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January 2012

Rail News: Passenger Rail

New APTA report is a lesson in anti-HSR rhetoric


Need help countering the claims of the anti-high-speed-rail crowd? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) may have just the thing.

Issued earlier this month, “An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail with Suggested Responses and Counterpoints” was developed to help APTA members respond to the myths and criticisms about high-speed rail that are not based in fact, says Art Guzzetti, APTA’s vice president of policy.

“We’re trying to arm the professionals with the facts,” he says.

The report states that many of HSR’s criticisms often come from the same individuals and/or sources — such as the Research Foundation, Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation — and repeat the same points about why various HSR proposals can’t or won’t work in the United States.

The report groups the criticisms into eight categories, some of which APTA says are “incredibly contradictory of each other.” Under each category, APTA details the critics’ charges against HSR, and then offers rebuttals.

For example, to the critics’ charge that an expansion of intercity passenger rail would serve only a small, “elite” group of people, APTA responds: “There is no question that intercity passenger rail in the United States presently does serve the smallest share of riders among all modes of passenger transportation. But … that picture is changing. In the Northeast Corridor, intercity trains enjoy a market share almost equal to the airlines, and nationally, ridership on Amtrak is at all-time high.”

In another example, the report notes that many critics claim “no one supports high-speed rail” and cite as proof the decision by governors in three states to return federal HSR grants.

To that claim, APTA responds in part: “To date, 23 states (excluding the three that returned theirs) have received rail stimulus funding, and each of them has made every effort to capture all or a portion of the more than $3 billion Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio returned to the Federal Railroad Administration following the governors’ denouncement of the rail initiative. And in a real twist of irony, Gov. [Scott] Walker of Wisconsin has reapplied for a portion of the funding he turned back.”

In addition, APTA says a poll it commissioned in December 2010 in which 62 percent of the 24,711 American adults surveyed said they would “definitely or probably use high-speed rail service for leisure or business travel if it were an option.”

Although some criticisms of HSR have been constructive — such as those coming from groups or individuals with questions or concerns about specific HSR projects in their communities — other objections have been generalized statements that too often misrepresent the truth, says Guzzetti. And many objections to HSR are similar to the myths about public transportation that APTA worked to dispel in an educational initiative a decade ago, he adds.

Only recently has intercity passenger rail become a partisan political issue, Guzzetti says, and the report notes that in the past, intercity passenger rail has been supported on both sides of the political aisle. As an example, he cites the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 under President George W. Bush, and the $8 billion in high-speed rail funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 under President Barack Obama.

Guzzetti attributed some of the anti-HSR rhetoric to the general nature of U.S. politics today; nearly every issue, it seems, is subject to partisan debate. But, adding to the HSR opposition is confusion and/or misunderstanding over what constitutes “high-speed” rail in the United States, he says.

“The concept really is about high-performance intercity passenger rail in the corridors,” Guzzetti says. “In many cases, we’re not talking about 220 mph trains, we’re talking about 110- or 90-mph trains. If you have a corridor that has a lot of curves or frequent stops, you’re not going to get to 220 mph.”

 But 110 mph “is still pretty darn fast,” he says, and that’s all the speed a corridor might need to offer travelers a viable option to air or automobile travel when making regional intercity trips.  

U.S. high-speed rail will be in the spotlight this summer when The International Union of Railways (UIC) presents the World Congress on High Speed Rail in Philadelphia. This year's event, which will be hosted by UIC and APTA, marks the first time the conference will be held in the United States.

The conference will bring together international passenger-rail representatives to exchange information on the successes and setbacks of HSR systems.

In preparing for the conference, APTA officials have learned other countries have faced similar challenges — the practical and the political — when it comes to building HSR, Guzzetti says.

“They have had the same project issues … and they ask us, ‘Who told you it was going to be easy?’” Guzzetti says. “But after they get through those hurdles, the countries that have high-speed rail are happy that they have it.”

In the meantime, APTA will continue to make its case for HSR. In spring, the association plans to release another report; this one will explain APTA’s position on why the United States will need HSR to help alleviate road and air-traffic congestion in urban areas over the next several decades as the nation’s population grows.

— Julie Sneider


Browse articles on American Public Transportation Association "An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail with Suggested Responses and Counterpoints " Art Guzzetti Scott Walker The International Union of Railways World Congress on High Speed Rail

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