[guest post by JVW]
My contempt for people who sell fanciful public work pipe dreams knows no regional boundaries. Today, we saw the witless United States Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Murphy, indulge in the ever-popular progressive “[Europe/Asia/Canada] has [insert massive public spending initiative here], so why can’t we?” line of reasoning. This time, he channelled Jerry Brown’s obsession with the lickety-split choo-choo train:
You don't have to look hard to figure out why China is gaining on us so rapidly.
Beijing to Shanghai
– distance: 800 miles
– train time: 4.3 hours
Boston to DC
– distance: 440 miles
– train time: 7 hours
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) May 11, 2021
Why not a bullet train, Senator? Well, let’s go over the logistics. Sen. Murphy doesn’t tell us what he thinks would be a proper amount of time for passage from Beantown to the Beltway, so let’s go ahead and grant that he probably doesn’t expect it to be the Beijing-Shanghai standard of a mean velocity of nearly 200 mph along the route. Let’s instead assume that he thinks the current travel time of roughly seven hours (ranging from 6:46 on the morning Acela up to 9:30 on the overnight Regional) from South Station to Union Station ought to be whittled down to a more reasonable four hours, meaning that the train should maintain an average speed of 110 miles per hour. One should note that Sen. Murphy’s estimation of 440 miles as the distance between the two cities is based upon the shortest possible drive which takes one through Central Massachusetts then down through Central Connecticut, but the reality of the current Amtrak route, which goes down through Providence then along the coast of the Long Island Sound, is that it is closer to 460 miles. So really a train along that route would need to average 115 mph.
Of course the train has to stop to pick-up and drop-off passengers along the way, and thus has to decelerate into train stations before arriving to a full stop and then start again from that full stop and accelerate back up to top speed on the way out. Furthermore, some of the time will obviously have to be spent sitting stationary at the — uh, well — station as passengers de-board and board the train. Currently the Acela takes the following route: Boston to New Haven to New York to Philadelphia to Wilmington to Washington. That is four intermediary stops, so estimating that deceleration into each station, exchanging passengers, then accelerating back out of each station would cost five minutes each (probably at a minimum) for a grand total of 20 minutes, we’re now talking about covering that distance in-between stations at a slightly faster clip to make up for that lost time, bringing us up to 125 mph.
Let’s put that into perspective. The high-speed train from Boston to DC would now need to travel at 125 miles per hour (over 200 kilometers per hour), through cities populated with Sen. Murphy’s constituents such as New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, East River, Guilford, Milford, Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Norwalk, Darien, Cos Cob, Riverside, Stamford, and Greenwich. How many Connecticut moms do you think would be psyched by the prospect of a high-speed train hurtling through their cities past their homes, schools, playgrounds, workplaces, and churches? It’s true that high-speed train derailments are rare, but they aren’t entirely unheard of, and all it takes is for one to happen in an urban or suburban location and suddenly those trains will thereafter be required to crawl through those locations like elderly turtles wearing brand-new cowboy boots. And I only covered communities in Connecticut. I highly doubt that suburbanites and city dwellers are going to want trains passing through at 125 mph in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or the District of Columbia either.
So could we build the high-speed rail line in a different route, perhaps the one through Central Massachusetts and Central Connecticut which would be save some time and affect fewer communities? Why sure we can. After all, even if we tried to use the coastal route, we would still have to lay down separate high-speed rail track, and we would have the huge conundrum (frankly an impossibility) of laying it in such a way that regular freight and commuter rail lines did not cross over it thus causing delays from time to time. Maybe we build the line from Boston to Hartford to New York to Philadelphia to Washington DC (ok, ok, President Biden: we’ll add in a fucking Wilmington stop just for you) and try our hardest to minimize passage through other urban/suburban areas. But of course this is the Northeast we’re talking about, so it’s not as if there are miles and miles of wide-open spaces we can work with. This alternate route would still probably see the train passing through small towns throughout Southern Massachusetts and Northern Connecticut, then after it left Hartford there’s no real way I can see to avoid running though twee Western Connecticut communities. And once you get anywhere near New York City you can absolutely forget finding open uninhabited spaces, with things not improving much on the route from New York to Philadelphia/Wilmington. From there you would have to route the train through Northeast Maryland to avoid having to slow down through Baltimore, and the high-speed rail line would have to go through the Chesapeake Bay on its way to Washington. Civil engineers, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Let’s also not overlook the fact that by deliberately avoiding passing through large metropolitan centers we are limiting our potential ridership. It seems unlikely to me that a rider in Providence heading to New York would take a 50 minute commuter rail ride up to Boston to catch the high-speed train, nor would they bother to ride to Hartford or New Haven and change trains just to go high-speed on those last 115 miles to Gotham. So you would likely be left with a ridership that is overwhelming within 20 miles of Boston, Hartford/New Haven (depending upon what the final route is), New York, and Washington. Does America really need to subsidize another money-losing venture just to make Chris Murphy and Joe Biden feel good around their Chinese counterparts?
It fits nicely within the noble tradition of the American can-do spirit to imagine running high-speed rail throughout our great country, but the sad reality is that the intersection of rail lines which might see profitable passenger traffic and rail lines which don’t traverse through densely-populated parts of the country is very small indeed. The lessons we have so bitterly learned throughout the whole California High Speed Rail Authority fiasco ought to be contemplated by the bullet train aficionados in other parts of the country, since it seems clear that what has vexed California HSR would come into play just as readily with a Northeastern version of that ugly boondoggle. (I mean, if we can’t even purchase land rights for rail track between Bakersfield and Merced, how are we going to do so between New Haven and New York?) But we’re in the era of stupid people and stupid capital, so it won’t at all surprise me if part of the Joe Biden legacy is a money pit similar to what Senator Murphy is teasing.