Phil Longman and I are both rail enthusiasts, but we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on the virtues of high-speed passenger rail. I did, however, find much to agree with in his new article in The Washington Monthly on the virtues of “fast enough” passenger trains. Though Longman has harsh words for congressional conservatives who’ve been critical of HSR, he does an excellent job of making their case:
[A]s great as it would be to have passenger service as fast and elegant as the TGV in the United States, there are many reasons not to put our first dollars into such an ambitious project. First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.
Plans to build a high-speed rail in California between San Diego and the Bay Area are now foundering for precisely this reason.
And as Phil goes on to argue, beating other travel modes on inter-city routes doesn’t always require HSR. Often it requires relatively modest investments in upgrading track:
Compared to airlines, for example, Amtrak has virtually a 100 percent market share of passenger trips between Philadelphia and New York, a 60 percent share between Washington and New York, and a 50 percent share between New York and Boston. On each trip between Washington and Boston, more than half the passengers will get off at either Philadelphia or New York and are replaced by other passengers. From the travelers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether the train goes 150 mph or even 300 mph, since they will only be on it for a short time anyway. What matters to them far more is that the trains are frequent, pleasant, reasonably priced, and reliable. Recently, after Florida rejected federal money for its high-speed project, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redirected $795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily used sections of the Northeast Corridor. This money will increase speeds from 135 to 160 miles per hour on critical segments, but much more importantly it will improve on-time performance and add more seats to accommodate the continuing surge in ridership.
Could it be that this redirect will be better for all involved?