Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is the climate really right for trains?

"The Climate is Right for Trains" - that's the slogan of Bombarier Transportation (BT). Today, I attended a talk given by BT's President, Monsieur Raymond Bachant at Chicago's Mid America Club, in cooperation with the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Canada-U.S. Business Council Chicago. (Bombardier is, of course, a very Canadian Québequois company, though it does business in 60 countries.)

M. Bachant is very upbeat about the climate for rail. Of course, it's his job to be upbeat - who ever bought anything from a gloomy salesman? But Bombardier has every reason to be upbeat as a major supplier of railway rolling-stock around the world: they expect Europe to add about 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail in the next decade, while China is planning to add over 30,000 km. Even though BT is a relative newcomer to high speed rail, they have a great "track" record in all areas of rail vehicle design, from streetcars, to passenger coaches, to subway trains, to locomotives. I say they're relative newcomers, even though in the 1990s they helped design and build Amtrak's Acela trainset along with Alstom. Alstom has been in the HSR business since the 1970s, when they designed and built the French TGV, so I suspect it was a learning experience for the Bombarier folks. Of course, BT does make jet airplanes - the popular (with airlines) CRJ series - and that's got to count for something in the high speed business!

So that's where BT and M. Bachant are coming from. With over 100,000 BT rail vehicles in use in 60 countries around the world, they can perhaps afford to shrug off the odd behavior of governors of small regions like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. To them, the future assuredly looks bright.

But does it look as bright to us in the U.S.? M. Bachant listed four things that are necessary for high speed rail to succeed for us here:

  1. Consistent and continued funding of rail infrastructure
  2. Compatibility: seamless, convenient, integrated transportation
  3. Competitive environment (but this depends on point 1, Consistency)
  4. Good planning

Here's my take on these...

Consistent and continued funding of rail infrastructure

Passenger rail needs to be "de-politicized", says M. Bachant, and I agree completely. In Europe, the need to excellent rail infrastructure is not a political football (ahem - soccer ball?) as far as I know. In the U.S., the need for good highways enjoys just about the same status. So when - if ever - will the American political establishment bring passenger rail to enjoy the same status as our highways do?

M. Bachant, in answer to a question from the audience, opined that the rising price of oil was the force most likely boost the political fortunes of rail.

Perhaps I'm just a bit cynical, but I think it will take more than that. I suspect that the majority of politicians will only start to favor passenger rail when significant political contributions start to come from passenger rail businesses. The politicians who make the loudest noises about balancing the budget are also quick to protect their biggest contributors from tax increases, which may indicate where their true interests lie.

Oh, and why does funding need to be consistent and continued? Because the boom-and-bust cycle brought about by inconsistent funding is muderous to businesses. M. Bachant pointed out the Bombarier now owns the remnants of two great American rail car builders: Pullman, and Budd. Both shriveled as passenger rail decreased in the U.S., but might well have survived if Amtrak had been able to continually upgrade its equipment over the years. Instead, Amtrak got a big chunk of money for its Superliner and Amfleet cars thirty and more years ago, but practically nothing more until 2009. No wonder our trains and subways are built by companies like Siemens (German), Breda (Italian), Talgo and CAF (Spanish), Kawasaki and Nippon Sharyo (Japanese). Those are all countries that have kept up a steady demand for new rail cars.


M. Bachant stressed the need for transportation to work together as a system - seamless connectivity between high speed trains, airports, regional expresses, and locals, buses, and taxis. This is most certainly true: public transportation must integrate seamlessly in order to compete with the automobile. In a car, you can go from the slickest, fastest freeway to an unpaved, rutted road, without getting out of your vehicle. Not so in a high-speed train. In order to come even close to the same level of convenience, public transportation must be very well planned and coordinated.

But there is another level at which compatibility is important; and though he didn't talk about it, I'm sure M. Bachant would agree: equipment and operating rules must be standardized as well. That's part of what's necessary for competition, the next point.

Competitive environment

Competition is necessary for any sector of a thriving, capitalist economy. M. Bachant didn't delve in to this very deeply, but I can fill in the gaps. Not only do we need a good field of suppliers for equipment, but if the playing field is level and there's enough passenger demand, we can have competition among passenger train operators. This isn't widespread, but in addition to Britain (the most obvious example), Switzerland offers examples of several operators running on the same rails.

In the U.K., a public corporation owns and maintains the track, while quite a few companies offer passenger service and others haul freight. You may have heard England's system dismissed as a "failure" by some American politicians, but countless people who visit Britain - and millions of Brits who ride trains - attest that service there is excellent and flourishing. (Yes, Megabus started there and is flourishing too, but that's another story!)

In Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Railways allow other companies to run trains on their tracks. Some of these are international (French, Italian, and German for the most part); others are freight carriers; and still others are regional operators providing extra local and commuter service for a canton, and subsidized by it - for example BLS, of the Canton of Bern. I believe there are similar arrangements in Germany as well.

Good planning

M. Bachant didn't go into detail with this; do I need to?

I do have an observation, though. Planning is a lot easier in a centrally-controlled system like China's. In 1990, the central powers there decided to invest in high speed rail. They didn't allow any opposition once the decision was made. Perhaps those who disagreed are now mining coal with picks and shovels in China's far northeast. The leaders then set in motion a large, well-funded group of engineers to plan routes and learn everything about HSR technology from the leaders in the field - Japan, France, and Germany. By 2007, they were ready to launch their service, and in ten years they'll have thousands more miles of high speed rail. Everybody who has visited has been awe-struck by how smooth, fast, pleasant, and efficient it is. But they probably didn't talk to the guys in the coal mines.

We don't work that way here. I'm glad we don't. Really. But it would sure be great if we could find a better way to pull together, instead of pulling apart what others have tried to build up.

Any ideas...?


  1. Integration is the most important item. In the 1920's when there was ubiquitous intercity rail, there were also streetcars that came every 5 minutes.
    You left out the massive subsidization of the auto system. It is not right to talk about funding and competition without first enlightening people to the trillion dollar subsidy of autosprawl.

  2. @fpteditors: You're right about subsidy to the auto system. I've harped on that so often I didn't want to bore you with it in this entry. Using Federal Highway Administration figures and some simple arithmetic, the Interstate Highway System cost every man, woman, and child in the US about $6000 to build. I suspect the maintenance cost will soon rise to the same amount, and keep rising, but somehow it's not expected to make money!