Both Stephen Karlson and Reihan Salam are less-than-impressed with Amtrak’s latest fiasco: the discovery that the Acela high-speed train’s brakes aren’t up to snuff. Quoth Salam:
Rather than purchase a proven Swedish high-speed train, the X2000 tilt-train, designed to accommodate older, not-quite-straight tracks like those found in the northeastern corridor (and unlike the very straight railtrack used by the TGV and other high-speed lines overseas), Amtrak decided to build an entirely new model at vastly greater expense that—get this—experienced serious mechanical failures from the very start. For the sake of building a much slower fitfully tilting version of the TGV, a non-tilting train, they built a train that, remarkably and at the most inconvenient moments, failed to tilt. Had they gone with the X2000, they would’ve had an excellent high-speed train in 1998. This is stupidity on a colossal scale.
It’s rather clear that the choice of the Bombardier design had more to do with the byzantine financial structure of the deal than technical merit. Not surprisingly, this decision has come back to bite Amtrak in the ass.
As this Boston Globe piece points out, this latest round of bad news did not come at a good time for Amtrak, with many in Congress already highly skeptical of passenger rail and President Bush pushing for rail service to be devolved to the states.
Stephen Karlson has some thoughts on the viability of intercity rail travel in response to Jeff Harrell’s skepticism over further Amtrak funding. My two cents:
Outside the Northeast Corridor and a few regional operations, Amtrak is a classic example of GNDN. I know exactly one person who has ever ridden the City of New Orleans, despite having lived in two cities that are served by the route. The only advantage of Amtrak over auto travel is that you don’t have to drive… and that one is largely negated if there’s hassle at either endpoint, such as inconvenient modal transfers, long layovers, etc. The only advantages over Amtrak over flying is that (a) you don’t have to deal with getting from the airport to the central business district (assuming the CBD is your destination) and (b) the security hassles are significantly reduced (but by no means nonexistent). And, the only advantages of Amtrak over riding Greyhound are (a) reduced travel times and (b) marginally better comfort.
It seems to me, then, that viable passenger rail needs to be designed to complement other modes of transportation. That means, for starters, more intermodal connections like at BWI and MKE airports, and direct connections to local mass transit (that means, when I get off the train in Chicago, I shouldn’t have to walk several blocks to get on the L). That also means making it easy for people to rent cars at train stations… many general aviation airports (in addition to every commercial airport in the country) have car rental counters, but good luck trying to find one at most Amtrak stations. While you’re at it, include safe, secure, long-term parking lots.
Amtrak probably hasn’t helped its case in “flyover country”—particularly with Republican politicians—by only operating its flagship Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor. If other parts of the rail system had been upgraded to a similarly high standard (notwithstanding the problems Acela has had), the political case for continued Amtrak subsidies would probably be much better, even if the economic case for building high-speed rail in other areas is weak-to-nonexistent—the existence of Southwest Airlines, for example, makes a Houston–Dallas rail link a sure money-loser, even though tens of thousands of people make that trip daily. Ironically, because of Amtrak’s brief flirtation with economic rationality, Amtrak has virtually no constituency other than its employees outside the NEC states.
Megan McArdle asks “why is America’s high-speed rail so dreadful?”
I’ll one-up McArdle: why is America’s passenger rail, Acela or not, so dreadful? My answer is that it’s not integrated at all into the broader transportation system—in transportation planning parlance, there’s a lack of intermodal connections.
If I fly from New Orleans to Memphis or Chicago, I can park my car at the airport. When I get there, I can rent a car, or in Chicago I can get on the “L.” If I ride the train… none of the above, although if you wander the streets of Chicago for a few blocks you eventually would get to an “L” station. The only reason the Acela works on the NEC is because Washington, New York, and Boston all have effective mass transit networks that connect the center-city stations to other modes (air, car rental, or parking) in the suburbs.
To make high speed rail—or even higher speed rail—workable in America, it’s going to require that intermodal infrastructure to be in place. Which means, for practical purposes, the sensible course of action is to build the stations where the infrastructure is already there—at airports, which already have rental car locations and parking garages, along with transfers to and from air carriers. If that’s not practical, then convenient connection options between airports and rail are a must.
Update: More on this theme from Tyler Cowen and Stephen Karlson, the latter of whom reminds us that many of the barriers to high-speed operation of existing rail lines are political rather than economic.
Reflecting a recurring theme at Signifying Nothing, the administration’s announcement of its plans to sorta-kinda invest in high speed rail brings out the predictable reactions: Cato says it sucks, the central planning enthusiasts love it, and Prof. Karlson and John Stilgoe remind us that relatively inexpensive, incremental improvements are probably a better use of taxpayer money than flashy bullet trains over the distances Americans are likely to travel by rail.
My view, as always, is that all of these promised lines are of little value if they are not connected to the transportation system that most Americans already use: airports and their associated amenities like safe long-term parking and the rental car counter.