Business | Railways pose biggest challenge in Trump’s infrastructure plan
Steam train at Arcade Station in Los Angeles 1891. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Steam train at Arcade Station in Los Angeles 1891. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Railways pose biggest challenge in Trump’s infrastructure plan

Part two in a three part series investigating the challenges for the Donald Trump administration in rebuilding crumbling infrastructure in the US.

February 9, 2017 12:11 PM (UTC+8)

Railways present the biggest challenge to President Donald Trump and his plan to renovate and modernise the country’s infrastructure, analysts say.

Bridges and highways also present problems, with drones and self-driving cars offering the best chance for success using US technology and companies.

US railroad infrastructure went into a long decay after World War II as highways overtook trains as the most convenient and cost-effective mode of public and commercial transport.  Many diesel/electric locomotives on US tracks today suffer from parts shortages and maintenance issues.

Amtrak, the government subsidized national rail corporation created in 1971 by merging ailing US rail carriers, has never moved into the black. It posted an operating loss of $277 million in fiscal 2016, though ridership, in a hopeful signal, climbed to a record 31.3 million passengers.

As for high-speed trains, Washington, D.C.-based advanced transportation consultant Kevin C. Coates says there are few US makers who can seriously compete with foreign rivals like Siemens in Germany and Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

Read: Trump may need Japan, China help to rebuild infrastructure 

“Americans continue to prove what pikers they are by screwing up every time they try to build a high-speed rail system,” said Coates who adds that many US systems never reach full potential because officials balk at spending the necessary funds.

Fast trains

High-speed trains use specialized rolling stock and dedicated tracks. Most travel in excess of 120 mph with others exceeding 160 mph and 200 mph.

The latest are magnetic levitation or maglev trains that move without making contact with the ground. They can attain speeds of more than 350 mph. German and Japanese companies have cornered the maglev market. There are no competitive US makers of maglev trains.

The US has failed to get any maglev lines up and running due to funding shortfalls and bureaucratic infighting, though there’s no shortage of studies and proposals to build such systems.

Chicago-based GE Transportation and Peoria-Ill.-based Caterpillar both produce high-speed locomotives and related equipment. But they’ve lost out to foreign bidders in recent competition. The most glaring case was in March 2014 when Siemens outbid GE and Caterpillar for a US$226 million contract to provide high-speed locomotives for five US states that are part of Amtrak’s network.

Coates notes that America’s best known advanced rail line — the Acela high-speed train connecting Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. — was made by Canada’s Bombardier.

GE is the biggest maker of diesel/electric trains in North America with nearly three-quarters of the market. Caterpillar makes diesel/electric locomotives, excavators and maintenance equipment for railroads. The companies didn’t respond to Asia Times requests for comment on the competitiveness of their high-speed rail systems.

Mass transit snafus

Coates says US initiatives to build new mass-transit systems in cities like Denver, Colorado, over the last decade have been vexed by operating, design, technical and financing flaws. The consultant, who worked on some of the projects, also blames unfamiliarity in managing the public-private partnerships behind these efforts for the stumbles.

“If we can’t build a commuter line without problems, how can we build high-speed rail?,” Coates asked.

If Trump goes full throttle to build high-speed rail networks in various parts of the country, the requirements for building these systems are “many levels above” what’s available in the US, he said.  “We don’t have that expertise and it all lies overseas.”

Japan's JR East Shinkansen lineup at Niigata Depot. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Japan’s JR East Shinkansen lineup at Niigata Depot. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Another deterrent is cost. The US is a large country where major cities are hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart. Some say this makes it much more costly to lay track when compared to smaller countries such as Japan and in European countries.

High-speed rail proponents, on the other hand, say the distance issue is exaggerated and that major urban hubs are relatively close to each another.

Coates says one of the chief obstacles to building high-speed rail in the US concerns right-of-way issues through populated areas. He says many proposals are halted by strong citizen opposition.

Nevertheless, studies show the payoff in jobs for Trump’s infrastructure initiatives. Northeastern University and the Worldwatch Institute in 2010 estimated the US could add more than 250,000 jobs if the country were to invest as much in transit as China does.

Road red tape

John Hillman, a US bridge-building expert, says bureaucracy and restrictive federal rules limiting the products and services that can be used for publicly funded bridges and highways are the chief barriers to building such infrastructure in the US.

“The US is second to none when it comes to innovation in bridge and highway construction. It’s in the policies and procedures where we fall down,” said Hillman, who heads HCB, a Chicago-based provider of composite beams.

Trump proposes to hack through that red tape. He wants to link increased investment to regulatory reforms to cut delays and waste. But the White House hasn’t said how this will be done.

Coates sees other problems. “When we do infrastructure construction, it’s way over cost,” he said. Coates notes that Washington, D.C. is currently completing a 12-mile extension to its Silver Line rapid transit line to Dulles International Airport.

He estimates the price tag on the 2-phase project at around $6.8 billion. “That’s ridiculously expensive. They were pouring concrete in place — which is a very expensive way to build infrastructure,” Coates said. “The Germans, Chinese and Japanese use prefabbed concrete beams which are cheaper and safer to use. You can mass-produce everything to spec.”

Self-driving car bright spot

Analysts say one transport area where the US leads is in autonomous self-driving vehicles and aerial drones. They are part of the “new technologies” and next-generation vehicles outlined in Trump’s infrastructure plan.

Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, is a strong backer of incorporating such technology into the nation’s transportation system.

Google is testing a self-driving minivan developed in partnership with Fiat Chrysler and Apple has confirmed it’s developing autonomous vehicles. Electric car maker Tesla has introduced partially autonomous features and ride-sharing service Uber is experimenting with self-driving cars in downtown Pittsburgh — albeit with human operators as backup.

David Garrity, a Wall Street technology and financial analyst, notes the many strides the US has made in autonomous vehicles, but he warns that other factors may impede development.

“Whether the US is sufficiently well-coordinated from a government-led planning standpoint to effectively integrate these technologies is another question altogether,” said Garrity, the CEO of New York consulting firm GVA Research.

Garrity also notes a “certain amount of antipathy” to the Trump administration in mostly liberal Silicon Valley that might hinder joint efforts to develop autonomous vehicles. At the same time, he added, “Look, there’s a trillion dollars involved. I’m sure they can find a way to paper-over their differences.”

Secretary Chao testified during her Senate confirmation hearings that she sees the government as a helpful “catalyst,” rather than an impediment, for private companies seeking to bring autonomous driving and drone technology to market.

One of Chao’s major tasks, analysts say, will be to create a national air traffic control system for aerial drones, which are proliferating, but don’t operate from federally designated areas such as airports.

Some say such regulations could be expedited insofar as Trump favors replacing the much-criticized federally run system for air traffic control with a private, nonprofit corporation.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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