Rebuilding America

Population Density

For those of you who are new to this conversation, the issue of a bottom-up, decentralized rebuilding of America has been a regular issue. We are calling it The New Federalism and you can catch up by entering that phrase into this blog’s search engine. In the past, projects like the Interstate Highway System, the invention of real time computing and the Internet, have all been decentralized massive development efforts funded by the tax payers in cooperation with both business and academia. It is my contention that the only way out of the “hollowed-out economy” trap we have put ourselves in is through a massive, decentralized public-private effort at making our economy much more energy efficient. In late February we talked about the possibilities in Solar and wind energy and more importantly the storage of electricity.

Today I want to float another idea–in the transportation sector. In the last ten days, four commuter airlines have gone bankrupt because of the cost of fuel. Compared to Europe, Japan, China and Korea our commuter transportation system is wildly inefficient because we use small jets instead of high speed rail.

Mag Lev Train

Last year a Japanese Mag-Lev train (above) set a world speed record at 581 KM/H. Looking at the population density map of the United States (Top picture) you can obviously see several regions where this kind of city to city high speed link would be far superior to the current commuter airline system: Boston-New York Washington;Raleigh Durham-Charlotte-Atlanta-Nashville-Memphis-St Louis;Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit-Indianapolis-Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis;Dallas-Houston-San Antonio; San Diego-Los Angeles-San Jose-San Francisco-Portland-Washington. These also happen to be the routes with the majority of commuter air traffic (map below)

Regional Air Routes

Assuming that we could agree that high speed electrical powered rail was both more efficient and much less polluting–and at 400 MPH city center to city center–more time efficient; then how could we undertake a massive project to build such a system in America? Clearly we have manufacturing giants like GE and GM already with idle factories that know how to build large infrastructure. GE builds both diesel and jet engines. GM builds bus bodies (not so different from rail cars). But if we said that any world firm could bid for the business, as long as they built it in the US we would not be protectionist.  Needless to say, we have a huge underemployed work force that knows how to build transportation equipment. We would also have to undertake a massive rebuilding of the railroad bed for high speed trains and that would employ a lot of underemployed construction workers.

I don’t pretend to know what role taxpayer dollars would play in this situation. It seems to me the various regions might have different approaches though I believe a tax on gasoline that brought us a little closer to European and Asian gas prices (so they would have no competitive advantage) would both pay for the system and send market signals to auto buyers to get more efficient cars. I know the libertarians are going to scream about this post. But the invisible hand of the market has not induced any efficiency in the American oil consumption in 30 years. Now we are shocked that the combination of the weak dollar and rising Asian demand is forcing us to confront reality. This is just one suggestion of the kind of confident project, like Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System that could galvinize an Alternative Energy Business where we could become the world leader.

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0 Responses to Rebuilding America

  1. AKA The Hammer says:

    I like the idea of high speed rail between metro hubs. It is probable that the cost is doable with a combination of gas taxes and say, a per mile/per rated gallon charge for auto registration.

    We already have the rights-of-way – the interstate highway system in large measure would work.

    It is strictly a people issue. don’t know if you’re familiar with the rail proposals from the North end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north cities through Marin and Sonoma counties. It is a text book case where a few have defeated the interests and wishes of the many – for nearly 35 years.

    I’m sure there are other examples, but this one really sticks because it is all those “green” folks in Marin who keep killing it.

    Another issue that would help our energy consumption is telecommuting. It is very efficient, and many studies have shown that telecommuters are very efficient. The problem again is people – a lot of bosses don’t like it because office politics are minimized and job performance is considerable more on results and way less on politics and ass kissing.

    I believe these are luxuries, like out SUVs and such that are going to have to go the way of the Dodo.

    There are many other possibilities – but folks are going to have to get WAY MORE realistic than they are now…

  2. Johnathan says:

    Even a revamp of our low-speed train service could go a long way toward energy independence. Trains are one of this country’s biggest fuel hogs — BNSF is the world’s single largest consumer of diesel! That could change dramatically if the railroads were required to electrify their lines.

