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Transportation United States Technology

Is a US High-Speed Railway Economically Feasible? 1139

An anonymous reader writes "The federal government has committed at least $8-billion (and counting) for the development of a nationwide high-speed intercity passenger railway system in almost three-dozen states. Rail advocates have long dreamed of an extensive railway grid that will provide clean, speedy, energy-efficient travel. The high-speed rail program is also expected to create thousands of desperately needed jobs, while reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil and easing gridlocked highways and congested air-space. However, this noble, ambitious, multi-year plan faces a multitude of obstacles — including costs that will no doubt escalate as the years pass by; and an American public that may be reluctant to relinquish the independence and convenience of their beloved automobiles for a train."
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Is a US High-Speed Railway Economically Feasible?

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  • by pushing-robot ( 1037830 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:31PM (#33296320)

    Once they're paying as much as people in any other first-world country, "beloved" will give way to "practical". And it brings in some nice cash too.

    • Alternate solution (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Atmchicago ( 555403 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:35PM (#33296350)
      Cut subsidies for all forms of transportation. Then, tax in proportion to carbon emissions. Trains win in every densely populated region, hands down.
      • by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:26PM (#33296754)

        Trains win in every densely populated region, hands down.

        There are other issues besides subsidies. For example, here in California wealth NIMBYs in southern Marin County (near San Francisco) have successfully lobbied to have the proposed high speed rail line either routed around or tunneled under their wealthy suburban communities, at great additional expense, so as not to disrupt their perfect neighborhoods or negatively impact their property values. They have also lobbied to have the "high speed train" substantially reduce speed on many parts of the route, essentially defeating the purpose. Here in the United States, unlike in Europe and Japan, it much easier to be a NIMBY and essentially kill a project with lawsuits, environmental impact studies and other political chicaneries as long as you have money to burn. The price of your train rapidly escalates as decades of legal wrangling, planning commission hearings, and environmental impact studies make the final cost of your rail line completely uncompetitive.

        • by DragonWriter ( 970822 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @12:50AM (#33297654)

          There are other issues besides subsidies. For example, here in California wealth NIMBYs in southern Marin County (near San Francisco) have successfully lobbied to have the proposed high speed rail line either routed around or tunneled under their wealthy suburban communities, at great additional expense, so as not to disrupt their perfect neighborhoods or negatively impact their property values.

          Since none of the proposed routes for California's high speed rail have ever come anywhere near Marin County (the two northern termini being San Francisco and Sacramento, and Marin County being north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate), your description is rather implausible.

          The only thing even close to that was, IIRC, a lawsuit over the procedures used in the the impact report supporting the part of the Bay Area to Central Valley route, which has forced the High Speed Rail Authority to have the report redone and then reconsider the route based on the new report. But even that isn't anyone successfully lobbying (or suing) to get the route changed, since its quite possible that the original routing decision will be maintained.

          But nice try.

        • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @03:12AM (#33298366) Journal

          California voters approved a high-speed rail ballot initiative recently that would build really high-speed trains from San Francisco to LA to San Diego, and also to points in between and Sacramento. The initiative approved $10Billion in bonds for construction - but the official estimated cost was about $30B, and the followup Oops-you-mean-the-WHOLE-Cost cost was about $40B, so they're depending on $30B of Federal money to magically fall from the sky. They've gotten approval for something like $2B of that $8B the Feds want to spend in the whole country, but they'll need a lot more. So the finances have been a total crock from the beginning.

          By the way, the route from San Francisco to LA alone is longer than the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux, which is about the longest of the French TGV routes. (The highway distance would be a bit shorter, but the existing train routes across the mountains make the actual route zig-zag for a longer distance.)

          I don't think you mean Marin County NIMBYs, though -that's across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and there's no obvious way to get a train across the bridge. There are lots of NIMBYs around Atherton and Menlo Park who don't want the train going down the Peninsula, or at least not near them, or hidden in underground tunnels.
          There have also been arguments about whether the route from San Jose should go south first, or should go up the East Bay and east before heading south, but that's been people who want the train to go near them, not people who don't want it.

      • by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:26PM (#33297192)

        Cut subsidies for all forms of transportation. Then, tax in proportion to carbon emissions. Trains win in every densely populated region, hands down.

        Why the hell can't we just have taxes for the purpose of paying for government? Rather than these "I don't like what you do with your life so I'm going to try to hinder you from doing it through a passive-aggressive tax measure"

        When you don't have the Constitutional or popular backing to ban something, Tax it.

