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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Rational Passenger Rail Policy Before a National HSR Network

Intro
“…[R]ailfans could contribute much expert knowledge, based on the maxim ‘What man has done, man can do.’ But first their goals have to be realistic. Universal high speed rail is not one of them.”



I remember retired Metro North engineer Olaf Olsen uttering the above quote in 1999 regarding a realistic rail policy. Back then, he praised advocates in Northern New England for reviving Boston-Maine service but he was miffed at the idea of high speed rail in small towns with limited transportation options, being tourist trains, and serving shacks disguised as stations.

Let's Have a Little Logic Here
As the years have gone by, I just shake my head every time a region with infrequent rail service jumps on the fast train bandwagon. The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with him. It’s laughable for Colorado to talk about HSR when the state sees a total of four trains daily. The state’s leaders should be trying to provide more roundtrips between Denver and Salt Lake City as well as a conventional speed Denver-Albuquerque route via Pueblo and Trinidad. And don’t even get me started on the Gulf Coast Corridor. When the Sunset Limited is upgraded to daily status and it has a complementary route, then talk to me about Gulf Coast HSR.

Some railfans have also made the push for a nationwide HSR system. It’s the wrong approach that is the result of the Asians and Europeans running laps around America with bullet trains while Amtrak operates with antiquated equipment that it can’t wait to get rid of. Now, I’m not opposed to a nationwide network of high speed rail per se, but we in the rail community have to look before we leap. In order to have a national network of fast trains, we must improve the skeletal rail system Amtrak has now. William Lind has a point about the negative effect the push for nationwide HSR has had on conventional rail travel.

In order to have a productive rail system, we need more long-distance routes. If a heavily traveled segment of an overnight route has the ridership, then corridor service will result. Overnight trains should have at least one or two other roundtrips along its route (the URPA plan is an example of this), and corridors will relieve overcrowding and serve more local destinations. Once the latter has been implemented, then high speed service planning should take place, leading to true high speed service. The corridors would remain in place as regional trains since the fast trains would make even fewer stops within the given region than the long-distance trains.

Last year, I proposed an interstate passenger rail system. This would mean that heavily traveled routes and any intercity segments that Amtrak shuttered will be preserved as America’s Rail Highways. This means that some routes would follow Gil Carmichael’s Interstate II vision where passenger trains would operate on double and triple tracked rights of way while other routes would run on dedicated passenger-only ROWs. This post from the Midwest HSR blog is an idea of what a rail highway could look like.

In an era where there will be multiple operators, stations need to be upgraded, so get rid of the Amshacks! Seriously, there is no excuse in this day and age for a train station to look like a city bus shelter or worse.

Who Really Deserves HSR?

The only areas that can logically support HSR are the Northeast, Southeast (D.C to Hampton Roads/Charlotte only), Midwest, California and the Northwest. A caveat is that funding for the Empire and Keystone routes would be given special consideration in Amtrak’s budget. Every other region not listed would start out at the 79 mph level and then build up.

I’d rather have a limited number of regions with true HSR instead of the scramble currently going on where everybody is demanding 150 mph service or bust while true connections to corridors remain scarce. JR Central is free to develop an Express route between Houston and Dallas while the private Triangle Railroad Holding Company can plan the Texas Triangle, but if Texas DOT officials get in the rail game, they would have to plan their service as Emerging HSR routes.

Onward to the Future...At Last
Once enough corridors have been upgraded to Regional status, then a national HSR network will be developed. Since passenger trains will be on their own tracks along the busiest routes, the transition will be relatively easy. These operators will then build special tracks for Express HSR routes. For corridors that share tracks with freights, the operating entity will build its own tracks to keep up.

When it comes to ownership, either the FRA or the USDOT would own the tracks of the passenger-only rail highways. Federal ownership would serve two purposes. First, it would guarantee that someone will maintain the tracks at all times. So, when there is an infrastructure issue, the governing body would fix the problem rather than a company only pays lip service to faulty materials due to Wall Street peer pressure or another company that may find repairing tracks and bridges prohibitively expensive. Second, as long as there are multiple operators using these rail highways, compatibility and ownership issues will arise. Putting the feds in charge means that no operator will have an unfair advantage on the tracks.

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