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I’ve been meaning to start writing about transportation stuff ever since this post, but other things have gotten in the way. Here are some links I’ve collected in the last month:

Over at The Bellows, Ryan Avent asks his commenters, and they answer:

Why isn’t transit a bigger part of the national discussion on energy/climate change/congestion/etc.?

Later, his commenters ask him:

What are the obstacles to high speed rail in this country?

To his answer of “primarily…demand and money” I would also add state and local politics. Some routes might seem obvious when you think of them in terms of endpoints, but the ground-level details are a lot more complicated. I didn’t follow it that closely, but I remember there being a heated debate over the Bay Area end of the San Francisco to Los Angeles route: should it start in SF or Oakland? what pass should it use to enter the Central Valley? and so on. Even now when the line seems to have been settled in San Francisco’s favor, there’s a conflict with the Union Pacific company over use of right-of-ways. (If you’re interested in the California project, check out the California High Speed Rail Blog, which has much more detailed coverage of this.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that high-speed rail necessarily bypasses a lot more towns than regular rail – too many stops and it’s just a rail line with a high top speed. There’s only so much time you can save over regular rail on a Washington, DC to New York route if you also stop in Baltimore and Philadelphia and other places, but it’s hard to see those cities agreeing to be skipped over (and it’s not clear that they should). And indeed, as Avent and some of his commenters point out in the linked threads, in a number of places around the country it makes more sense to upgrade existing service rather than to build “true” high speed rail.

As a sidenote, apparently some of the high speed routes in Germany have been criticized for having so many stops that the average speeds aren’t really that great. By contrast, the couple of times I took the TGV south from Paris, the first stop didn’t come for about 3 hours – longer than the entire Acela trip between New York and DC. My anecdata is a few years old, though, so I don’t know what the European systems are like now. Aside from being better than ours.

    And speaking of Europe, Paul Krugman points out that Europe moves proportionally less freight by rail than the United States does. I have anecdata for this too: I was surprised at how few freights I saw as a passenger in Europe a few years ago as compared to what it’s like to ride Amtrak. The only place I remember with a significant freight presence was the northern end of the line between Stockholm and Kiruna, Norway, where trains carry ore from a Swedish mine to the coast. The combination of gorgeous scenery (fjords and mountains) and natural resource extraction industry (mining, the freights, and the transshipment facility in Kiruna) made the area feel almost (American) western to me.

    Leaving rail aside for the moment, Matthew Yglesias considers Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and worries: “What I primarily fear about BRT is that we’ll get into a “defining BRT down” scenario since it lacks a very clear definition.” In Berkeley, some BRT opponents appear to be trying to do just that.

    Finally, in the early 1980s John Stilgoe wrote a book, Metropolitan Corridor, examining the geographical changes the adoption and expansion of the railroad brought about in the United States. I remember reading a review – I haven’t read the book, but I looked up the reviews when I was in grad school for research-related reasons – which, though generally positive, criticized the book for being perhaps too nostalgic towards the railroads, given their postwar decline. That was then; Stilgoe has now written a new book on railroads, and from the looks of it, there’s no need for nostalgia.