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President Obama claims there's no reason why we can't have trains as fast as China and Germany.

Oh yes there is a reason.  It is his refusal to fund sufficient money to give us the fast trains he says we should have.  Shame on him.

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The Goverment's Outrageous Lie about High Speed Rail Funding

State of the art high speed trains comfortably travel at speeds in excess of 220 mph in Europe and Asia.

So why not in the US too?



Are we expected to believe that a pathetic paltry $8 billion investment in a crazy patchwork quilt of piecemeal projects will give us a national high speed rail network to be proud of?

The government's $8 billion high speed rail initiative, first promised in 2009, and now being explained in 2010, is being frittered away on ridiculous projects that get this country no closer to any type of high speed rail functionality.

Sadly, Sometimes $8 Billion Isn't Much Money

Do you remember the $787 billion that has been dished out every which way, primarily for 'shovel ready' projects to save our country from slipping into a deep depression in 2009?

$8 billion of it was grandly labeled as being for high speed rail.  Well, here we are almost a year after the start of that frantic spending program, and the $8 billion that was set aside for high speed rail has just sat there, stimulating nothing except the extraordinarily over-worked imaginations of the politicians.

And now, in late January, we have now been advised of the grandiose plans for this $8 billion.  In his State of the Union speech on Wednesday 26th, President Obama claimed 'there's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains' and on Thursday explained how the $8 billion will be doled out.

Now, please appreciate, $8 billion is chump change for high speed rail - the California high speed rail project alone is currently projected as costing somewhere in the range of $65 - $80 billion, and you just know final costs will end up way above that projection.

So $8 billion will buy us - what, exactly?  Well, California asks for $2 billion merely to upgrade track between Los Angeles (downtown) and Anaheim, and another $1.3 billion to do some work on the route between San Francisco and San Jose.  So $8 billion could potentially buy us a tiny chunk of California's project, but nothing else.

The bottom line is simple, and I've commented on this before. $8 billion won't create any usable stretch of high speed rail, anywhere in the country - and high speed rail, by its very nature, is only of value when the distances it covers are greater than perhaps 100 miles - shorter distances don't create sufficient time saving as to encourage people to switch to rail.

$8 billion - a lot of money for some things - is a ridiculous trifle for high speed rail.  It is as useful as trying to save the Titanic by bailing out the onrush of water with a thimble.

Not Just Insufficent, But Mis-directed Too

The reality of our politicians' grand scheme for high speed rail is even worse than it could be.

Rather than dump the $8 billion into the single most deserving project to give it some chance of getting somewhere closer to reality at some future time, they have decided instead to slice it into a dozen useless pieces, with money being spread among 31 different states (can anyone say 'venal process of vote buying'?).

Secretary of Transportation LaHood Promises Us the World's Best High Speed Rail

There's a lot of talk about 'long term vision' - most of which seems to be used to disguise the fact that little or none of the $8 billion will actually create anything tangible (and fast).

In particular, cheerleader Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood promises us

And I assure you that one day, not too many years from now, ours will be the go-to network, the world's model for high-speed rail.

Oh, really?

Let's look at just two of the ridiculous projects that will apparently become the world's model for high speed rail and see what our politicians are so proud of, and ascertain just how thoroughly we're now beating China's quiet accomplishments.

An Example :  Florida's 'High Speed Rail' Funding

One of the specific projects that seems to be fully funded, and with a planed in-service date of 2014 is a line between Tampa and Orlando that is described as having trains traveling at speeds of up to 168 mph.  Wow - that's impressive, isn't it.  Or is it?  Let's look more closely.

Give or take a mile or two, it is a distance of 80 miles along I-4 between the two cities, slightly less as the crow flies.  So, with a train going at up to 168 mph, it should be an easy 30 minute journey, right?

After all, in China - and remember, 'there's no reason we can't have faster trains' - they operate scheduled service between Beijing and Tianjin, a 74 mile distance, that takes the train 30 minutes.

Well, actually, it seems that our new 'high speed rail' service between Orlando and Tampa is projected to take 60 minutes to cover 80 miles - and who really cares about the theoretical speed the train might apparently briefly reach for a short minute, when the average speed is a much less impressive 80 mph, and the overall train performance is barely half that of China, which we are told we should be able to exceed.

The gushy excited press release about this project also tells us that this 60 minute service is much better than driving by car, which would take 90 minutes.  But let's dig a bit deeper into the reality of this.

'High Speed Train' vs Regular Speed Car

Sure, the train may take 60 minutes between stations (although it may also take longer when the final service is started).  But let's think not of just the train time, but instead the total journey time - how long it takes to get from wherever you are in Tampa to wherever you want to be in Orlando, or vice versa.

