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The Obama administration is trying to jump start the development of high speed passenger trains in the U.S. Diane and guests discuss the controversy over projects planned in California and Florida.
- Robert Puentes senior fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution.
- Patricia Reilly vice president, communications, Association of American Railroads.
- Kevin Coates executive director, North American Maglev Transport Institute.
- Roy Kienitz under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Federal and state authorities in California have committed about $5.5 billion for the initial stretch of the nation's first high-speed rail line. The Obama administration wants to jump-start a high-speed passenger train network in the U.S. But there is opposition to the route in California and concern over feasibility and cost nationwide. Here to talk about the administration's vision for a high-speed rail is Roy Kienitz, under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
MS. DIANE REHMAlso in the studio, Patricia Reilly, she's with the Association of American Railroads, and Robert Puentes of The Brookings Institution. Do join us, please, with your comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. ROY KIENITZGood morning.
MR. ROBERT PUENTESGood morning.
MS. PATRICIA REILLYGood morning, Diane.
REHMRoy Kienitz, if I could start with you. Tell me how you define high-speed.
KIENITZWell, there's a couple of ways to do that. One is literally by the speed. I think the world standard, generally, is something north of 150 miles an hour is high-speed rail. We have one train in America, which is the Acela Express, which goes from, you know, Washington to New York to Boston. And for a couple of minutes there in Central New Jersey, it hits 150 miles an hour. So it's -- you know, we have broken the barrier ever so slightly. However, what the world experienced in Japan and Europe has found -- is that the speed itself, the peak speed, is not the important thing.
KIENITZThe important thing is serving major economic centers in an amount of time which allows you to get up in the morning, go to that other place, do a day at work and come back. And that, generally, is in the two-hour range. So if you've got two big cities that are very far apart, you might need to go 200 miles an hour to get that two-hour node. But if those bigger cities are less far apart, you don't need to do 200 miles an hour. You just need to be able to get there in -- or near around two hours.
REHMWho set that two-hour criterion?
KIENITZThis is really just sort of an amalgamation of worldwide experience over the last 40 years. I mean, the Japanese started this in the '60s. You know, Charles de Gaulle declared in 1968 -- I think it was -- you know, that we're going to have the first one in Europe here, and, you know, it took him 10 to 12 years to get the thing going. And so there's now a generation of experience -- it's just not a generation of experience in the United States. And that's really the thing we're facing here, which is there is a huge amount of knowledge about high-speed rail. It's just not in America. And so the skepticism we're encountering here is really the skepticism of, you know, what are you talking about? I've never seen this before, except in people who have traveled to Europe and traveled to Japan and ridden it, and then the light bulb goes off.
REHMAnd, of course, now, China has its own high-speed rail system, going how fast?
KIENITZWell, their new train that they've just unveiled, I think, is going to do 220 miles an hour. You know, they're doing this in the way that they kind of do everything, which is, you know, push all the chips in the middle of the table, kind of no rules. You know, they're going to lay down more high-speed rail in five years than, you know, anyone else has done in 20 years. And, you know, wouldn't it be wonderful to emulate that? But that's just not our system.
REHMRoy Kienitz, he's under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Robert Puentes, in your view, is high-speed rail on track for going now?
PUENTESI think it is. And I think -- I mean, we'll start with just a general proposition. We know that, historically, infrastructure is tightly connected to the economic health of this country. We've seen it with the railroads in the 19th century, the interstate highways in the 20th century, telecommunication here in the 21st century. All of those significant investments in infrastructure are connected with productive economic growth of this country. So the conversation we need to be having now is about what kind of economy is going to emerge from the rubble of this recession, and infrastructure is a key piece of that. But we need to think about high-speed rail -- and all of these infrastructure investments -- in the proper context.
PUENTESWe can't be religious about it. We can't just do it because another country has it. We need to think about where these investments make sense and how we can connect those investments to the economic recovery of this country. I think Roy is exactly right, that the places that matter -- these metropolitan areas are economic engines. Connecting those places, enabling people, goods, ideas to move very freely and quickly is part of that economic recovery. No doubt about it.
REHMHow much would it cost to lay down rail for high-speed rail, per mile?
