Amtrak’s Continued Ignorance

There was a congressional hearing about high-speed rail. Henry Miller in comments here took notes – thanks for this, much appreciated! The overall content was lacking; the politicians seemed like they were spinning their wheels, not because they themselves were bad (Reps. Tom Malinowski, Peter DeFazio, and Seth Moulton all raised interesting issues) but because they were getting ignorant advice from the witnesses, none of whom has any experience in successful high-speed rail networks. Among those, Amtrak deserves the most demerits, and its head, William Flynn, should lose his job purely over that testimony, if the reporting of what he said is accurate.

Flynn, based on both what Henry said in comments and on reporting in Politico Pro, said that Amtrak needs a trust fund on the model of that for American highways – and said that this is “the most important lesson we can learn” from countries with high-speed rail.

The rub is that countries with high-speed rail do not in fact have such trust funds. Financing models vary by country, but do not look like the American highway trust fund. For example, French LGVs are funded line-by-line, with the decision on each specific line taken at the highest level of government, with financing coming either purely from the public sector (as with the LGV Est) or from a higher-cost PPP (as with the LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique).

To understand why, it’s important to understand the relationship between politics and the civil service in functioning, high-capacity states. Politicians make big decisions on spending priorities, and then the civil service implements those decisions. There is little political input on routing decisions, and the exceptions where there is tend to have the worst, highest-cost programs. So the planning is done by the civil service, which then presents a preliminary design for politicians. But the elected politicians have the final word on the yes-no decision whether to fund, and can also ask for high-level modifications (“reduce the budget,” “give the unions the wage increases they demand,” etc.).

The American highway trust fund inverts this principle. Going back to Thomas MacDonald, federal highway builders had internal sources of money without having to ask elected politicians for regular appropriations. In contrast, politicians exerted considerably petty power over routing. For example, in Twentieth-Century Sprawl, Owen Gutfreund points out that in the early planning for what became the Interstate highways, the FDR administration reduced the scope of roads to be built in Vermont from four planned routes to two in retaliation for its voting Republican in 1936. In The Big Roads, Earl Swift also notes that MacDonald himself did not think the Interstates could pay for themselves through tolls, but, due to pressure by politicians to write a positive report, the resulting report’s coauthor proposed toll-free motorways instead, hence the prohibition on tolling Interstates. MacDonald himself was fired by the Eisenhower administration for expressing concern that the roads were hollowing out the American rail network and proposing cars-and-trains investment instead of cars-only.

And here we have Amtrak’s CEO not only supporting that model, but also lying that this model is how high-speed rail has been built. In reality, no such trust funds exist anywhere with high-speed rail. I don’t know why Flynn says such a thing, which not only is verifiably wrong, but also has no reason to be believed in the first place – there is no grain of truth to it, no trust fund-like model for high-speed rail megaprojects.

As with most such fraud, he is probably lying to himself and not just to the people who pay his salary. Americans, as a collective, are wantonly ignorant of the rest of the world. The only time they interact with the rest of the world, especially countries that don’t speak English, is through intermediaries in international consulting, who get the skewed sample of world projects that invite in international consultants, omitting the bulk of public works built in states with in-house design capacity. Individual Americans can be knowledgeable, but their knowledge is not respected, even by people who profess their interest in state capacity. Thus, no matter how smart individual Americans can get, collectively America remains incurious.

This is the most acute in mainline rail. I suspect that this relates to the rail industry’s highway envy. For a railroader like Flynn, steeped in a culture that is technologically and institutionally reactionary and looks back to its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the enemy, that is the Interstate system, is the obvious model for how to build. That this model produced severe cost overruns on the highways themselves does not matter; that treating rails institutionally like roads is inappropriate does not matter; that systems that get as much ridership in two days (cf. JR East) as Amtrak gets in an entire year and deliver a profit to their shareholders doing so work differently does not matter. The future, which is not in the United States in this field and hasn’t been in 60 years, is one in which people like Flynn do not even qualify for an internship.

And if Flynn wouldn’t qualify for an internship, why is he allowed to be the CEO? He should lose his job. The people who briefed him should lose their jobs. It is likely that full replacement of Amtrak’s planning staff and possibly the line workers too would be a big win for riders. Even total liquidation could well be a net positive relative to status quo: most Amtrak routes have no social value, and the one route that does, the Northeast Corridor, could well produce a more competent institution from among the ashes.

Without liquidation, it is still advisable to sideline Amtrak until it can be put out of its delayed customers’ misery. The best way forward institutionally is to set up an agency responsible for all Northeastern passenger rail operations, to subsume and replace Amtrak and the commuter rail operators. It will be run by people who can speak to the difference between French, German, and Japanese high-speed rail operating models, and who know how to implement integrated timed transfer networks and intermodal fare integration. It will buy imported equipment if there is no domestic equivalent for a similar price, and use standard European or East Asian methods for track geometry machines, signaling (ACSES is thankfully an Americanized variant of the European standard, ETCS), safety systems, timetabling, and so on. The United States has no shortage of dedicated people who speak Spanish, and secondarily Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, or French.

Moreover, since in many cases the knowledge does exist among Americans but isn’t valued, it is important to let American civil servants interview for such an agency. I expect that most would come from an urban transit background, where in my experience the people are more curious than in mainline rail. But American railroaders too could join if they demonstrate sufficient knowledge of advanced-world operations.

That said, under no circumstances should the organizational culture be allowed to turn into anything like present-day American railroading. Current workers who do not qualify for this agency are to be laid off, perhaps with a pro-rated pension for partial service, and told to seek private-sector work. Flynn himself has no role to play in any successful rail agency. He must go, and it’s almost certain that the rest of Amtrak’s management should as well. Every day he stays in his job is a day American railroading plans based on assumptions that can be easily verified to be fraudulent.


  1. Bobson Dugnutt

    and the one route that does, the Northeast Corridor, could well produce a more competent institution from among the ashes.

    Or Americans will make more ashes of themselves.

  2. Onux

    I don’t think the idea that politicians in other countries don’t have input on routing, leaving it all to planners, really holds water.

    Examples I can think of off the top of my head, just HSR:
    -The entire Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Niigata was a patronage project by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to reward members of the “Niigata Mountain Association” who formed his base; he supposedly drew the route himself in red pencil.
    -The routing of the Chuo Shinkansen was and is rife with political maneuvering; Nagano lost on its preferred route, but Kyoto and Nara are still fighting it out.
    -You have used the example of a German ICE line that was diverted to serve a particular city despite a less optimal or more expensive route, although I can’t remember which it was.
    -Stuttgart 21 in its entirety is a story of political fighting over transportation options.
    -Madrid to Seville was the first Spanish HSR line despite Madrid-Barcelona being the stronger line, supposedly as part of a political deal where Spain backed Barcelona for the Olympics while Seville received HSR first.
    -Two threads ago the Chinese line to Xinjiang as an act of territorial marking not transportation policy was mentioned.

    It could still be true that all of these countries don’t use a trust fund model for funding, and there could still be advantages to that, but to suggest politicians have no input on routing doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

    • Michael

      I think there is a meaningful distinction between a decision to build to one city before another or to connect an unprofitable region for political reasons, compared to having the entire network be unsuccessful, but each individual unprofitable line held hostage by a senator.

      The first category are aberrations, the later is a dysfunctional institution.

      • Onux

        I generally agree with you, however, Alon’s thesis was that trust funds are not the best way to fund infrastructure, but the infrastructure with a trust fund in the US – the interstate highway system – is far from a dysfunctional institution. It covers the entire nation, sees enormous use, has uniform standards, there are no places where highways cross without interchanges, and until Congress stopped raising the gas tax was “profitable” in the sense that tax receipts were higher than expenditures allowing some funds to be dedicated to transit.

        The interstate network is wildly successful, if it were not Amtrak’s network wouldn’t be struggling for passengers. Thus trust funds cannot be the cause of dysfunction, even if Mr. Flynn is completely wrong about their international use.

    • Onux

      I forgot to mention that LGV Côte d’Azur has also been subject to plenty of interference in the route from local politicians, to the point that I believe you mentioned the route had become too slow. So much for the supremacy of the French planning elite of Les Grand Ecoles.

      With examples of political interference in routing from every major HSR country (Japan, France, Spain, Germany, China) I would say it seems to be the norm, regardless of funding mechanisms.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, so let’s discuss the ICE situation. Germany reunifies in 1990, leading to a political decision to invest in the East in general and Berlin in particular. This decision leads to a list of infrastructure projects produced by professional planners, including one (Berlin-Hanover) that uses pre-unification plans for connecting West Berlin to Hanover, skipping Magdeburg in the process. The last of these projects is Berlin-Munich, where Thuringia insists that the line be rerouted to serve it not in the east where the hills are lower but in its center with a stop at Erfurt. This raises the cost of the line and, as the budget is fixed, forces design compromises elsewhere, so that the Berlin-Munich trip time is not the planned 3 hours but 4 hours.

      So yes, there’s political interference in Europe too, and it’s not good. However,
      1. There is no trust fund, because the big decisions regarding funding levels remain political and politically debated. There’s no 80/20 compromise here as in the US – the split is debated as part of the budget depending on which coalition is in power, with more road funding because CSU is in charge of BMVI and CSU thinks what’s good for Bavarian automakers is good for Germany.
      2. The political interference in construction here still occurs at much higher level than in the US. Thuringia didn’t micromanage construction of VDE 8, it demanded a station in its capital, making it still a lot less bad than the political patronage games (“earmarks”) that are common in the US.
      3. When political controversy happens, it remains a high-level yes/no decision, like the Stuttgart21 referendum.

      The only real commonality we have with the US is that the environmental protection law is adversarial and therefore empowers NIMBYs to delay, leading to a lot of missed opportunities (Y-trasse, etc.). But note that other speakers at the hearings said that Texas Central, which has a 2x cost premium in part due to bending over to accommodate NIMBY farmers, is too top-down and needed to accommodate the NIMBY farmers even more.

