Train Travel Proponents Have Something to ‘Rail’ About

Mention the word "rail" and let the discussions begin:

  • I edited some transportation copy yesterday for our next BizVoice that, of course, includes rail — along with highways, air and ports — as critical to Indiana’s infrastructure for moving commodities and finished products.
  • Add "light" in front of the "rail" and you have many wondering how cities, like Indianapolis, could be even better if there were efficient public transportation measures in place. Opponents rightfully point out the heavy investment needed to make such efforts a reality.
  • Switch light to ‘high speed" and the controversy soars to an even higher level. The very brief history lesson is Europe thrives on moving people quickly and effectively; the U.S. lags way behind and appears destined to remain that way.

The latest on the high-speed front, courtesy of

Congress on Tuesday (April 12) revealed the details of the federal budget deal reached by Democrats and Republicans late last week, and a clear loser is high-speed rail.

Funding for the program, a priority for President Obama, was slashed dramatically in the agreement announced by the administration and GOP House Speaker John Boehner. Not only does the deal eliminate all financing for high-speed rail this year, it takes back $400 million of the $2.5 billion that Congress authorized for it last year, The New York Times reports.

"The cuts will not bring the rail program to a halt, as there is still unspent rail money that can be used on new projects. But they leave the future of high-speed rail in the United States unclear, to say the least," The Times says. "Roughly $10 billion has been approved for high-speed rail so far, but that money has been spread to dozens of projects around the country. If Congress does not approve more money, it is possible that the net result of all that spending will be better regular train service in many areas, and a small down payment on one bullet train, in California."

High-speed rail has been a favorite target for congressional and state-level Republicans who see it as a waste of money. The opposition in the states has been led by three GOP governors who rejected funding for projects in their states: Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. 

“Anyone Aboard?”

If you’re like me, you curse America’s lack of — or at least not so convenient — cross-country passenger train access whenever you head to New York City, or some such locale. Even before TSA gropes became the law of the land, my disdain for large commercial airports could hardly be quantified. Although, I must say Indy’s new airport is about as delightful as an airport can be; in fact, it made LaGuardia feel like I’d landed in a toilet. (And Indiana business travelers are also blessed to have wonderful facilities like the Indianapolis Executive Airport, operated by Montgomery Aviation.)

But the fact is rail development requires serious infrastructure dollars, and as Governing reports, don’t expect that money to be invested in rail anytime soon, as American passenger train commuting may be stuck in the station for some time:

The Obama administration is more sympathetic to rail transit than its predecessors. It proposed a historic expansion of the rail passenger system, including building a national high-speed network of bullet trains with an initial $8 billion down payment in stimulus money (with more promised) to a few states for some modest projects to get things going.

The problem is that the newly elected Republican governors of states where much of the money was supposed to go — like Ohio and Wisconsin, and maybe Florida — don’t want it, at least not for high-speed rail. They’ll gladly take it for auto infrastructure like roads, bridges and highways. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, Ill., won’t agree to that: It’s accept rail or hit the trail, and the money will go to states that want it.

Recently the greater New York area was stunned by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to pull his state out of a long-planned project — described as the largest public transit program in the country — to build a second rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River to ease the commute by 45 minutes for Jersey residents who work in New York City. With substantial overruns, it was estimated to cost as much as $13 billion. Christie’s state was on the hook for $2.7 billion, plus the added costs for its share of the project, which already is under construction. Much is at stake, including 6,000 construction jobs.

Making significant improvements in rail service in this country seems like a no-brainer. Ridership is increasing. The highways and airways are overburdened. It’s far more energy efficient and cleaner, and compared to cars, it’s safer. If done right, it can be one of the most effective economic development tools available. But it’s also very expensive and requires a sustained commitment over many decades. And right now, governments are deep in debt.

Critics of Obama’s high-speed rail plan make several points. The project will cost far too much in initial outlays and subsidies to justify the benefits, siphoning off the funding of worthier programs, including commuter mass transit. The United States has become a suburbanized society, sprawling over a large land mass, with only a few places having sufficient population density to warrant intercity rail service. To be successful in any area except the Northeast Corridor, high-speed trains would have to make too many stops, and therefore would be too slow to compete.

Given the political changes in the new Congress and in many states, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see many bullet trains whizzing through our future. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is lost for rail advocates. The incoming chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Florida Republican John Mica, is outspoken in his opposition to the administration’s plan, which he claims is likely to lead to many “slow-speed trains to nowhere.” But he does support what he calls “a better directed high-speed rail program.”

Costly Rail Projects Casualties of 2010 Election

Efforts to advance high-speed rail in Indiana have always focused on a Midwest approach. Those efforts suffered a setback in last week’s election as new governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have clearly stated their intentions to halt projects in their states supported by federal funds. Stateline reports:

A shift from Democrats to Republicans in the governor’s mansions of Ohio and Wisconsin means that federally backed high-speed rail projects in both states likely will be stopped in their tracks.

Last week, just days after Republican Scott Walker won election to succeed Democratic Governor Jim Doyle in Wisconsin, Doyle’s administration told contractors on one of the projects, a proposed line between Madison and Milwaukee, to temporarily stop working, citing Walker’s victory, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. In his successful campaign, Walker ran on a vow to end the project, which he considers a waste of money.

In Ohio, Republican governor-elect John Kasich is calling on Democrat Ted Strickland — whom he defeated on Tuesday (November 2) —to promptly cancel a pair of studies on a proposed rail line connecting Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. "Given that the train is dead under John, no additional state or taxpayer dollars should be spent on this project," a spokesman for Kasich told The Columbus Dispatch.

Ohio’s rail project is expected to cost $450 million and Wisconsin’s has been allocated $810 million in federal stimulus funds, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. It is not clear what will happen to the federal money if both new governors follow through on their pledges to cancel rail projects, though Walker has said he wants to use the money to repair Wisconsin’s roads and bridges instead, according to The Journal.

So far, the anti-rail pledges by Walker and Kasich are the most notable spending cuts being proposed by Republicans who swept into numerous governor’s offices last week. As Stateline reported Thursday (November 4), at least 11 new Republican governors and one new Democrat, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, have vowed to address tens of billions of dollars in budget shortfalls without raising taxes, leaving major spending cuts as the likeliest outcome.

World Speeds Past U.S. in Rail Movement

There has been plenty of talk lately about high-speed rail. If that talk eventually turns into action and Indiana ends up in the fast lane, all we can say is it’s about time.

America takes a back seat (way back) to other countries when it comes to moving people on the rails. A few examples from around the world:

  • Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka, built in 1964 and averaging 150 mph, was the first. Seven more lines have been added and 300 million passengers a year are served
  • France’s major cities are connected by the TGV line with additional links to Germany, Belgium and England. Passengers: 100 million a year; miles: currently 1,800 with 1,200 more planned
  • In Spain, more people travel between Madrid and Seville by rail than by car and air combined

Some question whether American efforts will add up, with proponents saying true high-speed requires dedicated track, no freight traffic and speeds of at least 150 mph. Midwest plans don’t meet that criteria, but at this point any realistic rail options would be better than what we have now.