Would you be on board for high-speed rail travel?

In one effort to get the economy moving forward, the President is hoping to mimic job-creating transport initiatives of the past – like the Eisenhower interstate highway system– by building a national “high-speed” rail infrastructure. He cites the success of superfast trains in countries like France and Japan as incentive to support an initial investment of $8 billion out of his massive economic stimulus package.

Atlanta would be a stop along two of ten proposed high-speed routes – the Southeast Corridor and the Gulf Coast Corridor.  The first route would begin in Washington, DC, then zigzag through Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Macon, Columbia and Savannah, before ending in Jacksonville.  The second route would link Atlanta to Houston via Birmingham, Mobile and New Orleans.

The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration defines “high-speed” rail as trains averaging faster than 90 miles per hour. The European high-speed standard is at least 125 miles per hour, and Japanese bullet trains average speeds of 180 mph.  Currently, Amtrak’s only high-speed route – the Acela Express – averages about 86 miles per hour through the northeast corridor, while service on typical Amtrak routes average closer to 50 miles per hour.  

Setting aside budgetary realities and political skepticism, I wonder how many travelers would be on board for “high-speed” rail service like that proposed by President Obama.

I personally love the nostalgia of trains and would occasionally take the sleeper from Washington to Atlanta when we lived in DC. We would leave DC around 7 p.m. and end up in Atlanta around 9 a.m., making stops in towns throughout the night. It took less time to drive that distance, but we could relax, eat a nice meal in the dining car, watch the scenery and sleep on the train. It was a nice trade-off when we had the extra time and money.  (The sleeper car was pretty pricey, as I recall.) I have also traveled from DC to New York on the more-crowded commuter route, and always wanted to complete Amtrak’s Crescent route by taking a day trip from Atlanta to New Orleans.

As much as I enjoy traveling by rail – here and in Europe – I’m trying to figure out if I would realistically and consistently choose a 90 mph train trip over car or planes if “high-speed” rail becomes an option over here. Right now, I’m thinking the answer would be no – at least on a routine basis. I’m sure I would check out the new system, and I might choose rails over roads if I knew I was traveling over a holiday or another particularly traffic-prone time. But 90 mph with stops and starts along the way just doesn’t seem much faster than the 70 mph I average on the nation’s highways. Even building in time to get through airport security and baggage claim, it can’t compare to the 500 miles per hour I can cover on a commercial jetliner.

It might be nice to have another option, which would in turn reduce some air and road traffic for everyone. But the price would have to be competitive and the train would have to be seriously fast if I were to consider using high-speed rail as a regular mode of travel.

What about you? Are you excited about the prospect of a faster way to travel by rail? Have you ever tried the European or Japanese high-speed rail systems? Do you think a similar network of passenger routes could make traveling easier for Americans?

How often have you traveled Amtrak in the past?

How much time would you have to save over traditional rail travel to give high-speed a try?  Would the ancillary benefits of high-speed rail travel — like full meal services or perceived environmental advantages – factor into your decision to choose the train?

 

26 comments Add your comment

Bill

April 22nd, 2009
8:45 am

I take Amtrak every chance I get. I would be psyched to have additional trains. I have been on Amtrak for many vacations and visits.

Arthur

April 22nd, 2009
9:01 am

Rail travel is the most civilized form of travel available. It is a crying shame that this country moved away from this mode. Everyone in the world and this country particularly is in such a hurry. We are all rushing toward our deaths anyway. We might as well slow down and enjoy the ride, the scenery and the civility.

Jim p

April 22nd, 2009
9:15 am

It is not worth the 5 billion “or more” that is budgeted for the task. High speed trains work in Europe and Japan because the populations are much more consolidated and urbanized than in the US. The train system in the US hasn’t turned a profit in decades, I see no justification for the taxpayers supporting failing industries. Obama says he will make some hard choices and maybe find a way to cut 100 million from his 2010 budget (1/36,000th). When the deficit increase is 1.2 trillion dollars in a single year, we need a lot more cutting than that. I have a good start, how about you cut the 5+ billion from the train idea, then add the 6 billion for the “volunteer” program. Wow I just cut 1% of the budget, I must be a magician!

Arthur

April 22nd, 2009
10:24 am

What makes you think the train system must turn a profit??? If the roadways and airports weren’t all paid for by the governement, those forms of travel wouldn’t be profitable either.

