16 minutes | Jan 15, 2021

Seth Moulton’s Bold Vision for High-speed Rail in the US

We spoke with Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton (D-6th District) on January 13, 2021 about his bold plan for high-speed rail in the United States. He filed his “American High-Speed Rail” bill last May. The prospects for investment in rail look far better now and we will be following developments in federal infrastructure recovery, knowing that Rep. Moulton will be one of the leading voices for rail. This podcast is shorter than usual, because Moulton and his aide were delayed by the increased security in Washington, and he had another interview scheduled. Later that day he voted on impeachment, so we were especially pleased to catch him. Rep. Moulton is no stranger to conflict, having served four tours in Iraq. And he has dealt with the challenges of building a new train system, since he worked for Texas Central before turning to public service. We spoke about passenger rail as something to be approached as a 21st-century project: not preserving something from the 1950s but building something for the 2050s. This “moon landing” approach is bigger and bolder than the approach of many in the rail advocacy world. Take a listen and see what you think! We’ll be picking up the conversation as the Biden transportation team gets to work. See below for an edited transcript of the interview. And here’s a link to Rep. Moulton’s proposal for American High-Speed Rail. Transcript Note: This transcript was created using AI and then lightly edited for readability. It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we’ve added an introduction and did some editing. SPEAKERS Karen Christensen, Seth Moulton Seth MoultonIt’s a delight to be here. And yes, it’s nice to be able to talk about the future at this difficult juncture for our country.Karen ChristensenSo we will be talking about your vision for high speed rail and higher speed rail. But tell us a bit about yourself, you have an unusual background in rail.Seth Moulton 00:47I’ve been interested in rail, particularly high speed rail, as a way to quite literally move our country forward for a long time. And it was actually a bit of an academic interest in appreciating the benefits, economic benefits, environmental benefits and other things of rail transportation over the alternatives. It’s something that I studied in school, both when I was quite young. And then up into grad school, I did a financial analysis of the California high speed rail proposal as a graduate student at Harvard Business School, for example. But when I was really young, I said, I just need to learn more about this industry. And I had an appreciation for how unique it is, how it has its own language and terminology. And I decided that I couldn’t really learn it at a fundamental level if I didn’t have on the ground experience. So I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work at a short line in New Hampshire. And I can’t tell you how much I learned from that experience.Karen Christensen 01:55What stands out?01:58What stands out is how it is a unique industry that is hard to understand from the outside. But it has a lot of people who work in it who are incredibly dedicated to making it a success. Because this was a short line, it hired a number of people who had retired from larger railroads and I worked with an engineer, for example, who ran trains in the Korean War for the US Army in Korea, who came back and ran commuter trains out of Boston when they were still powered by steam, who told stories of running crack passenger trains up into northern New England, knowing the route well enough that he could, shall we say, safely exceed the speed limit when you pick up really romantic stories from the past, but this was also a man who put in hours and hours of hard work who took tremendous pride in his trade, and was damn good at it. I was proud of him.03:01I hadn’t realized that you’ve done work when you were at business school on rail. So that led to your getting a job on the trains. Is that right?03:17Well, that’s exactly right. I became the managing director and project manager of Texas Central, although it wasn’t called that at the time, I actually came up with the name Texas central for the high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, which I still expect will be the first true high speed rail line built in the United States. It makes so much sense it’s so relatively inexpensive, for the benefits it will deliver and transform transformative potentialKaren Christensen 03:59that may testify to the way infrastructure and rail can be bipartisan could get bipartisan support surely that it’s something that benefits different parts, all parts of the country.04:15Well, actually one of the reasons why I think it’s so important that the project in Texas does succeed, and a good thing that it will be the first is that it eliminates this argument, which is such a silly argument that it’s only East Coast blue states that want high speed rail. The country is so devoted to their cars that they will never ride a train. There’s no evidence to support this. And the studies actually show is patently untrue. In fact, one of the