      • Onux

        I agree fully that there is no trust fund, however, your thesis was that absent a trust fund planners have more influence because politicians exercise control via power of the purse and picking projects, rather than the politicians exercising control by meddling in projects self-funded by the planners through their trust fund. Yet the examples don’t show this. The politicians didn’t decline the optimum routing for Berlin-Munich or LGV Cote d’Azur and move on to Nuremburg-Wurzburg or LGV Bordeaus-Tolouse; the politicians meddled in the details and had routes and stops changed. Perhaps even more to the point, neither did the planners present a bad line bowing to all local interests, only to have it rejected at a “high level” because it didn’t suit the national interest. In other words, lack of a trust fund isn’t leading to a system where politicians make better decisions, the political interference is bad everywhere.

        Earmarks are bad, but are there any examples of earmarks coming out of the highway trust fund? If anything, doesn’t the trust fund reduce earmarks because that money is a dedicated stream to the state DOTs, rather than money from the general fund where a politician can pass a bill to spend x on y?

        You keep saying things are different in Germany, but the politicians in Palmdale getting Tehachapi Pass for CAHSR to serve them and the politicians in San Jose getting Pacheco Pass to keep them on the main line seems identical to what Thuringia did – demand a station in a particular place leading to a poor route.

        • Alon Levy

          I think you’re assuming that I’m shoehorning multiple separate things to one theory of trust funds? I’m not. I’m making several independent assertions:

          1. Planners here are more competent than in the US.
          2. All yes/no decisions here, including funding level decisions, are made by politicians as part of the regular budget and investment processes, without slush funds.
          3. Politicians here do not micromanage project details. I do not consider either Palmdale or Erfurt to be political micromanagement; I consider the sandbagging of the alternatives analysis in order to pretend that Tejon is not viable to be political micromanagement, but this was not done here, the planners were not made to invent reasons not to build the Gera route.
          4. Politicians here usually do not get involved in project planning, and when they do (as with Erfurt, HSL Zuid, and various compromises with NIMBYs like the LGV PACA), the results are worse than when they let planners lead.

          My general point about petty power (as at the state level in the US) vs. ideological power (as with left vs. right politics in Northern Europe) is not exactly about a 1-to-1 tradeoff in which trust funds = politicians meddle more. Historically this wasn’t even the case – politicians always meddled, and MacDonald insisted he be given personal control to reduce political meddling, and politicians gave that to him while his professional conclusions were in line with their biases and then got rid of him when they no longer were. Conversely, you can get into systems like Italy in which politicians have neither petty nor ideological power: governing coalitions are so unstable that ministers never get the opportunity to acquire enough knowledge in a field to ever overrule the bureaucrats, and the one time a political party tried, namely M5S, the result was so bad that the party stopped ever disagreeing with the civil service’s advice. But even in Italy, there are no slush funds, and funding level decisions are made by politicians, who imposed austerity during the financial crisis.

          • Onux

            1. Agreed.
            2. Also agreed, although I would disagree with calling a trust fund mechanism, as for the interstates, a slush fund. It is rather the opposite, a pool of money that must be spent for a specific purpose (80% roads, 20% transit for the federal highway trust fund) not money a politician can spend however they like as a slush fund would be (a dam this year, school programs the next).
            3. This seems to be a distinction without a difference. The line was rerouted for political purposes in both cases, to the detriment of its overall objective. The reason for rerouting (change a report, a backroom deal, or a minister says “just do it”) seems irrelevent.
            4. Politicians usually do not get involved in project planning in the US either – for highways, which have an independent funding mechanism that removes a lever of political influence. See my longer post below.

    • Phake Nick

      Nagano have disputed Chuo Shinkansen routing, but the ultimate decision was still to stick to what JR Central want (shorter and more straight route despite higher engineering difficulty), without detouring via Suwa. As for the Nara/Kyoto part, it is Kyoto who keep fighting but all part thus far are saying Nara on it, and there are no sign of the plan to be changed for Kyoto’s complaining. It helps that the project is to be a private instead of a public project.
      A better example could be Hokuriku Shinkansen’s Tsuruga-Obama-Kyoto-Keieihanna-Osaka route, or Nagasaki Shinkansen’s yet to be determined future connection across Saga prefecture.
      Also, I have just read a document saying that, there were heated political debate in 1970s to determine whether Hokkaido Shinkansen should route through Otaru or Muroran, whether Tohoku Shinkansen should pass through Hachinohe or Hirosaki, whether Hokuriku Shinkansen should pass through Karuizawa or Saku, should it route via Naoetsu or boring tunnel from Nagano through Northern Alps to Tomoya directly, and should Tsuruga-Osaka portion follow Kosai line or connect at Maibara or connect via Obama, whether Kyushu Shinkansen should route along the coast, and whether Nagasaki Shinakansen should route through Karatsu or Sasebo. The Japanese government ultimately decided to make a committee to determine these routing issues through a dedicated council objectively, but the decision to establish such council and make such evaluation is also in itself a political decision rather than the system itself being designed as such, some decision result are also being questioned whether the evaluation process was truly objective or not, and ultimately, some routes that lose out from the evaluation, like Hokuriku Shinkansen Maibara route and Hokkaido Shinkansen Muroran route, are still being included in the plan as alternative due to political lobbying

      • anonymouse observer

        Evolution of “Seibi Shinkansen” program in Japan tells very interesting mix of politics and practicality in addition to what you mentioned. For instance:

        – Politics is still a big deal in routing and construction sequence. One of the speculation about sequence of Kyushu Shinkansen opening (build/open southmost section first away from Fukuoka instead of doing in the other way) is that locals and local governments from Kagoshima and southern Kumamoto worked so hard to prioritize the southern portion of the line to the level where Ministry of Transportation back in days came up with the plan to do so (through it was originally a new narrow-gauge line on the civil structure built based on the Shinkansen standard) even though the commonly the reason was technical (replacing southern portion of the Kagoshima Main Line would provide more trip time saving benefit).

        – Sometimes, practicality or input from the designated operator of the Seibi Shinkansen reverse the political deal. The original alignment of West Kyushu/Nagasaki Shinkansen was drawn through Haiki Station in Sasebo as reward/mitigation for accepting major repair of Nuclear-powered test ship Mutsu at SSK’s dry dock in Sasebo (City of Sasebo obtained a memorandum signed by big-name politicians and a minister at that time; the letter is posted on the wall of the mayor’s office), but JR Kyushu objected this routing later because the route through Haiki would be detour and reduce commercial potential. The government listened to JR Kyushu and change the current short-cut route through Ureshino-Onsen. Nagasaki Prefectures did nothing in this rerouting probably because they did not care (dispute/conflict between Nagasaki, the Capital City of the prefecture, and Sasebo has been there for long time).

        Operator’s input could be heard in Shinkansen extension/building in Japan is that the Seibi Shinkansen scheme designate the operator first even though they just lease the infrastructure from JRTT and operate the trains. Also, the panel on the government/ministry side looks like consisting of experts. When the politics gets involved, it looks like happening after the ministry draw an initial conclusion (intervention by politicians before the decision becomes the final).

  3. Onux

    I am going to posit a counter-argument that a trust fund mechanism increases the power of planners over routing vis-a-vis politicians, rather than the other way around. With line by line funding the politicians get to look at details every time the planners come for money, and can either demand changes for their vote or shift funds giving the planners nothing. With a trust fund the planners are guaranteed to be able to build something every year, and the law of divided attention means they will have the most influence because they always work on their projects, while the politicians also focus on other things (like meddling in the budgets of projects without a trust fund).

    The prime example is of course the Interstate System. Far from political interference gone amok, or local meddling by political fiefdoms, the interstate system took shape pretty much as planned, across the entire country, uninterrupted for decades. The trust fund gave enormous power to the FHWA, AASHTO, and state DOTs precisely because they didn’t have to go to Congress for money. The planners basically built what they wanted. There are no cases of individual freeways having different design criteria or signage because of political interference; everything follows the HDM and MUTCD. I-5 doesn’t wander through the Sierra Foothills or the Cascades to reach some then-influential politician’s hometown; it follows the best route to link the entire west coast.

    There are no doubt exceptions, such as I-35E/W in Dallas/Fort Worth and Minneapolis/St. Paul to treat the cities “equally” (but even then, we’re talking about calling it I-35W instead of I-135, there would probably still be a freeway there). Despite their fame and local influence, the freeway revolts of the 1960’s in San Francisco and New York only stopped a few dozen miles of urban freeway, effectively a rounding error in the 50k+ mile interstate network. In the grand scheme essentially the entire network was built as the planners designed, not as the politicians demanded.

    Alon’s purported examples to the contrary are not very convincing. FDR dropping a few routes 20 years before the Interstate Highway Act was passed or the trust fund had money to spend has no bearing on how the Interstates were actually designed and built. The political overrides of Thomas MacDonald regarding nationwide tolls or the car/train split seem to be actual “high level” political intervention, far more than Germany’s 5th smallest state rerouting the entire HSR line between two of its four most important cities – each with more than double the population – for the state’s benefit (the Thuringia/Eufurt deviation to the Berlin-Munich line discussed above).

    Flynn may be completely wrong about foreign countries using a trust fund approach to build HSR, but it is hard to argue that if Amtrak had a few billion a year in guaranteed money to build or upgrade its own tracks, that this would somehow make it more beholden to parochial senators than the current situation where it must beg those senators for money to keep the lights on every year.

    • adirondacker12800

      ….. I-35E and I-35W…
      At one time that was the naming convention. Then it wasn’t. Then things changed again. They’ve more or less given up on naming conventions.

      o reach some then-influential politician’s hometown The Bud Shuster Memorial Highway.
      West Virginia is fairly lousy with Interstate grade highways to nowhere, their Senator pushed through.

      freeway revolts of the 1960’s in San Francisco and New York only stopped a few dozen miles of urban freeway

      There are unbuilt highways all over the place. Some of them because the planners of the 70s looked at it and said “there will never be enough traffic to justify it” and lots of places where the locals said “no”. Or a combination of both. I-87 was supposed to run on the east side of the Hudson. That’s never going to get built. The piece that they did manage to build is I-684.

