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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

High-Speed Rail Drives Obama’s Transportation Agenda

with 13 comments

This article in Sunday’s Washington Post caught my eye mainly for the attached graphic

Possible High-Speed Rail Routes

Possible High-Speed Rail Routes

Yes you spotted it straight away too – up there in the top right hand corner. But Montreal could get a link to – to Boston, but Toronto (centre of the known universe) has been omitted.  And NYC is notable by its omission too, but that may be because it has “Acela” which is nearest Amtrak gets to High Speed at present.

Of course ours is the exact same route that is still trying to get a second, slow speed, daily passenger train.And equally predictably this is also one of those programs that the Republicans have decided to label “wasteful spending”. Of course shovelling trillions of dollars to banks who then paid it to their executives as bonuses was not “wasteful spending”. Nor were all the boondoggles that private sector contractors ran throughout Bush II’s Iraq adventure. Indeed, in the transportation business, it is common practice to speak about “investment in infrastructure” when talking about roads but “wasteful subsidies” when talking about rail or transit. (Because road spending benefits more corporate clients.)

What would make a lot of sense would be switching money into this program from federal support for air travel. Which is one of the worst culprits in terms of tons of CO2 released per passenger mile, and also one of the hardest to make more fuel efficient or switch to non-fossil fuel sources. For most of the city pairs illustrated here even conventional trains will be quicker and more convenient than dealing with the delays and hassles of overloaded air traffic control and mostly pointless “security” checks.

But one of the biggest issues is finding a way to do all of this while keeping the train operation separate from the existing railway corporations who are adamantly opposed to passenger trains – becuase they make so much more from running freight.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Railway

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13 Responses

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  1. A cursory look at TGV schedules in France sees an hourly TAV service From Paris, South to Toulon. I would imagine that this would be type of service that would warrant high-speed rail on US routes.

    Except for the US North-east corridor, Amtrak trains are restricted, by law, to 89 MPH – why – I do not know. The Vancouver to Seattle Amtrak ‘Talgo’ service reached this speed near Mt. Vernon. What is needed on this route is to increase the maximum allowed to 125 mph (200 kph) and replacement of many swing or draw bridges, including the New Fraser River Bridge. Increased speeds in Vancouver & Burnaby are a must(from 50 to 65 mph) and increased speeds through Whiterock, (from 20 mph to 50 mph) which would require fencing and other amenities. This could, according to my Amtrak source, shave at least 20 minutes off the schedule.

    What greatly slows the passenger service is the many antiquated bridges (with their 10 or 15 mph speed restrictions) from Marysville to Everett. New bridges and alignments are a must and this could result in shaving off 30 minutes!

    Total 50 minutes.

    The question is this: “Would the investment (well over $1 billion US) justify the ridership expected on the route?”

    If there were to be an hourly service, I would say yes, but if it is just 2 or 4 trains a day, it isn’t going to happen.

    D.M. Johnston

    March 11, 2009 at 9:58 am

  2. Another great post!

    D.M., I know you’re just being pragmatic, but high-speed passenger rail has been neglected and delayed for so many years that only the big bucks will make it happen at this point. If we don’t spend the requisite bucks soon, most of us will have to take a horse and buggy or ride a bicycle across the border, as that may be the only way.

    Andrea C.

    March 11, 2009 at 9:56 pm

  3. It depends what one calls high speed trains – do you mean TGV, ICE, or Japanese bullet trains, requiring their special designed tracks or Talgo’s or other ’tilt’ trains that can operate at 160 kph. on existing tracks.

    Sadly we are far, far behind when it comes to passenger railways here and would like to see reasonable increases in service with existing kit, rather than spending huge sums on ‘big-bang’ high-speed rail.

    I’m afraid that the Luddites in Canada just think passenger rail is a ‘yesterday’s’ transit mode and that is something we much change now! Maybe we should ban bureaucrats and politicians from taking airplanes and force them onto trains!

    D.M. Johnston

    March 11, 2009 at 10:37 pm

  4. Malcolm is right again! What is really interesting is the daily number of TGV on weekdays on the one-way run from Paris to, respectively, Marseiile: 29. Toulon: 10. Bordeaux: 21. Rennes: 20. Strasbourg: 15. As for the length of the trip from, for example, Paris to Bordeaux (about 560 km.) it went from 8 hrs in the early 1960s to 6 hrs in the 70s (both with conventional trains)to 3 1/4 hrs with the TGV. It will be just over 2 hrs after 2015. What is also interesting is that regular trains, with a non-aerodynamic locomotive, reached a commercial speed of 200 km/hr as early as 1967.

