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Trains, the future, and the past
November 13, 2010 4:08 PM   Subscribe

The US government is trying to blow life into the railroad's passenger services which have been declining since WWII because of production stops during the war, and government sponsoring afterward going primarily to air travel and roads. Meanwhile the French SNCF is going public in catching up with its dark past, in order to get a piece of the investment cake.
posted by Namlit (111 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is great. However, it makes no sense to not have a route from Houston to Dallas. Sure, we dislike one another, but there is so much business that goes on between the two cities that is stupid not to have a direct high speed line.
posted by nimsey lou at 4:18 PM on November 13, 2010


What they need to do is give people A Ticket To Ride. That'd get heaps of LARPers involved in a hot second.
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:21 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


There was a report re: rail on NPR this Friday. Apparently a bunch of the Republicans recently blown into office are opposed to/have publicly stated they will not take the incentive funding when offered, while specifying that they want more money to fix up roads. Fortunately, whatever is not taken is redistributed back into the incentive pool.
posted by griphus at 4:22 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


The linked article is 18 months old. Lots has happened since. Here's something a little more up to date and much more detailed from The Economist.
posted by caek at 4:24 PM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is it: Not So Fast: Future For High-Speed Rail Uncertain.

It's 100% partisan horseshit, if you ask me.
posted by griphus at 4:24 PM on November 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


If I want to take a train from Cleveland to Chicago, I can. Provided I catch the 3:23AM departure.

Seriously, WTF? Is it so difficult to have passenger trains run on times when normal humans are awake?
posted by leotrotsky at 4:30 PM on November 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


Yay trains!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:31 PM on November 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


I've been reading Don Watson's American Journeys, where he travels the US mostly by train, and it's disheartening stuff. Conscious, wilful efforts to make train travel as awful and unwelcoming as it can be.
posted by wilful at 4:39 PM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


We just took the Empire Builder from Minneapolis/St.Paul to Seattle and back. It was an absolute joy and I can't wait to travel by train again. More trains would definitely be a good thing. I'd really like to see more north/south routes mid-country, though. Right now you more or less have to zigzag from Minnesota to Texas.
posted by bristolcat at 4:41 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


All I want is a Chicago-Peoria passenger rail connection. I do not even care if it's fast. And I am enormously bitter that with Ray LaHood, 7 term Peoria congressman, as Sec'y of Transportation, this apparently still will not happen.

God, Caterpillar, can't you throw around your lobbying weight for something USEFUL?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:43 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


However, it makes no sense to not have a route from Houston to Dallas.

I agree. But what is your hypothetical commuter from Dallas to Houston going to ride once he actually gets to Houston? This is a map [.pdf] of the Houston METRO system. At first glance, it looks fairly widespread, but if you look closer, you'll see that there are vast areas of the city, hundreds and hundreds of city blocks, that aren't serviced by public transit. I remembered when I lived there that even poor teenagers would balk at the idea of taking the bus. "That's for homeless people", one of them told me, with a straight face.

Oh, and METRO is already facing bankrupcy over a planned light-rail expansion.

I believe in public transit. I really do. If I lived in Europe I wouldn't own a car. I wouldn't need one. But the problem we face in this country in regards to public transit/commuter rail is a systemic, cultural problem, not a funding problem. The culture has to change before plans like these become feasable.
posted by Avenger at 4:48 PM on November 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Griphus, I nearly chewed my hand off in rage when I heard that report. There was not one single reason to not take the money from a republican governor that made any damn sense whatsoever. I admit I laughed at the part where they were told they already got lots of stimulus money to fix roads and no, this money is for trains.

People like that are on the wrong side of history. As the price of gas continues to incrementally inch up, the days of long roadtrips are numbered. Air travel will continue to get worse, I think, especially once businesses really start to ramp up things like virtual meetings. Trains, especially high speed rail, just make sense.

And yeah, some of this is hope, because I live near Chicago and the thought of three hour train trips to major Midwest cities fills me with glee.
posted by sugarfish at 4:54 PM on November 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


The straight dope looks at high speed rail plans in the midwest.
posted by puny human at 5:00 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Saying it once again for the record: Cities that are continuing to rip out their rail infrastructure are going to regret it in another decade or two.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:01 PM on November 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


The culture has to change before plans like these become feasable.

It has to start somewhere, and the money is much less likely to materialize on the city level first. Make the big rails, and the smaller ones will follow when the cities and counties realize they need to ship around all those people coming in. Even if Houston isn't great on rail, there will always be people needing to get into Houston; might as well facilitate them anyway possible.
posted by griphus at 5:07 PM on November 13, 2010


Cities that are continuing to rip out their rail infrastructure are going to regret it in another decade or two.

Yes, but they won't know exactly what they're regretting, will not remember the decisions they made that give them cause for regret, and will desperately embrace an incoherent narrative that blames the very people who tried to prevent it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:12 PM on November 13, 2010 [26 favorites]


I do not even care if it's fast.

I agree. Sort of.
For long distances, high speed makes a lot of sense. When I was a kid, a trip from Bremen to Munich was an endless rattling and noisy trial. Of course, train buffs are sorrowful because all the old picturesque rolling stock is gone, but on the other hand, now it's a trip of five and a half hours, straight and smooth. And I'm not even talking Japan...

I'm still baffled that it seems to be impossible to get Sweden hooked up to the rest of the world. A trip between Gothenburg and Bremen (ca. 255 miles, or 572 kilometers) takes between nine and fifteen hours, with multiple changes and a train-rolled-on-a-boat section in the middle, and it's usually more expensive than a plane ticket too.
posted by Namlit at 5:17 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd rather have my own train so I could have an excuse to wear a conductor's cap.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:23 PM on November 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


Except for the cost. Using Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's estimate of $50 million a mile, we're talking $17 billion to connect just two major cities plus a few smaller towns en route. It's hard to imagine political support ever materializing for a project on that scale, much less a network of 220 MPH lines connecting Chicago to places like St. Louis or Detroit, where even air traffic is contracting.

We will never need state-to-state high speed passenger train service in America. It's political pork. The image in people's minds of its energy impact is outdated, from the 1970's, when Volkswagens were miserly. It's best case relies on crowded trains to reach relative efficiency, but still less than a compact car with two passengers. If you missed the last two or three train threads, do a search.
posted by Brian B. at 5:28 PM on November 13, 2010


Note: The above quote is from puny human's straight dope link.
posted by Brian B. at 5:30 PM on November 13, 2010


That's a bummer. Why not set up reverse tollbooths? If you can prove you drove from Chicago to St Louis with the same three people in the car, you get $5. Maybe a better way to use all those rail $$.
posted by zvs at 5:41 PM on November 13, 2010


I was mildly excited to hear of the potention high speed rail project between Orlando and Tampa. But the truth is that both these cities are civil engineering failures on a profound level. As a result, the public transport is practically nonexistent. As as someone mentioned, being carless (and probably frugal) will leave you within a pretty small radius of the rail station until you head back home.

Here in Orlando, we only have a bus system and the traffic sucks for all but two hours of daylight on your average weekday. Ergot the bus system sucks and leaves no incentive for "early adopters" and will on average cost the rider more per mile. Efficent public transport relies on efficent urban planning. But we're still building one story McMansions on half acres of land as far as the horizon. Unless this reckless development is curbed, then the Orlampa rail would be a dinosaur before the end of its construction.

I wish this were an anomalous instance of this sort of thing, but my understanding is that it's practically everywhere in the US.
posted by triceryclops at 5:45 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


*potential
posted by triceryclops at 5:58 PM on November 13, 2010


I don't understand why American cities don't just start laying their own rails for high-speed trains. Seattle to Portland, for example, would create a very interesting local benefit for both cities. The land between the cities is cheap. Why not? How much could it really cost?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:17 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is a map [.pdf] of the Houston METRO system. At first glance, it looks fairly widespread, but if you look closer, you'll see that there are vast areas of the city, hundreds and hundreds of city blocks, that aren't serviced by public transit.

Avenger, that is grim. I live in a city with crappy transit, but at least the hourly bus comes past my corner. Comparing that map and Google Earth, I see that someone living in Houston at the corner of Windfern and Breen has a walk of about five miles to get to a bus stop.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:21 PM on November 13, 2010


Apparently a bunch of the Republicans recently blown into office are opposed to/have publicly stated they will not take the incentive funding when offered, while specifying that they want more money to fix up roads.

Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:30 PM on November 13, 2010


There was not one single reason to not take the money from a republican governor that made any damn sense whatsoever.

sugarfish, I believe the missing reason is "the highway lobby." Here is the link to that NPR report. Best quote: "If the new governors do not want the federal funding, [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood says the money will be reallocated to other states that want improved, cleaner and more efficient transportation options and the thousands of jobs the high-speed-rail projects would create." That's right! Send it to California, we'll take it!

The stupid posturing by the new Republican Governors in Wisconsin and Ohio does call into question whether I'll ever get to move back to the midwest. But I bet the governors are far behind their population in support for train construction. Let's see.... yes, between 61-73% of Ohioans support rail, March 2009.
posted by slidell at 6:41 PM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: "I don't understand why American cities don't just start laying their own rails for high-speed trains. Seattle to Portland, for example, would create a very interesting local benefit for both cities. The land between the cities is cheap. Why not? How much could it really cost"

$30mil per mile, according to the article.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:20 PM on November 13, 2010


$30m a mile still seems high- as in, "Where does that money go?!" But, it's ~145 miles from Seattle to Portland; while there's already rail between the cities, even if it was $30m/mile that's $4.3bn to have a high-speed Seattle/Portland corridor, where "high-speed" could mean Seattle->Portland in under an hour for express lines (which blows my mind: my daily commute to the east side for work takes almost an hour with our crappy bus system. This makes me realize how luck people in Europe and Japan are that rail is as developed as it is). I don't know what the value is, what the benefit is to each city- but it's financially feasible.