      FDR dropping a few routes 20 years before the Interstate Highway Act was passed or the trust fund had money to spend has no bearing on how the Interstates were actually designed and built.

      The map is very abstract.

      Speaking of Vermont there is a chunk of I-92? between the New York State border and Rutland that will never be completed. It’s US 4 these days. The route the Interstate that-will-never-be was going to parallel.

      • Onux

        What is now I-99 was designated Appalachian Route O in 1965 (8 years before Bud Shuster was elected) and funded federally in 1991 (4 years before he became Transportation Chair). It follows a natural corridor along the Susquehanna, paralleling Rt 220 (and part of the old PRR Main Line). It is not a political dogleg like Palmdale/Eufurt. Shuster forced the out of sequence “I-99” name – the first time Congress ever numbered an Interstate instead of AASHTO. Once in 40 years is pretty much the definition of the exception that proves the rule – the rule being that the planners had more control than Congress.

        Unbuilt highways because planners thought there wouldn’t be enough use supports my assertion the trust fund gave planners more control. If the trust fund was a slush fund giving politicians control over routes, we would expect to see fragments of disconnected interstates to nowhere all over the place as pork barrel projects, instead there is a cohesive network that *very* closely matches the original plan:

        The interstate act authorized 41,000 mi, later raised to 43,000. By 2006 there was 42,795 mi built. The only part of the original plan missing is a single interchange at I-70/I-76 in Breezewood PA – a few thousand feet. Somewhere between 99.5% and 99.999% of the plan was built. (The system is usually cited as 48,000+ miles, because some Interstates were built using other funds.)

        I-87 is an example of the power of the trust fund over politics. I-87 isn’t “unbuilt”. Locals vetoed the route along the Hudson, but that didn’t mean the funding was cancelled. Planners still had the trust fund so they still built I-87 from NYC to the border, just on a different route east of the Hudson (and the same route for a lot of it). Other examples are similar (I-10 got a tunnel through Phoenix, I-90 was moved a few hundred feet in Wallace) but the overall story is the same – the network was built as the planners intended.

      • adirondacker12800

        I-278 in New jersey comes to mind. An enormous interchange was built on I-78 for it, which is still there, and will never get built. There is an enormous ramp from the Goethals Bridge to US. 1 & 9 that was going to continue west to that interchange. I-78 was vaguely on the planning books for decades by the time Interstate money appeared. And had been realigned with input from the communities along the way. The interchange with the Garden State Parkway was partial until recently because traffic to and from the south would be using I-278. The environmental process then went amok for the ‘missing links”, those took decades to built. There was an extravaganza of I-something78 in New York City including 78 itself out to Queens. Umpteen different plans to connect the Holland Tunnel to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges before there was Interstate.

        The New York State Thruway opened before the Interstate Highway Act. You can’t call it Interstate anything until there are Interstates. Or the stuff connecting the Holland tunnel to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

        …..there is no exit 3…. I-87 a.k.a. The Northway numbers exits sequentially like the Thruway. There is no exit 3 because exit 3 was going to be for I-something90 that will never get built. Though there are also rumors that I-88 was going to go all the way to Troy, vaguely State Route 7. And the alternate much more likely rumor that I-88 was supposed to go to Exit 24 in Colonie which is why it’s free to go between I-87 and I-88. Or I-687. There was going to be an Interstate under Rockyhenge barreling west. The stubby little end of it is there. And merrily keep going east too. Likely I-something90 because it would be running parallel to I-90.

        The state highway department was able to spit out plans for I-87 north of Albany because they along with the Thruway had been plotting a toll road at least as far north as Lake George. There are all sorts of rumors about why exit 22, on the north side of Lake George, is funky. Connect up with the Interstate grade chunk of what is now US 4? I-something87 to someplace else? That’s where the toll road was going to end and US9 would be upgraded?

    • ericson2314

      Yeah I am sympathetic to the counter-argument. Even more briefly/abstractly, while the non-American model I have no doubt it better, in America we also have to think about the dynamics of building competency in this rich and powerful nation that thinks it doesn’t learn to learn nothin’ from nobody. Linearly interpolating between where we are and where we ought to be may not be the *robust* transition plan even if it is the most efficient—the possible path-dependence here isn’t trivially dismissed.

      For a US politician concerned that the political winds shift faster than norms change (not only do we need to build state capacity, we need to (re-)teach Americans what the concept of “state capacity” even is and that it’s possible). The American Right’s MO is to stop caring whether programs exist on paper and go after the funding after all, in which case a cancelled imbroglio of a rail expansion isn’t a tragic waste of resources but a resounding political victory.

      The nerd-wonk part of me loves focusing on efficiency, but the politician part of me mainly cares in these initial stages to the degree it tracts project latency. To be clear, there’s a wonderful correlation in that virtual every bad decision America creates around capital expansion makes the project take longer not shorter that largely diffuses the tension. But slush funds might be the rare case where these different prioritizes conflict.

      • Alon Levy

        The problem with this is that the civil servants don’t know how to learn either, and this is especially acute in the case of mainline rail. That’s the reason for my Amtrak liquidationism: there needs to be very heavyhanded action to tell Americans “you need to self-abnegate and turn into Europeans and East Asians when it comes to mainline rail,” and keeping current management in power sends the exact opposite message.

        • ericson2314

          Yeah I’m not disagreeing with that. In the short term the challenge isn’t plotting the right course (linear or otherwise) but steering the ship at all, and for that there is no substitute for replacing management. For what it’s worth, I also agree there’s no substitute for putting non-Americans with actual relevant expertise in power, and that Flynn being (objectively) wrong about how HSR elsewhere is funded is quite damning. All I was pushing back on was whether — and for entirely different reasons than Flynn evidentally cited — slush funds might in fact be good.

          I think that was @Onux’s main point too. There was also the quibble about whether the FDR era examples are good, but I’m willing to think roads are so comparatively simple-stupid to plan there’s less risk of political meddling regardless of funding mechanism, and so one shouldn’t take the supposed well-functioning of the interstate as evidence either way.

          Back to full staff replacement, even if Americans are incurious nativists, I do have some reason for optimism:

          – American’s do claim to like “disruption” (as I think you mentioned previously), and the popularity of Andry Byford seemingly before he was even delivering good results makes me think these moves can be good politics even before the return on investment comes in.
          – The Bush era re-consolidation of existing bureaucracies under the Department of Homeland security absolutely was effective at bringing about many reforms, odious and reactionary as they may be. If you want to chop up Amtrak and consolidate transit in the northeast differently, I’d say it’s a proven tactic even in very context of the US federal bureaucracy.

  4. Ernest Tufft

    Thank you for your observations and analysis.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Ernest Tufft

    The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Martin Luther King

    This is a confidential note not for redistribution without my permission.


    • Henry Miller

      Flynn seems to want a trust fund so that they have 15-20 years to go from starting to plan a project to completing it and have money the whole time. Of course as Amtrak has learned the hard way political forces change over 20 years, and so by the time they get to construction there is no money to do it and nothing gets built.

      Nobody asked why they cannot go from idea to completed build in 2 years. Sure the project would be smaller, but if the long term plan is a line on the wall they can upgrade any part of that line on the wall now. (there are only a few places where the existing right of way is wrong enough that they need to do all new, this might need 4 years) Anything that keeps them from doing upgrades in 2 years needs to be fixed but they didn’t mention what those might be.

      • fIEtser

        It can’t get go from planning to construction in two years because the process simply isn’t built to allow that, in part because of the experience that happened during the construction of the Interstates in terms of how projects just steamrolled various communities.

        • Onux

          Even during the building of the Interstates things didn’t move that fast. It was expected to finish the network in 12 years, it was officially declared complete in 1992, 36 years later.

          Even in breakneck speed China the Beijing-Shanghai HSR line took a little over 3 years to build 2008-2011 – and that was after being approved in 1995 for construction to start by 2000. They also had 130,000 workers working at once, a luxury that not all projects have.

          • Henry Miller

            Your confusing finishing the network with finishing individual segments. I fully agree that the network should take 30 years or so. Individual segments should be much faster.

          • Onux

            Beijing-Shanghai WAS an individual segment. It was first suggested as HSR by the Railway Ministry in 1990. It was announced in 1995 by Li Peng (then second to Jiang Zemin, aka the Vice-President) for start during the 1996-2000 five year plan. It actually started in 2008. It was a prestige project for the regime linking the two most important cities, and so had resources lavished on it for quick completion (130k workers!).

            Even in China other segments are not built that fast, although because they build so much simultaneously the network will probably take less than 30 years. I think they have more track in service now then was projected by 2020 when they started construction on the first HSR lines in 2005.

      • Alon Levy

        That’s not trust fund. That’s in fact nothing like the highway trust fund model. Agencies here have in-house planning staff for stuff and then the actual construction is publicly debated and politically funded. This is not the same as the model of giving the BPR/FHWA its own slush fund to build things.

        • Onux

          Except that the highway trust fund *IS NOT A SLUSH FUND*. The trust fund guarantees revenue to be spent on highway construction, it does not allow that revenue to be spent on anything at all (dams, schools, community centers) per the desires of a politician or the FHWA. It doesn’t even allow funds to be spent on any road at all: see above on my discussion with Adirondacker, the interstate trust fund has a fixed amount of milage it can be used on and specific routes are opened up to funding via legislation (in this regard it is similar to how you say Europe makes line authorization a political decision).

          You are confusing earmarks (where a politician allocates money from the general fund to a particular cause on a year by year basis as political pork) with the trust fund (which steers a particular revenue stream – gas taxes – to a separate fund which can only be used for a specific purpose – building roads – even if the particulars are unknown).

          If the trust fund operated like earmarks we would see lots of little stretches of freeway scattered about in districts that were influential at the time they were built. Instead we see the EXACT OPPOSITE, a cohesive network of highways following a set plan for decades, following the most logical routes and transcending individual states and districts.