PUENTESIt all depends -- I mean, Roy exactly is right. It depends on how you consider these things. Here in the Northeast Corridor, between New York and Washington and Boston, we already have a lot of that infrastructure in place. A lot of that has to be fundamentally rebuilt. Massive investments of rebuilding, tunnels under Baltimore, I mean, huge investments that we have to make. The thing with high-speed rail and many other cases is that, look, it's got to be straight. It's got to be flat, right. So you've got to eat up a lot of land cost and things like that. So it really depends on the specific project. But, look, these are very large investments. And they're going to require a lot of money, and it's going to require a lot of political will to get it done.
REHMRobert Puentes, he's senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. And turning to you, Patricia Reilly, what's the relationship between freight and passenger rail today?
REILLYWell, I think a lot of people are very surprised when they learn that about 97 percent of the track here in the United States -- that's about a 140,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the country -- is owned by the freight rails. And so the majority of these faster trains are going to operate on freight rail tracks, tracks that already exist and are there and are carrying the goods that you and I use every single day. So the challenge is going to be to find the right balance between bringing more passengers onto the tracks where freight rail already exists.
REHMBut I don't understand what you have said in regard to what Robert Puentes has said. He said, you've got to lay down new tracks. They've got to be straight. They've got to be flat. Aren't freight rails that now?
REILLYNo. And I think that's an important distinction. And it goes back what was said earlier, it depends how fast the trains are going to go. Truly high-speed rail needs dedicated, concealed tracks. Think of yourself as a highway. If you have racing cars going by, you know, people who are doing daily errands, and they're going by at 120 miles an hour, you need dedicated roads where -- for safety reasons above all else -- they don't mix with the slower moving cars. That is the truth when it comes to high-speed rail.
REILLYYou need a dedicated, you know, contained track. And that is what's going to cost a lot of money to build from scratch. Much of what's been proposed has been proposed to be overlaid on existing railroad track, which is already there, and those are owned by the freight rail. So we are all over the country, talking with different states and different entities to work out agreements for high-speed rail projects.
REHMSo we -- talking about ability? Or are we talking about politics?
REILLYI think you're talking about a host of things, to be honest with you, Diane. You know, first and foremost, we're concerned about, you know, making sure the customers, like UPS -- who turn to us because we are reliable and affordable and dependable -- continue to turn to us to deliver the goods. And so as we see more passenger trains coming onto the freight rail tracks, we want to strike the right balance between, you know, what the UPSs (sp?) of the world need versus what passengers are looking for as well.
REHMPatricia Reilly of the Association of American Railroads. The lines are open. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Roy Kienitz, I want to come back to you because, as you've said, Americans have been traveling to Japan, to China, to Europe. They have seen all of this high-speed rail. They've ridden it, and they're saying, what is the matter with us? Why are we behind China? Why can't we develop what Europe has developed without all of these questions about freight versus passenger? Why can't we just do it?
KIENITZI think it's two things. The biggest and most important one is 50 or 60 or 70 years ago, America had a real consciousness and a habit of doing big things. And you could state a big goal, and people would say, yes, let's do that. And that was a -- it was a cultural habit, but it was also financially possible. And some of those things have changed. And it's partly, I think, our state of mind has changed, which we're not doing big things anymore. It's been a generation and since we have really done big things like that.
KIENITZBut the other thing is that our fiscal situation of the government just -- there is not the capacity, or at least there has not been the capacity, and that's really what we're trying to change in this administration. We're trying to say, let's set aside a large enough amount of money that we can really do this project. 'Cause we're not going to do it on the scale of the Chinese, at least not right away. That'll take a generation.
REHMAnd how far is $10 billion going to take us?
KIENITZWell, yeah, we've started with about $10 billion. That's going to get the project in California going quite smartly. It's going to get a project in Florida going quite smartly, and a bunch of more sort of medium speed things where we going to take, you know, much older freight rail track, which has been used to carrying freight trains at modest speeds and upgrade it so it can carry those freight trains sufficiently, but also passenger trains at medium speed.
REHMAnd what's the objections -- what are the objections in Florida and California, Robert?
PUENTESWell, as Roy said, with all of these big projects, they're going to run into some controversy someplace, especially when you're trying to run big infrastructure projects through existing places. And this is the challenge we have in many metropolitan areas, whether it's a highway line, whether it's a light-rail line, whether it's a high-speed line. We're going to have to deal with these problems as the nation matures, as these metropolitan areas -- we're trying to retrofit a lot of these metro areas with a lot of this rail. But as Roy said, the financial, the fiscal problems are paramount right now.
