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March 25th, 2013
10:52 PM ET

KTH: High-speed rail Boondoggle

Spending 800-million dollars to shave mere minutes off a rail trip. CNN's Drew Griffin is Keeping Them Honest.

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  1. Terry Sears

    Shameful , shoddy reporting Anderson. It's bad enough we have Wall St. money trying to break up the national train system so they can privatize the profitable NE corridor of Amtrak (which Amtrak uses to help finance the cross-country trains). Your small-picture thinking relied on data from a right wing "think" tank...my opinion of your work dropped significantly when I saw this piece. You owe it to the country to do a fair and balanced piece on America's need for a top-knotch train system...and the forces that are trying to break it up.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  2. Carolyn Rose

    We use the Amtrak trains between Portland and Seattle. We have also used the trains in Germany which is known for on time and fast travel. Our trips between Portland and Seattle could now rival the German standard. There are more choices for travel times, they are on time and everyone we have taken has been full. That is a big change from 10 years ago. It is money well spent. If you tried to drive I-5 especially from Tacoma to Seattle you would know why the train is a blessing.

    March 30, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  3. caren chappell

    Bad design (plan to wander through cities and prime farmland, massive destruction on the ends and in the middle); overweening arrogance on the part of the HSR Authority; money wasted everywhere; questionable relationships with contractors; dubious analyses of costs and benefits; refusal to listen to the Legislative Analyst's concerns; refusal to address the issues raised by rail experts who dared to question the HSRA's financial and ridership numbers; refusal to follow the terms of the terms of the enabling Prop 1A. Ten billion dollars of state taxpayer funds and maybe 3 billion of federal taxpayer funds, and maybe there will be 130 miles of alternate track for Amtrak to use. Lots of money spent and nothing gained. Shameful.

    March 28, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  4. Brian Pitzer

    As I watched Mr. Griffin's report I was hoping he would tell us how the $800 million was spent. Without the full context it is difficult to assess if these improvements were part of the groundwork that will result in faster times or more service later on. I doubt very much if the Washington state project was billed as "high-speed rail" as in California. At the end of the story it was noted that these improvements would help freight traffic too. That's no insignificant achievement in itself, but once again, Griffin doesn't explain how or how much freight railroading benefited. My biggest concern with these reports is that they appear to be highly unbalanced. As L. Gunther pointed out, Griffin is ignoring the real progress being made with higher-speed rail projects in the Midwest as well as in the Northeast corridor. Virginia is also moving ahead on improving its passenger train service. The question I would ask Griffin is why is he attempting to disparage high-speed rail projects by focusing on other projects that clearly are not intended to be high-speed rail, but rather are important improvements to traditional passenger rail service.

    March 27, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
  5. Eugene

    What crap reporting and a short sighted perspective. Rail transportation for (both passengers and commercial) is doing exceptionally well in urban corridors that have it – any investment in it has and will continue to pay off far more than the insane subsidies on roads & parking & gas that we gleefully spend (not to mention their health and economic impacts). Just look at the percentage transportation departments put towards roads vs. rail. Keep calling for the status quo and we'll keep falling behind.

    March 27, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  6. Casey Jones

    This is America...whatever happened to thinking BIG!!!! 100 years ago America had the best railway system in the world it helped us to win WWI and WWII...now America has one of the worst systems. Like the Interstates of the 1950's this is crucial to the continuing growth of our great country and it won't happen over night. It will take lots of time and $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ I am shocked but how short sided everyone is about High Speed Rail. Especially Cooper. Didn't his family make a whole lot of money off of investing in trains. Didn't the Vanderbilts build Grand Central Terminal in NYC!!!!! If we don't invest then we WILL be left behind...literally.

    March 27, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  7. John Dole

    I ride on the Chicago-Detroit line which travels at 110mph from Porter IN to Kalamazoo and the rest is under construction to allow faster speeds, In New England the trains on many segments travel at 150mph and its being improved to run at that speed system wide. It saves a LOT of time...why didn’t CNN mention the environmental impact of High Speed Rail??? How it saves millions of barrels a year and High Speed Rail helps cut our foreign oil dependence!!This seemed like a pro-oil, Fox News, Heritage Fund promo...so disappointed with CNN for one of very few times...

