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In general I think this is a good idea, but there are a couple of things I would change.

First, there is currently a terrible congestion problem in the existing freight system in the U.S. The tracks across Arizona are already operating at capacity, with shipping delays sometimes measured in weeks. Adding passenger traffic into the existing situatoin would just make things worse.

Another problem is the speed differential between freight and passenger trains. Between Denver and Colorado Springs, the mile-long coal trains climb a steep hill near Larkspur. Modern AC locomotives provide their maximum tractive effort at walking speeds, and that's how fast they go. (Slip ratios on the driving wheels under these conditions can exceed 40%!) How does one fit a 100+ mph passenger train into this situation?

These first two issues add up to a big problem for Amtrak today: They suffer too many delays due to the congestion and speed differential.

Also there are the legal barriers to building new rights of way. Railroads have to be pretty much straight, and getting political support for this is tough. Several Colorado rail projects are stalled for reasons related to this.

And then there is the problem that passenger systems never make money. And airplanes are more efficient for trips over a few hundred miles anyway. And heavy freight trains wear out the rails in a different way than fast passenger trains...

So my thought is that there should be two separate railroad systems. One should continue to be the private freight system, with political support for the construction of more capacity. The other should be a collection of regional high speed passenger systems. The passenger system should still use standard gauge steel-on-steel technology so that in the cases where it makes sense there can be a mixing of traffic. This approach would seem to me to solve most of the underlying problems...

by asdf on Sat Dec 13th, 2008 at 10:20:41 AM EST
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