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American railways
July 31, 2010 7:49 AM   Subscribe

High-speed railroading
America's system of rail freight is the world's best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it

NB: could; I would think that with proper implementation both passengers and freight should be able to peacefully coexist (despite the objections of big R.R. ;) that is all!
posted by kliuless (81 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read this article a few days ago - thanks for posting it. To sum up, unless new track is laid down, adding high-speed passenger service to existing rail networks in North America will wreak havoc on freight railways. Freight railways remove heavy trucks from the road, which reduces congestion and GHG emissions.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:59 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but we could move a ton of the traffic on our highways and freight railroads to the waterways if we'd get rid of some of the stupid protectionist regulation: Washington Monthly article.
posted by sachinag at 8:04 AM on July 31, 2010


Their owners worry that the 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.

this is the same old horseshit from same cast of characters...

rail worker fatalities are on the rise:

http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/rwu150610.html
Among service-providing industries, workers in the transportation and warehousing sector incurred 762 fatalities, a 14 percent decrease. Truck transportation, the largest subsector in transportation
and warehousing, had a 20 percent decrease in fatalities in 2008. Among other transportation sectors, workers in air and water transportation industries incurred fewer fatalities in 2008, but the number of fatal work injuries in rail transportation increased.
Read more: http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2009/08/20/103185.htm#ixzz0vGzzOk9S

or how about fun train derailments:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weyauwega,_Wisconsin_derailment

because god knows, after what happened to bp in the gulf, we know the cost of government regulation is far too high.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Railways, waterways, highways? Pshaw. Only segways will save us.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2010


High speed passenger rail is a nice idea, but I think a good first step might be bringing back more of our defunct slow passenger rail system. Everywhere you go in this country, every small town and many older suburbs, has an old railway station... but no rail service. There are rail lines all over the place. I'd love to see public dollars spent bringing the rail lines and stations back in service and have cute little two- and three-car passenger trains start reconnecting small and medium towns and cities.

There are definitely corridors that are crying out for high speed rail, but even the most basic of interurban passenger service is missing in most places. The sad thing is that it used to be there, a hundred years ago, but was allowed to lapse over the intervening decades.
posted by Forktine at 8:16 AM on July 31, 2010 [15 favorites]


we can remove all controls and "stupid protectionist regulation" and just let the industry regulate itself, right? that seems to have worked great in the past.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:18 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


As someone who has spent HOURS on the Coast Starlight sitting still on a track in the middle of absolutely nowhere because Union Pacific owns the track and so AMTRAK has to play by their schedule, I take a different view of this. One of the main reasons that AMTRAK gets to vilified is their inability to keep to a schedule (at least on the west coast) and the main reason this happens is Union Pacific's priority to run its frieght first.
posted by Danf at 8:20 AM on July 31, 2010 [17 favorites]


I trust Lyle Lanley on this
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:29 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Duh, people.

Freight zeppelins are the future.
posted by notyou at 8:33 AM on July 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


we can remove all controls and "stupid protectionist regulation" and just let the industry regulate itself, right? that seems to have worked great in the past.

Here's to you, Mrs. Palsgraf, Cardozo loathes you
more than you will know.

Wo, wo, wo.

Here's to you, Mrs. Palsgraf, in New York
the railroads never pay.

Hey, hey, hey? Hey hey hey.

--from The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Danf: This happens everywhere since Amtrak doesn't own the tracks.
posted by schyler523 at 8:44 AM on July 31, 2010


Railroads were de-regulated in 1980. Prior to de-regulation, railroads had to offer money-losing passenger services, dealt with heavy taxation, and paid for their own infrastructure. It destroyed the American railroad, as explained in "The Lost Promise of the American Railroad" (1994).
posted by stbalbach at 8:48 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Forgive the derail, but-

Moving freight to waterways would have a serious environmental downside that is not mentioned in that Washington Monthly article. Countless aquatic plants and animals would be introduced into every watershed that the canals would pass through, and the controls for these kinds of hitchhikers would most likely be cost prohibitive for the industry.

We've already seen this happen with the zebra mussel and lamprey and are currently dealing with round gobies and fishhook fleas. Upcoming disasters could be Asian carp and Northern snakehead. Each of these invasive species has altered inland aquatic ecosystems in no small way. The economic costs are no small matter either: federal/state control programs, reduced utility of recreational areas, reduced sport fishing revenues, waterfowl die-offs from botulism, maintenance and refitting of municipal water systems just to name a few. Increased inland waterway traffic is no panacea. It seems that every cheap solution for industry tends to pass along the costs to the public at large in some way or another.

I'm not aware of similar environmental impacts coming from rail transport.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:49 AM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


US DOT Federal Railroad Administration Environmental Impact Assessments
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:59 AM on July 31, 2010


...and the freight EIA page.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:04 AM on July 31, 2010


expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without

Yes, it's too bad our technology isn't up to creating a machine that could do scheduling automatically. You know, something that could keep track of where all the trains are and how fast they are going and report to all the trains that they should adjust what they are doing to optimize everyone's schedule. You might even be able to make such a machine aware of accidents and faults so that it could route the other traffic around. You could almost imagine the human operators sitting back and mostly watching the machine do their jobs. It's really too bad nothing like that exists.
posted by localroger at 9:11 AM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


I didn't mean to imply that railroads were free of environmental impacts, just that I wasn't aware of them causing rampant exotic species introductions into novel habitats. I'm sure that there are examples of this, but I just don't know of any.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:15 AM on July 31, 2010


