The Agenda

Yonah Freemark on the U.S. Political System and High Speed Passenger Rail

I think Yonah is going a bit too far:

Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?

Yonah is, in my view, conflating a number of distinct issues. The “overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups” is also present in the Chinese system, but the relevant constituencies are tightly contrained circles of senior Party officials, heads of state-owned enterprises, and a small number of wealthy and influential industrialists. 

Rail projects are far more expensive in the U.S. than in Europe for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with short political term lengths and reliance on two center to center-right political parties. As Market Urbanism has observed, the Federal Railroad Administration is a big part of the problem. That is, a relatively impartial federal regulatory agency that is not often accused of being dominated by corporate interests has, in the interests of safety, driven up the cost maintaining passenger rail systems. The East Bay Bicycle Coalition has written in detail on this subject:


In order to procure the world’s best off-the-shelf train for the least amount of money, Amtrak decided to buy an existing design from a European or Japanese manufacturer, who have decades of experience building and operating high-speed trains. The winner of this competition was a consortium of Bombadier and Alstom (the French TGV builder).

Then, in 1999 with Acela planning fully underway,the FRA pulled the rug out by issuing regulations for high-speed rail service requiring trains to withstand 800,000 pounds force without deformation. The 800,000 figure is an arbitrary number dating back to the 1920s; this mandate has since been increased to 1 million pounds.

The buffering requirement confounded Bombadier. Train weight is of crucial importance as it affects the amount of track wear, noise, and energy costs. To meet the buffering regulation, the train would have to be significantly bulked-up. The result was a highspeed train nearly twice as heavy as its European counterparts. As such, the Acela has been described variously as a tank-on-wheels and a bank-vault-on-wheels. Indeed, an overweight train like Acela would be banned from the European high speed rail network.

Because the extra weight put so much strain on the train body (which was never designed to handle suchloads) trainsets suffered excessive wheel wear, cracks in the yaw damper and brake rotors, and other problems which can probably never be completely fixed. Whereas the original contract called for trains to run 400,000 miles between equipment failures, the Acela can barely manage 20,000 miles.

The indispensable Alon Levy has covered a related theme. Last week, he wrote a post on a notably bad call by Amtrak:


I’m a little late to the game here, but let me just say that Amtrak’s just-funded contract for new electric locomotives is supremely expensive: $560 million for 70 locos, or $8 million each. The locomotives are an FRA-compliant version of Siemens’ EuroSprinter product, which has recently been sold in Europe for €3.74 million per unit, as has Bombardier’s competing TRAXX locomotive (in fact, the TRAXX even sold for €3.2 million). Amtrak is paying a premium of about 60-80% for these locomotives, depending on exchange rates.

It gets worse. The new locos will enter service in 2013, just two years before the national mandate for positive train control goes in effect, allowing trains to be lighter and avoid the most onerous FRA regulations (in fact, the Northeast Corridor, where most of the locos are to run, already has a PTC system). The special modifications and design are what caused an increase in both weight, from 86-87 metric tons for the standard EuroSprinter to 97 for the Amtrak Cities Sprinter, and cost.

To put things in perspective, Sweden recently bought 180 km/h EMUs for €1.6 million per car. And the 700 Series Shinkansen cost $2.5 million per car. In other words, Amtrak could have gotten 3 EMUs for the price for one locomotive. (Amtrak’s new single-deck coaches cost $2.3 million per car, the same as EMUs abroad.)

The US Department of Transportation is announcing that “Siemens Industry USA is adding 250 new manufacturing jobs in order to design and build 70 new energy-efficient locomotives for Amtrak.” The cost premium works out to about $200-250 million, or $800,000-1,000,000 per job added; the total cost is $2.2 million per US manufacturing job. Needless to say, most of this money is not going to American manufacturing workers, but to consultants and Siemens’s train designers. [Emphasis added]

Is it possible that a sensible person — not an anti-government zealot — might conclude that something is amiss and that FRA reform might be worth tackling before we make extensive new public investments in passenger rail?

I will agree with Yonah on one important point:

This week’s endorsement of the Central Florida SunRail commuter train project by Governor Rick Scott (R) was a reflection of American democracy at its worse. Having complained of budget deficits and scorned off federal intercity rail funds for a fast train to link Tampa and Orlando that would have likely cost the state no money, Mr. Scott has given his go-ahead to a project whose primary beneficiary will be CSX, the freight rail operator, and whose costs to the state will run up the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with few public benefits. The SunRail service will operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every two hours during the middle of the day, at least at the beginning of operations. Future operations improvements lack funding.

The SunRail project does sound like a waste of money. I do think, however, that it is wrong of Yonah to only emphasize the role of federal subsidies in funding Tampa-Orlando HSR, as Florida taxpayers are also federal taxpayers. It is right and appropriate for decision-makers at the state and local level to internalize the fact that we are all citizens of a federal republic.


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