    Since the Federal Government deregulated the rail industry in the 1970s, it has become both slower and more expensive to take a train across this country than a bus or a plane, and passenger service in rural America has become nonexistent. Cargo service is still everywhere, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have passenger rail service everywhere. All it would take to get America back on the tracks would be one passenger car and one attendant on every junker, grainer, and hotshot running.

  3. Morgan Warstler says:

    This isn’t hard IF you sacrifice social programs to spend the money this way and it will work!

    Republicans and Democrats alike will support the infrastructure, but you have to trust your own ideas enough to follow through. New jobs will be created this way, so we can’t afford/have as much social net.

    The quickest way to get something you want to do, is to sacrifice something you already have. In fact, that is the surest sign you actually want something, when you sacrifice to get it.

    The question is how much do you want it?

  4. Rachel says:

    I must confess to finding it much easier to do NY-Boston on Amtrack than suffering the vagaries of any of the NY airports and Logan.

    However I think one significant cultural advance Japanese high speed rail has over most other nations is the cultural prohibition on the use of cellphones for talking while on public transport. You can do anything else you like with a cellphone on a Japanese train – text, play music, go online – but you can’t talk on it. Heaven!

    Hey Morgan, I’ll sacrifice a couple of Virginia-class submarines for a good public transport system – how about you? It would only take a couple! And it’s not like the US needs submarines to take on Al Qaeda. In fact spending the money reducing the nation’s need for oil would probably do a lot more for security than deploying more nukes.

  5. Morgan Warstler says:

    Sorry Rachel, looks like you aren’t very serious about it… it’d be so much easier to find common ground on a trillion dollar infrastructure initiative if you were worrying about the stuff you could give up.

    The way it works is you say, “I’ll give up this, what will you give up?”

  6. Patrick Freeman says:

    One very real problem with using rail service in the US is just the very size of the country. I have traveled by train in England and in Europe, and found it to be efficient, fast, comfortable, and reasonably priced. Here, in the US, I have investigated rail travel and found it to be, at best, inefficient and slow. My wife and I frequently (2X per year) travel from Las Cruces, NM to Richmond, VA and Washington, DC. The current Amtrak schedule requires 4 days to make the trip, at a cost certainly comparable to air travel. And with frequent flyer miles, seasonal ticket sales, etc, air travel can often be much cheaper. It takes us a leisurely 4 days to drive, and we have friends and relatives to visit along the way.

    While my wife and I are retired and have plenty of time to travel the convenience of auto travel makes that our preferred mode of transport. With the current lunatic security theater surrounding air travel in the US, there is no way, short of a real emergency, that we will board an airliner for interstate travel.

    Governor Richardson has pushed the Railrunner, a commuter rail system in New Mexico. Currently, it runs only between Belen (a commuter suburb south of Albuquerque) and Albuquerque itself. The system is being extended to Santa Fe (about 50 miles north), but as far as I know, there are no plans to extend it to southern NM, to Las Cruces, with a population of about 90,000 the second largest city in the state. That may change in the future, since there is a pretty constant flow of traffic between Las Cruces and Albuquerque, and Las Cruces is only 30 miles or so from El Paso, with a population of about 600,000. This system is not perfect, and doesn’t even support itself at present, but with startlingly high gasoline prices, that may change.

    With respect to your point about high speed rail, just give me the opportunity to make a rail journey from Las Cruces to Washington, or to San Francisco or Seattle, at high speed and at reasonable cost, and I’ll be there. I think there is a real future for rail travel here, but the Amtrak model is not the way forward. Most of Congress seems to hate Amtrak, and only grudgingly support it, and it seems to be constantly in a state of financial stress. With a real, useful, and efficient passenger rail system, there will be a need for federal, and even state money, to get things going, but high speed rail, across the continent, operated for profit by companies who must compete with air and automobile travel, can offer an alternative to both that will be both attractive, in a comfort and safety sense, and cost-effective.

