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February 07, 2010

High Speed Rail... Really?

There’s been a lot of media hype and political hoopla of late about Connecticut receiving $40 million from the Feds for “high speed rail”. While any money spent on rail is great, let’s take a reality check.

That federal money (combined with $26 million from the state) is merely a small down-payment on an $880 million, five-year plan to bring just commuter rail service to the New Haven – Springfield corridor, a project on the CDOT planning board for more than a decade.. That first money will be spent adding a second track on a 10 mile stretch of existing rail between New Britain and Newington. That’s a good start, but the rest of the project is far from a sure thing. And it sure ain’t “high speed rail”.

Media reports that we’ll soon have 110 mph rail service to our capitol are folly because they assume our cash-strapped state will continue funding the other 90+% of the project.

Sure, commuter rail service along the I-91 corridor will be welcome. And it will undoubtedly have economic and development benefits. But will politicians please stop teasing us with images of bullet-trains and a one-hour, one-seat ride from Hartford to New York (115 miles)?

In recent years any number of would-be office-holders (federal and state) have called on me for briefings on how to fix our transportation mess. I’ve gladly talked with them all, Republican and Democrat, and given them a frank assessment of our situation. But when they start asking… “Why can’t we build a mag-lev down the middle of our interstates?” I start wondering if they’ve been smoking more than cigars.

We can’t adequately fund our existing Metro-North service, and our pols have questions about Disney-style monorails? Let’s look at the facts:

In 2003 Maryland looked at building a mag-lev system 39 miles from Baltimore to Washington and figured it would cost $4.9 billion to build and $53 million a year to operate. You can buy a heckuva lot of conventional rail equipment for that kind of money for such a short run.

Mag-lev may make sense running across the desert from LA to Vegas, but in dense, built up corridors like the Northeast, it’s a fantasy. We’re stuck with the tracks we have with a little straightening and maybe electrification.

What passes for “high speed rail” in the US is a joke by international standards. I love riding Acela, but its purported 150 mph speed is achieved only on a few miles of track in NJ and RI. In Connecticut, Acela maxes out at 90 mph, no faster than Metro-North. And the tilting mechanism on the train (designed to enhance speed) is disabled due to lack of clearance. Over its entire Washington to Boston run, Acela’s average speed just is 72 mph, slower than most cars.

Compare that with Japan’s Shinkansen which runs 185 mph, France’s TGV or the London – Paris Eurostar which do 200 mph. Now that’s high speed rail!

Hey, if we can actually build commuter rail north from New Haven running at 70 mph, I’ll be thrilled. But the project won’t be cheap and I doubt it can happen in this economy. And whatever does get built sure won’t be a bullet-train.

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