Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

The Texas Eagle 07/22/03Image by william c hutton jr via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak; January 13, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail info@unitedrail.orghttp://www.unitedrail.org

Volume 6, Number 2

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute that focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, and New York. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) Gil Carmichael, former Chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, former Administrator of the Federal Railway Administration from 1989 to 1993, and the Founding Chairman, Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver, is a man who anyone involved in railroads and transportation should sit at his knee and learn all sorts of useful things. Mr. Carmichael is one of a handful of visionaries in the United States who look at the state of our railroad world – both passenger and freight – and dares to dream and enunciate a rational plan for the future.

At the end of last year, This Week at Amtrak was privileged to print Mr. Carmichael’s latest major speech to the 15th World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems held in New York City last November. Part of Mr. Carmichael’s vision spoke of his concept for high speed rail:

"Our success in freight intermodal transportation points the way to what I believe is the most promising strategy for North American transportation improvements, for freight and passenger, in the coming years. I call that strategy ‘Interstate II’. In the last century we built 43,000 miles of grade-separated four-lane highways – the U.S. Interstate I. On the other hand, Interstate II is a vision of truly high-speed intercity/port travel that is based upon steel wheel on a steel rail, not pavement. It partners the superior safety and efficiency of rail transportation with the strengths of the intermodal system. Interstate II can be built on rights-of-way that already exist because there is ample room. I believe that we must build or upgrade about 30,000 miles of double and triple track corridors capable of running freight trains at speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour. That network would be augmented by as much as another 10,000 miles of high-quality conventional routings. This network would be the basis of Interstate II, a high-efficiency network of steel stretching from coast to coast and from Mexico City to Montreal. With GPS and the new PTC technology we should be able to very safely include passenger trains at speed up to 125 MPH. Such trains can be competitive in city pairs up to 500 miles."

Okay, Mr. Carmichael is famous for making people think in a Socratic method way. In other words, his leadership starts people having discussions and expanding thinking and learning.

The various professional associates of United Rail Passenger Alliance took Mr. Carmichael’s thoughts to heart, and spawned the following discussion on URPA’s Intranet.

[Begin quote]

... [A]sking this group for opinions is like hauling coals to Newcastle, but, let's do this, anyway.

Gil Carmichael said in his speech to the Rail Congress in New York in November his vision of a high speed train is passenger trains regularly traveling at 100 MPH or more. We know this was possible in the past, and when [Several of us] rode the first eastbound run of the Sunset when the CSX road master was on the train crossing the panhandle of Florida, [the late Doctor] Adrian [Herzog] was clocking mileposts and calculated we were doing in excess of 100 MPH. We were in the lounge at the time, and the CSX road master just kind of grinned; and more or less indicated he was seeing what would happen on his newly refurbished roadbed.

... I remember riding the [Union Pacific’s] City of Los Angeles across some pretty deserted desert country [In the 1960s], and there was speculation the train was going in excess of 90 MPH.

So, my question to each and every one of you is ... :

– We know the best way to speed up route schedules is to strengthen track around terminals and use other methods to relieve terminal congestion and roundabout terminal routings like in San Antonio, which adds an hour to each trip of the Texas Eagle in and out of the station just because a quarter-mile piece of track is missing. Is 79 MPH running sufficient? If terminal congestion and terminal slow track were eliminated, would 79 MPH running be enough?

– With Positive Train Control coming, should 79 MPH running be bumped up higher, such as 90 MPH or even Mr. Carmichael's suggested 100 MPH or more?

– Anyone who has traveled on the NEC knows 100 MPH running or more makes scenery a blur right next to the train, but faraway scenery is fine. Does this make a difference in the passenger train experience?

– If time sensitivity is an issue, would the traveling public care how fast the train is running, as long as the trip time is the goal? In this case, would terminal congestion elimination do the trick?

– Overall, does the majority of the public care how long it takes a train to arrive at a destination as long as it's reasonably priced, on time, not unreasonably longer than if an automobile trip were substituted, and there are sufficient onboard creature comforts such as food, beverage, and some sort of distraction beyond looking out the window or reading a book?