What makes this not happen is that Seattle at least has no political will or ability to get shit done. Our in-city transportation is still a shitty bus system, since the powers that be killed the in-city monorail even after 4 popular votes kept it alive until the bitter end, by inundating it with bullshit bureaucratic death blows. Years later we still have no good in-city high-speed transit, while those same jackasses in the city, county, and state governments managed to dump $1.7bn into a measly 17 mile airport-to-city line that doesn't seem to have any real value- it's slower than a car to go the same distance- with in-city extensions not coming until halfway through this decade. The idea of Seattle and Portland being organized and decisive enough to lay down a high-speed rail line between the two seems absurd as a political idea.

That same inertia, lack of creativity, and bureaucratic fiefdoms are probably found all over the country, to the same result.

I'm curious- is that $30m/mile figure just to lay completely new line, or is it technologically possible to retrofit existing lines to make them high-speed (150-200mph) capable? What about technologies like Inductrack that might be even more fuel-efficient and thus cheaper to operate at high speeds?
posted by hincandenza at 8:02 PM on November 13, 2010


a measly 17 mile airport-to-city line that doesn't seem to have any real value- it's slower than a car to go the same distance

You know, Central Link is one of the best systems I've rode on in the US. A 17-mile inner city transit line is actually a pretty impressive development, and if you take a ride and look at the thousands of units of new housing in impoverished and underserved neighborhoods, and new riders whose houses just became closer to downtown... you might be more impressed. With an extension to UW not all that far away.

Is the bar for mass transit "faster than a car"? Urban transit doesn't generally make it to the 70 MPH needed to compete with I-5. Europe included. It has to make stops.
posted by zvs at 8:12 PM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


How much revenue do gasoline tax, registration fees, toll roads, safety inspection and smog fees generate? How much money does automobile insurance generate? How much sales tax revenue is generated by automobile sales and leasing? Not to mention the fears by both labor about lost jobs and management of the automobile and highway industries about lost production.

Rail transportation isn't just about the cost benefit of trains. Rail transportation is about castrating entire industries. It doesn't matter if rail transportation saves money and generates revenue in the future. Lobbyists from the future are not filling the campaign coffers of politicians from the present.
posted by Xoebe at 8:17 PM on November 13, 2010


Is the bar for mass transit "faster than a car"?

It sure shouldn't be. Looking to mass transit in an effort to beat your commute time is a very short sighted view. There's a huge difference between riding a bus through traffic and driving a car through traffic. One example: Reading a book.
posted by toekneebullard at 8:31 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm curious- is that $30m/mile figure just to lay completely new line, or is it technologically possible to retrofit existing lines to make them high-speed (150-200mph) capable?

caek's previous link.
posted by Brian B. at 8:34 PM on November 13, 2010


We will never need state-to-state high speed passenger train service in America. It's political pork. The image in people's minds of its energy impact is outdated, from the 1970's, when Volkswagens were miserly. It's best case relies on crowded trains to reach relative efficiency, but still less than a compact car with two passengers. If you missed the last two or three train threads, do a search.
I wouldn't say never, but it feels like a chicken and egg problem. Urban and regional geography help determine what kind of transportation systems are successful, yet transportation systems inherently determine how urban and regional geography develops. Plus entrenched interests like the airline industry, freight rail, and highway construction want their say.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:47 PM on November 13, 2010


Urban and regional geography help determine what kind of transportation systems are successful, yet transportation systems inherently determine how urban and regional geography develops.

A non-whimsical analysis.
posted by Brian B. at 9:07 PM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


We will never need state-to-state high speed passenger train service in America.

Wrong.

That is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read.

Look at the Northeast Corridor. Ridership is so high that service on this line essentially funds all other Amtrak service. The region is growing. Travel within the region is growing. There is no more air capacity in the region for short-haul flights. I-95 would have to add 14 lanes to keep up with growth. Know what takes up less room than 14 lanes of a highway? A railroad.

I'm participating in a seminar on high-speed rail right now in my graduate program. There are some corridors which are questionable in their need, but the northeast corridor absolutely does need high-speed rail.
posted by millipede at 9:17 PM on November 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


Considering the plans for SEA –> PDX are to add a few tracks around heavily-trafficked areas and upgrading tracks where necessary – thereby improving the average speeds and max speeds – we're not talking a whole lot of miles.

However, if the powers that be are recommending a full "true" HSR, that will cost quite a bit more.

But "true" HSR is unnecessary at the moment. What we really need is a moderate speed boost and better, more-frequent departure times to improve perceptions of rail, providing a viable alternative to driving between Vancouver, Seattle and PDX.
posted by Galen at 9:26 PM on November 13, 2010


Wrong.

That is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read.


I'm referring to proposed lines.
posted by Brian B. at 9:39 PM on November 13, 2010


I think high-speed rail for the US would be a slam dunk. much more spacious seats, a lot less security hassle and perhaps even decent food and speeds of up to 185mph (I'm referencing the german ICE trains here) would be enticing enough for me to choose trains over planes for any distance of up to 500 miles no sweat. I could even see doing nyc-ord if it weren't more than 200 bucks.

but I don't think it's going to happen. ignore all the talk about the freights lines only allowing for travel of up to 79mph, they can't handle higher speeds even if they have permission to go faster. you should see what they high-speed rail lines look like here - even the foundation is different. every time they want to connect two cities with high-speed rails they need to build massive new track structures exclusively to be used by these trains. they cannot run on regular train tracks and they shred the usual train bridges to pieces within a matter of a few years.

a couple billion dollars is not going to get you far when it comes to this kind of effort and I don't see the US suddenly reversing it's course and starting to seriously invest in infrastructure. that's just not who you are right now. there isn't even a building at ground zero after all these years and when's the last great infrastructure project you can recall really been built? the monuments of our generation are being build in asia. sadly that's the kind of effort it takes - monumental.
posted by krautland at 11:02 PM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Saying it once again for the record: Cities that are continuing to rip out their rail infrastructure are going to regret it in another decade or two."

Even worse, there are a lot of rural areas, including one I used to live in in New England, that have been almost joyfully doing the "Rails To Trails" plan: tearing up old unused rail lines and converting them into ATV/Offroad Vehicle trails.

The particular place where I lived is a town of about 2,000 some 60 miles from the two next sizeable towns (around 6,000 each) and 100 miles from the nearest "city," which has something like 18,000 residents. In other words, it's pretty isolated.

The rail line that went through was all freight as I recall, but it was the way the area's chief resources - pulpwood, hardwood, some seasonal agricultural harvests, and I think some refined paper goods as there were a few mills - used to get hauled out before one of the regional roads got upgraded to handle more and constant heavy truck traffic. That particular road completely bypasses my old town; the main coast road (Route 1) is in pretty sorry shape for those 60 miles both in and out.

At this point the area is just barely hanging on from tourist money coming through every summer, but there's a maximum upper limit on that imposed by road capacity, even without a the current crappy economy that's making driving up there less attractive to vacationers.

If gasoline really does get as expensive as many are forecasting, that whole area is going to get cut off from civilization pretty quickly, in the physical sense (as opposed to the communications sense). There's not a lot of money there and without cost-effective ways to transport and export things of value, there will be even less.

I suppose they could go back to driving logs down the rivers and loading them on ships for export, which in terms of energy use is orders of magnitude cheaper, but they'd still need to build some shipping infrastructure, docks and dredging etc. You can't put a lot of pulpwood on a lobster boat, I'm guessing.

I'm sure there are a lot of places in the US that, once you abandon a rail line going through it, may never be worth running rails out to again. In an expensive-energy future, a lot of those places might be largely cut off. Especially if they're not near a river or body of water.

"But "true" HSR is unnecessary at the moment. What we really need is a moderate speed boost and better, more-frequent departure times to improve perceptions of rail"

This I agree with. One of the main problems is that the existing rail lines in the West are owned by the big freight companies (Amtrak owns its rights-of-way in the East), and are running at pretty high capacity most of the time. That's one reason why Amtrak on the west coast is kind of a nightmare, passenger trains always have to give right-of-way to freight trains, and there's a lot of freight trains. About 40 trains a day go out of Port of LA/LB via the Alameda Corridor alone; there are no passenger trains on that line, but once the freights leave the Corridor they're mixing with everything else (including street auto traffic).

It would be really helpful to just have separate, dedicated passenger dual-track lines, whether it be high-speed or not. The problem is that from what I've read, at no point ever in the history of US rail has passenger-only service ever made enough money to be profitable. The big money comes from the heavy freight shipping. Honestly I don't see why you couldn't have both freight and people on the same train (apart from some hazardous materials issues, since quite a few trains move things like chlorine and other nasty stuff), but I'm sure there are some good reasons not to mix the two (besides lethal poison transit). I mean, freight is really heavy; I suppose the added mass would make attaching passenger cars more dangerous?

It's late, I'm wandering.

Of course, the Alameda Corridor, a triple-rail line dug below grade level for about 20 miles, cost at least $2.4 billion to complete... so, more than $100 million per mile, understandable as they had to dig it all out, build bridges for all the roads over it, etc. $30 million per mile for track at grade outside city limits sounds about in the right ball park for costs. It doesn't sound to my ears that it could be made profitable with passenger-only traffic.

I think we'll need rail, but I think it's going to have to be forced on us either by forward-thinking politicians (hah!) or eventually just raw necessity.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:07 PM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


>There was not one single reason to not take the money from a republican governor that made any damn sense whatsoever.

sugarfish, I believe the missing reason is "the highway lobby." Here is the link to that NPR report. Best quote: "If the new governors do not want the federal funding, [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood says the money will be reallocated to other states that want improved, cleaner and more efficient transportation options and the thousands of jobs the high-speed-rail projects would create." That's right! Send it to California, we'll take it!



Not that Sacramento is going to do anything worthwhile with it. I mean, we've got a high speed rail plan, but the powers that be are starting with linking ... wait for it...
FRESNO to MERCED.
/slow_clap

Meanwhile, if I take the light rail to Hollywood, the last train leave at 1:20am, even onthe weekends. AND it arrives downtown after the last trains to other areas leave. Good work, MTA.

