The federal high-speed rail (HSR) program lately championed by politicians and administrators in the other Washington is fading into history. In his remarks at the March 15 launch of a $22.7-million seismic-upgrade project at Seattle's King Street Station, Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo spoke instead about "high-performance rail." The transportation funding bill currently in the Senate makes the same emendation in referring to the measure's meager appropriation, $100 million, for passenger rail enhancements. Some experts are meanwhile using the term "higher-speed rail," downgrading the once-regnant HSR by interposing a lowly r, giving us HrSR.
It adds up to a recognition of some of the idea's flaws and, some would say, of its insurmountable obstacles. First of all, the program would cost lots of money. Here in the Eugene-to-Vancouver, B.C. Pacific Northwest HSR corridor, $1.5 million gets you the preliminary engineering for an overnight parking track — not the track itself, or even its final engineering — for an Amtrak train less than 800 feet long. On the opposite side of the country, planners are pricing an expansion of HSR access from New Jersey into Manhattan in the $10-15 billion range.
Still, with what some might call chump change, some states are making their trains substantially faster. Washington and Oregon are not among them. Oregon spent $72 million on its 133 miles of passenger-rail track between 1994 — two years after the feds designated the mileage part of the HSR corridor — and 2008, with zero schedule improvement to show for it. Since Washington state's passenger rail program began in 1994, Olympia has devoted $98 million to capital investment in track and signaling systems between Portland and Seattle, but that sum has not improved running time, either. The only timetable improvement has been the 25 minutes saved by virtue of the trains' tilting mechanism, which allows for higher speed in curves. The trip still takes three and a half hours and the train never goes faster than 79 mph. Meanwhile, the discount BoltBus service launched in May is advertising Seattle-Portland travel times as little as three hours and 15 minutes.
The $796 million in federal HSR money recently received by Washington state will underwrite some schedule improvement, but again at high cost. The $91 million going into the Point Defiance bypass project, for example, will trim only six minutes off travel time between the Emerald and Rose cities.
Then there is HSR's "green problem." Rail is only green insofar as it is wholesale, rather than retail, transportation. A train carrying 130 passengers, as corridor trains do on average, is far from wholesale, however. The volume of fuel that a 3200-horsepower locomotive weighing 12 times its human payload uses to move one of those 130 passengers dwarfs what an intercity bus uses for the same result.
At HSR's envisioned speeds, typically defined as a sustained 110 mph, the efficiency worsens with the additional mechanical effort needed to overcome greater air resistance. My own calculations, based on data for an actual Amtrak service, indicate that high-speed trains using today's diesel locomotives would not save any carbon emissions, and could in fact increase emissions by 15 percent or more. That's an optimistic calculation — a Danish researcher indicated the increase could be as high as 66 percent. Indeed, the most efficient speed for a train appears to be the same as a car: around 50 mph.
Electric propulsion is an appealing alternative on the face, but in most parts of the United States electricity comes from fossil fuels. Washington enjoys the advantages of largely hydroelectric power generation, but that merely gets us to the next hurdle: the challenge of stringing hundreds of miles of catenary, the overhead wires that power trains, along the track. Most tracks Amtrak use are privately owned, and owners are less than excited about a massive transformation of the infrastructure. The alternative is to create new, publicly owned rights-of-way and put catenary on them. A great idea, until NIMBYs such as those in Lakewood, the San Francisco suburbs, or the Connecticut exurbs jump on it, maul it, and leave it dead on the political ground.
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