Thursday, April 16, 2009

High speed rail to Pittsburgh?

Obama's stimulus plan includes $8 billion for a "start on establishing high-speed rail corridors nationwide". One of the 10 corridors identified for possible service is the "Keystone" corridor between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

I'm really skeptical of this for a number of reasons, most of which are technical.

  • Flying is cheap and readily available between Pittsburgh and Philly(as an example Expedia is showing a roundtrip for $119.20*, fees included). Unless the proposed high-speed fares are heavily subsidized I don't expect they'll be any less.

  • Even allowing for airport security hassles it's possible to fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in about 2 hours. To match that a train would have to average 150 mph, counting waiting times.

  • For a train to be considered "high-speed" by Amtrak standards it has to average only 90 mph. I'm not a railroad engineer, but I'd imagine that given the terrain between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg it would take several hundred billion dollars to build a dedicated track that would allow for those kinds of speed.

  • Achieving "high speed" with shared rail lines is generally out of the question. As mentioned in the linked article, the Acela Express over the Northeast Corridor has to slow down almost constantly because of all the slower passenger and especially freight trains on the same tracks. And again, that's on relatively flat terrain. Freight trains in the Appalachians undoubtedly run slower than on the flat lands near the coast.
Basically I think it's well demonstrated that it will be impossible for high speed rail, without subsidies, to be competitive with air travel on the basis of price or travel time.

Obama's justification for the subsidies, which is fairly consistent with what other politicians say in justifying high speed rail, is that it will relieve congestion(both in the airways and on the road), help clean the air, and save energy.

I don't have hard data on these matters, but anecdotally I've never found the PA Turnpike to be particularly crowded. It's probably busier than the average rural Interstate, and does have heavy truck traffic, but I think it could be upgraded to 3 lanes each way, for its entire direction, for a small fraction of what a new rail line would cost.

PIT and PHL do not usually make the list of airports lacking capacity. A frequent concern viced about PIT is that the airlines are offering fewer flights into it, which suggests that congestion there is not a great problem.

As far as cleaning the air, the high speed trains in other countries generally run on overhead electric wires - which means they appear "clean" because they shift the dirty power generation elsewhere. This doesn't of course rule out that high-speed rail usage could result in a net reduction of pollution - but this would depend on the local means of electric generation(coal, nuclear, natural gas) being "cleaner" than the jet engines, diesel buses, and gasoline engined cars that would be used alternatively.

Pollution reduction would also depend on high speed rail being a sufficiently viable alternative to other methods of long-distance mass transit to attract their current users, which as I've demonstrated above isn't likely. (I haven't mentioned the private automobile, but in general the idea that mass transit will 'get people out of their cars' is fallacious. The convenience of always ending up exactly at your destination, making stops at the store on your way home, and making your own schedule outweigh the inefficiency for most private car owners).

*The fare was calculated today(April 16), departing April 30, returning May 5, with flexible times(9 unique departing flights were available at that price). For comparison, Amtrak's current cheapest roundtrip fare for the same dates is $94.00, with a train that leaves once daily. Greyhound ticket with a 14-day advance purchase is $60.00.
blog comments powered by Disqus