– Does the current upcoming generation of under age 35 passenger train riders care about cost, length of trip, amenities, or just about getting from Point A to Point B?

– Plans like the current Midwest High Speed Rail proposal want speeds to be even higher than 100 MPH at some points because they believe the public wants faster speeds, and there is also a belief that since the rest of the world has high speed trains, we've got to have them too, or we won't be keeping up with the Jonses. Does it really matter what the Jonses do when it comes to American passenger rail travel?

The responses were:

New York: As a start to this exercise, one needs to look at the FRA classes of track. Class 4 is a maximum speed of 60 for freight and 80 for passenger. Class 5 is a maximum speed of 80 for freight and 90 for passenger. Class 6 is 110 for passenger (no maximum shown for freight, but one assumes that is still 80 MPH).

Considering no matter what is done to improve track speeds, the tracks are going to be shared by passenger and freight trains, it seems like you get the most bang for the buck by going to Class 5 as a top speed. There is no advantage to going to 100 as opposed to 90. If you go to 110 (Class 6), you will probably have more passenger/freight conflicts.

That said, I don't think anyone cares what the top speed is as long as the trip time is competitive. To do that means doing things like straightening curves, eliminating grade crossings, rebuilding bridges, putting in more passing sidings, etc.

I think a lot more is gained by improving average speed as opposed making a major increase in top speed. Over the long term the maintenance costs will be less on a Class 5 railroad than a Class 6 railroad.

If you could just average 70 MPH, you could run New York-Chicago in 13 hours and 40 minutes, which is much faster than the 20th Century ever ran. Number 3 [Amtrak’s Southwest Chief] could run Chicago to Los Angeles in 32 1/4 hours. Chicago-Detroit would be four hours.

The problem we face is convincing politicians who think 110 or higher is sexy that a lot more bang for the buck could be gotten for an average speed of 70 MPH.

When Metro-North raised the speeds on the Hudson Line from 79 MPH to 90 MPH a number of years ago, it saved ... about 30 seconds time between New York and Poughkeepsie.

California/North: - With Positive Train Control coming, should 79 MPH running be bumped up higher, such as 90 MPH or even Mr. Carmichael's suggested 100 MPH?

YES. And with PTC coming, it COULD be.

– Anyone who has traveled on the NEC knows 100 MPH running or more makes scenery a blur right next to the train, but faraway scenery is fine. Does this make a difference in the passenger train experience?

No. In 1974 I rode the San Francisco Zephyr on UP across Wyoming. Stopwatch on the mileposts said 103MPH, mile after mile. I cannot say I saw any less than from the Pioneer, 23 years later in its last days, at 79 MPH.

The "scenic routes" such as the current Zephyr's across the Colorado Rockies, and the Empire Builder across Marias Pass, would not be subject to 100 MPH speeds anyway.

– If time sensitivity is an issue, would the traveling public care how fast the train is running, as long as the trip time is the goal? In this case, would terminal congestion elimination do the trick?


– Overall, does the majority of the public care how long it takes a train to arrive at a destination as long as it's reasonably priced, on time, not unreasonably longer than if an automobile trip were substituted, and there are sufficient onboard creature comforts such as food, beverage, and some sort of distraction beyond looking out the window or reading a book?

No, especially not in the long distance markets.

– Does the current upcoming generation of under age 35 passenger train riders care about cost, length of trip, amenities, or just about getting from Point A to Point B?

Cost is always primary and amenities are somewhere in the consciousness. Length of trip is generally not ... 1/10 the speed of air makes it much less of an issue.

– Plans like the current Midwest High Speed Rail proposal want speeds to be even higher than 100 MPH at some points because they believe the public wants faster speeds, and there is also a belief that since the rest of the world has high speed trains, we've got to have them too, or we won't be keeping up with the Jonses. Does it really matter what the Jonses do when it comes to American passenger rail travel?

It doesn't matter until the powers that be, Amtrak or otherwise, TELL them it matters.