          • adirondacker12800

            Depends on how you define slush. The yokels in the hinterlands got people in the big cities, burning gasoline on state and local roads, to pay for their highways.

          • Alon Levy

            What you’re missing is that roads don’t need all that much coordination to be cohesive. State-built expressways in the 1940s and early 1950s, predating the Interstates, formed a cohesive network of turnpikes from Boston and New York across the Appalachians and onward to Chicago. Indiana had no trouble building the Indiana Toll Road between Ohio and Chicago. Kansas built a turnpike expecting it to be part of a Missouri-Texas route.

            Rail needs more coordination, which is why it turns into big megaprojects. Those decisions, in advanced countries, are made by elected politicians; the role of the civil service is to propose a package for politicians to vote on based on their budget priorities.

          • Reedman Bassoon

            One aside: about 20% of the highway trust fund outlays goes to mass transit, with about 80% to highways.

          • Onux

            @ Reedman Bassoon

            You are correct, however, that 20% is written I law (by the politicians Alon….) just as the roads that can use the other 80% are defined by route. It is still not a slush fund in that the head of the FHWA is not arbitrarily shifting funds to transit as a reward for cities that permit highway ROW. A funding allocation with the same percentage for decades is just about the polar opposite of a slush fund or earmarks.

          • Onux

            Alon, generally, your comment is non-responsive to my point that the Highway Trust Fund is a dedicated revenue source, but not a “slush fund.” As I have noted several times, highway trust funds cannot be spent any which way, Congressional legislation caps the route miles and requires definite routes.

            You seem to be making contradictory arguments. In the original post you said in other countries plan and approve rail projects “line-by-line,” with the example of the French LGVs. Now you are saying rail needs more coordination and has to be a megaproject, implying multiple lines planned/approved at once.

            In any event, the history of the interstates closely resembles what you say happens elsewhere. Early expressways may have been piecemeal by states (although without trust funds, the issue under discussion), but the Interstates were planned as a coordinated and cohesive megaproject, whether roads “require” it or not. The planning was done by civil servants at AASHTO and the Bureau of Public Roads (later the FHWA) then voted on by Congress.

            In fact, the way the interstates were built is just like how you have proposed HSR for Germany – you built a map of lines for the entire country are are proposing it be built all at once. This is exactly what happened with the interstates.

            You are still completely correct that Flynn was 100% wrong about other countries using a trust fund model. However, since the interstates were built, but there is no mechanism to build your German HSR network, perhaps other countries should look to the US and adopt long term dedicated financing for transportation….

          • Alon Levy

            Rail requires coordination, yes. This turns it into a big package at times, like Bahn 2000. However, at no point does the agency in charge get its own dedicated source of revenue. The elected government in most democracies, or the voters in a direct referendum in Switzerland, makes the final yes/no decision and gets to see the full list of projects. The Swiss voters agreed to give SBB money to build Bahn 2000 and the base tunnels, and every time SBB or a canton wants a new project it has to go to referendum on this. There is never any ongoing budget for this protected from political control the way the US Highway Trust Fund has worked.

          • Onux

            The process for the interstates was basically the same as you describe for Europe. The planners (AASHTO/BPR) planned the system, set the route numbers, etc. The elected government (Congress) made the yes/no decision and saw the full list of projects/routes before doing so (a 1957 map is virtually identical to a modern one, particularly for major routes). As I noted regarding I-99, additional miles/routes were added via statute, continuing final say by elected representatives for new projects.

            The difference is funding, but the US Highway Trust fund didn’t come first, it was chosen (by elected representatives) after considering other options (tolls, bonds, recurring allocations from the general fund). It’s not as if AASHTO was promised billions per year no matter what. They presented the interstate plan (with near universal political and social backing) to Congress the way SBB presents to the electorate – before the trust fund was created.

            This switches the question to is a dedicated source of revenue a good thing? The successful completion of the interstate system would say yes. As I noted above, more than 99% of highway miles proposed in 1957 were built as planned. Interstate construction was not sidetracked by the budget crises of the 1970’s or Reagan’s defense build up in the 1980’s – the trust fund was dedicated.

            Compare to another Swiss referendum, New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA). The Lotschberg Base Tunnel was supposed to be a major axis along with the Gotthard Base Tunnel, but only 75% was completed due to budget overruns. Rail traffic has saturated the single track capacity, and there had to be another referendum for additional funds 12 years after the tunnel was supposed to open, with final completion more than two decades after intended. If SBB had a trust fund that the Bahn 2000 and NRLA projects drew from, then it could have continued construction and completed Lotschberg earlier.

            There is an argument that the Trust Fund should have expired in 1992 when the original system was declared complete. The failure to raise the gas tax with inflation makes this moot, though. The Trust Fund is not a slush fund overflowing with cash, but instead requires regular injections from the general fund for maintenance, such that federal highway spending the US is back to your European model of frequent political votes.

            It’s worth noting that the portion of the gas tax dedicated to Mass Transit started in 1982, and both Bush I and Clinton signed bills with gas tax increases dedicated to deficit reduction, not highways, so it isn’t as if the budget has ever been outside of political control. Still, the widespread acceptance of the Trust Fund meant interstates were buffered from year to year budget turmoil, to the benefit of construction. If you are interested in constructing a lot of infrastructure that requires years or decades to complete – such as say, a Germany wide HSR network – a trust fund empirically seems like a great thing.

      • Phake Nick

        If you have lines with spec like some of Japan’s recent projects then I doubt 2 years is even enough to just let tunnel boring machines to bore all the tunnels along the line even if operated around the clock, and even if you put an unlimited TBM into the site

        • Henry Miller

          If you need a TBM, that means the existing right of way is wrong and so you are in my 4 year zone. Most of what Amtrak needs is to upgrade their existing right of way. there are some curves that need work, which means getting more land and building new right of way and I give all of that a 4 year time budget.

          When you have a section of straight tracks that won’t let you go at the maximum speed of the train, it should be less than 2 years to upgrade it. Sure upgrading all sections will take longer (and there will be a lot of 4 year curve straightening exercises). Too often people get stuck in analysis paralysis instead of just doing something to get better.

          • adirondacker12800

            Upgrading Trenton-New Brunswick took 9 years. They had to put off some of the work until more funding appears.

      • Ernest Tufft

        Given the experience in California high speed rail, where construction began in middle of farm country where political opposition was highest, it seems to me best incentive is do as was done with original transcontinental railroad. Give contracts to competing companies to build toward each other, with milestones of test requirements to avoid sloppy work, but otherwise provide incentives to build faster. This is just one way to pit contractors in competition for on time effort and quality of build.

        • Tonami Playman

          Wasn’t the main issue with contractors competing in California that the bid process was so complex that many don’t even bother submitting a bid leaving only the same contractor bidding in what could be viewed as a contract monopoly. That issue would have to be resolved first.

          • Ernest Tufft

            It’s hard to blame government scientists and bureaucrats for making requirements to hard for contractor lobbyists to figure out. The best referent for contractor problem is the SF Bay Bridge east side span where bolts cracked and need for bicycle/pedestrian access overlooked.

  5. borners

    “no shortage of dedicated people who speak…Japanese”. Yes and no. America is a colossus in Japan studies outside Japan but the whole range of fields has produced zilch on the subject except for a recent Tokyo commuter rail ethnography. The one monograph on the shinkansen was pointedly produced by an Englishman who pointedly didn’t get his Phd in the US.

    What there is tends to be either direct translations of Japanese specialists own work which is good and railway-transport specialists or urban specialists who often get the right elements but can’t go much further because they don’t have the language.

    Its actually quite annoying and I can only think its because the story of railways in Japan runs against the ideological predispositions of Japanese studies in the US i.e. Neoliberalism is the root of most evil in the world, Japanese economic modernization was morally bankrupt, Japanese democracy is a sham, only the courageous few Japanese are worth respect, the masses are worthy only of pity and the Japanese establishment is all powerful and has mastered “planning” which it learned in WW2 and that means everything is about WW2 because “planning” blah blah. You can’t talk about Japanese non-car mode share success without talking about it TOD zoning, the survival and triumphs of legacy private rail, major city infrastructure investments and the pro-development electoral politics behind them and the JNR-JR transition story.

    Japan studies produces more books and articles talking about Hankyu’s Takarazuka Revue than about all Japanese railways.

    • Phake Nick

      There are ethnic Japan population and Japanese as second language speaker all across America and they don’t necessarily be in the field of Japan Study

    • Sassy

      The academic field of Japan Studies isn’t particularly useful to America, but America has shown it can learn practical lessons from Japan already. The American auto industry, and to a lesser extent American manufacturing and supply chain as a whole, has learnt a lot from Japan. If only railways and urban planning did too.

      • Luke

        I think that’s an important distinction, though. The American auto industry HAD to learn from the Japanese because they were both competing for the American consumer. The alternative is total obsolesence and dissolution. The same can’t be said for the American government; we tend to insert ourselves into competition for running other countries, but we’re (unfortunately) strong enough that other countries can’t do the same for us.

        Of course, one of the benefits of democracy is supposed to be that voters can see how things are done in other countries, and demand that our public sector do things as well as we see being done there. However as Alon rightly points out, much of the American public is ignorant about how much better things are done in other countries, so we accept the status quo or at least envision that it would be worse–not better–if we started emulating other places (because “America #1”), and so we have lazy leadership happy with this narrative, because it means they’re under no obligation to accomplish anything.

        There’s a very definite expectation in the U.S. that private interests are inherently better at doing things than the public sector, and so we expect nothing from the latter, yet excuse the abuses of the former because they’re just “doing business”. Ergo, little positive development has occured in the U.S. over the last several decades.

          • Luke

            My point exactly. There’s loads and loads of examples of public sector competence outside the U.S., but people don’t look outside the U.S., and so just assume that public sectors, i.e. the government, are incompetent by nature. Expectations thereby fall, and people in the public sector who don’t actually care about the work they’re supposed to be doing can just not do it or can do it badly without any public pressure to do better.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The UK government and political parties frequently make mistakes that agile and lean and other business methologies solved decades ago.

