High speed rail and politics

It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.

With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.

On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself. ((This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending.))

The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork. ((Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not!))

So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.

Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.

David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.

The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.

The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.

At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.

The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.

This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.

High-speed challenges

Mark Reutter writes in the Wilson Quarterly about the challenges–technical and financial–of building high-speed rail systems in the USA.

He starts by highlighting just how far behind we are, noting that the original Japanese Shinkansen trains are now in museums, while their successors have continued to run at faster speeds and have gained in popularity. And the technology continues to be implemented all over the world:

Today, trains doing 125 m.p.h. or more zip across 13 European countries as well as Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia recently let contracts for a European-style supertrain between the western port of Jeddah and the religious centers of Mecca and Medina, while Israel has a new Tel Aviv-to-Jerusalem line in the works and Iran is upgrading its main lines out of Tehran to standards exceeding 120 m.p.h.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Acela averages 67 MPH between Boston and New York City. It does reach 150 MPH on one short segment and 125 MPH on a few other segments. Nothing else in the USA comes close to these top speeds.

Compare this with the 217 m.p.h. maximum and 146 m.p.h. average of Spain’s 386-mile line between Madrid and Barcelona, and the gap between U.S. and European railroads becomes apparent.

Reutter notes, “Without a doubt, fast trains attract more passengers,” and that they recover “a high percentage of their costs when carefully planned.”

The needed investment can be put in perspective by reference to the Interstates.

In 1955, as plans for the 40,000-mile Interstate Highway System were taking shape at the Eisenhower White House, Fortune magazine pointed out that “the administration has a highway plan with but one major flaw—it costs money.” A huge amount of money, in fact. First estimated at $27 billion, the price of the interstate system soon ballooned to $40 billion (about $280 billion in today’s dollars).

Measured against the needed investment, the eight billion dollars in seed money that was inserted into the stimulus bill in February at President Obama’s insistence, is a pittance, as is the nine billion dollars in bonds authorized by California voters last November. It is a start, but we have a long way to go to catch up to the modern world of mobility.

Update: Stephen, at Cold Spring Shops, adds his thoughts. Recommended.

High speed stimulus

In a bicameral system, when one chamber proposes to spend two billion on some line item and the other proposes to spend zero, what do you expect the inter-cameral conference to propose?

One billion?

Good guess, but when it comes to high-speed rail in the recent US “stimulus” bill, that answer is a bit off.

The final bill authorized $8b.

In case that was too subtle, let me make it a bit more clear:


We can thank the third, uni-personal, legislative chamber for this: It was something Obama wanted. (Thanks, Barack!)

See National Corridors Initiative for details (including chamber comparisons on other rail and transit items, and a nifty map of approved corridors).

A tip of the engineer’s (or, rather, the Superintendent’s) cap to Sephen Karlson, whose post on rail in the stimulus has many other good links on this topic).

Combined with California voters’ passage of Prop 1A in November, this makes modern train service more real than it has been in a long time.

(I know eight billion is not really all that much. But you have to start somewhere!)

Finally, to those who would cry ‘pork’ upon knowing of spending on this, or other “pet,” projects advocated by specific lawmakers for their regions, the Washington Post notes that a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (who wants a maglev train between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles) claims that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds.” While the delegation of such authority to the transportation department does not guarantee the use of technical (merit) rather than political criteria, it makes it much more likely. In any case, if the bill does not allocate money to specific projects, or require congress or the executive to do so, it is not pork. At least not at this stage.

High Speed Rail passed

California Proposition 1A on last week’s ballot passed, 52.2% to 47.8%. This measure allows the state to sell bonds to finance a high-speed rail system. Good news!