        • by GlassHeart ( 579618 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @02:07AM (#33298048) Journal
          Because banning something is a blunt instrument for policy, while taxing it has the effect of discouraging the undesirable action, at the same time allowing somebody who really needs it to still do it. For example, if you suddenly need to pick up your child from across town, you can either sit in traffic with everybody else, or be there quickly because congestion pricing (that you were willing to pay for in your emergency) kept most of the others off the road. If we simply banned driving, we'd end up ban your urgent use as well.
        • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Thursday August 19, 2010 @02:50AM (#33298258) Journal
          Pollution is not about simple minded disapproval of anyone's lifestyle, it's what is known as the "tradgedy of the commons". There's only one sure fire way to halt the tradgedy and that's to retool the free market such that it becomes painfully unprofitable to pollute.
        • by yyxx ( 1812612 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @10:29AM (#33301440)

          Rather than these "I don't like what you do with your life so I'm going to try to hinder you from doing it through a passive-aggressive tax measure"

          Taxes on carbon emissions aren't about "not liking" liking something, they are about making you pay for costs you impose on the rest of the world without paying for them (externalities).

          Libertarian arguments that you don't need taxes because private property will take care of it don't work for many externalities.

      • by SQLGuru ( 980662 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @12:32AM (#33297566) Journal

        This is why countries in Europe and Asia can offer public transportation that is actually used. Ever try to get anywhere in Texas? It's not dense enough for much public transportation to be feasible. New York and a few other cities can do it because of density, but not the rest of the US.

        Japan - 145k mi^2
        UK - 95k mi^2

        We have 11 states larger than the UK. 4 larger than Japan. How can you hope to have a train system that is actually used regularly that covers that much area.

        • by koiransuklaa ( 1502579 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @01:55AM (#33297962)

          I don't think your point stands when we look at states/countries -- or possibly you have a different value of 'feasible'. Sure, Japan and UK have high population densities but they aren't the only places with working public transport... Finland is in the same league as California in total area and has only a fifth of Californias population density. Even the "densely populated" south is still empty by Japanese standards. Public transport throughout the country still works. Less populated areas are naturally harder to reach but it's possible.Whether ultra-high-speed trains are feasible with these population numbers is another thing altogether.

          Your point is spot on when you start looking at cities: Most of Los Angeles is just not dense enough for working internal public transport. This of course affects the feasibility of state-wide public traffic because people have no way to get to the long distance train station...

    • Faster Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Qzukk ( 229616 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:41PM (#33296398) Journal

      Or they could design the train so that people could drive their cars onto it and park.

      It'd kill the airlines in a week.

    • no need (Score:5, Insightful)

      by nten ( 709128 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:42PM (#33296402)

      If we just stopped subsidizing it, we wouldn't need to tax it, and we'd get the same revenue benefit without the infrastructure needed to enforce the tax. Bastiat [wikipedia.org] has a lot of interesting things to say about both subsidies and taxes. I personally hate driving and flying, so I'd really enjoy a national rail system. I'd like a local transit system even more, but that is not something my city is even close to.

      • Re:no need (Score:5, Insightful)

        by pete6677 ( 681676 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:26PM (#33297196)

        Politicians want everything to be either taxed or subsidized (or even both at the same time) so they retain control over it and hence grow the size of their own bank accounts. Not to mention, it makes it a lot easier for politically connected cronies to keep a hand in the cookie jar.

    • by Pharmboy ( 216950 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:43PM (#33296418) Journal

      I'm pretty sure that simply raising taxes isn't the cure to all that ails us. Keep in mind that everything you eat, wear and touch is delivered in one way or another on transportation of some kind, so literally everything would become more expensive. From experience, I can say that often a very large part of the price of goods is from transportation. When you double that cost, everything now costs 10% to 50% more overnight. That is called inflation, and it cuts demand dramatically, which is likely not the best solution considering we have the highest unemployment since the early 80s, and the most persistent unemployment since the Depression.

      The problem is that the US is one giant suburb sprawl, and because our population densities are so much lower between cities, trains will never be viable all over. On the east coast, yes, and maybe even a few in fly over country. But to have trains in most of the rest of the country would take more carbon than driving cars. From building the trains cars that would only be partially full because of the lower density, to the fuel used for those smaller passenger loads, it doesn't make sense in the US for most areas, at least not for daily travel.

      Also, you have to condemn land, lay tracks, uproot people and remove farm land and utilities, and in the end, most people here would still rather drive less than use the train. You can't turn America into Europe by simply taxing fuel at the same rate.

      • by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:33PM (#33296800)

        You can't turn America into Europe by simply taxing fuel at the same rate.

        There are many on the left who, out of a desire to see "good" things done quickly, reflexively support higher taxes and increased government spending, regardless of the prevailing economic circumstances. In response to their claims of concern for the plight of the common man, Milton Friedman once said, "I admire the softness of their hearts, but unfortunately it very often extends to their heads as well."

        • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:18PM (#33297114)

          That would make sense, except that government size and the current scale of spending is the result of folks on the right, largely. It's always boggled my mind to hear people call for smaller government and then vote in favor of things like the patriot act and new government departments like the DHS and TSA. The left may be accused of tax and spend, but the right is definitely about spending *and* tax cuts. Pretty amazing stuff.

          • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @03:05AM (#33298336) Journal
            One interesting aspect of American politics right now is that a branch of the Republican party has broken off to oppose that kind of thing. Look at the tea-party platform, and you'll see it's primarily economic: they've dropped the 'moral' aspect of the right and have focused mainly on cutting deficits by cutting spending. Surprisingly a good portion of their energy has gone towards opposing establishment Republicans, enough so that some pundits began commenting about the divide in the Republican party.

            I think it's kind of similar to liberals who get upset when Democrats turn out to be beholden to the big corporate interests they are supposed to be fighting. Politicians are always hypocrites, don't expect otherwise.
            • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @09:41AM (#33300676) Journal

              Look at the tea-party platform, and you'll see it's primarily economic: they've dropped the 'moral' aspect of the right and have focused mainly on cutting deficits by cutting spending.

              Hardly. The libertarian right views its form of meritocracy as a moral issue. It's immoral to give healthcare to the needy because you take money from those who "earned" it. I haven't seen any tea-partier actually support reducing the size of the government by cutting funding to the largest military in the world. I haven't seen a single tea-partier come out in favor of personal liberty through marijuana reform, or legalizing prostitution, or really any other actual limits on our liberty. The tea-party platform is total bunk. It's the same old conservative, right wing, republican platform dressed up in colorful rhetoric.

    • how about more inner city rail as well?

      add buses, moving walk ways, more inter city rail and that will cut down on cars.

    • by Haeleth ( 414428 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:06PM (#33296604) Journal

      You overstate the case. In Britain, fuel prices are vastly higher than they are in the USA, and driving is still usually cheaper than taking the train.

      People travel by rail in Britain when it's more convenient. For commuters it makes sense because you can work or relax on the train; of course, many US cities already have popular commuter rail services. For other people, it often boils down to things like the very poor parking facilities at urban destinations and the poor roads at rural destinations -- an expensive train ticket looks a lot more attractive if you know the alternative is going to be six hours stationary in heavy traffic on a narrow road, or an extortionate charge for commercial car parking. These latter problems tend not to exist so much in the USA, where there's plenty of room for wide roads and large car parks.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by drinkypoo ( 153816 )

        This is precisely why rail is typically only added to the most population-dense areas. It doesn't make sense to use it unless you can walk everywhere else you go. It could possibly work in Los Angeles if you stationed a cop in every car, but only if they stopped hiring cops that taser or even shoot people at the least provocation. Most of the places it could work could be more cheaply (up front, anyway) served by adding lanes to existing roadways.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by phantomfive ( 622387 )
      I hope you understand why that plan would be unpopular, is impractical, and no rational politician would actually vote for it.

      Think about it: a good number of Americans are willing to go to war to keep gas prices low. Do you think they will appreciate it if gas prices rise double for no reason other than some people (you) don't like their cars? Not to mention there's a good portion of the country where people couldn't ride the train even if they wanted to.
    • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:00PM (#33296986)

      Germany is 1/2 the size of Texas: 357,022 sq. km. vs. 678,054 sq. km., into which they've jammed a little over a quarter of the population of the U.S. 82,282,988 vs. 310,232,863.

      What are you smoking that makes you believe the same transportation economics will apply in the U.S. as in Europe?

      -- Terry

  • by Securityemo ( 1407943 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:34PM (#33296348) Journal
    ...In that you can sleep in them, lying down. In Sweden, there's a six-bunk pullman car model, and a more expensive two-bunk model that's more like a proper "fluffy" bed. It's not all that nice to sleep with your boots on in a closed compartment with complete strangers (and they never get the heating right), but it's better than sleeping in a seat.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by msobkow ( 48369 )

      Of course if it's a business expense, you just include the cost of a bunk-bed coach. Room for 1-2 people, bathroom, chair, everything you need to be comfortable (if cramped) for a day or two. I imagine any new rail system will also provide WiFi or equivalent with a coach in the future.

      I've only travelled once by VIA (Canada) and once by Amtrack (US) each. It was a pleasant experience, though a lot of people are pissed off that VIA travels through the Rocky mountains at night so you can't see them. I

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wvmarle ( 1070040 )

      Not only Sweden; there is the EuroNight and CityNightLine network as well. Not the fastest connections (they do detours to serve more cities) but it's overnight so just sleep a little longer.

      China also has lots of sleeper trains, and they are popular.

