High Speed Rail

seaboard-smSeaboard’s Silver Meteor in Florida, c.1960,
filled with happy vacationing families.
(Click to enlarge any of these images.)


The Train Lover

When I was a kid, we lived next to the Aberdeen and Rockfish line in Raeford, NC. My brother and I would put things on the tracks and let the train smash ’em. We had a fabulous collection of mangled toys and flattened pennies. Ah, good times!

Now and then we’d visit my great aunt Edna in Southern Pines, NC. Seaboard Air Line ran right through the middle of town. They had two tracks, side by side! Oh, the possibilities for crushing stuff in job lots; we wanted to live there!

But one day, our mother yelled for us in That Tone Of Voice. “John Scott Poole Junior! Stephen Matthew Poole!”

Oh, boy. We immediately switched on that special face that only kids can make — you know, radiating complete, “who, me?” innocence while sweating and shaking — as Mom glared at us. “DO NOT put boulders on the train tracks,” she ground out. “The engineer complained.”

(C’mon, it wasn’t a boulder, it was just a big rock. OK, a really big rock. And yeah, the train made a loud, “BANG,” then leaned a bit sideways for a moment … but hey; that rock was blasted into pebbles! How cool was that?)

ar-locomotiveYou see a locomotive. My brother and I
saw 150 tons of  raw destructive power.


A Passenger Train!

Then one day a beautiful stainless steel train passed by me. I can’t even remember where I was at the time, but all thoughts of crushing and smashing fled from me. It was too pretty for such mean use. I could see people through the windows … and they were looking back at me!

I was transfixed. It didn’t even have a caboose, just a red flashy-light on the last car. How cool was that? From that moment on, I really loved trains.

You can’t call me an actual, true-blue Railfan™, though. These folks will plan a vacation trip to look at abandoned tracks and old locomotives.

(And won’t even put stuff on the rails to be flattened. Weirdos.)

I’ve never been that deeply into it … but I have always loved trains.

Pennsylvania_SpecialThe Pennsylvania Special, c. 1906

High Speed Rail

So. Would I like to see nationwide, every-major-city-to-every-major-city high-speed rail (“HSR” if you’re hip — i.e., passenger trains with a minimum speed of 125 MPH) in the United States? Sure, it’d be nice.

But do I think we should do it?  Different question.

I worded it that way on purpose. Whenever I do a ditty like this, I always scan through the online discussions for a while, just to get a feel for what people are thinking.

10 years ago, there was some support for high speed trains in the USA. But that’s because most Americans thought that (a), it would be everywhere, coast-to-coast and that (b), all we’d need to do is plop some shiny new trains on the existing rails.

“It’ll be like Star Trek, man! You’ll get into a fierce-lookin’ train here in LA and be in New York, like, whooosh and stuff! And tickets will be, like, thirty three dollars! How cool is that???

Heh. We wish. Once people began to understand the realities (and the expense), enthusiasm waned. More recent polls show that support for HSR has deteriorated.

Twin_Cities_ZephyrOne of Burlington’s Zephyrs. c.1940.


But … But … Gubmint!

I pause to make a rather important point. People who think that the government should Do Something About Something will invariably find another country that has done it. They’ll argue that the USA should do so as well.

“How come I can’t get high speed Internet in Ruptured Rump, AK? They’ve got it all over Iceland!”

This logic is often applied to HSR: “France has it, Japan has it, but America doesn’t! How come?”

I’ll have more to say about this in the future, but the fact is, most such comparisons are flawed. The United States really is different from any other nation. For example, our population density is a fraction of Japan’s or France’s.

(China is a better comparison, but still has several times our population density, and they’re still only building HSR between larger population centers. China is huge and there are vast areas that will not be served by HSR.)

AlthingBetter question: why don’t we call our
Congress an “Althing” like Iceland?


You do realize, don’t you, that most single US States have land areas that are comparable to entire nations elsewhere? For example, the entirety of Japan could be cut-and-pasted into Montana. ‘Murica be huge, ya’ll.

Take a look at this map of Tennessee, which is a fairly middlin’ state. Green is the middle of nowhere, red indicates areas with denser population, according to the US Census Bureau.

I’ll state the obvious: you’re not going to have many rail passengers where you see green, yellow or even light orange.

