The High-Speed Rail Numbers Game: Is $13 Billion and 110 MPH Enough?

High-speed rail is one of the Obama administration’s most prized policy goals, with $13 billion getting earmarked in the coming year alone to help break ground on up to 11 proposed regional corridors. But what will the U.S. get for its money? A lively Senate hearing yesterday attempted to answer that question.

OB_DM760_TRAINS_NS_20090416170617.gifWill all 11 high-speed rail plans end up getting a piece of the action? (Photo: WSJ)

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the co-chairman of Building America’s Future and an unabashed high-speed rail evangelist, urged senators to shrug off their post-bailout reluctance to approve large spending projects. The White House’s $13 billion commitment, Rendell argued, is only a down payment on a workable system.

"We can’t do
infrastructure on the cheap," Rendell said. "We have to find the political courage to find a way to pay for it."

Building high-speed rail along the California coast, he added, is estimated to cost as much as $40 billion. A northwestern network is projected to cost $25 billion. Similar long-term funding problems, as it happens, are also haunting lawmakers who aim to overhaul federal transportation policy.

Rendell suggested that a national infrastructure bank, independent of the government, should be tapped to direct money to high-speed rail proposals without political concerns influencing the process.

"The public wants that," he said. "The public
doesn’t want transportation dollars authorized through [the existing] system."

That outcome is highly unlikely, however, given that the federal DOT already has released its guidelines for an internal ranking of regional rail plans. And Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo was on hand to defend the administration’s methods.

"Our vision matches, frankly, what they’ve done in Europe," Szabo told senators. Meanwhile, Rendell kept imploring the lawmakers to reconsider the Obama administration’s 110-mph ballpark for defining what constitutes "high-speed".

With high-speed trains topping 200 mph in China and 160 in France, the governor said, "we’re absolutely consigning ourselves to second-class citizenship" by setting the benchmark at 110 mph.

Tom Skancke, a member of the transportation revenue panel that last year called for a major gas-tax hike to fund system-wide reform, echoed Rendell’s concerns with a call to publicly promote broad reform:

I don’t think the nation as a whole has a plan for high-speed rail. … The way we get there is, we have to sell the American public, particularly on rail, as we get people out of their horse and buggy. It is a cultural shift. We have to convince the American people that high-speed rail is going to be predictable, going to be on time, going to be affordable. … We know what the alignment should look like. I just believe we need to step up and do it.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman also sought to bring Rendell and Skancke’s ambitions down to earth.

Citing the Acela train’s moderate progress in taking over market share in the northeast corridor, Boardman said the U.S. is "not a train-riding culture" — an eyebrow-raising admission from the chief of the nation’s largest passenger rail service. "With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue," he said. "Convenience and trip times are."

Boardman also did his part to guard Amtrak’s turf, suggesting that high-speed rail planners "build a culture of riding the train" by ensuring that the projects receiving funding are easily connectable to the network he runs. "People want to be seamless," he said.

As for the senators in attendance, most put in palpable plugs for their own home-state proposals. Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, the commerce committee’s senior GOPer, was abuzz with the possibilities of the Texas "T-Bone." Sen. Mark Udall (D-NM) spoke of a western corridor linking Albuquerque and Texas.

But with Rendell warning that his fellow governors are equally convinced of the merits of their own local rail plans, the task of separating the wheat from the chaff was rarely discussed.

  • High-speed rail is one of the Obama administration’s most prized policy goals.

    No it’s not. In fact, this administration has made an enormous investment in automobiles that dwarfs public transport spending.

    This site needs to stop being so soft an apologetic on this issue. It starting to strain credibility for you to open up you post with the above line.

    Presenting the administration as being anything other than neglectful and unserious on the issue of public transport is no longer accurate. As public transit systems around the country cut back on service, as planned expansions run into funding difficulties, the Obama administration pours billions of immediately accessible dollars into auto companies, highways, biofuels, and…more auto companies.

    Gregor Macdonald

  • Larry Littlefield

    “With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue…Convenience and trip times are.”

