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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

USHSR Chicago conference conversation: HSR benefits, politics and marketing


The U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s (USHSR) sixth conference in 18 months was held in Chicago last week, and it started off the same way the other five have: with a session called “Bringing High Speed Rail to America.”

Association President and Chief Executive Officer Andy Kunz began the June 2 opening session by providing an overview of USHSR’s vision for a 17,000-mile nationwide high-speed rail (HSR) network by 2030. He followed with a rundown of HSR’s benefits: shorter total trip times and less hassle than flying and driving, direct connections to downtowns and energy efficiency. In addition, HSR can solve problems related to energy, climate, the economy and crumbling infrastructure.

No need to explain HSR’s benefits to the 100 or so conference attendees — the majority of which work for rail industry engineering or consulting firms, suppliers or contractors. But Kunz’s comparison of how the U.S. traveler makes short-haul trips vs. a European traveler painted a picture of why the United States needs HSR — now. As Kunz put it, by the time an American drives through traffic congestion to get to the airport, makes it through security, sits on the runway while their often-delayed plane gets the go-ahead for take-off, makes it to the next airport and then battles with more traffic congestion to get to their final destination, the European traveler has used a mix of local, commuter and high-speed services to reach their destination quickly and has been relaxing in a café for three hours.

The opening session also featured a speech by Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo. He, too, compared U.S. travel to European travel, saying the distance between Paris and London is comparable to the distance between Raleigh, N.C., and Washington, D.C. The difference is that Europeans can travel between the two cities in two hours, 15 minutes using HSR, while rail service between Raleigh and D.C. takes more than six hours.

“What is a day business trip in Paris is impossible in Raleigh-D.C.,” he said. “When the president talks about competing globally, this is what he’s talking about.”

Using federal High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail grants, the North Carolina Department of Transportation is making rail upgrades that will eventually make a day trip to D.C. possible, Szabo says. Many other states are counting on HSR to increase efficiency and competitiveness, too.

For example, in the Northeast Corridor, HSR can take the place of “costly and capacity-hogging puddle jumper flights” so airlines can focus on providing more of the money-making long-distance and international flights, Szabo said.

In Chicago, congestion on Interstate 55 starts as far south as Joliet. Coupled with $4.50 gas in the Chicagoland area and the $25 a day it costs to park downtown, many people are deeming their trip to Chicago as unnecessary, which is hurting the economy, Szabo said. Once the state completes its HSR line between Chicago and St. Louis, people can take the train into the city while reading or surfing the Internet, and use the money they otherwise would have spent on gas and parking on Chicago hotels, restaurants and theaters.

More HSR expertise needed
For USHSR conference-goers, those benefits are obvious. The issue now is getting those HSR systems in place. And, as one attendee asked Szabo, how can the cumbersome process to develop HSR be streamlined so the projects can go from vision to reality more quickly?

Szabo’s response? “There is no shortcut to doing things right. The difference of where we’re at building rail today vs. highways is that we have 70 years of experience building highways, a lot of technical experience with state DOTs and with the Federal Highway Administration,” he said. “To a great extent, we’re starting from scratch when it comes to rail, so state DOTs are struggling with having technical expertise with rail projects.”
Szabo also recounted a conversation he recently had with a professor from the Univeristy of Illinois, who said there will be a shortage of rail engineers. Although the size of the university’s rail engineering program has doubled recently, it’s only gone from 15 to 30 students, the professor said.

In a similar vein, USHSR Vice President of Government Affairs Thomas Hart asked Szabo what could be done to expedite the HSR procurement process.

“There is no silver bullet that would replace good, old-fashioned hard work, conscientious effort and breaking down the learning curve,” Szabo said.

And again, the program’s expedition will depend in part on the expertise that’s available. That expertise runs the gamut; for example, one state has more than 60 people in its rail department while a neighboring state has half a person dedicated to rail, Szabo said. State DOTS and the FRA need to continue ramping up staff, but that’ll be a challenge with tight budgets, he said.

“I’ve been pushing my staff very hard for two years,” Szabo added.

He also briefly addressed the Florida situation, saying he wasn’t surprised that some states rejected their federal HSR funds.

“While Florida was a disappointment, I think everybody had to realize going into this that when the first announcements were made, there was going to be a rationalization among those announcements,” he said. “While many states were given the opportunity to move forward, we knew there would be a shake-out between those that are serious about moving forward and those that aren’t, and now we’re seeing who really is serious about this.”

