High Speed Rail: distributing the benefits

As I write this I’m on a train from Boston to New York. The Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington is the only profitable line in the Amtrak system. Ticket prices can be relatively high and trains often sell out, but service is frequent, fast and reliable. In the rest of the country, however, train travel is notoriously slow and unreliable -- the Lake Shore Limited takes almost 24 hours to go from New York to Chicago, when it’s not delayed -- and almost anyone without the luxury of time will drive or fly.  If our transportation system is to be a real option for more than a few rail fans (nothing against rail fans; I am one), we need to do better than slow trains operating only once a day.

The long awaited prospect spending a little bit of money on improvements brings up the perennial transit planning dilemma: “With limited funds, is it better to build one high-quality service or to make smaller improvements to many services?”  Although a dedicated right-of-way is clearly the best scenario, the high cost of construction usually means that you can only get one short line. If the other option is spending the same money on incremental improvements to several longer lines, you face a choice between a dramatic improvement for some people and moderate improvements for many people.

In the case of intercity transit, billions upon billions of dollars would be needed to acquire the property needed to construct true high-speed rail on a brand-new alignment, for just one line. Right-of-way acquisition is the most expensive part of any construction project and it doesn’t even create any jobs. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't fund high speed rail; rather I'm facing the reality that we won't get a lot of money for rail construction.

The train from Los Angeles to San Francisco currently takes 12 hours, runs only once a day, and doesn’t go directly to downtown San Francisco; even though the same trip takes only eight hours by car.  There is no question that true high speed rail would be a great investment; but it would be the only possible investment (if we could even fund it).   While I wish we could have high-speed rail everywhere, the reality is that the federal and state governments won’t set aside enough money for it.

Yet for the same or less money, we could dramatically enhance service on many lines by making incremental improvements on existing tracks and facilities. Strategic investments like adding passing sidings, upgrading tracks and signals, repairing bridges, and expanding maintenance and freight yards would double or triple the speed of service without the need to buy property. In some cases service could be shifted to a different existing track once that track receives upgrades, but in most cases it’s better to continue serving existing stations.

There are diminishing returns with any investment. We can get a lot more by focusing on improving existing services. Reducing the LA-SF trip time by more than half would make it faster and easier than driving or flying. Then the cost of additional service could be offset by increased ridership.