      Now China is developing a lot of high speed rail, this will include 8-12 hour journeys (e.g. Hong Kong to Shanghai or Beijing) - now those trips are 20-24 hours. It would be great if that is on high speed. Imagine on Monday evening you can have dinner with yo

  • Don't target cars (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:35PM (#33296356)

    A high speed rail network should be targeting air travel. There are many short haul air routes (e.g. New York to Washington) where high speed rail could provide an comparable door-to-door journey time (especially once you take check-in, security and all the other things into account). High speed rail has none of the big downsides of air travel like the need to get to the airport 2 hours before the flight to check in, the need to pass through 3 layers of security, bans on liquids and other things, cramped seats etc.

    Now obviously trains cant compete with long-haul air travel such as New York to LA but for short haul, it could really work. (but only if its given proper high speed track and doesn't have to share that track with slow freight trains)

    • by koreaman ( 835838 ) <uman@umanwizard.com> on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:38PM (#33296370)

      Just wait until the first person tries to blow up a train. Then many of those advantages will vanish.

      • by dAzED1 ( 33635 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:44PM (#33296422) Journal

        it's hard to crash a train into the pentagon, if the tracks don't go that direction.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:54PM (#33296502)

          Doesn't matter. It's not about causing actual damage; it's about causing psychological damage. The image of dirty, bearded, beady-eyed Muslims blowing up a train will haunt soccer moms and inspire gun-toting overcompensating internet-tough-guy "patriots" and give endless fodder to demagogues both radiophonic and actually involved in the political process. If any joker claiming to be Al Qaeda accomplished even popping a paper bag on a US train, trust in the system's safety and the government's ability to defend the homeland would be compromised and the right wing would go apeshit sending out chain-mails of weeping, twinkling, glitter-covered bald eagles wrapped in American flags.

          And, so, as soon as the first firecracker is detonated on a high-speed US train, and maybe even before then, you'll be taking off your shoes, placing your laptop and one-ounce bottles on the conveyer, and stepping into the backscatter microwave to the titillation or, more likely, horror of some TSA flunky tasked with scrutinizing the greasy rolls of fat enveloping like undulating armor the most insecure, paranoid nation of all the tribes of the Earth.

          • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:52PM (#33296934)

            Doesn't matter. It's not about causing actual damage; it's about causing psychological damage. The image of dirty, bearded, beady-eyed Muslims blowing up a train will haunt soccer moms and inspire gun-toting overcompensating internet-tough-guy "patriots"

            And then they'll all stop using high speed trains, just like they stopped flying, right?

      • by nanoakron ( 234907 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:59PM (#33296544)

        You mean like in West Bengal http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10178967 [bbc.co.uk], Madrid http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Madrid_train_bombings [wikipedia.org] or Russia http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8383960.stm [bbc.co.uk]?

        Yet people are still building new train projects worldwide.

        Do you honestly think 'b..b..but terrorists' is any sort of intellectually valid answer to questions of national transport projects?

    • Re:Don't target cars (Score:5, Informative)

      by spinkham ( 56603 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:53PM (#33296484)

      You do know that NY-Washington already has high speed rail, right? It could be better, but it's the only one in the country at the moment, and it makes Amtrack money hand over fist.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acela_Express [wikipedia.org]

      • by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:08PM (#33296614)

        What is needed is to upgrade the Acela and give it dedicated right-of-way for as much of its run as possible (similar to what has happened with the TGV and ICE trains in Europe which have dedicated high-speed track). If the Acela could travel at the higher speeds of high-speed-trains in Europe, even MORE people would start using it.

        • Re:Don't target cars (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:19PM (#33297132)

          What is needed is for Amtrak to stop pissing away hundreds of millions of fucking dollars on bloated, late, grossly over budget, and laughably mismanaged IT projects with marginal returns on investment. The Accenture-led SAM project is one of them. The other is the black hole in Engineering known an EAM: Enterprise Asset Management. Years ago, a vendor managed to cajole Amtrak into a parasitic relationship with IBM/Tivoli (used to be MRO before IBM bought them) to customize Maximo (a steaming pile of shit software if ever there were one) for use in managing fixed infrastructure maintenance activities. The burn rate on those projects is stupefying, as is the shocking dishonesty the advocates of those projects advance in defending their empires: "We're doing this in the name of efficiency...and...and...saving money...and...um...FRA compliance...and...wait for it...FOR THE PASSENGERS!"

          For the passengers. Really? A lot of the older passenger coaches (Amfleets) still in service routinely encounter air conditioner failures (which makes riding in them insufferable during summer months) and leak water on passengers' heads during rain and snow melts. These coaches are nearing the end of their useful lives and Amtrak desparately needs to buy new ones. But instead the German Sausage running EAM would rather divert all the money from the capital project pot to dumb shit like buying all the maintenance of way personnel fucking iPhones to do work reporting with. Amtrak also needs to install constant tension catenary south of NYC and install larger crossovers to allow trains to run faster south of the Big Apple down to DC -- but all that money is, again, being diverted to these IT projects. A good portion of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor assets are over a century old. What's amazing is how well the trains run in spite of that fact.