          • Phake Nick

            Luke, what I mean. I mean there are also some intention that, when the US try to learn from outside world, they seems to be actually viewing the outside world from the angle they want to see instead of objectively analyzing what happened outside, and thus resulting in conclusion that still only match US experience despite referencing outsides.

          • Phake Nick

            * Luke, not what I mean. I mean there are also some inclination that, when the US try to learn from outside world, they seems to be actually viewing the outside world from the angle they want to see instead of objectively analyzing what happened outside, and thus resulting in conclusion that still only match US experience despite referencing outsides.

          • ericson2314

            I agree. Not only the US not have good state capacity, but Americans don’t know what state capacity is, and if they get the definition are likely to laugh it off as an oxymoron. The center-left just wants to drive Teslas in the suburbs, read the New York Times, and return to an imagined post-war liberal normalcy but no racism this time. Further left, they are still not fully convinced that state power is good. Where the two meet, the emphasis is on more providing jobs and thus productivity and planning are suspect.

      • borners

        @Ryaland L I finished reading his main opus a couple of weeks back. It is the best thing on Japanese urban policy history in English. And its still kinda rubbish. He’s constantly NIMBY complaining about how under planned Japan is/was (the system is much more restrictionists than 20 let alone 40 years) without grappling with the practical constraints of how to urbanise/modernise a country on Japan’s scale, density and geology. If you can’t build in brick and stone, buildings are on average gonna look kinda ugly and they are working on tech to make things look better. Old wooden Japanese buildings are nice to visit but a pain to live in because they need constant labour intensive repair and not to mention they are fire hazards. Complaining about lack of historical preservation outside maybe Kyoto is silly. And every time I read him pining for Greenbelts that were never implemented I sighed in relief (as does my wallet since I live in Chiba). Transport infrastructure, plumbing, electricity etc are discussed….and not taken very seriously if he could bemoan that Japan doesn’t look like….Holland?

        The article has the usual problem of the Tokyo vs everywhere discourse. Which is it doesn’t talk about non-rural non -Tokyo. Leaving aside Aichi and Kansai, the battle for regional Japan was fought and lost in Japan’s underpowered 3rd-4th tier cities and the LDP machine from mom-pop izakaya to Nippon Kaigi were too high on their own supply to notice. Roads to nowhere and museums that no-one except nerds like me visits and tax gimmicks. And mascots. But a proper S-bahn for Niigata city plus world class universities? Nope. Giving Tokyoites French length vacations so they dodge the Tokyo-August by buying cottages in Akita? Nope.

        Good rural policy especially in dense Asian and European countries is fundamentally good urban policy and at those distances you can blur the line with good trains. Though I have to say regional Japanese anti-capital sentiment a lot more constructive than you’ll get in West Virginia or Wigan. I’d take Hashimoto Toru over Trump or Johnson any day of the week.

        Sassy and Luke are right about the US car industry having a clear incentive to learn. Also the Japanese car industry is as whole more open and engaged with the outside world than Japanese rail business is. JR Central could probably learn some things by visiting the Toyota lads down the road in Nagoya. With academia and rail soft-budget constraint problems in the US are rampant. Although the US state with the most Japanese connections; Hawaii, has its fair share of mass-transit problems. Though I’m not sure Japan is a good model given cost control is the issue.

        • anonymouse observer

          There is a big difference between car industry and railroad industry. Car industry needs to be “more open and engaged with the outside world” because they export more, and car industry does not have high indigeneity like rail industry; there’s somewhat big difference in regulations like they do in railroad industry around the world (beyond the level/significance of differences between standards for regular automobiles around the world and Japan, which has Kei cars, “Gen-tsuki”, and “Chugata-Jidosha”). There are things auto industry could share with railroad industry, but I guess there wouldn’t be a lot.

          JR Central could have asked their conventional rail rival Meitetsu if they need to learn something new they would from Toyota because apparently, Toyota learned a lot from Meitetsu while developing Toyota Production System:

          Having public servants with strong expertise in the subject in house is still something one can learn from Japan as mentioned in the latter half of this blog entry below because designs and specifications developed from the public sectors would be so good that they could prevent contractors/consultants to abuse change order process even though it is not specific to Japan:

          By the way, do you have any recommendations on good papers about Takarazuka Revue written by Japanese study because I am having a hard time finding one and curious how good these papers actually are written?

          • borners

            I was thinking more how Japanese car companies built supply chains in other countries (Toyota in US, Nissan in UK etc). The product itself is much much more tradeable of course. You can’t turnkey state capacity which is what railways need. And I fear Japanese railway system exporters learned the wrong lessons from their Taiwan experience (rolling stock is a different story).

            In English? My comments above would not apply to Japanese at all. I don’t have any particular expertise on anglophone study of Takarazuka, I have encountered stuff but it was never my focus. I mean like its about changes in views of the female body, commodification blah blah. Books by Makiko Yamanashi and Jennifer Robertson are the one’s I’m aware of and there is more on JSTOR if you have access to it. I’ve never actually seen Takarazuka and I have never read Japanese stuff on it. Though I have found this Phd a few days ago on Hankyu-Hansin urban concepts.

          • anonymouse observer

            I heard Japanese automakers typically ask their existing Japanese suppliers to open factories near automakers’ new factories overseas at the beginning. Also, they import some parts like transmissions from Japan or existing factories in other countries nearby. I am not sure how they expand from this initial stage or if they expand the parts supply chains to local suppliers at some point.

            Potential challenge of applying this, particularly to the U.S., would be to meet Buy America clause. It adds another challenge because manufactures cannot rely too much on imported parts/components while establishing a new supply chain with local suppliers might be challenging in some cases (though it must be possible as so many railcar manufacturers has established supply chain in the U.S). Moreover, once a manufacturer establish a factory, it needs to keep it running; it needs to win orders constantly and maintain certain and reasonable level of backlogs so that both factories and the entire supply chain don’t run out of work (or keep manufacturing line always moving) while delivering the final product on time. I believe it easier to keep everyone busy in automobile industry than doing so in railcar manufacturing.

            Labor union might throw some obstacles like they did to Kinki Sharyo when they win the light rail car deal for LA Metro. I don’t think one can avoid this risk by building factories in right-to-work states like some non-American automakers did because public sector clients could require bidders to hire unionized workers and hire local workforces.

            The easier path might be to enter to a new market using Merger and Acquisition like Hitachi did in the Continental Europe and the U.S. or to solely focus on final assembly (though one need to meet Buy America clause for parts and components).

            Thank you for sharing the paper. I need to read this, but it looks like the paper has some good stuff in it in terms of how Hankyu and Hanshin differentiate from each other.

          • Tonami Playman

            Japanese automakers entering a new country with a new plant carry not only their supplier base, but also their practices to the new location. When Toyota, Honda, and Nissan came to the US, they brought their parts suppliers with them. A lot of US small scale suppliers that used to be able to win bids based on finding a component on the car and built it for the lowest price possible were shocked when they were constantly rejected. Honda and Toyota especially were hard to break into for local US suppliers. One big contributor to this was that the Japanese focused heavily on component modules rather than individual parts, while the US Automakers bid out individual components down to bolts and latches for the lowest bidder. US automakers would have thousands of suppliers for a single car, while Toyota and Honda would have a handful in the hundreds with each supplier responsible for complete modules, so an entire cylinder head with integrated valvetrain, compared to a multitude of suppliers doing individual springs, valve stems, camshaft.

            This dynamic forced a lot of smaller parts suppliers to consolidate and started developing modules not to lowest price, but for easy integration into the Automakers system be it Honda or Toyota. Over a 10 – 15yr period, the Japanese automakers were able to integrate more local suppliers into their supply chain and started relying less on modules coming from Japan. Sometimes this localization is just the Japanese parts supplier absorbing other local suppliers. Till date there is still a close nit supplier relationship with the Japanese whereas the US ones still dictate low prices that the suppliers should meet or loose jobs. Toyota still owns 24% of it’s parts spin-offs DENSO Corp and Aisin Seiki(transmissions) which are #2 and #6 globally and #4 and #9 in the US respectively. Honda has a line up that supplies modules to it’s Engines and Transmission plants. Nissan rely’s heavily on DENSO and still owns 75% JATCO which supplies it’s transmissions. GM spun off it’s own parts supplier Delphi in 1999 and Ford did the same with Visteon in 2000. Both were disasters because both GM and Ford started taking jobs from their spin offs and handing them to other lower cost suppliers with the accompanied drop in quality.

            This same process was replicated in the UK, Canada, Thailand, China and India. Hyundai seems to be using a similar model to the Japanese automakers with majority of it’s parts coming from supplier Hyundai Mobis which sets up shop anywhere Hyundai or Kia opens an assembly plant.

          • Phake Nick

            IIRC some Japanese trainmakers already have their own supply chain in the US and are selling various vehicles to American systems, although nothing high speed yet
            As for the story of Japanese train exporting, Taiwan is obviously a bad example, but other export stories thus far are also forming some strange perceptions. For example, how they plan to export the system to Texas Central but the US have so much railway crashes that they cannot just took the thin Shinkansen train and consider it safe to run, and as a result they need to use Rule of Particular Applicability to package the entire Shinkansen as a isolated system to get the permission to run the line, or on the other hand how the export to China turned out to be absorbed and integrated into China domestic system without much residual benefit to Japanese suppliers, probably also helped form their current recognition that Shinkansen should only be exported as an entire system instead of just the vehicles.

