Riding the (Crowded) Rails

When I visited Shanghai a few years ago, one of my favorite moments was riding the maglev train from the airport to a Metro station on the outskirts of the city. As I recall, its speed got up to around 250 mph – a counter in each car displayed the speed, and the numbers changed in a blur as the train accelerated out of the station. I thought about how wonderful it would be to have such a high-speed train between DC and New York or LA and San Francisco, but feared it couldn’t happen in the US.

Flights and long drives are not only major sources of greenhouse gases, they’re also growing sources of frustration. While the climate crisis is sufficient reason to shift some of our travel to trains, there’s also a demand for a convenient, comfortable form of transportation that doesn’t involve traffic jams or increasingly bizarre security rituals.

The stimulus bill actually contained $8 billion for high-speed rail, and though that’s only a drop in a very large bucket, it’s exciting for those of us who long to see an HSR network in the US. TIME’s Michael Grunwald explains where the HSR money’s going, and what it says about the many challenges of bringing this form of passenger transportation to the US.

The first stimulus-funded high-speed route is due to run from Tampa to Orlando starting in 2015. Along the 84-mile stretch, trains will get up to 168 mph. What made this project attractive is that the land needed for the route is relatively flat and located in the I-4 highway median – so, negotiating a route with neighbors and landowners won’t be an issue the way it would be elsewhere. (I’m sure Florida’s swing-state status didn’t escape anyone’s notice, either.) It can be a quick success that’ll get people excited about HSR.

California also got stimulus money, and its proposal probably looked attractive because voters had already approved $9 billion in bonds for an HSR line connecting LA to San Francisco (with a three-hour trip as the goal). Grunwald notes that this project won’t be a quick success, though: “the land has yet to be purchased, the route isn’t set, and the estimated cost has ballooned to more than $42 billion in an already overextended state.”

The Economist worries not so much about the difficulty of constructing high-speed passenger rail routes, but what will happen to freight rail when more passengers are riding trains:

[Freight railway] owners worry that the [HSR] plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. “The freight railroads feel they are under attack,” says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virginia.

In the US today, freight and passenger lines share aging rail lines, and Michael Grunwald explains why this problematic:

Almost all of Amtrak’s tracks are owned by freight lines, and they’re riddled with time-sucking choke points: grade crossings, sharp curves, congestion hot spots and outdated bridges that require slow speeds for safety; long single-track stretches that force trains to wait for oncoming traffic; even old-fashioned track intersections known as diamonds. I visited one of the nation’s worst blockages, a diamond in Chicago’s Englewood section that jams 78 commuter trains against 60 Amtrak and freight trains every day. The result is gridlock, like an intersection in the middle of an interstate. Right now, a cross-country train out of California can take as long to get through Chicago as it takes to get to Chicago, and as the economy picks up and 400,000 freight cars come out of storage, the congestion will only intensify. I arrived well after rush hour but still saw a logjam; one Norfolk Southern freight train hauling grain, corn syrup, lumber and steel across the country was delayed at least 40 minutes.

The Chicago area is actually getting stimulus money to build an overpass that’ll ease its notorious train congestion; it’s one of several projects that aim to make relatively small but high-impact improvements to existing rail infrastructure. While such improvements will improve some freight-vs-passenger struggles, they won’t alter the fundamental problem that we have limited rail capacity to meet two different transportation priorities.

Freight rail is an efficient way to move goods around the country; railroads haul 42% of US freight but emit just 9% of total transportation-related NOx and 4% of transportation-related particulate pollution. Their fuel efficiency is triple that of trucks. And with each freight train moving between 280 and 500 trucks’ worth of goods, they also reduce highway congestion.

It would indeed be a shame if more passenger rail travel (HSR or otherwise) were to result in shifting freight from rails back to trucks – but what there were another efficient hauling option? Phillip Longman raises a possibility in a recent Washington Monthly article: transport more goods by water. Longman cites many advantages to water transport, including fuel efficiency and time:

If you’re hauling a ton of freight by truck, a gallon of fuel will only move it 155 miles. Haul it by railroad, and a gallon will take it 413 miles. Haul it by towed barge, and a gallon will carry it a full 576 miles.