(I megaloathe the MTA.)
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:21 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


"those same jackasses in the city, county, and state governments managed to dump $1.7bn into a measly 17 mile airport-to-city line that doesn't seem to have any real value- it's slower than a car to go the same distance"

As someone who lives along the Link line in SE Seattle, let me just say: wrong. The value of that line to many of us in SE Seattle is immense. I've stopped driving to/from work. We now hop down to Columbia City for a movie or dinner or Full Tilt ice cream without a second thought. Going to the downtown library, or Pike Place Market, or Westlake Mall, or Benaroya Hall, or Safeco Field -- all dead easy now, with no parking hassles or traffic to worry about.

I don't care if it's slower than a car to go to the airport. (And it's not if it's during rush hour.) I don't generally take it to the airport. I take it around SE Seattle, Sodo, the International District, Pioneer Square, and Downtown. As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty much the best thing since sliced bread.

If you think it's useless, it's just 'cause it's not serving your neighborhood. Maybe you should move to Beacon Hill.
posted by litlnemo at 11:29 PM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


we're talking $17 billion to connect just two major cities plus a few smaller towns en route.

Or, to put it in other terms, 3 months in Afghanistan.
posted by deanc at 2:57 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The question of whether to re-build certain lines for high-speed, as they did for example with the main lines in France and Germany, or to use and expand the trackage that's there depends to some degree on what train technology one is going to be used. For difficult-to-re-route lines, there's the tilting-train technology which is widely in use (not only in) in European countries to ensure relatively fast services where true high-speed isn't feasible or affordable.
This is one of those things easily forgotten in hand-hewn black and white public discussions about whether more trains are feasible, desirable, are the chicken, or the egg etc.

Without having any numbers to support this, my impression is that countries with an unfavorable surface-inhabitants ratio, such as Sweden, tend to have more resistance to getting the building of new lines into practice. Where I (normally) live, they've been discussing a new track from Gothenburg via Borås to Stockholm for more than a decade. As of now, it's still not completely decided upon, and it seems to take fifteen or so more years before they even begin building that line. The line to Borås is a 19th-c. single-track spaghetti where even the rather modern trains have to tiptoe, and that naturally doesn't support all the traffic that could go there; most of the passengers take the bus (and grumble about the services).
The problem here is that even on 30% taxes, nine million tax payers are not really enough to support a new and snazzy high-speed corridor on top of everything else. At least that's what some politicians seem to think.
posted by Namlit at 3:10 AM on November 14, 2010


grammar fluff in the abuff, sorry
posted by Namlit at 3:13 AM on November 14, 2010


You know what I would love? Like, absolutely totally fall madly in love with and take every single time I went to visit the US?

LA's Union Station to Vegas.

I mean, God, think about it. You're in the ultrastylish gorgeous Union Station on a Friday evening, right after work, feeling like you're in a noir movie, and then on the train, speeding through the desert, not having to worry about the road making you sleepy or stopping for gas, and boom - you're right there, in Vegas, ready to party on Friday and Saturday straight through, and then your hangover and exhaustion make for a dozy trip back to Union Station, where you don't have to pay attention to anything, because they're doing all the work for you.

But does such a thing exist? Of course not. Instead, each time I go out to visit my family, we have to plan for a five-hour trip to Vegas, the inevitable stops for drinks and bathrooms and just needing to get out of the damn car, the miles and miles of nothing, just to go see the rest of my family.

It's frustrating and ridiculous, especially after living here in the UK, where, okay, yeah, the trains aren't perfect, but I can get down to London in slightly over two hours, and it's perfect for that delightful weekend away. But I just wanna go to Vegas the same way. Is that so hard?

(Thank God I'm not the only one whining about this...)
posted by Katemonkey at 3:19 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or, to put it in other terms, 3 months in Afghanistan.
being facetious really gets things done.

LA's Union Station to Vegas.
that's a route I could really see work. 265 miles at an average speed of 140mph ... well, let's just say two hours or maybe 2,5 hours tops. trains leave every full hour and a roundtrip ticket costs $120. google maps says the drive would take 6 hours 10 mins in traffic and the airplane isn't cheaper or much quicker either, especially when going through LAX.
posted by krautland at 3:39 AM on November 14, 2010


FRESNO to MERCED.
/slow_clap


Look, I don't want to unquestionably support the CHSRA, but this isn't a terrible idea.

Given that California HSR is likely to be the first built in the US, (doubly likely with Florida's new governor), it's not entirely unreasonable that the first section be a flat, level section suitable for some testing. Particularly since the rail maintenance facility is to be built in the area, and the Central Valley has cripplingly high unemployment, which provides higher potential stimulus benefits and cheaper construction labour costs.

And I think at some level that having the first stretch be utterly useless unless it's expanded upon is a high risk/high reward gamble that could pay off. Building an urban stretch that is just an express version of Metrolink or Caltrain would provide higher ridership, but would be something that could be left as is, with the idea "we'll get around to the rest later" and not be totally embarrassing to the entire state. Having a little spur between two cities nobody wants to go could increase pressure to connect it to real cities.

Also, as I found out typing the lengthy reply above, the Feds have specifically dedicated the most recent $715 million to the Central Valley. So there's that, too.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:52 AM on November 14, 2010


30m a mile still seems high- as in, "Where does that money go?!"

Maybe not. I haven't done the math here but I think the First Transcontintental Railroad cost around $50,000,000 to build, that's 1863-1869 dollars right? So what's that today? It's about 3500 miles long. That's like $14,000 per mile in 1863. One would have to think cost of construction have fallen in the meantime, but this random website's inflation calculator says that amount had the purchasing power of about 241,000 dollars in 2009. The BLS says that amount was equivalent to almost $309,000 from 1913 (the earliest year their inflation calculator goes back to) dollars to 2010.

The more I look at it the more $30 million per mile seems utterly ludicrous. Obscene. A big fucking lie. I could build a railroad from Portland to Seattle with 50 workers and a case of Pabst for half that. Promise.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:18 AM on November 14, 2010


There's a huge difference between riding a bus through traffic and driving a car through traffic.

Yeah but telling people they can read a book on the way to work isn't going to sell multi-million or billion dollar infrastructure projects to the masses that just put the Clown Party back in control of the House of Representatives. You need an easily seen benefit for this stuff to have any chance at all, faster commute times sell public transit. Reading books or watching drunk people be drunk, not so much. (Sorry for the double comment)
posted by IvoShandor at 4:28 AM on November 14, 2010


I've got a little postage stamp of property in West Virginia, on the side of a rumpled, well-worn mountain where the roots of the old hills meet the Potomac, and the rail lines the practically run through my front yard. The trains come along, day and night, calling from off in the distance with the glorious, mournful cry of diesel horns as they round the bend at Orleans Crossroads, and it's a symphony of heavy industry, the way they come through, all the thunder and the wheels running the rails. When I'm not immersed, working on the endless little chores inherent in keeping my decrepit away place from skidding down the slope in surrender to age and decay, I almost always run out to watch them go through.

At night, in the real depths of the night, when the light goes away to the extent that the beam of your brightest flashlight can only make a pathetic pool in the near-distance, it's a lullaby, with the cacophony damped down to its lowest notes by the overwhelming silence out there, and you sleep in a drift, sometimes half-alert for the endless coal trains rumbling through.

I look out for the Capitol Limited, the train that's my train, because it's the one I rode through the years when my brother was living in the lovely, brutish metropolis of Chicago, and because it's the one full of people, coming through twice a day, once in each direction. It's got a different sound than the freights that come through heavy one way, and light the other, and I'll run almost to the track's edge when its daylight, to stand out there and wave to the passengers.

We're on the same journey. We believe in the same things.

I'm glad I had this chance to meet you. Now have a good life.

Once in a while, there will be a kid in the window, overcome with glee to see another person there, and we wave like fools, because we are fools, in the best possible way. The world is real from the rails, something that's right there, practically close enough to touch, and it does something to the way you see things, knowing that, in a manner that's never so close when you're stuffed tight in the flying aluminum sausage casing of a 767, looking down over an endless map interrupted by clouds, trying to make a meal of pretzels, peanuts, and a soda fizzing away in a tiny plastic cup.

They go on and on about high speed rail, but it's not the speed that's the problem. The thing is, we think we're so smart and so modern, and that the old trains must have chugged along at thirty miles an hour, packed with tired-eyed desperate travelers chasing after the golden dream of the West. We think there's no room for rail as rail was, except for the vanishingly small numbers of foamers and fanatics out there, the aging men with novelty engineer's hats and cameras, standing on the platforms of all the abandoned stations in the country, catching the Southbund 847 each evening at St. Denis.

The only thing is, we ran a country on rail, and it was fast, tight to schedules, and accessible long before we had self-adjusting laser-guided turbine-driven supertrains, because the rails just ran, and we managed freight and we managed passengers and we managed mail, and it all happened on what's supposed to be a long-dead technology, because we ran it on a will and on the dream of a common culture. Now it's always highspeedrail, highspeedrail, highspeedrail in a constant political mantra, a budget item so extreme that it'll never come to pass, because we're not that country anymore.

Instead, we prattle on endlessly about carbon footprints even as we tear up tracks and turn every old rail line into a rail trail preserve for middle class white people on carbon fiber bicycles. We go on about shaving two hours off a trip to compete with airplanes, except that's not the way you compete with airplanes. If you're in a hurry, lost in that up-to-date feeling of constant emergency, where you just don't have the time to do anything, anymore, you won't get on a train, except in my region, and just between New York and points less important.

I've made the trip between Chicago and DC many times, and it's a long one, especially when you get caught up in freight congestion in Indiana, where you end up staring out of the train at the same field with the same little green house and the same broken-down telephone poles in the snow so long it becomes hypnotic. It's a long one if you don't know the trick to get a relatively-cheap sleeper, or when all the people who know the trick have snapped them all up.

Imagine, though, if we had a few newly-built sleeper cars on the train, and not the post-fifties kind, where your only option is an expensive private room. Imagine a trip where those broad seats, with ample legroom and trays that didn't fold down awkwardly against your stomach, had a power outlet on each seat and train-wide wifi. Imagine more people caught in that embarrassing situation of being seated at linen-covered tables in the dining car with strangers, like they do on Amtrak, where you can't have that phobic disconnection between your fellow citizens that's fast becoming the neurotic norm.