Once we had the willpower as a society to look at a problem like this and say, "We can build that." New track where necessary, condemnation where equitable, elevated dedicated lines (as in Japan) where it's not. If we believe we can't build new things, and can only endlessly scavenge our own golden age, then that's exactly what we'll be limited to doing.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:23 AM on July 31, 2010 [12 favorites]


And here's one: Contributions to the Synanthropic (Adventive) Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:25 AM on July 31, 2010


Perhaps the most egregious environmental harms resulting from railroad expansion were of a different nature and, having occurred in the past, now seem a part of the landscape....
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:25 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Railroads are overrated for human transportation. The cost per passenger mile doesn't reach the rates of small cars unless the trains are packed full. I suppose nobody imagines riding one of those trains when they vote for the massive waste. I too used to assume that railroads were the way to proceed, until I read more about it from people commissioned to study it. It smells like a political plum to me. On a more abstract level, it strikes me as permanently extending our worst method of urban planning.
posted by Brian B. at 9:27 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


i love a good trainwreck as much as the next guy, but why does government oversight and safety regulation have to translate into "under attack"? this is a term, by the way, recently used by coal mining and oil companies as their methods have come under scrutiny.
posted by kitchenrat at 9:54 AM on July 31, 2010


"The cost per passenger mile doesn't reach the rates of small cars unless the trains are packed full."

Doesn't that assume that the price of gas remains low? As gas prices continue to rise, we will quickly get to the point where the per-passenger cost of high speed rail is lower than cars. And that doesn't even take into account the additional benefits of rail travel over cars like faster travel time and the ability to do something else during the trip.
posted by crawl at 9:57 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


"The cost per passenger mile doesn't reach the rates of small cars unless the trains are packed full."

Do you have a source for this? As stated, it's not even clear what you're claiming — the cost per passenger-mile of moving 100 people 100 miles in 100 cars is going to be very different than the cost of moving the same people in 25 cars.
posted by enn at 10:14 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Buster Keaton in The RailRodder Enjoy. [sic]
posted by neuron at 10:30 AM on July 31, 2010


Doesn't that assume that the price of gas remains low? As gas prices continue to rise, we will quickly get to the point where the per-passenger cost of high speed rail is lower than cars.

It offends me that there are numerous "short carriers" and independent companies (read: 'Chinese buses') running up and down the East Coast from Boston to DC. Each of those bus companies transports people from city to city by petroleum on what would usually be rail service in Europe. Many of those carriers are substandard, while others like Bolt, are simply rebranded Greyhounds, with wireless internet access.

The trains should be getting gasoline burning vehicles off the road and diminish CO2 emissions in the air. Restoration of the nation's railways ought to be part of someone's Green Energy proposal or Economic Development plan. Europe is 30 years ahead of us on this.

Who cares if the railways need to be subsidized? They should make a net cut to the amount of gasoline we consume in this country.
posted by vhsiv at 10:31 AM on July 31, 2010


I ride Amtrak a few times a year from Chicago to MI and there is nothing more frustrating than sitting on the track for an hour watching many freight trains plod past because the railroad companies own the right away. I really wish there was passenger only railways that allowed for consistent 100-200+ MPH speeds, but after reading this article and the reader comments, there is a lot of road blocks that are preventing that from becoming a reality in the near future. It is sad since my Amtrak rides are always packed, so it seems like the demand for passenger rail services is growing.
posted by jdoss at 10:38 AM on July 31, 2010


The cost per passenger mile doesn't reach the rates of small cars unless the trains are packed full.

Cite please? And cost to whom? In the current U.S. case, highways and gasoline and auto manufacturers are subsidized everywhere and my metropolitan area of 1.7 million people has absolutely no passenger rail service.

I have just returned from France, where train travel is cheap and easy and travelling by car seems ludicrous. It's not magic: if our policymakers focused support on laying rail and making trains instead of making my Chevy cheap to buy and run; if they zoned for dense populations and mixed use instead of endless huge-lot suburban residential only wastelands, then the trains would be full.

It's not some iron law of the market that our transportation system works in the way that it does in the US-subsidies and incentives and zoning dictate those terms. Right now they dictate that Americans drive everywhere, so that's what we do.
posted by Kwine at 10:43 AM on July 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


One thing that doesn't seem apparent is what happens at destinations. Consider, if you will, someplace like NY, Chicago, Atlanta or LA, which sees a whole lot of people going through an airport on an average day. Now - consider how many trains a day would be needed to get these folks where they're going, to their various destinations. You'll need a mix of short haul (less than 400 miles) and long haul (cross country) - because if you want high-speed you're not going to want to stop every 20 miles for some town of only 25,000 - that'll cut your average considerably.

Chicago averages 55,000 people a day through their airport, Atlanta 77,000 - that's an AVERAGE. Peak times would be roughly double or triple that. You need infrastructure to handle passengers, and parking for them. Figure Atlanta would need to handle 200 trains in and out a day to various destinations - you're going to need tracks and marshalling yards (assuming a turnaround time of three hours a train, which doesn't seem unreasonable to me) for about 25 trains at a time, round the clock. Figure 30, just to be on the safe side.

That's a worst case, of course - most town and cities will only have one rail line running through them, from a hub like Chicago, Las Vegas, LA, San Diego, Seattle, and the like. You take a look at the route map for AmTrak, and you get a good idea of what the high-speed rail network would look like - but don't forget all the feeder lines you'd need to get every city and town connected. To get people to USE them, they're going to need to be easy to get to (every little podunk town getting a working train station again), and convenient - and that translates into high frequency of departures and low cost per trip.