… Not only would [making use of our network of waterways] save money and fuel; they would even, in some cases, save time. For example, a single truck driver moving a container from Boston to Orlando can make the trip legally in no less than fifty-four hours, given speed limits and mandatory thirteen-hour rest periods each day. By contrast, in just thirty-three hours, a container can be taken by truck from Boston to the port of New London, then placed onto a high-speed coastal freighter and shipped to the port of Charleston, and finally trucked from Charleston to Orlando, according to Stephen P. Flott, founder of SeaBridge, who has testified before Congress in support of the idea and may yet bring it to fruition.

Current policies stand in the way of a resurgence in transporting goods by water. A harbor maintenance tax is the equivalent, Longman explains, of forcing FedEx to calculate the value of every package on each truck and paying a tax that would far exceed what a truck transporting the same goods would spend on tolls. The Jones Act requires ships used in the US to be built in US shipyards, which would prevent ship owners from taking advantage of efficient shipbuilding in countries like South Korea. Longman outlines potential solutions, all of which require some political will to adopt.

We have technologies that can make our transportation more efficient and sustainable — and even more enjoyable for travelers. The question is, are we willing to make the investments and other policy choices that will let us achieve this goal?

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Juve
    August 11, 2010

    We need high speed rail between Seattle and San Fransisco, plus it wont be underwater in 100 years.

  2. #2 Grep Agni
    August 12, 2010

    I don’t see any reason the high-speed passenger rail projects mentioned would have any effect on freight. Both these projects involve building new dedicated rails for passenger service.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    August 12, 2010

    High-speed rail, as a practical matter, involves a significant amount of dedicated track. At least that has been the experience with France’s TGV and Thalys, Germany’s ICE, Spain’s Talgo, and Japan’s Shinkansen. However, most of the key stops on high-speed lines will be at existing railroad stations, and it is the approach to these stations where congestion comes into play. The HSR systems I mentioned have major stops at train stations which also support regional and commuter rail, so (except for the Shinkansen, which has a special gauge that no other Japanese trains use) the trains contribute to congestion at these stations.

    Also, there are many areas where it would be a significant improvement to have faster-but-not-high-speed trains (most people outside the US don’t consider top speeds of 200 km/h or less to be HSR). The Amtrak line that runs through my town is one of them: Amtrak made a concerted but unsuccessful effort to allow the freight company that owns most of the line to allow 79 mph operation on the track (current speed limit is 59 mph). Unlike HSR, these trains would mainly run on existing tracks, and they would impact freight trains.

  4. #4 rjh
    August 12, 2010

    The CREATE project in Chicago pre-dates the stimulus funding by at least a decade, and it’s a little misleading for the stimulus to take credit for all that work. Improving the combined freight/passenger traffic is an excellent idea, but it takes a lot of planning. CREATE found that the US government was by far the worst and least cooperative compared with the 3 states, multiple counties, and multiple railroads involved in developing the plans. It is good to keep pressuring the US government to cooperate with the other local parties.

    If you dig more, you will find that there is a slow moving project trying to do the same with the highly overloaded NE corridor between Newport News, VA and Portland ME. It will probably take over 20 years for planning and construction. This is partly the result of continued difficulties with the US government, which tends to want to arrogate all power and decision making for political advantage. It is also estimated that the construction will need to be spread over 15 years to allow commerce to continue while improvements are made. This project includes road, rail, and waterway components.

    There are also smaller projects, like the Heartland corridor. These smaller projects involve many fewer participants, and are much less attractive as patronage targets for politicians. With these projects the greater need is that the governments not prevent improvements, rather than having the governments participate in improvements.

  5. #5 Liz Borkowski
    August 12, 2010

    Eric Lund: Well said – thanks!

    rjh: I think most, if not all, of the stimulus projects had been in the works well before the legislation – the idea of the stimulus was to find “shovel ready” projects and then give them funds for implementation. The other local projects you mention sound great, too, and I hope they get enough money (from the feds or other sources) to be fully realized.

  6. #6 Roland
    August 12, 2010

    High-speed anything at grade (ground-level) is a disaster. Why not elevate it? Why not monorail? There’s a monorail in Seattle that was build way back when the World’s Fair was there. It was designed as modular and movable. So it was built quickly and can be removed and put elsewhere quickly and easily. Anywhere you find successful high-speed rail, it uses dedicated “tracks”.

  7. #7 dhogaza
    August 12, 2010

    Eric Lund, Spain’s high speed long-distance rail system is named AVE (Alta Velocidad España, and “ave” is also “bird” in spanish, which is nice). The first generation used the same Siemens rolling stock (maxing at 250 km/hr) that’s used on the German ICE.
    The AVE is standard-gauge, while traditional Spanish rail is broad-gauge.