We talk about high speed rail, but the notion of everyday luxury, within reach of everyday people on mundane journeys, is discounted right away as ridiculous nostalgia. Maybe it is. Maybe we're never going to be what we were again, or connect with each other that way again, or with the land around us, and the extraordinary, impossible scale of our country.

We talk about high speed rail and sky high costs, and it's the only option out there, right? We can't afford a single test case of an old school train that's real and serious, where we try out the alternative to the A-to-B mindset? It just seems sad, I guess, that our imaginations are so bereft, these days.

On one of my sleeperless trips out, I woke up, restless in my seat, in the wee hours. I peered out the window into the dark for a while, then fished around in my knapsack for the little writing machine I keep on hand at all times and headed for the domed lounge of the observation car. It was empty, and I picked out a nice seat where I could practice a nice sybaritic slouch and watch the houses and small towns drift by in the black night, and I wrote and wrote and wrote until I'd finished a few sketched-out episodes in what would eventually be a performance about an adult search for a fairy godmother.

A young couple showed up, and found seats nearby with the clear intention of making out. They were a little rough, with tattoos climbing out of their collars and merging into their hairlines, and the girl was bleached blonde with raucous erupting roots and the guy had a sort of shaggy mess of hair jutting out from a ball cap. I tensed up, the way you do when you lose your momentary sensation of being properly alone in the world, and felt like I'd lost my own reserve there—my own grand private car in the tradition of robber barons.

They sat, they talked, and pointed at lights from their place in the car.

In time, they turned to me. I almost flinched.

"Are you a writer?" the girl asked.

"Yes," I said, and it was pretty much the first moment I ever described myself as such. I had a couple published essays under my belt, nothing of much substance, I guess, and I'd won a minor award for a piece about playing electronic music in a barn in New Jersey, but it occurred to me that there, on that train, I could be anyone I wanted to be.

"That's cool. What do you write?"

"Stories about people just being people, that sort of thing."

"That's cool. Is that a laptop?"

"It's sort of a word processor for kids. The batteries last for hundreds of hours and it's indestructible."

"Cool."

We talked for an hour or so, swapping stories, talking about where we came from, where we were going, about the stuff you talk about when you're meeting people for the first time. After a while, they excused themselves and headed back to the rest of the train, and I was alone again.

When the Capitol Limited passes at night, you can see right into the dimly-lit dome of the observation car, and I make a special point to run to the tracks to catch it, to look out for someone like me in the car, sitting there, reading or writing or talking or just looking out into the inky darkness, wondering what's out there, and every time I see someone, I think there's hope. There are people out there who believe what I believe, and who may yet fan the flames to bring back something that worked so well, not so very long ago.

But the battles rage on, and it's all about high speed and competing with airliners and the grim expediency that makes us all lust for little postage stamps of property somewhere and the islands they become where, just for a moment, you can slam on the brakes and stop living like we all live, slaves to the clock and to the notion that there's no realistic alternatives. The proposals rise and they fall, the sides line up against the values they should believe in, given their rhetoric, and the carbon footprint crowd declares no viable solution but to mimic the jittery hyperspeed of pure business while the traditional values cotillion completely ignore the traditional togetherness that rail brought us, back when we were something like the nation that they claim to want to take back.

The imaginary trains bustle on in fever dreams, boiling out of nothingness and disappearing in hazy waves of fiscal restraint, and meanwhile, the old order survives, barely, for another day, a second-hand solution that's not glamorous, futuristic, or expensive enough, just rumbling down the endless rails whenever the freights and coal trains can step aside for a moment.

I run down the hillside and wave, looking for signs of life where I can.
posted by sonascope at 5:02 AM on November 14, 2010 [45 favorites]


Or, to put it in other terms, 3 months in Afghanistan.

That's exactly what happens when the majority think that a billion is a hundred million, or perhaps less. What I think proponents need to do is to offer the equations that determines the profitability of passenger trains, to show how it factors in population density all along the route. And if they haven't wondered, then they should consider themselves supply-siders.

We are now entertaining the prospect of spending billions of federal dollars to load people up in LA and send them to Vegas. People just don't see the economic contradictions here, and the fact that gambling is a law that can be easily changed to render the train useless.
posted by Brian B. at 6:47 AM on November 14, 2010


We are now entertaining the prospect of spending billions of federal dollars to load people up in LA and send them to Vegas.

That just means thaere aren't enough Native Americans in California for there to be any Casinos.

Seriously now, previously.
posted by vhsiv at 7:13 AM on November 14, 2010


No one ever demands that highway construction projects show 'profitability' before they get built. Governments aren't businesses.
posted by Kwine at 7:21 AM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


No one ever demands that highway construction projects show 'profitability' before they get built. Governments aren't businesses.

In most cases the roads are already there, with gas tax money earmarked, and they're just expanding to avoid gridlock. That's a demand-side scenario. What we have here is stimulus money meant to show job growth, which is fine if it returns the investment somehow, as it does in alternative energy production or science research.
posted by Brian B. at 7:33 AM on November 14, 2010


"We think there's no room for rail as rail was, except for the vanishingly small numbers of foamers and fanatics out there, the aging men with novelty engineer's hats and cameras, standing on the platforms of all the abandoned stations in the country, catching the Southbund 847 each evening at St. Denis."

Oh, man, I hadn't thought about foamers in YEARS. In high school I used to work at a toy store that carried model trains (G, H0, N, TT, O ... lots of the really expensive ones, too) AND was no more than 300 feet from the Chicago & Northwestern line, not long before it was bought by Union Pacific. The foamers would go stand around out by the train line where it came through the tiny, old-fashioned downtown (a downtown that dated to the train line being put through and centered around the tracks and the station), and then come racing to the store, "foaming" about whichever engine they just saw, and checking to see if we had that particular engine, or at least that model of engine, in stock in their favorite gauge. And make us get out the big catalogs so they could flip through and look for them, and stand around bragging about which engines they'd seen for half an hour.

Sometimes they brought us ice cream from the ice cream shop next door, usually when they were really excited about a particular train and hung out in the store all afternoon.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:35 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"a measly 17 mile airport-to-city line that doesn't seem to have any real value- it's slower than a car to go the same distance"

The Vomit Comet from South Bend to Chicago takes about the same time as driving; once I add in walking across the Loop to Union Station and catching the appropriate Metra to the 'burbs, it takes considerably longer than driving to the burbs (even if going north of the city and therefore having to get either through or around the city).

It was still frequently my preferred mode of travel in college. If I could convince someone to drop me at the station in South Bend (or if I paid the quarter for long-term parking), it cost me $9.50 to ride from South Bend to Chicago, $3.25 for the Metra in question, and free to walk across the Loop if it was nice, a couple bucks for a taxi if it was raining or I had a lot of luggage, meaning for $20 I could get all the way home to my parents' AND have some fast food at Union Station while waiting for my Metra. And I always liked the feeling of coming into the city and getting to walk through the Loop. It took 3-4 hours (including the Metra portion and the train change) instead of 2, but I could study the whole way and I didn't have 80 boring miles of Indiana driving followed by attacking the Dan Ryan and sucking fumes.

If I drove, tolls ran me around $5 (it's hard to remember what the toll cost was that long ago), depending on whether I went through the city (Skyway) or around the city (294), plus gas, plus wear and tear on the car, plus lost study time, plus boring-ass 80 miles of Indiana toll road that tempted me to speed while having Illinois plates (which we all know is a much more serious infraction in Indiana than speeding with Indiana plates).

Similarly, it only takes me 2 1/2 hours to get from Peoria to Chicago by car, but if I could go by rail instead I could read with my toddler and entertain him, not have to stop for bathroom breaks, walk around the train car, etc., and gas is a lot more expensive now than when I was in college. Even if it took 3 hours, it would probably still be worth it to me. (There is no direct highway between Chicago and Peoria; you have to drive an hour to get to the appropriate highway. So a direct rail line would presumably shave considerable distance off the trip, even if we're talking very slow trains.) It takes longer to fly it than to drive it, with all the airport nonsense on both ends, and it costs a ridiculous amount to fly and the planes all leave at terrible times, but tons of businesspeople still fly it so they can work on the plane. I think there'd be a market.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:54 AM on November 14, 2010



If you're in a hurry, lost in that up-to-date feeling of constant emergency, where you just don't have the time to do anything, anymore, you won't get on a train


Who wants to burn their limited vacation time trapped in the transportation vehicle?

Most of us have a limited number of days off. Trying to make the most of our time off doesn't mean we are "rushing". There is no romance or value in being trapped on a train in a delay like you describe, unless the point of your trip was to spend it sitting on a train.

I've taken different sorts of trips over the years. My "It's the Journey" trips were done by car, so I could stop and smell the roses when I wanted to.

My "It's the Destination" trips have usually been by plane, unless the destination was within a few hours' drive.

Mrs. Fleebnork and I once researched taking a trip by train down the west coast from Seattle. We quickly abandoned the idea because it was prohibitively expensive. We took a road trip instead and spent the money on staying in nice B&Bs.

As long as trains are both more expensive and slower than your other options, they're going to be a tough sell.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:54 AM on November 14, 2010


a measly 17 mile airport-to-city line that doesn't seem to have any real value- it's slower than a car to go the same distance

I'm a former Seattleite, and I quite enjoyed the Link Light Rail. I recently came back for a visit. It cost me $2.50 to make the same trip as a $40 cab ride. The train was clean, and most people on it were going to and from the airport. I chatted with a couple who lived on Bainbridge Island who were returning from vacation and were pleased that they didn't have to pay to park their car at the airport.

The train saved me at least $75. Who knows what it saved those people in parking fees. I would think the people who use it to commute find it valuable as well.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:00 AM on November 14, 2010


Just took the AVE from Madrid to Barcelona. Went over 300 km/hr (190mph) and left and arrived with zero dicking around save for sending my bags through a scanner that was faster than buying dental floss. We will not have this in America because we will not ever again be a nation that does anything practical or in our best interest. I still take Amtrak every year from Oregon to Seattle because its a nice way to travel and the Amtrak employees are always unbelievably nice, but it is like being in a jalopy travelling down a secondhand road in Beirut as far as comfort.
posted by docpops at 8:19 AM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]



In most cases the roads are already there, with gas tax money earmarked, and they're just expanding to avoid gridlock. That's a demand-side scenario. What we have here is stimulus money meant to show job growth, which is fine if it returns the investment somehow, as it does in alternative energy production or science research.