Minnesota I: Look at the Empire Builder (in North Dakota and eastern Montana) and Acela over 400 mile distances. The Empire Builder has comparable trip times and sell-out traffic, so empirically a reliable 79 running speed with minimal slow stuff is an eminently salable product. Capital cost of that for the Empire Builder: zero. For regional high speed rail: infinite, because its billions up front and mega-millions annually thereafter. That's why by Acela standards, the Empire Builder – is – "high speed rail."

Arizona I: I'll look at this from the passenger perspective.

The new Phoenix streetcars (err, light rail trains) have been favorably received, even though actual travel times remain slightly poky so far (as speed limits are gradually increased and various other lingering issues are resolved).

In observing and listening to people on our new trains, the factors in attracting ridership seem to be:

– The trains look modern

– Trains and stations are clean and comfortable

– The train "feels" fast (good acceleration)

– The next train is just a few minutes away (low headways)

Actual travel time is a lower priority than comfort, convenience, and frequency.

The longer the distance, of course, the more travel time becomes an issue – but I submit that "true high speed" trains appeal only to the train geeks and a few frantic businessmen.

If we define "high speed" as 110mph, then with PTC there is little reason much of the Class I railroad company network can't support "high speed" trains – but it's the look and feel of the trains and stations, the frequency, and consistency (keeping to schedule) that will attract passengers.

Illinois: Makes sense, but first we should define High Speed Rail. Joe Vranich (... someone who does know a lot about high speed rail) used to state that the proper definition of HSR was consistent speeds of 180 MPH or above. I've also heard "Conventional speed" rail defined as speeds up to 79 MPH, and "medium speed" rail as speeds from 80 to 179. I don't know if any railroad organization – like the Association of American Railroads – has come up with any "official" speed designations, but if anyone knows, please pass it on.

It seems to me that, for passenger trains to be successful, they need to be comfortable, convenient and operate at speeds reasonable for the situation. I know, that's painting with a broad brush, but, especially on the long distance routes, my point is that speeding up the California Zephyr might be counter-productive if – by doing so – you ended up with a Denver arrival of 3:00 AM. I think each long distance route would have to be studied and areas targeted where increased speed makes sense. Increased speed [the Southwest Chief] between Chicago and Kansas City would make sense.

California/South: Define it how you like. [Illinois]’s second paragraph is on the nail. Example, the northbound Coast Starlight now arrives Sacramento about midnight, no use to anybody. An earlier arrival in the Bay Area and Sacramento would be a commercial benefit. But with other trains speeding them up gives poor arrivals, unless you can leave later.

For long distance trains, key is, go slow less often, rather than worry about top speed.

I can't imagine the fuel consumption of a train of high level cars at 100 MPH. You've got to have a real commercial justification for that, I'd think.

All things equal, I'd want to put my money on reducing the 20 MPH or less sections (station approaches, etc.) rather than worry about top speed.

Virginia: I concur. I make no claim to operational or track geometry expertise, but it is my understanding that, in shared track situations, there is an unavoidable trade-off between track standards (FRA class and geometry on curves etc.) for freight and passenger. This also drives part of the economics: higher speed track (and trains) become rapidly more expensive as speed increases – not just to modify or install, but to maintain as well.

The "commercial justification" angle boils down to having a trip time/average speed that meets the passengers' needs without breaking the bank. It is far less about what speed is physically attainable than about the average speed that is economically viable. So getting rid of low-speed choke points, reducing delays with passing sidings, etc. can all contribute to higher average speed and shorter trip times – far less expensively than true "high speed rail." This doesn't mean that high speed rail doesn't have a place in the US – just that the locations where its cost can be justified are probably quite few. In contrast, there are more numerous locations where relatively low-cost improvements can make a big difference in the average speed and ride quality that help attract and keep passengers.

Minnesota I: When the United States Railway Administration was planning the first Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, they generated graphs that plotted end-point journey time against train velocity, and demonstrated that end point times are reduced far more and far faster by speeding up slow spots and eliminating stops than by increasing top end running speed.

Picture a graph with a descending parabolic curve. The fast drop on the left-hand side of the curve represents avoided time with increases in average velocity between zero and 40 or so mph.

