That Fantasy High-Speed Rail Map Needn’t Be Just a Fantasy

Doing more by using less.
March 15 2013 2:50 PM

My Train Fantasy

Where’s our high-speed rail?

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In the right place, high-speed rail has the potential to be profitable. Amtrak’s Northeast corridor service includes the higher-speed (but at a maximum of 150 mph, not high-speed by European or Asian standards) Acela line. A Brookings Institute report this month showed that Amtrak ridership has grown by 55 percent since 1997, that the 100 biggest cities generated 90 percent of that ridership, that 10 cities were responsible for nearly two-thirds of that ridership, and that the Acela line on its own was actually turning a profit of $178 million in 2011. The heavily used routes are subsidizing the less trafficked routes.

“Here’s the irony: It could carry more people, earn more money, and cost less per passenger if they had higher capacity out there,” Barkan says of Amtrak’s Northeast corridor. “They are a capacity-constrained corridor.”

As anyone who has ever taken a train out of Penn Station could tell you, the biggest current constraining point on the Northeast corridor is between New York City and New Jersey. “Coming from New Jersey to New York there’s only two tracks that go into Manhattan,” says Conrad Ruppert Jr. of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who worked as an engineer for Amtrak for 35 years, mainly on the Northeast corridor. “[Those tracks] are used by Amtrak and by New Jersey transit and they’re at, if not above, capacity. Any minor incident that occurs disrupts service in one of those tunnels, whether it’s a signal problem or a track related problem, it just entirely shuts down the system.”

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So before true high-speed rail can actually be broached in the Northeast—never mind a transcontinental dream line between Los Angeles and New York—critical basic infrastructure improvements need to be made to Amtrak’s overstretched system. Acquiring funding for these relatively straightforward projects is a struggle, and because the issue has become so politicized, Barkan worries that maps like Twu’s risk being counterproductive.

“I think it has potentially negative consequences because, on the one hand it might cause people to think that it makes sense to build high speed rail over a thousand miles of desert,” he said. “It also gives ammunition to the critics of high speed rail that would then cause them to say that the high speed rail advocates are proposing to spend billions in taxpayer money where it doesn’t make sense to build it.”

Barkan’s bewilderment at the popularity of Twu’s map was echoed by his colleague, Ruppert Jr., who wondered why I was even asking about Twu’s map when America 2050 and the Federal Railroad Administration had produced far more realistic ones. What I think the two engineers may have missed was the usefulness of Twu’s project as a marketing tool for proponents of high-speed rail. People look at China building the world’s longest high-speed rail line in a handful of years and wonder why America no longer seems capable of accomplishing similarly amazing prestige projects like we once did.

Then again, maybe it’s not such a great marketing tool. As popular as Twu’s map was online, his White House petition fizzled. Perhaps he needs to think less grandiosely with his next map. Or maybe he needs to go in the other direction: While Twu’s petition didn’t get enough votes to earn a response from the White House, the Death Star petition did. Maybe in order to generate interest, we should be asking how fast high-speed rail can make the Kessel Run? Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon ran the smuggling route in less than 12 parsecs. Something to aim for.

Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.