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High Speed Rail’s Baseline Scenario

With negotiations ongoing between the federal government and freight railroads over what the rules will be as states plan to implement high speed rail on their tracks, it worth looking comprehensively at the state of passenger service in the nation today and its operator, Amtrak.

There is, after all, $8 billion in play.

Fortunately, author James McCommons has tackled this task by spending a year riding Amtrak routes all across the country and interviewing the regulators, advocates, and businessmen who impact that service along the way.

His book, Waiting on a Train, paints a bleak picture. And it's not just the usual story of passenger trains delayed by freights and car shortages, though those are among the reasons the Coast Starlight, running from Los Angeles to Seattle, is not-so-fondly known as the “Coast Star-Late.”  

What’s truly illuminating are his interviews with executives from CSX and BNSF on their views of passenger rail and his exposition of how Federal Railroad Administration regulations slow down the quasi-high speed Acela Northeast Corridor service (hint: it’s not just the grade crossings but also dual locomotives and reinforced floors make these trains heavy and slower than they need to be).

Of course some of the routes he rides will never be candidates for high speed service--if we rigorously analyze costs and benefits and get the assumptions right.

There’s probably too much discussion of Amtrak food in the book, but it’s probably inevitable given a (dyspeptic) year spent in its cafes and dining cars. Here’s hoping high speed service on shorter routes could obviate the need for on-board microwaved sustenance, though perhaps we’ll see a renaissance of the bar car.