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Battle for the Streetcar: A Marathon, not a Sprint

What COASTers dream about at night. (Image: coast-usa.blogspot.com)

Some people apparently can’t take “no” for an answer. Having seen his pet cause, Issue 9, soundly defeated at the polls last year, local NAACP honcho Chris Smitherman is at it again:

The Cincinnati streetcar, the controversial $128 million plan that has traveled a bumpy path from the start, faces more potential rocky spots in 2011, including a possible second attempt to derail it on the ballot.

The local NAACP, which led the push for an unsuccessful 2009 charter amendment that would have effectively killed the streetcar by requiring public votes on future passenger rail projects, is considering another ballot measure next year aimed at achieving the same goal.

The article notes that City Council has already taken all the votes required to get the project up and running, so it’s questionable whether this proposed ballot measure would have any legal standing. Although a small gap in funding remains, more than enough money exists in the streetcar budget to complete the initial loop between downtown and Over-the-Rhine. If the uptown segment must be postponed until additional funding is available, then so be it.

There’s also the issue of timing. If the NAACP actually gets this resolution on the ballot and it passes, that means the streetcar will already have been under construction almost a full year when the referendum results would become effective. It would be the height of idiocy to kill the project when it’s already halfway complete, but then, more idiotic things have happened here (see: the Cincinnati subway). So then Cincinnati would proudly boast of a half-completed subway line, a half-completed streetcar line, a half-demolished train station in Queensgate, and an unused train station under 2nd Street. Making the streetcar out to be a “boondoggle” would have become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There are also questions to be raised about the wording of any such ballot measure. There’s no technical difference between a “streetcar” and a “light rail” line, so the measure’s language would have to be sufficiently broad to cover all possibilities. What would the measure specifically outlaw? All passenger rail? See: Issue 9.

This highlights the problem with direct democracy, and is the reason this nation was wisely set up as a representative republic. If it were up to me, the entire citizen-led referendum process would be entirely scrapped, or at least overhauled so as to make it less likely for things like this to happen. If I got enough signatures, should I be able to amend the city charter such that each city resident gets a million-dollar check and a pony for their birthday? There has to be some legal mechanism for such measures to be struck down when they conflict with the government’s fundamental ability to serve its core functions. Just ask anybody in California how well their exercises in mob rule have worked out.

When Issue 9 was defeated, I warned that it wasn’t yet time for Cincinnatians for Progress and other pro-streetcar groups to pat themselves on the back and simply ride off into the sunset. Unfortunately, that seems to have been exactly what Cincinnatians for Progress has done, given that their blog and email listserv have been silent for nearly a year. Given COAST/Smitherman’s utter lack of credibility, did anybody really believe they would simply throw in the towel after Issue 9, even when they admitted they lost the streetcar fight? The streetcar’s opponents won’t rest until the project is dead and every politician who supported it is out of office, and that means we can’t rest either. Issue 9 was one battle, but the war won’t be over until the day the streetcar makes its first revenue run with paying customers on board.

In the long term, this also highlights the need for a truly regional transit agency that has the authority to plan, fund, and build major infrastructure projects throughout Greater Cincinnati, without being held hostage by parochial politics at the municipal or county level. Such an agency would ideally be modeled after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, two agencies that provide effective transit service that crosses state and county lines. While both the PANYNJ and WMATA each have their shortcomings, a centralized agency that, in theory, functions independently of petty local politics is desperately needed here. Such an authority would ideally have jurisdiction over local transit (including the streetcar, regional rail, and bus routes), interstate river crossings, and the Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Finally, there’s this at the end of the article:

If a second initiative either does not qualify for the ballot or fails to win voters’ approval, opponents believe the new political action committee – Citizens Against Streetcar Swindle – offers another opportunity to try to block the project by cutting off its support inside City Hall.

“We’ll be going after anyone for the streetcar,” said former Cincinnati congressman, mayor and councilman Tom Luken, the group’s treasurer. “If you’re for the streetcar and running for council, 2011 is going to be a tough year.”

If I were running for City Council, I would wear Tom Luken’s opposition as a badge of honor.

