High-Speed Rail Vital for PWD and the Nation; Why Have the Promises Evaporated?

Posted by – March 28, 2013

High-Speed Rail (HSR) would help everyone and boost the economy but would disproportionately benefit PWD—people with disabilities—because for a significant percentage of us, it’s difficult to impossible to use the airlines. And with the TSA confusing the grit you get on your hands operating a manual wheelchair with “bomb residue” again and again, fewer PWD will bother (President Obama mentioned the TSA-free joy of rail himself). High-speed rail has become a necessity for the social and economic relations of Americans, but sadly the promises the Obama Administration has made on high-speed rail have not been fulfilled.

I want high-speed rail that goes up and down the Eastern United States at 500mph so I can go from NYC to my family in Washington DC and Norfolk.

Imagine the economic benefit HSR could bring to the United States and Canada, if we had two-hour trips from NYC to Toronto or four-hour trips to Montreal or Ottawa! Imagine the ability of West Virginians to zip in an hour to Washington DC for jobs that simply don’t exist in Appalachia! Imagine the life-blood this would be for tech start-ups, when suddenly software engineers and DIY white hat hackers can whoosh in from Quebec to Boston or NYC for in-person collaboration! Imagine people able to work in New York but live in relatively-inexpensive Cleveland. That kind of economic game-changer is necessity. That kind of hope is a necessity, and President Obama really tapped into that…

…and then did absolutely nothing.

That’s right, nearly three years after the sweeping promises about Chinese-style bullet trains, not a single yard of HSR has been put down. We didn’t get the high-speed bus system The Onion proffered as a post-austerity alternative either. 😛

The below AC 360 segment, “Keeping Them Honest,” explains where the billions in funding Congress appropriated for high-speed rail went. It all went to slow rail. As is also true of the news stories that I share on Twitter, I don’t always agree with everything in a given article I post, and in the case of this “Keeping Them Honest” segment, I don’t agree with CNN reporter Drew Griffin that allocating federal funding to make extant Amtrak routes less slow is “a boondoggle,” nor is the general thrust of the report that the entire thing is a shameful waste of taxpayer dollars representative of my point of view. I know people who use that very Vermont route, and those routes need funding too. But Drew Griffin is RIGHT that the Obama Administration and President Obama himself promised Americans high-speed rail, on camera, numerous times, and so far it’s a promise they’ve not kept; the only project the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) allotted HSR funding for that can actually be construed as high-speed rail, is the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) project to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with a one-way travel time of at least 2 hours and 40 minutes, and it’s been bogged down with NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) lawsuits and red tape so severely that not a single track has been laid. He’s RIGHT to ask, “you’ve promised us bullet trains like the Europeans and Japanese have had since the 1980s; where’s the high-speed rail?” Why can’t we have nice things?

This high-profile failure to deliver public transportation technology that Americans need should trigger much more discussion. Why is the executive branch unable to deliver on its promises, even after Congress appropriated the funding necessary? We need to discuss the general direction here, because we’re headed for eight years of Democrats running the executive branch and still our trains are stuck at 1950s speeds, we have a 1950s power grid, and our existing transportation infrastructure (rail, roads, highways, bridges, airports, ports) got a D+ for 2013 from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). At least one of America’s bridges may crumble this year and lead to a mass casualty event. It feels like MALAISE.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is now evidently so chastened by ridiculous NIMBY lawsuits arguing the deleterious effects of high-speed trains on “aesthetics,” that they’ve begun to move forward with a pared down, slow-speed rail plan that they promise is only temporary (the “blended plan,” they call it). The founder and former head of CHSRA has now come out against this plan, since it doesn’t meet the Prop 1A ballot initiative’s requirements for true high-speed rail. If truly rapid transit for the masses, and all its social and economic benefits, can be thwarted long-term by some wanker micro-minority concerned about—not environmental impact, since rail reduces pollution vs. cars and buses—aesthetic impact alone, then that says something very distressing about where we are headed.

