Why The US Has No High-Speed Rail

  
Via:  tig  •  3 months ago  •  29 comments

Why The US Has No High-Speed Rail
It's just very difficult to make the economics work here. … There's just too many other tough pressing problems we're facing.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


We have vested interests in the private sector that do not want to see an efficient transportation infrastructure that lessens the demand on individual vehicles.    On top of that, the safety regulations, natural challenges (e.g. mountains), labor costs, etc. make such a system difficult to cost justify.  And, of course, there is no political motivation.   Politicians do not see how pushing rail infrastructure will help them with short-term political maneuvers.

There are pockets in the USA where the demand creates a good business case for building high-speed rails (of a sort) but these are very few.    The USA is just starting to experiment with high-speed rail systems.    The success (or failure) of these initial systems will have a great impact on future initiatives.

 

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TᵢG
1  seeder  TᵢG    3 months ago
So you have the politics, the message shaping and then the straight advertising and all three of those coordinate and work together to keep America kind of focused on cars and not focused on rail.

Complicated by the high cost to build and the lack of certain overwhelming demand.

 
 
 
Jack_TX
1.1  Jack_TX  replied to  TᵢG @1    3 months ago
Complicated by the high cost to build and the lack of certain overwhelming demand.

Yes.

And Yes.

So many major cities in the US really developed after the advent of the automobile, so the existing infrastructure is all built around the idea that people will drive cars.

Europe has never been that way.  Almost every city in Europe existed centuries before cars did, so the infrastructure developed around trains.

It's just a massive obstacle to overcome.

 
 
 
TᵢG
1.1.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Jack_TX @1.1    3 months ago
So many major cities in the US really developed after the advent of the automobile, so the existing infrastructure is all built around the idea that people will drive cars.

High speed rail, however, would most logically connect cities rather than serve as an intracity mode of transportation.   

I would love to read a feasibility study of connecting major cities such as Chicago and New York.   Then (albeit far more expensive) a connection between LA and New York (or LA and Chicago).

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
1.1.2  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  TᵢG @1.1.1    3 months ago

Perhaps repairing the transportation infrastructure in the USA, such as preventing the bridges from collapsing, is more important than developing a high speed rail system. However, I can tell you from my own experiences that the high speed rail system where I am is a pleasure to use.

 
 
 
Greg Jones
1.2  Greg Jones  replied to  TᵢG @1    3 months ago

Except for areas with high population densities, high speed rail is impractical and a money loser.

California recently found that out when the government decided to quit the Federal funding of the Central Valley train to nowhere boondoggle.

Railroads these days are mainly used to haul freight, and those trains wouldn't be adaptable to high speed rights of way and speeds.

 
 
 
TᵢG
1.2.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Greg Jones @1.2    3 months ago
Except for areas with high population densities, high speed rail is impractical and a money loser.

The seed states that (at least in the USA) the cost to build just one mile of high speed rail is about $20 to $80 million per mile.   That is due to a base cost of $5-$8 million that can increase to as high as $200 million per mile based on landscape (need for tunneling), rerouting roadways, buying private property, environmental regulations, etc.

Another source compares the cost of US construction with Europe and China:

... construction cost of high speed rail in China tends to be lower than in other countries. China’s high speed rail with a maximum speed of 350 km/h has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about US$ 17-21m per km, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels, as compared with US$25-39 m per km in Europe and as high as US$ 56m per km currently estimated in California.

Cost effectiveness is indeed a major challenge in the USA.   Likely the biggest.

 
 
 
Vic Eldred
1.3  Vic Eldred  replied to  TᵢG @1    3 months ago

The biggest obstacle is that Americans love the unmatched convenience of using ones own car!

 
 
 
Jack_TX
2  Jack_TX    3 months ago
High speed rail, however, would most logically connect cities rather than serve as an intracity mode of transportation.   

Sure.  But the train stations aren't close to anything anymore, the way they are in Europe. 

If you travel from London to Paris via train, you leave from Waterloo Station and arrive at Gare du Norde.  Both stations are centrally located in their respective cities, and you can walk to Big Ben or Notre Dame in a few minutes.  Once in London or Paris, the Tube or Metro gets you almost anywhere very quickly.  

