Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Incremental Versus The Whole Hog

One of the most intriguing (for me, anyway) questions about the future shape of High Speed Rail is: Will HSR grow incrementally from existing rail routes, or will we dedicate new rights of way? Rail going where no rail has gone before.

If this were the 1950s, I could envision HSR as being built something like the way we built the Interstate system. Step One: Decide on a general system design that will assure the interoperability of all elements. For HSR, this means train design, civil engineering, and yes, Virginia, even track gauge.

Step Next: Lay out the routes you want to serve the population centers you want to target.

Then start buying up right of way.

If this were the 1950s, this would work. In post-Obama, neo-litigious America, the interest groups, propery owners, etc., will be all over this. It doesn't matter whether this approach would be good for America, as long as it is not "bad" as defined by any special-interest group. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter whether the group is right, left, or in the middle, either.

But can you not see the great benefits of the Whole Hog approach? In many ways, the benefits would be similar to - but more 21st century than - those we got from the Interstate system. What were those? Foremost, they got a lot of people into, and out of, major population centers fast. Secondarily, they created markets. In the case of HSR, the market will be for surface transportation of people and goods. Yes, Virginia, goods! Express and package freight will find a home with HSR just as it did with the redundant passenger routes of the classic railroad past. Suddenly, rail would be an alternative for LCL freight. Nothing wrong with building HSR baggage-mail cars.

Thirdly, the Interstate system drew development out of the dead middles of small towns. Of necessity, the HSR stops won't be in many of the smallest of towns. But for small and mid-sized cities, HSR stations will be intermodal. The stations will not be where the current Amtrak stations are located. They will be near light rail and/or commuter rail, and if that is concurrent with Amtrak locations, so be it. Other HSR stations and terminals will be at or near airports. In the future, maybe even near spaceports. And, yes, major Interstate junctions. Park and ride to take the bullet train!

Finally, the Interstates spurred huge growth in trucking. Not just carriage, but the manufacture of trucks and equipment for moving the goods. HSR, if done right, should provide thousands of jobs in manufacture of high-speed equipment, technology, and in research and development to keep the huge investment up to date. Even development of new and better sources of the energy that will power the high-speed trains.

In my book, it will be a shame if we go for incremental. There's too much to lose by not going Whole Hog.

©2010 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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