Will $795 Million Help Turn Around Amtrak's High-Speed Rail?
Most people would agree that the congested stretch between Boston and Washington, D.C., badly needs better high-speed rail. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to that problem last week by handing the region $795 million of the $2 billion federal dollars for high-speed rail recently rejected by Florida.
Yet due to Amtrak′s failure to effectively run their supposedly high-speed Acela line, not everyone is so sure that the money should be put in the hands of Amtrak, which currently runs the service.
“The right thing is that the money should be allocated where ridership is heaviest and demand for service is the greatest,” said R. Richard Geddes, associate professor in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell University. “But what we’re talking about is slightly higher-speed Amtrak.”
Geddes is not the only one who feels this way. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has argued that the money should go to public-private partnerships to run new train services in crowded corridors like the Northeast — but said the money should not go to Amtrak.
“We need a comprehensive, responsible plan for the Northeast Corridor, and Amtrak – our nation’s Soviet-style passenger rail service – is incapable of carrying out a project of this scope and significance,” Mica said in a statement about the reallocated funds.
Geddes agrees that Amtrak is a part of the problem. However, a fully separated track for a public-private run system would cost upward of $50 million per mile, he told InnovationNewsDaily. Amtrak was unwilling to build separate tracks for the Acela when it was first built in the Northeast, which is one factor that prevents it from running at high speed.
California also received a good deal of Florida′s money, and so far, Amtrak is not involved. The true high-speed line received an additional $300 million to extend the Central Valley project, which is the backbone that will eventually connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Of the 22 projects that won Florida dollars, this was the only one not associated with Amtrak.
It will be the first true high-speed train in the U.S.: fully grade-separated and running at 220 mph. It could also be the first passenger rail to challenge Amtrak, as the Capitol-Corridor region is the third most traveled Amtrak line in the U.S. However, the scope of the project will take years and an estimated $40 billion to complete. So far, the proposed rail system has accumulated about $6 billion, said Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
“It’s a testament to the fact that high-speed rail is going to be a viable transportation alternative in the future,” Wall told InnovationNewsDaily. She noted that Amtrak had expressed some interest in being the operator of the service once it gets going, but added that there has also been initial interest from more than 30 other private companies.
It is unclear how much of this money will truly lead to faster, more reliable service, however. Many Amtrak routes, including the Northeast, share track with freight trains and cross over aging bridges, so the problems go far beyond what this round of money can address.
Although some lines claim they will be “high-speed,” the reality is that the average speed will still be around 60 to 70 mph, rather than the 110 to 150 mph top speeds that are advertised. However, even just getting trains to a much-needed, steady 80 or 90 mph service — barely high-speed — seems elusive, despite the funding.
“In some sense, this is a bait and switch,” Geddes told InnovationNewsDaily. “I don’t understand why everyone is focused on the high-speed when there’s such a demand for reliability.”
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