Scott C

April 22nd, 2009
11:55 am

I’m pretty sure the interstate highway system hasn’t turned a profit in decades. Come to think of it, I don’t think we turn a profit from airport expansion. Should we not invest in those either? Although it would be nuts to build a HSR line clear across the country, there are regions of the US with similar density and distance between cities (this article mentions two of them). A great example is Spain, a country with a great HSR system, which is nearly identical to California in terms of density and area. Not surprisingly, California is planning to connect LA with SF and the voters just approved it.

Lissa

April 22nd, 2009
12:05 pm

As someone with a disability and cannot drive, I would LOVE to have the rail option for travel!

Cynthia

April 22nd, 2009
12:24 pm

I really hope this happens. I love traveling by plane. I don’t travel by amtrak because the service is both slow and overpriced. High speed trains however are a whole other story. I regularly travel from Atlanta to NY, a 2-hour flight that usually takes about 6 hours (door-to-door) without any delays.
If I had the option to travel by high speed train, I would choose it every time.

Rafael

April 22nd, 2009
12:54 pm

Per H.R. 2095 [110th] and the Joint Explanatory Statement – Division A (p82 in PDF) for H.R. 1 [111th] a.k.a. the stimulus bill, the threshold for “high speed rail” has been raised from 90mph to 110mph, i.e. what is known as regular speed for intercity trains elsewhere in the developed world. Admittedly, not a huge jump but it’s still early days. California’s true bullet train system will reach top speeds of 220mph on an all-new, dedicated network of 800 miles of dual track – with a price tag to match.

Based on the experience of other railways, *average* train speeds need to be on the order of 1.5-2x car travel at the speed limit in order to attract sufficient ridership to turn an operating profit. In that context, it’s actually remarkable that Amtrak’s Acela Express manages to do so even though its average speed is just 80mph or so, especially north of NYC. For planning purposes, the focus needs to be on door-to-door travel time. Avoiding wait states, delays and slow sections is more important – and harder – than reaching top speed somewhere along the line.

On the legacy narrow-gauge network in Hokkaido, Japan Railways use extremely lightweight active tilt trains and up-to-date databases of track geometry to *anticipate* where they can afford to accelerate and where they need to slow down. This combination allows them to achieve respectable line haul times in spite of mandated top speeds of just 130km/h (80mph). In the US, such lightweight rolling stock is not allowed to share track with heavy freight trains.

MB

April 22nd, 2009
6:42 pm

I’d love it, but the price would have to be far less than what Amtrak offers even now on its regular trains. For me to consider it worthwhile, I need to be able to travel by train for less than I can travel by air. That’s just not the case right now unless it’s a VERY short trip.

Chris

April 22nd, 2009
7:10 pm

I love the idea. Train travel simply makes sense (economically [with the price of gas], ecologically [with ozone deterioration]). I hope the intermediate stop between Atlanta and Columbia is Augusta. The rapid trains would avoid the traffic jams in downtown Augusta I remember as a child. Additionally, it would bring back a bit of history….trains coming from Augusta stopped in a little town called Terminus..then Marthasville…now Atlanta.

Ron

April 22nd, 2009
7:21 pm

What happened to the Georgia Rail passenger program? That would have made all of Georgia accessible from Atlanta to Savannah, Brunswick, Athens. Just think what a road trip that would be on football weekends. And to Jacksonville Florida for the Georgia Florida game. Day trips, night trips, a whole other alternate life style would blossom to invlove family bonding. Not just travel to get from point A to point B. I love the idea. Its bigger than just trying to find the best way to get where you want to go.

Ron

April 22nd, 2009
7:23 pm

Anyone remember the Nancy Hanks?

Sean

April 22nd, 2009
11:00 pm

The Obama plan is a nice start, but we need high speed trains to travel at least 200 mph and make stops in the major cities for it to work. Most of the corridors make sense, but the trains need to travel much faster than 110 mph for many large numbers of people to use them for intercity travel.

We need to think big and set high standards.

John

April 23rd, 2009
9:33 am

The $8 billion for high-speed corridors is a very smart investment that will pay dividends for generations to come. Passenger rail is the safest, most environmentally friendly, and efficient means of transportation – this is why Europe has invested so heavily in its train systems. Another important reason we need passenger rail is that a comprehensive system of passenger trains would reduce our need to import oil from the unstable Mideast. In several surveys, 70% of respondents have said they want taxpayer investment in passenger rail. And in every corridor where state investments have been made, ridership has increased greatly (California, Washington state, the Midwest). What has been missing is Federal investment because certain politicians believe that passenger rail must make a profit – even though highways and airports don’t make a profit and are heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

Lou

April 23rd, 2009
12:30 pm

“On the legacy narrow-gauge network in Hokkaido, Japan Railways use extremely lightweight active tilt trains and up-to-date databases of track geometry to *anticipate* where they can afford to accelerate and where they need to slow down. This combination allows them to achieve respectable line haul times in spite of mandated top speeds of just 130km/h (80mph). In the US, such lightweight rolling stock is not allowed to share track with heavy freight trains.”
Quoted from Rafael.