    Talgo is a spanish manufacturer of trains, and some of theirs run on the AVE, and also the Alvia (the Alvia trains can can run on both gauges). That’s probably the source of your confusion – it’s a bit like calling the German ICE the “German Siemens” :) They build the Talgo 250 (250 km/hr, on older AVE lines) and the Talgo 350 (350 km/hr, used on lines engineered for that speed).

    Then there’s the standard gauge AVANT service (like the AVE but for shorter distances). I think the only difference is the make-up of the trains, i.e. only one class of service, and they might leave out the bar/cafeteria cars too (don’t know)

    All these confusing options are really nice rides.

    I don’t see any reason the high-speed passenger rail projects mentioned would have any effect on freight. Both these projects involve building new dedicated rails for passenger service.

    Not all the money’s going to true HSR (250+ km/hr in my book) service running on dedicated tracks as are the two mentioned above.

    The Portland-Vancouver BC corridor is getting some of the money, for instance. The two states (mostly WA) and Amtrak invested in putting in double-track all along the Portland-Seattle route, paid for upgrading existing track too, and for higher priority along the route.

    It still shares the route with freight trains.

    IIRC the money’s going to be used to extend the service to Vancouver, not to provide dedicated track for the PDX-Seattle service.

    This service, the Amtrak Cascades trains, uses Spanish Talgo cars with a domestic diesel-electric locomotive capable of reaching 160+ km/hr (100+ m/hr). However, top speeds on this line’s only about 80 mph.

    The first stimulus-funded high-speed route is due to run from Tampa to Orlando starting in 2015. Along the 84-mile stretch, trains will get up to 168 mph. What made this project attractive is that the land needed for the route is relatively flat and located in the I-4 highway median – so, negotiating a route with neighbors and landowners won’t be an issue the way it would be elsewhere. (I’m sure Florida’s swing-state status didn’t escape anyone’s notice, either.) It can be a quick success that’ll get people excited about HSR.

    And don’t discount the psychological effect of driving on the freeway at 80 mph as a train blows by you at 168 mph, as though you’re standing still! Or the opposite – I’ve ridden the AVE from Madrid to Sevilla, which along parts of its route runs parallel to the freeway, and it’s great to zoom by the cars while drinking a beer and chatting with a friend.

  8. #8 dhogaza
    August 12, 2010

    Oops, a little googling and actually it wasn’t Siemens that provided the original 250 km/hr rolling stock for the AVE.

    Rather, Siemens and Talgo each got part of the madrid-barcelona contract for 350 km/hr technology, and Siemens upgraded their ICE trains (which is why they look so similar, I’ve been on the ICE, too).

    I’ve never seen the Madrid-Sevilla line break 250 km/hr (there are speed indicators in each car), but apparently that’s due to the signaling system not having been upgraded when I last rode it (3 years ago?).

    Anyway, would love to see true HSR here in the US.

    Roland:

    High-speed anything at grade (ground-level) is a disaster. Why not elevate it? Why not monorail? There’s a monorail in Seattle that was build way back when the World’s Fair was there. It was designed as modular and movable. So it was built quickly and can be removed and put elsewhere quickly and easily.

    Seattle’s monorail is quite low-tech and not capable of high speed. It runs on rubber car or bus tires (forget which) on that concrete rail (with both vertical and horizontal wheels to keep it on the rail).

    And, most of western Europe, even quaint old England, now has some form of HSR on the ground, and they’ve yet to notice a disaster …

  9. #9 Liz Borkowski
    August 12, 2010

    Spain definitely has the best acronym for its system – and the trains sound wonderful. The Philadelphia Inquirer just featured them in a story about whether European-style rail travel could spread to the US.
    http://bit.ly/aQJl3b

    HSR would be wonderful to see, but I don’t foresee us building new HSR systems all over the country within my lifetime. Significant improvements to existing passenger rail lines are more probable – and something we should pursue, of course – and that’s where the conflict with freight rail will really become an issue.

  10. #10 DuWayne
    August 13, 2010

    Eric Juve –

    I would rather see high speed between Portland and Seattle first. Running it down to Eugene wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The I5 corridor between Portland and Seattle gets rather messy sometimes and both Portlanders and Seattle residents are rather keen on public trans.