REHMRobert Puentes of the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. And we'll take a short break here. When we come back, more conversation, your calls included.
REHMAnd joining us now by phone is Kevin Coates. He is executive director of the North American Maglev Transport Institute. Good morning to you, sir.
MR. KEVIN COATESGood morning, everyone.
REHMKevin, tell us about Maglev. What is it?
COATESWell, first of all, I guess I might say that Maglev is not a train. Everybody refers to Maglev Transport as train technology. It probably has more in common with aerospace technology. There's no wheels. It's frictionless. It accelerates very fast. It decelerates quickly. And most importantly, and what's not being mentioned by high-speed rail advocates, is that it has extremely low maintenance. And maintenance problems and maintenance costs are really what are the bugaboo of high-speed rail. And I need only point to the Washington Metro System's headaches right -- you know, which is a 40-year-old system.
REHMI understand that Maglev has been operative in Shanghai for, what, the last eight years?
COATESOfficially, they -- well, they started construction in early 2001, but the system was commissioned in March of 2004. And it has run a 99.97 percent on time to the second since then, and they run about 110 trips a day.
REHMAnd how fast does it go?
COATESWell, it runs to -- it gets up to 267 miles per hour for about 50 seconds in the middle of the trip. But it's only a 19-mile long track, so you have to accelerate quickly and decelerate before you get to your next station. It's really -- the system has really been designed as an inter-city -- the pre-eminent inter-city connector system.
REHMAnd what about the cost of construction?
COATESWell, in Shanghai -- I actually wrote an article in Civil Engineering Magazine about this very subject in November of 2004. And at that time -- with the information that I have -- the number came in at around $60 million a mile, and that included tracks, that included the station, you know, the interest on the loans -- everything. But since then, the German government put $120 million into finding ways to reduce the cost of building Maglev. And now, through the efforts of some German engineering firms, they have figured out ways to dramatically reduce the cost of the system.
COATESSo, now, they're down to around $30 to $40 million per mile, but the most important thing is not just the cost per mile. What nobody is talking about here is the life cycle cost of these systems. If you build a system that's cheap but it cost you an exorbitant amount of money every year to operate and maintain, after 10 years, you're losing your lunch. It's not worth building. And the beauty of a Maglev system is, whether you're running the system at 30 miles an hour or 300 miles an hour, your maintenance costs stay about the same because it's non-contact technology.
REHMNow, Roy Kienitz, I gather you have actually ridden the Maglev line.
KIENITZYeah, I rode it in Shanghai, and I've ridden the test system that exists in Japan as well. I mean, it's an astonishing technology. You get on it, and it accelerates and -- you know, the -- at 19 miles, basically, you have to accelerate about halfway and decelerate the other half of the way, and you're only going at peak speed for, like, a minute. But it's quite an impressive thing. But the issue is, unfortunately, in their case -- this is what you always run into. It was what Rob was talking about. They didn't build it to go -- actually go into the center of Shanghai.
KIENITZAnd that's because taking something that goes 300 miles an hour and trying to build it through the center of a huge, congested city was a proposition that even the Chinese were unwilling to face. And so it goes from the airport to a sort of an odd, suburban little spot where you then either transfer to a metro system or you take a taxi or something like that. So, you know, we rode -- as transportation officials, we went to ride it to see the technology. But, in fact, the thing that they've built is not, unfortunately, a terribly useful thing. That doesn't mean that the case to be made from Maglev for longer inter-city trips is any less valid. Unfortunately, that system, I don't think, is the right showcase for...
COATESCan I interject...
COATES...in there about the reason why they didn't build it...
COATES...past Longyang Road station? This was considered a demonstration project for the Chinese. This was the first time ever that the German system had been built somewhere else other than Germany. So they wanted to do a test of it. And that's why, when they were running it, they were running it on banker's hours. They weren't running it at the optimum time to transport passengers. Passenger ridership was a secondary issue for the Chinese. They wanted to evaluate the technology, and they wanted to adopt it and make it their own.
COATESWhen I was in China last month, I actually sat in a Chinese-built Maglev that was sitting in their maintenance facility. They do intend to expand the system. And the system will extend from Longyang Road station to South Shanghai train station and then over to Hangzhou Airport, which is the domestic airport.
