We recently had a fun trip to Los Angeles and took the train rather than driving (we flew back because of better scheduling). Aside from the surprise of arriving an hour early in LA, I found it ironic that a British couple was in the next compartment. Their two sons live in the US and every time they come to visit they make a point of taking a train trip and they love our trains. But we, and everyone we know in Tucson, look at intercity train travel as a novelty.
In 2009, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was allotted $8 billion for intercity and high-speed rail (HSR) projects. Within six months the FRA received pre-applications from 40 states totaling $103 billion. Advocates of HSR point to long-term transportation benefits, integration between transportation modes (rail, air, water, road), preserving and creating jobs, environmental benefits, gains in energy efficiency and promotion of livable communities. Detractors cite the disruption of retrofitting communities for rail, question the need for HSR in the face of new domestic energy reserves and, in this era of fiscal strain, doubt that the benefits justify the cost.
America 2050, the national infrastructure planning and policy program of the Regional Plan Association (New York/New Jersey/Connecticut), has analyzed data to determine how federal rail dollars can best be spent. They recognize that initial investments must be viewed as a success to maintain ongoing public support.
To assess potential HSR, America 2050 analyzed over 27,000 pairs of cities with population over 50,000. Their criteria included population, distance, existing transit systems and potential connections, per capita economic productivity, level of auto congestion and location within 11 identified “megaregions”. These megaregions include the obvious (the Northeast corridor, Southern and Northern California, Great Lakes, Texas Triangle) and the developing (Front Range, Arizona Sun Corridor, Gulf Coast). The top 50 city pairs, not surprisingly, were concentrated in the Northeast, California and Midwest.
Phase One of America 2050’s plan includes improvements to the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.(a region thatalready has the highest ridership in the country and the Acela, the only US train that even comes close to HSR) and the Midwest hub connecting Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. It also includes the Los Angeles/San Francisco route, which would be the nation’s first “HSR express” on a dedicated right of way rather than sharing rights of way with other rail traffic. Phase Two would broaden the network, such as connecting Dallas and Houston, extending the California line to reach Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego, and creating a Southeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta.
America 2050 sees ridership demand as the critical factor in HSR realizing its promised benefits and becoming relatively self-sufficient financially. If that ridership does not materialize, HSR may also “waste energy, resources and require excessive operating subsidies”. And if operating revenues actually cover operating costs, it is important to recognize that the capital costs of rail line construction are almost always borne by the public sector even in successful rail systems.
Cost is a legitimate concern. The Los Angeles/San Francisco HSR is now expected to cost $68 billion. Even in the concept stage, a Tucson/Phoenix HSR has cost estimates above $2 billion. And Tucson’s own 4-mile light rail has an initial outlay of $200 million and will require annual operating subsidies of somewhere between $3 million and $7 million. On the other hand, the interstate highway system is estimated to have cost $425 billion (in 2006 dollars) and the Federal Highway Administration estimates we would need to spend $20.5 billion annually until 2028 just to eliminate deficiencies in existing bridges, to say nothing of new road and bridge construction. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that deficiencies in our surface transportation systems (car, bus and rail) cost households and businesses $130 billion in 2010 with a cumulative impact of $2.5 trillion by 2040.
With rail, as with so much else, there is little new under the sun. The transcontinental railroad was promoted as saving the government money on transportation costs, subduing the Indians, enhancing emigration to the West coast and developing the Great Plains, increasing trade with Asia and assuring California’s allegiance to the Union. Even in the midst of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln was an ardent supporter. There was plenty of government involvement, with the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 providing some initial seed money through 6% government bonds, rights of way over public land and granting the railroad companies ten sections (square miles) per mile of laid track through public lands. All rails and iron components had to be of American manufacture (an influential Congressman’s family owned a foundry) and additional government bonds were issued with each approved mile of track. Later the railroads were allowed to issue first mortgage bonds, moving the government bonds to second mortgage status.
There was plenty of scandal in the development of the national railroad network. Both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific created complex finance companies with most of the dividends accruing to a select few. The Union Pacific in particular granted shares of stock in its finance company to members of Congress. Following the Civil War, rampant speculation and overbuilding collided with the global financial crisis and rising interest rates in 1873 and over 60 railroads went bankrupt. Railroad overbuilding and speculation also played a central role in the Panic of 1893, with 500 bank failures and unemployment approaching 20%.
Despite all the challenges and scandal, the transcontinental railroad more than lived up to its promise. In his excellent book on the transcontinental railroad, “Nothing Like It In the World”, Stephen Ambrose noted how such great obstacles were overcome. “Americans were a people such as the world had never before known. No one before them . . . had had such optimism or determination. It was thanks to those two qualities that the Americans set out to build what had never before been done.” Those qualities, if they are indeed still part of the American character, will be sorely needed if a new era of train travel is to be launched.