Opposition to Passenger Rail Infrastructure investment: why?

A recent ‘news’ piece on CNBC’s Anderson Cooper 360 attacked the progress being made to improve passenger rail infrastructure in the U.S – part of President Obama’s small $12 Billion investment in passenger rail improvement.  Can we get high-speed rail nation-wide for $12 Billion?  Of course not!!

Who hates passenger rail???

We are willing to build freeways, airports and clinics in Iraq and Afghanistan but we won’t invest in building and maintaining our passenger rail infrastructure in the U.S. – Go figure!

Here is some of the NARP-reported story (http://narprail.org/news/narp-blog/2214-narp-responds-to-another-attack-on-trains-by-cnn-s-anderson-cooperAmtrak cascades map) below:

On Cooper’s show, reporter Drew Griffin attacked the High Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program as a boondoggle, contrasting the expectation of 220 mph trains that run in Europe and Asia with the projects funded in the United States by HSIPR.

Griffin points to the federally funded improvements to the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadesservice (Portland, Oregon – Seattle, Washington – Vancouver, British Columbia) as an example of everything that’s wrong with the HSIPR program.  In his “analysis,” Griffin states that $800 million was spent to bring about a ten minute reduction in trip time.

But that’s not true.

Yes, there was a ten minute reduction in trip time.  However, the $800 million also paid for infrastructure upgrades that push on time performance above 88 percent, and added two additional daily round trips between Portlandand Seattle. While Paula Hammond, former head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, briefly mentions more roundtrips on camera, it’s never even acknowledged by Griffin.  That’s right: the money will go to purchasing a new trainset and new locomotives, increasing daily roundtrips from four to six, and Anderson Cooper didn’t even mention it!  (Not incidentally, these trainsets are being built in the U.S. by American workers.  This investment is leading to a revival in U.S. manufacturing of rail equipment.)

Griffin also repeatedly states that there’s nothing to show for the $12 billion spent on highspeed rail.  In addition to being disrespectful to communities that have directly benefitted from the many improvements to conventional speed train service (such as: IllinoisVermontMichigan, the entire Northeast Corridor, and so on), it’s also flat out wrong, because only 15 percent of the $12 billion has been spent so far. 

There are many reasons for this.  As a result of the U.S. investing so little in passenger rail over the past 50 years, a lot of the HSIPR program had to be built from the ground up, a process that has taken time.  The projects have also been the victim of political squabbling, with Republican governors killing rail expansion projects—conventional and high speed—in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.  (In a twist of fate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker reversed course and applied for a HSIPR rail grant in the next round of applications, and Florida Governor Rick Scott is supporting All Aboard Florida’s Miami-Orlando train, a service which would have benefited immensely from the Orlando-Tampa rail corridor Scott killed).

California’s San Francisco-Los Angeles high speed train—which will travel at speeds of more than 200 mph—is facing many of these political hurdles.  But it is moving forward in spite of the political opposition, with construction scheduled to start this very summer. Construction will also ramp up on HSIPR projects in the Midwest and Northeast, creating good jobs for the U.S. construction workers, an industry which is still lagging behind in the recovery.  New orders for train equipment will continue to benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Griffin and Cooper’s main objection seems to be the gulf between what they imagined when President Obama talked about highspeed trains, and the reality of what $12 billion can buy.  Their main failing, then, is understanding that infrastructure—whether it be rails or roads, bridges or sewers—is expensive.  Unfortunately, with an estimated $3.6 trillion in investment needed in the U.S. between now and 2020, there are no $12 billion silver bullets.

This country is still pursuing the 200 mph train service President Obama spoke of—in the Northeast Corridor and in California.  But unless we start investing on levels commensurate with what the Chinese have spent on their high speed rail network—$451 billion to $602 billion between 2011 and 2015 alone—the rest of the country will progress in increments of 10 minute reductions here, and an additional frequency there.

But if you ask a potential Cascades passenger, someone who drives on Interstate 5, where bumper-to-bumper traffic can often stretch 60 miles south of Seattle, past Tacoma to the state capital of Olympia, ten minutes and another frequency would be enough.

What do you think?

Larry, Chief Advocate, CASPRAIL.ORG

4 thoughts on “Opposition to Passenger Rail Infrastructure investment: why?

  1. Paul Smith

    It would be great if we could remove politics and those pesky politicians from the passenger rail debate! Unfortunately that would also eliminate any possibility of ever achieving improvements to rail services in the north west. Without political support (i.e.political self interest) there will be no funding. In all countries that have adopted advanced passenger rail, political endorsement at all levels has been the key factor to implementation.

    This site presents a mixed and confusing message regarding its objectives. The 200mph HSIPR program on the one hand and additional Cascades service sets on the other. While the former is total fantasy while this country lacks the knowledge, technology base and engineering skills to achieve such a goal, modest improvements to the existing infrastructure are perfectly reasonable to pursue.

    Focus – and a considerable improvement in the technical understanding of the processes involved – are required for success.

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you for your comment – The Cascade Passenger Rail Association advocates for “Improved Passenger Rail” for the West Coast, not HSR – which is likely a pipe dream. Political support is absolutely critical to improve our passenger rail system and make it into something a much greater number of Oregonians will use. We would like to see 90 mph top speeds, regular and on-time service, and a strong solution for the ‘last mile’. How do you think we accomplish these things?
      Regards, Larry Plotkin – Chief Advocate, Cascade Passenger Rail Association.

  2. Malcolm Miner

    I suggest that political references be deleted from ALL arguments for rail. To politicize dilutes or destroys before an idea can get a chance. Rail needs first to be understood, the good and the bad, based on many things before injecting politics or dollar costs. Until the availability of service, routes, equipment etc are understood it is premature to inject unnecessary controversy such as setting dates and predicting costs. That was how supersonic air travel was sold and it eventually failed. In that case the technology of the 1960’s produced a level of costs and noise that the public didn’t accept. During that controversy the public received much biased information, pro and con. The premature pressing into supersonic service resulted in a situation where for too many reasons we now can’t try that again for years.
    Until the 1950’s we had all kinds of rail right-of-ways available. There were routes to “everywhere” that have since been abandoned and built over. A first step as the public moves from rejection to acceptance is to protect potential future routes. In the early stages of the process we can talk and plan far into the future.
    Let us develop plans that everyone can take ownership of. Then we can creep up on hastening the arrival of the future, maybe pilot projects.

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you for your comment!

      We also believe that rail right-of-ways must be purchased or maintained along current public right-of-ways. One example is cited in this article for a right-of-way from Corvallis to Monroe, which would form part of a Corvallis to Eugene route:


      What process do you believe we should follow to build out passenger rail in Oregon?

      Regards, Larry Plotkin – Chief Advocate, Cascade Passenger Rail Association


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