REHMWhen -- Kevin, tell me, since this technology was developed by German engineers, why isn't this being used in Europe?
COATESYeah, that's a great question. Well, if anybody has been in Germany and ridden their high-speed trains, known as ICE Trains, Intercity Express, they'll know that they have a very good high-speed rail network in Germany. And it's run by Deutsche Bahn, and Deutsche Bahn is the national rail system in Germany. And they're a powerful group. They have a large union, and they don't want to see Maglev deployed because -- there's a couple of reasons. One, it's an incremental improvement in speed.
COATESAnd it's not just top speed. It's average speed that's important. But the unions see it as a job killer 'cause maintenance on Maglev is known to be very low. So the rail unions, you know, they're not going to be out there repairing tracks every night. So there's that issue. And, you know, then in France, you have an extensive TGV network.
COATESAnd in China, they're building high-speed rail. A lot of people ask, why are they adopting Maglev in China? Well, they want to keep people working in China. It's more of a social issue, I think. But, again, the rail ministry is very powerful there, and people like to go with what they know. So this is a disruptive technology.
COATESThey're all bureaucracies. They're not going to embrace it.
REHMOkay. Roy, it does sound as though politics gets involved here an awful lot.
KIENITZWell, you know, you can't take the politics out of politics. The other -- I think the more fundamental issue in this debate between rail and Maglev is that because the rail system has existed for 150 years, it's a naturally incremental thing. You can do a little bit more. You can do a medium size amount more. You can do a lot more. You can size it. With Maglev, you're going -- you have to go from nothing to 300 miles an hour, and so that requires a huge commitment of funds and a huge leap of faith to start. And that's really the issue, I think, that has existed in all those other -- I think the gentleman is right about the, you know, entrenched nature of bureaucracies.
KIENITZThose exist everywhere. But the more fundamental thing is, you know, in California, they have decided to go all-in on a new high-speed rail system. That's a $40 billion undertaking. We've funded our share of the first piece. They're funding they're share of the first piece. But in a lot of other states, they want to go incremental. They want to spend a small amount of money or a medium amount of money, get the speeds up a little bit, make it more attractive, add riders. As you add riders, there's more demand. Then there's more of a case to be made to add some more speed, and you can go step by step. In some places, that's the more logical thing.
COATESCan I speak to that?
REHMOne last point, certainly, Kevin.
COATESBecause according to people that I'm talking to, including the former chairman of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, they were looking at high-speed rail for Colorado. And what we've all found out is that incrementally improving a decrepit system is, number one, a waste of money because you're only -- if you only increase the speed of a train system, you know, 10, 20, 30 miles an hour, that's not going to be enough to induce people to get out of their cars, number one. And number two, it's not going to be nearly fast enough to compete with regional air carriers. So this is the thing. You know, if you're going to do incremental improvements, that's great -- if you've got something that's pretty good to begin with.
COATESBut, mostly, our passenger system is decrepit. So when I look out the window of a train here in the U.S., I see wooden railroad ties. In China, I look out the window, and the entire 800 miles from Beijing to Shanghai, I'm looking at concrete sleepers, which are a lot sturdier than the wooden railroad ties we're using here in the States.
REHMKevin Coates, he is executive director of the North American Maglev Transport Institute. Thank you so much for joining us. Very, very interesting. I was also interested in an article written by Ken Orski, Innovation NewsBriefs. Picking up on the last point that Kevin made, that the billion-dollar project in -- between Chicago and St. Louis, would increase the average train speed by 10 miles an hour. Now, he's saying if you're going to do it, do it big. And what we're doing here is spending a billion dollars in getting a 10-mile per hour increase. How much is that going to draw new passengers to a train, Robert?
PUENTESWell, it's tough to say. I think that, as we've talked about, we need to upgrade a system that has been, frankly, disinvested in for a number of years. It was actually -- and the institution that's created to maintain the thing really was not the proper, I think, governmental kind of entity. So we've got a lot of work to do here in this country. So what, I think, we need to be kind of focusing on, particularly as it relates to the high-speed rail program, we need to make sure that we copy what other nations have done and get one system, get one line, get it up, get it moving. Show that it can work. And, I think, once we get that done, we will see that there are -- there is applicability in other parts of the country.
