National high-speed rail poses problems

There’s been an image of a map rolling around Facebook and Tumblr recently, advertising an interesting take on the still-nascent high-speed rail initiative in the United States. It depicts the country dotted with various high-speed, 220 mph rail stops from east coast to west. According to the map, it would take only a matter of hours to zip along from Boston to Chicago, Orlando to Washington, D.C., and dozens of other popular destinations. As a fan both of trains and of high-speed rail, I’d love for this initiative to really happen. Sadly, it is never going to happen. The problem is economical, and while rail service is not entirely unfeasible in its own right, a project of this scale is flawed from the get-go.

As much as I love the idea of a one hour train to Boston, economics is what stands in the way of this high-speed dream, not government red-tape. To understand what’s actually at work here, let’s take a step back and learn a little bit about America’s railroads, and the failures and successes of our rail system.

Over the past 150 years, dozens of rail companies bought and laid track coast to coast, building the main arteries that goods and passengers have used to travel all over the country. In fact, for a time, Poughkeepsie itself was a major way station for for people and goods looking to travel to Albany, Manhattan, or across the Hudson. But by the 1970s, this great industry of rail had fallen into bankruptcy. Automobiles and airplanes had put the passenger railroad out of business. In response, President Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970, establishing Amtrak to manage all the remaining passenger railways in the country. While freight rail still exists and is essential to the movement of goods, passenger rail has taken a back seat these days as a very expensive and unprofitable way to travel, as the majority of people use cars or airplanes. From day one Amtrak never actually ran a profit, and has always been subsidized as a service to the public. This very fact is due to the sheer amount of track involved, and the sheer few number of people interested in rail over cars or airplanes. While high-speed rail may interest some, it’d likely be more expensive than air travel, and slower than it too. Cars offer convenience far greater than rail services, and many other factors are at work against it. Quite frankly, it just cannot exist at such a large scale—there just aren’t enough people interested in it.

But as I discussed the failure of rail, I also left out one of its greatest successes: The MTA. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York is in charge of thousands of miles of track and rail service running from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan, Montauk, and all over the Tri-state area. It handles 160 million riders a year between Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro-North, and is one of the largest public transportation services in the country. Unlike Amtrak, the MTA runs a profit, and is an extremely popular method of travel. I myself can travel in less than 2 hours from Poughkeepsie to my hometown on Long Island for less than what any other transportation company could come close to offering. LIRR and Metro-North is, however, not high-speed rail, it simply is an extended (150 mile or so radius) 60 mph rail service. It is, however, a great example of where the range of service and demand of customers are profitable.

There are other problems I have not yet mentioned, and they contribute significantly to the risks and challenges of a high-speed service. For one, the ability to implement high speed rail nationwide at this speed requires an entire reconstruction of our track network nationwide, as most of it is not actually capable of carrying 220 mph trains. To add, our continental track is not actually independently utilized by Amtrak, and in many areas a single rail of track is shared between various railway companies both passenger and freight based. There are many occasions when switching problems delay trains, or two trains have to wait to use the same single line of track. To actually accomplish this we’d need to build more tracks and start over from scratch. It’s also worth mentioning that Acela, Amtrak’s current high speed service, only runs at about half its maximum speed due to a variety of safety and logistical issues that come from the ailing track service it runs on.

Amtrak actually proposed back in 2010 plans to start building 220 mph high speed rail and track starting in 2015, but so far they have yet to receive any of the private investments they’d need to do it. The reason is simple: it’s just not economical. While, with serious government initiative, we could perhaps build an impressive rail network much like the Federal Highway Act, it doesn’t change the economics at work here. In the 1950s the highway offered more avenues of travel and simplified the experience for people. This rail network may be faster, but its purpose is already served by both planes and cars.

Could high speed rail really happen? Perhaps. At a continental scale the concept is unfeasible and uneconomical. Flying (not including the waiting in line) is not only faster, but also cheaper and more effective for the U.S. given our sheer size as a country. If high speed rail were to become a reality—perhaps a more extended version of Amtrak’s Acela—then it would probably only exist in the Northeastern Corridor at best. Much like the MTA, there is a very small window of economic feasibility for high speed rail, and it exists as far south as Washington D.C., and as far north at Portland, Maine. Don’t get me wrong, I love high speed rail, but I am a realist. It’ll take a lot more than an act of Congress to get high-speed rail in the US, and at best it would only work in a few regions of our grand nation.

 

—Josh Sherman ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

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