Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Head/Desk

Posted in America, High Speed, Infrastructure, Politics by Chairman Pip on 4 November 2010

So, the 2010 Midterm elections have come and gone and, as expected, President Obama suffered what was, in his own words, a “shellacking”. He is not totally a lame duck, as the Democrats (just) retained a majority in the Senate. But the Republicans have achieved a majority in the House of Representatives which, being the lower house, is far more powerful, and thus more likely to put the kibosh on the President’s plans. And one of the major policy areas that has come about in the last two years has been the improvement of the railways. This has gone under the general umbrella title “high speed rail”; but, this does not mean HSR in the accepted definition of the term:

  • Trains running faster than 125mph on existing track
  • Trains running faster than 160mph on new build track

 With the exception of the true HSR projects in California and Florida, this predominently means improving speeds on existing lines to around the 100-110mph mark. But the results of the elections could well end up putting paid to that. Scott Walker, the leading anti-rail advocate this year, who founded the Stop the Train! website, won the governorship of Wisconsin, and will thus return the planned $800m of federal money intended for rail improvements, while John Kasich has taken Ohio and will also cancel any rail improvements intended for his state. Governor-elect Kasich gave his first news conference the day after his election, in which he said this:

My message today is to get jobs going in this state

Well, that’s thousands of jobs he has done away with at a stroke, before they’ve even been hired. Similarly, those members of the “Grand Old Party”, as the Republicans like to call themselves (a misnomer if there ever was one, since the modern Republican Party was founded in 1854, while the modern Democratic Party is 25 years older, and traces its origins back to the foundation of the United States) elected at the federal level have also been making statements in public. Rep. John Mica, who represents the Florida 7th, and is in line to be the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said that, while he agrees in principle with high speed rail in his state, he believes that the current plan (for a route between Orlando and Tampa) is flawed. Instead he has suggested scaling it back to a route that serves downtown Orlando, Orlando’s theme parks and tourist destinations, and Orlando International Airport.

Such a route would have “tremendous potential for actually making money”

Never mind the possibility of developing the region between Tampa and Orlando, making it easier and quicker to travel between the two cities, thus improving the economies of both. Let’s just ensure that we make as much money as we can, by concentrating on Orlando, which is an economic colossus through its tourist industry. Because that’s what we got into politics for. Never mind that we’re public servants.

There have been some good news stories – Jerry Brown has succeeded Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California, and he has come out in support for the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its planned network, while Neil Abercrombie is the new Governor of Hawaii and has said he will sign off the last documentation to allow the City of Honolulu to build its new commuter light rail system. But it is at the federal level that the worry comes, because it is here that the purse strings for the President’s $10bn comes. John Mica:

I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense. The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere.

It’s nice that he thinks of the cities of Chicago and St Louis as “nowhere” (planned $1.1bn spend to improve the route between the two cities to 110mph). Perhaps he is of the opinion that, because it’s the United States, they don’t need to take the baby steps of improving the existing inter-city network, and instead should just go ahead and build huge swathes of new high speed lines like China has. Is it possible do you think to sum up the attitude of the “GOP” through the chorus of this Queen classic?

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