REILLYWell, I think it's important to note that -- you know, to what Robert said, is we have not -- we don't have a system here which has been built, operated and maintained for high-speed rail. It's a system that is privately owned by the freight railroads that invest, in the last couple of years, $10 billion each year into operating, maintaining its privately-run system. And Rob pointed out earlier, you know, it's built to -- and outfitted for slow moving, very, very heavy freight railcars. So, indeed, if we want to upgrade sections of this system to move people faster, we have to start incrementally in order to bring this freight rail system up to the technological capacity to move trains faster.
REHMIsn't there also something at the difference in China and other parts of the world where freight is moved by vehicle trucks, for example?
KIENITZIn the European system, I mean, one the reasons they are able to have a fantastic passenger rail system is that their freight rail system is not very good, and the net result is most of the trains on most of the tracks are passenger trains. And the freight moves by truck. And that -- you know, and that's a big issue that they have, is all the freight trucks on the roads.
REILLYWhereas in this country, 43 percent of the freight is moved by train, and I think everybody, you know, is in agreement, that more trucks off the road eases wear and tear, congestion, cost to taxpayers. So there's a huge push to get more freight off the roads and onto the rails.
REHMPatricia Reilly, she is with the Association of American Railroads. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones, and go to Southeast Missouri. Good morning, James. You're on the air.
JAMESGood morning, Diane.
JAMESHi. How are you all doing today?
REHMGood. Go right ahead, sir.
JAMESI'd like to make two points. She was talking about moving the trucks off the road and putting the freight on trains. And besides the economic cost, there's a human toll there. Think of all the wrecks that are involved with big trucks that would be -- you know, you could lower the death toll on American highways infinitely just by improving the rail system. And my second point was that we have subsidized the rail system since day one, by giving the additional railroads to land with which they built their empires and their fortunes and their rails.
JAMESI don't see why we can't put -- for people who aren't in such a big hurry but would like to travel at low cost across the country, put a few passenger cars on each of these trains to help subsidize that, to help use that money to build the infrastructure and let it pay for itself. I mean, is that not feasible?
REHMWhat do you think, Roy?
KIENITZOn the safety point, I would agree with the gentleman, you know, entirely. One of the things that we're trying to do here is have the world's best freight rail system, which we currently have, and keep it the world's best and improve it while catching up to the rest of the world on high-speed rail. As to the question of can you add passenger coaches to a freight train, I will turn to the expert to my left.
REILLYWell, no. So, you know, the...
REHMYou've got the Florida train that does take cars. Does it not?
REILLYThe car train...
REILLYWe do. That's an Amtrak train. An Amtrak passenger train is moving cars. It's not a freight train.
REHMAll right. Well, but couldn't you combine the two?
REILLYIt's a very interesting concept. It's a very interesting concept.
REHMAll right. And, right now, we've got Al Engel. He is vice president of high-speed rail for Amtrak. Good morning to you, sir.
MR. AL ENGELGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Roy and Robert and Patricia...
ENGELThanks for letting me get on an interesting program. I commend you for making it a topic for your program. I've heard a lot of discussion since the beginning of your program. The passenger trains on freights -- just for background, Amtrak does operate about 21,000 miles of long-distance trains on freight tracks...
ENGEL...so a lot of our service is over freight. So at speeds, you know, in the 80-mile an hour range or below, we're compatible. As you start approaching these higher speeds, as Patricia mentioned, they become incompatible when you start approaching high-speed trains. And they do require exclusive right-of-way. You mentioned the auto train. Yes, we have that service from Washington to Orlando area, and that's very popular. It's overbooked at times. I mean, you know, we -- the demand exceeds our capacity. We run one train down in the morning and one train up. But as far as true high-speed rail goes, someone made the observation that we -- you know, these are very expensive, and we don't do big projects anymore.
ENGELIn terms of the expense -- we just passed, by the way, the 10th anniversary of the Acela Express, which was Amtrak's launch into high-speed rail in the year 2000. And we move 3.2 million people a year on that, generate $440 million of revenue, and, actually, we cover our operating cost and exceed, you know, the -- we generate cash, not enough to pay for the investment. But there are actually high-speed systems in the world that pay for themselves, like the Tokyo to Osaka line, which generates enough revenue to cover operating cost and pay back the investment.
ENGELAnd the Paris-Leon line is the same situation. Other lines certainly pay for their operating expense and exceed the -- and generate cash flow. We did a study for the northeast carter -- which I don't think was brought up in this discussion yet -- where we do have extensive service including a lot of commuter operations. We did a study of a new high-speed line from Boston to Washington, D.C. and -- are we still on?