If one compares the map of counties in which the measure won or lost with the route map (cool graphics there!), one finds only a loose correlation. Sure, the measure won in the big population centers that would be connected by the rail system (those in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County). It also won in Kern and Fresno Counties (Bakersfield and Fresno, Central Valley population centers, would have stops), and a few other counties along the route. However, it much of the rest of the Central Valley (including the counties where Sacramento and Modesto, which would have stops, are located), while passing in some locales quite distant from the route (e.g. Mendocino, Monterey, and Santa Barbara). The biggest percentage win was in Modoc County, about as far from any proposed station as one could be and still be in the state. It lost, 52-48, here in San Diego County, which would be on an eventual extension (running close to Ladera Frutal!), but not the preliminary route.

Despite the passage of the bonds, this system is still a long way from being built. But it is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Rip notes that, elsewhere in the country, “It was a big day for many Rail Commuter and Transit Agencies last Tuesday.”

A monorail would be so modern

With the voters having soundly rejected the “please, sirs, if it would not trouble you too much, might we consider just maybe talking about some day using just a little bit of the land around the Miramar base for a modern airport?” advisory measure, the San Diego County airports commission is looking for ways to make the best of antiquated Linbergh Field.

One idea that has been hit upon is to build a centralized parking and transit hub with direct access from the freeways and rail lines that pass so near, yet so far, to the airport. From there, one member suggested, “We could whiz everybody around on a Walt Disney monorail.”

Cool. We might as well use the latest whiz technology.

The Disneyland Monorail was built in 1959, partly as a showcase of the future of mass transit. (I read once that Disney proposed building the line not only for the theme park and adjacent hotel, but with a larger loop around the city of Anaheim, but city officials thought the idea a bit, well, loopy.) That future has been rather slow to catch on, though there does seem to have been something of a boom in monorail construction around US airports in recent years.


Before getting to the substance (such as it is), first the following blog functionality update:


Thanks to RAC for finding the necessary pesticide (fully organic, so I can assure you of the healthfulness of all the fruit here). RAC proved to be a better HIGHER TECHNICAL SKILLED PERSON than the one that the hosting company promised would fix the problem. Now, for our, uh, substance…

Sometimes–as I alluded to in the last planting–you just have to waste a little time (though this time was wasted weeks ago, yet the “fruits” of that time were temporalily blocked from planting by the F&V migration problem)…

I saw this over at Signifying Nothing and Cold Spring Shops, and could not resist having my own. Below, not necessarily in any rational order, are the logos of the urban transit systems I have ridden (or at least a reasonable sample of them).

So, here are the sybmols, and no, I do not know why they appear in a single column. But the really, really important fact is that I have ridden many more than Chris or–especially remarkably–Stephen!!!

Got at b3co.com!

High cost of high-speed rail to potential Imperial airport for San Diego

Among the many proposals for a major modern airpoprt to replace San Diego Lindbergh is a plan to build an airport in the desert of Imperial County, where land is cheap and flat and, unlike San Diego’s limited available flat land, not under military occupation. A key problem, however, is how far away the Imperial desert is from the metro area, and that the land between the city and the desert is anything but flat.

As a result of the distance and rugged terrain, the only way to make such a plan viable is with a high-speed rail link. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has been looking at costs of a possible magnetic levitation train system that would take people from a check-in terminal that was centrally located out to the airport at speeds of around 175 MPH.

The costs are prohibitive, and the technology still mostly unproven in commercial operation. Anyone who has ever driven between San Diego and southeastern California or Arizona knows how rugged the mountains east of the metro area are. Interstate 8 is perhaps the most winding of all interstate highways, and has stretches that are among the steepest. The eastbound and westbound roadways pass through separate narrow canyons and cuts. It is hard to imagine a train line being pushed through there. Alternatives include a tunnel, which adds significantly to the cost projections, or following the slightly less steep route of the existing (but not operational) San Diego and Arizona Eastern. The SD&AE dips below the border into Mexico and then crosses back into the USA to go over the amazing Carrizo Gorge trestle.

As much as I would enjoy being magnetically levitated through the Carrizo Gorge on my way to London or Prague, I find it terribly ironic that the proposed city terminal could be at Miramar MCAS, otherwise known as San Diego’s prime location for an international airport.

