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The High Degree of Difficulty for High Speed Rail

Christian Wolmar’s recent New York Times piece advocating a major Amtrak Acela corridor upgrade and an AP file datelined Buena Park, California are illustrative when it comes to the hurdles facing the nation in building high speed rail.

In the Times, Wolmar argues that Acela should be made into a sort of demonstration project to truly achieve high speeds. That would involve straightening tracks, improving the catenary power supply, and eliminating grade crossings at substantial cost. As it stands, Acela competes with air travel in the Northeast corridor almost solely on an amenity basis—more comfort and less hassle in the post-9/11 security environment—and not on speed.

The outcome of such an investment, Wolmar contends, would be an example of true high speed train travel to hold out to the nation in an effort to develop new corridors, instead of the federal money spread across the nation last month.

At least in the Northeast, Amtrak and state governments own the actual rails. That’s generally not true in most of the country, where Amtrak and commuter train services run under agreements with freight railroads.

Freight railroads hold tremendous sway under federal interstate commerce law--recall the dispute over hazardous train cargo through Washington, D.C.--and routinely delay passenger trains in favor of their own hoppers, containers, and box cars.

So in Buena Park, along the route of California’s high speed rail project, local leaders are facing the prospect of the creation of a dedicated right-of-way that would destroy either an extent commuter rail station or transit-oriented development… for a train that won’t stop there.

Said the area’s congresswoman, Democrat Rep. Grace Napolitano, in the piece, "The rail lines are already there, parking is already there, your transportation hub is already there and now they say they want to move it and build another one. It just does not make one bit of sense.”

Degree of difficulty? High.