Monday, April 23, 2012

Rolling Stock Without Tracks

Inter-city high speed rail in the United States is still just an engineering dream on paper, with no more than 20 miles of high speed trackage, running between two no account rural towns in Central Illinois anywhere near completion. In most locations slated for high speed bullet train operation, federal, state and local governments have yet to cobble together financial commitments to even begin construction of tracks capable of handling trains traveling over 100 mph. Nevertheless, on April 20 the Federal Railroad Administration began the bidding for construction of 130 high speed rail cars to operate on the as yet imaginary high speed railroad tracks.

FRA’s RFP is budgeted at $551 million. The 130 standardized bi-level cars are intended for use on high speed rail routes in California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri. So far, the only high speed railroad track anywhere near completion is a 20 mile stretch between the small rural towns Dwight, Illinois and Pontiac, Illinois. A high speed rail bi-level is 85 feet long, so if all 130 cars were coupled end to end, the entire length of available high speed track will be only 10 trains long. Admittedly, this new rolling stock is intended for use on a Los Angeles to San Francisco route, plus Midwestern routes linking Chicago to Carbondale, Detroit, Dubuque, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, Moline, Port Huron, Quincy, Rockford, and St. Louis. However, no one has committed anywhere near the billions and billions of dollars needed to upgrade existing right of way, acquire new trackage rights, and build new tracks along any of these proposed routes. It seems just a bit premature to commit over half a billion dollars to rolling stock which presently has nowhere to go.

FRA is already planning a second round of bids for construction of locomotives capable of pushing or pulling these cars 125 mph should tracks capable of handling such speeds ever be built. Nobody in government has explained what will be done with 130 bi-level, high speed passenger cars when financing for track and station construction crumbles in Congress, state legislatures and local city councils and village boards across the country in today’s climate of high taxes, high unemployment, and deficit government budgets. Even the most imaginative high speed rail proposals acknowledge that government operating subsidies would be required to keep any of these trains running should tracks for them to run on ever magically materialize across our countryside. Are we busy building high speed railroad tracks to nowhere?

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