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Want Better Public Safety? Then Build the Streetcar

Remember that time Metro Cincinnati exploited the death of a teenager in a horrific car accident to illustrate the need for fewer highways and better public transit? Oh right, you don’t remember that, because it never happened. That hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from exploiting a recent fire in Northside and looming police layoffs to make yet another desperate stand against the streetcar project, despite the incontrovertible fact that the city’s public safety budget and the streetcar budget have precisely nothing to do with each other. In fact, building the streetcar will reduce crime and increase the amount of funding available for police and fire protection, but you’ll never hear that from Tom Luken, COAST, or their stenographers in the local media.

Like Captain Ahab pursuing the great white whale named Moby Dick, Tom Luken’s irrational obsession with killing the streetcar remains unabated. Now the Pequod is sailing again, this time in the form of CASS, a Facebook group and political action committee titled Citizens Against the Streetcar Swindle.

As of this writing they’ve raised a staggering $100 toward their cause, but they’ve gotten plenty of coverage in their friendly local newspaper, complete with a parody of the Mr. Rogers theme song that COAST member Mark Miller must have taken an entire five minutes to write. CASS members include Luken, Miller, the heads of the local police and firefighters unions, and Westwood Concern activist Mary Kuhl. (Westwood Concern, as you may recall, is best known for their shrill rhetoric and threats to secede from the city of Cincinnati).

Operating under Martin Luther’s premise that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn,” yours truly has created a satirical group on Facebook called BANANAS, or Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody, Stupid. Our mission statement is as follows:

Just imagine how much money the city would have for cops and firefighters if we had never built all those expensive sewers, bridges, and paved streets. After all, the city exists to serve the police and firefighters unions, not the other way around. Down with infrastructure!

The central argument being mocked is that streetcar funds should be diverted to preventing the layoffs of police and firefighters as the city struggles to bridge a $60 million shortfall in the operating budget. While it makes for a convenient excuse for more grandstanding, CASS’s argument ignores the fact that the city’s capital funds (from which the streetcar construction is being paid) cannot be used for operational expenses such as police and fire protection. No amount of “but it’s all taxpayer money” will change that, and the Cincinnati Enquirer does a disservice to responsible journalism whenever they fail to report this fact.

(Note to the Enquirer: It’s not enough to simply quote a streetcar opponent and a streetcar supporter in the same article and imply “we report, you decide” for the sake of some mythical notion of objectivity. Journalism means actual research and fact-checking, as opposed to merely serving as a stenographer for the loudest or most extreme people in town.)

Even if the city were to cancel the streetcar project tomorrow, we’d still be looking at a $60M deficit, police layoffs, and fire department brownouts. The federal streetcar funds would simply be given back to Washington for use in some other city, and the municipal bonds would be used on some other capital project, such as another football stadium for Mike Brown.

More cops and firefighters means more money going into the coffers of their respective unions, but it does not necessarily mean a safer city. For example, the crime rates in Dayton continue to decline even as that city has laid off over a hundred police officers. What we need is smarter policing, not necessarily more of it.

But let’s assume for a minute that we really do need more cops and firefighters. One approach would be to simply raise taxes, which would put further financial pressure on city residents and would no doubt have COAST screaming bloody murder. Or we could increase revenue by making the city a more attractive place to live and to do business.

Photo: Randy Simes / UrbanCincy.com

If COAST had any intellectual honesty, they would be applauding the city for pursuing strategies that will increase revenue without raising taxes. Cincinnati is taking a proactive approach to urban development that will revitalize downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and increase the city’s revenue stream via additional businesses and residents along the streetcar route.

As Over-the-Rhine improves, crime will decrease, allowing police to be deployed to other neighborhoods. Instead of a vacant building that provides a den for criminals and creates a public safety hazard, that building will house residents and businesses that contribute to the city’s tax base and make for a safer community. Multiply that effect along the entire streetcar route, and the economic benefits of the streetcar to the entire city become clear.

