Longtime commenter Alon Levy…has a blog! So far there’s only one post up – a critique of one $295 million “HSR” grant for New York, money that was originally intended for Florida – but it’s a good one, and I recommend everyone add the blog to their feed readers. He gets into the nitty-gritty details of New York City’s rail network, and comes to the following conclusion:
So the $300 million the state applied to has no relevance to either Amtrak or LIRR traffic. The only use is to let Amtrak use the southern tunnel pair to Penn Station without conflicts. Since Amtrak can already use the northern tunnels without any conflict apart from the one mentioned above, it is a pure nice-to-have. It would be good for operational flexibility if the tunnels were at capacity, but they aren’t: total LIRR plus Amtrak traffic into Penn Station peaks at 37 trains between 8 and 9 am, where the capacity of the tunnels is about 50 – and as with Hunterspoint traffic, Penn Station LIRR traffic will go down once East Side Access opens.
I always thought that Obama’s high-speed rail strategy was absurd and any money spent on HSR-only infrastructure would be wasted, so I was at least marginally pleased when Rick Scott gave up Florida’s money and it was sent to the Northeast Corridor. But after reading this, and especially
Alon’s suggestion earlier in the post that the money would be better spent on a similar project in Brooklyn that would benefit the MTA’s 3 and 5 trains (see comments), I’m beginning to wonder if spending the money on inter- and not intracity rail is the bigger problem.
While regular intercity service might be more practical than HSR service (which, somehow, the Obama administration still claims is the goal), the fact is that intercity passenger rail is really not very important in the grand scheme of things. The vast majority of people’s time spent on transit and in their cars involves daily commutes and errands, not intercity trips. Furthermore, intercity rail doesn’t offer any opportunities for transit-oriented development (though boosters sometimes try to claim that it does), and in fact often comes bundled with tons of parking.
This may come off as a cliché, but I mean it in complete seriousness: Obama and his HSR boosters are pretty much just copying what they saw on their European vacations. Tourists in Europe often spend a lot of time on intercity trains and relatively little time on subways and trams (after all, they rarely venture outside the urban core), and so they misunderstand intercity rail. It’s not a standalone thing that you can buy and you’ll all of the sudden look like Europe or Japan – it’s the culmination of transportation and land use policies that allow dense development to take place. America doesn’t have that – either on the land use side or the intracity transportation side – so any intercity rail, whether high-speed or regular speed, is going to disappoint.