If we translate that to the US, a train ride from Houston to Dallas would be a reasonably similar distance.  Arriving in Dallas, one would be walking distance to the Grassy Knoll and downtown.  DART trains could take you to see the Mavericks, to Texas Instruments, Interstate Batteries, to visit SMU and the Presidential Library, and the Dallas Zoo (which is unremarkable enough it may not have occurred to you we had one). 

But the Exxon's headquarters are in Irving.  The Cowboys play in Arlington.   The investment and banking centers are all in the Dallas North Tollway corridor.  The rodeo is in Mesquite.  None of these places are reasonably accessible by public transportation.  The headquarters of Kimberly Clark, McKesson, Tenet Healthcare and Jacobs Engineering are all in Dallas, but there is no light rail service within walking distance.

Dallas is but one example.  Houston presents similar challenges, as does Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Nashville, or Phoenix.  Most of these cities were built with the idea people would drive everywhere, and any local rail has to be retro-fitted.

So even if you connect "post automobile" cities, the public transport infrastructure necessary to complement that service is so lacking that its effectiveness is severely lessened.

I would love to read a feasibility study of connecting major cities such as Chicago and New York.   Then (albeit far more expensive) a connection between LA and New York (or LA and Chicago).

In Europe, it's more widely used on a regional basis.  You can travel from London to Vienna on high speed rail, but nobody does.  It's still a 12 hour trip, and you can fly from London to Vienna in about 2 hours.  But Paris to Strasbourg?  Vienna to Salzburg?  Strasbourg to Munich?  There are a lot of people on those trains because that distance makes more sense.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
2.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Jack_TX @2    3 months ago

Your descriptions of Dallas rekindled memories of a delicious tender Traildust steak that was bigger than the plate that it was served on.  "sigh"

 
 
 
Jack_TX
2.1.1  Jack_TX  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2.1    3 months ago
Your descriptions of Dallas rekindled memories of a delicious tender Traildust steak that was bigger than the plate that it was served on.  "sigh"

And the opportunity to have your necktie cutoff and hung on the wall! 

Sadly, it's closed now.

 
 
 
TᵢG
2.2  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Jack_TX @2    3 months ago
But the train stations aren't close to anything anymore, the way they are in Europe. 

Intracity travel and travel to adjacent, low density cities is not a problem that would be addressed by high speed rail — at least not initially in the USA.   Given we are just getting started, we have plenty of low hanging fruit candidates.   (Although I do not know if any are really going to be cost effective given our cost challenges here in the USA.)   Pick two cities with a lot of travel, close enough to have less than a four hour trip and with sufficient clearance (e.g. the lack of tunneling) to produce a track that is most cost effective.

That is why I would be interested in a cost feasibility for connecting cities like Chicago and New York.   That is a major business route, about 790 miles and thus could be accomplished in four hours with a genuine high-speed rail.   The initial question are the obstacles that drive up the cost per mile such as rerouting roadways, tunneling, residential areas, regulations, etc.   My guess is that the costs are prohibitive due to the highly populated areas along the route.   Traveling within the greater Chicago area or greater New York area is a different problem to be solved.   High speed rail might participate, but given our structure it will more likely be buses and trams.

 
 
 
livefreeordie
2.2.1  livefreeordie  replied to  TᵢG @2.2    3 months ago

It just doesn’t work for those of us in the rural west

i haven’t been on a train since 1962 when I took the Union Pacific Domeliner from LA or Detroit

 
 
 
TᵢG
2.2.2  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  livefreeordie @2.2.1    3 months ago

Agreed, this is not a solution that makes sense for rural areas.   It would connect dense urban areas like Chicago and New York, Atlanta and Tampa, San Francisco and LA, etc.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
2.2.3  Bob Nelson  replied to  TᵢG @2.2    3 months ago

I have a cousin who was an air travel policy wonk for BWI for many years. He worked on subjects like this.

HSR has practically killed all passenger flights of less than 500 miles in Western Europe. At the same time, HSR doesn't do well for distances less than 100 miles. That's the envelope.

Boston - Washington is just under 400 miles, with Boston - New York a bit under 200, New York - Philadelphia 81, Philadelphia - Baltimore 100, and Baltimore - Washington 40. That should be a no-brainer.

Richmond would be another hundred miles, if there are enough passengers. A stop might be reasonable between Boston and New York (New Haven?).

