High-Speed Rail: Hurry Up, And Wait

California high speed rail

Image courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority

High Speed Rail: Hurry Up, And Wait
| published December 27, 2014|

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

High speed rail service is one of those subjects that make most Americans yawn. In permanent love with their gas-guzzling cars and SUVs, and an infrastructure designed to make life as easy as possible for the automobile, U.S. citizens lag behind almost the entire world when it comes to fast rail service between cities.

Some have equated the problem to the U.S. disinterest in smarter, safer credit cards—the kind with encryption tools and microchips—already in routine use all across much of Europe and parts of Asia. U.S. banks, financial institutions and retailers have been sluggish to adapt, but massive data breaches at Target, Michael’s and Home Depot spurred Congress to mandate action. Pay for it now, or pay even more later.

So it is when it comes to the ability for commuters, business travelers and tourists to get from point A to point B in the U.S.: why mess with the messy, oil-addicted success of cars, SUVs, trucks, and the occasional bus. And what’s not to like about long lines at airports, limits and fees for baggage, interminable queues for “random” security checks, meals that are worse than day-old fast-food, and an industry that manages to take off and land on time about 40% of the time.

Yes, that’s what’s known as a rhetorical question, and yes, it is dripping with sarcasm.

High speed rail lines form an elaborate web across most of Europe, enabling travelers to cover vast distances and multiple countries in a comfortable few hours of travel. Granted, the typical national boundary in Europe is relatively smaller, but when you calibrate the sizes of those countries against the geography of the typical U.S. state, those sizes become easily analogous. High speed rail lines also span much of Asia, and in Japan, they connect almost every major city and town.

And to bolster confidence in his sagging economy, Vladimir Putin has proposed a joint venture with China—a massive, $60 billion, 20-year project which will connect Moscow to Beijing by ultra-fast rail (average speed: 145 miles per hour), using specially designed tracks and a new route through rugged Kazakhstan. This will cut the traditional four-to-five day rail journey between capitals down to only 30 to 33 hours. And that link-up will create an interface for travelers, tying the major Asia rails to those of Eastern Europe.

Despite all this worldwide interest in high speed rail, the United States drags its feet, almost literally. Decades have passed since some U.S. states first explored partnership with the Federal government to create high-speed rail corridors, but budget fighting, politics, and a variety of diverse forms of opposition (environmentalists, business, Democrats, Republicans, oil companies) have—pun intended—derailed the major projects before the first lines are laid and the first spikes driven into the ground.

But those first few genuine but tentative baby-steps have been taken toward the completion of a viable connection between cities. Three states are in competition to get there first: Florida, California, and (surprisingly, perhaps) Texas.

Small stretches of new rail line are being laid in Boca Raton, Florida alongside existing tracks, as well as in a few other places in the Sunshine State. Other sections will see first construction during 2016 and 2017, others sections could be a decade away. These high grade steel lines will connect only a few places along the East Coast corridor of Florida, but they will be the first legs of a much longer line designed to connect Miami with Orlando—a distance of 235 miles by way of the route proposed by its principal backer, All Aboard Florida.

The line will run from Miami through scores of major population centers along the East Coast; from south to north, the route would start in Miami, then, run upward with stops in Hollywood (near Fort Lauderdale), Pompano Beach, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Fort Pierce, and Melbourne. Somewhere near Rockledge and Cocoa, the rail line would take a hard abrupt 90 degree turn toward the west, following a recently-settled-upon right-of-way into Orlando, where it would terminate near the Orlando International Airport. There, the All Aboard Florida lines would connect with similar high speed rail routes also under development, including an Orlando-to-Tampa route.

All Aboard Florida’s current template would have most of the north-to-south route closely follow the I-95 corridor; the Cocoa-to-Orlando leg would be more-or-less a straight line connecting the coast to the theme park clusters just south of Orlando. But an alternate route, designed to save about 20% of the time, would short-cut from Fort Pierce to Orlando by following the Florida Turnpike, which cuts at a soft angle across wide open tracts of prairie, orange grove and cropland.

The All Aboard Florida line would not use Asian or Euro technology for extreme-high-speed trains, but would—according to the group’s promoters—use U.S. made trains and passenger cars able to travel at speeds as high as 125 miles per hour, though it would average about 80 mph. Enormous parking areas near city buildings in Miami-Dade have been recently turned into massive construction sites, one of which will house the Miami station for the southern terminus. Along parts of existing rail lines and a few areas visible from I-95 in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, there are other signs that something big is under way. Once completed, more than a decade from now, the project will have cost a total of $2.5 billion—one of the largest projects of its type in the country.

But nothing comes easily in Florida politics—where environmental issues, high-stakes billion-dollar deals, home and apartment construction, and agricultural issues all run headlong into each other. Opposition to the rail line comes from all directions, starting with environmentalist concerned with the disruption of natural areas along the path of the rail. Homeowner’s associations and neighborhoods along that route worry mightily about noise, which—because of confusing studies and debatable methods of measuring such factors—leaves the issue of high-speed rail sound pollution unresolved. And this includes the hot-button issue of blowing horns. Strict Federal guidelines are set for how and when train conductors must blow their horns as they approach traffic crossings, and some who live along that route are worried about the added noise, which would presumably occur also at night.

