12 February, 2009


Red Signals Shine Over High Speed Rails Magic Numbers

Well the first Transportation Stimulus Package from the joint House and Senate is in hand. In its original House of Representatives form there was a goodly sum of money for state sponsored Amtrak or other state rail passenger operations. In the second edition the sum for state operations was slashed but remained in the bill. Finally in the joint House-Senate form it was eliminated completely.

In this article I submit to you that killing funding for State sponsorship of passenger trains may lead to the complete failure of all of the High Speed Rail corridors. There was plenty of money for High Speed Rail Development in the final bill, and some of the HSR corridors may actually be built. However you build HSR, to appease politicians and connect dots on a map, it may now be doomed to a disastrous failure.

Because the United States of America continues to turn it's back on basic State and Interstate rail corridors, we may someday pay a hefty price. Your hometown, your city, your state all represent the grass roots of rail travel. Without these roots we can hardly expect HSR to be a magic bullet. It all starts with people, building a loyal rail passenger culture, then building on that culture until we graduate into the era of High Speed Rail. With typical American blind enthusiasm, we seem to have decided to skip the "passenger factor" in favor of building miles of show case railroad.

We have a national population which has grown up with a non-stop, over all obstacles, lap-top, tray table, mentality for travel. Look out the window? Why? All they see today are clouds. People don't even understand the concept of sitting back and relaxing in a lounge while the miles tick by under the floor. Why would I spend 7 hours on a train from Jacksonville to Miami? Why would I spend 8 hours on a train from Jacksonville to Atlanta? Even if High Speed Rail can cut those travel times in half, from city center to city center, it doesn't fit the rushing minds of the "jet set generation". As the old Amtrak commercial said, "America is getting into training..." We'll be sorry that Amtrak and the States didn't take this advice to heart and train up a generation on the rails.

We need to get building, but it's not what you think we need!

While I'd be first to agree that we need to get rolling on national passenger train services, I think it starts a bit closer to home. Every expert in the field says that the modern passenger train does better then air on the 350 mile (or less) segments, great observation, so where are the trains? This is the missing market and the missing funding for Amtrak, or the States. We don't have a single train running in those stage lengths from Jacksonville, (or most anywhere else). Look at the corridors around us for example:

Jacksonville-Miami (via the FEC)
Jacksonville-Miami (via the CSX)
Jacksonville-Tampa (via Orlando)
Jacksonville-Tampa (via Ocala)
Jacksonville-Ft. Myers

While a couple of these routes have long distance, inter-city passenger train service, most make do with a single train a day, while 7 out of these 9 corridors have no trains at all. How do people familiarize themselves with the comfort and convenience of regional passenger rail - if there IS no regional passenger rail. So how do I get to Charlotte? Atlanta? Macon? Montgomery? Mobile? Tallahassee? Memphis? Chattanooga? or Nashville? Provided it is the right time of day Amtrak might get you to Jacksonville. Leaving the Jacksonville Am-shack Station, one might survive the walk to a dollar store to purchase a cardboard sign and a magic marker because that's the closest thing to a ticket your going to get in Amtrak's SOUTH.

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step

Suddenly some "big idea man" from Washington D.C. walks onto the stage and we have instant High Speed rail with frequent services. These new trains jump into corridors that have been stripped of trains and buried by Amtrak funding. The question nobody is asking seems to be where will all these passengers come from? Generations of dead, sloppy or unfunded passenger service is hardly the way to teach people to abandon their automobiles. People don't know what railroad SERVICE is.

Amtrak advertises two Florida routes and two regular Florida trains daily. TWO. Two trains to the most popular single tourist city in the World (Orlando). Two to the number one tourism state (Florida). Two to America's best city for new business (Jacksonville). Two to the most famous beaches in North America, (Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach). Even so, one of those two wanders all the way into Tampa on the West Coast then recrosses the State giving the passengers that distinct "Haven't we just seen this scenery?" feeling. Those passengers would be correct, rather then splitting the train in Jacksonville for both coasts, the train just runs 50 miles over to Tampa, then the same 50 miles right back out. This, by the way means Tampa-St. Petersburg, one of the Nation's largest and fastest growing metro area's has a grand total of ONE TRAIN DAILY. The scheduling genius has the two trains running back to back only a couple of hours apart, then the station agents lock the doors until tomorrows show. "Show" is exactly what it is too, no options, two trains, a single route north or south of Jacksonville will not create demanding masses clamoring for High Speed, or any other speed of rail.

Planning for track without planning for patrons leads to a dead end.

Before we run off the High Speed Rail cliff with an empty train, wouldn't it be wise to strike out for a return of basic regional rail passenger services? How do we know a High Speed Train will pack em' in, on the East Coast of Florida, when the same territory hasn't seen a passenger train since 1968? It's important to remember not only have these potential routes not seen trains but they haven't seen passengers. We must fund State and regional rail passenger services, and build toward a goal of High Speed Rail, rather then building High Speed Rail, and building toward a goal of passengers.

Alternatives to Highway's and Airport's, service, frequency, convenience, and comfort, should happen long before the first High Speed Rail ever goes in place.

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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