  7. Roads says:

    Well done, Jon. That’s a great idea.

    It takes time, but eventually you can connect an entire continent. The high speed train network can take you all the way from London to just about anywhere in France, the low countries, Germany, Italy and Spain. And it can get you to all those places in just about the same time, at a fraction of the carbon emissions.

  8. Mark Murphy says:

    I agree with the concept. However, here’s another line item to add to the cost: parking.

    For city residents, trains are very convenient, as they can take public transportation from their apartment/townhome/whatever to the train station. Residents in the suburbs have no problem getting to the city — after all, gazillions of commuters do it all the time. But, commuters aren’t parking overnight.

    When I lived in Northern Virginia, I had to drive to Union Station and park there, as few (if any) Metro stations in NoVA allowed overnight parking. Fortunately, the Union Station parking deck frequently had spaces.

    When I lived in NJ, I would commute into NYC via NJ Transit. That would work for getting to the high-speed rail station…except that my area NJ Transit stations didn’t allow overnight parking.

    If you look at how big a business airport parking is, you’ll get the scope of the problem if a lot of that is supposed to be transferred to trains.

    Compared to implementing the rail lines themselves, this is a trivial problem — all high-speed rail stations need an attached overnight parking facility, and all city public transportation networks need a handful of overnight parking stations. That, plus the private sector, should meet the need. In fact, the private sector should have a field day, creating home-to-rail transportation services that emphasize cleanliness and safety, two things many suburbanites will feel that cities and public transportation will be lacking.

    The only reason I bring it up is that this is an issue that John and Jane Q. Public will feel. They may not have much appreciation for what it takes to build a national high-speed rail network, but they sure have an appreciation of what it means to not be able to park.

  9. Brian says:

    Electric power on American rails will never be expanded beyond what is currently in use. The cost is prohibitive even if fuel goes to $10 a gallon as it is in Europe. It would take a massive tax increase to generate the trillions of dollars needed to convert even a few main lines to electric power.

    All rail passenger systems run at a deficit that is made up by public spending. It is impossible to run any mass transit system of any size solely by fare revenue. It takes money, lots of money paid by taxes to move people.

    The gas tax pays for roads for cars and trucks. The various airline taxes pay for airports. There are no similar taxes funneled towards passenger rail.

    One of the major issues with Amtrak is that they own very little of the infrastructure the trains use. Freight has the priority over passenger service and therefore, timetables are very slow in many cases.

    To upgrade just the Northeast Corridor according to this article would be over thirty billion dollars and that’s a line that has been electrified for nearly a century.

  10. Hugo Boom says:

    Finding an acceptable compromise trading off entitlements against big ticket pork projects may turn out to be one of the easy steps on this path. Unwinding the regional transit interests and subsidies that allow areas like the San Francisco – San Jose corridor to have so many competing public transit organizations may prove to be more complicated. The sclerotic system here in the north east is marginally less confusing but would be no easier to integrate. All the feeder infrastructure including parking needs to be in place for something like this to work and that is where the tangle starts. If handled poorly the resulting “national transit company” rising from the side deals of the untangled regional markets could have all the worst qualities of a large conglomerate and a trade union … But having a comprehensive national transportation policy would be nice for a change.

  11. Jon Taplin says:

    Patrick- I really thing rail service is ideal for the 750 mile or less commute. As Roads points out, eventually a service would make it possible to travel coast to coast in a reasonable time, but jets are far more efficient for that.

    Brian-Go check out the new supplies of electricity I referenced in the article. Massive solar farms in the deserts of the west could provide the electricity for such a system.

    Morgan- You are right. We will have to cut back on other expenses to build such a system that would provide good jobs for America and reduce pollution. How about starting with the Iraq War which costs $12 billion a month?

  12. Ken Ballweg says:

    Having experienced the bullet train in Japan, compared to feeder lines in the US, I know which the public would prefer, and be willing to support with tax dollars, if it could simply be realized in some miraculous fell swoop.

