Passenger Rail Symposium, Day 1: Hooray for High Speed Rail

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(Drew Reed is usually our volunteer Long Beach writer.  However, he volunteered to cover the CTA’s rail transportation symposium in Long Beach that took place Monday and Tuesday.  Here is a review of Monday’s coverage.  Tuesday’s will come tomorrow.  With the exception of the above graphic, all images are by Drew Reed.)

Last Monday afternoon, at the same building which one month earlier bore
host to the Long Beach Grand Prix, an entirely different (and
thankfully quieter) event was about to take place: the Passenger Rail
Symposium. Hosted by the Community
Transportation Association of America
as part of the larger EXPO
transit convention, this is the first year this event has been held.

Scott Bogren, Editor in Chief of CTAA’s Rail Magazine and one of the
main organizers of the event, said that he was pleased that this year’s
EXPO took notice of rail transportation; in previous years, the event
had primarily focused on buses. But attendees seemed enthusiastic to see
what the rail symposium was all about, most coming from transit
agencies across the country with a few local rail fans sprinkled in.

Session 1: Setting the National Rail Agenda

5_27_10_drew1.jpgBorgosian

The symposium began with an introduction from Bogren, who set the
tone of the event by pointing to the multifaceted benefits of rail. As
an example, he pointed to the Empire Builder, the train which runs from
Chicago to Seattle. While many complain that the train doesn’t attract
many riders between Chicago and Seattle compared to airlines, he points
out that the train also provides necessary service to riders in rural
Montana and North Dakota. The benefits of rail are also economic. In his
home region of Washington DC, the Orange Line in Arlington Co connects
to an area which used to contribute 16% of the county’s tax revenue, now
that area contributes 60%. But the benefits of rail aren’t just
economic, or even environmental, but also cultural. Bogren referred to
train stations as "cathedrals of transportation", and praised the Metra
stations of Chicago as examples of how a train station can benefit
communities in ways that are difficult to measure, but are significant
nonetheless.

Next to speak was James McCommons, author of the extensive Amtrak
survey Waiting on a Train. McCommons’s speech outlined
much of what he covers in greater detail in his book, which gives a
history of US rail travel while simultaneously giving an account of his
year’s worth of traversing the country by train. He covered the
essentials of the country’s rail history, from the first railroads in
the east to the rise of interstates and plane travel. He characterized
the creation of Amtrak as being similar to a "bailout", but judging from
his tone, he doesn’t think the term doesn’t carry the negative
connotation it does for other people. He was quick to point to Amtrak’s
flaws, as well as the historical reasons for them: outdated equipment,
ineffective stations, frequent delays. But he ultimately was hopeful for
the future. In his view, one of the most effective ways for train
travel to be improved was by individual states taking an active role in
rail development, as has happened in North Carolina, Pennsylvania,
Washington state, and California. In the long term, he hoped for the
development of a "steel interstate" system, a network of
government-constructed train lines crossing the country which would
increase train speeds and avoid conflicts between passenger and freight
trains.

5_27_10_drew2.jpgSession 1. Rod Diridon, left, and James McCommons, right

Next up was Rod Diridon, a board member of the California
High Speed Rail Authority
and the namesake of San Jose’s Diridon
Train Station. He began by asking the audience to raise their hands if
they thought high speed rail would make it to California, about 50%
agreed. He then proceeded to give a barnburning speech about the
apparently glowing prospects of the rail line; how he and a team of rail
supporters had approached Barack Obama with high speed rail plans while
he was still a senator, fully expecting him to forget them when he made
it to the presidency. According to Diridon, even Gov. Schwarzenneger
was willing to go to bat for the train in closed door meetings. He then
laid out the plans for the line itself, many of which we’ve all seen
already at the CAHSR media page, but were somehow made more interesting
by his impassioned description. At the end, I found myself wondering if
we couldn’t name a train station after him in Southern California too.

"You Can’t Sneak High Speed Rail Into Town" : Session 2, The
Industry Response

Session 2 began with Barry Goodman, currently
the leader of The Goodman
Corporation
, a transportation planning firm. Before coming to the
magazine, he had an extensive career in public transportation in Texas,
including serving as the executive director of Houston’s Metro.
His enthusiasm for rail was tempered somewhat by his years facing
Texans’ ambivalence to rail. nonetheless he maintained that in Texas was
a place where "if you got four of the right people in a room, you could
accomplish anything". He was pleased at the creation of Houston’s light
rail, but lamented the fact that many of the stations were surrounded
by vacant lots – the kind of transit oriented development that makes Los
Angeles look good by comparison. His view of rail is that it’s not
enough to simply lay a train line next to a busy freeway, but if trains
are effectively woven into a larger urban fabric they will ultimately
become very effective. He called for a more unified approach by the
federal government to urban rail, going so far as to say that since
trains reduce oil usage they should be seen as a national security
issue. He urged the government to stop using "sustainability" as a
buzzword and become a leader in instituting truly effective train
systems, and better mobility overall.

5_27_10_drew3.jpgSession 2. From left: Jerry Premo, Charles Wochele, Barry Goodman, and Rail Magazine publisher Dale J. Marisco

Following that came an extensive discussion of high speed rail from
the next two speakers, beginning with Jerry Premo, the global transit
director at AECOM. His take on high
speed rail? It’s not for the faint of heart. "You can’t sneak high speed
rail into town. It’s a major commitment to build," he cautioned. But
though the costs of investing in HSR are high, it pays off in
environmental friendliness, economic development, and improves people’s
lives by filling a gap between short distance travel and air travel. He
echoed Goodman’s desire for strong political leadership, and also
stressed that it was very important that HSR stations have excellent
local connectivity options. He concluded by asking the question that has
probably occurred to all of us at some point: "If the Chinese can do
it, why can’t we?"

Last up to speak was Charles Wochele, the vice
president of Alstom
Transportation Inc
. He began by pointing out that in France, despite
their current reputation as a mecca for high speed rail, plans were as
difficult to initiate there as they are here. French citizens balked at
the cost, and provincial farmers worried about what a high speed train
would do to their cattle. But the plans went through, and now HSR is
widely popular in France; the French take pride in not having to fly for
short trips, and farmers’ concerns were alleviated when the french rail
authority decided to build grassy "cow overpasses" connecting pastures
divided by rail lines.  He also highlighted benefits of high speed rail:
it has the capacity of eight lanes of traffic and takes up the space of
two lanes, it is the most energy efficient form of long distance
transportation, it is very safe, the interiors are comfortable.
According to Wochele, California is a "sweet spot" for HSR; it is nearly
the same size and population as France, and HSR could potentially be
added incrementally, with certain sections becoming high speed before
others. He wrapped up with a slick video of the record breaking test run
of an experimental TGV – designed by Alstom.

At the end of the
first day, the overall outcome was a high level of enthusiasm over high
speed rail, though it remained unclear how exactly HSR would fit in to
larger communities. Speakers stressed the importance of all intercity
rail (high speed or otherwise) integrating seamlessly with community
transportation, and highlighted the benefits of transportation from city
center to city center. But is it enough to simply drop a train station
in the center of town? If HSR becomes a partial substitute for air
travel, improperly constructed stations run the risk of becoming mini
airports, with plenty of car rentals and shuttles but no real connection
to the city. How do we make train stations as effective as they can be?
More about that on day two of the Passenger Rail Symposium.