Politics also plays a role in the Florida project, as there have been accusations that—unlike previous Republican governors who have vetoed some high-speed rail projects—current governor Rick Scott has craftily grafted the All Aboard Florida project onto the overhaul and rebuild of the Orlando International Airport (this after Scott had previously cancelled other projects). Supporters of both the rail and airport projects say that funding for the one has little to do with the other, but that it just makes sense to ensure a viable dovetail between these two major infrastructure upgrades. The rail hub at the Orlando airport is being funded by the state to the tune of $214 million, and now includes a footprint where the Orlando rail station would be located.

Nevertheless, the first small segments of the All Aboard Florida project are under construction, even as the complex problems sound abatement and the implementation of what are known as “quiet zones” into the overall design. The quiet zones involve a mix of safety, grade-modifications, and if needed sound barriers—but their implementation by municipalities affected also require an injection of Federal and state funds.

Meanwhile, in Texas, private investors are seeking to create the first fully-functioning, fully-integrated high-speed rail system—one which would connect downtown Dallas with downtown Houston. The private firm Texas Central Railway proposes to connect the two largest municipalities in the Lone Star State with 240 miles of high-grade, state-of-the-art rail line, and—unlike Florida’s use of a more-or-less traditional train—with the use of cutting edge high-tech locomotives and passenger cars purchased from a company in Japan.

The Texas proposal would more closely resemble the European and Asian models, complete with sleek, rocket-shaped systems, than anything being considered in Florida or other states. The Texas project could cost as much as $10 billion, and construction could get under way very soon; Texas Central Railway hopes to break ground in 2015, and—by using its political savvy to expedite the permitting and environmental hurdles—the line could be operational as early as 2021.

Though Texas may seem to some an unlikely place to see the fruition of high speed rail in all its glory, some state and Federal officials say that the distance between Houston and Dallas is ideal for such as connection. By most solid estimates, some 50,000 people make the commute each week between the two cities. Though some travel using commuter service or commercial airline options, most make the drive by car, van, or shuttle. The feds estimate that 70% make this journey for routine business, or at the start and end of a workweek. At a distance of 240 miles, a high speed rail line linking the two cities could lure many thousands of those commuters off the highways and out of crowded airports. The Texas high speed line could include stops at Waco and College Station.

And unlike California, where terrain plays an always crucial role in any engineering scheme for rail, Texas has ideal geography for laying tracks. Smooth and mostly flat, the terrain would make construction between the two big cities less costly than in other states; no tunneling, few bridges, reliable surface strength. And unlike Florida, the route between Houston and Dallas is also fraught with few easement and right-of-way issues.

Economics may also pay a role, though it is not clear whether its impact will be good or bad for the rail. The economy of oil areas are at the start of what may become a deep recession, especially as oil prices in the U.S. continue to drop in response to over-supply and cheap oil from Saudi Arabia and other countries. For that reason, optimists see the glass as half-full: lots of construction workers ready and willing to take on work for the rail project at a time when some oil companies may be preparing for layoffs. But pessimists worry about the opposite: why expend the capital to build a rail for business travelers and commuters who may be out of work for years to come—or at least not traveling between the two oil centers.

Finally, California plans to break ground and cut the ribbons next month on its long-proposed high-speed rail system. The first leg of that project will connect Fresno with Bakersfield, a distance of 110 miles. California’s high-speed template has taken decades to get started; legal fights and environmental issues have held the project back through multiple governors and a variety of political climates. After reaching a settlement in a lawsuit with the city of Bakersfield, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is finally able to break through the last of its innumerable major hurdles to begin laying its first piece of track.

But it’s not over: the rail group still faces legal fights with, among other plaintiffs: a large hospital along the proposed route; a land and real estate developer whose proposed developments the rail will traverse; the Kings County Farm Bureau; and the First Free Will Baptist Church of Bakersfield. And there are also a few other cities, counties, and watchdog groups in the path of the speeding trains. Most of the plaintiffs, and some of the other forces opposed to the high speed rail, have cited a myriad of possible negative effects from the rail—noise, environmental damage, safety, disaster preparedness, even economic impact. But proponents say that most of these concerns are unfounded, if not irrational—citing the success and safety of high-speed rail systems already widely in use in Europe and around the globe.

California is optimistically moving ahead, hoping to sidetrack those legal issues as the project moves forward, but it may be years before that Bakersfield-to-Fresno leg is fully operational (Texas hopes to get there first). It hopes its ribbon-cutting event and first-rail-laying ceremony in January will send a signal to voters and Californians that the high-speed rail line will soon be a reality. Supporters hope that once the Fresno-Bakersfield route is operational sometime in 2023, other communities and cities will be inclined to support—rather than resist—the advent of high-speed rail travel.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Moscow to Beijing by Rail: In 30 Hours?; Thursday Review staff; November 21, 2014.

Eminent Domain and the Fifth Amendment; Earl H. Perkins; Thursday Review; February 15, 2014.