For more, see the previous post (which drew several interesting comments) on San Diego’s search for a real airport.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Man of steel …and concrete

In his state of the state address on January 5, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unvelied his big, bold, borrow-and-build plan. It is a ten-year, $223-billion program of bond measures to build and rebuild schools, jails, highways, levees, and other infrastructure that has not kept up with the fast pace of growth in the state.

Under California’s we-love-gridlock constitution, multiple bond measures will be required, spread out of several years, and each measure will require approval of 2/3 of each house of the legislature before it can even go before the voters.

This causes problems, in that legislators and their construction and development contributors almost inevitably will see the this as a pork-fest. Moreover, the legislature and electorate alike will be free to pass some measures and reject others. Together, the result of the numerous obstacles between proposal and enactment practically ensure that the overall package will lack the kind of coherent and long-range planning the state needs to cope with the expected growth.

Yet another problem is that the infrastructure expansion is unlikely to be accompanied by “smart growth” and improved hazard zoning practices that would prevent the building boom from simply encouraging more sprawl and more settlement in wetlands, senstive coastal regions, and the most earthquake-, flood-, and firestorm-prone regions of the state.

A state commission is needed to ensure that projects are chosen wisely, and that other dimensions of the development and growth policy aside from building stuff are not neglected, as well as to propose constitutional amendments that would allow packaging of inter-related plans that otherwise have to be dealt with in piecemeal fashion. Alas, I doubt this state currently has governance institutions to do this kind massive spending and building effectively and intelligently.

And then there is the general shortchanging of mass transit, which is sorely under-developed in most of this state. (The linked story, alas, is about LA politicians clamoring for their own pet projects to be included in the plan. Oink, oink.)

And then there is Schwarzenegger’s plan to put off of one of the state’s biggest and most-needed infrastructure projects: high-speed rail. Originally planned as a bond measure several years ago to support a public-private partnership to build a network (see map) of high-speed lines and improvements to existing intercity and commuter rail lines, its non-inclusion in Schwarzenegger’s plan could kill it.

Fly California

Amtrak and recess appointments

I don’t normally obtain my politics and policy-making news from the travel section of the newspaper, but this item–the print version of which has been on my desk since Dec. 11–caught my eye for a serious flaw in our appointment process that is affecting the future of the US national rail system, Amtrak.

Arthur Frommer notes that not only was the highly regarded president of Amtrak, David L. Gunn, fired by the board of directors (see Rip Track’s November archives), but also that board separated the profitable Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system and is readying some serious cuts in service elsewhere. Continue reading

What train am I?

You’re the Qinghai-Tibet Railway!
A highly controversial figure in your area, you are not above causing a little trouble in the name of what you believe. Many are debating whether you believe in the unity and convenience you claim to stand for or whether it’s all just a ruse to get back at an old enemy. Whatever the situation actually is, no one can argue that you haven’t been very clever in making your vision come to life. Breaking new ground was bound to stir up trouble anyway. While it seems like you’ve been around for a while, you really only get going in 2006.

Take the Trains and Railroads Quiz
at RMI Miniature Railroads.

h/t: The Country Pundit, via the junction at Cold Spring Shops.

Trains, bridges, and turbines

One of my fascinations is with railroading, but it is something I will leave as a blog theme to DoDo at European Tribune, as well as to Stephen Karlson, and his wonderful Cold Spring Shops (such as his recent Pawtucket post).

Eurotrib also has a semi-regular bridge-blogging feature and recent windfarm blogging—all great for those of us who love infrastructure and engineering!

UPDATE: At a link below Cold Springs Shops has a photo that brings back fond memories for me. It is of a DDA40X Centennial series Union Pacific double-engine locomotive that I remember going out to Cajon Pass to see with my dad many years ago. Watching, hearing, and feeling these behemoths rumble through the mountains is something I will never forget. Check out this photo, taken (not by me, though I have some that could be scanned one day) at Cajon Pass. I have some framed photos here at Fruits & Votes HQ.