That's a misleading argument. Expanding roads requires acquiring right-of-way that is just as expensive as the right-of-way that would have to be acquired for rail. Also, in many cases, the rail is already there and just needs to be upgraded. What, you think there's no rail in this country? Have you seen the freight rail network? America has the best freight rail system in the world, and with that comes miles of track and miles of right-of-way. Do you even know about track share agreements? And where those can't work, acquiring relatively narrow pieces of right-of-way alongside existing rail is a HELL of a lot cheaper than acquiring huge swaths of right-of-way adjacent to highways in already-congested cities.

Man, I should have gone into another field, because arguing about this pisses me off. I'm so irritated that this has become a partisan issue, because it really shouldn't be. Greater access has been proven to lead to job growth. I am going to sneak into every republican's house and write that in maroon lipstick on every mirror. Jesus Christ. I am done now.
posted by millipede at 8:22 AM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


That's a misleading argument.

You claimed that we didn't need to show profitability when we build roads, implying no need for trains. That's not true, and if it was, it would be a fallacy anyway.

What, you think there's no rail in this country? Have you seen the freight rail network? America has the best freight rail system in the world, and with that comes miles of track and miles of right-of-way.

The freight rail industry grew very profitable after a new rail car was designed to handle two stacked shipping containers? Now we're threatening that growth. And see the article I re-linked above.
posted by Brian B. at 8:36 AM on November 14, 2010


The freight rail industry grew very profitable after a new rail car was designed to handle two stacked shipping containers?

This should be a statement, not a question. Apologies.
posted by Brian B. at 8:39 AM on November 14, 2010



You claimed that we didn't need to show profitability when we build roads, implying no need for trains. That's not true, and if it was, it would be a fallacy anyway.


No I didn't. Someone else did. Either way, though, America does not require a show of profitability for roads, and right now the right wing is making a big stink about requiring this for rail.


The freight rail industry grew very profitable after a new rail car was designed to handle two stacked shipping containers? Now we're threatening that growth. And see the article I re-linked above.

The freight rail industry grew profitable after the Staggers act of 1980, and we're not "threatening that growth" anymore so than building or improving highways threatens the growth of trucking.

Seriously, only the extremely nearsighted truly believe that America will never need high-speed rail.
posted by millipede at 8:50 AM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, we don't need interstate high speed rail..if by high speed you mean "what we have now." If you mean true high speed, it would in fact be rather handy for many areas. OKC-Tulsa would be pretty handy, even with a train whose top speed is only 100mph, for example. Similarly, OKC-Dallas would be quite useful.

You don't need great public transit at each end. You need rental cars or car sharing services. For $8 an hour I can take one of Hertz's cars and they buy the gas. If I need to stay longer, $30 a day will get me a car from Avis most of the time. We already do this with air travel, so why is it suddenly not OK with rail? Oh, right, because something has to be perfect for it to have any value. *rolls eyes*

I'd ride Tulsa-Fayetteville every day (I wouldn't mind showing up at the office every day, but not when it involves 3.5 hours of driving!), but it's never going to happen. Too small a market.
posted by wierdo at 9:02 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seriously, only the extremely nearsighted truly believe that America will never need high-speed rail.

Consider how much most of us don't need high speed rail, and will never want or have high speed rail, nor the jobs they temporarily create from major federal tax dollars being dumped into a few congested locations. We here have approached this subject like freeways have failed, but refuse to acknowledge they were a luxury based on lifestyle choices the public has made, along with zoning laws that restrict building height. Those that build train arguments around freeways might find they can't have it both ways. Supply-sided is nearsighted.
posted by Brian B. at 9:02 AM on November 14, 2010


Consider how much most of us don't need high speed rail, and will never want or have high speed rail, nor the jobs they temporarily create from major federal tax dollars being dumped into a few congested locations.

This only works if you define "most of us" using land area. Look at a population map. "Most of us" live in just a few very populated areas.

High-speed rail creates jobs beyond just those people who directly work in the building, management, and operation of the system. It connects megaregions. If people in Philadelphia could get to New York in half an hour, they will go to New York and buy more things and partake in more services. New Yorkers will come to Philadelphia, or Boston, or Washington, and do the same. It widens the market. It allows choice.

Also, you have the highway argument backwards. You're not taking into account the Post-WWII mortgage subsidies for single-family homes that were effectively a subsidy for suburbanization and the auto industry. People didn't all wake up one morning and decide to move to the suburbs and buy cars and build strip malls, after centuries of urban living, for no reason other than their own whims. Yes, it was a cultural shift, but there was a lot more at play than people realize. I recommend the excellent book "The Option of Urbanism" by Christophper Leinberger if you want to know more about this, but I really am done here. I'm not replying anymore.
posted by millipede at 9:11 AM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


In most cases the roads are already there, with gas tax money earmarked, and they're just expanding to avoid gridlock. That's a demand-side scenario. What we have here is stimulus money meant to show job growth, which is fine if it returns the investment somehow, as it does in alternative energy production or science research.

It's the job of government to shape demand, not merely to respond to it. The various and multiform subsidies, taxes, and tax breaks related to privileging highway construction over other forms of transportation aren't written on a stone tablet. The situation has changed: we are now oil importers, not exporters-among many other things that are different now than they were in 1950-and our transportation infrastructure must change with the times.

You're wrong about the difference-in-kind distinction between roads and rails as well, though that hardly matters when your views about the macro role of government that imply that your argument about roads should be that there should be no government funding for roads. The government doesn't invest in alternative energy or whatever to make a percentage; it invests when investments are necessary to further our societal interests. Governments aren't businesses.
posted by Kwine at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2010


zoogleplex wrote: "Even worse, there are a lot of rural areas, including one I used to live in in New England, that have been almost joyfully doing the "Rails To Trails" plan: tearing up old unused rail lines and converting them into ATV/Offroad Vehicle trails."

You know why they do that? To keep the rail right of way intact so it can be reused later. If they don't bank 'em, the adjacent landowners get their land back and trains can never be put back without repurchasing the right of way.

Personally, I'd be happy if we could get our trolley lines rebuilt. When my house was built in 1930, there was a trolley line a block away. 30 years later, we decided we needed to demolish entire neighborhoods and cut the remaining ones in twain so that people in a suburb 15 miles from here could get downtown faster. What the fuck were we thinking?
posted by wierdo at 9:21 AM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Troll snark in short sentences. Not offer any solutions. Only hoary objections that rest of world flourishes by seeing past.
posted by bonaldi at 9:21 AM on November 14, 2010


If people in Philadelphia could get to New York in half an hour, they will go to New York and buy more things and partake in more services. New Yorkers will come to Philadelphia, or Boston, or Washington, and do the same. It widens the market. It allows choice.

You might as well run your fingernails over a chalkboard, the appeal is the same to me.
posted by Brian B. at 9:30 AM on November 14, 2010


Do you even know about track share agreements? And where those can't work, acquiring relatively narrow pieces of right-of-way alongside existing rail is a HELL of a lot cheaper than acquiring huge swaths of right-of-way adjacent to highways in already-congested cities.

Man, I should have gone into another field, because arguing about this pisses me off.


No, please keep arguing sanely against the sound-bite short-term negativity!

There should be nonpartisan support for expanded rail options, with so many benefits for regular folks. With family members less likely to settle close to each other, rail travel neatly sidesteps some of the disadvantages of the unpleasantness of airline travel (no need to elaborate here) and the inconvenience of long car travel (interstates are dull, local highways are overburdened with the suburban/exurban housing explosions, elders active enough to travel may not have the eyesight or energy for long drives alone.)

Is the Amtrak NE corridor track rights issue still trapped in limbo between Norfolk Southern/CSX/remaining ghost of Conrail? That was my understanding years ago.
posted by desuetude at 9:43 AM on November 14, 2010


Governments aren't businesses.

They are acting on behalf of businesses when they act as a supply-side stimulus. They are least business like when they chase demand, which is the public.
posted by Brian B. at 9:43 AM on November 14, 2010


We are now entertaining the prospect of spending billions of federal dollars to load people up in LA and send them to Vegas. People just don't see the economic contradictions here, and the fact that gambling is a law that can be easily changed to render the train useless.

And Las Vegas is not going to remain Las Vegas long without water.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:06 AM on November 14, 2010


You might as well run your fingernails over a chalkboard, the appeal is the same to me.

Luckily, you aren't the deciding vote. High-speed rail is going to happen in America. Maybe not next year, or the year after that, but we've got time. Gnash your teeth all you want: The sound is music to my pretty little ears.
posted by millipede at 10:41 AM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's exactly what happens when the majority think that a billion is a hundred million, or perhaps less ... You might as well run your fingernails over a chalkboard, the appeal is the same to me.

Brian, I'm excerpting these two statements to point out that your arguments are basically incoherent. And don't try to point to the highway system as an alternative: I have driven up route 95 regularly and driven up the DC to Boston corridor more than a few times, and I can tell you for a fact that there is no constituency for improving and speeding highway travel. If there were, it would not be such a stunning clusterfuck of congestion and closed lanes. We have an existing rail infrastructure that works ok, but not great (or even good) and not up to modern standards, and air travelers know that delays are almost inevitable. Meanwhile, estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan are going to cost us more than 1 trillion dollars. So pleading "it's too expensive, we can't do it, and America is too stupid to implement it" isn't a convincing argument.
posted by deanc at 11:19 AM on November 14, 2010


Technology doesn't develop because someone has been listening to what people at home formulate for themselves as their need. There will always be a battle of visions. People hate change. Technology happens anyway. [love that. "Technology happens". Anyway, hrm.]

