Fall foliage, clam chowder and high-speed rail

I was in Boston about six weeks ago for the 2009 Rail~Volution Conference. The conference focuses on a wide range of topics related to “building livable communities with transit.”  I was there as a panelist for the session on “New Media, New Tools” talking about my role  in utilizing social networking at Metro. I always welcome the opportunity to visit Boston. I went to graduate school there and have kept in touch with my transportation professor over the years.

So, while he didn’t have time to meet me for lunch or coffee, I was thrilled when he invited back inside the ivy-covered walls for a lunch-time, brown-bag discussion on High Speed Rail. It’s a treat for me to step outside of my day-to-day involvement with transportation and participate in discussions from those with the luxury to think about issues more broadly.

Oh, my little policy-wonk heart skipped a beat. And, with that, together with another Metro colleague at the same conference, we hopped aboard the MBTA’s Red Line and headed to Harvard Square.

The key presenters in the lunch time discussion were Karen Rae, Deputy Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, and Polly Trottenberg, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy. My professor gave the closing remarks.

No, I’m not involved in Metro’s day-to-day activities on High Speed Rail but this was a great opportunity to hear from those working on the issue at the national level. Here are a few of the things I took away from the discussion:

•    The federal interest is focused on the markets where rail can provide a better alternative to the 100 to 500 mile flight. Many airports serving such flights are at or near capacity and these short-hop flights are the worst in terms of producing greenhouse gasses.

•    They showed a chart of what we have spent as a nation on highway, air and intercity passenger rail since 1949. As you might have guessed, we’ve spent a lot on road and airport infrastructure and very little on rail.

•    They showed another map of the “Vision for High Speed Rail” showing the designated corridors around the country. These corridor areas mirror closely – though not exactly – areas around the U.S. that are deemed to be “mega-regions.” Click here to see a map.

•    What are the “keys to success” for regions that want  federal support for High Speed Rail U.S.? Among the keys were having a strong state and regional plan, a solid financial plan, agreements with other states and rail operators and a demonstrated ability to deliver.

One of the most interesting things I learned is the difference between High Speed Rail and what they are calling “Higher” Speed Rail.  Many of us think of High Speed Rail as trains that travel at super fast speeds like some of those in Europe and Asia.

As trains approach these speeds, the costs increase exponentially. Yet, in most key corridors, trains are operating at speeds well below 100 miles per hour. For significantly less than the cost of full High Speed Rail, travel speeds could improve by 50% or more. Something to think about.