This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Having recently made the case for blowing up the long-range plan and starting over again on the Amtrak Cascades, let me offer some time to a more incrementalist vision. In the current Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman cites Cascades as a winning example of “not-quite-so-high-speed rail.”
This principle is also illustrated by Amtrak’s highly successful “Cascades” service on the 187-mile line between Portland and Seattle. The Spanish-designed Talgo “tilt” train sets look futuristic, and with their on-board bistros and comfy chairs they are a joy to ride. But because they run on conventional track through mountainous country shared by freight trains, their current top speed is only 79 mph, and their average speed is just 53. Still, that’s enough to make taking the train faster than driving, and ridership has swelled to more than 700,000 passengers a year. Using federal stimulus dollars plus state spending, work is currently under way to boost top train speeds to 110-125 mph, simply by adding better signaling and more sidings to let freight trains get out of the way. This incremental investment will also boost reliability and allow for increased frequency, which will further bump up ridership. But numerous studies show there is no point in making trains go faster than 125 mph on a segment this short because of the great cost involved and the limited gains to total trip times. Moreover, if a new bullet train line were built between Portland and Seattle, the tremendous cost of its construction would require fares too high for all but well-heeled business travelers to afford.
Fair point. Longman also argues persuasively that, in the medium term, frequency and reliability are much more important to increasing ridership than pure speed. I do wonder, though, how much better frequency and reliability can get so long as the freight companies own the tracks.
But the biggest problem with true HSR in America, it seems to me, is summed up here:
First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.
America might be too rich a country, with too strong of a property-rights tradition, to be able to confiscate the amount of private land needed to make it work. Maybe in the 1960s, when urban renewal was in vogue and urban real estate was cheap. But now, the cost of displacing all the people and expensive homes you’d need to move to create HSR in, say, the Northeast Corridor might make the project beyond reach.
Perhaps there is a way. If not, cheers for incrementalism and long live the Amtrak Cascades!