Fast Track to Nowhere

Supporters try to connect U.S. cities with high-speed railroads. But is government in the way?

by / August 1, 2007
Hey talk about a-travellin'

She's the fastest train on the line
- Johnny Cash, Orange Blossom Special

Paris and Lyon, Tokyo and Osaka, Madrid and Seville, Seoul and Busan - these cities have something in common. They're connected by what many believe is the future of transportation - high-speed rail.

High-speed rail systems whisk passengers hundreds of miles in mere hours by traveling at speeds as high as 357 mph. That record, recently established by the French TGV (train grande vitesse or high-speed train), means the trains can move almost as fast as an airliner. And while most high-speed trains run slightly slower - around 200 mph - over the past several decades, they have proven their value, reliability and safety almost everywhere.

Almost everywhere but here, that is.

In China, engineers built the world's first Maglev - magnetic levitation - high-speed train. Operational since 2004, the train runs a 19-mile route in Shanghai between Pudong Shanghai International Airport and Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district, and covers the distance in seven minutes.

In Germany, the InterCityExpress - known as ICE - rockets passengers across the country to major cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. The Eurostar Italia ferries riders between cities like Rome, Florence, Naples and Turin at 186 mph. Plus, Italians are in the midst of constructing nearly 400 additional miles of high-speed railway.

In Japan, high-speed trains known as Shinkansen have operated since 1964. The now expansive network of trains, tracks and stations crisscross the country and has served more than 6 billion passengers without any major safety issues.

In the United States, high-speed rail systems have yet to leave the station. In fact, they have yet to leave the realm of wishful thinking. Despite high-speed rail's proven global track record, for some reason government - be it federal, state or local - is either unable or unwilling to get onboard.


Railroad Blues
Many high-speed rail proposals exist, especially in large states with far-flung population centers, such as California, Texas and Florida, each of which announced plans for high-speed rail. The trouble is that these plans were created years ago, and not a single a mile of track has been laid.

In other regions of closely grouped cities, similar plans now gather dust. There are designs for high-speed trains to service Midwestern cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Likewise, a train connecting Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston has long been in the works.

So far, the best the United States has been able to come up with is the woeful Amtrak system.

Slow, expensive and chronically late, the heavily subsidized railway has consistently failed to meet expectations. Amtrak's problems, however, are hardly its own doing. The idea of Amtrak is a noble one - a nationwide passenger railway. Unfortunately Amtrak has been plagued by poor management, budget shortfalls and frequently late arrivals because most of the tracks it runs on are privately owned, which means freight takes priority over people.

There are some bright spots within Amtrak - such as the Capitol Corridor that runs between Sacramento, and San Jose, Calif. There is also Acela, Amtrak's quasi high-speed rail line in the Northeast, running from D.C. to Boston. The train is capable of speeds approaching 150 mph, but due to outdated infrastructure and arcane regional speed restrictions, the train averages around 75 mph.

Both lines boast far more ridership than other Amtrak routes, but neither can offer any service approaching true high-speed rail.

Florida seems like the perfect location to build a high-speed rail system. Long and narrow with many large and distant cities, common sense would seem to dictate that Floridians would like an

option besides airlines to quickly travel from Miami to Tallahassee. In fact, in 2000, Florida voters passed an amendment to the state constitution requiring the state to build a high-speed rail system. So why doesn't one exist?

"In 2000, a gentleman by the name of [Charles] Doc Dockery in the Lakeland area, took it upon himself to push for a constitutional amendment [requiring high-speed rail be built] that he was able to put on the ballot with the appropriate number of signatures. It went on the ballot in 2000 and was approved by the Florida voters," said Nazih Haddad, staff director of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.

With the amendment in the state constitution, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was created. Soon afterward, the authority went to work, looking first at a route between Tampa and Orlando. The authority believed a phased construction process would yield the best results and identified the Tampa-Orlando line as the optimal route to start with.

After receiving two private-sector proposals in 2003, it was determined that the initial route would cost approximately $2.4 billion. All indications pointed toward Florida being the first state to finally build a high-speed rail system.

But then, in early 2004, things began to unravel. The high cost of the rail system and its associated politics led to an effort to repeal the amendment passed just four years earlier. This effort, supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush, removed the mandate from the state constitution but left the rail authority in place. The repeal passed with 64 percent approval.

Many have speculated that the repeal amendment was worded to confuse voters who had so recently voted yes on the very same issue.

"Some people will tell you due to some confusion in how the ballot initiative was written, a lot of people who thought they were voting for high-speed rail were actually voting for the repeal of the constitutional amendment," Haddad said, adding that the governor had long been opposed to the idea of a high-speed rail.

