Monday, 30 July 2012

A Letter from America

Northeast vision: an Acela Express train pauses at the restored Wilmington station in Delaware.
With due apologies for the delay, it’s high time I rounded up some of the most immediate conclusions from the International Union of Railways’ (UIC) global high speed rail congress in Philadelphia on July 10-13. The City of Brotherly Love had a tough act to follow, the previous event having been held in Beijing in December 2010. But rather than an overt celebration of past achievements, this UIC Highspeed – the first I’ve attended as it happens – was more of an attempt to catalyse developments in the US.

News that the Californian senate had passed – by the narrowest of margins – a vote to launch the first phase of the state’s controversial high speed rail programme the preceding Friday was a welcome fillip for delegates. But the fact the venue was a city on the Northeast Corridor, not LA or San Francisco, was telling. And this is especially relevant to British onlookers, as our own High Speed 2 project has an American cousin.

‘HS2 is our reference point’, Stephen Gardner, Northeast Corridor Director at US federal passenger operator Amtrak, told me on July 12, adding that those developing plans for America’s busiest inter-city rail corridor had much to learn from our experience of upgrading legacy main lines and developing an economic and demand model for new projects. Having now had chance to ride the Boston – New York – Washington NEC on several occasions, the parallels with the West Coast Main Line are indeed compelling.

Ageing infrastructure is compromising reliability, yet previous long-term enhancement programmes have not delivered the benefits promised. A varied mix of services, from commuter rail through to the fast Acela business expresses, share the route, meaning that only sub-optimal use can be made of the capacity available. Needless to say, getting a seat on long-distance trains is tough – and I speak from experience.

The importance of NEC is graphically underlined when you consider that of the 30 million passengers who use Amtrak across the US each year, 13 million do so in the northeast. Compare this to California, where, to be frank, inter-city passenger rail is about as familiar as cricket. The greatest challenge facing California’s high speed promoters is to create a market where, effectively, none exists at the moment. And judging by my conversations at UIC Highspeed, quite how they might accomplish this is unclear. Constructing an isolated section of high speed infrastructure in the scarcely-populated Central Valley is a high-risk strategy, but it might just work if the requisite sections of conventional line were electrified and upgraded to offer a ‘one seat ride’ between LA and San Francisco from Day One.

But that does not appear to be the plan – even if the starter section opens in 2023, it seems it would be used not by high speed trainsets sprinting along at 200 mile/h, but by occasional diesel-hauled Amtrak trains struggling to achieve half that speed. California High Speed Rail Authority has at least recognised the importance of the legacy network by pledging $1bn to electrify and modernise the Caltrain and LA Metrolink commuter networks at the northern and southern ends of its route. But connecting these to the starter section needs to expedited as rapidly as possible to avoid a repeat of the problems which have affected the Netherlands, where domestic concessionaire NSHispeed has conspicuously failed to deliver a high speed service despite having the infrastructure to do so[1].

Of course, such project detail might seem unnecessarily punctilious were it not for the fact that when American high speed rail aspirations are mentioned, it is to California, not the northeast, that all eyes turn. And just as the perceived commercial failings of High Speed 1 in the UK have undoubtedly hindered the vastly stronger case for HS2, so California’s controversy could stymie progress between Boston and DC.

That would be a great pity in my view: like HS2, the Northeast Corridor is a prime case where dedicated high speed tracks maximise the potential for inter-city rail travel by tapping into a substantial market which exists today. Of course, constructing such a railway will be a multi-generational project – Amtrak’s six-stage Stair Steps vision would not be completed until 2040 at the earliest, with a price tag of $150bn. That’s a pretty eye-watering sum, although at least a third is allocated to upgrading the existing formation. More importantly there is a real recognition that this must be directly compared to the cost of expanding northeast airport capacity or the interstate highway network.

Whilst the controversy surrounding California’s programme will not subside anytime soon, most facile comparisons from this side of the Pond are an over-simplification. When it comes to US high speed rail, it’s not just California dreaming.

1. The Dutch HSL-Zuid high speed railway is used by two operators, Thalys International and NSHispeed. Only Thalys has yet been able to provide high speed services over the route. A poor choice of rolling stock manufacturer has led domestic operator NSHispeed repeatedly to delay launching its own competing services, instead running ageing conventional speed services whilst its V250 fleet goes through a lengthy approval process. Given NSHispeed charges premium fares for a service which hitherto offers no time advantage over the conventional NS network, it is little surprise that the domestic concessionaire has hit financial trouble. Thalys on the other hand cites the opening of HSL-Zuid for a surge in revenue and ridership.

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