One of the problems with passenger rail is that for many people what they see in their mind’s eye when it is referenced is a steam locomotive from a movie out of the Old West; a technology of a time before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease, before the light bulb, and before the automobile. For many the only acceptable new investment in rail has to be in much more advanced systems involving mag-lev, or some other “bullet train” technology.
I’ve ridden on Spain’s Talgo, a diesel train that can go over 150 mph, and so I know that none of that is required to travel much faster than one can legally and safely travel in a car, and without the hassles involved in air travel. Improving passenger service on existing lines to go faster along most of the routes between cities requires a certain, fairly humble, level of investment. Creating an entirely new system on a continental scale at speeds in excess of 200 mph would require hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars.
In the early 2000’s Jim Kunstler made this point in his own inimitable way: Yes, we have a passenger rail system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of and we have to get to work improving it, but we have to forget about high speed rail, it ain’t gonna happen, we’ve missed the window when our nation’s finances could accommodate it.
Comparing California High Speed Rail and the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative makes the case perfectly. Around 2008 voters in California approved a ballot to move forward on a plan to connect all of the state’s major cities with a brand new ultra modern high speed rail system.
It would cost $40, ummm $64, errr $77 billion dollars, connect to 24 mostly brand new stations, travel at a speed of 220 miles per hour, and incorporate all of the state’s population centers on brand new rights of way.
The Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative seeks to improve access along mostly already existing rail corridors by making incremental improvements which will allow the Diesel engine locomotives already traveling on those routes to reach maximum speed more often.
It piggy backs on 4 already completed improvements:
*CT Rail Hartford Line service and line improvements
*The opening of Springfield’s Union Station
*Massachusetts acquisition of and improvements to the north/south corridor stretching from the Connecticut line to the south, north to the Vermont border.
*The new Montreal Central Station Customs and Immigration Facility
And two projects in varying stages planning:
*The “Vermonter” extension to Montreal
*The expansion of Boston’s South Station.
Massachusetts is already committed to a pilot project adding two round trips per day from Springfield to Greenfield for the next two years starting in June, and has begun a two year study of creating commuter service between Springfield and Boston. Both of these initiatives inch closer to full implementation of the NNEIRI.
These improvements would better connect Montreal, Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, and Burlington and would provide an alternative “inland route” for service between Boston and New York City. The cost for a complete build out, which includes hundreds of millions already spent on the aforementioned improvements, comes to about $1 billion.
It’s not an apples to apples comparison. Actually, that’s the point. The economic capacity and populations aren’t so different, though Los Angeles is a primary focus of the “High Speed” plan, whereas New York City is tangential to the New England program. With that as a given the size and significance of the other cities in each are comparable though not identical, but almost everything else is strikingly distinct.
*500 miles from north to south compared to just over 300.
*Brand new rights of way versus, at most, some new “double tracking”.
*New stations and completely new service to dozens of cities versus possibly reopening one station closed less than 10 years ago.
*Building from scratch the newest and best technology or tweaking current rail-lines and rolling stock to maximize speeds.
*220 mph Max speeds along the entire system or occasionally hitting 120 when circumstances allow.
The most significant difference at this point seems to be the fact that one of these plans is well on its way to full implementation a decade or more ahead of schedule and without anyone ever really “deciding” to do so; the plan was presented but all of the separate pieces that I outlined above have been or are being done for other much less grandiose reasons: The Hartford Line exists to bring the Connecticut capital closer economically to New York; the state of Vermont sees a rail link to Montreal as vital for Burlington; and Massachusetts wants to spread Boston’s prosperity westward to relieve housing and employment pressures around the economic engine of the Bay State.
On the other side of the country the California HSR program is being hotly debated even as only the middle section appears to be getting built. People debate whether or not Governor Newsom has given up on the plan, whether or not $3.5 billion in funding will need to be returned to Washington, and whether of not the new intermodal transportation facility in San Francisco can be salvaged.
Fuggedaboutit? I have no opinion on what California should do going forward, I think I’d need to know a lot more than I do about the state and its state of affairs. On this side of the continent we’re happy to be on the verge of rubbing the nose of those snotty Bulgarians in the grandeur of our transportation excellence. Next up, Romania!
We ride on the INSIDE of our planes.