(For example, even a podunk town like Yakima, WA has three flights a day to Seattle. Right now, most towns served by AmTrak outside the NE corridor are doing good to get two stops a day - one in each direction. THAT isn't convenient.)

Also - figure that you're going to need some sort of transportation when you GET where you're going. Car rental, anyone?

Can it be done? Sure. Can it be done in a cost efficient manner? No. Can it be done without massive government subsidies? YGBSM - cause it can't. And at this point, we're so broke we can't even pay attention, much less subsidize a complete rebuilding of the rail infrastructure.

Air travel needs a departure point and a destination. It doesn't need an expensive line between the two, and it's much more flexible than a rail network. I like train travel - but it's simply not cost effective to switch back.
posted by JB71 at 10:45 AM on July 31, 2010


"The cost per passenger mile doesn't reach the rates of small cars unless the trains are packed full."

Doesn't that assume that the price of gas remains low? As gas prices continue to rise, we will quickly get to the point where the per-passenger cost of high speed rail is lower than cars.


Um. The cost per mile for trains is dependent on the cost of fuel, too. Reports in the UK fairly recently showed that trains were not only less cost effective per person (even when full) than cars, but also less cost effective than planes between comparable destinations. That's pretty bad.

Now, I imagine the rail in the US is better managed than the UK (how could it not), but it's not as cut and dried that trains are cheaper than cars as much as it is touted that it is. Dropping in congestion, yes, but you simply can't start making comparisons between cars and trains (providing the train is full) unless the trains are always full, and don't run at all when not full. Clearly that would make trains pretty useless straight away.

You know, something that could keep track of where all the trains are and how fast they are going and report to all the trains that they should adjust what they are doing to optimize everyone's schedule.

Any transportation system that I couldn't affect that had a flexible schedule would be less useful to me than one that had a less convenient but rigid schedule. I truly can't see any way a train (or anything carrying more than 6 people, more likely) could change it's schedule in a way that would benefit even a majority of passengers. How could it possibly know what connections or time constraints people have on it?

Much as I really wanted trains to progress as fast as cars have and get more efficient, they've basically failed. I really think that the future for cheap, congestion removing traffic is some sort of electronic system that 'hooks' vehicles up figuratively (or even mechanically) and allows them to travel on highways or dedicated lanes as trains do anyway - 10 (or more) cars can hook together and share power (reducing drag and fuel consumption enormously as a result) an stay together in groups determined by GPS style destinations. You programme your destination in as you would now, and so the car would know your exit number and you could hook up with the group that is going as near as possible to your exit. Kind of like an express lane system, but with more specific destinations. Once you hit the freeway, your car goes into 'automatic' with the other cars in your group and you get deposited at a safe location at the exit (in case you fell asleep).

Any car reporting no mechanical faults could join, and speeds up to 80 mph would be safe as long as some sort of fail safe was available for stopping. If all the cars in the lane or express area of the highway were controlled, there'd be no surprises for the system anyway, so the hideous congestion causing stop-start effect would be completely eradicated.

Long time coming, I think, but it's the only solution that is at all realistic. Basically, it'd be a train, but with your own personal carriage.
posted by Brockles at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2010


I think a good first step might be bringing back more of our defunct slow passenger rail system.

There's some merit in this, but it's worth remembering that alternatives to automobiles tend to be most adopted where they're more convenient in some way. Part of the reason people don't take the train is that it's often not price and speed-competitive.
posted by weston at 10:56 AM on July 31, 2010


I don't understand why high-speed rail would have to use freight tracks. This is not how it works here in France. The TGV has its own dedicated tracks (which is also one reason it has such an excellent safety record, in addition to its design). They're called LGV, lignes à grande vitesse ("high-speed railway tracks") and as that wiki article points out, "LGVs are reserved primarily for TGVs. One reason for this is that capacity is sharply reduced when trains of differing speeds are mixed. Passing freight and passenger trains also constitute a safety risk, as cargo on freight cars can be destabilised by the air turbulence caused by the TGV."

I also don't understand the cost problems. I pay 6 euros to go from Cannes to Nice, a 30km/19-mile trip on a regular train. It takes 20 minutes if I take one that doesn't stop at all the stations, 40 minutes if it does. A trip from Marseille to Lyon (320km/200 miles) on the TGV costs between 37 and 50 euros (depending on day of week and time of day) and takes 1h40min. Keep in mind they had to lay that LGV track. Recently, département governments here finally agreed on the route to use for a new LGV to link Marseille and NIce, which means that in a few years, you'll be able to make a TGV trip from Nice-Marseille-Lyon-Paris-London, for instance: 1,030km/630 miles. In about 7 hours total. (1h plus 1h40 plus 2h plus another 2h.)
posted by fraula at 11:02 AM on July 31, 2010


Cite please?

http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-ot-rail%26fwy98.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation#US_Passenger_transportation

The bottom line here when comparing other nations with the US is the lack of relative ability to park cars in some places, such as Japan. Also note in the last link is a claim by a US researcher that Japan's train efficiency apparently did not factor in transmission line loss. (In America, that's probably wasted coal energy.)

And if commuting is a problem to solve, then eliminating the need for it is fair game too.
posted by Brian B. at 11:02 AM on July 31, 2010


Part of the reason people don't take the train is that it's often not price and speed-competitive.