The technical and economic aspects of HSR are not complicated. (That’s why it was obvious that the California project was a boondoggle from Day 1.) So when an obvious case like BosWash can't even begin... that problem is clearly political.

My son says "too much eminent domain litigation". I say "the ultra-rich don't take trains". Maybe there's some other explanation... but sure and certain, it's political.

 
 
 
TᵢG
2.2.4  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Bob Nelson @2.2.3    3 months ago

The biggest problem in the USA is most likely the push back from the other transportation sectors.   But I can easily see eminent domain being a major issue.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
2.2.5  Bob Nelson  replied to  TᵢG @2.2.4    3 months ago
push back from the other transportation sectors

... which is another way of saying, "no political will in favor of the ordinary traveler".

Paris - Marseilles is 500 miles, for 3 to 4 hours, depending on which of two routes. There are no passenger flights - the airlines have abandoned the line. Going to and from the airports, and security procedures... make it impossible.

This is nearly identical with BosWash... but...

 
 
 
Jack_TX
2.2.6  Jack_TX  replied to  TᵢG @2.2    3 months ago
That is why I would be interested in a cost feasibility for connecting cities like Chicago and New York.   That is a major business route, about 790 miles and thus could be accomplished in four hours with a genuine high-speed rail.

I'm not so sure.  I think they're too far apart.  You're talking about averaging nearly top speed for the duration of the trip.  HS trains don't do that.

For example, Paris to Dijon is about 210 miles, and it takes about 1:40.  I use that route because it's sort of a best case scenario of the fastest trains in Europe.  It's reasonably flat and there are no potential stops on the way.  (Even if the train doesn't stop, it can't go through a station at 200 mph). 

790 miles is farther than Berlin to Rome.  The current US high speed rail takes four hours to get from NY to Boston.  The new 220mph Italian trains take 3 hours to do the 350 miles from Milan to Rome.

Even if you were able to construct a track that took all the grade changes out of the trip, somehow made it direct with no stations along the way, you're still talking about a 6-7 hour trip.  That's the absolute best case scenario.

Also, there is zero chance this could get built without a stop in Cleveland.  Politics.

The sweet spot for high speed rail is that magical distance where both driving and airport check-in take much longer than the train ride.  That assumes we operate them here like they do in most of Europe, where there is no security, no boarding passes, and no baggage check-in.  The train stops, people get off and on carrying their own luggage, and then it leaves within 10/15 minutes max.  Ideally the trains would connect growing cities with an already sizeable population.

So you're looking at routes like LA to Vegas, LA to SF, LA to Phoenix, Miami/Tampa/Orlando, Dallas/Houston/Austin/San Antonio, and maybe improving the Boston/NY/DC route.  

 
 
 
Jack_TX
2.2.7  Jack_TX  replied to  Bob Nelson @2.2.5    3 months ago
Paris - Marseilles is 500 miles, for 3 to 4 hours, depending on which of two routes. There are no passenger flights - the airlines have abandoned the line. Going to and from the airports, and security procedures... make it impossible.

Air France actually offers 15 or so flights daily from Paris to Marseille.  More from Orly than CDG.  They don't sell through Travelocity and many other online outlets, so they're harder to find.

 
 
 
Dean Moriarty
3  Dean Moriarty    3 months ago

The number one reason we don’t have high speed rail is because the unions killed the railroads years ago. They jacked up the cost and they were no longer competitive. 

 
 
 
It Is ME
3.1  It Is ME  replied to  Dean Moriarty @3    3 months ago

California seems to have "Proved" your statement correct. jrSmiley_91_smiley_image.gif

 
 
 
†hε pε⊕pレε'š ƒïšh
3.2  †hε pε⊕pレε'š ƒïšh  replied to  Dean Moriarty @3    3 months ago

I am not opposed to a privately funded John Gault line.

 
 
 
charger 383
3.3  charger 383  replied to  Dean Moriarty @3    3 months ago

NO! it was government regulation (ICC).  As example The Southern Railroad developed better grain hoppers and unit trains to move grain but was not allowed to LOWER shipping costs by the ICC,  They won a Supreme Court case and the lower shipping rates is what started the big Poultry industry we have now.