          • Andrew in Ezo

            Japanese rolling stock makers were merely following the European makers’ examples in promoting a complete system. The European model emphasizes “European Standards” (i.e. an implied “world” standard) which has a powerful marketing effect, as well as including a maintenance package (which apparently is where the long term profit lies). There were bitter experiences in the past where a Japanese supplier had the inside track to an order of rolling stock in a developing market and a European supplier swooped in with their standards schtick and managed to garner the win. So now complete systems are emphasized (including signals, trackwork, traffic control systems, etc.), as certainly technology used by (for example) JR East can more than stand on its merits against any European system. Difficulty lies in markets where technology levels and funding are low, such as in Myanmar, where Japanese suppliers have no choice but to work with Spain’s CAF to build loco-hauled stock, as few locomotives and loco-hauled passenger stock are built anymore for the EMU-dominant Japanese domestic market.

          • Phake Nick

            But a problem with this is, it might replicate the failure of Felica.
            Felica, representing NFC Type F, is the main NFC standard for transit card in Japan. This contrast NFC Type A/B widely used in rest of the world. NFC Type F with Felica have better performance, but it involve some unique encryption chips, which cost more, and as a result most other parts of the world opted against it.

          • anonymouse observer

            The reason why Japanese needed to go with Felica is that rail operators need to process 60 people per minute per fare gate at urban rail station. Felica can handle this thanks to not only the faster processing speed but also larger range of radio communication (85 mm from the transponder instead of 40 mm as required in NFC Type A/B) so that the system can initialize transaction/processing when card get into the radio range.

            If they lower the rate to 30 people per minute per fare gate (I guess it is the rate NFC Type A/B can handle), passengers just overflow at the concourse. JR East visualize the impact of the processing time of the NFC card:

            The issue was that there is not a many rail system requiring this level of processing rate because not many passenger rail system outside of Japan handles similar number of passengers.

            This is a small/minor case but something makes me believe that railroad do have high indigeneity and need localization to degrees, and some times the degree is larger.

            They are things like what Andrew mentioned which Japanese manufacturers working in railroad industry do not excel probably because of the way they work with railways to develop specifications or products (railways got heavily involved in the design process), evolution of the railroad in Japan to date in general (passenger volume, high train traffic density, topology, climate, operations for profit, etc.), and amount of customization needed for each railways, and customers’ high expectations toward the products and services in general. For instance:
            – Japanese railways typically has strong maintenance department in house so that manufacturers don’t have to provide the maintenance service, and this prevent manufacturers from obtaining experience in maintenance;
            – Some Japanese railways has R&D capability in house (the obvious one is for Shinkansen by JR East/Central/West, but some conventional rail operators do as well) and develop specifications or designs for what they really need by themselves and just manufacturers to build something for them;
            – Width of cars differs at each railway or each line within the same railway (compare Nishitetsu’s train cars with Sotetsu’s train cars and see how narrow Nishitetsu’s is even though Nishitetsu is a standard gauge system whereas Sotetsu is a narrow-gauge system);
            – ATS/ATC systems are almost fully proprietary outside of JR conventional rail and “Tokyo Line 1” (Keikyu/Keisei/Toei Asakusa/Hokuso), including Shinkansen ATC (JR East’s system is different from Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen system), to meet safety and operational needs/requirements;
            – Some railways has other unique requirements (e.g. Keikyu’s powered turnouts with no locking mechanism);
            – When components start failing, Japanese railways expect the manufacturers not only to replace the bad one, but also to find the root cause and fix it (e.g. again, the way Keikyu got tired of Siemens with failed main inverters and their approach of just keep replacing the parts).

            There was an article on Toyo Keizai explaining this (though this is about non-Japanese manufacturers having a hard time entering to Japanese railroad market):

          • Tonami Playman

            The heavy involvement of the railway companies with technology development is definitely much higher in Japan than elsewhere. I’m always intrigued by the variations in Platform screen doors in Japan as each operator is actively involved in designing one to suit their specific needs. Operators outside Japan just order off-the-shelf with very little involvement in the development process. Also Japanese platform screen doors seem to be a lot less material intensive.

            I do see the Keiretsu mindset having some adverse effects in the automotive space though especially when it comes to batteries. Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Nissan are all currently behind in battery tech mainly because they stubbornly stuck with their historical suppliers Panasonic, Panasonic, GS Yuasa, NEC respectively who had all fallen behind their Korean and Chinese counterparts. In Panasonic’s case their heavy involvement with Tesla meant that their other battery chemistries received less attention leading to stagnation since Tesla uses a different chemistry from the rest of the industry. Only recently did Honda break the cycle to sign with Chinese CATL while the rest are still holding out with inferior tech. The other area is infotainment where the Japanese all lag behind the industry with Toyota being the worst. Again Honda is the first to break out of this fully embracing Android auto and Apple car play.

          • Phake Nick

            @Tonami I remember reading Toyota just decided to place their entire bet on hydrogen fuel cell and only decided to change their position, and start making battery cars this year?
            @anonymouse observer The benefit of NFC-F vs NFC-A/B due to better performance should not be relying on things like Sony’s proprietary secure element chip, which is what push the cost high?

          • Sassy

            Toyota has publicly been heavily pro hydrogen fuel cell, but it’s not their entire bet. They are the leaders in solid state batteries for a reason.

            It’s possible to do Felica without Sony chips. All compliant NFC hardware, even from NXP, ST, etc., supports NFC-F, even if they lack software support to handle Felica cards when sold outside of Japan. In particular, iPhones in the past couple years have Felica support through Apple’s own hardware. Felica is part of NFC (ISO 14443) as Type F, not RFID (ISO 18092) as it was rejected as Type C in favor of NXP (Type A) and Motorola (Type B).

          • Sassy

            You can get the secure elements from not Sony. Most smartphone secure elements support several standards, including NXP chips that support Felica and Sony chips that support MIFARE, and some manufacturers like Apple use completely in house designs.

            MIFARE was traditionally cheaper than Felica, but not just because of Sony’s cut, but because Felica was a genuinely much better technology designed to meet the needs of high performance transit gates, rather than a cheap general purpose RFID card that works passably at best for transit.

        • Phake Nick

          I have also read that how Japanese tourism industry, other than focusing on overseas inbound tourist, domestically their focus are elderly who can pay, as they think younger people have less time and less money and isn’t worth the effort to market to. On the other hand, with the advent of LCC and easy online booking process, many young people have become backpackers and travel internationally to cheaper, and much more varied destinations across the continent and the world, and are no longer as keen to travel domestically.

          • Andrew in Ezo

            Actually, it is the exact opposite of what you describe. Fewer young people are travelling (and studying) internationally, than say, the 1980s, and stick to domestic travel, with money saving options like LCCs and the extensive network of overnight buses. Group travel is just for the elderly (and has been for decades). Also, the proliferation of social media, and the sheer number of entertainment options available both in-home and locally, has made travel just one leisure choice among many. Travel has lost the cachet it had among the young in earlier times.

          • borners

            Yeah. Also its about time. A major problem for domestic tourism industry in Japan as that it has immensely high peak times (Golden Week, New Years, Obon etc) and long slack periods. And all the national holidays together still come below European annual holiday periods. The elderly of course have more time and a large number of them have pension pots.

            Tourism industry has long campaigned to have longer and less concentrated holidays which has paid off with the growing number of national holidays. But isolated days off and a few long weekends aren’t going to encourage travel holidays as much as longer ones even though the Shinkansen’s speed and frequency helps immensely. Add in declining “hometown” feeling with generational turnover. And the time issue also discourages European styles second homes in the countryside which in turn would encourage repeat visits. Hmm, the LDP is willing to do so much for “regional revitalization” except stuff that might treat urban workers nicely. Good urban policy is good rural policy.

          • anonymouse observer

            To find out why the travel demand is so peaky in Japan and why their government increased number of national holidays in recent years, you should fully assimilate to Japanese culture and mindset, work at one of the medium-sized Japanese company in Japan, and try to use your paid time off just for a day off. It’s impossible to use paid time off just to get a day off for nothing over there because of peer pressure from your co-workers. Until you replace all Japanese people with Europeans, they just keep working, and the travel demand remains very peaky.

            Along with exclusivism and localism-nepotism, peer pressure is one of many reason why “regional revitalization” hasn’t been materialized over there. Except some regions, locals from rural areas aren’t open to a new things, changes, or people from other region. This makes very hard to retain teenagers to stick to the area or having someone migrating from cities or other regions, aka. “i-turn” because rural life is boring for younger generations, and outsiders wouldn’t be able to be accepted by locals typically.

            Second home? No way over there. again, because of peer pressure as well as their philosophy. If you have a second home, you will be recognized as uber-rich, and it doesn’t make you look good. Random people in your neighborhood start some rumor about you, and your repetition could be harmed badly because people over there typically value ”清貧” more. One example of this is that small business owners choose not to buy a Lexus LS but buy the cheapest/lowest trim of Toyota Crown even if they can afford Lexus LS just to make them looks reasonable people; driving Lexus LS leaves a perception that the person is making too much money.

            You should include non-holiday holiday periods like “obon” when you count number of days off Japanese workers can get in one year (though it won’t get up to European level).

  6. Henry Miller

    The most telling thing is even when directly asked about costs nobody pointed out Spain, Turkey, South Korea. The US might – might – be interested in learning from Japan, but no other country was brought up.

    My conclusion is proposing to build a hyperloop network centered on Minot ND, with connections to Dickinson, Devils Lake, Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and Brandon MB is the winner. North Dakota is a place where Diversity means German background as opposed to Scandinavian, so we can import a lot of black people to build it (at least 40% of all workers), demand all union, it is new technology, and it helps rural people – we even cut out the “big city” of Bismarck. A complete winner! (if you have been reading the comments here you will already know how @adirondacker12800 will respond to this) I wish I was sarcastic, but I truly believe that this is our best bet for getting HSR in the US through this committee without getting bogged down in politics – none of them are from ND so they will ignore NIMBY voices and the majority will find it hits something they care about.

    • Gok

      > The most telling thing is even when directly asked about costs

      When did this happen? I paid…some amount of attention to the 4.5 hour session and don’t remember any of the committee members asking about constructions costs, except in the sense that HSR might cost less than highways. I could have missed it though?

      Unprompted, the IBEW representative did very proudly mention how much money CAHSR has slushed around, and their written testimony is very proud of “the success of California high-speed rail project.”