Though the $20 trips to NYC are supposed to be competitive. Each cheap bus ticket sold on the East Coast is a loss to Amtrak and a loss to the Federal Highway system that supports the buses. And that doesn't include the 'foreign oil' calculus -- the money that will be leaving this country without hopes of ever returning.
posted by vhsiv at 11:09 AM on July 31, 2010


Another idea to consider in energy discussions is that we need to avoid adding to our peak loads of electric power. Any electric solution must take advantage of night rates for energy, which goes unused. This is load balancing. Plug-in hybrid cars actually do this well because they charge at night. Cooling systems that freeze ice at night do this well because they freeze at night. These are the reasons we could use them in the energy balance, because we don't need to build any new plants to supply their energy needs.
posted by Brian B. at 11:10 AM on July 31, 2010


I was reading this article just yesterday actually on a train (in Europe) and was thinking about this "concern" by freight trains... how much of it is the same panicky protectionism that may end up ensuring that high speed passenger transportation never takes off? Shades of Dagny Taggart's nightmare...
posted by infini at 11:11 AM on July 31, 2010


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation#US_Passenger_transportation

This doesn't say what you said it does:

Rail (Intercity Amtrak)
Passengers per vehicle: 20.5
BTUs per passenger-mile: 2,650

Cars
Passengers per vehicle: 1.57
BTUs per passenger-mile: 3,512

And 20.5 passengers per railcar is nowhere near full. While Amtrak has a number of types of cars the typical Amfleet coach car has 84 seats.
posted by enn at 11:13 AM on July 31, 2010


This doesn't say what you said it does:

I say it does:

Vanpool 6.1 1,322 0.867
Efficient Hybrid 1.57 1,659 1.088
Motorcycles 1.2 1,855 1.216
Rail (Commuter) 31.3 2,996 1.964


Efficient Hybrid = a car. Buses only have 8-9 passengers listed. These and van pools are enough to defeat an expensive proposition for trains, and anyone is free to imagine a car, van or bus going straight to a work location. They all use existing infrastructure.

From my other link:

These data should lay to rest any claim that light rail, commuter rail, or even most heavy rail lines are anywhere near as productive as freeways... Few if any rail transit projects of the last decades or any proposed today meet these criteria.

Note that heavy rail NOW uses the new rail car for double-carrying truck shipping containers and therefore is now more efficient.
posted by Brian B. at 11:25 AM on July 31, 2010


I go between Minneapolis and Chicago (400 miles) a lot. This is one of the proposed high speed rail routes. Four hundred miles is an interesting distance because it's just about the longest distance over which 110 mph train could outrun a 400 mph airplane, once you penalize the airplane 3 hours for security, boarding, and getting out of the airport on the other end.

Unfortunately, it's very hard for a train to compete at this distance. A plane flight between these cities costs around $90 each way, but similar-distance high speed trains cost over $100 each way in the Northeast. Driving takes around 7 hours, costs about $40 in fuel, and has the advantages of flexible timing, free extra passengers, and having your car at your destination.

My idea for transit over this distance is a lot more low tech: high speed buses. Vehicle speed on the interstate between Minneapolis and Chicago is already approaching 80 mph, but of course current bus service barely averages 50. With no stops and access to HOV lanes in Chicago, you could do city center to city center in 5 hours. You could buy fancy buses with big engines, driver assist radar, and flashing lights, build bus lanes at a few of the choke points along the route, and switch bus drivers in the middle so there's no need for a break, and do it all for maybe $60 round trip. Some people say I'm a dreamer....
posted by miyabo at 11:39 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't have a horse in this race, I just note that when we took the VIA train to Montreal for holiday, it was smooth, comfortable, had outlets, (and now includes WiFi), outpaced the traffic on the highway next to us, took us from our smallish downtown through a change it Toronto to a short walk from our hotel, ... and we could hold conversation, walk around the car, have lunch, read and not be nauseated, deafened by whining engines or have our ears pop. It took maybe seven hours but it was like seven hours just kicking back at home and doing whatever. I worked on some code, played video games, read a book. It was a really pleasant experience compared to the alternatives for that particular trip.

I like trains, and I think they're cool in that they can come right downtown where people and destinations are, rather than the extra transfers that air travel incurs.

It's tougher in the US because there aren't so many convenient corridors hooking up 90% of the population; although there are a few and I've heard they are fairly well served.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:44 AM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's tougher in the US because there aren't so many convenient corridors hooking up 90% of the population; although there are a few and I've heard they are fairly well served.

Not. Because trains in the United States used to travel from city-center to City-center. Pretty much the way outmoded Amtrak runs today.

(Clue: Amtrak still uses most of the old Union Railroad stations.The technology has gotten less efficient, but the stations remain the same.)
posted by vhsiv at 12:05 PM on July 31, 2010


There's some good discussion of this article at The Transport Politic.

This is also a good place to link William Lind's piece in The American Conservative that gives a conservative perspective on transit versus highways. (It's not what you think.)
posted by parudox at 12:06 PM on July 31, 2010


Where are all the MeFi DFW fans? Trebuchets, man, really big trebuchets. That's what we need.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:28 PM on July 31, 2010


seanmpuckett, you were lucky. The last time I took VIA was from Toronto to Ottawa and we were stuck on the track at a dead stop for THREE HOURS while waiting for a freight train to pass. Because in Canada as in the US, the freight carriers own the tracks and make the rules.

Your last line about "it's tougher in the US" just galls. Makes me very angry. You're actually implying based on a trip covering a minuscule part of Canada, and had as I say a lucky trip, that we somehow have it good WRT train travel in this country. WE DO NOT. I live in the largest city in the world without scheduled, intercity rail: Calgary. No VIA. No hope for VIA. Yes you can take a $6000 trip on the Rocky Mountaineer to Vancouver but that does not count. We have superb and expanding LRT service here, in the city proper, with talk of regional rail and the pipe dream of a high-speed train between Calgary and Edmonton, but that's far in the future. If you want to travel from Calgary, you drive, fly or take a Greyhound.