    March 27, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  8. Glenn F. JOHNSTON

    Dear Mr. Cooper,
    As an Amtrak employee with 20 yrs tenure, I can't understand some of the criticism when it come to anything to do with passenger rail in this country. The reason why some countries in Asia and Europe enjoy high(er) quality and high(er) speed rail transportation is the fact that they spend billions of dollars on their rail network, from the lowly freight operations to high speed passenger rail. They spend the type of money on their railroads like this country spend on airlines and roads, both of which enjoy huge amounts of "MY" tax money, but without the same criticism as rail transportation gets. Yes, I can agree with some comments when it comes to the fact that many dollars have been spent without any track being laid. And yes, I too can't understand why it's taken so long for this country to embrace high(er) speed rail. Before, during and after WWll, our country's rail network(including passenger rail) was what other countries wanted to copy. Now, some of those same countries see our passenger rail system as a joke and it's mostly due to the fact that there's an unequal balance when it comes to transportation budgeting! Highway/roads industry and the airline industry get the greater chunk of the federal transportation budget, while Amtrak and heavy commuter rail operations get much smaller amounts. In fact, urban transit(including heavy commuter rail operations) get more funding than Amtrak does! I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you this much Mr. Cooper, I'm tired of Amtrak being the blame for everything that is wrong with country and the way it's governed.

    In closing, I'd like to ask you and your audience a few questions.

    What automobile company, trucking company, or bus company has ever built an inch of public access roads or highways?

    What airplane company or airline company built any public access airport?

    You get back with me on this Mr. Cooper at the email address shown, and I'll make a list of every railroad that has laid track across this country, built mostly at their expense.

    Glenn F. JOHNSTON
    A REAL RAILROADER
    A REAL AMTRAK

    March 27, 2013 at 8:41 am |
  9. Jack

    Just another one sided report and conclusions. CNN has long ago lost it's credibility and then complains that they got a lot of emails when it is pointed out. Well at least the reporter didn't walk on the tracks which is illegal dangerous and just plain stupid.

    March 27, 2013 at 12:28 am |
  10. Matt Johnson

    10 years ago I rode aboard the completely rebuilt Amtrak Turboliner, the first of what was supposed to be a fleet of seven high speed gas turbine powered trains, between New York City and Albany. At the time I was very enthusiastic about the idea of high speed rail. It was supposed to be the beginning of 125 mph service along the Hudson in New York, but less than a year later the program ground to a halt with only three of the seven Turboliners delivered. Amtrak backed out of its commitments to the New York high speed rail program, claiming it was unable to afford promised track upgrades, and stole the state-funded Turboliner trains, sending them off to Delaware for "safe keeping". After a protracted legal battle, the state of New York and Amtrak settled for some small amount of money, and New York taxpayers ended up with nothing for their $70 million+ investment. Those three Turboliner trains continue to sit outdoors rotting away in a Delaware storage yard, a symbol of waste and incompetence.

    Today there are two brand new Talgo high speed trains that were supposed to be used in Wisconsin but are at the center of a new legal dispute, apparently with little prospect of the trains being used as intended. Maybe they will end up rotting away in a hidden storage yard next to those Turboliners!

    In theory I'm in favor of high speed rail. But if this is the kind of lack of accountability we can expect, I'm not optimistic about getting results.

    March 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  11. StanSitwell

    The only reason Amtrak's ridership is up is because gas prices are also up, and the cost involved in owning a car goes up every year. The gas tax in NY is 69 cents a gallon plus 18 cents federally. All I know is paying $150 for one one-way trip from Washington, DC to NYC is outrageous and it costs half that to drive. A round trip for a family of four would cost $1200 at that rate, whereas driving would cost $150 max.

    March 26, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  12. Raymond Becich

    So it's cheaper to ride the Greyhound Bus from Seattle to Portland? I want to see Anderson Cooper ride the greyhound bus!!

    March 26, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  13. nancy barnby

    California's plan for high speed rail is a boondoggle equal to KHT. The HSR authority is not following the rule of the law, as set down by the 52% of the voters who passed the proposition to explore the possibilities of a high-speed train between LA and San Francisco. The segment on which they plan to begin is in the middle of nowhere, with few possible riders, and they hope to buy off land from ranchers who certainly don't want trains screaming through the middle of their properties. Furthermore, California cannot afford this project; it will only mean kicking more debt down the road for our grandchildren.