REHMYeah, we've got to take a short break here, Al. When we come back, we'll talk a little more. Thanks for your call. Stay on the line.
REHMAnd as we talk about the development -- prospective development of high-speed rail, I got so many e-mails here saying, "Why can't we do a high-speed rail system across this country?" Comparing it to what we did in the '50s with the highway system, Rob.
PUENTESWell, and part of the -- we -- it's a big country, right? And so for the rail investments to really be efficient and effective, we've got to focus on those corridors where there is an economic connection between these metro areas. It doesn't make any sense to build high-speed rail networks between two metros that don't have any kind of economic trade between them. So what we did, we looked at those places that had heavy air traffic between them and focused on those metros that were less than 400 miles apart, and identified those as those places that are probably the best candidates for some of these initial investments 'cause we know that there is an economic connection between these things.
PUENTESIt's a big, big country, and someone is not going to probably take the train all the way across the country. Air is very efficient and very quick for that.
REHMWell, air is also getting very uncomfortable, and people are becoming less and less satisfied.
PUENTESAnd, well, they should. I think the air congestion in and around the New York metro area, for example, is horrendous. Most of the problems originate in and around the New York metro. It's a great region where, if we had more viable train service in and out the New York metro, like we do coming down to Washington, you could offload some of those short-haul flights. You wouldn't need to take these flights that are literally, you know, 200 miles, 150 miles. These are gumming up the works and requiring massive investments in the aviation system, which is also another part of this.
PUENTESSo we keep talking about these modes in siloed fashion, a rail investment here, a freight rail investment here, aviation over here, highways over here. The one thing we have learned from our international competitors is that they try to take a much more holistic approach to how they're going to invest in the transportation infrastructure. And it's designed to do something. Whatever investment's going to get them there, that's the way they go. They're not very religious about it.
REHMBut, you know, you say people don't want it all the way across the country. People fly across the country. Why not have a totally high-speed rail system that goes from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, Calif.? Roy.
KIENITZYou know, the sad reason is cost. I mean, if you look at these city pairs that are sort of in the -- we say sort of 500, maybe 600 miles apart, depending on how fast you go, and you overlay them with one another, you actually end up with a network that is connecting Boston and New York and Washington and Charlotte and down to Atlanta and into Florida and over to Pittsburgh and over to Detroit and over to Chicago and Minneapolis and down to St. Louis and into Texas. But once you get to St. Louis, or once you get to Minneapolis, are you going to run that thing 1,500 miles to Seattle or 1,500 miles to San Francisco or to L.A.? You're always going to want to have those cross-country trains for people who don't want to fly or that's the scenic train and it's got the beautiful windows.
KIENITZBut the expense of building 1,500 miles of train, so that it can take four times as long as flying -- just the math doesn't really work.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Columbia, Mo. Good morning, Ellen.
ELLENYes, thank you. I have a question about the politics of rail projects. It seems like -- you know, like everything else today, there's an immediate partisan response to any question of rail, with liberals tending to favor and conservatives tending to oppose projects, whether we're talking about high-speed rail or, you know, local light rail. And I have difficulty understanding why that's so. And I wonder if your panel could shed a little light on that. Thank you.
KIENITZWell, I guess I would say that that, unfortunately, is a pattern that does exist in some places. Although I will say the Secretary of Transportation -- my boss, Ray LaHood, a Republican from rural Central Illinois -- is a big high-speed rail fan, so it's not universal. But, I think, the main reason is that it's an activity of government. You know, we can't each go out individually and buy our own piece of the high-speed rail. You know, the government has to do that. It is the entity in which we take collective action. And we pay taxes, and the taxes go to do the action. And that's something that, you know, people to the center and leftward tend to be more comfortable with.
REHMAll right. Let's take a call in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Peter.
PETERGood morning, Diane. I have an issue that I heard before that really raised itself in my head. The question of maintenance, which in the present railway systems is not just terrible, but the problem is not a question of maintenance. It's a question of management. I live in Washington. I take trains fairly frequently, and the management of the trains is terrible. They frequently stop in a station and sit there for an hour because there's something wrong with the tracks. Last time I took a train from Union Station, I took the Metro from where I live down to Union Station. There are -- is an escalator and an elevator at both of the tracks. Metro tracks coming in to go up to Union Station to get to the trains. Both the escalators and the elevators were not working.