The straight-line distance between train stations in Memphis (on the left) and Nashville (in the middle) is shown: 198 miles. (Thank you, Google Earth.) The actual track route, of course, would be longer, because it would have to work with and around the terrain.

The blue line is a rough approximation of the entire Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the longest of Japan’s six primary high-speed trains. I made that image myself in Kolourpaint, so I won’t claim that it’s 100% accurate. But the fact is, Japan’s longest and most heavily-traveled high-speed rail would fit neatly into Tennessee. (With room to spare.)

tennesseeAnd wouldn’t even make it to the Smokies.


Fast Rail: The 1930s

It is said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s look at an earlier attempt at fast passenger rail: the streamliners. I’ll try to keep this brief.

Automobiles became affordable in the early 1900s; lots of people started buying them. By the 1930s, rail travel had dropped off dramatically as more people took to the (constantly-improving) roads. The first true airliners, such as the Boeing 247, had also appeared by the early 1930’s. Rail faced stiff competition, and of course, the economy just generally stunk because of the lingering effects of the Great Depression.

To lure passengers, the railroads introduced futuristic-looking, lightweight, streamlined trains. In 1934, Burlington’s Pioneer Zephyr made headlines with a non-stop run from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, maintaining an average speed of 77 MPH.

Soon every major carrier had at least one streamlined passenger service. More amenities were added, including observation cars and fancy lounges. The Santa Fe’s famous Super Chief (the “Train of the Stars”) and the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited (“The World’s Greatest Train”) targeted upscale passengers.

Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line took a different approach with the Silver Meteor and Champion in 1939; they offered less expensive “chair-coach” travel from New York to Miami in 25 hours (though the Champ would add sleepers later, a practice that Amtrak continues). Both aggressively advertised affordable Florida vacations to middle-class families and enjoyed a good bit of success.

UP_M-10000aThe UP’s M-10000, straight from Area 51.


A Bathroom For Junior!

Railroad advertising from the Streamliner Era argued that trains were faster and more comfortable. Before the Interstate Highway System was built, that was quite true. A long trip in an automobile meant plodding through an endless string of little towns with reduced speed limits.

(Not to mention Junior hollering, “I gotta pee!” every 30 minutes, and there weren’t many places to stop back then.)

These streamliners were quite fast for that era. Some could do 100-120 MPH on straight, level stretches of track. Average speeds of 50-80MPH on a route were common. (And they had bathrooms, right there on board).

Better airliners like the game-changing Douglas DC-3 (which also had a bathroom) were being introduced at the same time. They had an impact, but not what you might expect.

Back then, travel by air was much more expensive than train. For example, in 1938, a coach seat on the Santa Fe’s El Capitan from Chicago to Los Angeles cost about $40 ($675 today). The same trip via TWA was $115 ($1940 today). The railroads were happy to advertise that fact as well.

But what this meant, practically speaking, was that airlines skimmed off the wealthier passengers, leaving railroads with folks who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) ride unless they got a bargain. That didn’t help, either.

beavertail-carA group of zombies stares blankly from
thebeavertail” on a Hiawatha.


The RPO Subsidy

Wikipedia’s article about Amtrak has the gory details on the decline in passenger rail. For example, in 1929, there were around 65,000 passenger cars on the railroads; by 1965, that had dwindled to just 10,000 or so.

Automobiles, better roads, buses and air travel had all taken their toll. But the final nail in the coffin was the elimination of the Railway Post Offices (RPOs) in 1967.

The US Postal Service paid handsomely for these special cars on passenger trains. Mail was picked up, sorted en route, then dropped off while the train was still moving. One iconic image from this era is that of the mail hook, which was used to snatch mail bags on the fly.

I mention this because it was a defacto government subsidy. These lucrative contracts were the only thing that kept many passenger routes afloat. In other words, Amtrak ain’t the first time that government has subsidized passenger train travel.

(And just for the record, Amtrak has yet to show a profit after four decades of operation. Railfans know this, by the way; they don’t dispute it. They just argue that we should continue subsidizing it because … well, trains.)

It is no coincidence that Amtrak had to take over most passenger trains in 1971 … just a few years after the Post Office killed the RPO program.

An RPO on the CNW,
1965. More zombies.


