Long Haul

I’m glad Kevin Drum is down with long haul freight rail investments, but can we talk about this?

As regular readers know, I have my doubts about pouring lots of money into long-haul passenger rail, high-speed or otherwise…

It’s hard to know what exactly he means by long haul; in the past I believe he’s raised doubts about whether HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles could compete with air travel, despite obvious and resounding evidence from the northeast corridor that for such distances, the answer is yes. Let’s assume it’s no more than that distance. Well now, that would rule out an HSR line from Boston to Miami, unless one considers that a long haul route is really a bunch of short haul routes put together. Consider — the distance from Washington to Boston is longer than that from San Francisco to LA, so if SF to LA is the max, then one shouldn’t support HSR from DC to Boston. But of course, that route will also carry passengers from DC to Philly, and Philly to New York, and DC to New York, and Philly to Boston, and New York to Boston. And heading south, a line from DC to Miami would also carry traffic from DC to Richmond, and Richmond to Charlotte, and Atlanta to Jacksonville, and Tampa to Raleigh, and so on. And of course, in Europe, there are train routes from Rome to Hamburg, covering most of the European peninsula, despite the fact that very few people take the train from Rome to Hamburg.

The moment someone advocates non-stop HSR service from Boston to Seattle, I’ll stomp my foot and complain. But in all likelihood, there are profitable routes all across the US of A, such that an HSR network from sea to shining sea is a worthwhile investment, despite the fact that crossing the country is a long haul. And it seems silly and counter-productive to many progressive goals to oppose HSR on the grounds that a line from San Diego to Seattle, or Chicago to Boston, or Washington to Miami could never be competitive with air travel, because hey, that’s like 1,000 miles!

Comments

  1. I’m not sure of his past, but when I think of long haul, I’m thinking the Sunset Limited or Empire Builder, lines that go from say Texas to California or Chicago to Seattle. There are many disagreements as to whether these routes are worth it, even from advocates, but one thing we have to remember is that for many of the towns in between that are nowhere near an airport, its the only way to go and their lifeblood. I guess I’m saying I agree with your contention that its not just the end points, but everything in between.

  2. BruceMcF says:

    It also depends on what you mean by HSR.

    We need the long haul high speed freight routes … for freight routes, long haul is the main point. Electrifying STRACNET is is one of the biggest main opportunities to get at a big chunk of our petroleum imports inside the decade, and it the national grid represented by STRACNET that makes it work.

    But in terms of passenger rail, that’s not bullet trains, its tilt trains … mostly 110mph top speed service, maybe 125mph top speed in some alignments, and the same improvements that allow freight to arrive in time competitive market with an assured delivery time allows would also allow Amtrak electric 110mph transcontinental services to operate on a much sounder footing.

    But as far as alignments improved explicitly for passenger service, its not really see to shining sea. It extends far beyond the NEC, spanning the US east of the Mississipi and jumping to the next tier over, including the Texas T-Bone connecting east via NOLA and north via KSCity. It extends from the California true bullet train system, with possible bullet train spurs to Las Vegas and Phoenix, into Rapid Rail up to the Cascade Rapid Rail. It runs perhaps all the way from the Kansas City to Denver, and along the Front Range from Albaquerque to Cheyenne.

    And many of those can be each six hours to each hour regional daytime corridor services, depending on trip time and population service.

    But there’s a big hole the Mountain West which would only be filled if we are establishing a Rapid Freight Rail system and the transcontinental routes are being run as an additional opportunity to defray the capital costs of the electrification of STRACNET by collecting user fees from those users as well. The Texas T-bone to San Antonio to an eastern spure of the CAHSR in Phoenix is too far to be a regional corridor. Minneapolis to the Cascades, Denver to San Francisco, ditto. Those are long haul routes, along the lines of the existing long haul passenger routes, just sharing track with a mode of freight that is far more compatible with long haul passenger rail than the current long stretches of coal lines will ever be.

  3. Dirty Davey says:

    “And heading south, a line from DC to Miami would also carry traffic from DC to Richmond, and Richmond to Charlotte, and Atlanta to Jacksonville, and Tampa to Raleigh, and so on.”

    Not exactly. Atlanta is WAY too far west to be involved in DC-to-Miami traffic. (People like myself, raised on the east coast, have a habit of greatly underestimating how far west Atlanta actually is.) I-85 and I-95 actually do a good job of representing the two lines of settlement…

    The 95 line hits Richmond, then narrowly misses Raleigh, then hits Savannah and enters Florida at Jacksonville… and Raleigh and Savannah are the only decent-sized places near an approximately-straight line from Richmond to Jacksonville.

    The 85 line hits more useful locations–near Durham, then hitting Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Montgomery–but goes roughly 150-200 miles in from the coast, which is too much of a detour if your goal is to end up back at the Atlantic coast.

    Current DC-Florida Amtrak service is suboptimal in part because it spends too much time in NC going east-west and not enough actually getting down to the business of going north-south.

  4. Bruce Wilder says:

    Worrying about the economics of “long-haul” is a form of wanking. For routes <400 miles, hi-speed passenger rail can certainly be competitive with air travel.

    The critical economic question, though, is whether there are ways to keep hi-speed rail competitive with air, and still serve the “in-between”. Rail has the very important advantage over air travel, that it can provide frequent service to places BETWEEN major destinations. Unfortunately, that means stops, and stops slow service.

