The First Step in High Speed Rail is Fixing the Existing System

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerEvery day we see more evidence of the buckets of cash Congress has made available through the stimulus bill. Eager to see public dollars replacing lackluster business and consumer spending, our elected representatives have filled the pipelines of countless federal programs.

Public projects that were hopeless dreams in September have been reborn. One that has garnered particular attention in New York State is high speed rail.

We do passenger rail badly in the United States. If you’ve visited Europe you know that travel by rail can be reliable, comfortable and affordable. A few years ago my family traveled over much of Italy with nary a delay and without ever renting a car.

Passenger rail is a more difficult proposition in this country. Vast areas are lightly populated, making it hard to fill a convenient schedule of trains at a fare that covers costs. We love our cars. And it is hard to love Amtrak—the trains are old, the schedule is sparse and on-time arrival seems a happy accident.

But high speed rail is different. The phrase stirs images not of the chronically delayed Lake Shore Limited to Chicago but of the fashionable train à grand vitesse (TGV) in France or Japan’s bullet train. More money for Amtrak? Oh, please.

Source: 2009 NYS Rail Plan

Source: 2009 NYS Rail Plan

And we like to think big. After all, if we’re going to spend all this dough, let’s buy something exciting!

Yet if we’re going to use this money to stimulate the economy through a quick cash injection and we want to use the money wisely, let’s focus first on the improvements we should have made years ago. Amtrak’s Empire Corridor passenger service is a good example.

I ride the train when I can. It is a great way to travel—IF the train arrives on time. Unfortunately, in federal fiscal year 2008, trains between Penn Station and Niagara Falls arrived on time only 44% of the time (and “on time” is defined as within 25 minutes of the scheduled arrival). Once a train gets behind schedule, it gets mixed up in CSX freight traffic and can become very late indeed.

It is easy to simply accuse Amtrak of incompetence. But trains from Albany south to New York City arrived on time 80% of the time that year, suggesting that the problem is bigger than Amtrak’s management. In 2007, analysis of the causes of delay along the western corridor attributed 82% to problems with CSX, which owns the track and controls train dispatch (see 2009 NYS Rail Plan at http://www.nysdot.gov/staterailplan).

The track from Albany to Buffalo, called the “Chicago line,” is a heavily used freight corridor. There is little tolerance for conflict between slow-moving freight and Amtrak trains, which can theoretically operate at speeds of 79-90 mph. One conspicuous problem is the fact that there is only a single track in each direction from Albany to Hoffmans (about eight miles east of Amsterdam). Maintenance activity, track and signal deficiencies and scheduling conflicts cut the average transit far below potential—without any of the new technology and new expense of true “high speed” rail.

It would be fabulous to board the train and get to Albany in 90 minutes and NYC in three hours or less. Yet the impact on customers of achieving simple reliability along the western corridor would be substantial. The 2005 NYS Senate High Speed Rail Task Force (see http://www.cdta.org/hsr/) estimates that cutting delays by 50% would boost ridership by 30%. And either a 25% reduction in travel time or an increase in train frequency of 50% would boost ridership by 36%. These gains are achievable without the fabulously expensive “high speed” option. Moreover, as most trains operate with significant excess capacity, revenue from more riders would fall straight to Amtrak’s chronically-troubled bottom line.

New York has spent considerable capital money on the system, in addition to an annual operating subsidy of the Adirondack service from Schenectady to Montreal. From 1995 to 2007 the state invested $144 million into capital improvements. Unfortunately, $63 million of this sum was spent on a palatial new station in Rensselaer, courtesy of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (now under indictment for influence-peddling).

Albany-Rensselaer Station

Albany-Rensselaer Station

Yes, let’s begin work on high speed rail—but let’s fix the conventional problems we understand and can begin to address immediately. The 2005 Task Force estimated that $1.4 billion would boost on-time performance to 85% systemwide and add 1.3 million riders annually. In the western corridor, the Task Force estimated that ridership would grow by 250%.

By contrast, the cost of high speed rail was estimated at $8-$10 billion. The estimate is probably rough as the exact technology has yet to be selected and the system has yet to be designed. Cost forecasts for massive public works projects, particularly projects involving new technology, are notoriously unreliable. Nor can I remember a time when the estimate was above the final cost.

I hope that our elected officials understand this dynamic and will use “high speed rail” as the bait to entice federal and state dollars and the attention of public officials to the work-a-day problems of the system we already have. It would be a terrible waste if we spend billions on a system that will have no discernable impact on the economy or quality of life of our citizens for another 20 years.

Kent Gardner, Ph.D. President & Chief Economist
Published in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal March 13, 2009

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