Windsor-Montreal might be the only corridor that MATTERS in this fucking country but it's not the only one that EXISTS, and for the rest of us, train service in Canada is a cruel, cruel joke.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 12:32 PM on July 31, 2010


stbalbach wrote: "Prior to de-regulation, railroads had to offer money-losing passenger services, dealt with heavy taxation, and paid for their own infrastructure."

Um, passenger rail got spun off several years before deregulation hit, and the railroads had been allowed to can an awful lot of passenger service prior to that. Deregulation did end up allowing them to pull up thousands of miles of rail and cease servicing thousands upon thousands of customers, though.

There are a lot of places in this country that not only lost rail service but lost the rails and the track beds and the right of way that would make it possible to have rail service in the future without negotiating with every individual landowner along the route who now owns the land the tracks used to occupy.

Rails to trails helped a little, but it was too late for a lot of places.
posted by wierdo at 12:40 PM on July 31, 2010


I live in the largest city in the world without scheduled, intercity rail: Calgary.

Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Nashville, and Louisville are all larger than Calgary.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:51 PM on July 31, 2010


Once we had the willpower as a society to look at a problem like this and say, "We can build that." New track where necessary, condemnation where equitable, elevated dedicated lines (as in Japan) where it's not.

The thing about new high-speed rail service in Japan (specifically rural Tohoku and Kyushu) is that it means regular-speed inter-city express passenger services are being phased out on the old trunk lines. Passenger service has traditionally subsidized the cost of maintaining these older trunk lines, so paradoxically there is less freight service because of the new high-speed bullet-train routes.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2010


This happens everywhere since Amtrak doesn't own the tracks.

Amtrak owns much of the Northeast Corridor, but it's true that it doesn't own much track overall.

A plane flight between these cities costs around $90 each way, but similar-distance high speed trains cost over $100 each way in the Northeast.

Even though the Federal Government owns Amtrak, that $90 cost is subsidized far more than the $100 Amtrak ticket. So, while it maybe costing you $90, the true cost is far higher than you're actually paying. More on transportation subsidies.
posted by drezdn at 1:57 PM on July 31, 2010


Relative to the Amtrak discussion: this part of their website was truly eye-opening for me. I had so much rage for Amtrak, now I have so much rage for CSX corporation. And laws that make it cheaper to pay fines than to follow the law.
posted by tmcw at 2:21 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


ethnomethodologist, I know I'm pretty fortunate to be living on the axis. I also know that some VIA adventures suck. My train got stopped for like an hour while there was a freight derailment. It wasn't a big deal; three hours would have been worse especially if there wasn't anything to drink. But, for me sitting in a train on the ground is better than circling an airport, or sitting crushed in a sardine can on the tarmac.

That's the big problem with trains. They need tracks. And tracks need maintenance, and track maintenance isn't cheap. (They're going to put light rail here in KW and I'm against the idea. I'd rather they take that billion dollars and upgrade our bus fleet and drop the bus fare so more people would use the transit we already have.)

Actually a bus train would be cool. Like some of those double-humper freight trucks that cross the prairies only with passengers: better and more seating, still just one driver. And it could use the highways.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:22 PM on July 31, 2010


Actually a bus train would be cool.

I wonder if the left lane of a freeway couldn't be turned into a half-track system. The left-most portion of the road could have a single rail along it, for the left side wheels of a hybrid train-bus. The point being to supply electricity overhead, in line with the track below. No cars would ever need to cross it, but could drive on the same pathway at higher speeds.
posted by Brian B. at 2:42 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why high-speed rail would have to use freight tracks.

because the freight tracks are already there and the battles over land acquisition, road crossings (or closings), etc. etc. would be huge - especially when the people in more rural areas aren't going to really see any benefit from it
posted by pyramid termite at 3:53 PM on July 31, 2010


I actually just got back from a ride on the California Zephyr from Chicago to (roughly) Sacramento. It's a beautiful ride. I like the trains because I can get a lot of work done in transit, which I can't do on a shaky bus, and I also get to avoid the airports. Trains have the advantage of travelling city-center to city-center; while ostensibly faster, air transit involves a few extra hours in the airport, and a couple hours transit to places far outside of city limits. Overall, I think the TGV from (say) Paris to Lyon is much faster than the airplane (and one needn't go anywhere near CDG).

A few (mainly unresearched) thoughts on fuel economy:

* - High speed rail fuel economy is greatly impacted by the speed of the train. Air resistance increases proportional to the square of the velocity of the train relative to the wind. Aerodynamic cars reduce the coefficient of proportionality, but fuel use still increases sharply with increased speeds.

* - That said, new-generation electric trains recover a great deal of energy from regenerative braking, and have some pretty cool efficiency gains. If you want to compare trains and cars, make sure you compare things of equal generation; otherwise you're just being disingenuous!

* - Price is, as has been discussed, not an accurate measure of efficiency, because of the massive and unequal subsidies to the various transportation modes. In fact, it's well known that transporting people loses money - government subsidies make sense because the transportation of people and goods is necessary to the functioning of the economy. Subsidies are distributed according to the values of the government. In the US, this means we get cheap air transit (because richer people should be able to travel far and fast) and cheap road transit (because of the car culture); a realignment of the national priorities towards environmental preservation would almost certainly realign these spending priorities.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:55 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Where are all the MeFi DFW fans? Trebuchets, man, really big trebuchets. That's what we need.