    However, Mark and Brian both point out why it will never happen: to many sacred business cows. It would take a prohibitive chunk of capital to buy everyone out in order to do it right, and, like Amtrak, if you do it halfway, the critics and special interests will pick you apart.

    Morgan is wrong to assert that there would ever be bipartisan support for the level of commitment necessary to do it right, because that would die at the first cry of SOCIALISM!!!, which like TAX INCREASE!! is the instant response of the special interests, and the instant death of anything as rational as this.


  13. Curtis Faith says:

    I’ve been working on ideas for replacing our infrastructure for quite a while.

    The real problem here is the political risk and the types of people making these decisions. Politicians don’t want to try new technology that will displace existing businesses – which have plenty of employees/voters.

    I believe that we need to rethink our transportation completely.

    Large train MagLev is too proprietary expensive and does not save enough energy. Trains like the existing MagLev systems in Asia are too expensive and require too much exotic technology to get things off the ground. They also weigh too much. To increase energy efficiency we need light vehicles so that we don’t have a 10:1 to 30:1 ratio of vehicle to cargo like we do in a typical car or SUV. Trains are no better than cars.

    We don’t need trains we need replacements for cars that won’t crash, that can go 200 to 300 mph in an energy efficient manner, that we can drive from our house, that don’t require our attention for most of the trip so we can work or relax, that park themselves automatically, that allow a mix of privately owned vehicles and public vehicles, that can supplant much of our trucking traffic, that integrates metropolitan transit systems with long-distance systems without stations, that requires no waiting and no slowdowns as traffic nears capacity, that can be serviced easily without taking capacity offline, that uses far less land than the highways, that cannot derail or crash, and that can be implemented for lower costs than a modern two-lane highway, among other benefits.

    The technology for this exists today. We could also design such a system so that it would be upgradeable to new technology as it comes out.

    Finally, we need a standardized infrastructure so that many manufacturers can build the parts, track, systems, vehicles, etc. This will limit the fighting among manufacturers as to which is the “best” technology. These sorts of fights derail most efforts.

    If we do this right we can revitalize our rust belt cities as we gear up to build this infrastructure.

    – Curtis

  14. Morgan Warstler says:

    Wait, we didn’t say it would be run by the government.

  15. John Hurt says:

    How about adding a monorail system above the freeways in Los Angeles?

  16. Rachel says:

    John Hurt, can we have something that isn’t a monorail? The problem with Monorails is that they are inevitably constrained design-wise such that their cabins are very narrow. This makes them suited for metro-style transportation only. And metro trips need to be 15-20 minutes, maximum. As soon as you get to longer trips, you need heavier systems, with more seating, for people to consider using them.

    My general impression of Los Angeles is that every trip, even on the Freeway, takes at least 30 minutes, so Metro-style transport isn’t really the way to go. I mean, it’s better than the current lack of infrastructure, but it’s a long way from ideal.

  17. jb says:

    I too like the idea of a fast efficient rail system. However we have a few issues that make it especially hard to do in the US. Not impossible, but hard:

    1. Size – The US is a very large country with many areas that are sparsely populated (much larger and more sparsely populated than most countries with successful rail programs). Capital to lay track in those areas cost the same as in heavily populated areas, but does not increase the catchment (and thus revenue potential) like laying more rail in densely populated areas. Potential solution: Only put rail in densely populated areas like the NE corridor and possibly up the California coast.

    2. Design – High speed rail requires, for the most part, very straight lines (the UK experimented with leaning trains for high-speed use on rails that are not straight. It was a spectacular failure.) Unlike roads, rail cannot detour around land owners that will not sell, other infrastructure, etc. This again increases the cost.

    3. Land rights – The US has a very strong history of landowner rights, and most people don’t want the government to tell them that they have to sell their property in order for rail to be installed. Yes there are rules to allow this, but imagine the litigation. This is similar to 4:

    4. Government style – Even if the majority wanted the high speed rail, there is still a good chance that a minority could “derail” (ha) the project. The litigation this would generate would be enormous.

