Friday, July 14, 2006

'High Speed Rail': Harder to Kill than Dracula

Another hydra-head of the "high speed rail" boondoggle popped up in the Cincinnati Enquirer today; read about it here.

Being fascinated with railroads, I like to read about this sort of thing; but having common-sense, I know this is a crazy proposal that should never go anywhere. I did click on the link, because one of those squiggly lines looks like it might come somewhere near Piqua.

You see, this is how this sort of thing has its corrupting effects. I am totally convinced this is a poor investment for the taxpayers; the very fact these folks have to get the taxpayers (and federal taxpayers, to boot -- folks somewhere else!) to "invest" in this tells the whole story. Did you read recently about the fellow out west who launched his own rocket, and is going to build his own space station? Sounds crazy, and perhaps it is, but he's committed $500 million to it! My point is, there are folks with lots of money willing to take risks; and if those hyping this as so "obvious" a good investment, then raising the $3 billion to build it should be a snap. What? People with money don't want to make money? Stop the presses!

As I said, note the subtle corrupting influence--I think this is a terrible idea; yet, if it were to come near here, I take an interest. I can't help thinking: we do need jobs and investment; and while I think it's awful to do that via the taxpayer, if it's going to happen, well at least the folks of this area will get part of it. Shame on me.

But don't you see this is precisely what these hucksters want? The materials emphasize a "28-state coalition" -- i.e., political logrolling: everybody gets a slice, only it's the taxpayer who gets carved up.

(By the way, if you go to the trouble, you'll find that the map that shows lots of lines is really made up of a relative few actual rail lines, plus lots and lots of "possible" lines "for future study." Ha ha, suckers!)

It is fascinating to note how little there really is here. Has $3 billion been found to build this? How about $300 million, or $30 million? What, actually, is there to this project?

All there is, it seems, is an office in Columbus (funded no doubt by state and federal taxes, plus probably some money from big-business leeches who hope to be first to the trough), paying someone to produce slick materials and send out press releases; and thus, periodically, these things appear in the media. Likewise, there's been an operation plumping for a "light rail" proposal in the Cincinnati area that also never dies. Similar method, similarly a bad idea.

Now, I've asked for it: but why is this such a bad idea?

Well, several reasons. First, it's clear not enough people even want to travel by railroad in order to make it work. As I said, nothing stops these folks to solicit investors to back this; everyone who is in a position to make money (or lose money) on this has, thus far, judged it a loser. What does that tell you?

Also, we do have passenger rail, and it doesn't work. "But it's lousy service, it doesn't go where we want," etc. Yes, and why? Because there isn't enough demand to justify better service. Rail simply can't compete with driving. Oh, riding a train is fun for a lark; but that won't make it a going concern. Long term, people are going to say, "oh, it would have been nice to take the train, but": we wanted to leave a little earlier/later; we wanted to take a jog over to see Aunt Sally in Washington Courthouse, we thought we'd stop at the outlet stores and shop on the way, and so on and so forth.

Please tell me when riding a train -- that leaves on its schedule, not yours, stops where it wants to, not you -- is preferable to simply jumping in the car, or on a plane, and going?

Trains work where there is very high population density: so they work reasonably well in Europe (although they still get subsidized there), and in the northeast U.S. Most of the U.S. simply doesn't have the requisite density. Trains work in part because enough people want to travel the same path, to the same chain of destinations, day after day. But in insufficiently populated areas, the pattern of where people want or need to go is too spidery and diverse; there isn't enough reliable traffic to sustain the track.

Now, one way to make this less daunting would be a "railroad" that didn't have to build its own "road" -- but could use as many existing roads as possible, and thus could be flexible. If you go to the expense of building a road from say, Cincinnati to Toledo; but then find that, gosh, Findlay is really taking off, but we bypassed it; so now we need to reroute the road--that's a very expensive proposition.

But suppose you didn't build a rail road; but ran your "trains" on existing, asphalt roads, which are already in place? Hmmm, what does that sound like?

Greyhound! How is Greyhound doing, on these routes? "Oh, but I don't want to ride Greyhound; I'd rather drive." Uh-huh; and if we took tax money, and made really, really nice Greyhound buses to ride? With really nice stations? Same answer?

Greyhound must think so; because Greyhound could, after all, try this approach -- try to upgrade, and attract all those potential rail-riders out there, supposedly pining away for the day this boondoggle is built. After all, for Greyhound to do it would cost considerably less than $3 billion; and lots less risk.

Now, someone will say, ah, but the idea was high-speed rail. Okay, let's see what that means.

