High-speed rail goals are obsolete?

Is high-speed rail really the solution for travel right now? Technology may make it obsolete before the first trip leaves Richmond Station.

Wood ran trains before coal was more plentiful and then fuel oil took over and drive the trains still today. I’ve ridden a train only once in my life, I think I was 12 at the time. The conductor kept an eye on me to make sure I didn’t get in trouble and got off at the right stop.

I was nervous as usual, 50 miles from my stop, watching each sign as we passed town after town. The train must have been express because I don’t remember a stop, and I can remember the smell of leather and dust in the car I do not dare adventure from.

Trains have changed slowly over the years from the 50 mph hour I experienced to the 100 miles and hour (average) that an Amtrak travels; stopping at every passenger platform along the way. I’m told by those in favor of an Amtrak alternative to a drive along Interstate 95, that an express train will travel from Richmond to D.C. in less than three hours without the hassles of traffic jams and finding a place to park.

But trains have a certain nostalgia to them don’t they? Cheaper than a car ride but not as private, and no nostalgia in a Honda Civic.

“Now, I travel the rail lines

Whenever I can

It’s the smell of the diesel

And the wheels when they clang

The clunks and the clatters and the sights down the track

To the driver’s seat, they sure take me back.” – Eddie O’Hara

In 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act chartered the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies, to build tracks from Omaha, Nebraska to California. Chinese workers built from the west and Irish workers built from the east and eventually met in middle at Promontory, Utah. It was haphazard but it extended the train that ended in Omaha to create a coast to coast route across the United States.

It took seven years to build the rail line, which was completed with the driving of a golden spike on May 10, 1869. The workers in the West missed the Civil War, but in the East, trains were already a going concern.

The Richmond-Petersburg line had been finished in 1838, almost 30 years prior to the transcontinental. Some of the tracks early on consisted of wood rails with a steel bar nailed to the top and were pulled by a team of horses. By the time of the Civil War, steam locomotives pulled the train. Technology was moving fast and the Yankees knew that to break out of being bottled up in Bermuda they had to tear up the tracks and cut the telegraph lines, which they did in Chester, which didn’t affect their situation.

Steam ruled the rails until the mid 1900s when diesel became the fuel of choice. Yet the confluence of the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad, the Bright Hope Railroad and the Electric powered streetcar that ran from Richmond to Petersburg later on, made Chester a transportation hub.

Meanwhile, consider how the length of time gets shorter from the invention of railroads to the change in fuels, and speed grew at almost exponential pace.  From coasting rail in Midlothian to horse drawn, to steam, and now diesel, rail technology moves quickly at the time. And then the automobile supplanted the passenger train.

Now the new buzz word is multi-modal. According to Tony Morton  “Myth: Park-and-Ride facilities will encourage public transport use,” Multimodal commuting often centers on one type of rapid transit, usually rail, to which low-speed options (i.e. bus, tram, or bicycle) are appended at the beginning or end of the journey. “Trains offer quick transit into an urban area, where passengers can disembark and access a similar array of options to complete the trip.”

High-speed rail, according to information distributed at VDOTs fall meeting last week, is still in its infancy. The project is still in phase II (Tier II environmental study), which puts actual tracks on the ground in 20 to 25 or even 30 years from now.

It’s not that we couldn’t use a quick trip to D.C., which would also lessen traffic on Interstate 95, it’s about the time the bulldozers begin to level the earth for the first tie. Just as early rail travel changed over 100 years to a major mover of freight, by the time high-speed rail is operational (started in 1992) it will be over 40 years from idea to completion. It will take seven times the length of time it took to build the 1,087-mile transcontinental railroad.

As fast as technology doubles itself today, high-speed rail will be obsolete by 2035. In California they are already considering hyper-loop, a tube-like high-speed system that will travel 700 mph compared with the 200 mph speed of the high-speed rail being planned by VDOT and the Fed right now. Hyper-loop would theoretically take seven years to build.

Why would someone wait for 40 years for a relatively slow train to wherever, when new technology could bring a number of alternates by the time the high-speed rail is complete.


Dear Mr. Fausz,

Dear Mr. Fausz,
While I respect your right to free speech, I disagree completely with your vantage point. I am a young fiscally-conservative Republican voter and Amtrak user. I endorse the building of high speed and higher speed rail infrastructure across the nation and am happy to see these projects in process in North Carolina, the Chicago region of the Midwest, and the Northeast. This is proven technology which, in spite of your mention of unproven "hyperloop" theory, has been providing safe, comfortable, convenient, interesting and enjoyable transportation for decades. If you want to ride in a "hyperloop" tube in the future, you are entitled to do so IF that technology proves even to work. But not everyone is going to be game on such technology, just as not everyone is game on flying or using rail or even using interstate highways at present. I could write an article positing that rail is actually a superior way to travel regionally. You see, I am a regular rail user. I appreciate rail. You are not a regular rail user and therefore you may not understand its benefits, but I'd invite you to take a trip into the Northeast sometime, get off in the center of the city of your destination, and see if you don't enjoy the ride.

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