          I had hope for Amtrak under Obama, but after the Inspector General was forced out for actually (gasp) discovering a significant amount of sketchiness and fuckery, that hope has since evaporated.

    • Re:Don't target cars (Score:5, Informative)

      by cptdondo ( 59460 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:17PM (#33296686) Journal

      Now obviously trains cant compete with long-haul air travel such as New York to LA but for short haul, it could really work. (but only if its given proper high speed track and doesn't have to share that track with slow freight trains)

      At 200 MPH, the trip would take 15 hours, give or take.

      Leave at 5 PM, get in the sleeper, drink some wine that you brought on board, eat your dinner, and go to sleep. At 8AM, you arrive at your destination, in the heart of the city, rested, and ready to go. No need to get your luggage, take a taxi, or a long ride to and from airports.

      Now compare this to the red eye flight. Tell me it's not feasible.

      We take sleepers in Europe whenever we can; they're so much nicer than planes.

    • by rawbits ( 611527 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:25PM (#33296748)

      The comment about air travel being the real competitor is right on the money.

      Survey after survey has shown that people would much rather take a train (where they can get on easily, walk around during travel, not get slapped suddenly into their seats for an impromptu ride on the biggest roller coaster on the planet, drink a beer or eat a sandwich for a reasonable price, not have to wait in long lines for a restroom, and "land" within a short cab ride of their actual destination) than suffer through the growing indignities of air travel. Even adding in proper security screening, it's still no contest. But the obstacle to high speed rail is economic and political -- the extensive government subsidies to auto travel are dwarfed by those offered to private commercial air carriers (the whole TSA thing, but also the airports themselves and air traffic control, not to mention the weather service and other such incidentals that are nominally for other purposes). Investment in high speed rail directly undercuts the most lucrative air travel market: short haul trips. That's why the hub and spoke system all the air carriers use exists, and why you can hardly ever find a direct flight to where you're going if you aren't lucky enough to live in a hub (but also notice that if you leave directly from a hub, you'll pay a big mark-up compared to people who are simply transferring there).

      So the bottom line is that there is a gigantic, lucrative industry whose whole existence depends on never having effective rail transportation (such as high-speed rail that connects urban areas as well as major airports and provides competitive, timely, cost-effective, weather-insensitive service for trips ranging from 200-500 miles). So you've got a bunch of noble idealists without a dime to their name lobbying for high speed rail, and you've got all the airlines hell-bent on preventing it from (so to speak) getting off the ground. It's a miracle the current administration thinks they can beat those odds, and I wish them all the best. But this is sort of like trying to outflank the medical industry with health care reform, and unfortunately there's probably just as little chance of substantial success.

  • Short answer: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by peacefinder ( 469349 ) <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:38PM (#33296368) Journal

    In some places yes, in other places no.

    Next question?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:41PM (#33296396)

    People love their automobiles because the great majority of them aren't given a choice in the matter.

    Wouldn't it be great to be able to hop on a train to head to a concert, sporting event, famous restaurant, etc. a couple hundred miles away and back on the same day? That sort of casual impulse travel would be of new benefit to the economy (particularly of hub cities) even if the railway itself didn't pull in the cash.

  • Rail System Needs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by srothroc ( 733160 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:43PM (#33296412) Homepage
    My problem with trains in American isn't speed.

    I'd rather have a train system that had a range of trains to different places at lots of different times, every day. But most importantly, I'd like to have a train system that actually follows the time table. Nobody wants to pay for public transportation when you have to arrive early, wait a long time, and then not leave on time... and probably not arrive at your destination on time.

    Wait, we do that for airplanes. Nevermind. Go about your business.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ignavus ( 213578 )

      Trains don't get diverted to totally different cities because of fog and snow.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dkleinsc ( 563838 )

      Regarding the timetable issue, I was chatting with a conductor on an Amtrak train I was on, and it turned out that until quite recently Amtrak wasn't allowed to sue freight rail companies if they disregarded their contractual obligations to Amtrak. So the freight rail companies did just that, which meant that it was not uncommon for a train full of passengers to be forced to be late so that a train full of coal could make its schedule.

      The rules have since changed, and the trains have gotten a lot closer to

  • by wclough ( 819407 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:43PM (#33296414)
    Europe has certain zones where high speed rail makes sense. Those also exist here, such as the Acela route, also perhaps Miami to Orlando to Tampa Bay, LA to San Diego, and Dallas - Fort Worth. However, extending high speed rail across the US makes no economic sense now, and would place the government into direct competition with private commercial transport. It is unlikely that high speed rail will become economically viable on a nationwide basis given the huge costs of creating dedicated, isolated rails on such a broad spread basis. While I strongly support high speed rail in high density, closely located urban zones, especially where urban mass transit exists to get people to and from the train stations, it doesn't seem either economically viable or practicable in other locations.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pgmrdlm ( 1642279 )
      Is anyone really suggesting high speed rail everywhere? The suggestions you made are the only area's that I have ever heard it mentioned.