Exactly…In Oregon and California the freight trains and Amtrak share the same lines. I can’t imagine the amounts of money it would take to either replace the lines or lay down another set of tracks. Then you will have all the tree huggers protesting about it. This is another one of Obama’s stupid hair brained ideas and it will never work.

As for the Highway system it is paid for by the tax payers not subsidized by the tax payers that is the distinct difference. The airports are subsidized by the Government and the Airlines pay for the use of the airport. When we get on the highway, freeway, beltway, whatever, it is free or there may be a small toll charge. When you use Amtrak it is NOT free. That is the difference. Why not make it free? like the highway system? Amtrak’s board of directors is appointed by the President, and the DOT holds the majority of STOCK. I personally find that interesting. That is why they need to make money…because it is a business.

David

April 23rd, 2009
1:02 pm

The concept of ‘profit’ and passenger rail is largely a red herring. No passenger railway is the world truly covers all expenses from revenue (Acela certainly doesn’t). However, many other very worthwhile government services do not directly turn a profit, yet it would be ludicrous to condemn roads, airports, public schools, or even police or fire services because they don’t make money. All such services do, though, ultimately make a positive contribution to society; The money spent on education gets repaid many times over in a better educated, more affluent workforce, while infrastructure development – road, rail, air, and waterways – promotes economic development (clearly important right now) and job creation. Mobility – often provided most efficiently by rail (every mode of transport has its place) – of freight and passengers is vital for a vibrant, growing economy, yet due to lack on infrastructure investment in general – and passenger rail in particular – we are a nation headed for gridlock.

Atlanta is a good example. You want it to be easy for people to move about, going to work or school, or out shopping or dining and spending money. It is harder to do that when your highways resemble parking lots,. Rail can be a big part of the solution – be it high speed trains, commuter rail, or light-rail such as Marta. Consider for a moment the promise of high sped raill linking Georgia. Any point on the system is then a couple hours from Atlanta, making it completely practical – and even a pleasant trip – for someone from Valdosta or Dalton (for instance) to come into the city to go shopping, attend classes, or even work here. None of those options are practical with air travel, and would take too long by automobile (even without the resulting traffic congestion). Passenger rail holds enormous promise – integrated with a network serving other states and across the country – but it will never make money. That is, again however, utterly not the point.

B

April 23rd, 2009
3:41 pm

I agree with the author. While I love trains and try to take them as much as possible for a whole host of reasons, environmental ones among them, in order for trains to have mass appeal they are going to have to be competitive with planes on routes where flying is an option in price and perhaps even time. 90 mile per hour trains are nothing to be excited about. New York Central ran trains above that speed in the 1940s. Even steam engines could move over 100 mph more than 100 years ago. The northeast corridor owned by Amtrak runs their trains (most designed in the 1970s) at 125 mph in the open stretches. Acela approaches 150 mph in the same stretches. The stops as well as rail congestion are problematic factors, dropping the overall speed on a line very dramatically. Most importantly, the fact that 70% of rail lines that Amtrak runs on currently are owned by freight carriers, means dramatic slow downs and delays. This is going to mean building new, restricted access, lines for high speed rail, not sharing tracks under unfavorable terms with freight.

Jerry H. Sullivan

April 23rd, 2009
6:01 pm

I am opposed to the expenditure of any money for HSR. First of all, the $8B will only pay for some consultants, who will take and write a report. In addition, HSR will take a many year commitment, something we are not good at. Obama will be office 4 or 8 years, and then the next regime will shoot it down.
I would rather see the money spent on rehabilitating the current system, equipment, and routes. We, in Florida can only get to Atlanta by way of Washington DC, or NewOrleans the same way. There needs to be a viable network that connects all major population centers. If I am in a hurry, I choose to fly, but 90% of my travel, prior to August 2005 was by rail. Katrina shutdown the only Amtrak train that was of use to me, so I am forced to either say home or fly – SouthWest Airlines has a seat reserved for me on 4 flights in June, none of which I am looking forward to, but grandchildren are grandchildren.