Penn Central was killed by management infighting and David Bevan's financial mismanagement

The Government built new airports and subsidized airlines and did nothing for passenger rail

Vanderbilt said the New York Central would use safer couplers when they were cheaper than brakeman

  

 
 
 
epistte
3.4  epistte  replied to  Dean Moriarty @3    3 months ago
The number one reason we don’t have high speed rail is because the unions killed the railroads years ago. They jacked up the cost and they were no longer competitive. 

Tell that to BNSF, UP, NS, and CSX.  Rail is very competitive on price.

Passenger rail was killed by the highway system and the airlines. 

 
 
 
zuksam
3.4.1  zuksam  replied to  epistte @3.4    3 months ago
Rail is very competitive on price.

Maybe on a single ticket. I can take a train to NYC for less than I can drive and park but if someone goes with me it's cheaper to drive and park than buy two tickets on the train.

 
 
 
Ronin2
3.4.2  Ronin2  replied to  epistte @3.4    3 months ago
Tell that to BNSF, UP, NS, and CSX.  Rail is very competitive on price.

Not any more.

https://www.joc.com/trucking-logistics/truckload-freight/softening-us-truck-market-resets-battle-domestic-freight_20190508.html

It’s essentially an issue of two markets heading in different directions, shifting the modal balance. Class I railroads are widening their margins by improving service, raising rates on shippers, and slashing expenses. Spot truckload rates declined about 20 percent year over year in April, according to DAT Solutions and Truckstop.com. Truckload contract rates either are rising slightly or flat year over year, depending on carrier and lane, after hitting record highs in 2018.

In a strange inversion of market dynamics, intermodal rail now is the more expensive modal choice in some secondary markets, even though few shippers are willing to pay more for a slower service.

Historically, intermodal rail has been the lower-cost, slower option for shippers — that’s how railroads sold intermodal. The question is whether this recent inversion is a market blip that will soon be corrected or a sign the balance between the modes is changing.

You can throw in the weather- flooding, washouts, resulting in continuous rerouting of trains and delays in transits and groundings. The rails diminishing their free times at all ramps; putting the onus on shippers and drayman to adapt to the rails' shortfalls to avoid extra charges. Also, changing the charges on containers dwelling time while out on the street- to try and force carriers and customers into tighter turns times. 

I work at an IMC, and have to deal with the new intermodal rules and regulations they have imposed every day. We have been forced to lower the prices to our customers to keep from being undercut by a soft OTR market. OTR is not suffering the same transit delays; or extra charges. 

This might only be temporary; but the damage is being done. Rail is very slow to adapt to changing markets. 

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
4  Bob Nelson    3 months ago

My son (raised in France, where HSR is ordinary, and resident in the US for over twenty years) explains very simply:
- HSR requires dedicated track.
- Eminent domain is necessary.
- Thousands of legal challenges would put the construction sometime in the 22nd Century.

 
 
 
TᵢG
4.1  seeder  TᵢG  replied to  Bob Nelson @4    3 months ago

Correlates well with the problems discussed in the seed.

 
 
 
Bob Nelson
4.1.1  Bob Nelson  replied to  TᵢG @4.1    3 months ago

It's annoying.

I've been taking high speed trains regularly for thirty years. It was hi-tech back then, but it's very ordinary now.

My own take is that passenger trains hold no interest at all for the ultra-rich. They have their private jets, so they need airports... but they never, ever take a train, so they don’t want government spending money on HSR. The plebes can walk.

It's Deep Throat: "Follow the money!" Or the absence of any...

 
 
 
Nerm_L
5  Nerm_L    3 months ago

Does high speed rail compete with automobiles or compete with aircraft?  The United States has a lower population density spread across greater distances.  High speed rail will be constrained by the same operational considerations as an air service.  Maintaining a higher speed operation naturally limits the number of intermediate stops, so high speed rail can only provide limited service between hub facilities.  An under served population between hubs won't be motivated to provide funding.

Large high speed trains are not suitable for commuter service.  Air services have addressed that constraint by using smaller (and typically slower) aircraft.  When rail commuting was more dominate in the United States, the equipment used were trolleys and doodlebugs.  Smaller vehicles provide more flexibility and greater access. 

IMO what the United States needs is a high speed bus system rather than a high speed rail system.  Rubber tired buses can operate on overhead electric cables (or other electricity supply).  And constructing road systems can be accomplished faster and cheaper than rail systems.  And the vehicles are more flexible so can better serve communities.

 
 
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