    Red frog

    March 11, 2009 at 11:01 pm

  5. […] Public Spaces [BrandWeek] Unbuilt Transbay station could soon be obsolete [San Francisco Chronicle] High-Speed Rail Drives Obama’s Transportation Agenda [Stephen Rees] Cut Loose from the Car [Metropolis] The silver lining of the real estate bust […]

    re:place Magazine

    March 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

  6. The lack of long-term planning in this region regarding future passenger rail is getting rather disturbing. With Obama going for HSR in a big way, the time frame for major improvements from Portland to Vancouver has probably jumped forward by 20 years.

    Instead of being 40 years off, it is now probably 20 years off, which means we need to start planning now.

    An example of this lack of planning is really evident in the City of Vancouver. There is only one additional passenger platform being planned for the “Waterfront Hub” and the land next to Pacific Central Station could be turned into a hospital making further expansion very difficult.


    March 12, 2009 at 4:26 pm

  7. The lack of sensible long term planning of any kind in this region is disturbing. What little does happen is usually ignored or vetoed by the powers that be to garner short term gains.

    Waterfront Station is far too crowded with local traffic to include all the customs and security facilities needed for international travel. The waterfront is also too important for freight to give up substantial quantities of land to passenger platforms.

    Pacific Central still has lots of room for expanded service, even within the existing footprint.


    March 12, 2009 at 5:09 pm

  8. Sungsu

    March 13, 2009 at 3:57 pm

  9. On an obliquely related note, since you like to photograph trains, good news about Amtrak’s photography guidelines and policies:


    March 13, 2009 at 4:02 pm

  10. Tough times to be a trainspotter 😦


    March 13, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  11. Here in Britain we’ve just got our first real high speed line from London to the channel tunnel, which means you can now get from London to Paris or Brussels in around 2 hours. The trains are basically French TGV technology, operating at 300km/h (186mph)

    This new line has been named ‘high speed 1’, perhaps in the hope that it will be the first of several.

    For various reasons, we’ve never developed a high speed network like France. Some of these reasons are similar to yours in N America- lack of investment in railways generally and a powerful road lobby. But other factors are that in the UK, distances are generally shorter than in France, existing main lines have been upgraded to 125 mph, and constructing new high speed lines would be costly in a small crowded island- the costs of building ‘Shinkansen’ lines in Japan is many times that of TGV lines in France.

    I’ve never been to the US (shame on me) but my guess is that building high speed lines would be relatively easy in most areas (compared to Japan or the UK) and probably cheaper than upgrading existing routes which carry lots of freight and have features unsuited to high speed like level crossings (? grade crossings)

    You can then have really high speed, only using existing lines to access city centres to avoid the cost of new lines in urban areas.

    Using existing lines for high speed means a maximum of 125 mph- Britain has trains capable of 140mph on the east coast and west coast main lines but they’ve never operated at this speed because its just not practicable on a busy mixed-traffic railway with freight and ordinary passenger trains.

    So I think in most cases, the French TGV model is the one for you to follow.

    Stephen Thwaites


    March 19, 2009 at 6:55 am

  12. Seems the bulk of the tracks benifit the coasts, why? Why no connection going from DFW to Houston? Are connections that would get people from California to Texas or Texas to Florida planned? thus connecting both coasts ? Are the mountains on both sides a limiting factor? More important, do either GE or GM even make trains anymore? or will we be forced to purchase from Japan or France ? What about the Canadian system hooking into more cities ? Mexico City? This is going to be expensive clearly but how will it effect the already messed up airlines…any forecasts on what fares will be? The east coast has a taste already but as I understand Amtrak is a financial failure, why? and what will be done differently ? I’m not even close to any of the purposed routes but am still interested and here a kicker I normally have no use for anything dems propose, but I’m open for this as long as me and my 12 friends still paying fed taxes to get the entire bill as long as all the routes are not near Colorado or any of my stoming ground in sunny snowy flyover states. I’m open minded at least. What about my sheltie ? I always take Tommy when I travel. Do the europeans or Japanese have a solution for pet travel thats better than airlines? This could be a deal maker for me if so. I’ve always wanted to do the coast to coast Canadian route, but the price is wow unlike it was when my parents went years ago. It seems like Texas being so big and with so many big cities would be prime for more routes eventually…I’d much rather pay for this than my irresponsible neighbors mortgage any day and this could work if done right the first time


    April 19, 2009 at 12:47 am

  13. I do realize GE and GM only made freight train, I used to supply both with electonics years ago. I do have faith in them having or acquiring the engineering talent along with Bombidier also I think? to by the the time some of the infrastructer is in place building our own…maybe I wrong and the learning curve is to long an expensive for the first go around. I am an optimist when it comes to the technical prowess of at least the American and Canadian engineers and their ability to compete with French and Japanese….this could be very very cool


    April 19, 2009 at 1:04 am

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