    I would love to see a project like this go through, I just think that for it to work there will have to be a level of focus on the order of the Apollo program or the Manhattan project. In both of those cases there was clear and present external threat that led to everyone in the US aligning around accomplishing the goal. What kind of external threat could create the same level of urgency here?

    Perhaps WW3 locking up all the oil supply in the mid-east for 20 years would do it. . .

  18. Jon Taplin says:

    JB- In some of the commuter corridors I’ve mentioned, there is already a decent right of way, needing only major track improvement for high speed rail.

    One of the things we’ve been talking about here is the nation has to get to the point where we can make structural improvements that are not based around the defense budget “external threat” matrix. We all know Ike had to sell the Interstate Highway system as a Defense project and the Internet started out as a Defense network, but hopefully we could move beyond this.

  19. Curtis Faith says:

    Here is an animation that shows one advanced idea , Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) that solves many different problems, especially if it is extended to include high-speed intercity and interstate travel:

    There are quite a few things that need to be changed for energy efficiency but this video shows a radical departure from our current train orientation which is little changed from the mid-1980s. Trains weigh too much.

    @Rachel, I disagree that monorails won’t work. The concept – especially for a hanging monorail which has plenty of other benefits – does not imply a particular cabin size. Even if it does, the PRT concept is like a car, in that you can get off and stop whenever you want. That’s the problem with long-distance. Not the size of the cabin but the inability to easily get off and rest.

    We have no problem driving a few hours when we know that we can go to a gas station or rest area to go the the bathroom, or a restaurant to eat.

    We need to combine the best of the auto with the best of high-speed rail to get lower costs.

  20. Rachel says:

    Curtis, that’s cute, but if you’re going to go to personalised pods, why not just embrace robot electric cars? There’s a little demonstration test track at Odaiba in Tokyo where prototype robot cars whiz around with fathers and sons enjoying themselves hugely (gotta love Japan). The technology works by embedding sensors every 15-20 feet along the roadway. When a car needs to get off a sensor-equipped road, the onboard processor can drive the car at slower speed. In order to reduce the processing power needed to compute obstacles etc, the car’s computer (operating on the assumption that most people drive the same routes over and over again, or into the same driveways) only looks for changes in the surroundings since last time, rather than calculating everything. The result is a remarkably speedy robot, which can manouevre and park a vehicle very quickly.

    So, who needs rails at all?

    It also occurs to me that if we’re talking about public transit, as opposed to personalised transit such as the PRT or robot cars, it may be necessary to recognise that some cultures are simply not good at adapting to it. As Jared Diamond has noted, some cultures choose to become extinct rather than give up their values, and it seems to me rather unlikely that US citizens, in their democratic way, are ever likely to let go of the personal mobility afforded by the car. Manhattanites aside, that is. But then New Yorkers are a special breed.

    Personally, one of the things I love about Japan is its rail networks. But rail travel – and sharing personal space – is deeply ingrained in the culture there.

  21. Rachel says:

    Here’s a somewhat hilarious video of the Odaiba experiment. Note the cars aren’t on rails – but they track so consistently along one path that they’ve worn the surface of the road smooth. Might have to develop a little fuzziness of movement to improve the pavement in the future:

    Anyway, this is the first generation – the next ones will doubtless be much, much better.

  22. Curtis Faith says:

    Rachel et al.,

    If all you are trying to do is make cars safer then the robot car idea is an improvement.

    It does not eliminate traffic, lower costs, work better in an urban/pedestrian-rich environment, lower energy costs, etc.

    The reason for rails is that the rolling resistance of steel on steel is 10 to 50 times lower than for pneumatic tires required for normal roadways. Further since road-capable vehicles are heavy, they require infrastructure that is heavy and expensive to build. Even a simple bridge across another roadway is expensive.

    Contrast a monorail system with pods that do not have an on-vehicle motor system.

    All you need to make two tracks cross is for one of the tracks to be higher than the other. Add 10 to 12 feet of height to a few support poles and you have a high-speed crossing at a cost a tiny fraction of your typical highway bridge.