AlanB

April 23rd, 2009
10:16 pm

Lou wrote: “As for the Highway system it is paid for by the tax payers not subsidized by the tax payers that is the distinct difference.”

Sorry Lou, but last year the Fed dropped $8 Billion of our Federal Income Tax dollars into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to keep it from going bankrupt, that’s a subsidy since even those who don’t own cars saw their money go into the HTF. The HTF, which is funded via the Federal fuel tax, pays for the bulk of our Interstate Highway System’s (IHS) repairs and expansions.

It was estimated early last year, before the high gas prices last summer drove the fuel tax revenues down even futher, that the HTF will need a $9 Billion subsidy this year and next. Comes 2011 & 2012, that number jumps to $12 Billion, unless Congress raises the fuel taxes and soon.

Even worse is the fact that the current 5 year plan authorized by Congress that we’re operating under, was $79 Billion less than the DOT estimated it actually needed to maintain a state of good repair to the IHS. And that was before a bridge on I-35 in Minneapolis-St Paul fell into a river over a year ago, which set of a flurry of bridge inspections that found Billions more work that is needed.

Then we come to the Stimulus package which also has funding for highways, in addition to high speed rail, yet another subsidy. And many also consider the bailout to the Detroit automakers yet another subsidy.

Lou wrote: “The airports are subsidized by the Government and the Airlines pay for the use of the airport.”

If the airlines paid for the full value of their use of the airports, then the airports would not need a government subsidy. Of course if the airlines did that, they’d be bankrupt too. By the way, We The People also watched as just shy of $1 Billion of our Federal income tax dollars was dumped into the FAA to support airline operations. Heck, we even pay companies to fly almost empty airplanes into small airports around the country. The program is called EAS, Essential Air Service.

Lou wrote: “When we get on the highway, freeway, beltway, whatever, it is free or there may be a small toll charge. When you use Amtrak it is NOT free. That is the difference. Why not make it free? like the highway system?”

The highways aren’t free, you’re paying via the fuel tax, even though you, I, and the rest of America aren’t paying enough via the fuel tax.

Lou wrote: “Amtrak’s board of directors is appointed by the President, and the DOT holds the majority of STOCK. I personally find that interesting. That is why they need to make money…because it is a business.”

What other company sees it’s board appointed by only one person? What other company can basically ignore State laws? What other company pays no property taxes, state income taxes, state sales taxes?

Amtrak is a company in name only, and the only reason for that is to allow our politicians to be able to point at it’s company status to avoid blame for any problems or failures.

[...] writer: Would I use high speed trains? “I’m thinking the answer would be no.” Not unless they were cheap and “seriously fast.” (Atlanta Journal [...]

anonymousella

April 25th, 2009
9:09 am

high speed rail is *IDEAL* for regional travel. the DC-BOS route is incredibly well traveled. A high-speed train from ATL to Charlotte, Birmingham, Savannah or Chattanooga is almost a no-brainer. A high speed rail would make New Orleans a 2.5 – 5 hour trip (depending on train speed) rather than a 7-8 hour interstate trip. i’d take rail in a heartbeat if pricing was competitive and the schedules made sense (atl to charlotte that arrives at 1am? what?). i’d take the train more often if it wasn’t so inconvenient.

Tom Veil

April 27th, 2009
3:41 pm

The budget estimates I’ve seen for rail are pretty cheap compared to, say, a new highway lane. If they’re taking my tax money anyway, I’d rather pony up for the 120mph trains instead of the 90 mph trains. Think about the difference between 90 and 120 like this:
Atlanta to Charlotte in 2 hours & 40 minutes? Not bad.
Atlanta to Charlotte in 2 hours flat? I would never buy a plane ticket again!

netdragon

May 10th, 2009
1:27 am

I think we’ll see a lot of city-hopping on high-speed rail as opposed to people taking the whole route (aside to save money). I think it is very viable compared to an airport for Atlanta to Charlotte routes, etc. A lot less sitting around waiting for the flight.

Tom: Seriously, do you get into the airport with 5 minutes to spare? Think about all the time you waste in the airport. It turns a 1 hour flight into 3 hours if you include sitting around at the airport.

Gartrell Bibberts

May 11th, 2009
10:30 am

European HSR exists because they have eliminated level grade crossings. When we – a nation of auto lovers – are willing to give up easy crossing of rail lines then we can have rapid rail.

[...] writer: Would I use high speed trains? “I’m thinking the answer would be no.” Not unless they were cheap and “seriously fast.” (Atlanta Journal [...]

SexySexyJenny

August 29th, 2009
1:49 am