The bad news: Republicans have torpedoed plans for American bullet trains. The good news: The Obama administration is quietly building a slower, but potentially much better, rail system.
This principle is also illustrated by Amtrak’s highly successful “Cascades” service on the 187-mile line between Portland and Seattle. The Spanish-designed Talgo “tilt” train sets look futuristic, and with their on-board bistros and comfy chairs they are a joy to ride. But because they run on conventional track through mountainous country shared by freight trains, their current top speed is only 79 mph, and their average speed is just 53. Still, that’s enough to make taking the train faster than driving, and ridership has swelled to more than 700,000 passengers a year. Using federal stimulus dollars plus state spending, work is currently under way to boost top train speeds to 110-125 mph, simply by adding better signaling and more sidings to let freight trains get out of the way. This incremental investment will also boost reliability and allow for increased frequency, which will further bump up ridership. But numerous studies show there is no point in making trains go faster than 125 mph on a segment this short because of the great cost involved and the limited gains to total trip times. Moreover, if a new bullet train line were built between Portland and Seattle, the tremendous cost of its construction would require fares too high for all but well-heeled business travelers to afford.
The same considerations apply even on much longer segments. In many instances conventional train service is, or could be, competitive with flying or driving, if only it were more frequent and reliable. For example, when I need to travel from my home in Washington, D.C., to Chicago, I am always tempted to take a sleeper car on Amtrak’s “Capitol Limited,” and frequently do. Though it never goes faster than 79 mph, the train is scheduled to leave Washington at 4:00 p.m. and to arrive in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. To make a morning meeting in Chicago by plane, I would either have to fly out the night before and rent a hotel room, or get up at some ungodly hour on the same day and arrive frazzled. Either way, taking the plane requires schlepping my way to and from airports on both ends, while also enduring the hassle and uncertain duration of airport security. In the wintertime, I’m also far more likely to be stranded by snowstorms if I take the plane, and, of course, dinner in the diner sure beats airplane food.
But while the Capitol Limited is fast enough to be more convenient than flying when it’s on time, it frequently runs hours late, even in fair weather, due to competition with freight trains. So I can’t count on it for business travel to Chicago unless my meeting is in the afternoon. Even with that poor track record, sleeper cars on the Capitol Limited are often sold out weeks in advance, such is the surging popularity of this way of travel among professionals who have had it with air travel. All Amtrak needs to build a much larger market share would be better on-time performance, and this, in turn, would require only incremental investment in new sidings and track capacity to make sure freight trains don’t get in the way.
Frequency of service is also often more important than top speed. Only two passenger trains serve Cleveland, for example, and both come through, in both directions, between 12:59 and 5:35 a.m. It’s surprising how many people use these trains nonetheless. Recently, after business in Cleveland that kept me there late, I decided to take a sleeper car home rather than spending an extra night in a hotel room and flying out in the morning. I counted some seventy-five people in the waiting room even at two a.m. Many more would be taking the train in and out of Cleveland if only there were reliable daytime service to nearby points such as Pittsburgh, Toledo, South Bend, Akron, Indianapolis, or Chicago, all of which could be reached by conventional trains in far less time, and at far less cost, than flying. (Sadly, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich has rejected $400 million in federal stimulus funds that would have had such service up and running in short order. Republican Governor Scott Walker has waved away more than $800 million in federal money that would have brought similarly practical and thrifty passenger rail service to the Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and St. Paul corridor.) Providing connectivity to small towns and midsize cities that currently lack affordable air service, or any air service at all, is one of the most important potential benefits of passenger rail, and you don’t need 300-mph bullet trains to pull it off.
Conventional trains running between Washington and such nearby cities to the south as Richmond, Charlottesville, Durham, and Charlotte already attract a growing ridership, and would attract a larger one if they were more frequent and reliable, as well as better integrated with trains running north of D.C. along the Northeast Corridor. The minimal investment needed in new track capacity would also improve freight service, thereby getting more trucks off the road and improving the driving experience for those who don’t want to take the train. It also would likely spur a good amount of economic development. Midsize cities such as Lynchburg or Petersburg, Virginia, which once thrived because of their strategic position on the nation’s rail map, might experience a real estate boom if it were possible to live there and still have easy access to the business opportunities and cultural amenities of Washington, Philadelphia, or New York. Projects currently under way will do the same for cities like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Springfield, Illinois, by providing improved connections with Chicago. Making such incremental improvements might not stir the hearts of Americans the way eclipsing the French or the Chinese in high-speed rail might, but it’s still a sensible course that will gradually start rebuilding a rail culture in the U.S. As more and more Americans outside the Northeast Corridor experience practical, reliable, conventional train service that beats flying or driving, the constituency for super-expensive, super-fast trains will build as it has abroad. Until then “fast enough” high-speed rail is good enough.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.