We're also Canadian. Don't even think about it. You know what we're capable of...
posted by mek at 3:55 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why high-speed rail would have to use freight tracks.

They can't. Period. The tracks cannot handle the speed. Most trackage in the US is Class 4, which means you run freights at 60mph and passengers at 80mph.

The owners of that track are not, period, not going to upgrade that track to Class 7 or 8, unless the owner is Amtrak, who has, well, made great strides in doing just that.

Alas, they own very little track.

However:

1) Put on your Economist filters, kids. The real reason for this article is "This will either cost business money or raise taxes, both of which are EVIL AND BAD." Always read The Economist understanding that the editors believe that Regulation and Taxes are up there with Date Rape in acceptability.

2) Best Freight System ever? Every year, the tracks get slower and more are closed because the freight companies won't maintain them. Costs are climbing fast, and that's the reason there are so many trucks on the road today. It's not high speed rail ruining the frieght lines -- it's the freight operators.

3) There is no way to do high speed rail without public subsidy. This makes perfect sense -- do you really think any company would have built the Interstates? A rational, market based actor will never build such -- the initial capital cost is staggering, the time to payoff is too long -- and the benefit to the builder is shared with all, so they get no real gain out of the investment.

This is why pure free market systems fail badly. There are some things that need to be operated on motives other than profit. Transportation Infrastructure is possibly the most important one (though arguably Health Care is right there as well.)

A good transportation system is a huge benefit to a free market actor, even though no free market actor will ever build such. So we make all free market actors build it by taxing them and building it, and they all benefit. Unless, and until, the US understands that again , we will continue to watch the road and rail infrastructure decay, and costs to all of us will increase.

This is why true high speed rail in the US won't happen, well, I don't think ever. It needs an investment on the order of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- and Americans would rather have a tax cut.
posted by eriko at 4:55 PM on July 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


one more etc."Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Nashville, and Louisville are all larger than Calgary."

Well, two out of five ain't bad.
posted by sneebler at 5:45 PM on July 31, 2010


Chicago averages 55,000 people a day through their airport, Atlanta 77,000 - that's an AVERAGE.

These are two of the busiest airports in the world. Compare this with the busiest railway stations in the world. Shinjuku, Tokyo 3.64 million people per day, Gare du Nord, Paris, 1/2 million people per day, London Waterloo, 275k people a day.


assuming a turnaround time of three hours a train


I'm having difficulty finding up-to-date figures, but this article from 2008 talks about making improvements on an existing 20 min window from disembarking to boarding, which implies a total turnaround time of 30-45min in the UK for InterCity trains. Short hauls have a much shorter turnaround.

The point is that all of this is achievable, but only with public acceptance and subsidy. The issue in the US is that most people do not appreciate the extent of the subsidy that has been, and continues to be, extended to the motorist. Without that appreciation, the idea of spending the billions necessary to make efficient public transport a reality looks like madness. It's not, if you realise what you're already spending to make it easier for people to get around.
posted by Jakey at 5:54 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sympathetic to high speed passenger trains, or passenger trains in general, but jesus we need MORE of our freight on rails and the last thing we need to do is put it back on the highway. So any solution to passenger rail has to accommodate current freight and more to be viable.
posted by maxwelton at 6:10 PM on July 31, 2010


Chicago averages 55,000 people a day through their airport, Atlanta 77,000 - that's an AVERAGE.

Errr, last year, ORD had 64,397,782 pax. Dividing by 365 days, that's an average of ~176,000 a day, not 55K. That's down from 2008 (Yay, Economy!) where the average was ~192,000 a day. ATL in 2009 had 88M pax, 241K a day.

So, an order of magnitude more passengers per day -- but still minor league compared to European train stations.

Chicago Union Station? 54K per day, 8K of which is Amtrak. Or, if you will, to show you how fucking sad Intercity Rail is in the US, one of the busiest intercity stations on Amtrak's network gets less passengers per year than Shinjuku gets in a day

And Jakey mentions London Waterloo? Don't forget Victoria -- 215K per day, Liverpool Street, 153K per day, London Bridge, 137K per day, Kings Cross/St. Pancras, 110K per day, Charing Cross, 102K per day, Paddington, 89K per day, Euston, 85K per day. Not to mention Fenchurch Street, Blackfriars, Old Street Station -- and others.

Those stations are moving 1.1 million people a day -- count the others, and it's probably 1.3 million a day.
posted by eriko at 6:41 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


This makes perfect sense -- do you really think any company would have built the Interstates? A rational, market based actor will never build such -- the initial capital cost is staggering, the time to payoff is too long -- and the benefit to the builder is shared with all, so they get no real gain out of the investment.

In a truly free market? Sure.* The free market used to build plenty of transportation infrastructure. The big railroads, all the streetcar lines, interurbans, etc. - were all private enterprise. Privately-built railroads criss-crossed North America and made a lot of railroad men rich.

But governments got into the market, and invested taxpayer money into transportation infrastructure -- that of roads and highways. Sometimes streetcar companies were taxed to fund the construction of roads. In the U.S., the pinnacle of this was the enormous federal expenditure in the interstate highway system.

Of course it doesn't make sense right now for the free market to build transportation infrastructure: it would be competing with roads and highways that have been paid for by governments, and which (unfortunately) continue to generally be free to the user.