The silly bit about this discussion is that we're not even talking about a new technology. It's there, in other parts of the world, in some places it functions better, in others less good, but it is clear that with functional and attractively scheduled trains in place, and enough people living around there to use them, they do use them. There is no diffuse monster "culture" that makes trains, in Holland, successful and in the US superfluous. We're looking here at people and facilities interacting, in a real-time cultural project that anyone who has the will and time can go evaluate and use as a model for another country.
Speed is a factor, as well as said scheduling. I have been trying to plan trips between Staunton, Va. and various east coast destinations, most notably a 2-days trip to Philly, which involves the glorious Cardinal that runs right through Staunton. We totally gave up on that, it goes twice a week or what, takes forever, the departure times were totally unattractive one of the ways, and know what: I just checked the current schedule for fun. If I'd book now, for next Friday, I wouldn't be able to go. It's all sold out.

So even if the "we don't need trains" shtick would be re-phrased into: "we don't need that kind of non-functional slow trains" (because honestly, who does), it ain't true. People actually do use the thing.
posted by Namlit at 11:21 AM on November 14, 2010


The BLS says that amount was equivalent to almost $309,000 from 1913 (the earliest year their inflation calculator goes back to) dollars to 2010.

The more I look at it the more $30 million per mile seems utterly ludicrous. Obscene. A big fucking lie. I could build a railroad from Portland to Seattle with [12,000+ Chinese immigrants] and [$48,000 per mile in landgrants and subsidies] for half that. Promise.


Fixed that for you.

Why build HSR in urban corridors? Because it's cheaper than going to Mars, and hell if the US doesn't need some hope to unite us.
posted by Galen at 11:42 AM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is there any way we can all come to some consensus that some kind of rail use expansion - at the very least, expansion and optimization of existing rail systems using non-high speed systems - is going to be a Good Thing For America?

Brian B, I think we'd all allow that the Interstate highway system is a fantastic and extremely useful thing, but it's predicated on the availability of transport fuel that's very cheap. Will it function as well and be as profitable to use if fuel costs multiply by 4? 6? 10?

I'm guessing you discount the possibility of fuel scarcity. That's fine, I can respect your position. But what's your contingency plan if you're wrong?

The recent fuel cost spike has already pushed some freight that was on trucks back onto rails, caused airlines to tighten up their operations for efficiency, and forced a lot of Americans to not travel as much in their cars, and even change the kinds of cars they drive. If fuel, especially distillate fuel like diesel and jet fuel, doubled again, over-the-road freight and air travel would be affected in a major way, and the only alternative in most cases would be rail.

American productivity is largely based on our mobility. Should preserving that mobility in case of possible problems like fuel shortages be a partisan political football?
posted by zoogleplex at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a great topic! I'm a bit of a train geek (not quite a foamer) and I'm very interested in energy issues. And I'm still all fired up from a European trip in 2008 where we took trains for 3 weeks.

Looking at the US situation, and considering all the excellent info in the comments, it seems to me that the appropriate solution would be a sensible combination of incrementally improving rail travel in sufficiently dense corridors, and looking at some areas in detail that could see a long-term benefit from a dedicated high-speed rail corridor.

One commentator mentioned that they couldn't see that improving a given route from 5.5 hours to 4 hours would be much of an improvement. I beg to differ - this improvement means that more people would find the duration acceptable, more trains could be run, and the service would likely be more reliable.

Train corridors are long-term investment. If a given train corridor is carefully assessed and developed, it will foster and support growth around it. In the current economic slump, stimulus spending is still required; funding should ideally go to projects that realistically anticipate and foster growth. Even China is urging the US to get on with infrastructure projects.

Why not rail?
posted by Artful Codger at 11:46 AM on November 14, 2010


Brian B, I think we'd all allow that the Interstate highway system is a fantastic and extremely useful thing, but it's predicated on the availability of transport fuel that's very cheap. Will it function as well and be as profitable to use if fuel costs multiply by 4? 6? 10?

Those urban trains in China and Japan serve population densities on much greater magnitudes than we should ever want to "plan" for, and they never opted for freeways. The unheard point here is that electric cars are currently more efficient than your passenger trains. Trains can't be filled unless you pay people to ride. Cars can be tolled to lesson gridlock, less toll for more passengers. Future cars can be engineered for special lanes to travel tightly together, controlled by computers. Same for electric buses.

Am I to take your question to mean that interstate travel for trains (passenger), for traveling across many states, is somehow to be made into high speed rail? That proposal would cost trillions, and it's not even on the table. That's the mindset of most people here however, who think we've somehow taken the wrong turn with cars and planes and need to fix it with high speed trains. So, if the problem isn't solved with your solution, are you still gung ho? Most people still are. That's interesting as a cultural phenomenon.

Luckily, you aren't the deciding vote. High-speed rail is going to happen in America. Maybe not next year, or the year after that, but we've got time. Gnash your teeth all you want: The sound is music to my pretty little ears.

Subsidized shopping trips will never be voted for, but you should try that one just to be sure. And, yes, people will vote for them as long as they imagine they are more efficient and will create jobs to temporarily avoid a depression.
posted by Brian B. at 2:49 PM on November 14, 2010


Brian, I'm excerpting these two statements to point out that your arguments are basically incoherent. And don't try to point to the highway system as an alternative: I have driven up route 95 regularly and driven up the DC to Boston corridor more than a few times, and I can tell you for a fact that there is no constituency for improving and speeding highway travel.

But doesn't that train already exist?

Meanwhile, estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan are going to cost us more than 1 trillion dollars. So pleading "it's too expensive, we can't do it, and America is too stupid to implement it" isn't a convincing argument.

You aren't quoting me, by the way, but you pretend to. Let me guess: you actually think you've made a convincing argument by claiming the cost of war as evidence? If so, you've actually supplied your own counter-argument twice. Two wrongs don't make a right, and if the money's all gone, then it's gone.
posted by Brian B. at 2:59 PM on November 14, 2010


Trips on freeways are subsidized, moreso than trains in fact, as they're never expected to turn a profit. High-speed trains would actually make freeways more useful, as well. By giving people a choice to drive or take a train, some will choose the train, meaning fewer cars on the road, which in turn means fewer and less-severe traffic jams. We need high speed rail for this reason, because freeways on their own as a rule can't be widened enough to get rid of traffic jams. Given no other options, drivers inevitably fill up available roads to (and beyond) capacity.
posted by malapropist at 3:06 PM on November 14, 2010


By giving people a choice to drive or take a train, some will choose the train, meaning fewer cars on the road, which in turn means fewer and less-severe traffic jams. We need high speed rail for this reason, because freeways on their own as a rule can't be widened enough to get rid of traffic jams.

When distant travel is subsidized, it's either a waste of energy or not that important and in need of riders. And why do so many people want to make welfare travel so fast?
posted by Brian B. at 3:20 PM on November 14, 2010


Cars can be tolled to lesson gridlock, less toll for more passengers. Future cars can be engineered for special lanes to travel tightly together, controlled by computers. Same for electric buses.
If you're genuinely interested in this particular bit of technology, I recommend Bruno Latour, Aramis or the Love of Technology. It's a study about why this principle of using joined electric cars, in a French airport shuttle project, was dumped at a relatively late stage of its development. Lots of customer-behavior research, technology-doesn't work as planned juice, and bad politicians good politicians snark inside. It's a model study for Actor-Network theory, so a nice bonus there.
posted by Namlit at 4:42 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, Rails-to-Trails is totally ridiculous. In State College, PA (home to one of the largest college campuses in the United States) the railway line has been torn out and partially turned into trails (the actual station still exists, as the Greyhound depot). To me, it would seem logical to have rail connections to Pittsburgh, Philly, and NYC. As it is, however, Megabus and the "Chinatown bus" (direct from State College to/from NYC's Chinatown) are getting a lot of business from Penn Staters.
posted by dhens at 4:48 PM on November 14, 2010


It seems like there's some miscommunication going on here. Brian, are you saying that you're against any kind of long-distance high speed rail, regardless of population density? Or are you simply against it where densities are too low for it to be sustainable?

Trains can't be filled unless you pay people to ride.

Proper high speed trains that can cover a distance of 800 km or less between two or more major cities in four hours or less will generate revenue above that required to operate the train. This is true in Japan, China, Spain, France, the US, etc. Given time, this surplus can be used to repay the capital cost of construction, making the rail line a net profit generator. (Two HSR lines in the world have done this, and they are both relatively old by world standards.)

So no, trains can indeed be filled and run to generate an operating profit (and even a net profit), provided they are operated on a level playing field with other modes of long-distance transport. Interstate highways in the US, being built and maintained out of a dwindling fuel tax and general funds (except for some toll roads), are not held to the same standard as passenger railways, which are expected to pay their way without any government funds -- despite the fact that this clearly makes no sense, as neither roads nor passenger railways in the US are built to be profitable.
posted by armage at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2010


Brian, are you saying that you're against any kind of long-distance high speed rail, regardless of population density? Or are you simply against it where densities are too low for it to be sustainable?

It's a cut and dried argument, If you "need" inefficient and wasteful devices called trains to travel hours away for whatever whim or reason, then don't expect everyone to support it. Relative few will have the same reasons or whims. Now, if your passenger train doesn't even pass by my state or region, and I don't want trains or dense populations to deal with, then it would be foolish for me to lend my tax support. I thought the first one was easy to understand, but apparently the last one is difficult for some.
posted by Brian B. at 7:06 PM on November 14, 2010


If you "need" inefficient and wasteful devices called trains to travel hours away for whatever whim or reason, then don't expect everyone to support it. Relative few will have the same reasons or whims.

Erm, this hasn't seemed to be a problem for airline travel?
posted by desuetude at 7:43 PM on November 14, 2010


Brian B:

Those urban trains in China and Japan serve population densities on much greater magnitudes than we should ever want to "plan" for, and they never opted for freeways.

I've been to Japan. They have "freeways". They're packed, and move at a crawl. They also have many areas that are less dense than many US urban stretches,yet these areas are still well-served by trains. Ditto for Europe.

The unheard point here is that electric cars are currently more efficient than your passenger trains.

Misleading. You're probably using efficiency numbers from current US passenger trains, not those of the more efficient electric passenger trains in use elsewhere.

Cars can be tolled to lesson gridlock, less toll for more passengers. Future cars can be engineered for special lanes to travel tightly together, controlled by computers. Same for electric buses.

Tolling is a disincentive to travel, not an alternative or an improvement. And you're nuts if you think that the infrastructure for driver-less automated cars is going to be feasible on a large scale, let alone cost-effective and safe.