    But, it is true that the big economic benefits of rail are to the “in-between”. California Hi-Speed Rail does little for L.A. or San Francisco; it is huge for Fresno and Bakersfield. Connecticut is the big beneficiary of improving Boston to New York. Upstate New York needs routes to Buffalo. The hinterland of Virginia needs Washington to Charlotte.

    There are probably clever ways — fast detaching cars? — in which the effect of stops on speed can be minimized. But, we have to recognize that that is such “technology” has a high potential economic benefit, and that we should seek it.

    As to freight rail, that could be a huge economic boost to productivity. Containerization means that the boxcar can be, finally, abandoned, and with the boxcar, the switching yard. Integral trains would enable application of technology yielding significant increases in fuel economy and safety, though the elimination of switching in favor of container loading is the bigger economic gain. Railroads have been handicapped for years by being a highly uncertain and risky way to ship — merchandise gets lost in switching; this problem can be eliminated and variance in shipping times reduced along with shipping times.

  5. CalDem says:

    Is there some research backing this up Ryan, could you cite it?

  6. SammyG says:

    The problem with long-haul routes is the scheduling. For example, the current New York-Chicago Lake Shore Limited makes perfect sense for people in Cleveland, except that it stops in Cleveland at 3:30 am.

    Is there a way, without running 4 times as many trains as necessary, to make sure the train is convenient to as many people as possible?

  7. BruceMcF says:

    Bruce Wilder Says:
    January 14th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    … For routes <400 miles [for modern bullet trains, <500 miles], hi-speed passenger rail can certainly be competitive with air travel.

    The critical economic question, though, is whether there are ways to keep hi-speed rail competitive with air, and still serve the “in-between”. Rail has the very important advantage over air travel, that it can provide frequent service to places BETWEEN major destinations. Unfortunately, that means stops, and stops slow service.

    Of course, trains do not lose as much time to stops as airplanes do, and where stops do, in fact, slow down service enough to pull the trip length beyond a critical threshold, that means that there is a market for something called an “Express” service that does not stop at every intervening station. I believe the concept was created sometime in the 1800′s, but its a real clever one.

    But, it is true that the big economic benefits of rail are to the “in-between”. California Hi-Speed Rail does little for L.A. or San Francisco; it is huge for Fresno and Bakersfield.

    The first half of the statement is not the experience in Spain … the AVE is taking over big chunks of markets that used to be dominated by air, in terrain with distances and metro populations similar to LA to the Bay. If the express 2:40 SF/LA is achieved, then it will grab a big share of the total SF/LA air travel market, and take pressure of airports in both Northern and Southern California.

    So, yes, it will be a big boon to the Bakersfield and Fresno, but it will also be a substantial improvement for the LA/SF travel market.

    Indeed, that’s precisely why California is the part of the country where starting with bullet trains make sense … in most of the rest of the country, there is so much market for 110mph corridor routes that can be built in existing rail corridors that it would be silly to look to bullet train alignments until the Rapid Passenger Rail system is built out.

  8. BruceMcF says:

    Dirty Davey,
    January 14th, 2009 at 3:56 pm:

    “And heading south, a line from DC to Miami would also carry traffic from DC to Richmond, and Richmond to Charlotte, and Atlanta to Jacksonville, and Tampa to Raleigh, and so on.”

    Not exactly. Atlanta is WAY too far west to be involved in DC-to-Miami traffic.

    Of course, it depends on whether there is a two tier system of heavy bulk freight and bullet train rail networks, or a three tier network of heavy bulk freight and Rapid Rail sharing rail corridors, and bullet train alignments extended by operations on the Rapid Rail network.

    Since, as the French experience shows, feeder lines do not require transfers … TGVs often operate on regular Express alignments at Express speeds beyond the end of the bullet train alignment. So a bullet train alignment between Orlando and Atlanta can have a Jacksonville/Atlanta service running on a Rapid Rail alignment to join the HSR corridor, and the same with a Tampa/Atlanta service, and indeed a train at the southern end of the bullet train corridor in Orlando could have come up from Miami on a Rapid Rail alignment.

    The work for the Florida and Georgia DOT is to get those 100mph Rapid Passenger Rail lines up and running in their state … that will cost a fraction of what a bullet train alignment will, be able to have services up and running long before a purist bullet train network would be running, be useful for Rapid Freight Rail as well, and lay the platform for an incremental roll out of bullet train alignments.

  9. Robert says:

    whether HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles could compete with air travel, despite obvious and resounding evidence from the northeast corridor that for such distances, the answer is yes.

    In terms of distance, yes. But since you think the northeast corridor is such an appropriate comparison, what’s the height of the lowest pass through the mountains between Boston and DC that corresponds to either Gaviota Pass or Tehachapi Pass in California? It’s possible to run at 300 km/h along the Central Valley but how HS is HSR while going through the Coastal Range?

  10. Reid says:

    Dirty Davey,
    You say you’re from the East Coast, but then you call it “The” 95, which is something I’ve never heard on the East Coast. You’re confusing me!

  11. Reid says:

    Oh wait, I see, you said “the 95 line” not “the 95″. OK, your east coast credentials have cleared.