A high-speed rail dream unrealized

Put up an "Amshak"?: Proposed Amtrak station, Tacoma's Dome District. Credit: Credit: WSDOT/VIA

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.

Comparisons to Europe's greener, flashier trains, which go up to 199 mph, don't pass muster. When America's railroads were still the tentacles of civilization subduing the wilderness, Europe's were connecting crowded metropolises. For a country like Germany, with 600 people per square mile, the economics of passenger trains are far easier than for the United States, with 90 people per square mile. Further, Europe has a much longer history of public-sector involvement in passenger rail. And Europe's freight trains don't get in the way as much, since freight moves more predominantly by truck.

The U.S. solution has in fact been quite green: the roles of freight and passenger traffic are simply reversed from those in Europe. Vast tonnages of freight move by rail here with efficiencies trucks cannot approach. Passenger trains have long been secondary phenomena on a national rail system owned almost entirely by freight haulers. Putting 110-mph trains on private tracks makes the interface with much slower freight trains highly problematic. Some have asked if we  accomplish anything when, as the law requires, a diesel freight train with 5,000 tons of merchandise has to sit on a siding, engines puffing away, while a passenger train with 130 people on it zooms by.

We should exploit the very efficient physics of a steel wheel on a steel rail, but we can do so only when the load carried, whether merchandise or people, is large enough to compensate for the considerable energy inputs needed to move the train. There is all but infinite potential for improving passenger trains — making them cheaper to ride, more inclusive in their reach, more economical in their use of carbon, better matched to market demand — but the improvements may not include the speed so many desire.

Such potential upgrades must mean much higher ridership, but to generate such ridership I see only one solution: higher gas prices. It's axiomatic that, as the much-ballyhooed "pain at the pump" sets in, Americans reach for relief. They take a bus or a train, ride a bike, or simply stay home. Then, when prices drop off, most of the gain enjoyed by the mass-transportation providers evaporates. A residual few stick with alternative modes, and perhaps for that reason transit use has increased somewhat in recent years while vehicle miles traveled (that is, in cars) have dropped. But we kid ourselves if we think that trend suffices to untangle the inadequacies, destructiveness, and illogic of our transportation system.

Part of that illogic is that we tolerate price increases that hugely benefit entities such as Exxon-Mobil and the Republic of Venezuela, who own the goods. But we will not tolerate a fuels tax increase, even when it could improve transportation, generate jobs, thin out traffic jams, and reduce carbon emissions. As the chairman of the House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has expressed, such a tax increase is "off the table."

God forbid we should want to pay for such things.

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