    You can have pedestrian traffic under the system which would free up the land for highway right of way for parks and other public use.

    You can build the system using linear electric motor technology which means that there is no need for drive mechanisms and resulting weight on the vehicle. All the vehicle would require is fixed permanent magnets.

    The video shows a driveable pod but I think this is a mistake. It would be far better to have a road-worthy chassis which the pod could be placed onto for completing the drive from the pod to the highway parking station. This would make it a real car from your garage to the station. The station could be largely automatic, not much more complicated than an automatic car wash. You’d drive in, the chassis would be parked automatically and your personal pod would be automatically inserted onto the highway.

    I agree that it is hard to change cultural attitudes. That is why I don’t think we can replace cars with anything that is not clearly better. We need all the advantages of cars with added benefits. Being able to go at very high speeds, automatic parking, zero delays from traffic, these are all benefits that any commuter would find compelling.

    What I am proposing is actually a replacement for cars that adds benefits. It eliminates all traffic. Unlike in the video I posted a link to, there are ways of avoiding all merging and slowdowns altogether. This means that a commute of an hour could be reduced to 20 minutes or less. Plus that time could be spent reading, working, etc.

    The automated control would also allow cars to follow each other very closely greatly reducing drag and allowing much higher speeds at the same energy costs. This would save considerable time on longer commutes.

    In an urban invironment, a vertical system has huge advantages since it can be built without disrupting existing traffic or digging expensive tunnels.

    There are even maglev techologies which would work with vehicles using permanent magnets so it is possible to have a system that uses maglev for longer routes with rails for shorter lower-speed travel.

  23. Tony says:

    Hey I’ll throw into the mix, a link to info about a proposed monorail project in Indiana. It is in the study phase but has a couple of interesting elements. One is that it is electric powered by wind generated energy that the designer thinks will more than supply the energy needed. The second is that the group involved is trying to build this with all private investors, using no tax dollars. Heres the link:

  24. jb says:

    It sounds like there are two issues that we are trying to solve, and we may be able to solve them independently, but it would be best to solve them at the same time:

    Issues to solve:
    1. Pollution and oil dependence of cars
    2. Traffic/gridlock and land use related to individual transportation (e.g. cars)

    1. Can be solved through the combination of renewable energy/nuclear and electric cars/plug in hybrids, however that does not solve 2.
    2. This is a more difficult problem related to the overall design of US cities, history, etc. and will also take much longer to solve as the infrastructure required to fix it would take many years to lay down, and that is only after the politicians and regulators approve it.

    I think if we could first make headway on issue 1. we would be in a much better position to tackle issue 2.

  25. len bullard says:

    Interesting reading. There are some sharp people here.

    The last time I read on this topic, it seemed that right-of-way was an obstacle. Right of way for older systems exists but is broken up by newer urban development; so existing tracks can’t used and in some cases can’t be renovated.

    Since as Jon seems to suggest, limited railway is possible, the question of whether this is a national/federal project or a state/local project, or if it is sufficient to create a Federally funded standard design that can be brought online as funding local or federal permits?

    The other constraint that might be relaxed is speed. What kinds of mass transportation becomes feasible if we slow down the travel? I’m not suggesting ox carts, but we abandoned some transports (eg, zeps) because they were dangerous or not profitable in the face of advances in aircraft designs.

    It would be useful to put all proposals on the table and see what blends are workable. Apollo was not originally a three stage to orbit two vehicles to orbit one vehicle returns system. It took an engineer who understood the essential problem was payload weight to conceive of the Orbiter/LEM solution. As mentioned elsewhere, the Wright Brothers realized a lighter more powerful engine was not the essential problem of heavier than air manned flight; it was three-axis control.

    Are you confident that all of the essential problems/constraints have been identified for mass transportation and asked what happens to the mix of solutions if some of the constraints are relaxed?

    This is a more interesting issue than the Spy vs Spy of the elections.

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