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Young Americans Less Interested in Driving

We often discuss the benefits that come along with building quality mass transit: economic development, increased mobility, less time stuck in traffic, and better public health.  But a recent MSNBC article illustrates one of the biggest reasons we should be building rail: making sure our city is a place where the next generation wants to live.

Generation Y is less interested in driving and “not as engaged with cars and trucks” as the last two generations, according to George Peterson, president of automotive market research firm AutoPacific.  In 1994, 87 percent of Americans aged 20 to 24 had a driver’s license.  By 2008, this dropped to 82 percent.  You may think this is largely due to the current economy, but that’s just one factor.

A longer-term issue, according to MSNBC, is that younger Americans are more interested in the latest technologies than the latest automobiles.  As we become more connected via the Internet, we become less dependent on our cars and more dependent on our smartphones.

Generation Y is also more concerned about environmental impact than any previous generation.  Although older Americans might not care about (or believe in) ideas like peak oil or climate change, younger Americans do.  As Generation Y continues to make up a larger part of the population, environmental concerns will play into not only personal decisions about buying a car, but also decisions about city-wide recycling programs and light rail ballot initiatives.

One 25-year-old interviewed by MSNBC provided some additional reasons why she went carless:

[Natalie] McVeigh uses public transportation to get to work and likes that she can spend her commute time reading or grading papers.

McVeigh also likes getting the extra exercise when she chooses to walk to work or to the grocery store, and is happy to be saving money and not adding any more pollution to the planet.

And here’s a big one:

“You have all this money, you know, and you decide you could put it all toward the car or you can put it toward other things like clothes, or your social life,” she said.

In other words, money currently being spent on cars and foreign oil can instead be spent at local businesses, pumping money into the local economy.

The carless twenty-somethings interviewed by MSNBC had something important in common: they fell in love with mass transit while experiencing it first-hand in cities like Washington, D.C.  In cities with rail transit, there seems to be no stigma against being carless or riding mass transit, including the bus.  Meanwhile, it cities like Cincinnati with only bus service, the general population isn’t very familiar with light rail, subways, or streetcars.  This unfamiliarity leads to a lack of interest in building better transit, and even a discrimination against those who take it.

Although she knows other people in big East Coast cities who don’t have cars, McVeigh said she remains unusual in Denver.

“It’s still a Western town and everyone has a car,” she said. “Everyone just thinks it’s bizarre that I don’t have a car.”

Building rail transit is about the future of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati can build the streetcar and become one of the cities that attracts Generation Y.  Or we can sit back and do nothing — but we can’t act surprised when our young people move to cities where they’re not forced to own a car, aren’t judged for taking mass transit, and can spend their money on more important things.

Read the full article from MSNBC.

Photo: Jake Mecklenborg

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“Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: A Complete History” Now Available

For the past year, Jake Mecklenborg — the owner of Cincinnati-Transit.net and a contributor to UrbanCincy.com — has been poring over long-lost documents in the public library in order to tell the untold story of Cincinnati’s infamous abandoned subway system. Now, the fruits of his efforts are finally available for purchase. Here’s the description from the book cover:

What of those ghostly catacombs that lie dormant below city streets? Those subway tunnels, never finished, never filled with the screeches of cars and the busy commotion of commuters. Just there. Dead. You’ve heard of the subway’s demise. The tunnels were too thin. The city was too broke. A grand miscalculation. Well, most of what you’ve heard is, sorry to say, untrue. The popular story of the subway’s demise is myth-laden and as incomplete as the original plan. The full story, long buried in mounds of public records dispersed in the city’s libraries, is now revealed. Local author Jake Mecklenborg emerges from those dusty tomes with a fresh, thought-provoking, full examination of the demise of the Cincinnati subway.

The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com, and Jake will be selling copies of the book in person at 8:00 this evening at The Famous Neons Unplugged, 208 East 12th Street (between Main and Sycamore) in Over-the-Rhine. Stop on by, grab a drink, meet the author, and pick up a copy of this fascinating book!