"The basic reasoning is it costs a lot of money - but any major transportation infrastructure costs a lot of money," Haddad explained. "They were afraid the partnership with the private sector was not going to yield the benefits it [promised]."

Once virtually set in stone, the promise of a Florida high-speed rail system has all but died. The rail authority last met in June 2005.


History Repeating
Florida isn't the only story of a high-speed railway that nearly came into existence before being snuffed out by political wrangling. In a previous Government Technology article (Transportation's Plan B, February 1992) it appeared that high-speed trains would be cropping up everywhere.

"The era of the Interstate Highway System is over," Roger Borg of the Federal Highway Administration was quoted as saying. The story referenced a high-speed rail system in Texas that may have been even closer to being built than the Florida project. The Texas High Speed Rail Authority had, by 1992, awarded a $5 billion contract to a consortium known as Texas TGV.

Texas TGV was headed by Morrison Knudsen, known as Washington Group International (recently acquired by URS) and was planning to use French TGV trains to service an area called the Texas Triangle - Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Texas project was to be built entirely with private-sector money. When our article ran, the train was scheduled to begin operating by 1998. For Texas TGV, all that had to be done was to raise the funds necessary to begin construction. Yet no tracks were ever laid and no trains were ever delivered.

Why? Enter Southwest Airlines. The low-cost, Texas-based airline would have faced significant competition from

a high-speed train, and the company invested in a massive lobbying and public relations campaign to discredit high-speed rail in Texas. It succeeded, and the project was scuttled in 1994, according to records of the Texas High Speed Rail Authority in the Texas State Archives.

A decade before that, California took its first stab at building a high-speed rail system. In 1982, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 3647, which called for $1.25 billion in tax-exempt bonds to build a Shinkansen-style train that would be managed privately and operated for profit. But by leaving the California Department of Transportation out of the loop, the proposed train drew the ire of many in government.

In addition, ridership projections were found to have been largely overstated and connections with mysterious Japanese contractors led to a loss of faith in the project, which quietly died in 1983.

Back in those days, Mehdi Morshed and his wife Linda were the chief transportation consultants for the California Legislature. Though unable to make high-speed rail a reality in 1983, Mehdi Morshed would get another chance in 1996 when Gov. Gray Davis created the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).

Mehdi Morshed was appointed executive director of the authority and has been working once again to bring high-speed rail to the Golden State. But Mehdi Morshed and the CHSRA face yet another crossroads.

They reportedly need $103 million to continue paying project engineers and to buy rights of way. Yet Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is offering only a fraction of the money requested - about enough to keep the lights on - until the CHSRA presents a way to fund the estimated $40 billion it costs to build a high-speed rail network that connects San Diego and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento.

"We needed the $14 million for this fiscal year to hire the engineers and get mobilized and get ready," Mehdi Morshed explained. "We need $103 million next year to continue that work, and then we'll need somewhere around $200 million the next year."

A bond, which is set to be on the November 2008 ballot, would secure nearly $10 billion to begin construction. This, Mehdi Morshed said, is the cornerstone of building a high-speed rail network that would allow people to move between Northern and Southern California in under three hours, finally giving residents a long sought-after alternative to expensive flights or the grueling six- to eight-hour drive along Interstate 5.

But the bond measure has been postponed twice, and Schwarzenegger is threatening to postpone it again.

"We've been funded annually by the Legislature from existing transportation funds. When we go to construction, it's going to require far more money than they can support with the existing budget," Mehdi Morshed said.

"The Legislature and the governor proposed the $9.95 billion bond measure," he said. "It's been postponed twice for a couple reasons. One, they wanted other priority projects to move forward; two, the high-speed rail project wasn't really ready to go into construction so the bond money wasn't needed at the time. For 2008, it's different. Now we actually need the money because in a couple of years, we'll be ready to go into construction."

On the surface, supporting high-speed rail seems like a no-brainer for Schwarzenegger. The Golden State governor garnered considerable press for his sudden shift toward promoting green policies. According to studies conducted by the CHSRA, the train would serve nearly 117 million passengers by 2030 while generating annual revenue of between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion. In addition, it would cost two to three times less than expanding highways to accommodate the same need.

High-speed trains, which run on electricity, could also have a potentially huge positive impact on California's air quality.

Ardent supporters say the train would eventually pay for itself, and even the most pessimistic are forced

to admit that the train would generate more money than highways, which cost millions annually to maintain and repair. One would think it should be a slam-dunk for the suddenly green-loving governor. Not exactly.

