high_speed_rail_1Has Amtrak abandoned its vision of 220-mile-per-hour bullet trains speeding up and down the Northeast Corridor?

The railroad recently issued draft specifications for new trains to replace its existing Acelas that call for 160 m.p.h. trains, not the 220 mph versions Amtrak said in January that it was seeking.

Read the complete story at The Inquirer.

The following message was sent to the UTU National Legislative Office from Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo:

Whenever one is discussing an ambitious, long-term program, like our high speed and intercity passenger rail program, it is helpful to remind ourselves – and others – about the original vision we committed to in 2009.

Since the very beginning, we have been executing a clearly laid out plan for a passenger rail network that includes high-speed trains, upgraded regional service, and improved connections for emerging markets. All three are interdependent and fundamental components of passenger rail operations in countries around the globe where high speed rail service is successful. This vision was announced by the president when we released our April 2009 strategic plan Vision for High Speed Rail in America

I often make the analogy to our modern highway system. In the same way you would not take an interstate highway directly to your neighborhood, one would not use a high speed train for every passenger rail trip. Our interstate system works because we have a robust network of state, county, and local roads that feed into the Interstate system. This same tiered-service concept applies to passenger rail.

With investments focused extensively in five mega-regions, we are moving forward with 152 passenger rail projects in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Nearly 50 percent of our investments are producing world-class high speed rail, some 45 percent higher-quality regional service, and the balance higher-performing feeder service. All improve the customer experience by reducing trip times, improving reliability, adding additional frequencies, or improving passenger amenities, and help build a high-performing passenger rail network. And we are doing all of this while preserving or enhancing our thriving freight rail network.

Four years ago we made a promise to deliver on a vision for a more comprehensive passenger rail network and we’re keeping that promise. By executing good project fundamentals, with the leadership of our state partners, we’ll continue to bring projects in on time and budget and advance this next generation of transportation.

The following rebuttal from the National Association of Railroad Passengers is in response to a CNN report by Anderson Cooper critical of Amtrak and high speed rail funding:

“So is Anderson Cooper still a real journalist? He headlines a daily talk show, and was swimming with crocodiles on last Sunday’s 60 Minutes. Perhaps Cooper has completely transitioned into the role of “television personality.”

“Honestly, that’s the most generous conclusion we can come up with. Because after the fact-light, context-free piece showcased on Anderson Cooper 360 last week, we have to say: if Cooper still considers himself a reporter, he is doing a very bad job of it.

“On Cooper’s show, reporter Drew Griffin attacked the High Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program as a boondoggle, contrasting the expectation of 220 mph trains that run in Europe and Asia with the projects funded in the U.S. by HSIPR.

“Griffin points to the federally funded improvements to the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades service (Portland, Oregon – Seattle, Washington – Vancouver, British Columbia) as an example of everything that’s wrong with the HSIPR program. In his “analysis,” Griffin states that $800 million was spent to bring about a ten-minute reduction in trip time.

“But that’s not true.

“Yes, there was a ten-minute reduction in trip time. However, the $800 million also paid for infrastructure upgrades that push on time performance above 88 percent and added two additional daily round trips between Portland and Seattle. While Paula Hammond, former head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, briefly mentions more roundtrips on camera, it’s never even acknowledged by Griffin. That’s right: the money will go to purchasing a new train set and new locomotives, increasing daily roundtrips from four to six, and Anderson Cooper didn’t even mention it! (Not incidentally, these train sets are being built in the U.S. by American workers. This investment is leading to a revival in U.S. manufacturing of rail equipment.)

“Griffin also repeatedly states that there’s nothing to show for the $12 billion spent on high speed rail. In addition to being disrespectful to communities that have directly benefited from the many improvements to conventional speed train service (such as: Illinois, Vermont, Michigan, the entire Northeast Corridor, and so on), it’s also flat out wrong, because only 15 percent of the $12 billion has been spent so far.

“There are many reasons for this. As a result of the U.S. investing so little in passenger rail over the past 50 years, a lot of the HSIPR program had to be built from the ground up, a process that has taken time. The projects have also been the victim of political squabbling, with Republican governors killing rail expansion projects – conventional and high speed – in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. (In a twist of fate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reversed course and applied for a HSIPR rail grant in the next round of applications, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is supporting All Aboard Florida’s Miami-Orlando train, a service which would have benefited immensely from the Orlando-Tampa rail corridor Scott killed).

“California’s San Francisco-Los Angeles high speed train – which will travel at speeds of more than 200 mph – is facing many of these political hurdles. But it is moving forward in spite of the political opposition, with construction scheduled to start this very summer. Construction will also ramp up on HSIPR projects in the Midwest and Northeast, creating good jobs for the U.S. construction workers, an industry which is still lagging behind in the recovery. New orders for train equipment will continue to benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector.

“Griffin and Cooper’s main objection seems to be the gulf between what they imagined when President Obama talked about high speed trains, and the reality of what $12 billion can buy. Their main failing, then, is understanding that infrastructure – whether it be rails or roads, bridges or sewers – is expensive. Unfortunately, with an estimated $3.6 trillion in investment needed in the U.S. between now and 2020, there are no $12 billion silver bullets.