REHMYou know, this is really -- it's embarrassing that this city has a system where half the time the elevators, the escalators are not functioning. But then as we're talking about a high-speed rail, Al Engel, what do you have to say about the major malfunctions along the tracks?
ENGELWell, I can't speak to the Washington system. But the Amtrak system, we certainly stay on top of our maintenance. We do have occasional failure, such as the old catenary system breaking during weather extremes and things like that. And, you know, one of this 50 mile an hour blizzards will certainly affect our operation. But...
REHMOh, sure. I understand that.
ENGELWe -- in terms of -- pardon?
REHMI understand that. But even in good weather, you have those kinds of glitches, I think, you can acknowledge.
ENGELWell, I think, you know, with the resources that we have, we are doing a very good job. You can look at our on-time record, which is very good on our own infrastructure. When we're operating on freight lines, there are external factors that will impact on the timeliness of our trains. But...
REHMPatricia, do you want to comment?
REILLYWell, Al is absolutely right. I think that the caller addresses an issue of where you do mix freight and passenger, you're going to see increased wear and tear, and that translates into increased maintenance needs. And so, sure enough, if something happens and safety is the number one priority, we got to stop what's moving on the track in order to take care of the problem.
KIENITZWell, I mean...
ENGELDiane, is it possible for me to finish the thought on the Northeast Carter?
REHMSure, if you can be brief about it, please.
ENGELI just wanted to explain that there is a study that's available on our website which shows a new high-speed line between Boston and Washington, which is expensive. But the key point is, expensive compared to what? We're really out of capacity on our highways, on our airports and even on our existing Northeast Carter. And to build alternative highways and additional airports when the airspace is crowded would even be more expensive. Even though we're talking over $100 billion for a new line between Boston and Washington, the payback on that is two times what the investment is in terms of the economic return -- what Roy talked about, the agglomeration effect between large metropolitan areas.
ENGELSo I think you have to look at it in a total context of the growth that we expect in population and how do we provide capacity. High-speed rail in dense corridors, connecting major cities is really a most sustainable option to provide that inter-city mobility.
REHMNow, tell me about that high-speed between Washington and Boston.
ENGELWell, the study which was a detailed, you know, conceptual study that was done in the spring and summer shows that by building a new right-of-way -- first of all, we can find right-of-way, even though it's a very urbanized area, which does make it more expensive. We can actually achieve one-and-a-half hour trip times between Boston and New York and an hour-and-a- half between New York and Washington, D.C. Now, that compares to over three hours between Boston and New York by rail.
ENGELAnd, today, it's about two hours and 45 -- 50 minutes between New York and Washington. Those trip times of an hour-and-a-half are competitive, certainly with the automobile twice or three times as fast, and the airline. We already have 62 percent of the air rail share, and, you know, our airports are crowded. This investment would actually free up gates for longer distance travel and also, you know, international travel as we become more and more global.
REHMSure. Roy Kienitz, how feasible do you see this?
KIENITZIt's a terrifically interesting plan that they put together, and I really commend the folks at Amtrak who really have decided to step up and give us a vision. I mean, the 50 million people that live in that Boston, New York, Washington quarter, that is the premiere high-speed rail market in the United States. If you compare it to any other major markets in the world, London-Paris, Paris-Leon, Tokyo-Osaka, Madrid-Barcelona, it's -- in terms of population and distance, it's a terrific market.
KIENITZI think their projection that once you build it, the thing can actually generate excess cash flow due to usage, I think, is probably a reasonably sound prediction. But it requires our country and our government to be willing to say we're going to make a generational commitment to do this thing and spend a very large amount of money in order to get a huge benefit. And that's a mental shift that we are trying to acculturate people to, but, you know, it's still a tough thing.
REHMHow likely do you think this could be to happen, Robert?
PUENTESWell, it's -- these are tough times. And as we've talked about today, we have a lot of maintenance and rehab needs that we have to take care of. And so this is a big investment. There's no doubt about it. This wasn't part of the initial tranche of high-speed rail money. And I think it's important to understand how those projects were chosen, is that this wasn't the federal government sending money down for projects that they had chosen, that the states had to apply for funds. They conceived these projects. They applied for money for these projects, and they were awarded money based on certain measure of merit. So...
