CNN on American High Speed Rail: The Missing Context

By Bill Moore

CNN's Anderson Cooper takes aim at what he considers the Obama administration's High Speed Rail 'boondoggle,' which after more than three years since originally announcing it, allegedly has produced not a single mile of HSR track, much less trains.

In April 2009, the newly-elected President, announced a multi-billion dollar initiative to begin a decades-long process to link America's major metropolitan areas with High Speed Rail (HSR) service similar to that found in Europe and Asia.

In that time, China, which is now considered the world leader in HSR trackage, has built thousands of miles of track and instituted regular high speed rail service between key regions of the nation. In contrast, according to CNN's reporter Drew Griffin, the US government has invested in some 154 separate rail improvement projects, one of them being a track upgrade through rural Vermont that has improved train travel times by less than half-an-hour for the once-a-day Amtrak passenger train that stops in Burlington, Vt. Griffin notes that, on average, the Vermont service handles just 250 riders a day, which explains why there's only one train.

One of their interviewees, who was about to board the train, agreed that it would take just five hours (MapQuest indicates distance of 298 miles and 5 hours, 51 minutes) to drive to New York City, his destination, compared to the nearly nine-and-a-half hours by the Amtrak Vermonter. He added, though, that the trip was more comfortable and roomier than either travel by car or bus.

CNN didn't point out that a one-way ticket was just $56 compared to the $30-40 in gasoline that it would have cost to drive a 30 mpg car, or the fact that the IRS now calculates the cost of business travel by automobile at 55.5¢ per mile, hiking the one-way price of the trip to $165. It might take four hours longer, but it would be less tiring and stressful, as well as saving more than $100 in fuel costs and vehicle wear and tear.

CNN's lopsided report notes that half of the $13 billion dollar funding, which the Administration pointed out was simply a 'down payment' on a larger, nationwide system by the mid-2030's, has been allocated to California, where there's been talk and tentative plans underway for the last decade to link the Bay Area with Los Angeles. Again what they failed to tell viewers that that California is getting more money because the Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio turned down their state's share of the funds, purportedly for economic reasons, but many suspect the real motive was political.

In fairness, a 2008 paper entitled, The Economic Effects of High Speed Rail Investment, authored by Gines de Rus and presented at the International Transport Forum, wisely cautioned…

"…even in the case of particularly favorable conditions, the net present value of HSR investment has to be compared with other 'do something' alternatives as road or airport pricing and/or investment, upgrading of conventional trains, etc. When the investment cost associated to new HSR lines does not pass any market test, and the visibility is reduced by industry propaganda, short-term political interests and subsidized rail fares, conventional cost-benefit analysis can help to distinguish good projects from simple 'white elephants'."

Speaking of 'industry propaganda,' a video [see below] produced by Siemens -- one of the companies bidding for HSR contracts in America -- for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, found, when studying four HSR hub cities, that there would be significant economic benefit to the tune of $19 billion in new business annually, along with the creation of 150,000 new jobs.

And what were those cities? Albany, NY; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; and Orlando, FL. Because the governors Wisconsin and Ohio refused to allow their states to participate, that pretty much nixed service linking the upper midwest, with the exception of the route between Chicago and St. Louis, MO. Here there actually is HSR progress -- of a sorts -- being made. Last December, a test run over newly improved section of track was clocked at 111 mph, a far cry from the 185 mile on other International HSR systems, but better than the 75-85 mph maximum on the New York City to Albany system being worked on at the moment.

One of the most promising segments of a true high speed rail system, linking high-growth cities in central Florida, also got the axe by Republican Governor Rick Scott.

That really only left California, so the funds that would have gone -- along with the obligation of state co-funding -- climbed aboard the Amtrak Southwest Chief and headed to Hollywood, so to speak. In terms of distance and potential demand, a HSR system linking the Bay Area and Greater LA falls into the 500 km (310 mile) sweet spot mentioned in de Rus' 2008 paper. One rough estimate calculated more than 50 flights a day between the two area's multiple airports, offering more than 100,000 seats, making it one of the busiest flight corridors in the world. A really fast train would offer serious competition to those airlines serving the route.

Not all that surprisingly, de Rus prepared his paper for a round table discussion on "Airline Competition, Systems of Airports and Intermodal Connections."

HSR works best where trains can get up to speed between major cities less than 500 km (310 miles) apart, and where they have level, straight, and most importantly dedicated track with no vehicular crossing points. The milk run system through Vermont, with its demanding topography and sparse population isn't a particularly good candidate for HSR.

So, why did the Obama Administration fund it?

CNN would have you believe it was just more stereotypical government 'pork.' Cooper and Griffin fail to place the story in context. In the Spring of 2009, with the economy sinking like a stone, the White House needed 'shovel-ready' public works projects and the Vermont track system upgrade that would allow the Amtrak Vermonter to run a bit faster, was ready to go. Besides, it is planned the system will someday link Montreal to Boston (310 miles) and then New York (190 miles).

As the de Rus paper points out, governments considering public funding of HSR need to evaluate other viable alternatives, including "upgrading conventional trains," which it can be argued is what the Administration did.

In reality, HSR is a leap of faith by government, albeit an expensive one, the goal of which is to shift our dependence away from fossil fuels - in particular petroleum that powers cars and planes, and yes, most US trains today - to other, hopefully less damaging forms of energy, both economically and environmentally.

That's a lot to consider and doesn't fit well into an 8-minute piece of video highlighting a successful track upgrade in Vermont that was, as CNN, to its credit, notes; one that was not only built on time, but also on budget. That, I would think, would be something to cheer about.

U.S. Conference of Mayor's HSR Video

Times Article Viewed: 6226
Originally published: 30 Jan 2013


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