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Portland Lets Cincinnati Borrow their Streetcar for a Weekend

Photo: Ross Hamilton / The Oregonian

Need some cheering up after this week’s election results? I thought so. Then head to 5th and Walnut tomorrow at 1 PM, where Mayor Mallory will officially introduce Cincinnati to a real live modern streetcar, shipped here from Portland specifically for the occasion. The streetcar will be on public display through Wednesday afternoon.

Here is the announcement from transit advocate John Schneider:

Dear Streetcar Supporter,

At 1:00p. on Friday, Mayor Mallory will introduce Cincinnatians to the modern streetcar.

This first modern streetcar made in American since the 1930′s will be positioned at the corner of Fifth and Walnut, near Graeter’s. You’ll be able to inspect it up close and personal, walk inside, and representatives of its manufacturer, United Streetcar of Clackamas, Oregon, will be on hand to answer your questions.

This is a perfect opportunity to pierce the veil of misunderstanding about what our city is trying to do with this project. And so I’m asking you, as one of our most loyal streetcar supporters, to do two things:

* First and foremost, come to the Mayor’s 1:00p news conference at Fifth and Walnut tomorrow. The forecast is for a 30% chance of rain with temperatures in the forties. A huge turnout in iffy weather will be a terrific sign of support. Bring a friend, bring a skeptic, bring a raincoat.

* The streetcar will be in Cincinnati through Wednesday afternoon. Over the next five days, arrange to meet people you know on Fountain Square and show them what we’ve been talking about all these years. There is nothing like seeing the real thing.

This particular vehicle will soon be placed in service as part of the Portland Streetcar fleet. People have gone to a lot of trouble to get it here. It’s a one-time opportunity for Cincinnati and nearby cities with similar ambitions. Let’s make the most of it.

See you there,

John Schneider

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If You Don’t Vote Today, Don’t Complain Tomorrow

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but it’s worth saying anyway: If you haven’t done so already, get out there and vote. This election features a number of races that are crucial for our long-term viability as a region, particularly in regards to mass transit.

For Hamilton County Commission, we have Jim Tarbell, a streetcar advocate and tireless advocate of Over-the-Rhine, running a positive campaign against COAST-endorsed Chris “Son of the Suburbs” Monzel, who has defined his campaign by his opposition to the streetcar project. Although the streetcar is a city issue and the county commission is powerless to stop the project, it is crucial to have a pro-city voice at the county level in the person of Jim Tarbell.

At the state level, Governor Ted Strickland has been supportive of the much-needed 3C rail line serving Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, which will serve as the foundation for future high-speed rail service in Ohio. John Kasich has vowed to kill the project, even though it means sending $400 million back to the feds, which will promptly be spent in some other state.

At the federal level, Steve Chabot (OH-1) and Rob Portman (OH-Sen) have come out against the 3C project, and have explicitly stated that transit funding would not be a priority for them. Metro Cincinnati endorses Steve Driehaus (OH-1) and Surya Yalamanchili (OH-2) for the House of Representatives, and Lee Fisher for Senate.

The mainstream media has already decreed that today will be an electoral bloodbath for pro-transit candidates, and our own newspaper has endorsed a full slate of candidates who are actively crusading against Cincinnati’s best interests. Let’s prove them wrong, and put some egg on the face of the Enquirer’s editorial board while we’re at it.

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Back to School

This is a quick update to let you know that after many months of anticipation, I’ve finally begun my Master of Architecture degree at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. I’m currently enrolled in 16 credit hours, and as such, I probably won’t have time to update the Metro Cincinnati blog as often as I’d like. Be assured that any apparent lack of activity on this site doesn’t reflect a loss on interest on my part, just a loss of spare time.

Add Metro Cincinnati to your RSS feed to be informed of new content as it appears. Also, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

In addition, contributions from guest authors are always welcome. If you have some thoughts that align with the mission of this site and would like to get them out there, feel free to contact me.

Transit 101: Intercity Rail and High-Speed Rail

Transit 101 is an occasional series that will focus on the history and technology of modern-day public transit systems. The current topic is a primer on the various modes of rail transit.