The far right of the curve where the plot goes nearly flat shows that increased velocity (on the horizontal axis) decreases end point travel time (the vertical axis) very little, and less and less so with increased speed.

Then, figure the capital and maintenance cost to straighten curves, clean up interlockings, add the odd flyover and improve command and control technology as against the capital and maintenance cost of building (new?) Class 8 or whatever track, and the Illinois/Michigan/New York approach begins to make far more sense than the MHRA approach.

Distance matters, too. Going like a bat out of Hell for 15 or 50 miles doesn't save much time at all. Doing so for 300 miles could reduce times noticeably. In the NEC today, cutting Acela back to 125 over its entire route might add as much as 5 minutes to a Washington-New York City trip, and one or two to a New York city-Boston trip, which is well within the operational margin of error (in the US) and well below passengers' thresholds of awareness.

Washington, D.C.: Faster trips through congested interlocking and terminals are not as attention-grabbing as zippy top speeds, but it's the low-hanging fruit. One extreme example is the Cardinal's trip through Chicago.

Virginia: True. A friend who (unlike me) has actually had operating experience, claims that the vertical infrastructure cost curve inflicted by the Acela only vastly increases Amtrak's (uncompensated) NEC overhead for what is ultimately a marginal trip time advantage. He argued that dropping the NEC to a lower FRA track class standard (sans the current PHSR – pseudo high speed rail) would not only save huge bucks in day to day operations, but in long term maintenance costs as well. Right now, as we all know, the Acela achieves "high speed rail" velocity for only a few minutes of each trip.

Texas/East: Arizona I writes:

– The trains look modern

– Trains and stations are clean and comfortable

– The train "feels" fast (good acceleration)

– The next train is just a few minutes away (low headways)

Actual travel time is a lower priority than comfort, convenience, and frequency.

I agree with Arizona I, and have listened for many years to my wife who concurs that the key word for her is "clean."

I like Arizona I’s "feels fast" above, as perception is many times more important than fact. We traveled the Southwest Chief back when the Superliners were first introduced in the early 80's. And, I might add on each trip since then, the experience of being in the top bunk in an Economy bedroom while Amtrak descends from Flagstaff to Kingman at over 90 MPH on the BNSF was and is quite exciting and "feels fast." Very fast.

As to travel time, there are many spots in the system where this should be addressed. California/North said, "All things equal, I'd want to put my money on reducing the 20 MPH or less sections (station approaches, etc.) rather than worry about top speed." I would add, "for now."

Recently I was at Dallas Union Station when the southbound Texas Eagle arrived at 11:15, waited until its scheduled departure time of 12:20 for Ft. Worth where it arrived on time and had to wait for servicing for a 2:40 PM departure. The distance traveled: 31 miles. Were passengers upset about that? Not the ones detraining at Dallas, not the ones boarding at Ft. Worth. The through passengers? Don't know, but it was better than being 3-4 hours late at each spot.

Florida/North Central: Last year I heard Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association tell the tale (twice) of having public meetings on his initiative. What were the two most frequent comments following his dissertation? "How do we get what we already have to run reliably" and "How do we keep the toilets clean." The great masses want predictability and civility from their public transit.

As for the prospects of higher speeds on the long distance routes, I cannot speak to the east-west fleet. However, I have long contended that a run time between Washington and Jacksonville should be no more than twelve hours. There are no technical obstacles to this initiative. The locomotives and rolling stock were designed for the necessary speeds. The right-of-ways in place are capable of upgrading. Even CSX recognized the potential of upgrading this 'corridor' as one of their long term goals. All that is missing is the will and the capital, both of which are in dwindling supply.

Getting back to the masses, the most frequent reason I've heard for not taking the train is "I can drive there faster than the Amtrak." I do not expect to hear this too often going forward due to route slashing and burning by NRPC and the winnowing use of the private automobile.

