Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Amtrak’s $151 Billion Pipe Dream

I said last month that one of the main reasons I was going to reduce my blogging was that I was getting sick and tired of paying so much attention to the “yadda, yadda” of our delusional and largely meaningless national discourse. Today, however, I came across yet another example of the yadda, yadda that was SO delusional that I just had to make a comment on it. I’ll let Talking Points Memo tell you the details:
Amtrak, the government-owned national rail corporation, on Monday released an ambitious $151 billion plan to develop a high-speed rail line along the currently existing Northeast Corridor rail network by 2040.

The proposed high-speed rail line would travel at top speeds of 220 miles-per-hour in some sections and be able to deliver passengers from Washington, D.C. to Boston in a little over 3 hours.

Distances between other major Northeastern cities would be shortened even more markedly, with travel times between New York and Boston or New York and Washington, D.C. down to 94 minutes, and a little over a half-hour between New York and Philadelphia.

Compare that to the current fastest Amtrak trains along the route, those in the Acela Express line, which take three-and-a-half hours to get from Boston to New York and a little under three hours to get from Washington, D.C. to New York.

The new Amtrak plan included the following chart showing the estimated time saved as construction on the new plan proceeds over the next 28 years.
Reading that, the very first thing that leapt to mind was to wonder whether, given that they have to be aware that the U.S. is already nearly $16 trillion in debt and that any form of mass transportation project faces determined institutional opposition from a Republican Party that considers it to be “socialist,” the Amtrak executives who announced this proposal haven’t completely lost their marbles. The proposal itself is a big enough fantasy, but then they had to go ahead and make it even more out in space:
But the plan proposes that Amtrak spend the next 13 years making improvements and upgrades to the 457 miles of current rail infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston, before laying down the new track that would be necessary for a high speed rail line.

In fact, Amtrak’s detailed outline, titled “The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor: 2012 Update Report,” is itself an updated and consolidated version of two other rail plans released by the corporation back in 2010, one focused on improving existing infrastructure and the other onhigh-speed rail, which Amtrak at that time estimated would cost $117.5 billion.
So, Amtrak expects to spend thirteen years making “improvements” before it even STARTS construction? And worse yet, the proposed cost of the project has already ballooned by nearly one-third in just the past two years alone? Pardon me for asking, but what exactly are they smoking over there? I just hope they aren’t sharing it with the train operators.

Just when I thought Amtrak had gone completely off the rails, to use yet another in my long line of unfortunate metaphors, they did at least somewhat acknowledge reality:
Still, Amtrak noted that “public sector leadership and funding is essential during the early years.”
In other words, the odds of this plan ever being approved are somewhere between nada and a snowball’s chance in hell.

Bonus: Play a fucking train song


  1. This calls for some Boxcar Willie.

    From A Rolls To The Rails


  2. Quite apart from the political and budget realities we face in the empire, on a theoretical level, if there is to be any transportation system in the future, doesn't rail make more fiscal sense than maintaining and building more superhighways?

    I get your point about pipe dreams, but I think it's also clear that no matter how things pan out, passenger rail travel remains actually a smarter/wiser way to go than private automobile travel.

    Once again, I'm not sure how all of this works in the current crisis of things, only that when big picture thinking is allowed (if it's still allowed), rail fares pretty well in any open-minded analysis.

    1. It would actually be great if America WOULD rehabilitate its rail system before it's too late. The problem is with throwing huge gobs of money on super expensive high speed rail rather than just the far cheaper, boring old traditional kind. If it will cost $151 billion just to build high speed rail from DC to Boston (assuming no further cost overruns), imagine what the cost would be to service the entire country with it.

  3. I'm moving to Frankfurt, Germany in a few weeks. I was there for a job interview a few weeks back, and saw what their trains and trolleys are like. The word "embarrassment" pretty much sums up my feelings about Amtrak. Out of curiosity, at what point did America decide that real trains (high speed or otherwise) were not worth pursuing in any real sense?

    1. Around the time that the automobile and related industries became king, unfortunately. Once the U.S. became committed to building suburbia after World War Two, we started tearing up the passenger train and street car tracks as fast as we could.

  4. I'd like to think I'm not the only one laughing at a 180 mile corridor being an almost 30 year project (yeah, I know you pointed this out early) while the time interval from Kennedy's going to the moon speech and the landing was less than 10 years. There goes good old American Ingenuity.

  5. That money that went to GM should have had strings, nay, ropes attached to it. Such as: You guys are going to start undoing the crap you pulled 50 years ago with public transportation. Here's what you will do with the money: Retool and begin building locomotives, railcars, and street cars.

    That highway project money should have gone into repairing and laying new rail and rail beds.

    And what could be done with all that war department money??

    Ah, to be King.

    Of course, it's all "hallucinated wealth." It's too late to do any of this, anyway. There's no political will, and the public is apathetic and thinks we're the greatest country on Earth.

  6. > what could be done with all that war department money?


    I calculate the $150 billion as 55 days worth of war making