to fund improvements in the Northeast and California, and $5.4 billion over a six-year period for 10 rail corridors, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities along the East Coast.

This sure appears to be a follow up to the Kerry bill discussed back in September here and here. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds.

Text of Kerry’s HSR Letter

A week ago, when I posted my thoughts on a high-speed rial plan suggested by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (as reported in an Atlanta Journal Constitution interview with Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson), I hoped to see the text of Sen. Kerry’s proposal letter to his colleagues. Very kindly, Logan Nash over at Trains4America obtained that very document and posted it here. Rather than copy it, I will encourage you to read it over there.

It is an interesting read for several reasons. More than anything, I am struck how it scrupulously avoids any use of the dreaded word Amtrak. When discussing the current upsurge in rail ridership, it makes no mention of Amtrak at all, but does cite APTA’s very healthy 10% increase. I understand why Kerry would place his proposal in this context and phrase it in these terms – Amtrak is a third-rail to quite a few politicians – but I still find it amusing. Moving on from that minor observation, I have the same reaction as Nash does in his comments – the language here suggests to me a new-build, dedicated right-of-way network, and yet I think the dollar amounts Kerry puts forward are insufficient to make meaningful progress in that direction. Please see my previous post for more discussion about the unfunded needs facing American passenger rail, but they are a lot. (Not as much as, say, a taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street, but a lot.)

Kerry also directly addresses his intention of creating a high-speed rail office within the Federal Railroad Administration, which addresses the questions I raised in my second point in my previous post. I think the FRA is a fine home for such an office in an Obama Administration, but in a McCain Administration such an office would be a backwater in a bog. Kerry knows this, and I think his choice of placing it in the FRA is an indication of how he sees the likely outcome of the upcoming election.

Having said that, I will mention that the looming prospect of a Wall Street bailout changes the ballgame of how the next administration will be able to approach its goals. I think this plan will resemble nothing so much as shackles for the next president, greatly reducing his ability to pursue any sort of policy agenda beyond trimming the budget and increasing government revenue in whatever ways he feels are appropriate and politically acceptable. In short, I think that any sort of top-bottom transportation or energy policy overhaul will be a non-starter, and that the government will be compelled to use various incentives to encourage those behaviors to occur with private funding. Or we could continue to spend more than we collect and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as the Federal budget runs further amok.