fastest growing commuter rail system, just old fashioned commuter rail is in Los Angeles, which has always been called the car capital of America. So we know it will succeed. But how it succeeded in a place like Texas in turning many of those Texas Republicans, from critics into fans will be good for high speed rail across the entire country.Karen Christensen 05:11Yes, now I know we have a hard stop on our call today. So let’s, I think we’re going to have to come back to some things on another call, perhaps when you have more time. And of course, I want you to join our film project as well. But let’s talk about the bill that you introduced last year, because that obviously comes out of your long, you know, your history with rail, but it’s really visionary and very much future focus. So please introduce that to listeners05:40Well the American High Speed Rail Act would transform how we think of investing in rail in the United States because it would bring high speed rail, up to par with airports and highways as investments that the government thinks are good for the future transportation. Now, in many ways, this is not a radical proposal at all. I mean, all we’re saying is that we want a level playing field. In fact, we’re not going nearly as far as China, which has done the analysis and said, actually, high speed rail makes way more sense than investing in highways, and airports. So we should subsidize high speed rail above all else. We were committed to high speed rail than any of the alternatives. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying, Hey, we’re the United States of America, we say we believe in a free market. And yet, we’re only subsidizing highways, we’re only subsidizing airports. We give a pittance to Amtrak every year to run a completely outdated old fashioned network. I have no interest in expanding this 1950s era service. In fact, most Amtrak trains run on slower schedules than they did 70 years ago.Karen Christensen 07:13I was shocked when I first learned anything about trains, you know, 10 years ago, that that astounded me.07:23Contrast that with China, China expects 24,000 miles of high speed rail by 2025. It had built this network in roughly a decade with the first line inaugurated just back in 2008.07:4107:43China has invested roughly 100 times the amount the US has. And we have zero miles of high speed rail operating here at home. Think about that. China has 24,000 miles. In a few years, we have 01 ofKaren Christensen 08:00One of the things that struck me looking at your bill, which I gather you know, you’ll obviously be carrying this forward. Is this is real sense that you want to build a national network people often I often hear about this line, this line this line, as if they’re, you know, competing little projects. And, and your proposal is very much that to connect the country, how do you think I’d love to know why you think that matters.08:35I’ll tell you right now. not ignoring what’s going on around us as we have this discussion, unifying the country is all the more important. If you think about exactly what’s going on here, there’s a huge disconnect between the big cities on the coast and in certain parts of the country like Chicago, and all the smaller cities and rural areas throughout America that actually defines our political divide. And the beauty of high speed rail, which is very different than the airline transportation system that we rely on for going long distances in America is that you don’t just have an airport in New York in Chicago. You have agents all the way in between. And so buffalo in Cleveland, these cities that have really fallen on hard times, they get served as well, and the economies get tied together. Many people in America criticize high speed rail by saying well, you know, you can have it between, say, New York and Washington but no one’s going to take a train from New York to LA. Well, well, actually, that’s true. New York to LA is too far for most travelers to go by high speed rail. It simply takes a little bit too long. But you mentioned Beijing to Shanghai, that’s about the same distance as Chicago to Atlanta.Chicago, and Atlanta is a distance that business travelers in China regularly take by high speed train, they choose high speed rail over the airplane, for that distance, guess but it’s not just about serving Chicago in Atlanta because Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, those are all cities that would benefit from this service as well. They would be just quick stops if you’re going through straight through from Chicago to Atlanta. But if you’re someone who wants to stop in Chattanooga, if you’re someone who lives in Nashville and wants to access, easy, fast access to all these other cities, then you benefit from this high speed rail line as well. You just simply can’t say that about airports, and no one’s no business traveler at least is going to drive from Chicago to Atlanta, it simply takes too long. So this is how high speed rail can be so transformative. Not just point to point. But for all the places in America in between.Karen Christensen 13:23You’ve talked about how the rail is part of the future. What aspects of it do you think are most