Be Honest about what ‘High-Speed-Rail’ Is (or isn’t)

I know you all likely think I’m nuts, but words matter.  Over-selling and calling “high-speed rail” something that is NOT “high-speed rail” is damaging to the cause of improving passenger rail, be it upgrading the existing Amtrak service or actually joining the rest of the modern world by building high speed rail. Selling either is very hard to a skeptical public, and doing a “bait-and-switch” undermines support.

What is High Speed Rail? Whatever American politicians want it to be!

I recall attending a rail advocacy gathering where the Vermont governor came and talked about his grand ride on the Shanghai maglev, declared that we were now bringing high-speed rail to America, before then accepting an award for the state’s successful on-time and on budget 79 mph upgrading of tracks for Amtrak’s Vermonter.

The governor was far from the first elected official to embellishment a project, and while it may seem to be relatively harmless, there is in fact a danger to the cause of improving passenger rail in the United States when policy makers conflate the high-speed rail –as embodied by the TGV – with conventional services operated by Amtrak.

The conflation undermines the credibility of policy makers with the traveling public.  We know (perhaps from personally traveling overseas) that Amtrak isn’t it. The conflation creates an opening for critics to cast doubt by painting its champions as being duplicitous.

Being honest, forthright, and specific will do better at winning public support, then claiming something is what it is not.

A few months after the Governor accepted that award, CNN did a “Keeping them Honest” segment on the project, offering outrage that a mere 28 minutes was saved!

The CNN story missed the fact that the newly installed heavy welded rail not only boosted the Vermonter’s speed, but also improved freight service by allowing the movement of the heaviest 286k freight cars used in North America.

The fact that this project was decidedly not high-speed gave the CNN reporter (and the perennial critic of passenger rail that he interviewed – Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute)– the kernel of truth that they needed to deride an otherwise worthy rail infrastructure project.

Amtrak itself remains broadly popular, despite not being “high-speed”.  There is strong support for improving Amtrak service.  A conventional “higher speed” passenger rail service can have a significant impact on the modal share between rail, road, and air.

Intercity passenger rail does best where it allows convenient day tripping for business and pleasure, with a roundtrip travel time of four to six hours, allowing for six to eight hours in a distant city while still getting back home for a full night of rest. To achieve this goal rail must be at least as fast as driving, with a convenient number of departures spread evenly across the day.

Amtrak’s busiest corridor service outside the Northeast Corridor is the Pacific Surfliner, yet it covers the 128 miles Los Angeles-San Diego route in an abysmal average speed of 44-mph, despite a 90-mph top speed. The Boston-Portland Downeaster today is 40 minutes slower than the Boston & Maine’s Flying Yankee streamliner was in the 1930s.

Clearly bringing these existing Amtrak corridor services up to the standards of conventional mainline intercity service in Europe and East Asia would be a massive leap, one “good enough” for the economic and social “transformation” that the political class touts high-speed rail as heralding.

Yet there are some medium-distance corridors where only true high-speed passenger rail would impact regional travel and development.

A prime example is the 460-mile Empire Corridor stretching between New York City and Niagara Falls. An Amtrak train cruising at 90-mph and averaging 65-mph would still take over 6½ hours to cover the 437 miles between Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Buffalo, while high speed trains with travel times of 4 to 5 hours are today competitive against airlines for distances up to 800 miles on some routes – for example Paris-Toulouse, Tokyo-Hiroshima, and Beijing-Shanghai – a 6½ hour journey is beyond what has generated a lot of ridership overseas.  People will still fly.

Policy makers in New York State may face a public reckoning if after talking about investing in “transformative high-speed rail” for decades they now settle on a rail program of incrementally upgrading the existing Amtrak service, while still calling it as an investment in high-speed rail.