At 65 mph, I can drive from downtown Cincinnati to downtown Columbus, non-stop, in an hour and a half. I can plan to do this during non-peak hours to avoid heavy traffic. Realistically, you don't go that fast at every point, but you can go a few miles over the limit, with no legal consequences; and a few more, with few. (I'm not advocating breaking the law, just describing reality.) When I make the trip, let's say I average close to 60 mph for the whole trip. The distance is just about 100 miles: so that's 100 minutes: 1 hour, 40; but doing it in less than 90 minutes is not that hard, to be candid.

If you take the train, how fast will it go? Top speed would 110 mph, the materials say. Wow! If you go non-stop, straight from downtown to downtown (and let us absurdly assume where the stations are, is precisely where your ultimate destination -- see, one of the advantages of driving?), you will do that in, what, about 50 minutes? So, allowing for no other travel time -- i.e., to/from the stations -- you've saved a whopping 40-50 minutes.

Only -- it likely won't be non-stop: the plan calls for four stops between Cincinnati and Columbus. So while I don't know what your average speed would be, you certainly won't go 110 mph all the way -- what, are folks going to jump on and off as it whooshes through? And the train will sit still for a few minutes at each stop, right? What do you think the average speed will be on that Cinti-Columbus trip? I'm thinking, maybe something like 80 mph? Now, your "high speed" trip takes what? About 80 minutes; you've saved a huge, 20 minutes!

Oh, but then there's the station; you have to go through a station at each end; and at the front end, you will face security. How much ahead of departure time do you think you will want to be at the station? Think it will be less than 20 minutes? Will you want to cut it that close? What if you have kids? Because, after all, the promoters assure us, this will be popular! So you'd better be there 40 minutes ahead of time, to get through security, and board with ease; assuming you aren't going for several days' stay, and you have luggage...

And if that's the case, you might have to plan time, at the destination, for renting a car to drive around; or else you have to may have to find limo or taxi service; or have friend pick you up.

"Gee, honey, why don't we just drive next time?"


Anonymous said...

I have heard that there are competitors to Greyhound who are much cheaper and that they are full, full, full. Don't know much else about it except that they are probably in the dense NE and are possibly creaming the routes. My only point is that if it is cheap enough people will ride buses vs. their cars...

Fr Martin Fox said...


I was talking about here in Ohio, not the northeast.

Greyhound goes down the I-75 corridor, but it doesn't even stop anymore in Sidney or Piqua or Troy -- no stops between Lima and Dayton.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Martin,

You are exactly correct - public transportation - a la - Europe for the US DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. It only makes sense in highly populated areas. Working for a large global company (headquartered in Cincy - can you guess!! :) ) I routinely travel to WE, Asia, and Latin America. And folks from those areas travel here and take 2 and 3 year assignments here.

Absolutely without exception (so far) they routinely wonder about why the population in the US ONLY speaks ONE language and donesn't have univeral health care, unemployment coverage, or public transportation. I try to explain - they sort of get it.

THEN they come over for either several short visits or move here for an assignment - and ALL OF A SUDDEN - they get it. Wow - your country is SOOO big - you don't have other languages being spoken 20 miles away (oops KM away) - you can't practice. (Left unsaid - so it probably isn't because your stupid or arrogant!!). Hey - you're prices are much lower, your stores are more convienent and fuller and people are much more friendly here!! Wow - you're country is SOOOO big - no wonder buses and trains don't work - too many places to go - flying or driving is MUCH easier! Oh I get it.

It's unfortunate that those in the US trying to shove these sorts of adventures down the taxpayers throats don't think about the realities.

You've hit the nail on the head, Father. And thanks for taking the time on the homiliy - now I wonder if I hop in my car - how long would it take me to get to Piqua> hmmm....

David L Alexander said...

"Please tell me when riding a train -- that leaves on its schedule, not yours, stops where it wants to, not you -- is preferable to simply jumping in the car, or on a plane, and going?"

When gasoline in the USA is as expensive as it is in Europe, Jackie's good points notwithstanding. And even then, it would take years for the nationwide infrastructure to adapt. On the other hand, the passenger rail system in this country was once quite common, until the Interstates were built.

You know the rest.

Anonymous said...

My husband was going to take the train from Baltimore to Boston (not quite the cities he wanted to start and stop at, but doable). It would have cost more than flying one-way and taken 2 hours longer than driving. And that's in the densely populated NE. He flew.

In response to jane m, you can take a bus from Boston's Chinatown to NYC's for $20, I think. But sometimes they catch on fire.