*Actually, I have my doubts that private enterprise would ever have built something quite as wasteful of infrastructure and expensive as our modern highway system. But high-speed rail - sure.
posted by parudox at 7:07 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do think the California High Speed Rail project could be an enormous success, if they ever get it built. It goes downtown to downtown, and both SF and LA have good transit connections (or taxis and pick-ups if you prefer). Travel time is comparable to flying, but with much less hassle, and this on a route that sees tens of millions of passengers a year. It connects up the medium-sized cities in the central valley in a way that they've never been-- sure, you can fly to them, but rail would be both faster (since less time is spent on all the extras like boarding and security and making your way through the terminal) and a lot cheaper (since current air prices are in the hundreds of dollars).

It is a mostly-new rail line which won't share tracks with freight.

From what I've read, all the comparable projects (Taiwan, Spain, France, etc.) are both popular and do not require continuing subsidies (ie apart from the initial infrastructure).
posted by alexei at 7:27 PM on July 31, 2010


Well, two out of five ain't bad.

What do you mean? Amtrak doesn't serve any of those cities with trains.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:43 PM on July 31, 2010


Brian B.: "From my other link:

These data should lay to rest any claim that light rail, commuter rail, or even most heavy rail lines are anywhere near as productive as freeways... Few if any rail transit projects of the last decades or any proposed today meet these criteria.
"

This seems like a bizarre conclusion to me. It treats light rail and freeways as interchangeable. The local light rail goes down the middle of four-lane residential streets in built-up neighborhoods, and shares space with car traffic besides. We're supposed to conclude that this could be replaced by a freeway, and more cheaply!? Or that subways should have been freeways instead? Leaving aside the fundamental impossibility of routing a freeway where most subways go, where would all the cars go once they'd gotten off? You'd need to build hundreds of thousands of parking spaces, and traffic on local streets would be gridlocked.
posted by alexei at 7:54 PM on July 31, 2010


I've spent almost 30 years driving along midwestern interstates (I-80/39/90/88/94/35) on intercity trips of 300-400 miles each way. It has long been my crank idea that we could put the wide-open interstate medians to use as a high-speed passenger railroad corridor. The guv'mint already owns the land and the interstates generally run directly to city-centers. For the most part (at least here in fly-over country), the interstate right-of-ways are already fairly well-graded and leveled and they're certainly wide enough to hold at least 3 tracks on each side. Think of the possibilities.
posted by webhund at 8:33 PM on July 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


The bottom line here when comparing other nations with the US is the lack of relative ability to park cars in some places, such as Japan.

This is the conscious result of zoning parking minimums. This article provides a decent overview of the downsides. If there has to be two parking spots for every residence (or whatever), then space that could be used for business is taken over by parking. Similarly, if you have to have thirty parking spots before you open your grocery, then there probably isn't space where the people live. Either way, you then have to open your grocery store in a big shopping center surround by a huge lot, and everyone has to (wait for it) drive there. Sound familiar, everywhere-in-America-except-New-York? As it turns out, it's pretty great to walk to your local grocery, to walk to patronize your local businesses. Great for you, for your pocketbook, and for the environment.
posted by Kwine at 11:10 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


parudox wrote: "The free market used to build plenty of transportation infrastructure. The big railroads, all the streetcar lines, interurbans, etc. - were all private enterprise."

Well, other than the massive land grants that Congress (and states) gave away in exchange for building the railroads, sure.

I suppose that argument could be made for streetcars, except that they were bought up and shut down by a private enterprise so that said private enterprise could sell more cars...

What? You thought that there was a time when the government didn't subsidize transportation? Before the railroads there were canals. After railroads it was the highway system, followed shortly by the airports and the air traffic control system and air traffic's associated navigational aids.
posted by wierdo at 12:05 AM on August 1, 2010


I suppose nobody imagines riding one of those trains

I do. I thoroughly enjoy traveling on trains. It's essentially first-class accommodations for the price of a bus ticket. Yes, it takes a bit longer, but the time is always pleasantly spent, especially considering the distilled misery that is air travel, from the moment you enter the airport to the moment you leave it.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:55 AM on August 1, 2010


Atlanta's MARTA uses highway rights-of-way for a few of its lines, but it's light rail and some of those okay-for-cars-and-trucks grades would probably kill the efficiencies of a longer or faster train. (A motor has to be strong enough to pull a train up the steepest slope with the heaviest load fast enough to keep schedule, and the expense of that motor and its concommittal factors rises significantly as that one maximum grade rises. You really want a system-wide grade limit that is as low as possible.)

That said, when we vacationed there, we flew in south of the city and trained to the northern edge and a lot of the time we were zooming along amidst rush-hour traffic that wasn't going anywhere and kind of grinning.

Rails are expensive, track is expensive, derailments are timetable (and passenger) killers, and rights-of-way are astronomically expensive. A diesel-generator powered auto-train that runs on pneumatic tires, without tracks, but with an electronic fail-safe wire-guided steering system on a dedicated, barrier-separated paved lane on the highway system could easily approach 150 kph safely, and it could be very aerodynamic. With many powered wheels on the ground it could accelerate quickly and emergency-stop very quickly. It would need special ramps and a terminal system similar to that used by light rail, but path maintenance would be much cheaper, and routing would be much more flexible as the railless nature of the machine would allow manual steering in junction yards.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:37 AM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


High-speed trains will transform Europe - The Eurostar connected London and Paris, influencing lifestyles and changing both cities. Now, newer and faster lines are set to remake the continent

China Is Eager to Bring High-Speed Rail Expertise to the U.S. - Nearly 150 years after American railroads brought in thousands of Chinese laborers to build rail lines across the West, China is poised once again to play a role in American rail construction. But this time, it would be an entirely different role: supplying the technology, equipment and engineers to build high-speed rail lines.

Subway on the Street - The MTA has a simple, not very expensive ticket for improving how the city gets around: Revolutionize the bus. But can even the most sensible ideas get implemented these days?

