Midwest debates high-speed-rail costs

Is it worth $2.1 billion to save only 25 minutes?

That's the question a Canadian passenger-train manufacturer is asking transportation officials in five Great Lakes states as they contemplate building a multibillion-dollar high-speed passenger rail system.

The officials, who represent the Interstate High Speed Rail Compact, which includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, have spent more than two years evaluating the social and economic potential of establishing a Japanese ''bullet'' line or a French-style ''TGV'' electrified railway.

Restricted to passenger trains only, such a system would offer cruising speeds of 150 miles an hour.

The Ohio Rail Transportation Authority, which spearheaded the idea of bringing overseas rail technology to the US, has gone so far as to commission the Japan Rail Technical Services as a consultant.

Ohio voters will be asked in November to approve a 1-cent sales tax to finance the new system, the first leg of which would be the 250-mile ''3-C corridor'' connecting Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

As funds become available, additional Ohio cities would be added to the original corridor, and if neighboring states in the compact succeed in funding construction, their own lines would be connected to ORTA's. The initial system in Ohio alone is expected to cost $5.7 billion for construction.

Officials of Bombardier Ltd., a Montreal-based builder of rail passenger cars , locomotives, streetcars, and rapid-transit trains, say the offshore technology ORTA wants to import may be too expensive. For half the money, they say, ORTA could start running Bombardier's already proven diesel-powered LRC (for ''light, rapid, comfortable'') self-banking trains over nonelectrified tracks at speeds only slightly lower -- on an end-to-end basis -- than those achieved by France's new TGV and Japan's famed Shinkansen bullet train.

Equally important, says Bombardier, the LRC could go into high-speed service on its own all-passenger right of way within four years. The higher-tech offshore systems would take twice as long to open a first leg and start earning revenue.

Also critical, they argue, is the LRC's record on existing North American track. Two LRC train sets were successfully tested for six months in daily express service between New York and Boston (they were sent home to Canada because Amtrak has no funds to buy or lease them), and a growing fleet of LRCs is replacing conventional trains operated by VIA Rail Canada -- the so-called Canadian Amtrak -- between Toronto and Montreal and other city pairs.

Public reception has been enthusiastic, forcing VIA to place the trains in a reserved-seat-only format.

''Two things suited it to VIA,'' Transport Canada Deputy Minister Arthur Kroeger told Interstate High Speed Rail Compact representatives at a recent meeting in Toronto. ''It does not require a dedicated infrastructure -- it can run on existing roadbeds -- and it has the performance we need. It's not a Cadillac system, but it's very close.''

Despite Mr. Kroeger's disclaimer of Cadillac status, many of the interstate compact delegates who rode the train on one of its regular Toronto-Montreal runs felt it rode like a luxury auto on rails.

''The trip was tremendous,'' says Pennsylvania State Rep. Richard A. Geist (R) of Altoona.

''Banking the cars'' is one of the keys with which Bombardier executives hope to unlock the US market.

Unlike US-built rolling stock used by Amtrak, LRC coaches are equipped with a sensitive hydraulic mechanism that tilts the car body inward on curves, compensating for the centrifugal force that would otherwise cause the coach and its passengers to lean outward.

The banking device, along with lightweight aluminum construction, advanced suspension, and a low center of gravity on both cars and locomotives, enables the LRC to sweep through curves at speeds that would derail a conventional train.

In the streamliner days of the 1930s and '40s, US railroads overcame centrifugal force by banking the entire track-and-roadbed structure through each mainline curve the way turns are built on a high-speed racetrack.

US railroads don't dare to configure their tracks that way now. The utility industry's voracious appetite for low-sulfur Western coal and overseas demand for American grain forced the carriers to de-elevate their curves so that trains of giant 130-ton hopper cars could safely trundle through them at 45 miles an hour without tipping over or breaking the low rail.

A tilting train such as the LRC, however, can negotiate shallow curves at up to 90 miles an hour and can accelerate to 125 mph on the straightaway. It doesn't require the expensive curveless configuration the French designed for their TGV and the Japanese have suggested for ORTA.

Bombardier officials say that in the 3-C corridor a fleet of LRCs running on an all-passenger right of way with the curves still in would save ORTA up to $2. 1 billion in construction costs while adding only about 25 minutes to the schedule of a TGV or bullet train. In particular, the diesel-powered LRC would not require the expensive overhead wire required by electrified Japanese or French trains.

''By using existing rights of way we can maximize the use of existing resources and infrastruction,'' according to LRC marketing director Marshall Beck.

''Phase I, the segment from Cleveland to Columbus, could be open in four years -- about 50 percent faster than if a totally new system were installed,'' he says. ''The cost would be $2.1 billion vs. $4.2 billion.

Regardless of the technology to be adopted, ORTA officials and their colleagues are anxious to start building something. The 3-C corridor now has no passenger rail service of any kind. Driving takes about five hours while high fuel costs have made the market unattractive to the airlines.

Interstate-compact officials at the moment seem to be tending toward the LRC concept.

''We were pleased by all aspects of it,'' reports James Kellogg, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Transportation and current chairman of the compact.

On the other hand, ORTA executive director Robert J. Casey wasn't as enthusiastic in his praise of the trains as were some members. ''I didn't think it compensated for some of the bad track,'' he asserts. ''But then,'' he adds, ''it was going more than 100 miles an hour.''

Even in states where curvature is not a problem, such as prairie-bound Illinois, the LRC made a positive impression.

''I though their innovation was absolutely advanced,'' says State Sen. Charles Chew, chairman of the state Senate's transportation committee.

If the LRC were to find buyers in the US, it would not be the first time a Bombardier product won acceptance here.

The company's commuter rail cars already are running in Chicago and New Jersey, its streetcars have been selected by officials in Portland, Ore., and New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority just awarded Bombardier an $840 million contract for 825 new subway cars.

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