As passenger rail grows in the United States it will continue to be compared to the passenger rail systems in Europe and Asia. Szabo said such comparisons can be made on a region-by-region or state-by-state basis, but that the differences are the most interesting parts.
“One of the things I found real interesting when I was over in Europe is, as envious as we are about their passenger rail operations, they’re just as envious of our freight rail operations,” Szabo says.
“I think it’s really important to note that we’re not talking about developing a national high-speed system where you’re running from New York to Los Angeles by high speed. That’s not efficient.
“But again if you do take a look at given markets in regions there is sufficient density in many places to compare favorably with what has been done in Europe.
“And so frankly it’s a matter of understanding the market and building a system that meets the needs of that market.”
With the mention of “building a system that meets the needs of that market,” I asked Administrator Szabo if he saw the future more as a national rail network instead of a national rail system as we currently have with Amtrak. His answer was yes and no.
“Clearly there is a role for a national rail system,” Szabo says.
“So you’ve got Amtrak that kind of serves as that foundation — kind of the main part of the skeleton, which provides the full interconnectivity, but on top of Amtrak then you have the availability to lay down these regional high-speed networks.”
Szabo says these networks could be a hub, triangle or other formation depending on how the city pairs are situated. In the end it’s about providing connectivity by developing corridors, which he says lay down neatly over the Amtrak network.
“If you take a look at what the Europeans have done well it’s just that,” Szabo says.
“Too many people have this illusion that every train in Europe is doing 200 miles an hour. And you know it simply isn’t true.
“The analogy I like to use is comparing it to our road system. You have city streets, county roads, state highways, U.S. highways and the Interstate system. All play slightly different roles, all function at different speeds, but they fit together neatly to make a comprehensive road and highway system.
Szabo says the same approach is true for passenger rail where you fit together commuter rail, Amtrak and high-speed rail corridors.
“If you take a look at the vision we put out in April, there is a role for conventional 79-mile-an-hour service. That may be doing more of the local work while the high-speed rail has to be more express. And so these pieces fit together.”
Szabo admits that many of the high-speed rail lines will be operating on freight rail right-of-way, but that doesn’t mean that the two systems can’t work together and enhance each other.
“I need to be careful here because clearly this is a high-speed passenger rail program,” Szabo says.
“Having said that, you know in the case of emerging high speed rail — up to 125, maybe as far as 150 miles an hour — in many cases they’re going to be sharing freight right-of-way.
“I talked about the fact that we have a world-class freight rail network. We have to make sure that as we advance our passenger rail operations and develop a world-class passenger system that we do absolutely no harm to the freight rail operations.
“And so in those cases where there’s shared right-of-way, of course you’ve got to look at expanding capacity, modernizing infrastructure. Again to make sure you don’t have these entanglements where one’s delaying the other because we don’t want either of them delayed.
“In those cases there’s an opportunity for a lot of shared benefits.”
As with most other transit systems, high-speed rail has come under attack for not being “self-sufficient.” Amtrak has faced this charge in the past, which Szabo dismisses.
“Anybody that talks about operational self-sufficiency for Amtrak is being deceitful,” Szabo says.
“You take a look at most transit systems and they’re considered doing exceptionally well if they’re recovering 50 percent of their operating cost from the farebox. I mean Metra’s system in Chicago always bragged, you know it was kind of held as the gold standard because they were getting about 55 percent.