“This country is still pursuing the 200 mph train service President Obama spoke of – in the Northeast Corridor and in California. But unless we start investing on levels commensurate with what the Chinese have spent on their high speed rail network – $451 billion to $602 billion between 2011 and 2015 alone – the rest of the country will progress in increments of 10 minute reductions here, and an additional frequency there.

“But if you ask a potential Cascades passenger, someone who drives on Interstate 5, where bumper-to-bumper traffic can often stretch 60 miles south of Seattle, past Tacoma to the state capital of Olympia, 10 minutes and another frequency would be enough.”

WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s vision for high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor gained a significant boost May 9 when the Federal Railroad Administration redistributed to Amtrak $795 million of some $2 billion in high-speed rail grants previously rejected by Florida.

Portions of that grant money also were distributed to 15 states that have plans for high-speed and higher-speed rail.

The funds come from unobligated amounts appropriated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which has not been affected by recent congressional budget cuts. That law, intended to stimulate the economy at the depth of the current recession, provided some $10 billion for rail projects. Some $6 billion of that $10 billion has now been distributed.

Some of the funds directed to Amtrak May 9 are earmarked for 24 miles of Northeast Corridor track in central New Jersey — between New Brunswick and Morrisville — to be upgraded to handle 160-mph train operations. The current top speed over that segment is 135 mph via Amtrak’s Acela trains.

The Northeast Corridor connects Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Midwest states will receive $404 million to upgrade tracks between Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis for 110-mph passenger-train operations. Work already has begun — as part of a joint project among Union Pacific, Amtrak and the FRA — to upgrade tracks between Chicago and St. Louis to 110 mph for passenger-trains.

California will receive $300 million toward initial construction in the Central Valley of a planned high-speed line linking Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Following is a breakdown of the grant allocations:

Northeast Corridor

  • $450 million to Amtrak to improve NEC track, and power, signal and catenary systems in one of the corridor’s most heavily traveled areas, creating a 24-mile segment of track that can handle 160 mph train operations.
  • $295 million to New York to build new routes that enable Amtrak trains to bypass the Harold Interlocking in Queens on Long Island — one of the country’s busiest passenger-rail junctions.
  • $25 million to Rhode Island to design and construct an additional 1.5 miles of third track in Kingston, enabling trains operating at speeds up to 150 mph to pass other trains on a high-volume section of the corridor.
  • $22 million to Maryland to conduct engineering and environmental work to replace the century-old Susquehanna River Bridge.
  • $3 million to Rhode Island to conduct preliminary engineering and environmental work to renovate the Providence Station.

Northeast Region

  • $58 million to New York to upgrade tracks, stations and signals along the Empire Corridor, including replacing the Schenectady Station and constructing a fourth station track at the Albany-Rensselaer Station.
  • $40 million to Pennsylvania to rebuild an interlocking near Harrisburg on the Keystone Corridor.
  • $30 million to Connecticut to build double-track segments between New Haven and Springfield.
  • $20.8 million to Maine and Massachusetts to construct a 10.4-mile section of double track between Wilmington and Andover, Mass., improving service along Amtrak’s Downeaster route.
  • $1.4 million to New York to conduct preliminary engineering and environmental reviews for a new Rochester intermodal station along the Empire Corridor.

Regional Equipment Pools

  • $268.2 million to Midwest states to purchase 48 high-performance passenger cars and seven quick-acceleration locomotives for eight corridors in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri.
  • $68 million to California to acquire 15 high-performance passenger cars and four “uick-acceleration locomotives for the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol corridors.

Midwestern Region

  • $196.5 million to Michigan to rehabilitate track and signal systems between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, bringing train speeds up to 110 mph along a 235-mile section of track.
  • $186.3 million to Illinois to construct track along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor between Dwight and Joliet to accommodate 110 mph trains.
  • $13.5 million to Missouri to advance design work to replace the Merchant’s Bridge over the Mississippi River along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.
  • $5 million to Minnesota to complete engineering and environmental work to establish the Northern Lights Express, which would connect Minneapolis and Duluth with 110 mph trains.
  • $2.8 million to Michigan to conduct an engineering and environmental analysis to construct a new station in Ann Arbor.

Southern Region

  • $15 million to Texas to conduct engineering and environmental work to develop a high-speed rail corridor linking Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston.
  • $4 million to North Carolina to conduct an environmental analysis of the Richmond-Raleigh section of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corirdor.

California and the Northwest Region

  • $300 million to the California High Speed Rail Authority to extend construction on the Central Valley corridor by another 20 miles, from Fresno to the Wye junction, which will provide a connection to San Jose to the west and Merced to the north.
  • $15 million to Washington state to construct a Port of Vancouver grade separation, which will eliminate a congested intersection and bottleneck between freight and passenger tracks.
  • $1.5 million for analysis of overnight parking tracks for passenger trains on the southern end of the Pacific Northwest Corridor at the Port of Vancouver, adding new capacity for increased passenger and freight-rail service.
  • $15 million to eliminate a congested intersection and bottleneck between freight and passenger tracks along the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor at Eugene, Ore., by elevating one set of tracks over the other.