    Not that it wouldn’t be rather awesome to get high speed into the Bay area, it’s just that there is actually a fair amount of momentum behind at least running a dedicated line between Portland and Seattle. Not to mention it is a lot more feasible in the short term.

    All that, and it would be awesome to sit comfortably and muck about on the internet or get work done, while taking considerably less time and effort to get to Seattle.

    Roland –

    Why would you think HSR on grade would be a disaster? There are a lot of places with HSR on grade, that haven’t had any significant problems. Yes, it is likely that the occasional person will be killed on the line, but as unpleasant as that is, it happens already. In Portland alone, there are a few deaths every year, because people do really stupid things around the trains. But an HSR would actually be somewhat safer, because there would necessarily be fences in more populated areas.

    People would have to make a sincere effort to get themselves killed under the circumstances. Personally, I think there would be far more attraction for such people, to climb elevated tracks, than it would to jump a fence so they can get close to grade level tracks.

    Liz –

    HSR would be wonderful to see, but I don’t foresee us building new HSR systems all over the country within my lifetime.

    While the rather positive part of me really would like to think you’re wrong, the cynical bits rather win out. But I will definitely continue to be pissed off about it, as it is so obvious that trains are the way to go. It is what I love about Portland and Oregon in general. They are willing, even when less than able, to throw down serious money on rail projects that ultimately produce only long term benefits.

  11. #11 Liz Borkowski
    August 13, 2010

    DuWayne, I love Portland’s public transportation! I only spent a week there, but got a definite impression that the city really understands the need for good transit. (One thing that stands out in my mind is the train grab poles with three branches, to make it easier for more people to hold on – a small thing, but so helpful!) It sounds like they’re doing a great job making it easier for people to bike, too.

  12. #12 dhogaza
    August 13, 2010

    The I5 corridor between Portland and Seattle gets rather messy sometimes and both Portlanders and Seattle residents are rather keen on public trans.

    Yeah, I should’ve mentioned earlier that even with our talgo trains powered with domestic diesel locomotives limited to a top speed of 80 mph, and the meandering route the train takes along puget sound (rather than the more direct route the freeway takes), it is so difficult to avoid rush hour in either Portland (going across the Columbia on our skinny bridge), or somewhere in the 80 mile stretch which includes olympia, tacoma, and seattle that often the train’s competitive with driving. Even if you can miss all the various rush hours, I’ve rarely driven to seattle without at least one stalled car or fender-bender messing up traffic.

    A modest increase in the current service (up to the trainset’s 100, or 110 or whatever mph limit) would make it very competitive.

    But full-blown HSR would be sweet.

  13. #13 dhogaza
    August 13, 2010

    HSR would be wonderful to see, but I don’t foresee us building new HSR systems all over the country within my lifetime. Significant improvements to existing passenger rail lines are more probable – and something we should pursue, of course – and that’s where the conflict with freight rail will really become an issue.

    I agree.

    Spain has an advantage of having a fairly substantial population (about like California) in an area that’s roughly the same as OR/WA together (IIRC). This is combined with a population pattern similar to the semi-arid west, i.e. concentrated in urban areas with a lot of empty space in between (I’m sure this reduces right-of-way acquisition costs), and a central plain that must make building railroads cheaper, too. The northeastern US is the obvious place to concentrate on HSR due to population density, but you have a lot of people spread out in small towns with subdivided old farms in between with an acre or five per lot. While the semi-arid west and mid-west is HUGE compared to spain, so even with the lower land acquisition costs (or right-of-way over say BLM land), distances are big making costs higher and the competitive advantage over air travel less.

    Just my $0.02C.

    And, yes, people here in PDX do seem to “get” mass transit. Just put another light rail line into service last fall, and a new tramline is under construction on the east side of the Willamette River. Business gets it, too, not only is there a great deal of support for rail in the business community, but they helped fund the extension of light rail to the airport, and our first modern tram (trolley) in the westside center of the city.

  14. #14 dhogaza
    August 13, 2010

    But an HSR would actually be somewhat safer, because there would necessarily be fences in more populated areas.

    And people might be less inclined to think they can beat a train moving 168 mph than light rail going 25 mph in downtown Gresham!

    In spain and germany, at least, HSR connects with existing rail yards and stations, and the existing right-of-ways into them are already a lot better protected than light rail in the suburbs (in PDX at least).

  15. #15 OSHA Training
    May 26, 2011

    I think i cant see any reason the high speed rail passenger projects mention any effect on Freighted. These projects are involve building devoted passenger rails service