Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some Thoughts on Trains, and Public Transportation

This particular post started as a response to our Cat Daddy's posting of a story on how Wisconsin and Ohio are about to return federal funding for High Speed Rail, but I thought I had enough thoughts on the issue that I'd turn it into a full entry.

I'm not, in general, opposed to high speed rail. And, like our Cat Daddy, I understand that our time horizon for oil is not infinite. However, the Ohio plan (which is the only one I can speak to) was not well thought out, would have been underfunded, would have shared tracks with CSX and Norfolk and Southern freight traffic, been at least partially subservient to freight traffic and, for the foreseeable future, would not have been self sustaining.

First and foremost, the Ohio plan would have created a rail system that would have been slower than actually driving among any two of the three c's. And while there would have been economic benefits to upgrading the existing tracks for freight, the trains and the tracks were not equipped to handle high speed rail as it exists in Japan or Europe. At best, there would be portions of the trip that would hit 90 miles per hour for brief periods.

And, because this is state administered, this supposes there are minimal stops and that smaller cities such as Mansfield and Wooster don't manage to wrangle stops out of the system, further eroding the system's speed and efficiency.

For Ohio, the US Government is ready to award approx. $400 million in funding. At best, this creates a rail system that is more time consuming than the not terribly difficult drive down I-71. While people still have a choice, their choice will be to drive.

For true high speed rail, speeds exceeding 90 mph, connecting the three Cs requires an entirely new rail infrastructure with new tracks and an adequate right of way that, if California's pricing is to serve as the model, would cost approximately $14.5 billion dollars. And this doesn't include any consideration for the "Other Ohio": Dayton, Toledo, Youngstown, and the Southeastern part of the state.

On the one hand, the issue really truly is the perfect (high speed rail on other continents) being the enemy of the kind of good( this proposal). And if you can't come up with $400 million for this version of high speed rail, where are you going to find $14 billion for the real thing? You have to start somewhere, right?

Personally, I think the administration's approach is wrong on the issue, in the sense that awarding funding by state is the mistake. Any rail system proposal needs to be thought out and funded regionally, rather than state by state. If profitability is to be a factor in the operation of a high speed passenger rail system, and it will need to be at some definable point on the horizon, the first question that needs to be answered involves determining routes and destinations to which one would prefer to neither drive nor fly due to cost of fuel or inconvenience. If I live in Cleveland, I would drive to the other two Cs, Detroit, or Pittsburgh. I would gladly take high speed rail to Chicago, Indianapolis or Philadelphia (at which point I could transfer to the Acela). Beyond Minneapolis or Louisville, given a choice, I'd probably prefer to fly.

Trusting each state to create a patchwork network of high speed rail lines without any real thought as to how they interconnect is a recipe for failure, and that's what we're seeing now. And perhaps, for now, the administration might consider taking that funding and offering it to those companies that haul freight on those systems instead.