Part I: Streetcars and Interurbans
Part II: Heavy Rail and Light Rail
Part III: Commuter Rail
Part IV: Intercity Rail and High-Speed Rail

Photo: Amtrak

Previous installments of the Transit 101 series have focused on rail travel within a particular metropolitan area, ranging from streetcars within a neighborhood to commuter trains that reach far-flung suburbs. For this final installment on the topic of various modes of rail transit, we will focus on regional and long-distance trains that connect cities with each other. For the purposes of this article, we will focus primarily on intercity rail travel within the United States, which is provided by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly known as Amtrak. We will also touch upon the development of high-speed rail systems overseas, particularly in France and Japan, and recent efforts to bring high-speed rail to the US.

Amtrak

The previous Transit 101 article on commuter rail includes a brief history of passenger rail in general, as well as a link to a more comprehensive Wikipedia article.

Around the same time commuter rail lines were being divested by railroads and being taken over by public transit agencies, long-distance passenger rail travel was facing a similar situation. In response to this, President Nixon signed the Passenger Rail Service Act in 1970, which created the legal framework for the passenger rail system now known as Amtrak, which was organized the following year.

Opponents of passenger rail, primarily the railroads who wished to see their tracks dedicated to more profitable freight service, saw the creation of Amtrak as a politically expedient way to kill passenger rail altogether, thinking the service would wither and die after only a couple years. Many passenger rail proponents, meanwhile, thought Amtrak would ultimately become self-sustaining. Neither prediction has come true, however. Despite shifts in political fortunes over the years, Amtrak has seen a slow but steady increase in passenger miles traveled, with 27.1 million passengers served in FY 2009. Amtrak currently serves over 500 destinations in 46 US states and three Canadian provinces, in addition to serving as a contract carrier for 15 state-supported rail corridors and four commuter rail agencies throughout the United States.

Amtrak service map as of 2008. (Source: Amtrak / Wikimedia Commons)

Amtrak’s intercity rail service can be thought of as falling into one of two broad categories: regional and long-distance. Amtrak’s regional routes are generally less than 500 miles long, and are centered around major cities such as New York and Chicago. Examples of Amtrak regional service include such routes as the Hiawatha line between Chicago and Milwaukee, the Lincoln Service between Chicago and St. Louis, and the various routes that serve the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston. Amtrak’s Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor is currently the nation’s only true high-speed rail service, and several other regional corridors are slated for upgrades that will eventually lead to high-speed service. When built, Ohio’s 3C corridor will fall into this category of rail service.

Amfleet coach 21267. (Photo: trainweb.com)

Amtrak regional trains tend to offer more passenger amenities than typical commuter trains, and may include checked baggage, cafe cars, and more comfortable seating with reading lamps and power outlets. However, regional trains typically do not offer the dining facilities and overnight sleeper cars found on the railroad’s long-distance trains. Amtrak regional service in the Midwest and Northeast relies heavily on the distinctive single-level Amfleet coaches built between 1973 and 1983, many of which have now been extensively refurbished.

For long-distance service outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak typically operates double-deck Superliner coaches, which offer a number of improvements over the Amfleet coaches. (Superliners do not operate on the Northeast Corridor due to vertical clearance restrictions, particularly in the tunnels leading to and from New York’s Penn Station.) Superliner coaches include coach seating cars, dining cars, cafe/observation cars, and sleeper cars. These cars feature low-level platform boarding onto the lower level of the car, with the upper level serving as the primary riding area. The lower levels are used for entry vestibules, lavatory facilities, seating and sleeping areas for passengers with disabilities, and service areas. This configuration allows passengers to walk through the cars from one end of the train to the other without having to navigate around other passengers who may be waiting to exit the train at the next stop, and the passenger compartment is better separated from drafts that occur when the doors are open, as well as odors from the lavatory facilities.

Distinctive features of Amtrak’s long-distance trains include dining cars that often feature regional cuisine based on where the train is traveling, observation cars that offer cafe service and panoramic views of the passing scenery, and a variety of private sleeper rooms. With such amenities, Superliner trains on Amtrak’s long-distance routes can be thought of as hotels on rails.

