When is traditional passenger rail (a la Amtrak) the same as high speed rail? Apparently, when lots of “free” federal dollars are at stake.
According to the The Capital Times, the Midwest high speed rail plan “has a good chance of landing part of the $8 billion in federal stimulus earmarked for passenger trains.” There’s just once catch, though. Federal guidelines for prospective projects receiving funding define high-speed rail as 90-110 mph, while the Midwest “high speed” rail corridor from Chicago to the Twin Cities would host trains averaging less than 80 mph.
Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and a leader of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, told federal officials last week that service in the 434-mile Chicago-to-Twin-Cities corridor would average 67 mph for local trains and 78 mph for express trains making fewer stops — well below the federal speed guidelines.
Is that a big deal? Nope. At least, that’s the opinion of Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, who suggests that “speed is only one of many factors that will be considered.”
“The speed issue is much ado about nothing,” Brubaker says in a phone interview. “What Secretary Busalacchi is saying is we don’t need bullet trains in the Midwest.”
Is it a meaningless issue? The Wikipedia high-speed rail entry notes that:
High-speed rail is a type of passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Specific definitions include 200 km/h (125 mph) and faster — depending on whether the track is upgraded or new — by the European Union, and above 90 mph (145 km/h) by the United States Federal Railroad Administration, but there is no single standard, and lower speeds can be required by local constraints.
The German ICE (Inter-city Express), which I’ve had the opportunity to ride, routinely travels between 180-200 mph. This is competitive with air travel over shorter distances (up to about 4 hours) from a travel time perspective. Unfortunately, due to the “local constraints” noted in the Capital Times’ article, we can expect our “high speed” rail to lead to travel times at least twice as long as what Europeans, Japanese, and Chinese enjoy.
One question that needs to be asked of the DOT and other proponents of this project is why speed isn’t the main consideration (aside from cost effectiveness)? After all, speed determines travel time and most of us value our time even if we are unable to put a dollar figure on it. If “we” decide to subsidize high speed rail for all of the alleged benefits it provides such as economic growth, a cleaner environment, and happier commuters, shouldn’t we actually provide high speed rail? Of course, the simple answer is that real high speed rail is very expensive and would be less politically feasible. So, we will settle for the minor league of high speed rail with a modest price tag of $10 billion.
In this race, it isn’t the hare that loses, but all taxpayers.