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Broken Promises of High Speed Rail


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Status Check:

Brightline (East)

By Alex Kofman


Brightline currently serves South Florida with stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Intermediate (“infill”) stations are also under construction in Boca Raton and Aventura. The big expansion for Brightline though is north to Orlando, home of Disney, Universal, and overpriced airfares. The majority of the route, from West Palm Beach to Cocoa, will be run along the existing main line of the Florida East Coast (FEC) railway, which used to be owned by the same parent company.

Brightline is upgrading the route from single to double track and upgrading the rails to support running at 110 mph all the way from West Palm to Cocoa. When the train turns west to Orlando, it will be running on new right-of-way (ROW) along Florida State Route 417. A condition of using this ROW, which significantly shortened the Environmental Impact Study and land acquisition process, was that Brightline promise to build out the service to Tampa in the future. The railroad has agreed and plans to use the median of Interstate 4 for most of this route.


The current construction in Orlando is of a station located at Orlando International Airport (MCO). MCO and the two main South Florida airports (Miami and Fort Lauderdale) are the right distance away and poorly linked, so Brightline is confident that it will be able to take cars off the highway. Brightline is a model of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) -- it has built parking garages at each station and its parent company, Fortress Investments, has bought up land all around its new station sites.


Brightline is also pursuing other projects in Florida. After the MCO station opens, there has been talk of a station in Orlando that will connect to Disney, Universal, or both. Other maps, especially Brightline’s long-range proposals, show expansions north to Jacksonville. Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale is located, is also looking to launch a commuter service with Brightline along its tracks. In addition, the railroad is looking to mitigate its undeservedly high casualty rate with a $25m federal grant to improve safety along its corridor. The future is bright for rail in Florida, and the projects’ success there empowers Brightline to pursue other projects as well. Stay tuned next week for a discussion of Brightline West, connecting a different pair of cities perfect for high-speed rail.


Sources and Additional Information:

 

Feature: Why America Lost High Speed Rail, Part 3:

How America Learned to Hate HSR


Last week was the explanation of how the biggest bankruptcy in American history ended with the creation of Amtrak and Conrail. This week, we explore why that led to Americans' displeasure with high-speed rail…

As the disco era ended in America so did the hopes that Amtrak would lead the United States to a high-speed rail future. Originally Amtrak was given the goal to become a for-profit company, but as we got into the 1980s and 1990s it was realized that Amtrak’s business plan was flawed and never going to become profitable. Throughout the 1980s Amtrak cut long-distance services and kept making threats to shut down altogether if funding was not received from the states and the federal government. While this fighting displays the economic powerhouses that railroads are, it left the public wondering if passenger rail was a waste of taxpayer money.


Amtrak owned major railroad stations such as Chicago Union Station, Pennsylvania Station in New York, and many other stations in major cities across the US. If Amtrak shut down, then so would these stations. This means in Chicago Metra would immediately have to cease all of Metra’s Commuter rail operations out of Union Station….and the effect would reverberate across the US in any major city where commuter rail operated in a station owned by Amtrak. Of course, then there are the tracks themselves. The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is famous for its Acela and Northeast service, but the NEC also carries a tremendous amount of freight traffic.


The question was posed, would the vital NEC also be shut down if Amtrak was shut down?

We will never know…cause the government caved and funded Amtrak. However, this left a very negative perception of Amtrak and passenger rail. The debates on funding Amtrak went on for years throughout the 1990s and in America’s mind, passenger rail was a money-losing endeavor with poor service. Unfortunately, this perception still lingers on today…and is the predominant reason we don’t have high-speed rail.


Passenger Rail - No, Freight - Yes


Of course, while Amtrak was fighting for its life…freight rail blossomed in the US. While the once mighty inter-city passenger rail system collapsed due to competition with planes and automobiles; freight rail was very competitive with air freight and long-distance trucks. As a result, through the 1980s and 1990s, the (now) freight railroads came roaring back to life and consolidated. Even the government-owned Conrail was sold off to Norfolk Southern and CSX by the turn of the millennium.


What about high-speed rail?


Well, in the 1990s there were attempts at high-speed rail. The largest attempt was in Texas…yes Texas...when the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority awarded a franchise to Texas TGV Corporation (which was a consortium of Morrison-Knudson, Bombardier, Alstom, and others) to serve Dallas to Houston to San Antonio. The project made the news around the world but was killed by none other than Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines sued Texas TGV and Southwest was expected to lose the lawsuit, but it became a case of using the legal system to have a competitor run out of money (very similar to Texas Central’s position today). Eventually Texas TGV did just that and ran out of money and folded. Then there was the Florida Overland Express which began planning in 1995 and had a similar route to today’s Brightline, but that too failed.


The problem is all of these projects received great fanfare and Americans were promised high-speed rail, but nothing was to be built. In fact, between the debates about Amtrak funding and failed high-speed rail projects…the public got the impression that high-speed rail was a waste and was nothing more than a false promises. This is when in the 2000's the Republicans picked up on the public’s resentment against high-speed rail and made it their platform to kill all high-speed rail attempts.


Japan Rises, while US Faulters


While the US was failing in high-speed rail…Japan was going through different growing pains. Pains that would ultimately allow Japan to emerge as the preeminent expert in high-speed rail technology.


Until the 1980s Japan National Railways (JNR) was the equivalent of Amtrak. It was a company that spanned the whole country and had all of its stock owned by the federal government. The company was also highly unionized and highly influenced by politics. Of course, it was also struggling with debt from building the Shinkansen and then political pressure led to new regional trains being built that saddled JNR with even more debt. This led to a highly unionized, but highly leveraged company that needed a government bailout (sound familiar). Although, instead of just pouring taxpayer money into JNR, Japan’s response was to break up and privatize JNR into 7 regional railroads (6 passengers and 1 freight).

This is why today we have Central Japan Railways which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, while Japan Rail East operates the Tohoku Shinkansen north of Tokyo and why there are several other different operators of the Shinkansen in Japan.


However, the breakup of JNR did not go smoothly. Many were against the idea of privatizing. Then breaking the unions led to sabotage and lawsuits that were not settled for decades. However, during this time a former economics graduate student who studied in Madison started to rise through the ranks of Central Japan Railways, being elected president in 1994…Yoshiyuki Kasai (Kasai-san). Yes, the head of Central Japan Railway...was now being run by a fellow Badger. Talk about an incredible connection (and irony).


Unfortunately, Kasai-san passed away in April of 2022, but he did have the dream of building the Super Conducting Maglev as well as bringing the Bullet Train to the US.


However, the story of high-speed rail is nowhere near over, because in 2009 Wisconsin was given $823 million to build high-speed rail and turned it down….Meanwhile the Shinkansen was being brought to Texas.


Just wait till Next week…on why Wisconsin passed on high-speed rail & a bullet train in Texas might teach us how to build HSR.

 

Youtube Channels We Love: The B1M


Wanna know how much Hong Kong residents are crazy in love with their subway system or where you can find an undersea roundabout? Or heck why Las Vegas is building the world's largest sphere?


The B1M is a Youtube channel with 2.6 million subscribers that began back in 2012 when a bunch of research students decided to put their civil engineering research on Youtube. Since the channel has grown and now includes world class videos on major construction projects across the world.


In fact, the B1M has a whole playlist dedicated to rail projects across the world, including:


Of course there is there video on the SC Maglev by B1M which we love:




 

The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.









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