    March 26, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Dan Johnson

      The alternatives to high speed rail are far more expensive. Face it: more people are traveling in the state. That means either (a) build more highways (b) build more runways or (c) build more gridlock. All three of those options are more expensive than building high speed rail (and that goes for any area with a lot of traffic, not just California). Not to mention the economic power of using electricity (which we make) instead of oil (which we import). And the benefit of less pollution. And the benefit of far fewer people dying from highway crashes. The ROI on high speed rail is far higher than the alternatives - and the ROI on higher speed rail (the subject of the news report) is higher than most other alternatives as well.

      That's why most of the rest of the world is building (or already enjoys) a great passenger rail network. The parts of our country where most people live (NE, NW, Midwest, SE and SW) have the same population density as Europe and Asia with very successful passenger train networks. Trains are fundamentally more efficient than cars or planes. Just look at a train station versus a huge parking lot versus a sprawling airport, or a ten lane highway versus a two lane railroad versus half a dozen airports. Those economies that build train networks enjoy cheaper transportation costs than those that don't.

      Or we can just sit in traffic and wonder why we can't get to meetings on time - or sit on runways and wonder why flights are so delayed.

      March 27, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  14. Kristin Mercer

    This is nothing! California voters were duped into approving $9B toward a $34B HSR system guaranteed to operate without subsidies. It's now a $70B system with only enough funding to build one section of slow-speed diesel tracks to nowhere. Worse, California legislators refuse to pull the plug. If the aim is to get cars off of gridlocked highways, how about building simple transit for millions of daily commuters, instead of luxury-liners for affluent vacationers and business travelers.

    March 26, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  15. richard rosensweig

    I voted for California Hi Speed Rail...BIG MISTAKE! the concept was appealing; the implementation is appalling. This is a black hole sucking up billions of dollars. Poorly managed but politically well connected, they have totally unrealistic ridership assumptions coupled with ridculously low expense projections, no hope for survival without a BIG (illegal ) public subsidy , and no foreseeable source of funding to complete the project. Please ask some HARD QUESTIONS and keep them from stealing from the public.

    March 26, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  16. Evan Snyder

    When the airline and auto industries begin to fidget over HSR, then we'll know it's a meaningful transport mode. As of now, not even a yawn from either. Why? HSR (steel on steel) is 19th c. technology; the cost, as we've seen in CA, is beyond fantasy; ridership and financing of CA HSR is very uncertain. It's quite embarrassing to read the language/rationale of CA's 2008 Proposition 1A Initiative. We voters were a hopeful lot. More harshly, we, along with elected officials, were naive and uninformed about the project.

    March 26, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  17. Michael Goldeen

    Despite all its myriad flaws, capitalism's forte is competition. Despite all its magnanamous benefits government's weakness lies in patronizing.

    California's high speed rail project is a prime example. By trying to be all things to all people, it's becoming ever costlier, and ever less like high speed rail. It's the wrong route (up a restricted corridor into a dead end at San Francisco), on the wrong tracks (shared w/frieght), with unreal passenger projections.

    The State needs to terminate this project, and go back to square one, starting with use projections vetted in public, an open door for privately funded proposals, an open mind for exclusive routes, and for innovative design. That way it might expect to provide a useful none too egregious system, but it still must go up against the facts that high speed rail elswhere is a benefit to the elite, and nowhere pays its way.

    March 26, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Ted Crocker

      You're exactly right, Michael. When President Obama initially unveiled his vision for HSR in this country, he identified a $500 billion -$1 trillion dollar system consisting of 13 projects running through 31 states. The reason he did this was quite obviously to get buy in from as many constituents as possible. The problem was, he only had $8B in his pocket, so there was no conceivable way he could deliver on what he promised. And quite frankly, he has never wanted to know the details. In a perfect world, he would have identified one HSR project, put all the $8B into it and made damn sure it was done right so that other states would want one of their own. Instead, it has been one ill-conceived and under-funded project after another.

