A New Perspective On HSR

The latest National Infrastructure Bank Zoom Meeting, of October 14th, was on fire. There was so much good information on, and a deeper dive into, both the Climate Change Crisis, and the shortages in the supply chain. There are developments in shipping that have as much impact on supply chain as sending US manufacturing overseas. Taken together with the economic slowdown due to COVID, and Climate Change, I can see why we are experiencing shortages of everything. I now have a different perspective on HRS and what we should try to build here in Arkansas and across Nation. I hope to share the meeting when it is available but the NIB Coalition moves slow on uploading these videos. 

Now to what I learned regrading shipping. For one thing ship builders around the world are building bigger container ships. Carry more containers, lower the cost of shipping while generating more profits for the shipping company. That is very good. But these new ships need deeper harbors. And guess what the US doesn’t have thanks to (almost) never upgrading our infrastructure? Deep harbors. We have a few: Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle, and a couple of others. Meanwhile Houston, New Orleans, Savannah GA, and many others can’t dock these new, larger ships. Most of the US, including Arkansas, receive our goods through the port of LA/LB. We can see what that does to our supply chain. 

Thankfully we have freight rail. I guess. While water shipping moves at an average speed of 20 MPH, freight rail moves at an average speed of14 MPH. So the assumption I made was if we build out our existing railroad system and make higher speeds possible that will improve rail transport. The rail companies have to approve that. Don’t they? 

Maybe not. The rail companies like slow speed, heavily laden freight trains. By keeping them moving day and night at slow speeds they can still cover lots of ground. By keeping speeds down they lower track maintenance costs. Higher speeds mean higher maintenance costs. Of course! This is possibly why freight rail companies don’t like sharing railroads with passenger trains. Passenger trains have customer demand to move faster. Time equals money and if a HSR train is stuck to the side tracks waiting for a pokey freight train to go past them, then everyone on the passenger side loses time/money. 

I have heard that Arkansas and Missouri Railroad doesn’t want to get into the passenger rail business. If they face increased maintenance that is why. 

But Rich, don’t passenger trains lose money anyway? To be fair, Amtrak needs subsidies. Now look at Amtrak’s rolling stock, most of it is mixed trains that are 50 years old. Old trains of mixed manufacturer origin are more costly to run. Once again, here in the USA we don’t upgrade, maintain, or improve our infrastructure. We let it decay to the point we have to do something. That’s gotta change and it is. Thankfully now Amtrak is buying 28 or 29 new HSR Acela Liberty trains from Alstom built in New York by American labor. In addition Amtrak ordered 75, with options on 100 more, new Charger locos with Venture train-sets for the rest of America. These are American made as well. 

Here is more information on the Sieman’s Charger entering service for the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. https://railcolornews.com/2018/10/02/us-this-is-the-siemens-charger-for-amtraks-pacific-surfliner-service/

Newer train designs run more efficiently with greatly reduced costs, including reduced energy costs as the article above supports. The fleet is more uniform so that keeping the trains up costs less as well. Also experience in Japan and Europe show that real estate development is high around rail operations. Recall that Brightline in Florida counts on real estate around their stations for most of their profits. And NWA is laid out as it is because of the Frisco Railroad as laid out in the 1880’s. These lower costs and high real estate income allow passenger trains to run at a profit. The Japan Central Railway has run at a profit for decades. Many European passenger train operators are starting to run at a profit thanks to improvements in the technology of passenger trains. 

And there’s something else that is driving interest, and the possibility of profit in HS passenger trains: light freight. The rise of Fed Ex, UPS, and especially Amazon (with Wal-Mart eRetail coming from behind) are playing a tremendous roll in altering the landscape of passenger rail operations. Light freight can’t wait for 14 MPH heavy freight, Amazon and Wal Mart need to get product to their customers by tomorrow morning. 

What this looks like is summed up by Fed Ex when they were presented with the idea of a light freight car in a HSR passenger train. Fed Ex didn’t want one car. Fed Ex wants 7 trains running at night and we can run passengers in the daytime. According to Dr. Alexander Metcalf the recommendation is for 200 MPH daytime passenger speeds and 150 MPH nighttime light freight trains. Studies in Europe and the UK show that speeds over 100 MPH make enough profit that the trains avoid subsidies. 

Remember how I go on and on about having a HSR link out to from NWA out to Memphis? You know what’s in Memphis don’t you? The Memphis airport is home to UPS and Fed Ex air fleets. And Memphis is part of a plan to build a Tennessee Triangle; Memphis to Nashville, to Chattanooga. Nashville is part of a larger proposed Midwest rail network, and Chattanooga is part of a plan to link the Deep South with the Midwest. Memphis makes sense. We could put that on a tee shirt.  

To sum up: There are three things making HSR profitable. New more energy efficient rolling stock. The possiblity of real estate around a passenger terminal generating high incomes. And the additional profit from light freight service. We need to look at the possibility of building dedicated high speed railroads across Arkansas. The HSR tracks will host passenger trains in the daytime and light freight at night. This makes a public/private partnership possible, Wall Street financiers love this idea of light freight. And we are home to Wal Mart who want to take on Amazon in eRetail. Yes the enterprise will be expensive but if Wal Mart helps to foot the bill, and with new Federal money to build railroads we can do it. We will have to sell Arkansas first. We can do that too. 

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