      • Henry Miller

        Bruce Westerman asked most directly. You was told it is different for different countries – but nobody mentioned how much different (and he didn’t press). He did get Brightline to give actual numbers for their lines.

        I decided not to go on a rant about IBEW’s testimony. If this country was serious about corruption she would be in prison, convicted from her own testimony.

    • Phake Nick

      Didn’t the US managed to campaign NIMBY against Keystone XL pipeline successfully despite it didn’t really run in anyone’s backyard?

  7. Paul

    A trust fund model does have some advantages for maintenance, but I agree that it’s not the right model for funding construction of high speed rail.

    For maintenance, what you want is a consistent funding stream that allows for things to be repaired and replaced on a regular cycle. In pavement, there has been plenty of research showing that the timing of maintenance is really important because degradation is not linear. So if resurfacing is deferred for too long, then you end up needing to replace the whole section of pavement which is orders of magnitude more expensive. Not all infrastructure has this dynamic, but some of it does so there is value in a trust fund that smooths out variations in revenue so you can continue maintenance spending during recessions. The highway trust fund originally worked this way, but now it’s an example of US government dysfunction and management by crisis. The main revenue stream (the gas tax) hasn’t been raised in ~30 years, so it isn’t enough to cover all the expenses and the highway trust fund now relies on regular top-ups from the general fund whenever it’s about to run out of money.

    For big capital costs, I don’t see any issues with cyclical or lumpy funding streams. It’s fine to do this on a project-by-project basis whenever there’s money and political will available.

  8. R. W. Rynerson

    Flynn came from the aviation industry, not railroading. I don’t know who is doing his staff work but I do know that the marketing and service planning functions have had turnover and downsizing repeatedly over the past 50 years. About the time that a city or state planner gets a working relationship with someone in Washington, DC, the DC person is on their way out. This makes it hard to set up connections or tariff integration.

    I can understand the desire for a steady funding source, having been through 180 degree project revisions when offices changed hands. However, we have the current environmental impact study industry and litigation as a result of highway planners having had few constraints. And there were political influences at work. I-5 in Portland was built on an alignment designed to create a wall between the mayor’s white, blue collar power base and the growing Black community in pre-open housing days.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I wanted to say that Flynn is really combining the worst railroader brain and airline brain. His list of 10 priorities for Amtrak from a few months ago is all airline thinking – he likes fare buckets and market segmentation. But at the same time he also listens to incompetent trad railroaders who tell him that there’s depoliticized rail budgeting in other countries, which there isn’t, and that intercity rail can’t make money, which it does.

    • Phake Nick

      From aviation industry one should also be able to recognize the importance of intercity traffic, and what would and what would not poses a competition pressure from railroad against airlines

  9. Reedman Bassoon

    Is there something that Amtrak could learn from the US freight rail companies/system?

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, many. The costs of individual maintenance tasks at the freight companies are as I understand it lower. Switch installation (of secant switches with straight frogs) costs the same at American freight companies as at a selection of European railroads (which build tangential switches with curved frogs, permitting ~50% higher speed within a given footprint); the low-speed switches used in station throats tend to be around $250,000 apiece. But Metro-North spends something like $1,000,000 per switch. Double-tracking projects done by freight for its own needs are as I understand it cheap as well – they only get expensive when the public sector gets involved, because then the freight companies extract maximum value while the public sector is too incompetent to build cheaply itself.

      That said, in terms of overall culture, US freight isn’t a good model. It doesn’t think in terms of reliability – trains aren’t even scheduled along the line, they just have a departure time and an estimated arrival time. It specializes in low-value goods, so maintenance standards aren’t great and derailments are treated as a cost of doing business. It is institutionally conservative, even if it is not as reactionary as passenger rail with its paeans to pre-Interstate railways. It doesn’t interface the general public, so there’s no culture of customer service.

      • anonymouse observer

        In addition to the points you mentioned, North American freight railroad seems like having a same issue keeping infrastructure in good shape and coming up with funding or financing for infrastructure improvements. There is an interesting comment in the customer review of a book “Train Time” written by John R. Stilgoe on Amazon (I tried to find the source of this but cannot find it…):
        “the financial picture presented in other forums by the I-95 Coalition, which has portrayed freight rail as not being able to raise enough capital in the private markets to make the improvements needed to deal with its congestion problems and outdated infrastructure”.

        This makes sense because Class Is begged the State and local governments to grade separate two key mainline grade crossings (Colton Crossing and Stockton Crossing) even though they could have financed it by themselves (Colton Crossing costed $93M while estimated $202M).

        I believe one of the reasons of this is that trains and its axle loads in North America in general are too heavy (heavier the axle load and cumulative tonnage are, more expensive to maintain due to amount of stress given to the track and civil structure thus both track and structures need to be built bigger/stronger). According to Gregory Lee Thompson, this has been there since relatively early days of railroad as described in the book “The Passenger Train in the Motor Age” (

        • adirondacker12800

          axle loads in North America in general are too heavy (heavier the axle load and cumulative tonnage are, more expensive to maintain
          Railroads have accountants with very sharp pencils and computers. They wouldn’t be raising axle loads unless it made more money for them.
          Class Is begged the State and local governments to grade separate two key mainline grade crossings
          If you can get the government to pay for something why not? Privatize the profits and socialize the risks.
          The state wants railroads to carry as much freight as possible because that means less trucks on the road. Maintaining highways like maintaining railroads isn’t cheap.

          • anonymouse observer

            I don’t think “[r]ailroads have accountants with very sharp pencils and computers” because bridges and structures for heavier load or tunnels for taller trains obviously cost more. Clem summarizes the effect very well:

            Do you mind sharing particular examples showing “[r]ailroads have accountants with very sharp pencils and computers” besides they make profit and pay dividends, especially when other modes are adopting more innovations and faster rates and lowering cost more rapidly than freight railroads?

            Also, by “[p]rivatize[ing] the profits and socialize the risks”, we are making stockholders happy while general tax-paying public losing. Based on my rough estimate, Union Pacific appear to spend at least 2.5 billion dollars for dividend payment in 2019, and BNSF likely did similar to Berkshire Hathaway. With depreciation and big cash reserve, they could have easily financed rather than wait for decades until public sector comes up with money for them if they really “have accountants with very sharp pencils and computers”, who/which are sharp enough to allow the railroads to maximize the profit as you are saying.

            And finally, if your claim on railroads having accountants with very sharp pencils and computers are true, then why don’t North American freight railroad understand non-scheduled train movements require more infrastructure to achieve higher track capacity utilization compared to fully scheduled train movements as indicated in this paper?

            Click to access Dick-et-al-2016-TRB-16-4817-TRR-final.pdf

          • adirondacker12800

            If they weren’t going to make more money on it, why did they do it? They have accountants who would tell them they won’t. Why would they do anything if they aren’t going to make money on it?

          • Henry Miller


            Note everything directly makes money. Sometimes companies do something that loses money as a show. There are loss leaders. The handle/razor blade model. Lobbyists directly cost money – few bring in any government contracts. There are many more examples of companies doing something that doesn’t directly make money, but the company does because indirectly they make money. The things done for show bring about good will and allow you to do something else that isn’t popular. Loss leaders bring in customers for the higher priced goods. The money is in the repeat sales of razors. Lobbyists make sure the laws allow business to continue.

            Then there are also things that seem like a good idea but the nay-sayers who got overruled were right. Or things that the CEO (or board) allows because the person doing it is otherwise valuable enough to be allowed a few boondoggles.

          • Phake Nick

            > I don’t think “[r]ailroads have accountants with very sharp pencils and computers” because bridges and structures for heavier load or tunnels for taller trains obviously cost more.
            Obviously, this directly enhance their revenue ability and thus is something they care. As mentioned in another comment it is also something China Railway envy

        • Phake Nick

          Apparently China tried to copy American railroad with heavy axle load on one of their recent freight line but couldn’t really match the American load level due to gap in technology

          • Phake Nick

            but skip-reading the paper it seems to be positive about the impact of such improvement and suggest further improvement could take place?

          • Phake Nick

            Also, China seems to be only able to get 27-30 tons axle load on their heavy load railroad, as opposed to any number mentioned in this report

          • Tonami Playman

            Could the ability of China not being able to reach similar high axle loads be related to prevalence of concrete railroad ties in China compared to the wooden ties in the US. I haven’t seen any study on this yet, but I remember reading in the past that a lot of US freight railroads that tried out concrete ties ended up switching back to wood due to constant cracking.

          • Phake Nick

            Concrete tiles are mainly for high speed rail in China according to my understanding? I don’t recall seeing old slow railway route or new freight rail route using concrete railroad ties in China

          • anonymouse observer

            Thanks for sharing the paper and story about concrete tie issue. It’s interesting that China didn’t look other tie options like stronger railroad ties out of steel or composite materials for the heavy axle load experiment (or North American freight railroads didn’t look into the same thing for even heavier load for lower long-term cost).

          • Tonami Playman

            This report from says the following in regards to wood ties

            Click to access MATERIALCOSTfinal.pdf

            Yet, the wood tie is still preferred by railroads for both cost
            and performance and is the products used in 94% of the nation’s operating track.

            According to the Railroad Tie Association (RTA), there is a distinct cost advantage
            for wood versus alternative materials. The advantage is two-fold, in that both the
            initial cost and the lifecycle cost of the product are lower. Treated wood also
            offers performance advantages and reduced maintenance and lower installation
            costs than alternative materials.

            From a cost perspective, RTA reports that treated wood is 33-40% less expensive
            than concrete, 45-70% less than composite/plastic, and 55-60% cheaper than steel.
            Other cost savings accrue from the infrastructure of maintenance and installation
            methods where wood remains the predominant and preferred product by rail
            equipment manufacturers and workers.

