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

Train speeds on the NEC, Part III

I have discussed the operational side of Northeast Corridor train speeds previously. These discussions were prompted by Florida Congressman Mica, who proposed a plan to reduce trip time between Washington and New York from less than three hours to a flat two hours. I wrote in general terms about how to evaluate such a proposal here, and then in more specific terms about some of the issues raised by this plan here. That last post emphasized the difference between top speed and average speed, and discussed how one would have to increase the current Amtrak Acela schedule from an average speed of 86 mph to 123 mph to meet the two hour goal. While 123 mph is a speed reached in revenue service in this country for decades, no one has a right of way where such speeds become the average. Finally, in a later post, I noted how the new French TGV Est line between Paris and Strasbourg, which hosted the world record speed run of a steel-on-steel train at 357 mph, serves a revenue schedule with an average speed of 80 mph. Clearly there is a world of difference between top speed and average speed.

I am drawn to this topic today after reading a trio of tweets earlier today. [To see other Amtrak twitters and read more about this odd form of voyeurism, click here.] I include them below:

1159506780 1159547102 1159517946

I would like to review the assumptions that underlie the above statements.

The current best Acela time from New York Penn Station to Boston South Station is three hours and thirty-one minutes. The trains that make that run stop at Stamford, New Haven, Providence, Route 128, and Back Bay. If one allots two minutes for each stop, then the train has 3:21 to be in motion. In those 201 minutes, it currently covers a time table mileage of 231 miles, for an average speed of 68.96 mph, despite its 150 mph top speed. For the sake of discussion here, I am going to begin by assuming a fast train would cover the same route and make the same stops; obviously both of those assumptions should be reviewed. To cover those same 231 miles in two hours, and accounting for the same five two-minute stops, one can then compute that the desired average speed would need to be 126 mph. Finally, to make it in one hour with the same five stops it would need to run at 277 mph on average. If you decided to run a non-stop express train in an hour, you could settle for a more leisurely average of 231 mph.

Update: Please see this later post for a valuable New York Times illustration of the Acela and its performance over this route.

I find the above calculations useful because they put a clearer light on just what would need to be accomplished to move a train from Boston to New York in one or two hours. Americans are accustomed to envying European and Asian rail systems, with their high-speeds and high frequencies, but they often forget how hard it is to incorporate the infrastructure associated with such service into their landscape. Many European and Japanese cities had their urban centers leveled in the course of the Allied bombing campaigns, and subsequent redevelopment efforts thus had a nearly blank canvas on which to design as they laid the foundations for today’s modern rail networks. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have fortunately never had anyone perform this same favor or urban destruction, which makes modern routing a much harder exercise. The 231 miles includes 36 miles of meander over a straight route from NYP-STM-NHV-PVD-RTE-BBY-BOS, and NYP-BOS all by itself is 188 miles. One could argue that a train from New York to Boston could make the run in one hour operating at 188 mph, but to do so would require an entire new route that would need to ignore fundamentals of geography, the environment, population centers and existing facilities. Clearly, that makes no sense.

If one looks at the route from above, it appears like this:

NYP-STM-NHV-PVD-RTE-BBY-BOS

A map makes clear how much of the 36 miles of meander occurs between New Haven and Providence. Any effort to address this will need political support from both of those states, as improvements will cost a fortune both economically, environmentally, and politically. Could it be done? Sure – America landed men on the moon, so clearly we could reroute the trains and then engineer a whole system to meet this goal. Doing so would cost billions of dollars, invested in a portion of the country that already has the best train service in America. Senators and Representatives from across the rest of the country would demand enormous investments elsewhere in exchange for the necessary support to accomplish this. Remember that the modest capital amounts earmarked for Amtrak in the current stimulus bill triggered an amendment by Jeff Flake (not coincidentally from Arizona) yesterday that would have zeroed out those funds. While it was defeated, 116 Congressmen supported it.

To summarize then, let me be clear that I admire the enthusiasm for rail evidenced in the tweets that triggered this post. From a limited, engineering perspective, they are right that one or two hour service is feasible. What makes me shake my head in frustration is how little thought many give these topics beyond the obvious one of engineering feasibility. To build such a system entails tremendous costs, and involves issues of local, city, state, and Federal planning for finance, zoning and eminent domain, and environmental reviews. The political horsetrading to do something like this in the Northeast would compel enormous balancing efforts in other parts of the country, which likely would double or treble the cost and vastly complicate the process by which something like this could ever proceed.