Upper level of a Superliner Sightseer Lounge car. (Photo: Amtrak)

Intercity trains outside the Northeast Corridor are typically pulled by diesel locomotives and travel at speeds of up to 79 MPH, although some corridors are in the process of being upgraded for speeds of 110 MPH and faster. Almost all trains on the Northeast Corridor are electric-powered. On some sections of the Northeast Corridor, Acela Express trains reach speeds of 150 MPH, with speeds of 125 MPH common on other parts of the corridor.

As of this writing, Cincinnati’s sole passenger rail service is Amtrak’s Cardinal, which operates between Chicago and New York City three times a week in each direction, calling at Union Terminal.

High-Speed Rail: The Shinkansen and the TGV

High-speed rail is often thought of as a new technological wonder, but in reality, trains have been operating at speeds of over 100 MPH for over a century. In 1903, an electric-powered train reached a speed of 126 MPH on a military railroad between Marienfeld and Zossen in Germany. The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad’s Electroliner interurban cars were tested at 110 MPH and routinely ran at 90 MPH between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Despite some experimentation with gas turbine-powered trains in the United States, most technological development related to high-speed rail has taken place overseas, particularly in Japan and France. Each country had seen its rail infrastructure devastated by the Second World War, and were eager to rebuild during the postwar years.

High-speed rail, in the modern sense, got its start in Japan in the 1950′s. The cities of Tokyo and Osaka had a combined population of over 45 million, and existing highway and rail corridors between the two cities had reached capacity. Construction on a dedicated high-speed rail line — using standard-gauge track as opposed to the narrow gauge more commonly found in Japan, and free of grade crossings and interference from other forms of rail traffic — began in 1959 and was opened in time for the Olympics in 1964. The new Shinkansen trains (roughly translating to “bullet” train) reached a speed of 160 MPH during a test run in 1963, and trains in regular passenger service reached top speeds of 130 MPH and maintained an average speed of 101 MPH.

In the years since then, the Japanese high-speed rail network has grown to cover over 1500 miles, and the initial segment between Tokyo and Osaka remains the busiest high-speed rail corridor in the world, with 16-car trains operating every three minutes during peak periods.

This amateur video shows the ride on a 500-Series Shinkansen train from Kyoto to Tokyo:

TGV Duplex in Paris (Photo: Sebastian Terfloth / Wikipedia)

The success of high-speed rail in Japan, combined with rising oil prices and increased traffic congestion, prompted interest in the development of high-speed rail in Europe. In 1981, France opened its first Train à Grande Vitesse (“high-speed train”), or TGV line between Paris and Lyon, using electric-powered trainsets built by Alstom.

The TGV network now covers over 1000 miles within France and in neighboring countries (including the Channel Tunnel to the United Kingdom), with three new lines currently under construction. The TGV system carried over 98 million passengers in 2008, and generated approximately $1.75 billion in profits for SNCF, the French national railway company, in 2007. Most TGV trains operate at an average speed of up to 173.6 MPH, with top speeds of up to 199 MPH.

On April 3, 2007, a TGV test train driven by Eric Pieczak set a land speed record of 357.2 MPH, the fastest speed ever achieved by a conventional train using steel wheels on steel rails. Maglev trains have achieved faster speeds, but require an entirely new infrastructure to support them, as conventional high-speed trains can operate on mainline railroad tracks shared with other rail traffic, such as when approaching a major urban center.

Of particular interest is the TGV’s remarkable safety record. The advanced signaling system used by the TGV is designed to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place, compared to the American mindset of mandating heavy, fortress-like railcars to protect passengers once an accident has occurred. Despite top speeds of almost 200 MPH, the TGV has never experienced a passenger fatality due to a derailment while running at high-speed. There have been three derailments at high-speed, including an incident in 1993 in which a train derailed while traveling at 186 MPH, the fastest train derailment in history. Due to the stiff, articulated construction of the trainsets that prevent railcars from “jacknifing”, the TGV trains remain upright and parallel with the tracks.