Now, if your passenger train doesn't even pass by my state or region, and I don't want trains or dense populations to deal with, then it would be foolish for me to lend my tax support.

Verry good - the old "I'm not sick - why am I paying health premiums?" argument. And yet you don't mind having urban taxpayers subsidize the roads and infrastructure that allow you your splendid isolation. I also guess you're blind to the argument that since most Americans live in an urban area, anything that improves the efficiency and productivity of urban dwellers will ultimately result in a net tax saving for everyone.

Are there some genuine reasons why the US shouldn't improve passenger rail travel in/between appropriate urban areas, or are all the reasons against as stupid as these?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:12 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Brian B. wrote: "That proposal would cost trillions, and it's not even on the table."

No, it's much less expensive to build a rail line in some godforsaken unpopulated wasteland than it is in/near large (or even medium sized) cities. ($7-10 million a mile vs. $30-$50 million a mile for electrified double track) Luckily, many of our cities have not removed all their tracks, so as long as you don't mind the train going more slowly for the 20-40 miles or so nearest the larger cities, the upgrade costs aren't at all prohibitive.

Also, why do you keep insisting that trains, which are far more efficient fuel-wise, even running on diesel, than personal vehicles are "wasteful and inefficient"?

dhens wrote: "Yes, Rails-to-Trails is totally ridiculous."

No, it's really not ridiculous. It preserves the right-of-way for later use, and in the meantime, we get nice trails out of the deal.

Anyway, it certainly doesn't make sense to have all our passenger rail on high speed lines. A network of high speed lines along already heavily used corridors along with slower trains to serve smaller cities and towns would probably be the way to go. In general we need more double/triple track into those smaller areas so we can keep the speed of the passenger trains up and not have them stuck behind slow-as-molasses freight trains. (not that they're always slow, but they are often slow because they accelerate so slowly)
posted by wierdo at 8:54 PM on November 14, 2010


No, it's much less expensive to build a rail line in some godforsaken unpopulated wasteland than it is ....

The facts I've read disagree with you. Where does your electric power come from anyway?

I've been to Japan. They have "freeways". They're packed, and move at a crawl. They also have many areas that are less dense than many US urban stretches,yet these areas are still well-served by trains. Ditto for Europe.

According to this website, Japan has about 5000 miles of highway. According to this website, the US has about 4 million miles. Obviously we're bigger, and that's the other point we're missing in this argument. I note that freeway was my word of choice, not always associated with tolls or any stops of any kind.

Verry good - the old "I'm not sick - why am I paying health premiums?" argument.

More like the "I watch what I eat, but you want ice cream for lunch on me, no way you degenerate slob." I assume that if your area wants to grow dense, they should pay for it if its so worth it, or find something else to whine about.

And you're nuts if you think that the infrastructure for driver-less automated cars is going to be feasible on a large scale, let alone cost-effective and safe.

Infrastructure wasn't desperately needed for this one.

What this adds up to is simple. If people want passenger trains to badly, then just go hop on one. Oh, they don't exist? And how is that my problem again? I wouldn't be caught dead going back in time with this old technology. It's political desperation.
posted by Brian B. at 9:17 PM on November 14, 2010


That proposal would cost trillions, and it's not even on the table.

So instead we're going to build a nationwide fleet of electric cars, all computer-controlled (and safely so), presumably somehow handling the transition period when some cars are computer-controlled and some aren't, and all of this more efficiently than trains powered off the electric grid that they, unlike cars, can be constantly connected to, without the need for huge chemically complex batteries?

That proposal would cost many trillions, and it's not even on the shelf next to the table.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:22 PM on November 14, 2010


Brian B. wrote: "The facts I've read disagree with you. Where does your electric power come from anyway?"

I don't know about your city, but in mine, most of the power plants are outside the city. Go figure.

The facts I've read are construction cost estimates for proposed electrified high speed rail projects. Interesting that you have different facts that indicate that costs are higher where land is cheaper..
posted by wierdo at 9:28 PM on November 14, 2010


So instead we're going to build a nationwide fleet of electric cars,

They build new cars every year. People buy them I hear.
posted by Brian B. at 9:29 PM on November 14, 2010


I wouldn't be caught dead going back in time with this old technology. It's political desperation.

No, swords are old technology; a modern sword, other than the advantages of mass production, is basically as good as the best swords of hundreds of years ago. Siege engines are old technology. The wheel is old technology. Cars and trains, as they exist today, are both brand-fucking-new. Or if you start looking back, they're ancient, because a car is nothing but a carriage with a really fancy high-tech horse.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:32 PM on November 14, 2010


No, swords are old technology; a modern sword, other than the advantages of mass production, is basically as good as the best swords of hundreds of years ago. Siege engines are old technology. The wheel is old technology. Cars and trains, as they exist today, are both brand-fucking-new. Or if you start looking back, they're ancient, because a car is nothing but a carriage with a really fancy high-tech horse.

Yeah, I carry a sword and something about a siege engine.
posted by Brian B. at 9:40 PM on November 14, 2010


Brian B., I appreciate your willingness to play Devil's advocate here. You've brought the pro-train MeFi lobby to some good points.

As armage noted, trains would need to be on a level playing field with other modes of transport (either subsidies for all, or no subsidies at all). Similarly, malapropist noted that diverting money to train infrastructure will lessen the need for spending on *ahem* inter-state roads by providing viable alternatives to driving. I'd add that a viable alternative to short-hop flying could improve airline service and reduce ticket prices by increasing competition.

Which raises the argument mentioned by various commenters: the government is not a business. Its role is not to make a profit. Its role is to produce non-profitable but necessary intra- and inter-state infrastructure projects that private enterprise won't address. By doing this government provides a foundation on which commerce and society may flourish. Investment in any form of inter-state transportation improves the good of the whole (including those unserviced by particular infrastructure) by facilitating general inter-state commerce.

The solutions should be incremental and pragmatic.
As wierdo wrote: Anyway, it certainly doesn't make sense to have all our passenger rail on high speed lines. A network of high speed lines along already heavily used corridors along with slower trains to serve smaller cities and towns would probably be the way to go. In general we need more double/triple track into those smaller areas.

And as the Artful Codger noted in summary of a few other commenters: it seems to me that the appropriate solution would be a sensible combination of incrementally improving rail travel in sufficiently dense corridors, and looking at some areas in detail that could see a long-term benefit from a dedicated high-speed rail corridor, which builds on what I said yesterday: What we really need is a moderate speed boost and better, more-frequent departure times to improve perceptions of rail, providing a viable alternative to driving (or flying for that matter).

Again, thanks for arguing contrary. You've helped aggregate a lot of good ideas in one place. :D
posted by Galen at 11:16 PM on November 14, 2010


inefficient and wasteful devices called trains

How, exactly, are you measuring efficiency?

Here's a Wikipedia article that has a couple of charts down near the bottom with some interesting numbers. It's interesting to me because both charts disagree with your assertion that trains are inefficient and wasteful.

The first chart, US Passenger Transportation, measures energy (BTU) per passenger mile, and shows that not only rail, but also air travel are more efficient than cars and personal trucks, at least by this particular yardstick. Surprising to me is that buses are by quite a percentage the least efficient!

However the key with that chart is the average number of passengers per vehicle. It's measuring existing utilization (from 2006) of existing transport stock; air scores well because the average passenger number is very high. If you double the number of passengers on the Intercity Rail (Amtrak) line, the BTU/mile drops to 1358.125, more comparable to the Efficient Hybrid numbers.

So while we obviously need to better optimize bus transit in the US, this chart doesn't seem to support your assertion that trains are "wasteful and inefficient" - at least not in terms of energy used to transport people. (It's somewhat encouraging that widespread use of hybrid cars could more than halve energy use in car transport, so that's a point in your favor.) Efforts even to optimize existing passenger rail transport would clearly offer a substantial savings in energy and better efficiency.

The second chart is even worse for your assertion. Called US Freight Transportation and measured in BTU per US short ton (2000lbs) per mile, it plainly shows that by this measure rail is ten times more efficient than over-the-road heavy trucks, and thirty times more efficient than air freight. It's actually more efficient than river transport, which is amazing. Trains, wasteful and inefficient? Hmm.

Let me also try a little math to compare the BTU/passenger-mile measure to BTU/ton-miles. From this Wiki page, I get a rough average American's body weight of around 175 lbs (177.5, but I'm rounding down for easies). That means to make a ton, you need 11.43 Americans on average. Let's be nice, and call it 12.

So, we should be able to take any of those BTU/passenger-mile numbers from the first chart and multiply them by 12 to get BTU ton-miles. Hmm, maybe that doesn't really mean that much, since applying the same factor to all of them doesn't change the ratio.

Actually what we'd need to know is how much the vehicles weigh, so we get some kind of idea of the difference between the net "payload" weight and total weight being moved around using those BTUs.

An average passenger car weighs around 3,000 lbs, a ton and a half. Using the numbers from the first chart, with an average of 1.57 people per car, we plug in our average weight and get about 275 pounds of passengers. So, now we have 3,275 pounds. Taking the BTU number of 3,215 per passenger mile, I multiply that by 1.57 passengers and get 5513.84 BTU per car-mile.

To convert to BTU/ton-mile, I divide 3275/2000 and get 1.6375 tons; now i divide 5513.84 by 1.6375, which gives me 3367.23 BTU/ton-mile.

Unsurprisingly, this is almost the same as the second chart's 3357 BTU/ton-mile for Heavy Trucks.

Ooh, look, in the first article it says this:

"A trial of a Colorado Railcar double-deck DMU hauling two Bombardier Bi-level coaches found fuel consumption to be 128 US gallons (480 l; 107 imp gal) for 144 miles (232 km), or 1.125 mpg-US (209.1 L/100 km; 1.351 mpg-imp). The DMU has 92 seats, the coaches typically have 162 seats, for a total of 416 seats. With all seats filled the efficiency would be 468 passenger-miles per US gallon (0.503 L/100 passenger-km; 562 passenger-mpg-imp)"

Elsewhere I find a number of 130,500 BTU/gallon of diesel fuel; so at 468 passenger-miles per gallon, that's 130,500/468 = 278.84 BTU/passenger-mile. We can't just multiply by 12 to get BTU/ton-mile, because we have to include the weight of the train, yes? Not sure about that. If we don't include the weight of the train, we get 3346.15 BTU/ton-mile of people-as-cargo, so then passenger rail transport is still very slightly more efficient than cars and trucks... but it's in the same ball park. So in that case it's a wash, as rail and road look the same in the numbers. Of course, that number assumes a full train; unfilled trains rapidly become less efficient (but then so do unfilled cars, trucks and planes).

