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December 27, 2017

America Not So Great

News about the new Lanzhou to Xian highspeed train in China made me sad. Service started this year with 35 roundtrips/day. Travel time is reduced from seven hours via the old train to 2.5 hours on the new train, which runs at 155 mph.

I’m happy for people who travel between Xian and Lanzhou or make connections on this route. I’m sad for my own country. When is the last time you remember us making a big improvement like this? We’re not even keeping up with the decay of our own existing infrastructure.

Contrast the new train with Amtrak’s flagship Acela service.  Acela has a top speed of 150 mph but can’t run that fast over most of its curvy and congested route. Its fastest scheduled time for the 226 mile trip from NYC to Washington, DC is two hours and forty five minutes, fifteen minutes more than the Lanzhou-Xian train takes to cover its whole 457 mile route. Pretty pitiful.

The reason for the difference is not the train technology but the track. Railroads in the US were laid out in the last century. Most routes haven’t changed since. That’s why there is a 30-mph curve in Olympia, WA on the new Portland-Seattle route. The curve was the scene of a fatal derailment of the train’s inaugural run.

The Portland to Seattle run helps point out our problem. Original plans for the route included straightening the curve according to a Wall Street Journal story based on planning documents. The plan was dropped because of cost, says the story, although as a former state stimulus czar, I suspect that the time required for permitting the straightening would have made the project ineligible for stimulus funding, which was only available for ostensibly “shovel-ready” projects. The article does talk about “fraught acquisition battles” and “reluctance to use eminent domain”. In other words we can’t get anything built because we allow opponents to drag out projects endlessly, and we don’t have the political will to pursue the greater good when there are local consequences.

At least as disgraceful is that a fairly simple technology called “positive train control” hadn’t yet been installed on the line; this technology would have prevented the train from entering the 30-mph hour curve at 80. Service is now not going to resume until positive train control is installed. Critics are asking why service was allowed to start without it; a better question is why positive train control isn’t everywhere in the US. It was mandated by Congress in 2008 with a 2015 deadline. Railroads lobbied successfully to have the deadline extended. It’s cheaper to lobby than actually do something, even something that safety requires.

It’s we who must choose to make America great again… or not.

See also Everything is Shovel-Ready in China.

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