Kunstler Says "Too Late" For High-Speed Rail

Returning from CNU, James Howard Kunstler reacts to a NY Times article about California's high-speed rail plans, and reflects on New Urbanism's shift away from traditional-neighborhood developments and into preparing for the 'long emergency'.

On high-speed rail, which he believes is too costly to implement now:

"Californians (and US public in general) would benefit tremendously from normal rail service on a par with the standards of 1927, when speeds of 100 miles-per-hour were common and the trains ran absolutely on time (and frequently, too) without computers (imagine that !). The tracks are still there, waiting to be fixed. In our current condition of psychotic techno-grandiosity, this is all too hopelessly quaint, not cutting edge enough, pathetically un-"hot.""

On the Congress for New Urbanism:

"For years, their stock-in-trade was the greenfield New Town or Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), a severe reform of conventional suburban development. That sort of reform work was only possible when 1.) the continued expansion of suburbia seemed utterly inevitable, requiring heroic mitigation and 2.) when they could team up with the production home-builders to get their TND projects built. To the group's credit, they realize that these conditions are no more."

Full Story: Too Stupid To Survive

Comments

Comments

Tiring Wingnut

At this point in Kunstler's career any worthy insights are overshadowed by his continuing decent into hysteria over peak oil and his conviction that the suburbs will be the cause of Armageddon. Planetizen legitimizes him by posting his articles and commentary.

Back To 1927

"Californians (and US public in general) would benefit tremendously from normal rail service on a par with the standards of 1927, when speeds of 100 miles-per-hour were common. ... In our current condition of psychotic techno-grandiosity, this is ... not cutting edge enough..."

In 1927, the railroads did not have to compete against air travel. The major benefit of HSR is its ability to attract people who would otherwise fly on trips of 500 miles or less.

Charles Siegel

Fallacies regarding current rail networks

In general I agree that we'd be in a much better place if we had the rail service of 1927. At a minimum there would be more and better service to more points than now. However, Kunstler makes a two grave oversights.

First, the phrase "[t]he tracks are still there, waiting to be fixed" is incorrect. Many branches are now gone for good, while primary routes between cities generally don't need "fixing" because they are currently being used for heavy freight movement by private rail lines. They're not broken to need fixing.

This is, however, academic, as the second oversight is much larger: we don't have the freight volume of 1927. In that time frame, there were few rail lines that saw more than ten or twenty trains in a 24 hour period, and that is counting passenger trains in the mix. Today, many freight mainlines see 20, 30, 50, or more trains per day, and that's in the Amtrak era when you're lucky if there is one passenger train each way.

While the volume of freight business has slowed slightly with our economic downturn, the basic truth is that our lines are already at capacity handling freight. To suggest we can just go tinker with a few things ("fix") and then slap some passenger trains down and make it all work is ludicrous.

I am not arguing against sharing freight and passenger corridors, but I am arguing against simplistic statements such as Kunstler's.

A response to your fallacies

The tracks are still there, waiting to be fixed
I'm afraid Mr. Kunstler's argument is a bit of a fallacy with respect to this point, but so also is route99west's response. The fact of the matter is that what counts is the right-of-way - literally the land itself and not the tracks. Old freight lines were built for much lighter and slower freight trains than anything we see today, and if there are still tracks in place all they are good for (operationally) is scrap. Even the ties, ballast and rail bed itself would probably require a complete rebuild, plus you'd need a modern signalling system. The real value in old rail lines comes from the fact that the corridors still exist. If you have a corridor of land that shoots straight through the heart of several cities, then you've got by far the most valuable asset for building either a high-speed rail line, or even a good quality regular passenger rail line. So Kuntsler is actually more correct than you are - except for placing the value the value in the tracks rather than the rights-of-way.

We don't have the freight volume of 1927
Totally untrue! We may not have the same number of trains per day, but the total volume of freight moved by rail is much higher than it even has been (with a small drop off in the past year or so) - but now trains are longer, rail cars are bigger, containers are double-stacked, and almost all the activity is on the main lines. The issue here is complex one though. First of all, a major reason we have fewer short line trains is because of all the money that's been invested in highways. Rail is still competitive (and very advanced) for long-haul freight movements between major centres, but the short-haul "last mile" movements are now totally dominated by trucks operating on freeways. Investing in rail infrastructure and getting freight companies to team up with governments to rebuild rail lines and signalling systems is where some time and energy needs to be focused. As I stated above, often those unused or underused lines are right the heart of the city. We don't see trains as much anymore because they are primarily concentrated on a few high-capacity corridors, but rail is still a big, profitable business. A key to all of this is to start seeing an investment of government money in rail not as a subsidy, but as an investment in infrastructure.

While the volume of freight business has slowed slightly with our economic downturn, the basic truth is that our lines are already at capacity handling freight. To suggest we can just go tinker with a few things ("fix") and then slap some passenger trains down and make it all work is ludicrous.
You are completely correct with this statement though. Reviving passenger rail service as well as short-haul freight rail service is not at all simple or cheap. But we are putting billions and billions into highways every year, and (in my opinion) not seeing nearly the return we'd get out of making those same investments in rail.

I too am not arguing against sharing freight and passenger corridors, but to mis-quote you directly, "I am arguing against your simplistic responses to statements such as Kunstler's".

San Francisco to Los Angeles

jozer- A short term alternative to high speed rail in California could be to initiate express non stop bus service between the Dublin/Pleasanton station of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system and the Newhall station of Metrolink system (Southern california). The distance between these 2 stations is about 300 miles. This can be a 5 hour drive. It takes less than an hour on the BART system to get from Dublin/Pleasanton into downtown San Francisco. It also takes less than an hour for the Metrolink to get from Newhall into Union Station L.A. This can be a 7 hour trip which would not be affected by traffic problems in either San Francisco or Los angeles. There can be several different bus companies providing different levels of accomodation on this route.

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