California/South II: The key ... is to define terms ... while we're building Class V railroad ... . High speed rail is a political, not an engineering term. If the long predicted San Diego Bullet Train were built according to the FRA safety standards and the politically necessary number of stops, this 165 mph "capable" wunderbahn would cut endpoint times by about 10 minutes, according to the study that [the late Doctor] Adrian [Herzog] and I did for Amtrak back in the day. This was and is less time savings than if the Surfliners were able to maintain reasonable timekeeping.

Track upgrading, grade separation, and a couple of holes punched in hills could have increased speed with conventional equipment by nearly 20%. We successfully killed off the taxpayer boondoggle of this and the Las Vegas Bullet Train, but were not successful in getting the much less expensive (and less sexy) improvements made because the train would "only" be capable of a 90 MPH average, making it perhaps a Cannonball, but not a Bullet.

If we define High Speed as reducing the travel time between point A and point B by xx% (got to be double digits), using sexy looking but off the shelf technology, and offer on board services that today's passenger wants (WiFi, 110 Volt outlets, Dish Network, decent – but reasonably priced and presented – food with personable service personnel), not what rail fans think the 20th Century offered, then we have a product that the public might actually use, instead of a public works project that would make the Big Dig look like a line in the sand.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that we maintained that service must be at least twice daily and connecting within reasonable times to other trains or modes? Then we can advertise "high speed" trains traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago in only 36 hours. High speed has to be redefined along these lines so that the politicos can claim High Speed Rail, and we can build realistic fast trains in the real world. We are never going to see the world of the Jetson's with flying cars and maglev trains short of the entire landscape being leveled, which leads to a couple of political and/or military considerations ...

Texas/West: If you intend to make intermediate stops (so you're actually a railroad instead of an airline wannabe), 100 is a good number for conventional trainsets. What you want to do is average over 70.

This is something all of us looked at many years ago.

New York: Like I said in an earlier post, when Metro-North increased the track speed from 79 MPH to 90 MPH, the time savings was 30 seconds. If the money was spent upping the 60 and 70 MPH curves to 79 MPH, I'm will to bet a lot more time would have been saved.

Texas/West: Exactly. That's why averaging 70 or a bit above is so important. The real problem out here in the West is slow running through terminals and urban areas where track speeds are sometimes unreasonably low.

Back during the Texas bullet train debacle (and this goes along with California/South II's observations on Calfornia, to which I was also privy back then) we computed a number of speed scenarios with a reasonable number of stops (if I recall, the west side of the triangle was San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Austin, Round Rock/Georgetown, Temple/Belton, Waco, Hillsboro, South Fort Worth, Fort Worth, mid-cities/DFW airport, Dallas), where stops were generally about 15 miles apart (urban areas) and 30-40 miles apart on the spine everywhere else, and there was basically NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE between a 100 MPH (peak) bilevel and the 200+ MPH bullet.

That is because the bullet takes so much time and distance getting up to top speed and back that it never gains an advantage if you actually stop and pick up and drop off people. For you guys not familiar with the lay of the land here, what is laid out above is NOT a local or commute service. Sounds like a certain Wondertrain, doesn't it? This result was entirely consistent with what California/South II and Adrian came up with on Los Angeles-San Diego.

The way the other guys sell this concept is just to replicate the major airline schedule between endpoints, with little or nothing intermediate (Which, of course, is a generally captive market for rail, something our favorite carrier of last choice has never ever learned.), and then claim a great achievement in mobility improvement.

This is why Southwest Airlines opposed the Texas bullet so vehemently – it was transparently aimed right at them, and it didn't help that American Airlines (who has tried to kill Southwest throughout their history) jumped right on the bullet bandwagon as well, failing to recognize how they got their numbers (see below).

Meanwhile, Bubba in Waco still usually drives 100+ miles to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Dallas or Austin to get his long distance flight because he doesn't want to pay premium price for the four weekday cramjet RJs on American Airlines from Waco Regional Airport to DFW or the 4 weekday cram-and-shake SAAB 340s from Waco Regional Airport to Houston on Continental, which rarely go at the right time anyway. Now Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport has more (and a few additional) destinations, but you still pay the inflated RJ/major carrier prices, and the airport is almost 30 miles west of the corridor (sort of the McGregor of air service if you're anywhere outside the Ft. Hood area and understand what train riders have to put up with down here).

