What ever happened to “I think I can”?
June 26, 2012 — Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office invited the media to see the remnants of former governor George Pataki’s failed high speed rail (HSR) program: carcasses of rusting trains abandoned in a storage yard in Glenville. The press release stated that “Governor Cuomo’s administration has taken a different approach to high speed rail development,” and that he was going to “put the state on track to the rail system of the future.”
not getting on board
According to a June 1 article in The New York Times, four trains owned by New York State sit “on sagging tracks” in Glenville, New York, unused, monuments to what the article calls a “disasterous project” to “create a high-speed rail line between New York and Albany.” The article concluded that, “Even by Albany standards, the high-speed line offers a reminder of how a much-heralded government project can fall apart.”
The plan, sought to be carried out in the administration of former Goveror George Pataki, involved refurbishing some Amtrak trains so that they could go as fast as 125 miles per hour, a pale imitation of a true high-speed system that had earlier been proposed under former Governor Mario Cuomo.
How did the article come to be? A “small group of reporters [was] invited by the Cuomo administration to travel via bus to the Glenville industrial park, about 20 miles northwest of Albany, where the governor’s office promised to ‘reveal the latest example of government waste.’”
Instead of writing a story choregraphed by the governor’s office, we thought it was more interesting to take as our starting point the still woefully inadequate train service between New York City and Albany — that is, between its world city and its state capital — and look seriously at what is and isn’t being done to transform that service.
Indeed, Cuomo has touted HSR ever since he won the 2010 election. In November of that year, the governor-elect penned a letter to transportation secretary Ray LaHood asking that American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for HSR that had been rejected by other states be channeled to New York. “High speed rail could be the 21st century Erie Canal for New York State and help rebuild upstate New York’s economy,” Cuomo wrote. “Now is the moment to build.”
New York was successful in securing over $560 million in Recovery Act funds and is in the early phases of installing high-tech signals and laying stretches of new track for conventional train service. The Cuomo administration wants to increase ridership and introduce express service.
The administration also wants trains to run more reliably and at greater speeds than their current average of 52 miles per hour. But, it turns out, what the Cuomo administration bills as a path to HSR isn’t going to create a system that goes very fast at all. Under the most likely scenario being examined, the trip between Albany and New York City — currently a two-hour-and-20-minute journey — would still take more than two hours to complete.
What about trains that go as fast as 160 mph? Or 220 mph? Those options have already been rejected by the governor and his Department of Transportation (DOT) in a study that the agency is currently conducting on HSR. Gone with these superfast options are what some experienced observers call the potentially substantial benefits of true HSR service.
How fast is high speed?
By international standards, to be deemed “high speed,” trains should be able to attain a top velocity of at least 125 mph to 150 mph. Most go faster: those in Italy, Germany, Japan, and China can reach 186 mph; in France, the electric TGV can hit 199 mph; and the Shanghai magnetic levitation, or maglev, train can race at 268 mph. (See bottom box on different types of true HSR technologies.)
In the U.S., in what appears to be in part a triumph of labeling over substance, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), three years ago, created its own definitions for HSR. The agency defined high-speed service in the “regional” context — that is, service between major or medium cities up to 500 miles apart — as encompassing trains that can attain a maximum speed of just 90 miles per hour.
And since trains can’t maintain their top pace at all times, average speeds are even slower. After all, trains must decelerate, stop and then accelerate at intermediate stations. They must brake at bends, inclines, and at intersections with street traffic. And their speed can be further hindered if tracks are in poor repair or commuter or freight traffic is backed up on a shared route.
According to Cuomo administration estimates, trains with maximum speeds of 90 mph to 110 mph traveling along the state’s existing Empire Corridor, which connects New York City with Albany, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls, would see an average speed of around 60 mph. Trains that could reach 125 mph along the corridor would average between 75 mph and 85 mph.
How does true HSR work?
The two major technologies for true HSR are electric and magnetic levitation (or “maglev”) trains.
The most common type of HSR train runs on electricity. It can reach speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. Power is delivered to the vehicles from overhead electrical cables that stretch the full length of the route. Unlike conventional diesel-fed internal combustion locomotives, electric trains don’t have to carry fuel on board. That means they are lighter weight and can accelerate more quickly. European electric HSR systems include those in France (top speed of 199 mph), Spain (top speed of 193 mph), and in Germany and Italy (top speed of 186 mph).
Maglev is the fastest high-speed technology currently in use. Each maglev train has magnets running the length of its undercarriage that are “repelled” by magnetized coils embedded in the track. The resulting electromagnetic field levitates the train between 1 and 10 centimeters above the rail line. Since maglev trains float, they don’t need wheels, providing a frictionless ride.
Once levitated, a maglev train is propelled by electromagnetic force. The electricity that flows into the magnetized coils in the track causes the magnetic field to alternate continuously. The magnetic field moves the train forward in two ways: pulling from the front and pushing from the rear. The fastest model in operation is the Shanghai maglev, which can reach 268 mph. There are also maglev trains operating in Japan and South Korea.