Mike the Mad Biologist

Faster Trains Versus SUPERTRAINS

I agree with Atrios–while high-speed trains would be technologically groovy, trains that actually got somewhere quickly would be a major, albeit unsexy, improvement (italics mine):

As for inter-city rail, I certainly support it too on the grounds that driving long distances and flying really suck. Flying sucks more than it used to for various reasons, and it is unlikely to suck less anytime soon. Having to travel to the airport, arrive early, deal with the various indignities and potential delays, the discomfort of airline cabins, extra time at the other end waiting for baggage, the need, most places, to throw down a large sum for a cab ride or car rental, to then travel a fairly long distance to the city center, all make for an extended unpleasant experience. Good trains are fast and smooth, easily competitive with air travel up to 400 miles or so, even if they aren’t truly super supertrains. The ride is more comfortable. You can get up and walk around, pay a visit to the bar car. Doing some sort of work while riding is much more of a realistic option than it is on plane. As is a quality nap.

But there’s a basic problem with trains right now.

The Acela ‘high-speed express’ takes three-and-a-half hours to get from Boston to Penn Station, a trip of roughly 215 miles. That’s a realized speed of 60 mph, and this train has no stops. You could drive there faster (during off hours).

Imagine if the realized speed was 90 mph. But because our train system is underfunded and underequipped, the Acela has to share rights-of-way with other trains (freight and regular Amtrak). So we get a train system that really doesn’t work.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim
    February 19, 2011

    Yup, even in the UK we’re starting to get decent rail. London-Brussels (which is comparable to Boston-New York in distance) takes around two hours now that we have a fast line from London to the Chunnel.

  2. #2 Ed Baker
    February 19, 2011

    Eurostar trains run at 180mph – but were built to ge capable of 200+mph. That’s how trains should be!

  3. #3 Dave
    February 19, 2011

    I’m also in the UK, and while I think the fast line to Brussels and Paris is wonderful (so smooth, stress-free and just so much more civilised than by air), I would like moneys earmarked for new fast lines to be transferred to other lines (the Tube, plus many, many small towns that don’t have an adequate service right now. Bunging a few billion quid at these other lines would in my opinion transform things so much more.

  4. #4 Lyle
    February 19, 2011

    We had such trains 100 years ago, see the Broadway Limited and the Super Chief. Today fast freights beat these times, I have read that the BNSF has 36 hour train LA to Chicago. But it turned out that despite a lot of spending in the 1930s on streamliners and the like passenger railroading continued to be a money loosing proposition as it had been since at least 1900. (The fast trains were run for image purposes by the various railroads and to attract the best and brightest.) If you were really rich back then you had a private car to boot.
    Since the experience proved that passenger rail did not make much money compared to freight, and indeed the rails almost went belly up for a 3rd time in the 1950s and 1960 (see 1873 and 1893 for past cycles).
    Of course for High speed rail lets wait until the TSA gets its hands on it with searches and the like for passengers. Note that in France the high speed lines start at the edge of the city.
    In addition to the main rails 100 years ago we had the interurbans but again they were a financial disaster.

  5. #5 Bill
    February 19, 2011

    The Acela [Express] takes three-and-a-half hours to get from Boston to Penn Station, … and this train has no stops.

    Huh? Which Acela Express runs non-stop between Boston and New York? According to Amtrak’s timetable, after departing South Station, the trains stop at Back Bay, Route 128, Providence, New Haven, and Stamford before arriving in New York.

    … the Acela has to share rights-of-way with other trains (freight and regular Amtrak).

    There’s no freight traffic on the Northeast Corridor during the day. It’s all overnight.

    Actually, much of the slowness is due to track geometry (tight curves) in Connecticut. You get a much bigger bang for the buck by speeding up the slow parts. Increasing top speed is to speeding up a train as killing foreign aid is to balancing the budget.

    BTW, where I live, “regular” Amtrak is a long-distance train with Superliner (double-decker) equipment.

  6. #6 Roland
    February 19, 2011

    “Actually, much of the slowness is due to…” track that has been beaten up by heavy freight trains. Fast passenger trains cannot share track with heavy freight trains. The track flexes when a heavy freight uses it (watch it some time) and goes out of alignment. Freight trains are heavier than they were in the 30s. In Europe, Japan, and China, these fast trains have their own track. It’s the only way to go. That’s why fast passenger trains in the US are just a photo-op for politicians in front of something shiny.

  7. #7 bill
    February 19, 2011

    “Actually, much of the slowness is due to…” track that has been beaten up by heavy freight trains.

    In most of the country, that’s correct; but Mike’s post was specifically about the Northeast Corridor between Boston and New York.

    Fast passenger trains cannot share track with heavy freight trains.

    Depends on what you mean by “fast.” Class IV track, which the bigger freight railroads have, is good for 79 mph without positive train control, 90 mph with.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    February 19, 2011

    The Acela ‘high-speed express’ takes three-and-a-half hours to get from Boston to Penn Station, a trip of roughly 215 miles. That’s a realized speed of 60 mph, and this train has no stops. You could drive there faster (during off hours).

    But driving sucks, too, and it’s also getting worse. Maybe not as drastically as airline travel has, but you have some of the same problems as with trains: you have to share the highways with freight (trucks), the roads are handling quite a bit more traffic than they were designed for, and maintenance is inadequate. Not to mention that you actually have to be alert for the whole journey, and that if you’re driving to Manhattan you have to find a parking space for your car.

    Bill @5 notes some of the things that slow the train down: too many stops (why does an intercity rail service need to stop at both South Station and Back Bay?), and geometrical constraints. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, there is the further issue that Amtrak typically uses track owned by freight railroads–guess which trains have priority on that track.

    Lyle @4 notes that passenger rail services tend to be money losers. Which is true, but so are passenger airlines (old joke: the best way to make a small fortune in the airline business is to start with a large fortune). If you think mobility is important (which used to be true in this country and seems to be true in Europe/Japan/China), one way or another you’re going to have to subsidize it.

  9. #9 Lyle
    February 20, 2011

    Or you bring back the CAB and regulation for the airlines and they make money again. (Fares rise to the unrestricted fare in the process) Note that state and local governments already subsidize air travel who builds the terminals? It seems that with a perishable product, and and free competition the price tends to be driven to the variable cost level, which is a ticket to fail in the long term. Recall in 1888 for a bit the price of a train ticket Chicago to La fell to $1 for a while but then bounced back to $10.

  10. #10 Bill
    February 20, 2011

    Lyle @ 4:

    … I have read that the BNSF has 36 hour train LA to Chicago.

    FYI an e-mail aquaintance of mine who works as a BNSF dispatcher has told me that their “…fastest hot shot UPS/Fedex laden ‘Z9‘ does take longer than 36 hours to go from Willow Springs (Chicago) to Hobart (Los Angeles).” He didn’t say how much longer.