      It just doesn't make sense, and even politicians recognize that.

      Now, what I have heard suggested is more routes for rail travel. When I lived near the Pocono's, there was a large number of people that traveled to New York City every day by bus for work. It was worth it for them to spend 3/4 hours on bus one way due to the lower living expenses and high wages. For them

      • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:42PM (#33296860) Homepage

        How true, how true. Of course, you bring up an interesting side point: Which organization stands to lose the most from a functional rail system with good routes and coverage? Greyhound Bus Lines, hands down.

        And that's not an idle issue. For instance, at one point there was consideration of setting up passenger rail service between Boston and Concord NH, with stops at significant cities such as Manchester, NH and Nashua, NH, both of which have a lot of people who are commuting to Boston daily and clogging up the interstates during rush hour. The costs involved in creating such a route would have been relatively low, because there's already track laid for freight rail, and the cities which were likely stops conveniently had their public transit centers about 100 feet from the tracks.

        It was shot down, primarily because of opposition by the bus line that is making good money running buses along that exact route. It doesn't matter that rail would have made things faster and more convenient for everybody.

  • Boondoggle (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jaymzter ( 452402 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:49PM (#33296454) Homepage

    The US is not built to support high-speed rail, nor is there a need. Consider the Florida High Speed Rail program, part of which will run between Tampa and Orlando, a grand distance of 85 miles, or about 90 minutes driving. According to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] however, "bullet train would beat a car by only 30 minutes." Odds are even that advantage will be lost when the Lakeland stop is opened. Additionally, that doesn't even take into account that you're going to have to drive to the station, then when you get to your destination, you're going to have to drive wherever you need to get to!

    High-speed rail can work in certain environments, but it's self-defeating the way it's being implemented here in the US, because it's just being used to buy votes, as the summary itself all but admitted.

  • Independence? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by emkyooess ( 1551693 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:50PM (#33296466)

    "and an American public that may be reluctant to relinquish the independence and convenience of their beloved automobiles for a train."

    The automobile is far more of a ball-and-chain than an independence-granting device.

    • Re:Independence? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:33PM (#33296796) Homepage

      The automobile is most certainly not more of a ball and chain than an independence-granting device.

      Which grants more freedom?
      * taking the train to an interview or driving
      * taking the train/bus to get groceries or driving
      * packing the kids up and taking the train to grandmas -or- driving
      * going for a weekend picnic in the country on the train... and walking a dozen or so miles.
      * going on a business trip, takign a plane, a train, a bus, a taxi, and then doing the same on the way back, lugging your one small bag the whole two days... or driving.

      The only place I can see an argument for trains is in highly urban environments, where subways are a better choice anyway in most cases (or simply pushing everything into the sea, as is the case in California).

      I'd be interested in seeing someone who has a vehicle and makes statements like these go without their car for a month. Maybe some will be fine, being fewer than a couple miles from work or not having responsibilities outside of themselves.

      Honestly, if a car is so much of a responsibility for you that it's a ball and chain, please never get married or have children. They are a mild inconvenience at best, for what they grant a person (or a family) in mobility - the ability to go about daily tasks, the ability to look for work while unemployed, and so on.

      If you're not just one to shirk anything difficult, as your post suggests, maybe pick up a book or two on automotive repair? Or, I suppose, you could one day carry your family along in a rickshaw to the grocery; they're certainly less of a ball-and-chain than an automobile, after all!

  • by Silentknyght ( 1042778 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:53PM (#33296480)

    and an American public that may be reluctant to relinquish the independence and convenience of their beloved automobiles for a train.

    Well, duh. Convenience and independence are huge. Public transportation isn't "when you want it" or "where you want it" and just doesn't have the trunk space. In many major american cities, the suburban sprawl is enormous, bordering on ridiculous. It's too late for the US. You'd need to throw in something like $100 TRILLION in order for (rail) mass transit to work. You'd need to interconnect each sprawling suburb with each other--not just with downtown, regrettably how its often done--in order to make it even feasible.

    And it still won't be convenient to travel by mass transit if you have more than you can carry in your arms.

    And then, at some point, it's still not the cheapest. For example, $5 a roundtrip ticket for me, my wife, and two others to travel downtown for a baseball game. Even with expensive event parking, that's already about even. If we had a van and squeezed in another couple, it'd be cheaper to carpool, perhaps even including the amortized costs of vehicle purchase & repair for that event, especially since we still needed a vehicle to get us to the rail station...