REHMBut, now, what about Ohio's governor turning down that money? Here's an e-mail from Chris in Akron saying, "Is there any chance Ohio could still get the funding? I'm deeply disappointed our governor has turned away that money. Can another entity take up the project?" Roy.
KIENITZUnder the current structure of the federal program, the funding recipients are states. And so incoming Gov. Kasich would need to revise his opinion and reapply for the funds. And if he did, it would be considered along with any other project in the country. Pending a larger rewrite of how America wants to approach high-speed rail -- which may be coming in the next year or two -- that could potentially change the rules.
REHMWhat was the reason for his turning it down, Robert?
PUENTESWell, it's hard to say. I mean, this was obviously -- this -- a lot of this was caught up in the gubernatorial campaigns. This was caught up in the fiscal crises that we're facing. I think that some of these governors, you know, thought about this as what we call kind of a free puppy, that they were getting this money for these initial projects. But we're concerned about the long-term maintenance and operating costs of these systems in the long term. But, again, it's important to understand that these are the states, these are their projects, they conceive them, and it was only the gubernatorial changeover that causes controversy.
REHMRobert Puentes of The Brookings Institution. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One last call from Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Harry.
HARRYGood morning, Diane.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
HARRYI was calling about the issue of transit-oriented development, where John Robert Smith -- I'm sure some of your guests know -- former CEO of Amtrak, and he now runs Reconnecting America -- could talk about the interface between the high-speed rail coming to cities and rebuilding the stations, the -- where the trains arrive and having that -- the fact of the rail coming in, spurring development with retail and commercial development. Here in Rochester, we have a city that -- unfortunately, we had Beth Osborne at the Transportation, ready to talk to our mayor and city council.
HARRYBecause we have such a powerful bus company, our city is wasting $52 million on a bus center about three blocks away from where the high-speed rail is coming in to Rochester. And I'm wondering if you could -- anybody here knows much about the transit-oriented development and how high-speed rail could affect development if such cities were to rise.
KIENITZYeah, I mean, this is one of the great added benefits of a high-speed rail system. It's a transportation system. It gets you from point A to point B. But unlike an airport, it's a transportation system which brings people right into the center. And in that way, existing transit systems that bigger cities have are going to automatically, in most cases, connect to that high-speed rail station. It's an opportunity for retail development. It's an opportunity for housing development. It's a technology that creates a force for the reinvestment in the existing communities that we have, where, unfortunately, sort of airports tend to get pushed out very far into the hinterlands, and you'd get a pattern of development out there that tends to be very car-oriented.
KIENITZEvery family has to own two or three cars. It costs everyone a huge amount of money. And so that's one of the great benefits of rail. It means we have to be very conscious about how we do this. There has been this controversy that we're well aware of in Rochester over the funding of their, you know, Intermodal Center. But in other places, in San Francisco, you know, we're spending a whole lot of money on a wonderful new train station, but it's not a train station. It's an urban redevelopment project that has a train station at the center of it.
REHMHmm. Hmm, interesting. So considering the current state of congressional affairs, the current state of financial affairs, where is all this going, currently $10 billion or so? Do you see any increase coming? Do you see any thinking about this issue prominently in this next congressional session?
PUENTESI think so. I think that as we travel around the country, this issue has really captured the imagination of folks from coast to coast. I think they get it. They understand what it is. The folks are very interested in it. I think that these initial investments are really going to be bellwethers. And we're going to learn a lot from what is already going on in Florida and in California and in other parts of the country. We're going to learn a lot from those lessons. We're going to learn about how to do these systems correctly. And we're going to learn a lot of about how to make decisions, about where to invest next.
REILLYAll right. I'd like to point out the state of Illinois signed a high-speed rail agreement with Union Pacific Railroad right before Christmas, so that's going to be another learning opportunity, to see how this bodes well.
KIENITZYou know, very interesting, of the incoming Republican chairman of Transportation Committee in the House, John Mica of Florida, is a guy who's very knowledgeable about rail, very interested in high-speed rail. And the first three hearings that he has scheduled, that we learned about yesterday, are all on rail. So it's not just a partisan issue.
REHMRoy Kienitz, he's under secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Patricia Reilly of Association of American Railroads, Robert Puentes of The Brookings Institution and Al Engel, he has been with Amtrak for many years. Thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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