Ironically, since Austin moved south to Bergstrom, Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport is now effectively closer and quicker, with traffic, to get to/from the northern Austin suburb area (Georgetown, Leander, etc.) than Austin is, a fact that Killeen markets with billboards and occasional print ads to the extent of their somewhat limited budget.

In the case of the Texas bullet bust, what they did to make the patronage projections look good (and when we caught them at it they were forced to admit it in a public meeting in Austin) was to assume 100% modal shift to rail for all airline flights operating in the triangle, even flights that were continuing segments of through services originating and ending outside, with a 60% load factor assumed for all flights.

At the time, well over half of the flights were interregional and fit this model, as Continental hubbed at Houston and Delta and American hubbed at DFW, and Southwest hubbed (even under the Wright Amendment and despite the fact that they emphatically deny that they hub – LOL!) at Dallas and Houston, so the presumption was that, for example, a passenger going Miami-DFW on a one stop through Houston was going to get off and take the train when he or she got to Houston, instead of staying on the plane. This is just an extension of the same single-segment endpoint mentality Amtrak has used since its inception.

This is the same line of bull(et) the HSR types use elsewhere, so you guys need to take a serious look at the numbers and market segments when they come calling.

As [the late] Byron [Nordberg], Adrian and I used to tell everyone, it's the captive onesies and twosies that make the service viable, not the airport/freeway crowd.

Minnesota I: Allow me to elaborate on this.

I agree with Arizona I's points, but the analysis also depends to some degree on the distances involved.

In under 400-500 mile markets, where rail competes with cars for the most part, and cars have a 98-99% market share, for rail to even be in the game, it has to overcome inherent technological handicaps.

Cars have virtually infinite schedules (it leaves exactly when you want to go), an infinite route matrix (it goes anywhere there is a road), and convenience (it goes door-to-door, more or less, and has privacy of a sort).

Speed seems to be an issue only to the extent that congestion that slows me down is an annoyance. So if a train goes to the same general area that I want to reach, whether it goes 60 or 90 or 180 doesn't seem to be that much of a factor. Frequency, reliability, lack of hassle, and accessibility (e.g., free parking, and good rail transit or rental cars at my destination) are probably the main drivers of modal preference. And subjective orientation: I know intelligent small business owners on the east coast who drive from points south of Newark to meetings in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and look at you a little strange if you ask whether they considered the train. Their issue seems to be the factors I listed: convenience and privacy trump whatever Amtrak has on offer.

And Acela isn't all that fast either. Look at the timetable to see how long it takes to get from Newark to New Haven or Providence. Most days, you really can get there faster on I-95, allowing for station access, fitting your journey into someone else's timetable, and getting from the destination station to your ultimate actual destination. Even at 150 (or its average of closer to 60), Acela doesn't cut it.

We all know that short sprints up to 150 or whatever can't compensate for miles run at 60, or long stops, or unreliable schedules, or surly help.

Amtrak's persistent NEC load factors in the 30-40% range (lower still if one were to discount PHL-NYP local traffic) tend to prove that rail isn't really competitive even in these markets.

But in longer markets, where share is beginning to shift to air, high speed rail doesn't seem to be that relevant either. Is some businessman going to skip American Airlines and its Advantage points to get from Chicago to New York because (for 30 billion dollars invested) Amtrak can now get him there in 13 hours instead of 20? Or to Denver in 12 hours instead of 17? San Francisco from LA in three hours might have legs, but that's only going to happen if they don't stop at Bakersfield and Fresno, which seems unlikely politically, and foolish commercially. We have ample empirical experience of what happens when Amtrak runs non-stop endpoint trains on either coast.