  • by wowbagger ( 69688 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:59PM (#33296546) Homepage Journal

    I fear the high speed rails will be deployed on the east and west, and those of us in "fly over" country will be left out in the cold.

    Which is a shame, because in many ways the middle of the country is where high speed rail could really shine: the trains could get up to speed and stay there for a significant length of time.

    However, a few random points:

    1) France has a total of 1000 miles of high speed track. The Southwest Chief [amtrak.com] runs from Chicago to LA - about 2000 miles. That's just ONE of Amtrak's routes.
    2) In Europe, they have auto-trains: put your car on, go, take your car off, drive. The only place this happens in the US is on the east coast [amtrak.com], on one run. Again: were it possible to put your car on in New York, pull your car off in Flagstaff, and drive up to the Grand Canyon, I think it would be much more attractive to many people.
    3) Were autotrain runs more common in the US, then driving an electric car with limited range wouldn't be the deal-breaker for long trips it is now: again, put the car in in NY, off in Flagstaff, with a fully charged battery courtesy of the train's power.
    4) There is a great push on just to restore old-style rail service in the middle of the country: see the Heartland Flyer [heartlandflyer.com] extension effort [kake.com].

    I routinely travel long distances: Wichita to Los Angeles for example. I'd love to be able to put my car on the train, roll overnight, and be able to make the trip in a day rather than two. I'd love to be able to hop on the train for my business trips to Kansas City and Austin. The idea that Americans won't take the train doesn't square with how many ride it now, when Amtrak seems to go out of their way to make it unattractive. Over 4000 people used the Amtrak station in Hutchison KS [wikipedia.org] last year, and that is a little station in a town of about 40,000 people - the station isn't even manned, and the train gets there at 4 in the morning.

    No, rail COULD work in the US - it's just that no big company will make $$$$ from it, so no CongressCritters are motivated to do anything about it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by wvmarle ( 1070040 )

      Auto-trains in Europe are rare, and the only ones that I am aware of run in the vacation season. Just a few of them. I don't know of any regular services where you can take your car on the train. But those vacation trains are very popular.

  • The choice is not between 'car' and 'rail'. The choice is between 'rail' and 'airplane'.

    There is a nice Amtrak route from Seattle, WA to Portland, OR. It takes about 3 hours, and a plane flight is less than an hour. At least, until you factor in getting to the airport (way outside of town, and the Amtrak station is right downtown), going through security, the cramped seating, and the overall icky stupidity of the entire process of air travel nowadays. Then the Amtrak starts looking a heck of a lot more attractive than a plane flight.

    I also travel to San Francisco from Seattle sometimes. My current choice is to take a plane. If there were a high-speed rail corridor to San Francisco that took less than 5 or 6 hours, I might well choose it instead. Sure, it's an hour or two longer than even the total time spent to travel there by air. But it's an hour or two of comfort, not an hour or two of not-quite uncomfortable enough to be unbearable that air travel is.

  • All I know is... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SuperCharlie ( 1068072 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:08PM (#33296612)
    If I didnt put down the railways first in Sim City, I was basically screwed.
  • Train to nowhere (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ebonum ( 830686 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:38PM (#33296828)

    In the US, when you arrive at a city, the first thing you need is a car. Otherwise, you can't get anywhere.
    NYC is an exception. Almost anywhere else, you will need to get of the train and immediately rent a car. Without addressing this issue, this might as well be a train to nowhere.

    On statistics: The train throughput numbers ( passengers per hour ) are often very deceiving. The numbers are based on trains being closely spaced ( very frequent ) and 100% full of passengers. Just look at Caltrans in CA. I've seen numbers showing how the train corridor carries a lot more people per hour than the same sized road. However, the assumption is that you can run one train every 6 minutes. Caltrans can't get anywhere near that rate of trains. Also, the Caltrans trains run virtually empty through the middle of the day. There are no passengers, but the engine is cranking out massive amounts of pollution from the big diesel engines. The pollution per person must be awful.

  • by OnePumpChump ( 1560417 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:43PM (#33296866)
    High speed rail is not to replace cars. It is to replace regional airlines.
  • by jgreco ( 1542031 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @10:43PM (#33296870)

    We have to stop sabotaging mass transit in the US.

    Mass transit is made hard-to-use. Consider, for example, arriving in Chicago via train at Union Station. Chicago's got a good subway system, but to get on it, you've got to leave the station and walk several blocks outdoors. Metra? Somewhat better, if you're lucky enough to be leaving on a train from Union or maybe Ogilvie, but LaSalle and Van Buren are quite the hike. God forbid you want to take rail into Chicago so you can get to O'Hare for an international flight. If you come into Union, you're faced with hauling your luggage down a dingy concrete stairway to a subway station for a long el trip to the airport.