I don’t usually blog about transportation, but I want this space to showcase writing about the unreported and under-reported stories, amplify the voices of the unrepresented, and this issue hasn’t gotten a third of the coverage and discussion it warrants. Our leaders make sweeping, epic promises and too often the media doesn’t follow up in any sustained way. I do wish the private sector would lay high-speed rail and bring in the newest Japanese bullet trains, a mega corporation would definitely get more media discussion than the CHSRA, but they would likely give up after a week of the BS posed by regulatory hurdles, intractable NIMBYites, and the red tape nightmare of building across multiple state and county jurisdictions.
We have to put it out there to the people, over and over again, that we need current technology for high-speed rail, we need truly rapid transit, widely available and accessible, for many reasons, but freedom of movement for the poor and disabled populations who have the greatest difficulty accessing transportation at the top of the list.

Nick

  • You seem to be making two points: 1) HSR is good for the overall economy and 2) HSR is good for PWDs. High speed rail would likely disproportionately help PWD, but your premise that it is good for the economy is quite incorrect. High speed rail is a financial disaster. France and Japan subsidize their HSR and hide the losses, making it look like a success, but a look at the details show it to be a big loser. Land use/NIMBY is sometimes a problem, but the private sector doesn’t invest in this, because of the bigger problem: passenger rail is a financial loser. Freight rail works financially, but passenger rail does not. Just look at AMTRAK and their moderate-speed rail investments–it has ended up as a ward of the state.

    Further, Obama didn’t promise HSR like you’re talking about. He wasn’t proposing 500 mph HSR or even HSR with top speeds of 220 mph (CA did, but it is failing for the above reasons of lack of state funds/financial loser). His plans were for 110 mph HSR. And they look even more suspect when you look at average speeds . . . 90 mph–making cars, buses and airplanes much more attractive and affordable per average mile traveled. And Obama’s plans failed because he expected the states to pick up a big part of the tab and they were too financially strapped themselves and, again, because this is a financial loser.

    investment can and have been made in our infrastructure–some good, some bad. And there is some ‘crumbling’, but the overall state of our infrastructure is fair-to-good. Investments have been made at an increasing rate, not decreasing rate. The fact that there were so few ‘shovel-ready’ projects in 2009, in reality, is an indicator of that. It doesn’t happen faster/better, because it is incredibly corrupt, as all government programs tend to be. If we stopped a lot of our other spending/warmaking, the public might see more of it, as there would be less noise to confuse the issue.

  • I do wish the private sector could offer a faster, bullet train alternative to the slow Amtrak trains, and some of the Eastern Corridor routes—the ones even Amtrak turns a profit on—would be ultra-lucrative because the demand is so high. At least bullet trains, true high-speed rail, should be available on congested, high-demand routes, like the ones I mentioned (NYC to DC). The public that needs this service would pay for it, a faster alternative would draw high fares. Why can’t this be a lucrative investment for someone, if only on high-demand routes? If Amtrak is privatized, would that help or harm?

  • Your Q: Why can’t this be a lucrative investment for someone, if only on high-demand routes? My A: because passenger travel by rail doesn’t work, economically. It costs more than people are willing to pay. Period. The reason it is subsidized in Japan, Europe and in the US is because it would fail, otherwise. I love traveling by rail, if I have time–but I usually don’t. It has the disadvantages of both air and road travel and the advantages of comfort just aren’t worth it. I hope someone invents something to change this paradigm, but it isn’t forthcoming.

    Your Q: If Amtrak is privatized, would that help or harm? My A: by MY definition of ‘help’, it would help. Creative destruction. It would get Amtrak off the government dole, reduce political pressure on it to do uneconomic things and force it to satisfy customer demands…or die trying. And it might die. It certainly would in its current form. Something might rise from its ashes, something might not–but it can’t happen as long as it’s govt run…it stays a zombie. The taxpayer and all Americans are poorer, as a result.