With the train, you first have to get from where you start your journey (eg at home or a hotel) to the train station.  How will you do that?  If you live in that city, you'll probably either drive or take a taxi - one way you then have to find parking and then make the rest of the way to the station by foot, and both ways you have to pay extra (for parking or taxi fare).  Maybe it will take you 15 - 20 minutes to get to the station, and you'll want to get to the station probably 15 minutes prior to the train's departing.

If you were visiting the city you leave from, things won't be quite so easy if you have a rental car.  First you'll have to return the rental car somewhere, then second you still have to get to the train station.

Then, upon arrival at the other end, you need to repeat the mirror image of this process.  Collect your car, take a taxi, or somehow get a rental car and complete your journey.

So how long is the total journey time?  The 60 minutes for the train ride will grow to easily two hours, maybe more.  And you now have at least three different parts to your journey, with three different types of travel - getting to the train station, the train journey, then completing the journey at the other end.

Compare that to simply driving from one city to the other.  Driving is a 90 minute door to door journey, involving no changes of travel mode, no inter-dependencies, no extra costs, and no need to fit in with train timetables - it can be done at any time of the day or night that works for you.

Which would you choose?  The quick easy (and probably less expensive) way?  Or the slow complex more expensive way?

Another Example :  High Speed Rail Money goes to Slow Speed Rail

My own state of Washington gets $590 million to 'improve rail travel times' over about 250 miles of slow speed track that will remain slow speed.

It is expected that investing in things like extra sidings and passing loops for freight trains will reduce delays on the slow (79 mph max speed) Amtrak trains that use the route between the Canadian border and on down to Portland in Oregon.  For sure, these improvements will be positive and good.  But it is nothing - nothing at all - to do with high speed rail.  It is merely allowing the current slow trains to go at their current slow schedules speeds, it isn't speeding them up to high speed standards.

In terms of high speed rail, this is over half a billion dollars of money totally wasted.

And, even worse, the money isn't being spent to create dedicated high speed rail corridors.  It is being spent on track belonging to Warren Buffett's Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight railroad, rather than belonging to the state or to Amtrak.

And no matter how much money is gifted to BNSF, the fact remains it is a freight railroad that grudgingly allows passenger trains to share its tracks, but which gives traffic priority to its own slow lumbering freight trains.

High Speed Rail Defined

With hundreds of millions of dollars of the $8 billion assigned to 'High Speed Rail' being used to build new sidings for privately owned freight railroads in Washington (and probably elsewhere in the country too) one wonders exactly what President Obama and Secretary of Transportation LaHood understand the phrase 'high speed rail' to mean.

As it turns out, there is an official definition of high speed rail promulgated by the European Union, and being as how Germany is one of the countries that President Obama believes we should be able to beat in the high speed rail stakes, let's see what that definition is.

The EU (in its 1996 directive 96/58) defines high speed rail as being trains that regularly travel at speeds in excess of 200 km/hr on existing tracks or at speeds in excess of 250 km/hr on new tracks.  These speeds translate to 125 mph on existing track and 156 mph on new track.

The Value We're Getting for our $8 billion

So how many miles of high speed rail will we get for our $8 billion?  The $590 million in WA buys not a single foot of high speed rail.  The $1.25 billion in Florida gets us a line that is too short, resulting in a low speed rail type average speed of 80 mph, less than half that achieved on new high speed rail projects in Europe and China.

And so on, throughout the remainder of this pathetically small funding.

Catching Up With China and Europe?

President Obama told us there's no reason that China and Europe should have the fastest trains.  Secretary LaHood went further, and promised us that the US system would become 'the go-to network, the world's model for high-speed rail'.

So, is that going to happen?

Well, at the same time we're fragmenting a mere $8 billion, over an uncertain but multiple number of years, to subsidize freight lines, build new train stations, and create short distance lines that offer no appreciable benefit over regular trains, buses, or cars, what's happening elsewhere in the world?

According to this Bloomberg article, China spent $70 billion on its rail network in a single year (2009) and will be spending almost $300 billion more over the next decade.

You've got to believe that each billion dollars invested in rail buys a lot more land, a lot more labor, and a lot more materials in China than it does in the US, which means their $370 billion buys maybe 100 or more times the rail system that our $8 billion is going to buy us here - and that comparison assumes a rational investment on our part.  In truth, most of the $8 billion that we're so proudly spending on 'high speed rail' isn't actually buying us anything fast at all.

So, please, President Obama and Secretary LaHood, explain to me how and when it is your $8 billion 'high speed' rail program is going to make the US rail system 'the go-to network, the world's model for high-speed rail'.

In case you can't tell, I am outraged at our politicians for perpetrating such appalling lies.

The politicians truly are trying to pretend that black is white.  And I'm terribly disappointed that after the $8 billion results in no tangible benefits at all, this will be used as another strike against Amtrak and passenger rail in general, it will be used as another reason not to actually invest the money and resource that we should be investing - 'we gave you another $8 billion and you've got nothing to show for it'.

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Originally published 29 Jan 2010, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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