Low Expectations for High-Speed Rail at NYU Conference

Acela.jpgDoes New York need bullet trains, or just better trains? Photo: Gilliamhome/Flickr

Skeptics and boosters of high-speed rail traded views at NYU this Wednesday at a conference notable for the low expectations expressed by many panelists. While the much-heralded potential of 200 mph trains was discussed at length, many speakers, particularly those close to the ground in New York, argued that true high-speed rail is a pipe dream or won’t provide its promised benefits.

The hypothetical value of high-speed rail for the New York region was widely cited. "It creates the new most important place" in a city, said David Carol, a vice president at global engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff, "and I think Moynihan Station [the long dreamt-of rail hub on the West Side of Manhattan] has that kind of potential." Experts from the Regional Plan Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors noted that high-speed rail could move people from New York to D.C. in 90 minutes, creating economic benefits and cutting down on less environmentally friendly trips by airplane and automobile.

But panelists working in New York government weren’t sanguine about the prospects for actually building high-speed rail, especially not the all-out bullet train variety. "We’ve really been trying to — I don’t want to say constrain expectations — but manage expectations," said Michael Evans, chief of staff for Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and a transportation player who’s worked on plans for Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment, the Tappan Zee Bridge, congestion pricing and bridge tolls.

Evans characterized the region’s plethora of political jurisdictions as an almost insuperable obstacle to building a comprehensive high-speed rail network in New York. It took nearly a year, he said, for the various states and transportation authorities planning rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor just to decide on a decision-making structure for the preparation of an environmental impact statement.

Rather than push for bullet trains, said Evans, the place to start is with "higher-speed rail" — incremental improvements in existing service. "The only way," he said, "is by a step-by-step process." 

The MTA’s William Wheeler, the man in charge of the agency’s long range planning, also referred to "higher-speed rail" as the right path. Instead of bullet trains, he highlighted plans to increase capacity at Penn Station and to make the region’s commuter lines run all the way through Manhattan, rather than ending their routes in Midtown, as particularly important for the region’s rail system.

Skepticism wasn’t universal among New York’s public officials. "The whole city’s history, its success, is about better transport, better access," said Tokumbo Shobowale, the chief of staff for outgoing New York City deputy mayor Robert Lieber. He referred to the rezoning of Manhattan’s Far West Side as setting the stage for development that will fit hand-in-glove with a high-speed rail hub, and contended that congestion at the region’s airports is imposing a real constraint on economic growth.

The most controversial comments of the day came from Professor David Levinson, a transportation engineer at the University of Minnesota. Pointing to pictures of surface parking lots next to high-speed rail stations in Japan and Europe, he argued that "there is no advantage to adjacency" — that high-speed rail stations are barely more likely to spur walkable development than airports. 

He also walked through a body of research showing that high-speed rail gives a significant economic boost to whichever city serves as the system’s hub, but does little for cities on the spokes. Showing maps of hub-and-spoke networks proposed by municipalities from around the country, he noted that every city, no matter how small, imagined itself at the center.

Ultimately, some overlapping views emerged from the conflicting claims of high-speed rail optimists and pessimists. Assuming the political wherewithal to build faster trains exists, all agreed that planners still have to ensure the enhanced rail system is tightly integrated with the local transit network and land-use policies. Otherwise, whatever opportunity high-speed rail does present is sure to be squandered. 

  • Bolwerk

    Lighter equipment and carefully focused infrastructure upgrades could probably speed up the NEC significantly.

    I agree with the point about “higher speed rail” in general though. Just getting what we have running on time enough so people can rely on it will do a lot for rail in the USA.

