Left Orange Station a little after 7pm Eastern
Last year, I told VP Joe Biden about the Sustainable Electric High(er) Speed Rail I wanted for Christmas (cf. links below). It involved electrifying the 30,000+ miles of STRACNET, and establishing 100mph Rapid Freight Rail paths, including support for running 110mph or 125mph long haul electric passenger services on the Rapid Freight paths.
In short, I wanted Joe Biden to take Alan Drake's plan and just fracking DO it.
I didn't get it for Christmas last year - but then, I guess he was only VP-elect last 25DEC08. The post today is to look at the progress toward the goal. The answer, surprisingly, is that we have made substantial progress. Certainly we are not halfway there, yet, but we are much further along than I expected to see.
Regional Passenger HSRail Corridors
The biggest steps forward have been in the area of Regional Passenger HSRail Corridors. The first step happened way back in February. As reported at The Transport Politic, Final Stimulus Bill Rewards HSR Massively; Falls Somewhere Between House and Senate on Transit:
The U.S. Congress Conference Committee has agreed to the final provisions of the economic stimulus bill, which now moves back to the two chambers of Congress for final passage. The most important news is the massive amount of money proposed for high-speed rail – $8 billion – and the large increase in Amtrak funding, up to $1.3 billion from $800 and $850 million in the respective House and Senate bills. This represents the largest single expenditure on rail in United States history and promises a new day for train travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation will lead the distribution of these funds; most of the money is likely to go to existing programs such as California High-Speed Rail, Midwest High-Speed Rail, and Southeast High-Speed Rail. States will get no supplementary money for rail programs. The legislation says that some of the money can be used for standard-speed rail corridors, but that the Secretary of Transportation is to give priority “to projects that support the development of intercity high speed rail service.”
According to the AP, President Obama and Senator Reid pushed for the increase personally. This fits in directly with Mr. Obama’s statement yesterday about the benefits of high-speed rail and his repeated insistence during the campaign that he would push for better train service, especially in his native Midwest. It also may be a response to Mr. Obama’s seeming ignorance about the lack of money for infrastructure that Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) described at the beginning of the month.
The applications went in last October, with California, Florida, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia applying for over $1b each, and Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio (Go Bucks!), Washington and Wisconsin each applying for between $400m and $1b.
Then in the annual appropriation, the White House asked for $1b for next year, the House appropriated $4b, a 300% increase, the Senate $1.2b, a 20% increase, and after much dithering the Senate and House recently agreed to $2.5b, a 150% increase.
Now, because HSRail and Energy Efficient Transport advocates were making a major public push for the Senate to fall in line with the House $4b, there were those who saw this as a defeat, but in reality, anytime what comes out of Congress is 150% better than what the Administration proposes, that's called a "win". Imagine where we would have been on so many fronts if the Stimulus Bill was 150% better than what the Administration proposed!
Now, admittedly, $2.5b annually is not enough if we are going to be building one or two serious Express HSR systems to prove the concept. However, for the 110mph and 125mph systems, this level of funding is enough to get systems started that will serve over half the states in the nation.
Indeed, for Express HSR advocates, that fact alone is tremendous good news. Since the Emerging (110mph) Higher Speed Rail is time-competitive with driving, and the Regional (125mph) Higher Speed Rail is perceptibly faster than driving, operation of these systems will revolutionize common public perception of "ordinary" rail service. This will ensure that those with systems will want them expanded, while many states that presently lag in developing Higher Speed Rail plans will be facing pressure to get off the stick ... and that is a strongly favorable political environment for an HSRail development bank that can provide the Express (220mph) High Speed Rail systems the funding security they need.
But What About Long Distance Rapid Freight and Passenger Rail?
The focus for Emerging (110mph) and Regional (125mph) Higher Speed Rail is providing 100mile to 300mile trips between medium-large to large metropolitan areas. The focus for Express (220mph) High Speed Rail is providing 200mile to 500mile trips between major metropolitan areas, together with tips to those areas from smaller metropolitan areas along the way.
As became clear as I mapped out why America Was Made for HSRail, those trips can be provided along some longer corridors stringing overlapping trips together. For example, at the 110mph level, Pittsburgh / Cleveland / Toledo / Chicago / Milwaukee / Madison ... and then connecting (likely via Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, but other local areas are making their own case) to Minneapolis.
Generally, however, the corridors supporting those kinds of trips do not make for a nationwide grid. However, they often do lie along the existing strategic national heavy freight grid, STRACNET, and when the do, their improvements will help pave the way for the national sustainable electric HSRail system.