And we do need to define our terms carefully. If we compare the runs of the Southwest Chief or the Empire Builder over 400 mile distances in the prairies at 79 or 90 to the 400 mile run of any Acela between Boston and Washington, the elapsed end point trip times are very close, so what really is "high speed" rail? Cost should be a factor, too. Public capital cost of the former? Zero. Of the latter? Virtually infinite, because its billions in cash on the front end, and hundreds of millions a year in off-the-books subsidy forever after. (But to a politician looking to dole out bucks to favored constituents, that argument might be exactly backwards.)

My take is that speed only needs to be at an "in the game" average, based on what the bulk of the customers are looking to buy. Since the vast majority have their cars as the other choice for any given trip and the folks that are flying aren't going to come over to rail in any meaningful numbers no matter what rail does, average speeds in the range of 60 to 90 do the job to make rail competitive, and that goal is much more easily and cheaply accomplished at the low end than at the top of the running speed environment.

It's only where someone decides to indulge the conceit that rail can and should compete with air that genuine high speed rail really makes any commercial sense at all. That hasn't worked at 135 mph in a 221-mile market in one of our densest air lanes (I don't buy Amtrak's modal split argument, either, because I think they are comparing apples to pomegranates by not counting all six NY area airports for the air number, but including more than their own Washington to Newark/NYP passengers in the rail tally) and we have precious little research to suggest that cutting the rail trip to two hours is going to bump Delta and Continental out of the NEC shuttle business.

Arizona II: Good points all.

I believe the following two points are as important as speed:

– The perceived "seamlessness" of the journey

– The percentage of total travel time that can be either productive, relaxing, or entertaining

Use each mode for what it does best: Use the "infinite matrix" of the automobile at the origin and destination; use the train for covering the bulk of the mileage in ways that can be realistically productive or enjoyable for the traveler.

Hypothetical case study: Phoenix to Southern California

Currently, there are two viable options – each of which take between six and eight hours.

1. Drive. Of course many persons enjoy driving, if the traffic is not too bad, but it is still tiring, and one's time is consumed by being the operator of the vehicle. Time permitting, sightseeing is possible and, in a car pool, discussion and planning can take place.

2. Fly. If one is not an anxious flyer and the weather is decent, the actual "wheels up" time can be enjoyable – provided one doesn't mind being shoe-horned into a space that barely gives one enough room to sip a Coke or read a book – let alone do any meaningful work on a laptop. Plus, on a longer flight, one is at the mercy of the laptop's battery. Cell phones cannot be used. Most of the trip is unproductive and unpleasant – parking, checking the luggage, the TSA drill, getting to the gate, and so on – with most of this done in reverse at the destination.

On a train trip, there is ample time to do enjoyable or productive stuff – eat a meal, work on a laptop (or watch a video), or converse with fellow travelers where the ambient background noise is low enough to make talking to someone feasible. Cell phones can be used. Plus – at least on last summer's Empire Builder – the cars had electric outlets for plugging in computers so one was not held hostage to battery time.

Train travel could be made more seamless by having "rent-and-ride" stops at the periphery of major metropolitan areas where rental cars are available along with access to the area's freeway system – Minnesota I’s "infinite matrix."

Of course, one can still continue to downtown and use transit when feasible to do so. Rent-and-rides can also be park-and-rides for travelers originating at that location. Covered parking could be provided – rental cars could be electric and be charged up from solar cells on the roof of the garage. Rail fare options could include round trip train, parking at origin, and car rental or transit pass at destination.

Minnesota II: The consensus seems to be that speed isn't important. But here are some exceptions.

The Chicago to Minneapolis route was based on speed. And speed captured lots of business. There were far more people waiting to board at various stops than there is today by two to three times. Today it is 8-1/2 hours plus delays, it was 6-1/4 hours for the best time in the 1950's. Milwaukee Road was usually always on time, the CB&Q usually was late.

A complaint I hear over and over again is the slow transit time of the Empire Builder versus driving today from Minneapolis to Chicago but not westward from Minneapolis.

The Hiawatha's routinely cruised across Wisconsin and from Milwaukee to Chicago in excess of 100 MPH with 105 commonly reported. The speed limit was officially 90 mph. One locality posted "trains pass crossing at 100 MPH". (Local police put their radar on the trains.)