    True, but how fast do the trains have to move to get the average trip time, including stops, to at least 80 mph? Rather than look to the highest speed trains in Europe and Japan, how about the usual express standard there?

    Remember, if it doesn’t get built by 2016, it doesn’t get built at all. Unless it is a retirement community or related facility.

  • spavis

    Boardman, Amtrak’s current CEO, was appointed by train-hating Prez Bush in 2005 to be the US Federal Railroad Administrator. So I’m less than shocked that he’s not the most vociferous rail proponent. And as Larry, above, pointed out, to not make the obvious connection between speed and trip times is silly. It’s not about how fast your train can go, but how quickly it can get you there.

  • I don’t care if they drop the speed to 65 MPH and call it Super Ultra Amazing High Speed Rail — as long as they start building it now and don’t stop till rail is preferred alternative to interstate highways for Americans nearly everywhere.

  • Lexslamman

    Not only is $13 billion not enough. Not only is 110mph not enough. 11 corridors are not enough.

    This is just the beginning. We have to support the bipartisan Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, which would put $50 billion more behind HSR over the next 6 years, and almost $100 billion towards public transit to feed the HSR system. This is just the beginning, and we have to support this legislation to see it through.

  • bikerider

    In Japan, Germany, (and most other places), the cost to refurbish a 100+ year-old rail ROW for quality passenger-rail service is on the order of $100k per mile — including stations, signaling, etc. And by “quality” service, I’m talking modern DMU equipment capable of speeds as high as 125mph — even in difficult terrain.

    Thus, $8 billion is more than enough to get started building comprehensive passenger rail service.

    The big problem in the USA isn’t funding, but stupidity. We have an FRA which has banned the use of light-weight, modern DMUs because they are “unsafe”. We have a Buy-America trade embargo, which prevents transit agencies from purchasing modern European trainsets. We have various state-level PUC’s enforcing archaic and counterproductive regulations (dating back literally to the steam-era). And worst of all, “not invented here” USA transit “experts” are utterly ignorant of modern rail transit operations as regularly practiced throughout the rest of the world.

    In other words, we are doomed. We will know this Obama administration is serious about passenger rail not when they start throwing hundreds of billions at the construction mafias, but when they drop a neutron bomb on FRA headquarters.

  • Spokker

    The FRA is obsolete. Tearing down that organization and replacing it with a forward-thinking one is key.

  • Spokker

    As far as passenger rail goes.

  • lexslamman

    I would rather see our inter-city corridors fully electrified and running with EMUs. Faster acceleration is key to keeping average speeds up. Plus they are more energy efficient and quiter.

  • Because of the huge land mass and a scattered low density population base unlike Europe and Japan rail travel had no charm in America. But then since a beginning has been made for a comparable high speed railway network everybody may be motivated towards it. As the years roll by the systems would certainly upgrade their technologies and become comparable with Japanese systems. But then whether the operations would be profitable in the years ahead is doubtful.
    For a glimpse into the world of future rail transportation please visit the website

    All the engineering details of futuristic rail transport have been given.

  • BOB2

    What 200 mph train in China? It is France and Germany that have the 200 mph service on a few lines, most of these systems operate at th 150-160 range, because it costs nearly double build and operate at speeds of 200 mph plus.

    Yes, for many emerging short and middle distance markets 110 will be sufficient, with much more frequent (at least hourly), convenient, and reliable railroad service for many corridors. This is how most European service operates. This level of service is doable and affordable, as opposed the every other day passenger trains service between Houston and San Antonio-doesn’t everybody want to have every other day service?

    We spend about a trillion dollars a year on our cars (insurance, gas, maintenance, depreciation, roads). We import between $400 billion and $700 billion in oil, a severe tax on our economy paid to other governments and dictators. We kill nearly 50,000 motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists, and injure nearly 700,000 people with our cars, for an additional cost of over $270 Billion. By comparison, we currently spend approximately $30 billion dollars a year on all of our mass transit and passenger rail services.

    So can we afford to invest a five or ten billion more each year for better rail service and mass transit? Can we continue to afford not to?



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