Building The Track

OK: let’s say we’re going to do it anyway. Support is strong and ‘Murica is ready to gitterdone. How much will it cost?

I’ve seen estimates online ranging from $10 million to $50 million per mile for HSR in our country. Here’s one reason: HSR needs gentle, gradual curves with a huge radius. Most existing routes have curves that would force the train to slow down, sort of negating the whole “high speed” thingie.

This has the perverse effect of making an HSR upgrade far more expensive in urban areas, because of existing construction and land prices. These are the very areas that would most benefit from it.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so look at the image below. This is called the “San Bruno Curve” by this guy on his pro-HSR blog site. It’s in the San Francisco area. I cropped this out of Google Earth and marked the curve in red.

It doesn’t look that bad, does it? But according to that blogger, it’s one of the worst; it would limit a high-speed passenger train to about 65 MPH under current guidelines. And remember, this is just one example. Our current rail infrastructure is littered with curves that would need to be upgraded for true HSR.

san-bruno-curveThe “San Bruno Curve.” (Ooooooo!)
Click for a larger (and scarier) image.divider

Other Problems

You also don’t want trains flying through standard road crossings (what the Rail-types call a “level crossing”) at 130 MPH, even with good signals and gates. At that speed, a collision with an auto could occur simply because the driver misjudged how quickly the train was approaching.

Don’t ignore the biggest problem of all: politics. Look at a map of our highway system. See the strange routing on some of those roads? You have “ALT” routes, and “A” and “B” routes in some cases. There’s a reason for that: when the roads were built, every city wanted one (and later, an Interstate) through their area.

You’d have that with high speed rail, and nowadays, an opposite problem, too: environmentalists, conservationists and NIMBY-ists would all raise Cain about each chosen route, further delaying the thing and increasing the cost.

This doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it and (provided I could ignore my Inner Wild Libertarian complaining about the cost) there are some areas where it might work. The Northeast Corridor and Southern California could probably justify it. I’d want to see a hard, objective analysis of cost-vs-benefits before I’d support it, but I wouldn’t reject it out of hand.

Amtrak’s Acela Express is the most likely candidate. The equipment can hit 160 MPH easily. But it must run much more slowly for safety’s sake … because of the existing tracks.

Huning_LinesChina did it by building new tracks
next to the old ones (and if anyone
complained, the gubmint shot ’em.)


Trains Vs. Air Travel

I want to address one other thing here. Remember that the railroads used to advertise about how expensive air travel was? That was generally true for many years. Train travel has historically been cheaper in Europe, too (though that may be changing).

But folks, the old bromide that “trains are cheaper than planes” is simply not true across the board nowadays. You’re just dating yourself if you parrot that falsehood.

Don’t take my word for it. Compare prices yourself online.

For example: Amtrak’s Auto Train is one of their most popular services. It will take you and your car from Lorton, VA (near Washington, DC) to the Orlando/Sanford, FL area. The trip takes about 17-1/2 hours. I priced the economy coach for mid-September, 2014 (I’m writing this in July) for my wife and I and our auto: $780 for the round trip. Not bad.

Using Orbitz, I looked up DC to Orlando, same dates. Using Frontier Airlines and a low-cost rental car, the total price for two adults was less than $400, round trip. It would only take 3 hours each way, too, giving us a lot more time to do what we want in Orlando.

Delta_DC-7The DC-7 was one of many planes that made
air travel economical. (And had bathrooms.)


Ergo, In Sum (And All That)

There’s one other reason why the USA went with a tangle of highways instead of rail, years ago. Remember, for many decades, we were in a tense Cold War with the Soviet Union.

You can take out a huge stretch of rail with a few bombs. Japan’s economy could be wrecked in a single afternoon that way. A dispersed system of roads is much harder to knock out.

Yeah, I know. People don’t think that way anymore … but I assure you, they did when Eisenhower proposed the Interstate Highway System.

Here’s the bottom line: Americans love automobiles. If they want to travel a long distance, they’ll either plan a leisurely road trip with hotels on the way, or they’ll fly. Unless we were to introduce a really fast HSR with low ticket prices (meaning huge government subsidies), that ain’t gonna change, either.

Sorry, Railfans. I love trains, too. But Nuff Zedd!seaboard2