Monday, August 27, 2012

U.S. HSR accelerates

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor
U.S. HSR accelerates Amtrak

The global high speed rail community, meeting in Philadelphia in July 2012, celebrated improving U.S. HSR prospects, ready to welcome the nation into the “true HSR” ranks. But more work lies ahead.

Good timing can matter. Enthusiasm, bordering on outright exuberance, categorized the overall mood among those attending last month’s UIC Highspeed 2012 (8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail) , held in Philadelphia. The upbeat mood was generated in large measure by California’s legislative commitment to advance a statewide high speed rail network, narrowly approved just four days prior.

And while California was a primary topic of discussion and planning, Amtrak’s own merged plans (short- and long-term) for its venerable Northeast Corridor continued to draw interest from global suppliers doggedly believing that the U.S. could not continue to ignore HSR development indefinitely.

While HSR developments elsewhere in the world were covered extensively during the nearly weeklong gathering, a decided emphasis on nascent U.S. HSR efforts was unmistakable, drawing keen interest from the roughly 1,000 attendees representing 37 countries. An introductory slide show presented by UIC at the conference’s outset was telling: It offered a “global tour” of various HSR and higher-speed rail (HrSR) projects, with the final slides figuratively arriving at U.S. projects (although Canada was diplomatically included for its own modest HrSR efforts).

Did the Philadelphia conference, perhaps, influence the California decision in any way? The chief executives of both cosponsors—the International Union of Railways (UIC) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA)—were wary of making any direct linkage, but allowed that the show’s timing couldn’t have hurt.

“We were certainly fortunate, weren’t we?” offered UIC Director-General Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, acknowledging that had California fallen from the HSR ranks, the mood in Philadelphia would have been very different.

“You hesitate to make any direct link [between the California vote and the conference], but perhaps it influenced events in some small way,” observed APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

LaHood thanks world, touts U.S. moves

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, offering a keynote speech to delegates July 11, saluted and thanked global HSR “colleagues” for their longstanding efforts to lure the U.S. into the HSR club. “We have learned so much from you,” LaHood said in earnest.

LaHood unabashedly also heralded California’s impending arrival into the HSR world, declaring, “The leadership in California reminds us that California has always led the way.” He added that in terms of U.S. HSR development, “This is a historic step not just for California but the whole country. What we are leaving to the next generation is the next generation of transportation: high speed rail. High speed rail is not something we can afford to put aside until later.”

LaHood also peppered historical antecedents within his speech, again citing the creation of the U.S. transcontinental rail network, the Interstate highway system, and (following an informal coffee klatsch among attendees just prior to his speech), adding construction of the Panama Canal to the list of visionary U.S. development projects. “We’ve done it before; we intend to do it again,” he said.

Mindful of spreading the political risk (and reward), LaHood made sure Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), and indeed other U.S. passenger progress, was not forgotten. Claiming 153 HSR and HrSR projects were currently under way in the nation, he said 2012 would see the “busiest [passenger] rail construction season” in recent years.

The secretary’s passion set the tone for the conference, and impressed UIC Director-General Loubinoux. “Well! What a speech!” he enthused to the audience immediately following LaHood’s remarks.

Flexible terminology employed

Considerable effort seemed apparent to enhance North American project numbers, with “higher-performing rail” efforts cited by LaHood and others. At a session entitled “North American High Speed Corridors,” VIA Rail Canada CEO Marc Laliberté claimed “more than 40 projects” were ongoing within North America, though no list was immediately offered to substantiate the observation.

A presentation by Tranports Quebec’s Josée Hallée, outlining plans by Quebec, Ontario, and the Canadian federal government for enhancing VIA’s Windsor-Toronto-Montreal-Quebec City speeds, played down the speculative nature of such improvements; Hallée emphasized the need to “ include high speed rail in a broader transportation plan” and to “create a high speed rail agency,” suggesting coordination of any Canadian HSR effort, modest or otherwise, remains a distant goal.

(An American audience member asked whether Chicago, not Windsor, might serve as a better corridor terminus; Hallée’s response strongly implied that it was difficult enough to coordinate the needs of two provinces and Ottawa, let alone inject three U.S. states and Washington into the mix.)

By contrast, Michigan Department of Transportation’s Timothy H. Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail (created in January), noted that the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, covering nine states and 3,000 miles of right-of-way, was modest in scope compared with global HSR efforts, but it was slowly adding 110 mph speeds to Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis routes.

By contrast, California High-Speed Rail Authority attendees, basking in the glow of the state’s affirmation, could point to the Golden State’s planned 700-mile system as true HSR. But CHSRA had its own terminology for the project, emphasizing the “blended” system of initial HSR segments on dedicated right-of-way combined with “connectivity” to existing rail routes near urban centers in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin. CHSRA CEO and Executive Director Jeffrey P. Morales, noting he had been in his position for only three weeks, argued that the “blended” system included not just adding HSR into existing conventional rail services (similar to how France grew its HSR network), but also included coordination with rapid transit services such as BART and MUNI (in the north) and Metrolink (in the south).

Responding to rail critics who deride the $6 billion Phase I portion of the project, to commence in California’s Central Valley, as HSR to “nowhere,” Morales said, “You can take Amtrak from northern California to southern California right now; the problem is, half of that trip is on a bus.” HSR’s initial segment would glue disparate existing rail pieces together, offering immediate benefits to riders as well as form the core for future upgrades, Morales said.

The Golden State is backing Phase I with $2.6 billion in state bonding authority, approved by voters in 2008, with matching federal funds totaling $3.2 billion. Amtrak representatives at the conference diplomatically deferred to and lauded California’s victory celebration, simultaneously making it clear that its own plans to improve and grow Northeast Corridor HSR were taking shape. The company publicly revised its overall NEC approach just prior to the Philadelphia gathering, itself “blending” short-term upgrades outlined in its “Stair-Step” approach (RA, July 2012, p. 28), such as Gateway Tunnel improvements under the Hudson River, with longer-term additions of HSR dedicated right-of-way within, or in many cases parallel to, the existing NEC infrastructure.

Amtrak is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the ambitious $151 billion, multiyear plan to achieve top NEC speeds of 220 mph.