Small-Scale High Speed Rail: Bad Idea ?>

Small-Scale High Speed Rail: Bad Idea

When I was nine, my father explained capital-intensive business to me.  It’s an industry in which the competitor with the most assets wins.  Railroads were his example.  A short line doesn’t make money.  The expansive network succeeds.

High speed rail in the United States is a capital intensive business.  It works in the Northeast Corridor.  The network is linear, from Boston to Washington.  It qualifies as a network because it connects the following cities (please don’t complain I left out your stop).

  • Boston
  • Providence
  • New York
  • Philadelphia
  • Baltimore
  • Washington

The citizens of California figure a similar success can be achieved with an HSR between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  They are probably right.  There are 2600 flights a week on that route.  Rail offers a similar (but not faster) transit time.  It should be cheaper for travelers.  Those two cities can support a high speed line.

Amtrak’s Acela Express could probably survive with two links:  Boston to New York and New York to Washington.  The intervening stops are gravy; it is incremental revenue.  Gravy is not a meal in itself.  Acela could not survive if it only ran New York – Philadelphia – Baltimore, both sections of 100 miles.

In 2009, the Federal Railway Administration announced its vision for high speed rail in America.  It included ten corridors of between 100 and 600 miles.  The 100-mile sections mostly constituted sections that extend existing or proposed corridors.

The two most logical 100-mile high speed development projects in the US are Boston to Portland, Maine and Washington to Richmond.  Both are extensions of the successful Amtrak NEC service.  Richmond makes more sense.  The Richmond SMSA has a population of 1.2 million.  Portland has a half million.

Milwaukee to Chicago

Where new discontinuous 100-mile routes are concerned, Chicago to Milwaukee is a relatively good candidate.  Chicago, rail hub of the U.S., is the logical center of a Midwest HSR network.  The Milwaukee SMSA has population of 2 million.  Chicago, 10 million.  Amtrak offers seven trains each day with a travel time of ninety minutes.  Would a half-hour train ride be more attractive than driving?  It’s a simple math problem.  For anyone who isn’t moving downtown to downtown, the alternative is driving to the commuter rail station in Chicago, commuter rail or El to Union station, a half-hour ride to Milwaukee, then renting a car or catching a taxi, or taking public transport to the destination.  The alternative is a 92 mile drive, at the end of which you have your own car to make the last five miles of the trip.  For the majority of trips, the math says that driving makes more sense.

Houston to Dallas

Dallas to Houston is an interesting pair.  The FRA excluded this arc from its South Central corridor in its 2009 plan.  There are reportedly 45,000 regular commuters between the two cities.  Southwest airlines got its start on this 250 mi route.   These two cities with a population of more than six million each have the critical mass to support an HSR route.  Houston to Dallas doesn’t count as small-scale rail.  The route is 245 miles, one that can deliver truly significant time savings.

From a global perspective, rail is better, right? The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) provides the following comparison.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) supplied the commuter and intercity rail statistics

Mode BTUs per passenger-mile MJ/passenger-km
Automobile 3,500 2.6
Domestic Air Carrier 3,250 2.4
Commuter Rail 3,000 2.3
Intercity Rail 2,600 2.0
Bus 823
Acela Express
European High Speed Rail

Amtrak doesn’t disclose the energy consumption figures for Acela.  I’m still searching for apples-to-apples numbers for European and Japanese HSR designs.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is 383 miles along I-5.  Planners chose a longer route – 474 mi –through California’s Central Valley to stimulate growth in inland cities.  It was a political choice, not an economic one.  Bakersfield, Fresno, and Merced won’t generate enough traffic to justify the cost of building the longer route, nor the additional transit time between the anchor cities at the ends.  Those cities generated the vote, however.  Without voter support in the rural areas, the bond measure setting funds to start the project probably wouldn’t have passed.  Prop 1A passed with 52.7% of the vote in 2008.

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) decided to begin construction in the middle of the route, in the Central Valley.  There are geological and cost challenges on the southern end of the route.  There are cost challenges on the northern portion of the route.  It is a great play.  As of early 2016, the Authority has $20 billion for the project.  It does not know where the remaining $44 billion will come from.  Having started construction in the Central Valley, the route cannot be changed to a shorter route, closer to the coast.  If there is a couple of hundred miles of track laid in the valley, it will be impossible, or at least very difficult, to abandon connection of that line to either end.  A high-speed line in the valley with no connection at either end will not be economically justifiable.  With twenty or thirty billion already invested, but no return possible until the ends are finished, the state will swallow hard and find the money.

There’s a really good chance we won’t see San Francisco to Los Angeles service in the next twenty years.  We’ll be lucky to get San Jose to Sylmar.  That’s about the same as Chicago to Milwaukee — a good start, but not a success.

Short-line high speed rail isn’t a thing.  It’s the camel’s nose under the edge of the tent.  We should be making bigger decisions on our national policies, not discussing local solutions like Rochester to Buffalo.

One thought on “Small-Scale High Speed Rail: Bad Idea

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