      March 27, 2013 at 2:32 am |
  18. James R. Janz

    You're right on when it comes to HSR. It's a boondoggle, especially here in California. There are a few places in the U.S. where high-speed rail might work, but the circuitous route proposed in California is not one of them. It will take too long, will not generate enough revenues to cover its oerating costs, and, in the long run, will be one more piece of infrastructure that will be under-maintained. Try HSR in the Northeast corridor and see how it works. For the rest of the country, put funds into local transit, and maintaining the roads, bridges, and rails we already have.

    March 26, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  19. Michael

    I appreciate the honest reporting and accounting. Given that automobiles will be electric within a couple of decades (ending any pollution benefit of HSR) and airplanes can adapt flexibly to take people wherever they want to go depending on new jobs, lives, family etc (as opposed to fixed line rail which goes between Points A and B), and given that HSR systems like the one in California inevitably wind up costing tens of billions of dollars more than promoters promise, it really seems like "the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong project," to quote one disillusioned California democratic leader about HSR. Like Iraq, we can get out now before a very high price is paid, or we can see it through and regret the massive expense for modest gains (expenses amortized over 40 years BTW, since California decided to extend the life of the bonds to make the annual payments look cheaper) and wonder what might have been if we had invested instead in universities, water and green energy with the $100 billion+. No one likes to own a mistake, but someone in Washington has to have the courage to admit, as your reporter points out, that the ROI on HSR is just not worth it.

    March 26, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  20. L. Gunther

    While major shortcomings of the HSR projects are pointed out, why werent the already implemented semi HSR improvements in Chicago – Detroit and Chicago – St. Louis corridors at least identified in the program where i believe the improvements were more significant than in the Washington State corridor?

    March 26, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  21. Dan Johnson

    You have a point in that the President's vision for high speed rail is not yet getting implemented, but it is unfair to blame him for that. Congress doesn't share his vision (the Republican House led the charge to cut almost all funding for high speed trains) and many states prefer to upgrade their freight corridors used by Amtrak. The President continues to put $50B over 6 years for high speed rail in his budget. Congress should get on board, and your report ought to make that a little clearer. Plus, we are getting better Amtrak service with the investments. It just isn't really high speed rail.

    March 26, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • John Carney

      Dan, your post is indicative of the naive understanding people have of the potential for HSR. The President's proposal of $50 bn over 6 years would be an insignificant fraction of the cost of systems. As the other post have indicated, California get a $3 bn grant and passed a bond issue for another $10 bn to develop a HSR between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The cost estimates climbed above $130 bn. The scope has been reduced; the train will share the track of existing slow speed rail in the major metropolitan areas, the train will no longer be electric, the transit will take longer than the specified minimum, the project has been sued on several different fronts and still the estimated cost is $70 bn excluding finance charges.
      Hopefully Drew will read the comments and revise his "Keeping then Honest" presentation and try again. Maybe he will be more thorough and honest in the second attempt.

      March 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  22. Kathy Hamilton

    You have no idea how bad the California High-Speed Rail is and we're about to waste 8 billion dollars and no one seems to care. Lawsuits have been filed to show the rush to build in spite of violations of laws, refusal last week for an audit of the first construction segment. For 6 billion they are building less than 130 miles of conventional rail tracks that will imrprove Amtrak service and it will not be high-speed rail. The feds are advancing money to California so they can hurry and start despite the fact they will not be able to finish in time for the ARRA fed funds deadline.

    March 26, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  23. Jim Harpham

    I wish the piece on "slow-speed rail" would have included the Florida project- Orland/Tampa (84 miles) which stopped 3 times in the first 50 miles and served Disney and the Orange County Convention Center- this was a certificated "Boondoggle" and Gov Scott was really pilloried for doing the right thing !!

    March 26, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  24. Ted Crocker

    One thing that has become perfectly clear here in California is it is not about building High Speed Rail. What was promised to the CA tax payers to be a high speed rail system stretching from SF to Anaheim for a mere $9.95B has turned out to be an illegal money grab for what little federal funding there is. This is in return for a short stretch of redundant tracks in the Central Valley at the expense of farmers and "Prime Ag" land in order to keep the unions in the Democrats' back pockets for as long as possible. When the money runs out, that's it. No more. Only three Democrats stood up for Prop 1A – the law, and neither President Obama nor Jerry Brown was one of them. This isn't highway robbery. It's a train robbery without a train and it doesn't make me feel very good about being honest.

    March 26, 2013 at 4:29 am |

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