Higher Speed Rail

Phil Longman makes the case that what America needs is not so much true high-speed rail as incremental improvements to existing mid-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.

I think that’s more or less correct. The current state of passenger rail in the United States is sufficiently lousy that there’s plenty of room for incremental engineering improvements rather than dramatic new best-in-the-world projects. But the best case for incremental improvements is probably that until we sort out things like wildly overprescriptive FRA safety regulations it’s all genuinely new projects are going to be way less cost effective than they could be.

That said, I do find the whole conversation slightly frustrating. The United States is a really big country. You wouldn’t hear a debate in “Europe” about whether “Europe” should be building a train from Madrid to Barcelona “or” a train connecting the cities of the Rhineland. Nothing about doing a Portland-Seattle upgrade actually prevents you from building a brand new true HSR connection elsewhere in the country. The overall pot of infrastructure spending money in the United States is currently too low, which prompts a bunch of should-be-avoidable conversations about project priority.