(Others, please check my math, thanks.)

Admittedly I'm no math genius, so I might have totally messed this up, but if I'm doing this right, I don't see any evidence that trains are "wasteful and inefficient." I'm certainly open to persuasive numbers supporting that proposition.

I'll grant you that in terms of personal convenience and possibly immediacy, a poorly-run train system is going to be less "efficient" than what we've got running now, sure. It's way more time-efficient to go hop in my car and drive to San Francisco than to walk to the Metro, ride to Union Station and catch the Coast Starlight or Pacific Surfliner; but for a trainload-equivalent of people hopping in their cars and making that drive, the energy expenditure is at least an order of magnitude greater.

The idea of a high-speed train from LA to SF is to make an energy-efficient transport mode more competitively time-efficient. Now, looking at those passenger-rail numbers I came up with above, it may actually be a wash, so maybe it's not going to save us any energy.

There are some numbers on existing passenger and HSR systems in Japan and Europe in that Wiki article, but they're given in MJ/passenger-km, and I don't have the brain space to do that math right now. I can't tell if they support B or not, the numbers seem to vary a lot.

As long as energy stays cheap, yeah, we probably won't "need" trains. But if it doesn't...

I agree with Galen, it's a good discussion and contrariness helps to keep things in perspective.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:16 AM on November 15, 2010


Re: Rails to Trails:

"No, it's really not ridiculous. It preserves the right-of-way for later use, and in the meantime, we get nice trails out of the deal."

Once you tear out the rails and turn the right of way into a bike trail, you are never, ever, ever going to get a train back on that line. NIMBY neighbors and outraged bicyclists won't let you.

There was a time that I thought Rails to Trails was a neat concept. But I no longer support it -- what Rails to Trails really is is the short-sighted destruction of existing infrastructure. Bike trails are very much needed, but not at the expense of rail capacity.
posted by litlnemo at 5:06 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The second chart is even worse for your assertion. Called US Freight Transportation and measured in BTU per US short ton (2000lbs) per mile, it plainly shows that by this measure rail is ten times more efficient than over-the-road heavy trucks, and thirty times more efficient than air freight. It's actually more efficient than river transport, which is amazing. Trains, wasteful and inefficient? Hmm.

You've misunderstood everything. I support freight trains, and am trying to keep them unmolested from the Mister Rogers fanclub. My context is pretty clear over all of my posts. Sorry to disappoint, or not, as it were.
posted by Brian B. at 7:00 AM on November 15, 2010


litlnemo wrote: "There was a time that I thought Rails to Trails was a neat concept. But I no longer support it -- what Rails to Trails really is is the short-sighted destruction of existing infrastructure. "

Given that the other option is losing the corridor entirely, what do you propose? We don't get to force the owners of the track to leave it in place (or maintain it, for that matter!)
posted by wierdo at 7:25 AM on November 15, 2010


Brian B. My context is pretty clear over all of my posts.

Not to me.

As far as I can tell, you were assuming that the discussion was about high-speed rail everywhere, you were attacking that, then fighting a rearguard action as people tried to dismantle your high-speed strawman and justify simple improvement.

To help me understand what you are saying, are you for or against passenger rail in urban corridors of sufficient size?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:56 AM on November 15, 2010


Another interesting tidbit: US population is 79% urban [pdf] and 58% of total population lives in urban areas of 200,000 population or greater.

Further, population is growing at .9% annually, with ostensibly at least 58% growth occurring in urban areas.

My point being, we're going to need highways. And airplanes. And trains. A "one right way" approach is going to end up overwhelmed. And as zoogleplex noted, "American productivity is largely based on our mobility." Hence, pretty much any solution increasing American mobility (especially those that create jobs) is going to help.

With concentrated (read: urban) population growth, trains are coming into their heyday.
posted by Galen at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2010


But doesn't that train already exist?

Going from Boston to DC with the current train in place takes too long to be effective. Meanwhile, the highways and airways are full, and the corridor is just going to get more crowded.

We are very willing to spend hundreds of billions on much less worthy projects (we are a very wealthy country), so HSR doesn't seem like a bad idea. I think it's fair to make a purely cost-benefit argument against HSR, but all too often you veer into cultural arguments against it (your bizarre fingernails-on-chalkboard statement, etc.).
posted by deanc at 10:30 AM on November 15, 2010


"You've misunderstood everything. I support freight trains, and am trying to keep them unmolested from the Mister Rogers fanclub. My context is pretty clear over all of my posts. Sorry to disappoint, or not, as it were."

Not disappointed, I'm glad you've made that clear. It would be pretty silly to not be in support of freight trains, since they're critical infrastructure. In my travels thru Wiki last night I saw a number saying that 46% of US freight rail payload is coal, and that coal generates the majority of our electric power.

So, what do you think of where I found that the efficiency difference re passenger trains vs. cars/trucks is most likely a wash, being apparently about the same?

Also, that with some optimization, that things could be improved? Looking at those charts, it's clear that even for existing cars, things could be improved by just upping the average passengers-per-vehicle. You can see that by looking at the most energy-efficient mode: Van Pooling, which had an average of 6.1 p/v. Upping the average car p/v to 3 would cut the BTU/pm almost in half, bringing it into Hybrid territory, just above van pools. I see that you mentioned progressive tolls on freeways where the more full your car, the less you pay, so I do feel like you've given that some thought. I also support this kind of thing, where if your car is full you pay zero toll, with maximum toll for one occupant.

"Given that the other option is losing the corridor entirely, what do you propose? We don't get to force the owners of the track to leave it in place (or maintain it, for that matter!)"

weirdo, I didn't know the RTT Conservancy was actually trying to hold the ROWs in trust for future re-railing, so that's a positive thing. However, I also fear that having the rails gone now means they'll never come back. You're probably right that this is the best possible solution under present circumstances, but I personally don't think it's a great thing.

Galen, I'd add this: "With concentrated (read: urban) population growth, [mass-transit light rail and intercity heavy rail] trains are coming into their heyday."

Yeah. Basically as populations concentrate things on the coasts will be more like Europe and Japan, while the interior starts to look more like Russia, large emptyish spaces between cities.

The key factor for the US is going to be the rate of increase of jet fuel prices. Rail energy costs, even if diesel and turbine fuel (which power freight trains) get more expensive, will increase much more slowly than air travel prices.

Electric trains would see almost zero impact on energy prices, because most US energy is generated by coal, with very little being generated by liquid petroleum fuels. This is much of the thought behind the push for electrified passenger trains. Remember, that BTU/p-mile number doesn't count the price in dollars of those BTUs. Electric trains energy price will remain essentially unchanged even if gasoline, diesel and jet fuel prices multiply by 10x, which would suddenly make such trains by far the most economical way to get anywhere in terms of money.

"Going from Boston to DC with the current train in place takes too long to be effective."

I think the only way to make the Acela get to DC faster would be to take out more than half the stops!
posted by zoogleplex at 10:39 AM on November 15, 2010


Also, I guess I should add in that I don't think anyone who's in favor of increased passenger rail of any kind is interested in "molesting" or interfering in any way with freight rail - which should always have the priority, as it does now.

HSR systems, by adding entirely new and separate dedicated tracks, would avoid any interference with freight, so accusing them of doing that is unwarranted.

There are most likely ways of optimizing mixed traffic on shared rails, too. Adding another set of rails to every major line that could be shared could be helpful.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:06 AM on November 15, 2010


"Given that the other option is losing the corridor entirely, what do you propose? We don't get to force the owners of the track to leave it in place (or maintain it, for that matter!)"

I don't know. What I do know is that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that a trail corridor will become rail again someday. Complacently thinking "oh, we'll just get it back from the bike folks in a few years" makes it easy to make the kind of decisions that we will regret in a few years.
posted by litlnemo at 7:35 PM on November 15, 2010


I think the only way to make the Acela get to DC faster would be to take out more than half the stops!

Or going at the speed for which it is designed for, say, *most* of the run. *sigh* Track upgrades, please.

What I do know is that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that a trail corridor will become rail again someday.

Agreed. Who the heck is going to run for office with a "screw the bike trails" campaign?
posted by desuetude at 9:39 PM on November 15, 2010


"Or going at the speed for which it is designed for, say, *most* of the run. *sigh* Track upgrades, please."

I was just reading about that, it's apparently not the track that's the problem between NY and DC, it's the catenary, the electric wires, which date from (can you believe it?) 1935. That only cuts the top allowed speed down to 135mph, though.

But yeah there's only two stretches where it's allowed to hit 150, both up towards Boston. Apparently they did try a very limited express train that only stopped in NYC and Philly between BOS and DC, and were able to get that trip down to 2 hours 35 minutes, which is astounding. If you count the usual amount of airport and trip-to-and-from-airport time involved in a flight, that beats flying by a handy margin!

Dunno why they stopped running that particular service but they only did it for a short time. Maybe if they tried again they'd find ridership would be greater now - people are really, really unhappy about the "Scope or Grope" fiasco the TSA is forcing on everyone. I know at least a dozen people (including my wife) who absolutely will not fly until that crap stops.

You want incentive for better trains, there it is!
posted by zoogleplex at 10:27 PM on November 15, 2010


I was just reading about that, it's apparently not the track that's the problem between NY and DC, it's the catenary, the electric wires, which date from (can you believe it?) 1935. That only cuts the top allowed speed down to 135mph, though.

Oh, you're right, I recall the catenary thing...I should've been more inclusive and said "mechanical upgrades, please!

But isn't the average speed more like 80 mph?
posted by desuetude at 10:58 PM on November 15, 2010


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