important? Obviously, the economic development, but what about other? What about the environment? And, and equity, social equity?13:42High speed rail is a complete no brainer when it comes to the environment. I mean, I almost don’t even bother to make the environmental argument because it’s so obvious. It’s just like, I mean, I don’t even need to waste any time making it. It’s there’s no comparison. high speed trains are all electric, you simply plug in that network to a carbon free energy source, whether it be wind power, solar power, or even nuclear energy, and you have an entirely carbon free transportation system. You just can’t do that with airplanes, not anytime soon. And realistically, we are not going to convert as a country as an economy to all electric vehicles for a long time. So it’s transformative when it comes to the environment. But it’s not just about carbon emissions. It uses so much less land, even if everyone in America had an electric car. You need to take so much land for these super highways. That secret one high speed rail line has the capacity of about eight to 12 Highway leads. And then by the way, all these cities where you drive to have to have acres and acres and acres of parking lots all that land It’s better used if you have high speed rail. Yeah, so by every measure, it’s good for the environment. It’s amazing for economic development. We’ve already talked about that a lot. But it also makes a difference for social equity. Because high-speed rail can serve all these intermediate communities. So there’s a great airline market between New York and Chicago. And if you’re a business traveler who lives with easy access to one of those airports, you’re all set. But if you’re someone who’s struggling to make ends meet in Cleveland, if you’re trying to be part of the revival of downtown Buffalo, you don’t benefit at all from airline travel between New York and Chicago. That’s totally different when the high speed rail line goes right through your downtown.Karen Christensen 15:49So what will we see next once President Biden is in office?15:55Well, one thing I’m concerned about is making sure that President Biden and his administration have a truly transformative view towards high speed rail, we can’t just be investing in more Amtrak lines. I am even very hesitant to talk about higher speed rail because frankly, that’s old technology to where the United States of America folks, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have the fastest trains in the world. Right now we have some of the absolute slowest,Karen Christensen 16:24yes, and in the worst condition. So you’re very much in favor of a really, really bold 21st century approach to rail.16:36I had a friend who’s a rail consultant in the UK come and visit to take a look at some projects we were contemplating around Boston. And I told him to go out and ride the trains and make sure he rides some of the newest cars that the MBTA Boston’s commuter rail system has purchased. After a few hours, he called me and said, Seth, I’ve written four or five trains, but I haven’t seen any of these new cars. And then after a little bit of back and forth, we realized that no, he had been riding in those new cars, he just had no idea that they were actually new, because they’re so old fashioned, compared to new trains everywhere else in the world. So we’re behind here, we’ve had a lot of work to do, catching up.Karen Christensen 17:15I’ve had Chinese friends come and ride the trains here.17:19But that’s also the opportunity. Americans just don’t know how good it can be. And that’s why I believe that once we get one true high speed rail line built in America, especially if it’s in a place like Texas, where people really aren’t accustomed to traveling by train, it will be transformative. I like to look at Spain as an example. Spain was the people of Spain were very reluctant to agree to a high speed rail proposal from the federal government, because they had this idea that it was just going to centralize control of the country. So there was a tremendous amount of resistance. But as soon as one high speed rail line was built, every other province in Spain, one of their high speed rail line to it just makes sense.Karen Christensen 18:05So that’s what we need to create something that gives people a really clear vision.18:11And I think that’s right, I think that it’s important to talk about the environmental benefits of high speed rail, they’re astronomical, it’s important to talk about social equity. We’re finally discussing that more in America, it’s important to put numbers around economic development, which heavily favors high-speed rail over the alternatives. But what I think Americans need to know, to really change their minds, is just how much nicer it is to travel by train. It’s, it’s safer. Yes, it’s faster. Yes, it’s better for the environment, you’re just going to love it a lot more than getting stuffed in an aluminum tube, 30,000 feet in the air, or being confined to a car, going 70 miles an hour max, with some of the worst traffic in the world. We can be living a lot better, in fact. We need to invest in for the future of our country.
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