Subways on the surface - Curitiba is widely believed to have the finest bus system, if not the finest public transportation system, in the world. More than 1,250 buses of 9 varieties are matched to their specific duties so as to leave fewer empty seats. Two hundred forty-five carefully integrated radial, loop, and connector routes of 12 color-coded kinds, linked by 25 terminals, blanket the entire city and its environs. The buses make 17,300 daily trips on nearly 500 route-miles, covering 230,00 bus-miles per day — a distance of nine times around the world.
posted by kliuless at 6:24 AM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Subway on the Street

BRT- Bus Rapid Transit -- is a killer idea that's hard to implement, because you have to do one of two things.

1) Build a dedicated lane. Costs are on par with building rail line -- because most of the cost is getting the right of way.

2) Remove a lane from traffic.

This means you need to enforce it, and you need to take a lane away at rush hour. This makes BRT unpopular, to say the least, and demands enforcement. Camera enforcement can help, but drivers hate *any* technology that makes it more likely that they'll be caught breaking the law, which means they either pay more or have to follow the law.

There's no faster way to get a transit line in place. But note the keys -- limited stop, pay before boarding, dedicated flow. Buses in general fail as rapid transit because they get the same traffic as cars. Dedicated lanes make it work, but buses still have lights to deal with. Isolated lanes mean that they're almost as efficient as light rail, but not quite as much as large light or heavy rail -- a full NYC MTA A division train can be 600 feet long -- 10 or 11 cars. Capacity per car is 176-188 depending on the type. That's about 1800 pax *per* trainset, which can run every six minutes.

It's really hard to get that throughput with buses -- but running 300 people on large flexi-buses (see the Silver Line uberbuses in Boston) isn't impossible.

They're a damn sight cheaper than subways -- which, while *better*, because you can use right of way that doesn't interfere with any other transport, and you're not constrained to the road grid, are just so staggeringly expensive to build that you need to be on the density level of NYC to even consider it.
posted by eriko at 7:01 AM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


This was done in L.A. recently after the right-of-way was acquired for extension of the commuter rail system west though the San Fernando Valley from the Burbank/Glendale/Pasadena side but funding to construct and maintain the rail line itself proved too difficult. I understand the resulting "bus rail" Orange Line has enjoyed good ridership and positive reviews.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:00 AM on August 1, 2010


OK--reading the history, it appears the inability to build light rail or subway was due to local political squabbles regarding the use of the corridor. So not a direct inability to raise enough funds, but a political restriction of their use.

But anyway, the Orange Line is kinda cool.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2010


Interesting project here in Minnesota. When reconstructing the local north-south freeway (35W), the US DOT investigated the possibility of building a bus lane; it turned out not to be financially viable. They instead gave the state university a grant to add automatic steering, differential GPS, and laser scanners to city buses so they can operate safely at speed in the shoulder, which is almost exactly the same width as a bus. Service is set to begin in the fall.
posted by miyabo at 11:04 AM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Privately-built railroads criss-crossed North America and made a lot of railroad men rich."

Is this true in the US? I know in Canada that CPR was granted huge tracts of land (not only rail right of way but periodic blocks of land for terminals, maintenance, revenue generation etc.) and a partial monopoly to boot.
posted by Mitheral at 3:17 PM on August 1, 2010


I retract my implication that the railroads were built without government funding, as I'm realizing that land grants were quite the subsidy. (Of course, the Mises Institute would have you believe that railroads were built, and built better, without public subsidy.) That said, it seems to me that government support for roads and highways was/is on a much higher scale.
posted by parudox at 5:20 PM on August 1, 2010


A diesel-generator powered auto-train that runs on pneumatic tires, without tracks

We went through a lot of discussion on the matter of commuter trains here, and the upshot of it was that steel wheels on steel rails are a bit more expensive to build, but the operating cost is a lot lower, so they pay off in the end. They're also quieter if you use welded rails.

Mag-lev might be cheaper eventually, but we decided it's not mature enough to gamble with at this point. However, for mountain routes it has an advantage in that it can handle steeper grades.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:25 PM on August 1, 2010


Solution: lay down high-speed rail over the Interstate system.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 8:27 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


parudox wrote: "That said, it seems to me that government support for roads and highways was/is on a much higher scale."

I think it depends on where you draw the line. Are the streets in and near the core of a city a government subsidy of auto transportation? You also need the streets to walk or bike. Certainly six or eight or ten lane highways and billion dollar interchanges are a subsidy to car and truck transportation.

How that compares to the amount of money railroads made from land grants is an interesting one. Many a town was carved out of the granted land, and all the people who bought lots paid the railroad for them, but we have spent an awful lot of money on roads.

Either way, I like having the option of driving on reasonably nice roads. I wish I also had the option of taking a train.
posted by wierdo at 8:34 PM on August 1, 2010


A diesel-generator powered auto-train that runs on pneumatic tires, without tracks

Ah...how is that different from a bus? Please explain!

(and what Havok said above, about deterioration of steel wheels/track, versus the much higher replacement rate for asphalt & rubber)
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:00 AM on August 2, 2010


Indeed, sections of the Orange Line I mentioned are being closed this year for re-paving.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:39 AM on August 2, 2010


Mag-lev might be cheaper eventually, but we decided it's not mature enough to gamble with at this point. However, for mountain routes it has an advantage in that it can handle steeper grades.

Let's wait and see what kind of tech the Chinese use on that railroad they're supposed to build out West.
posted by vhsiv at 6:30 AM on August 3, 2010


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