High hopes for high speed
A $13 billion proposal could lay high-speed tracks in the midwest, California, and Florida.
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The critical thing from a rider’s point of view, he contends, is the amount of time it takes to travel. The Acela train from Boston to New York may hit 150 m.p.h., but only for perhaps 15 miles. The route averages less than 70 m.p.h., Mr. Capon says.Skip to next paragraph
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Even so, Acela’s operator, Amtrak, claims the next Northeast leg – New York to Washington – now draws 60 percent of potential air-rail passengers. That number rose markedly over the past few years, Capon says.
But there’s some doubt whether the Obama administration is providing enough funding to do the job. Unlike Europe and Japan with their dense populations and relatively short distances between population centers, America’s wide-open geography is ill-suited for high-speed trains.
Randal O’Toole, a transportation fellow at the Cato Institute, calculates that the entire US system – if built for a “moderate speed” of 110 m.p.h. would cost about $50 billion – and 10 times that amount if it was to be truly high-speed at 200 m.p.h.
“Obama thinks of himself as the next Dwight Eisenhower,” he says. “But the difference is that the highway system paid for itself through user fees [gas taxes].”
In the “ideal market” between New York and Washington, Mr. O’Toole says he thinks Amtrak’s estimated market share is inflated and probably closer to 25 percent if Baltimore commuters are not included. “They still can’t compete with the airlines,” O’Toole says.
Beside creating new choices for travel, high-speed rails would cut US dependence on oil and stop 3 million tons of carbon emissions annually, according to the president’s plan.
Scott Bernstein, director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, has crunched the numbers for himself. Comparing a trip from Chicago to St. Louis, high-speed rails would be more than twice as energy-efficient as a small regional jet on an energy-used-per-passenger basis.
“A regional jet holds no more people than a bus,” he says. “You could say it is just an expensive flying bus.”
Others say that there are already signs that when rail is upgraded, even modestly, it becomes a real choice
for travelers. On the East Coast, train ridership is up and air-shuttle flights have flattened out, says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest environmental group. Given a third travel option that is fast, comfortable, and convenient, people will often choose
trains, he says.
Rail speeds are up modestly, and more frequent trains between St. Louis and Chicago have prompted a doubling of rail passengers in the past two years, Mr. Learner says. But if trains traveled at 110 m.p.h., they could compete with airplanes.
“Building more high-speed rail is a great idea,” he says. “Sure, it will cost a lot, but it would be worth it if they do it as well as the Europeans and Japanese have done it. Whatever happens, it needs to run on time.”