According to Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, the CHSRA must explain how it plans to raise the additional $30 billion before the governor throws his weight behind high-speed rail.

"He is asking the Legislature to indefinitely delay putting this $10 billion bond on the ballot in November [2008]," she said. "What he is waiting for is for the [California] High-Speed Rail Authority, which is the body that is responsible for developing the plan for high-speed rail in the state, to come up with a comprehensive financial plan for building the system.

"It's expected to be more than $40 billion so what the governor is essentially saying is, 'Before we ask California's taxpayers to mortgage $10 billion plus interest, we have to know where the remaining $30 billion is going to come from,'" Lockhart said.

For months, rumors circulated that the governor planned to snuff out high-speed rail once and for all. Schwarzenegger wants "to quietly kill this - and not go out and tell the people that high-speed rail isn't in the future," state Sen. Dean Florez told the Los Angeles Times in April. But suddenly in May, Schwarzenegger penned an editorial in The Fresno Bee where he appeared to have shifted his position on high-speed rail.

"I strongly support high-speed rail for California, and especially for the San Joaquin Valley," the governor wrote. But he also added, "Before asking taxpayers to approve spending nearly $10 billion plus interest, it is reasonable to expect the authority and its advisers to identify with confidence where we will find the remaining $30 billion."

Herein lays a classic example of government bureaucracy.

The CHSRA says it needs $103 million to continue its work on planning the rail system. The governor says he'll support high-speed rail if the authority comes up with a way to pay for it, but in the meantime, cuts its budget to the point the CHSRA claims is barely enough to keep their doors open. Adding to the quagmire is the fact that to drum up any private investment, backers will likely need to present proof that California voters support building the railway.

But unless the bond goes on the ballot, it will be difficult to prove such voter support exists.

Despite these obstacles, Mehdi Morshed remains cautiously optimistic that there is a future for high-speed rail in California.

"If you were to follow what the governor suggested, then basically the project will be put on hold, and probably for all practical purposes it won't be going anywhere," he said. "Based on what I hear and the people in the Legislature we've been talking to, there's a very strong desire on the part of the California Legislature to continue the funding for the project, and there didn't seem to be a great deal of support - virtually no support - for the governor's proposal to postpone the bond. The Legislature doesn't seem to be inclined to go along with what the governor wants."

At a May 23 board meeting, however, the CHSRA may have shot itself in the foot.

Presented at the meeting was a plan for a phased construction process. The phasing plan, should the rail bond be approved, would call for initial construction of the track to run from Anaheim, in Southern California, to San Francisco in the North. By choosing this lower-cost strategy, the board is obviously hoping to improve the chances of making high-speed rail a reality.

Unfortunately such phased construction entirely omits the San Diego and Sacramento metropolitan areas - nearly

five million voters who would be asked to approve a $40 billion project with nothing but the promise of a rail extension to come years later. As voters in these cities look around for the promised freeways that were never built, such a sell would be difficult.


Conductor Wanted
As California aptly demonstrates, high-speed rail projects need a high-profile advocate. The various rail authorities are simply not enough to make these railways a reality.

Rick Harnish is the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit advocacy group trying to spark interest in a high-speed railway that would connect major Midwestern cities. Harnish said people should demand that government step up and provide alternative transportation options. He added that if California made it happen, it would be far easier for high-speed rail to flourish elsewhere in the country.

"It's not impossible, and people need to tell their legislators they need real travel choices," he said. "In a national sense, California is so important because if that system could get built, it would prove the case. The key is people throughout the country need to start telling their elected officials they want high-quality train service and they expect their elected officials to come up with a solution to make it happen. If the governor said we're going to link L.A. to the Bay Area within five years, it could be done very quickly and at a fraction of the cost of comparable highway capacity."

Mehdi Morshed voiced similar sentiments - despite having only 1 percent of the requested $103 million approved by the governor.

"The cost of a high-speed train is $40 billion, and that's a lot of money," he said. "But, over the same period of time that we're talking about building a high-speed train, California is going to spend more than $200 billion on highways and other transit modes in the state. Relative to all the other expenditures, it's not that huge of a change."

High-speed rail in the United States has failed everywhere it has been proposed. Some blame an addiction to the automobile. Such an argument is easily disputed by the fact that most people have no choice but to use a car. Most, however, point to a lack of political will. And as Mehdi Morshed said, where would we be today without those who took risks in the past?

"Look 20 years down the road; look at where your state is going to be; look at your children and grandchildren," Morshed said. "What are you going to do about their mobility and air quality? Are you going to leave them high and dry? Or are you going to do something to prepare for them, just like people before prepared for us?"

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.