Although not updated in a number of years, the TGVweb site provides an excellent historical and technical overview of the TGV system. In recent years, numerous other countries have begun developing their own high-speed rail networks, particularly Germany, Spain, and China.

The following amateur video shows a variety of passing TGV trains, as seen from the trackside:

High-Speed Rail in the United States

Amtrak's Acela Express at Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut (Photo: Adam Moreira / Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the advances of high-speed rail technology overseas, high oil prices, and increasing congestion on the nation’s highways and in its airports, passenger rail service in general and high-speed rail in particular have been slow to develop in the United States. The reasons are varied, ranging from pressure from oil and highway lobbyists on elected officials, to cumbersome FRA regulations that make it all but illegal to import high-speed rail technology from abroad, to a populace that has now gone several generations without exposure to a large-scale passenger rail network and is now skeptical of its benefits. Fortunately, the tide is turning.

America’s first foray into the world of high-speed rail is in the form of the Acela Express, Amtrak’s premium high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and Boston. Planning for the Acela began in 1994, and a joint venture between Bombardier and Alstom was created to manufacture and maintain the trainsets. The first trains in regular passenger service premiered in December 2000, reaching speeds of 150 MPH in some parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Since its introduction, the Acela Express has captured over half the market share of rail or air travelers between New York and Boston, and is one of the few Amtrak routes to turn a profit. In recent years, the Acela Express service has become a victim of its own success, with trains frequently selling out well in advance, and overcrowding becoming an increasing problem. Additional service was added in 2005, and additional trainsets may soon be purchased to provide further service increases.

Despite its popularity, a variety of technical problems have hindered the Acela Express. Due to FRA crashworthiness regulations, an Acela Express trainset weighs almost twice as much per axle as a comparable TGV trainset. This has led to premature wear on several of the train’s components, particularly the trucks and the braking system. South of New Haven, the Acela Express operates on infrastructure that dates back to the 1890′s in some areas, and is forced to operate at much slower speeds than it would otherwise be capable of, barely reaching 100 MPH in many sections. Crowding on the Northeast Corridor is also an issue, as the Acela Express must share tracks with a wide variety of commuter and regional trains; a delay on one train can have a ripple effect throughout the entire Northeast Corridor. Resolving these issues will require a substantial public investment.

In 2009, President Obama laid out a vision for a nationwide network of high-speed rail lines in the United States, with corridors planned along the East Coast, California, the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, and in the Midwest. A number of these corridors are now in advanced planning stages, particularly the corridors between St. Louis and Chicago, Tampa and Orlando, and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Some of these corridors will initially be served by diesel-powered trains operating at speeds of up to 110 MPH, while others will be served by electric-powered trains operating at speeds of up to 250 MPH.

Image: WhiteHouse.gov

Although the proposed 3C Corridor between Cincinnati and Cleveland is initially slated to operate 79 MPH conventional trains, long-term plans call for the corridor to be upgraded to high-speed service. Along with high-speed rail service to Chicago via Indianapolis, and potential high-speed service to New York via Columbus and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati is poised to become an important hub for high-speed rail in the Midwest. With rapid transit access between Union Terminal and the Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport, high-speed rail trains have the potential to serve as feeders to long-distance air travel, and could position our airport as a viable alternative to larger airports such as O’Hare and Hartsfield.

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It’s Official: Streetcar will use Vine Street

With construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar now a near-certainty, debate had shifted to which route the streetcar would take between Over-the-Rhine and Uptown. The two routes in consideration were Vine Street and Clifton Avenue, each of which has its pros and cons. On Tuesday, the City Manager released the following statement:

I’m writing to make sure you are among the first to know that the City of Cincinnati has chosen the Vine Street alternative as the route the streetcar will take to reach the Uptown area.  This route is the least expensive, offers the fewest engineering challenges and best positions the streetcar for future expansion.

We reached this decision after a process that was both inclusive and comprehensive.  The City and a group of stakeholders along both Vine Street and the alternative route, West Clifton Avenue, have been meeting to collect input and share ideas about each route for months.  The group was informed of the City’s decision at a meeting this afternoon.  In the final analysis, Vine Street was the best decision.