            India has gone with Concrete ties for it’s dedicated freight corridor built to support 25ton axle loads with provisions to increase to 32.5ton both up from the current 22ton limit but like China no where close to the 34-37ton in the US. There’s talk in the US of wrapping the wood ties in Glass Fiber Reinforced Plastic(GFRP) to increase it even further to 40ton and increase lifespan.

            High cost of acquiring wood ties in India was cited as the reason for going with concrete. In the US Wood is cheaper compared to steel or concrete, but this was prior to the current wood shortage. I wonder what the cost will look like today.

          • anonymouse observer

            @Tonami Playman

            It’s still very hard to believe wood ties are cheaper overall including long-term maintenance/replacement, but it might as you pointed out because it’s easy to procure and cheap in North America (forests are everywhere in the northern part). I would like to see how it would change with wood price increase, too.

            Also, I’m curious if and how the changing weather pattern in Western U.S. (more wildfires) would affect this as wood can catch fire more easily than concrete or composite materials, even with treatments. I found from a short Google search that there is a new product out there which could add fire retardancy to wood ties, but in the situation like wildfires, I imagine even treated wood ties can burn because of extreme temperature inside of the inferno (maybe concrete ties could lose structural integrity in such conditions, but still…):

            @ Alon
            It seems like that way, but I cannot find any information how fast trains could go on the steel tie section. If it could handle reasonable speed, couldn’t it be applied to main tracks rated for lower maximum speed?

            I really appreciate running this blog and attract many commenters with knowledge like ones commenting in this thread. I actually learned more about the railroad ties and heavy axle load railroading from this than I did in my whole life.

      • Phake Nick

        I have repeatedly see articles in Japan citing American freight rail as a model to learn from, especially in places where most ordinary rail traffic have been taken over by high speed rail and thus the conventional rail have been underused and making huge losses, including even the lack of schedule

        • anonymouse observer

          I also saw it but don’t know if American freight railroad can become a model for underused rail corridors in Japan because unless there’s no passenger trains on the rail corridor at all, freight trains need to run based on the schedule and be on time. Even if they can keep the passenger trains in underutilized section, once freight trains approach toward larger cities, they need to share the track with passenger trains, which runs at somewhat high frequency.

          If someone can realize “Tokaido Freight Shinkansen” concept on the median of Shin-Tomei/Meishin as a dedicated, independent freight rail corridor with no track sharing or through-running from/to any other rail corridor, it might be worth testing American freight railroad’s operating practices.

          • Phake Nick

            For some reason, when I first read about the proposal some years ago, the image I came up with was similar to a giant intercity conveyer belt between those cities.
            But the proposal itself seems to be meaningless now that the expressway median have been used up by additional lane

      • anonymouse observer

        There was a short slide deck from Oliver Wyman supporting your points in terms of lack of schedules or customer service among North American freight railroads, even with the latest “evolutions”. In short:
        – All of the executives they asked prefer trucking over freight rail service (though it doesn’t say how many or which industries);
        – Someone from automotive shipper says, “PSR has not yielded positive results in service, transit, or reliability. We didn’t get faster or more reliable”;
        – Another from automotive shipper says, “Railroads have no sense of accountability for their own operations. As an example, when demurrage occurs, they are immune to the fact that their own operation caused the need for the cars to have an extended dwell”.

        Click to access Rail_Trends_2020.pdf

        • borners

          US example is useful to tell you that even if you screw up railways in almost every possible way, freight-rail is very competitive for bulky goods being moved for 1000km plus. The Europeans are probably a better example given closer distances and similar bottleneck issues, but even then Japan’s island position makes it difficult because port-truck supply chains are so easy. That said if the UK is beating you at freight mode share and channel tunnel aside its rail infrastructure bottlenecks are even worse and its a smaller island to boot.

          They do use the Ou-Uetsu-Echigo-Hokuriku lines as a Tokaido side bypass already. Are there problems with the gradients and curves in the low-passenger use Nagano-Gunma-Gifu-Yamanashi lines that make them unsuitable for freight use? Of course you’d definitely want electrification as well which adds to costs. But hey if you add CO2 emissions it probably works out.

          • Phake Nick

            Apparently the track between Naoetsu and Nagano have ceased operating freight train since when the Japanese rail network was still owned and operated nationally, but the current local operator is still being paid annually to maintain excess infrastructure along the track for freight train operation along the line during emergency.
            The track between Nagano and Gifu was physically disconnected as soon as high speed rail opened, due to the excess gradient, but for the same reason freight transportation along the line ceased even before that
            As for Takayama main line in Gifu, freight service there seems to terminate just as a natural result of declining freight traffic
            Note that, nowadays, even in many relatively large cities, JNR no longer operate direct freight train traffic there in order to save cost, but instead offer something called ORS off-rail stations, where they offer feeder truck to connect freight to other stations they have freight trains

          • anonymouse observer

            @Phake Nick
            The segment you are talking for the steep grade is between Nagano and Gunma. There is no rail connection between Gifu and Nagano except for Chuo Main Line, which is active freight route.

            @ borners
            Gunma and Yamanashi are not neighboring prefectures.

            Chuo Line corridor (“Nagano-Gunma-Gifu-Yamanashi” corridor you pointed out even though, again, Gunma and Yamanashi are not neighboring) has been fully electrified for 5 decades now and is active freight route for both containers and oil/gasoline. The issue of the corridor is the track capacity (it does not have a lot of local passenger service but has frequent intercity passenger service while there are multiple single-track segments), steeper grade, substation capacity limiting the tonnage (the reason why EH200 locomotive is developed), and JR Freight’s financial condition not allowing additional large-scale investment for infrastructure owned by the passenger JR companies like substations. Though it doesn’t look like it is a big deal, it is actually a big deal because one of shorter single-track segments near Kami-Suwa is reducing operational flexibility to the level where it affect scheduling flexibility of passenger train in Chuo Rapid Line trains in Tokyo.

            The corridor along Japan Sea can do so much because of lack of track capacity (segment between Niigata and Akita is largely single track while the stretch is also active intercity passenger corridor).

            About the profitability of bulky goods in North American freight market, I am curious how long the bulky goods transportation remains profitable especially when coal traffic is in decline, and manufacturing is moving toward leaner and more just-in-time style (transportation providers need to deliver materials on time).

    • adirondacker12800

      There’s the plan from 1965 and the plan from 1973 and the plan from 1980something and the plan that eventually resulted in Acela and umpteen different plans since then. Which one should he pull out?

  10. anonymouse observer

    I read a couple of articles predicting Amtrak will become an obstacle against NE Maglev because it would steal passengers from Amtrak’s most profitable service, and the Amtrak cannot compete against the Maglev in terms of trip time.

    However, I guess not many people expected Amtrak starts throwing some punches this early (I didn’t).

  11. Herbert

    You may dismiss it but Amtrak is currently running the only continental scale railroad on somebody else’s track with a Congress that doesn’t really care about it.

    Amtrak’s greatest success is its continued existence.

    Its greatest failure is that it cannot ever hippie to do more or be more.

    • Phake Nick

      The problem is, do such continental scale railroad have its role in the future, or is its existence blocking passenger railroad in the US from evolving into a more functional role of mass regional high speed transportation?

        • Phake Nick

          Climate change wouldn’t force anyone give up flying directly, climate change induced government policy would, but if such policy is implemented by government then alternative would needs to be considered, and currently some alternative available like constructing and operating high speed rail across the continent wouldn’t necessary be much more resource-efficient than just flying the planes.

          • Henry Miller

            Climate change won’t make anyone give up flying, at least not in North America. Carbon taxes and the like will either be too small to make a difference, or unpopular enough that they get removed in the next election when the Republicans (or Canadian equivalent) win by a landslide on a platform of making getting someplace affordable again.

            If HSR and local transit is built to something useful, in 30 years (when our transit usage is similar to what France has) we can talk about this again. With more people not needing high carbon transport you might have a chance. Until then don’t waste your energy on polices that are a dead end.

          • Phake Nick

            Also, if someone simply banned flying, given the current model sharing of transportation in the US, and the expected advent of autonomous vehicles, you can tell for sure people will simply use their autonomous cars instead. Which will end up having higher carbon footprint than flying.

    • Alon Levy

      Congress very much cares about the Northeast Corridor, but it’s only asking people who aren’t even aware Germany has commuter trains, so of course they think their situation of blended service is unique. (I’m not exaggerating that part – an official for either Caltrain or California HSR, I forget which, had no idea.)

  12. anonymouse observer

    Funding scheme of “Seibi Shinkansen” in Japan looks similar to the trust fund model though not quite the same: pooling money from the asset transfer of Tokaido/Sanyo/Tohoku/Joetsu Shinkansen Lines to JR East/Central/West and use for a portion of the new Shinkansen construction while charging usage fees to Seibi Shinkansen operators for 30 years to cover part of the construction cost (usage fees set based on the revenue and profit of the new Shinkansen lines built in this scheme).

    However, I am not sure how this works in the U.S. because: 1) user (or railroad) might not have a pocket which is big enough to pay user fees for the new high-speed rail infrastructure for decades; 2) the high-speed rail service might not generate enough revenue to cover the expenses and generate enough profit to attract potential operator(s) who are okay with paying the usage fees, or; 3) there might not be anyone like JR East/Central/West who can pay “principal” and get the trust fund going at the beginning.

    The asset transfer portion appears to be sound over there (probably in exchange of enormous amount of long-term debt carried in the balance sheet of these three JR companies), but usage fee part doesn’t look as solid as initially thought due to construction cost increase compared to the initial estimate. It sounds like they are now working on this issue by extending the usage fee to 50 year term:

    (I cannot find anything describing Seibi Shinkansen funding scheme in English. The closest I can find is this old article from JRTR…)

    Click to access f14_ono.pdf

  13. Nathanael

    Getting rid of Amtrak would simply end train service, nothing more. At best you could get a new organization with the same incompetents in charge.

    Replacing Amtrak *management* might actually accomplish something.

  14. Pingback: US High-Speed Rail – Thias の blog
  15. Pingback: Amtrak Sucks; Publics are Terrible at Choice. – Indefensible Expectations

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