One last point while I am on this topic – after last year’s gas price increases, and with the election of our new president (and Amtrak Joe as Veep), and with the current plans for epic stimulus spending by the Federal government, now is the best alignment of the planets, a perfect storm if you will, for investments in America’s rail system. If those investments are not made now, I think it will be fair to say the United States will never make those investments. It is a hopeful time for rail advocates, but one of great peril for us as well. If not now, then when?

Your cronies are corrupt, but ours are fine

[Administrative aside: Hello and happy 2009. My apologies for the long silence since the last post. Holidays and world events have conspired to pile so much on my plate that I just shelved this for a while, and it seemed like maybe it was time to dust it off and try again. I am going to take a tip from myself, back in May 2007, and remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We’ll see how far I get with that.]

There have been so many events in Washington that it is impossible to know where to start – talks of nationalizing the banks, $150 million parties, &c., &c. Still, closer to the themes that are followed here at Quod Ero Spero, I feel compelled to address the issue of a waiver for the confirmation as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Raytheon executive William Lynn. I can only assume that Mr. Lynn is a thoroughly ethical gentleman, and I encourage you to read up on him for yourself. The job for which he has been tapped is a specialized one, and some will say fewer than a dozen people alive have the skills and background to manage the position. I do not disagree with any of that.

What makes me sit back in surprise is the media’s ability to trumpet President Obama’s “sweeping reforms” about issues of ethics and conflict of interest for executive branch appointees and then to note the near silence with which the same media greets the news that the new ‘transparent, accountable, and responsible’ Administration is seeking a waiver for an appointee in its first week in office. Hence the title of this blog post, which I think summarizes the message pretty clearly.

For a more detailed discussion of Lynn and the issues surrounding him, I encourage you to check out the always-fabulous Ares blog, and John Doyle’s post here. There’s a good pointer in the comments there to more questions about Lynn’s Clinton-era performance raised in CQ Politics.

Perhaps I should close with one of Ike’s most well known speeches from 48 years ago:

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.

Biden discusses rail investments in NGA remarks

Promising words from Joe Biden, speaking at the National Governors Association meeting, as covered by the Washington Post:

On infrastructure specifically – and I know I sound like a hobby horse to Governor Rendell and others on this, but we have, I think, a huge opportunity. A huge opportunity. China invests between 7 and 9 percent of their GDP in infrastructure projects. We invest, as a nation, over the last decade or more, less than 1 percent.

And theres a reason that when you turned on the Olympics to watch them this past summer, you saw a mag-lev train going over 200 miles an hour in supposedly a third-world country in terms of its economy blowing into town dealing with the environmental problems they have as well as transporting people in a way that we dont even come close to being able to do.

And Barack has pointed out – and John Corzine knows – I may have a bit of a pro-rail bias. But I think that – think of the jobs we can create in both construction and innovation if we make similar bold investments here in the United States as well as the environmental payoff that flows from that kind of investment.

Thoughts on tomorrow’s election

Here are some scattered thoughts I have been meaning to capture before the election, and despite this election cycle being completely endless, I realize that tomorrow is finally the day, so that I am now compelled to write this and move on.

First of all, to place this election in some context, I think it is worth turning back to the 2000 election. After a prosperous and mostly peaceful eight years under Bill Clinton, the Democratic decision to nominate Al Gore made a lot of sense. Given Gore’s subsequent celebrity associated with his global warming film, it is hard to recall just how much of a stick he was in that election. One measure of his wooden behavior back then is to recall the fact that he really did not outshine George W. Bush as an orator, and Mr. Bush may be many things but a gifted public speaker is clearly not one of them. Now I know there are many who maintain that Gore won 2000, and while I do not agree with that, it seems to me that if you were to believe that, you imagine Gore winning by a very thin margin. What amazed me then, and amazes me still, is the fact that Gore should have won that election handily, well beyond any contestable margin. Gore’s own failings as a candidate, the Clintons’ petty reluctance to support him effectively, and the Bush-Rove team all combined to derail something that seemed to me inevitable.

Fast forward four years to 2004, and ponder the Democrats’ decision to nominate John Kerry that time around. Again, Kerry has his flaws and shortcomings, but again when stacked against President Bush, it is not outlandish to see him as far more polished. Nonetheless, the Democrats’ inability to move in sync with the electorate meant that Kerry tied himself in knots while Bush connected with the parts of the country he needed to secure his reelection. Once again, despite strong circumstances favoring their victory, the Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Fortunately for them, Mr. Bush has been hard at work on their behalf for the last four years, running up insane debt while mouthing conservative mantras and prosecuting seriously unpopular wars in the teeth of widespread public confusion and animosity to his vague and poorly explained policies. Surely, in this environment, even before this fall’s financial meltdown, even a Democratic ham sandwich should be able to beat the Republican nominee? You would sure think so, but amazingly the race between McCain and Obama has been much tighter than I ever would have imagined as it has wound down to its, in my mind, inevitable conclusion.