The USHSR conference also featured a presentation by Amtrak Vice President of High-Speed Rail Al Engel, who talked about HSR in the Midwest and Amtrak’s plans for the Northeast Corridor. Another presentation focused on results from a HSR study conducted by Siemens for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association that outlined the benefits that 220 mph rail service would have on the region.

During the Q&A session following the Midwest study presentation, conversation turned to HSR opposition.

“We have to respect our opponents’ ability to get arguments out quickly and make them hard to defend,” said Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish. “We’ve seen a very effective way of picking off one project at a time to make some noise in the press that makes sense if you don’t know enough about it. It’s a very well-organized campaign. I wish we had that on our end.”

To combat the opposition, HSR supporters need to work to build a much stronger case for high-speed in the United States and be “squeaky” (as in, the squeaky wheel gets the oil) with elected officials, said Harnish.

Stakeholders and supporters also need to do a better job of debunking myths about and explaining the benefits of HSR.

“A county road doesn’t make money, but we still invest in it because of the economic development it provides,” said Siemens Industry Inc. Mobility Division Director of High Speed Rail Development Armin Kick when asked about HSR’s profitability potential during the Midwest HSR study panel.

Added an audience member:
“We need to get elected officials to understand … it’s not a matter of whether or not a high-speed rail system makes money from ticket revenue – we’re talking about $300 billion of economic development in the Midwest.”

An image issue
The discussion set the stage for the next session — “Politics, Public Relations, Media” — during which Association for Public Transportation President Richard Arena talked about how to market HSR.

“We have some of the smartest people in this room, but we do a lot of talking to ourselves within this room, and we need to get out and sell high-speed rail to the American taxpayers,” he said.

But first, HSR stakeholders need to address high speed’s imaging issue. The average American doesn’t know what high-speed rail is, and there’s a huge discrepancy between their perception of HSR (bullet trains) and reality (faster Amtrak serivce). HSR project managers and supporters need to figure out exactly what type of service they’ll be providing, what they’ll be competing with (automobiles and/or planes) and create a supporting argument for HSR accordingly.

Among Arena’s points:
• “We need to push the benefits, not the features, and explain these direct benefits to non-HSR users. You put in high-speed rail, and that’s the equivalent of putting lanes on a highway or slots in an airport, so the benefit to people is that their commute times go down.”

• “We need to de-couple HSR from the environmental strategy. Some of the people we ened to have support us are the soccer moms, the executives living out in the ’burbs who want to dend their kids to a good school and not be demonized for it.”

• “We need to de-emphasize the price of oil and its importance as it relates to developing HSR. We don’t know where things will be in five years — where oil prices will be, what other technologies might be developed. The danger of overemphasizing oil prices is that if prices go way down, people will say we don’t need HSR anymore.”

Arena also touched on the cancelled HSR (or HSR-related) projects that have been cancelled in New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, giving his thoughts on why each of the projects were cancelled. Republican governors weren’t the only factor, he said.

• New Jersey’s Access to the Region’s Core: “ARC’s cost from $8 billion to almost $14 billion and dropped people off in the middle of nowhere.”

• Florida’s Tampa-Orlando project: “Tampa-Orlando-Miami? There’s no way Gov. Scott could have stopped that project. But for the Tampa-Orlando leg, at 85 miles with three stops in the middle, it gave the opposition the ammunition they needed to kill it. Even though everyone knew it would eventually go to Miami, it wasn’t enough.”

• Ohio’s 3C Corridor: “Somebody foolishly published a timetable. Somebody did the math. The average speed to Cincinnati was 39 mph. That’s all it took. Could it have been fixed? Sure, this was just a first step, but you don’t get a second chance sometimes.”

• Wisconsin’s Milwaukee-Madison project: “This one was purely political.”

The cancelled projects serve as a reminder that no matter how important a project might be, HSR supporters can never assume that those outside the industry understand that importance. And even if they do, there’s no guarantee that taxpayers and legislators will be willing to fund those projects.

“How unwavering are our current rail allies?” Arena asked. “Sometimes, you have to test your theories.”

For example, if HSR is pitted against programs such as Medicare or affordable housing, you can bet that a legislator will choose to fund one of those programs over HSR.

“The support we think we have for rail in general is not as strong as we think,” he said. “That said, we have a very strong business case. But we need to broaden the marketing.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 6/6/2011