Updates on High Speed Rail Projects

By Noel T. Braymer

Since 8 billion dollars was included in the Stimulus Bill for High Speed Rail, there has been more interest about High Speed Rail in this country.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is talking about starting construction by 2011 with the first segment from Bakersfield to Merced running by 2015. Between 2018 and 2020 the CHSRA plans to have service running between Anaheim and San Francisco. Running times of 2 hour 38 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles are planned. CHSRA’s legislation calls for a minimum of 2 hours 40 minute service. The next route would be service to San Diego via Riverside with the last route to Sacramento running by 2030. Virgin Airlines is also a major passenger rail carrier in Britain and is interested in getting the operating contract for the California High Speed Rail service. Controversy has arisen over complaints by the CHSRA that current plans for Caltrain’s extension to the San Francisco Transbay Terminal will not be able to also to handle CHSRA’s expected 12 trains an hour service into San Francisco. These last minute objections have upset years of planning for the Transbay Terminal extension. Union Pacific Railroad is objecting to any High Speed Passenger service on rights of ways used by its freight trains. And some local neighborhoods are starting protest against HSR service in their back yard.

On March 9th New York Governor Patterson with Senator Schumer of New York announced a 10 Billion Dollar project to develop High Speed Rail for New York State. Most of the effort will be on the “Empire Corridor” which is from New York City to Albany and then off to Buffalo. This is the old New York Central Mainline which followed the old Erie Canal. Governor Patterson talked about raising speed in 3 to 5 years to 110 miles an hour and up to 150 mph within three years after that. Planning for intercity rail upgrades has been ongoing for years in New York State. New York had paid to rebuild old Amtrak Turbotrains over 10 years ago for use on the Empire Corridor for running speeds of 125 mph. Amtrak cancelled the project. There is no information at this time what equipment New York plans to use to run at 150 mph.

Also on March 9th, Senator Durbin of Illinois and Illinois Governor Paige at Chicago Union Station made a pitch for stimulus funding to upgrade the Chicago-St. Louis corridor to 110 mile per hour operations. Chicago will be at the center for several Mid-West rail corridors eligible for High Speed Rail upgrade funding including Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago, Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-Indianapolis,-Louisville, Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland, Chicago-Cincinnati-Cleveland and Kansas City to St. Louis to Chicago. The good news is the Eagle uses the railroad between St. Louis and Chicago. It is also true that the Lake Shore Limited uses the railroad from Chicago-Toledo- Cleveland as well as from Buffalo to New York City. These trains as well as the Sunset, Crescent, Coast Starlight and the Florida trains could benefit from track upgrades as well as corridor trains on the designated high speed rail corridors.

In the bad news department, the State of Washington recently eliminated its entire 6 person Passenger Rail branch to “save money”. This small group oversaw state supported Amtrak corridor trains between Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver. This action could jeopardize the future of these trains and prevent the Pacific Northwest from qualifying for federal funds to upgrade trackage for these trains.

Amtrak is working on plans to upgrade the Northeast Corridor and cutting the running time of the Acela trains from New York to Washington from the current 2 hours 45 minutes to 2 hours 15 minutes with track and catenary upgrades. Amtrak is also looking to extend the electrification of the Northeast Corridor to Richmond and further south. Amtrak is also planning to overhaul the Acela equipment. It is ironic that this is happening at a time when ridership and revenue for the Acela is down and ridership and revenues for the Long Distance trains continue to grow.

There is a fascination by most people with speed, but it is a mistake to believe ridership is driven only by speed. If speed was the principle factor then airlines would all be flying supersonic planes non-stop to every destination. But of course this isn’t true. Airlines are flying slower today than they did 40 years ago with fewer direct flights. Costs are important to carriers, speed and direct service is very expensive for all transportation modes. The most important factor in ridership is service to as many markets as possible using the least amount of capital. That is why most airlines have hubs for connections and anything shipped on Fed Ex goes through their hub in Memphis.

To increase the size of a train’s travel market, one can add more stations, extend the route of a service and improve connections to other trains. Expanding the market of corridor trains will do more for ridership than raising speeds. On the Northeast Corridor there are several ways to expand NEC train’s market. Extending NEC rail service to Virginia is a start. Improving connections at Philadelphia to Harrisburg and Pittsburg to NEC trains is another way to expand markets. Running some NEC trains past New York to Albany, Buffalo even Toronto would create a whole new market for the NEC. Also untapped is Long Island. Even thought Amtrak has a major yard on Long Island, it has no stations on Long Island. Amtrak could share a commuter station to make connections on Long Island. This would be easier for passengers than making connections at Penn Station. Amtrak could also extend Empire Corridor trains to Long Island and use those for connections to Long Island from the NEC. This is true of all rail passenger services. Chicago is a natural for connections to other corridor trains. But trains could also be extended from Detroit-Chicago to St. Louis-Kansas City as well as Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati, among others.

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