    Mass transit is made second-class. Amtrak has for years struggled to be on-time, even though they're supposed to have priority over freight, they're using the rails of the freight railroads, and it's quite common to be waiting for some freight train to do its business before you can continue on your way. The tracks are poor and the trains wobble. People who suffer from motion sickness sometimes get sick from them, especially on the upper deck of a Superliner. Train speeds are low, meaning that a long haul trip is probably overnite, and if you want to be able to sleep in peace, that means paying for a roomette on the train, at substantial extra cost.

    If we had high speed rail that was interconnected intelligently with subways, regional rail, buses, airports, etc., it'd be a great incentive to leave the car at home. I for one have driven enough miles that I'm happy to let someone else do the driving, but it also has to be convenient. For me, driving to O'Hare for an international flight and paying to park the car for several days is still more compelling than taking Amtrak, walking to the subway station, wrestling our luggage down the stairs and through the turnstiles, then taking the hour long trip to O'Hare.

    I don't expect the current high speed rail proposals to address this sufficiently, so it isn't clear to me just how many people would start to take the train.

  • by Reverberant ( 303566 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:05PM (#33297022) Homepage

    All the posts talking about rail (hsr/intercity/commuter/LRT/RRT) vs other modes of transportation have got it wrong. It's not about supplanting one of the current modes with trains (although that may happen), it's about providing regional (and local) transportation options where it makes sense to. A HSR system linking a village in Wyoming with another village in Wyoming probably doesn't make much sense. A HSR system linking major metro areas in regional spots like CA, the midwest, the Pacific NW, New England, etc makes perfect sense given that those are spots with the density to support rail and who's highway and air infrastructure are overburdened.

    Is it economically feasible? It's gonna be expensive, no doubt. However expanding our current roadway/air infrastructure will also be expensive. The other issue is that the longer we wait, the more expensive it will become. If you feel that our current transportation system is adequate for our current and future needs, then fine; if you don't than you have to accept that "pricey" rail is also going to be part of the mix.

    If you are someone who loves your car, you should be backing rail wholeheartedly for one reason: every rail passenger means one less driver on the road, which will make driving easier for you. It only takes a couple percent reduction in traffic to go from level-of-service F (stop-and-go traffic) to LOS D (traffic slow but moving)

    (ftr I'm someone who does consulting for the rail industry and I'm also a member of a rail advocacy group [newengland...lition.org])

  • by xmundt ( 415364 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:15PM (#33297090)

    Greetings and Salutations....
              I have always enjoyed traveling by train, and, would be on it like a duck on a June Bug if it were available. However, there are three things that will have to happen before it will become successful.
              1) Whoever takes on this project (and I suspect it will have to be the Federal Government), will have to lay out a growth plan that will continue to add lines to areas in the USA where access does not exist. One of the massive fails of Amtrak was that the company built a few lines...then stopped, apparently expecting that this would be enough. For a model, look at the light rail systems in larger cities, such as Washington D.C., New York, or Atlanta. In all three cases the lines are laid out to minimize the distance that a passenger has to travel to get to a station.
              2) Arrange for auto transport cars to be part of the long-distance lines. This would allow the passenger to drive up to the station, get their vehicle loaded, and, enjoy a pleasant and comfortable ride across country. Upon arriving, they would have their own transport immediately available, which would go a long way towards making the trip more enjoyable.
              3) Ensure that the cost of a train ticket is no more than that of an airplane ticket. A few years ago, I was going to travel to Washington D.C. for an event. The cost of a round-trip train ticket was close to $400.00, and, in order to GET to Amtrak I would have had to drive to Atlanta. The airplane ticket (also round trip) was $175, and, I could fly out of Knoxville. Prices may be more at a parity now, but, there is still that long drive to get to a station.
                  I would love to see train travel come back, as it is a great way to see the countryside, especially if one is not in a huge hurry.
                  Dave Mundt

  • by rssrss ( 686344 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @11:47PM (#33297292)

    The US has a great rail system and we need to make sure that we do not ruin it by doing what Europeans have done.

    "Europe's dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo. Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73% from 68%, while rail's share fell to 17% from 20%. The rest goes by canal or, in the case of oil and gas, pipelines. In the U.S. in 2005, 42% of freight was moved by train and 33% by truck."

    "EU Looks to Cargo Trains To Ease Load on Trucking" by John W. Miller, in The Wall Street Journal on June 5, 2007 at p. A6 [wsj.com]

    The US has optimized its rail system for freight, not passengers, and that is a good thing. Distances between population centers in the US are larger than in Europe, Americans will tend to prefer air travel for long distance intercity travel.

You can measure a programmer's perspective by noting his attitude on the continuing viability of FORTRAN. -- Alan Perlis