I am sure that Hillary and her pals dearly wish they had been able to derail Obama’s appearance at the convention four years ago, which launched his rise to national prominence. You can just feel the deep belief in Hillary’s very being that the White House was hers this cycle, and watching that sense of ordained entitlement slowly crumble under the weight of public acclaim for the cipher that is Barack Obama may well be one of the most dramatic political reversals America ever witnesses.

I have long believed that McCain made an excellent Senator. I have also always maintained strong reservations about him as a national candidate. Just as the honorable Bob Dole left the press cold and never gained any traction against Clinton, McCain’s appeal as a candidate has not translated well to the media, which has a heavy thumb on the scale of this election. While I am no fan of Palin’s selection as McCain’s vice presidential candidate (not enough national experience and far too right-wing for me), I have been shocked by the double-standards levied against her in the media. No Democratic woman would be treated as she has, and if she were, the roars of indignation that would come the press would be deafening. What the future has in store for Sarah Palin is a very interesting question.

If the Republicans lose as badly tomorrow as some of the polls suggest, the Republican party is going to need to reinvent itself if it is to reclaim a dominant role in the nation’s politics. I dream of a return to the socially liberal, politically moderate, and fiscally conservative roots that define the true Republican party in my mind, but I am not going to hold my breath on that one. Rather than seeing themselves as too right-wing, I think we will see the Republicans flirt hard with the notion that they have not been right-wing enough. I think the religious hold over the party will grow, so much so that that it will not be the tail wagging the dog, but a reversal of what part is the tail, and what part is the dog.

I see so many of my peers enamored with Barack Obama, and part of me really wishes that I could join in that sentiment. I would love to feel that enthusiastic about the future of American politics. For whatever reason, he leaves me cold. His promises to fix everything do not reassure me, his plans to handle the economy and taxation make me fearful, and the prospect of a united Democratic House, Senate, and White House strikes me as the most dangerous change of course the United States has seen in a very long time. America cannot afford such unchecked power in the hands of one party with a chip on its shoulder.

Hopefully, President Obama will prove me wrong. I truly hope he does. No matter what, it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

Flagrantly false emails & the election

It would be hard to say what part of the election I find more agonizing – the immense amount of money spent by both sides on such an unproductive endeavor, the partisan sniping that poses as, and usurps the place of, studied debate on the issues faced by the nation, the chattering talking heads on cable and radio and the net who talk endlessly about their own views without ever pausing to engage in real debate, and on and on.

For the most part, I cannot control these things – and so to the best of my ability, I ignore them. What irks me even more are the things that are under individual control that are not stopped by a moment’s thought or a second’s effort.

Case in point – since shortly after Palin’s addition to the McCain ticket, I have been alarmed by news stories regarding her desire, in 1996, to ban some books from her local library in Wasilla, Alaska. I first read about that issue on Boing Boing, which linked to here, quoting an article in Time. The story is now covered in, at this moment, over two hundred other places.

Great. I think any American with a love of our liberties would immediately become alarmed at the prospect of banning any books, even if they were objectionable to many people, as the freedom of speech, thought, and opinion is such a central, distinguishing feature of our nation.

Returning to my opening thought, however, I have now received the same email, from several smart people, that alleges to be a list of specific books Palin sought to ban in Alaska. As I looked at the list, my first reaction was shock and sadness, but after a half-second, I thought – is this real? I cannot imagine either of those reactions is unusual, and yet it seems that in fact the second one is. In less than ten seconds, I fired up Google, searched for Plain and book banning, and found the article on Snopes that debunks the list as being a resurrected rehash of books marked for banning at various points in American history. The best part of the list – it includes books written after 1996, when Palin made her original inquiry.

Looking at the email that was sent to me, and reading the chain of email addresses recording the path of its travels on its way to me, saddened me more than the list itself had for that first moment. Freedom of speech will always make some people uncomfortable, and some will always contemplate the possibility of banning the ideas they do not like. I can see how that would be tempting, even though I know it’s abhorrent to my conception of America. Worse than the possibility of banning these books though, to me, is the fact that so many smart people are so willing, no, eager to believe the worst about those with whom they disagree. Those email addresses referred to many people, and the ones I know among them are all smart and computer savvy. Yet not one of them had taken the less than a minute to turn up the fact that the mail was a sham.

No wonder the campaigns in this country pander to our basest instincts and fears, when so many of us are too willing to believe that and too lazy to make even a modest effort to learn facts for ourselves. If we cannot be bothered to try to learn the truth, we will always be saddled by politicians who will not make a greater effort to do so themselves.