Illinois Central trains crossed Illinois at speeds over 100 mph with a dawn to dusk run from Chicago to New Orleans.

The 20th Century Limited was another long distance train where speed was a major selling point with overnight service between Chicago and New York. My trip in the 1960's was uneventful with arrival in Chicago 20 minutes early. This train is accurately depicted in the old movie North by Northwest. And, yes there was a red carpet at Grand Central.

Another fast route was from Chicago to Denver. Departure was around 5 PM and arrival the next morning around 9 AM.

All of these routes had excellent transit times.

100 MPH makes a good marketing tool, 90 doesn't, but transit time is most important This is what people see on the Internet first.

Illinois: ... I also like the idea that rail travel should be faster than the auto in the same market. Or, at least AS FAST, but with more comfort and convenience.

Washington, D.C.: Speed is a tool to lure customers, but not the only tool. And it should be deployed in selected areas where it makes sense. Too often advocates become too enamored with speed for speed's sake.

Illinois: Exactly, and getting speed up to 90 MPH or 100 in some markets would probably be a very effective marketing tool. Minnesota II’s example of Chicago/Minneapolis is a good one.

A local market here is Galesburg/Chicago. By rail it's 162 miles and Amtrak does it in about 2:40 (Westbound). Driving Galesburg to Chicago is 200 miles because the Interstate goes North to the Quad Cities before heading to Chicago. Anyhow, the drive to Chicago can easily take four hours, depending on traffic, so most folks around here take the train to Chicago for day trips or business. The State of Illinois was going to speed up much of the Galesburg/Chicago run to 90, but I don't think that has happened. Funding was available once, but maybe our soon-to-be-impeached Governor, Blagojevich, used it for something else!

[End quote]

You’ve just read a discussion held on URPA’s Intranet with the usual give-and-take. Among those discussing were two former Amtrak consultants, a professional civil engineer in the railroad industry along with another Ph.D., some professional railroaders both in operations and other areas, a couple of academics, some attorneys, and other professional interested parties.

The point of the exercise was to have a rational discussion of high speed rail, a constant topic of interest in today’s Washington environment where every fantasy project ever perceived is under consideration as part of a trillion dollar stimulus program about to be launched by the federal government.

One thing everyone can agree on in this country is "high speed rail" is a term which has many definitions. Perhaps everyone should attempt to agree on a single definition for high speed rail, and relegate everything else to enhanced conventional rail.

Whatever becomes of high speed rail, including the started project in California, it is incumbent on rational people to look at all of the considerations and detractions of high speed rail, and not only how it will be a short term benefit to the construction industry, but what long term benefit high speed rail will provide in the future. Will high speed rail become so expensive, it will not be practical to operate? Will high speed rail become a permanent, dependent child of government, always needing subsidy, but never providing enough social benefit to justify the subsidy? How long will the initial high speed rail infrastructure practically last, and how soon will that infrastructure become another Amtrak Northeast Corridor financial black hole, where countless billions of dollars will have to be poured into those potential black holes to keep a system running that has limited social and business benefit?

Before everyone gleefully jumps on the high speed rail bandwagon, many of these questions must be answered in a thoughtful and rational way. What may be today’s short term solution to other problems could easily turn into tomorrow’s long term nightmare that may stifle other better, and more useful incarnations of passenger rail.

There is one essential caveat to all of this discussion: Amtrak, as we know it today, has barely been capable of operating the Northeast Corridor in a useful way. While the public numbers Amtrak shows say the NEC is "profitable," and contributes financially to the overall company, we know that to be patently false. A true examination of Amtrak’s financial stewardship of the NEC shows many routine operating expenses are relegated to capital costs, creating a massive financial shell game that rivals the evils of Enron.

Gil Carmichael, as usual, with vision and clarity, has laid a path for us to follow. Steel wheels on steel rails is the answer to present and future transportation needs in North America, including increased velocity for freight trains and decreased trip times for passenger trains. The challenge will be for us to honor his vision by the proper implementation of his plan for the future where fiscal responsibility runs rampant, commercial success is unquestioned, and social benefit is obvious.

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