We estimate that the West Clifton route would have added some $20 million to the streetcar’s construction cost and $250,000 annually to operations.  The Vine Street route is not as steep, has fewer curves and offers a shorter commute time.  The Vine Street route also connects the streetcar to University Plaza, Kroger, the Short Vine entertainment district and The Christ Hospital, and is a logical jump-off point for future routes that would include University Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s and the Zoo.

Clearly, interest and excitement in the streetcar are increasing.  I appreciate your input on this critical issue.  I invite you to continue working with us to make this project a success.

Milton Dohoney
City of Cincinnati

Although the proponents of the Clifton Avenue alignment make valid arguments, I concur with Dohoney’s statement that the Vine Street route provides the best opportunities for future expansion of the streetcar system, and is in keeping with the long-term goals of the Metro Cincinnati project. As Brad Thomas mentions on the CincyStreetcar Blog:

Cincystreetcar.com is pleased with the City’s decision of Vine Street, which will position the Streetcar for future expansion into Avondale, Corryville and Walnut Hills. Also, we do not have to change our maps.

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Gridlock Ensues as Mass Transit is Reduced

Anti-transit group COAST is back up to its usual routine, publishing yet another attack piece on mass transit.  But in their attempt to bash rail, COAST actually proves how necessary public transportation is.

Various sources are reporting on a nationwide strike occurring in France, which is disrupting bus, rail, and air travel.  Several labor unions unrelated to transportation also are involved in the strike, causing post offices, schools, hospitals, and radio stations across the country to close.

COAST writes about the gridlock that ensued as transit options were reduced:

Commuters in Paris packed into cars during the reduced service, and London buses were overflowing. City sidewalks were full of walkers and thousands of bikers took to the streets in both capitals.

As usual, COAST goes on to argue in favor of increased automobile dependence, equating driving with “freedom” and “self-reliance.”  But in this case, you can see that gridlock, not freedom, is the true consequence of an auto-only transportation network. Although COAST titled their article “Government Trains Cripple France & Britain,” it’s apparent that quite the opposite is true — France and Britain’s transit systems are crippled without rail transit.

We know this situation all too well in Cincinnati, where we currently lack rail.  Just this weekend, the Brent Spence Bridge was jam-packed with traffic as other bridges were closed during Riverfest.  Two rail tracks connecting Ohio and Kentucky could have carried more riders than all 8 barely-crawling lanes of the Brent Spence Bridge, combined.

COAST also takes a jab at the cost of rail transit.  But let’s think about the astronomical cost of the roads and highways that would be necessary if France’s rail system didn’t exist.  How many additional lane-miles of highways would the taxpayers have to fund? How many private homes would the government need to purchase and demolish?  What about the indirect costs of increased pollution, lost time spent in traffic, and decreased health associated with a car-centric lifestyle?

You might buy into COAST’s argument that “roads pay for themselves”, but even The American Conservative now understands that’s just a myth.  According to William S. Lind, co-author of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, “Highways only cover 58 percent of their costs from user fees, including the gas tax.”  That means 42% of the cost of highways is subsidized by the American taxpayer.

COAST also fails to mention the backups at France’s airports as the number of flights were reduced during the strike.  COAST has rarely commented on air travel, perhaps because they’re not sure how to categorize it.  Although airlines are privately operated, the government operates the Federal Aviation Administration and spends great sums of money building airport concourses and runways.  In the 1990s, the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport spent $400 million on runway and concourse construction; much of this infrastructure is now sitting dormant due to flight reductions in recent years.  If that doesn’t warrant a “boondoggle” label from COAST, we’re not sure what does.

Planes also don’t meet the “freedom” and “self-reliance” criteria that COAST lays out for transportation, unless you happen to have your pilot’s license.

We predict COAST will continue to complain about investment in rail transit while ignoring the significantly larger subsidies given to road infrastructure in the United States.  But if COAST truly wanted to live up to its libertarian ideals, they would be arguing for the most efficient and cost-effective multi-modal transit system possible, which should include both roads and rail.

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