  • JK

    Optimist, pessimist? How about show me the money? Where is the funding for this super cool next gen rail coming from? Uncle Sugar? It’s that or nothing. The state is taking money out of the pocket of working class transit riders to subsidize school passes because Albany is now a net taker of funds from the MTA. Phase 2 of the 2nd Ave subway is unfunded and bus service is being cut. The state’s roads and bridges aren’t being maintained, and there isn’t enough money to replace one of the most important bridges in the region — the TZ. Nationally (and locally)the politics of gas, carbon or VMT taxes are terrible. Self financing? From what? The value add that would allow cost recovery from TIF is nowhere near enough.

  • Don’t expect much of it. The RPA released the report, and it’s full of crap. The lowlights: a new north-south tunnel under Phildelphia for HSR only, an underwater tunnel from Ronkonkoma to New Haven, and new dedicated cross-Hudson and cross-East River tunnels. Who asked for those?

    You’d expect that this extravaganza would at least get you high average speeds, on a par with those of China or those expected of Spain once it raises speed from 300 to 350. But it doesn’t. The RPA’s nonstop New York-Boston runtime is 1:45, which is the same average speed as the 270 km/h Tokyo-Osaka express-but-not-nonstop trains.

  • Bolwerk

    I get the impression that planners here think, Well, there’s a station there, so the train has to stop. And then, of course, every small-state senator (MD, DE, CT, MA) will complain if there isn’t at least a stop in a major city in each state.

    Still, IIRC, Amtrak runs one Acela between DC and NYC each day that only makes one stop in Philly. It saves about 10 minutes.

  • Jonathan

    Re JK’s “show me the money”. Show me a transportation policy that addresses how to keep our country vital and competitive, moving people conveniently and supporting efficient and sustainable patterns of settlement. We should be investing in critical infrastructure. If our federal budget identifies spending $3.5 Trillion on a cash basis this year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget), an investment of $35 billion would be 1%. This would be for an appreciating asset, unlocking economic opportunities (yes, in cities), providing more energy self-sufficiency both through cost of VMT (rail vs. road) and reductions of VMT (b/c of denser development), and accordingly even freeing up some security spending over the long term (see Times piece today on China’s energy policy).

  • High speed rail systems based on low-cost highly modular lighter-than-human-weight vehicles would be a lot more practical and easier to implement especially when elevated systems are considered.

    They would more likely successfully address the adjacency and hub-and-spoke network issues that Professor David Levinson discussed.

    Though, since they’d provide much more distributed and on-demand mobility they may only create “the new most important place” in the city for a very short time.

  • Gecko, the lightest system that’s even remotely proven as a technology is either conventional HSR or maglev – I’m not sure which is lighter. Lighter than human weight is vaporware, together with tubular rail, and whatever else American inventors try to come up with to avoid using technology that wasn’t invented here.

    P.S. The above complaints I made are solely of the 90-minute NY-DC plan. The other things presented are actually good ideas, as long as it’s understood that they’re not high-speed rail but regional rail. (I’m glad to hear the MTA is thinking seriously about through-running, for one.)

    P.P.S. While the RPA’s 90-minute plan is rotten in many ways, it does allow for trains skipping some stops. If anything, it’s too aggressive about it; you could save a heap of money by designating a few stops on the way, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, as express stops.

  • patton

    The RPA is a hack organization that wants to to destroy the historic Farley Post Office. How is a Billion dollar train hall going to make the trains move faster (Moynihan Station) What a giant waste of money, this station should never be built…it is and always was fiscally irresponsible and a moronic idea for a State that is broke. New Yorkers dont want this project..only Chuck Schumer and the RPA. Rudy Gulliani refused to go along with this fiasco for years because the Farley Post Office is a National Landmark.

  • Jason A

    If only we were mired in a once-in-a-lifetime recession where Government was the spender of last resort and Washington was motivated to release hundreds of millions of dollars in spending for (desperately needed!!!) infrastructure improvements.

    Then you’d think we could finally take the (desperately needed!!!) steps to clean up after the all destruction 70+ years of “cars-only!” development has wrought this country.

    Oh wait.

