Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bullet Trains are Sexy, Basic Math is Not

I've been thinking about the statements by Amtrak's CEO Joseph Boardman and Chairman Tom Carper that the way to go faster by train is to improve the slow sections and delays, and the negative reactions accusing them of having no vision (on Infrastructurist, and Chicago news), and I just can't let it go. The thing is, the Amtrak guys are right. Unfortunately, the best solution is not always the one that will sell politically.

Consider a train journey between two cities 180 miles apart. 160 miles of track are wide open, no congestion, etc. Near the two cities and other congestion points, there are 20 miles of track requiring slow speeds and waiting. The train goes 80 mph when it can, but only averages 10 mph through the congested sections. The trip will take 4 hours.

Option one for reducing travel time is to put in a high speed train. It now goes 160 mph on the open rail, but is subject to the same congestion near the cities. Travel time: 3 hours.

Option two to save the same hour is to improve the average speed in the congested sections from 10 to 20 mph. Which solution is more cost effective? Which one is sexier and easier to get public support for?

I haven't gone and researched the history, but I'm willing to bet that the European countries and Japan already had their trains running without significant congestion and delays before they offered their high-speed trains. When I lived in Switzerland 20 years ago, I don't recall trains having to crawl through sections of track, nor coming to a stop and waiting, aside from a few minutes just outside a station. I've ridden Amtrak and these experiences are typical.

I hope that if we do put in high-speed trains that we at least give them improved, dedicated track all the way into the stations. Otherwise it's just option one above.

I hope it doesn't sound as if I don't want high-speed rail in the US. It would be great. But I think there are some necessary precursors that we need to do first.


  1. Last year my boys wanted to do some research about biking around the world. What a mound of questions we were trying to answer! Have yours showed an interest?

  2. Well, there are certainly some families who have done long tours with younger kids. I'd be glad to talk about it if they're still interested.

    E rode with me for a couple of years on the tandem, then wanted to be independent, and now is taking it more casual for a while. He does like the idea of travel and camping, but expects others to get him there.

    M is enthusiastic about biking now, so we'll see if it comes and goes or becomes a lifestyle.