Obama Is On The Right Track

John Maynard Keynes, the economist who developed the notion of using government money to stimulate a flagging economy, once suggest, “The government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up.” That would create jobs, but I’m glad we’re not doing that with the $8 billion dollars in stimulus money allocated for HSR. This money should be spent wisely. But is it? The answer is a resounding yes.

The plan Obama presented today is an extremely logical step forward in creating an American HSR system. Robert Cruickshank of the California High-Speed Rail Blog said today that these guys, “get it”. I couldn’t agree more. Why? Because the proposal that Obama laid out today upgrades our existing infrastructure and the outdated regulations that hold it back. Projects like the California HSR system are splendid efforts but these ambitious projects are expensive and take a long time to complete. That doesn’t negate their viability, but there are many small improvements to the existing rail network in this country that offer excellent cost benefit ratios and can be built quickly. By funding these types of projects Obama has put rail in America on the fast track.

Keep in mind that our rail system has been neglected. The 110 MPH upgrades funded by the stimulus will only repair and rejuvenate a dilapidated system. In many cases these ‘new’ high-speed networks will simply replace aging train sets, bridges and trackage. Why not upgrade them in the process?

Rail systems in Europe, Japan and China, have fast trains, but the vast majority of these networks are not truly high-speed. Only the backbone of these networks are high-speed. This, in part, is what makes these systems so successful: they have excellent geographic reach through slower speed rail connections. Likewise, true high-speed trains in America, those that go over 200 MPH need rail lines to bring people to them. The $8 billion in stimulus money and the $1 billion allocated in the budget over the next five years won’t transform America’s rail network into the likes of Europe, but it will set the stage to do so in the future.

Today is a historic day: Obama has set a new course for the way we travel in America. That there are now resources available for high-speed rail is a tribute to this President’s pertinacious effort to fundamentally change America for the better. What he has proposed today is a judicious first step that maximizes all existing plans and resources for rail in America. The resources available are limited, but his speech today inspires confidence that he will make the most of the situation at hand.

I laud Obama for this, “first step.”

Added (4-17-09, 2:35 PM):

Should we take the French approach and build all new high-speed lines or the German approach and build only a couple new high-speed linked with a slightly improved, but older and slower rail network?

France has higher speeds, but Germany (once they finally got going) was able to build their network faster, cheaper, and further by running primarily on legacy track.

© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

4 Responses to “Obama Is On The Right Track”

  1. 1 Shawn April 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    I really like how this site gets the big picture. The addition at the end, where you compare France and Germany, is truly reflective of the decisions we in America have to make today to move forward with a national high speed rail program. Great site and insights.

  2. 2 STEVEN ROBINSON April 19, 2009 at 5:24 pm



    WHAT A GUY !!!


  3. 3 Diego Méndez June 6, 2009 at 9:06 am

    French or German approach? It all depends on density. High-speed rail works better if you connect cities at least 200 km apart; if you have an important town every 25 km (as Germany has in Westphalia and Rhineland), high-speed is just an impossible task, as trains have no time to accelerate between stations. A high-speed train between Hamburg, Berlin and Munich would have made sense, but it would have been impossible to sell politically, since every small town along the line would have demanded a station. That’s the reason why Germany has a fairly good rail network for short trips, but no true high-speed rail.

    France, on the other hand, has a really big city (Paris) and a small number of big towns, so true high-speed makes sense.

    Spain is the best example of a geography suited for high-speed rail. There is a big city in the middle of the country (Madrid) and a number of smaller cities all around the coast, every one of them about 500km away from Madrid, with no big towns in between. In fact, you could argue high-speed rail is still too slow for Spanish geography; that’s why new tracks are being built for speeds up to 500km/h (312mph) for the time when technology allows it.

  4. 4 Jersey Mike June 25, 2009 at 6:49 am

    You should be aware that the North American rail system is not worse than Europe’s, but simply made different choices in priorities. Europe focused on a large passenger rail system that also functions towards state goals of full employment. The North American rail network focuses on hauling freight and running an efficient, profitable system.

    Europe has completely neglected its rail freight capacity and thus its highways are clogged with truck traffic. At the same time its rail operations suffer from extreme workforce bloat and massive operating/maintenance costs. Costs increase non-linearly as line speed increases. Adding freight into the mix creates other problems because heavy freight traffic causes lots of damage to high speed tracks with close tolerances. Europe has chosen to puts its freight onto the highways, which has been an absolute disaster for the environment and getting around. North American railroads are hauling twice the volume seen in World War 2 on 1/3 of the line capacity.

    Freight is JUST AS IMPORTANT as passenger rail if not more so. Truck cause 100 times the wear and tear on a road as a passenger vehicle and also creates more than its fair share of congestion. There is no reason at all for most of the long haul trucking industry to exist when trailers and containers can be loaded onto flatcars. The problem is that trucks are under taxed and regulations are barely enforced.

    Seeing that the North American level of freight rail traffic is incompatible with high speed passenger operations you might start to advocate for some sort of dedicated high speed system like in Europe. Unfortunately such lines make little economic sense in North America where cities are far apart and the limiting factor for rail travel is geography. Yes you can build new lines with tunnels and high bridges, but think of the opportunity cost compared with funding better commuter rail systems and just having people fly Southwest. You are better off targeting the every day commuter rail markets than the occasional long distance traveler markets if u want to reduce congestion and energy usage.

    Those places where high speed rail makes sense are those with excess right of way capacity. Most of this is in the Midwest, where there is also a high density of cities to make rail a good competitor to air travel. Honestly, 110mph sustained speeds would be good enough to capture a large segment of the market. The key is low fares and frequent service. Frequent service matters more, much more, than one seat rides or end to end travel time.

    As people begin to live and work more and more online things like trip time will matter less if there is constant connectivity. Time spent in transit will no longer be considered wasted. I take Amtrak 18 hours to Chicago, but its not an issue because the train leaves at night and arrives the next morning and saves a night in a hotel. Give me constant internet and I would be 100% indifferent. Remember that travel is not just about speed. Cost, convenience and comfort all factor in.

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© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
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