  • political_incorrectness

    In regards to the NEC, I looked at this trackmap http://www.richegreen.com/MNRRv6.pdf

    This lists all the speeds for the entire line. The Amtrak owned portion needs numerous bridge replacements to increase the speed over the bridge along with curve reallignmnents. I am not sure what possible higher-speeds could be obtained on Metro North’s rail lines but I think curve reallignments and bridge replacements would help with keeping higher average speeds. Does the state of good repair complete those two or would it take Amtrak’s NEC Master Plan to complete that? I think there needs to be a plan in place to get the NEC up to a state of good repair while ridding it of as many choke points as possible.

  • Political_Incorrectness, the Master Plan calls for replacing the movable bridges in Connecticut. I can’t tell from the plan whether it also includes modifying the curves on them slightly to enable higher speed. The plan talks about curve modification (which the SOGR report does not), but is vague and doesn’t mention which curves are to be eased. I believe the intention is to replace the bridges with fixed high bridges instead of new movable bridges, but don’t quote me on that.

  • Bolwerk

    The RPA is a hack organization that wants to to destroy the historic Farley Post Office. How is a Billion dollar train hall going to make the trains move faster (Moynihan Station) What a giant waste of money, this station should never be built…it is and always was fiscally irresponsible and a moronic idea for a State that is broke.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking a billion dollars spent is progress. Americans do it a lot with schools.

    I bet “downgrading” what is today Penn Station to six tracks with seven wide, accessible platforms* would easily fix most of the problems – the headhouse (that’s not what they call it, but that’s basically what it is) be damned. They just need to stop using it as a terminal station. There’s no reason for Amtrak trains to dwell there longer than they dwell at Newark or Baltimore. LIRR trains can turn at the LIRR yard when necessary and NJT and Amtrak can still turn at Sunnyside when necessary. For quick boarding and alighting, maybe they could employ the Spanish solution.

    Now, of course, there seems to be talk of another tunnel to Penn Station from NJ. I guess the NJT tunnels just ain’t going to help very much.

    * Namely: ?????????????

  • Bolwerk, on my computer the last line in your comment renders as lots of question marks. Is it supposed to have question marks, or did you provide a schematic that my computer can’t display?

  • Bolwerk

    @Alon: I think the posting script choked on or deliberately blocked the characters. I figured based on the font used in these posts, they’d display for most of the world (the Windoze users, at least).

    I was trying to display something akin to this: P|P|P|P|P|P|P where the bar is a track and P is a platform. I was basically thinking the smart way to handle 4-6 tracks from the suburbs would be with a configuration similar to an express Subway station with easy access from the street and low dwell times, except perhaps more tracks.

  • Ah. This makes more sense. But I have to ask, which tracks stay and which tracks get paved over?

    Maybe I’m squeamish, but I think 6 is a little tight. In a crunch it’s doable, but railroads usually avoid it if they can without increasing costs too much. At Penn, if you pave over about every other track then you get 12 tracks, consisting of the odd-numbered tracks and track 18, which is already Spanish. Of those 12, all but 1 and 21 would be Spanish, and of the 11 island platforms, all but the one between tracks 17 and 18 would be widened by an amount equal to the track spacing, which I believe is about 4.5 meters.

    But by far, the lowest-hanging fruit at Penn Station is kicking out the back offices from the lower concourse, and then the concessions. IRUM’s George Haikalis shows that 46% of the lower concourse space is back offices and concessions rather than passenger circulation. This should allow adding staircases to the NJT platforms, mirroring the LIRR’s 1990s’ remodeling.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, if it’s too tight (I picked a number partly out of my ass), increase it to 8? 10? I can’t see the point of having almost two dozen. I guess I can see where you’d want a few tracks dedicated to LD trains that might dwell longer. Six should be more than enough for commuter trains, in any case.

    The important point is, I don’t see much sense in the massive complex. Radically simplifying it, shortening the time it takes to get to transit, would be ideal.


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