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As part of the $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that moves ever closer to passage, Congress is expected to give Amtrak $ 30 billion for the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston in the part of a $ 66 billion nationwide network grant. To some, this may seem like a good step towards realizing a future of American train travel more in line with high-speed, low-cost systems in countries like Japan and France. Alon Levy, a mathematician who works on the Transit Costs Project at New York University, estimates that between $ 15 billion and $ 20 billion would be needed to implement a fairly affordable and frequently used high-speed train system between Boston and Washington.
But Amtrak appears to have less ambitious plans for “the biggest investment in Amtrak’s 50-year history.” Rather than using the funds to build an efficient high-speed train in the Northeast, Amtrak allocated $ 30 billion for a single project: Gateway. Gateway would restore the aging tracks that bring commuters from New Jersey to New York City, rebuild an existing tunnel, build a second tunnel, and expand Penn Station.
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Eric Goldwyn, who works with Levy at the Transit Costs Project, on why America spends so much money – and receives so little – when building trains. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: So instead of getting super-fast commute times, low fares, and high frequencies on all of these routes between these cities where a lot of people take the train, we’re basically planning to spend half the money on the train. Congress, like $ 30 billion, for a tunnel and some associated projects around it?
Eric Goldwyn: Yes, that’s a good summary of what the reviews are saying.
What is wrong here? Why are we building things at such a higher cost than our peer countries?
I think we use the term “pair” a bit loosely. From a per capita GDP perspective, of course, we have peers. Europe or developed parts of Asia, things like that. But in terms of rail infrastructure, we are not peers with these other countries. They are one step ahead of us.
America has been building trains for 100 years, and we were pretty good at building things, weren’t we? It’s kind of our reputation. What went wrong here?
America was absolutely at the forefront in the 1900s. And then I think when the Japanese introduced their high speed train, the Shinkansen, it kind of caught not only America off guard, but many countries. And so we tried in the 1970s in America to catch up with the Japanese, and the French started their high-speed train investigation around that time. And it’s just that we didn’t.
America has essentially turned its attention elsewhere. And while it was happening here, countries like South Korea were watching Japan and France and taking notes.
They watched what was going on all over the world. They looked at things like tunnels and viaducts and tube diameters and rolling stock technology and power source and track gauge. They did the fieldwork, and they put all the details together and said, “OK, that’s what these places did. They brought in French experts to help them in areas for which they did not have the capacity. They have developed this ability. And so what you see over time is that the projects get better.
In the Korean example, you see the diameters of the tunnels decrease over time, you see the turning radii decreasing over time. So the total envelope in which the project fits is smaller and consumes less land. And you just need to practice doing these kinds of things to get it right.
It’s reassuring to know that there is a learning curve, that other countries started badly and then found their way into it.
Yes. And it’s not just about the railroad. This is pretty much any industry. You can’t really take a break for 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years and expect to be able to perform at the highest level and compete with the countries that are sort of ahead in this area.
It seems one thing you’re saying is that all of the various factors that are cited as dragging America down when it comes to competitive projects – design and work, environmental regulation, political interference, NIMBY -ism – can somehow be subject to the shadow of a lack of public sector expertise and experience. Do we just need to start Do that, to do it better?
That’s right. I think if we had a plan and a vision that said, “OK, this is what we have to do, and this is how we are going to do it. And that’s sort of the best way to do it ”, sorting out some regulatory elements becomes a little easier. But if you work backwards, without that strong, clear vision, things fall apart very quickly. Things become, “OK, well, what can I do? If you read some of the language of transit legislation, a lot of the time the emphasis is on, “OK, well, what will be usable?” “And what is exploitable is not always what is better.
I guess what you’re saying is people see $ 66 billion for Amtrak, and they say, “Wow. Finally, a big investment in Amtrak. But you see that and you say, “If only this money could be spent in a way that is consistent with international best practice, we would get so much more.”
Yes that’s exactly it. The only reason for the research I’m doing and we’re doing in our group is to get more transit infrastructure per dollar spent, so that we can get to a point where we provide that connectivity anywhere. Because you can’t scale a multi-billion dollar-a-mile project, can you? You will never be able to build one or two miles at a time. Our cities and regions are just much bigger than that. And that’s the real frustration.
In a way, it’s kind of Catch-22. We haven’t built any of these so we don’t know what we’re doing. So it costs so much to build it every time. So we can’t build a lot of them because it’s so expensive. So, we don’t get that practice that we would need to finally get in shape, so to speak.
Absoutely. I interviewed someone about the Second Avenue subway recently, someone who had been working at the agency since the 1970s. And what that person had mentioned to me was that they basically shut down. all the talks and expansion plans in the ’70s, and it wasn’t really revitalized until the’ 90s. And by that time you had people retiring, a lot of internal knowledge was disappearing in somehow. And so you had to, once again, rebuild it.
What is perhaps a bright side is that at the end of the day, building high speed trains is something that has been done in many countries – building subways and subways, and that sort of thing. many things have been done in many places. This expertise exists. It’s not like trying to figure out Google’s algorithm or something like that which is obscure. We can find it. It is over there. We just need to empower the right people to get on with this stuff.
In order for it to improve, someone has to care about improving it. I spoke to the CEO of Amtrak about it. And I even asked him about the Gateway Tunnel. I used some of the cost comparisons you posted, looking at how this project compares to something that could be done in London, Paris, or Madrid. And he just basically said, huh, he didn’t really buy it. He didn’t really believe it wasn’t in line with international best practice in a way that wouldn’t fly in any of those places. So what must we do to get the people in power to admit that there is a problem here?
It is curious how expensive this material is and how the costs, even in domestic cases, simply increased from project to project. If you look at the purple line of LA, it’s currently three phases, but each subsequent phase is increasing. Phase 1, which is expected to come online in the next few years, costs around $ 500 million per kilometer. But then phase 3, which is maybe a decade away or something, is pushing $ 1 billion per mile.
And so even if you just watched this you would say, OK, let’s forget what’s going on in Spain. Let’s forget what’s going on in Korea. Forget what’s going on in France. By just looking at what’s going on in Los Angeles, or just looking at what’s going on in New York City, you can see that subsequent iterations of projects are more expensive than previous projects and are above the rate of inflation. It’s pretty obvious we’re not doing so well.
So instead of getting better, are we actually getting worse?
From a cost perspective, I would say yes.
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