There is also a second way that they help. That is, for those corridors where passenger HSRail alone will not make the case for the system, there will still be constituents thinking it would be a good thing to have the service. So, in addition to the direct investment with multiple benefits is the demonstration effect.
And if the Rapid Electric Freight rail is the basic justification for the improvement, that means that a two per day or three per day Amtrak style service could well be established with 110mph or 125mph electric tilt-trains, and the incremental capital cost is the station and its approaches and the rolling stock itself - which can provide more passenger miles per set than conventional Amtrak, simply due to the higher speed, and yet more due to being able to operate on the tighter schedules made possible by Rapid Freight Paths.
However, just recently, I saw even more encouraging news. As I discussed in Sunday Train: Supporting Rail Electrification with the Climate Bill, there are a variety of ways to help support rail electrification that can be and, in terms of addressing climate change, ought to be, included in any overall bill addressing climate change.
Of course, the overall details of the Climate Change bill were not encouraging, with too little handed back as a social dividend, too much opportunity for Wall Street monkey business, and the permits being located far to close to the final use, which is just asking for an ongoing fight against it ending up riddled with industry specific loopholes. Indeed, a permit system set too far "downstream" would seem every bit as likely to get riddled with loopholes and exceptions as any real world carbon tax.
Add on top the specter of the same thing happening to the Climate Bill as is presently happening with Health Insurance Reform, and I feared it was an idea that would get dragged down by the rest of the package. So it was with great interest that I read of Senators Cantwell and Collins propose a "bi-partisan" Climate Bill (I am presuming that the 'bi' refers to Democratic and Independent, since the vast majority of the Republican caucuses in both houses will of course do the bidding of the Oil and Coal Companies). From CQ Politics:
The Cantwell-Collins alternative would instead create what has been called a “cap and dividend” structure. The government would still cap emissions and sell carbon permits, but the polluters — such as coal producers and oil companies — could trade the credits only among themselves. There would be no outside market for trading the emissions credits.
Under the Cantwell-Collins plan, 75 percent of the revenue raised by selling emissions permits would go straight back to U.S. taxpayers in the form of monthly electronic payments made directly to their bank accounts. Cantwell’s office is expected to release a report Friday finding that under the plan, a typical family of four would receive tax-free monthly checks from the government averaging $1,100 per year, or $21,000 between 2012 and 2030.
The remaining 25 percent would be spent on projects such as clean energy technology research and development.
In the previous Sunday Train discussion of using Carbon Fees to subsidize interest costs while user and access fees covered the original capital costs of establishing Rapid Freight Electric Rail - that was based up to 20% of the 10% State Share in the current bill, which is to say up to 2% of the carbon fee revenue. So 25% devoted to clean energy technology development remains ample to getting started on the actual coast to coast rapid electric freight rail system that we need.
There is no doubting the need. We import roughly 2/3 of our petroleum products, and even the increase in rail freight caused by $4/gallon diesel pushed many trunk rail lines close to capacity. In the face of a $6/gallon diesel or, still worse, a physical interruption of supply, we will simply not be able to rely on the present road plus air freight system to keep our national industrial economy going. Indeed, this is something even the war-monger rabble ought to support, since the way that things presently stand, once the crude oil supply line from overseas is cut, the logistics supporting military deployments will come under tremendous strain as well.
So, combine, first, an alternate climate bill has been floated which addresses the three most glaring weaknesses of the Kerry bill - inadequate social dividend, permits too far downstream, and the risk of setting Derivatives Traders loose on the trading system - and the fact that is has "bipartisan" support, and that is quite promising.
The task ahead is to ensure that Transport Electrification and ActiveTransport (walking and cycling) are as well represented in the new bill as they are in the present climate bill, and the future is so bright, I'll have to wear shades (I can't actually afford sunglasses, so they'll be borrowed).
But if we do can do that in the months ahead, we will get one more step closer to getting our Sustainable Electric High Speed Rail for Christmas.
BTW, I am not sure if Joe is getting these ... someone sees him on the Acela sometime, be sure to give him the link.
All of Which is a Follow-up to last year's ...
Dear Joe, I want an Electric Train for Christmas (Pt. I)
Dear Joe, I want a High Speed Electric Train for Christmas (Pt. II).
Dear Joe, I want a Sustainable High Speed Electric Train for Christmas (Part 3)
Part 1 and Part III have the clip of Joe Biden at the National Governor's Association last year which originally inspired the title.