Putting high-speed rail on the right track
January 27, 2010
The Obama administration will soon be announcing which states will be awarded funds from the $8 billion stimulus pot dedicated for high-speed rail (HSR) development.
Right now, 259 applications valued at $57 billion are chasing the recovery plan money. The administration's decision to devote considerable resources to developing HSR underscores its commitment to bring bullet trains to the United States. But unless it makes the right decisions about where to put the money and what policies to follow, the new enthusiasm for HSR could be frittered away.
The choice that the Obama administration and Congress face is simple: modest incrementalism versus a truly transformative vision. The core problem is the apparent willingness of Obama transportation officials to use stimulus money to finance many small projects, such as adding sidings to existing railroad lines, to permit somewhat faster speeds by conventional Amtrak trains.
The administration should aim higher. The goal should be trains running at an average speed of 150 mph, with the capacity to reach a maximum of 220. Already a reality in Europe and Asia, there's no reason why trains reaching these speeds can't be built here.
But this can't be done by shackling high-speed trains onto existing railroad rights of way, especially those with freight trains running on them. This is the lesson behind the disappointing efforts to improve train speeds on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
Placing the Amtrak Acela Express, with a 150-mph design speed, on the 19th-century infrastructure between Boston and Washington, D.C., has resulted in average speeds of 70 mph. Even if everything clicks, America's fastest train takes more than six hours to span a 457-mile route that China's HSR trains can cover in 140 minutes flat.
The Obama administration should concentrate stimulus funds on two or three state-of-the art projects. The proposal by Florida for a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando is a good start.
Construction of this railway would employ about 40,000 workers and could be completed by 2016. By using 220-mph trainsets readily available from European manufacturers, the line could demonstrate the tangible benefits of safe and speedy trains not only to Florida residents but to millions of Americans who visit Orlando and Tampa yearly.
Other proposals submitted to the administration to improve existing rail lines for 110-mph maximum speeds would shortchange HSR's ability to reinvigorate depressed cities and transform regional economies.
Funding a rail line between Chicago, Toledo and Detroit, for example, is an important national priority, but only if it is built as a dedicated HSR system. The job growth alone from such a project would be a lifesaver to Midwest states battered by the collapse of manufacturing and the auto industry.
Political leaders need to understand HSR for what it is - an entirely new and very high-tech mode of intercity travel. In country after country, the introduction of fast, environmentally friendly trains has diverted traffic from airlines and highways. For the most part, the service has paid for itself in ticket revenues once construction was completed.
With HSR, Obama can reverse the gridlock that is burdening American travelers in time and treasure. But the promise of high-speed rail can only come to fruition if the administration defies near-term political pressures for small upgrading projects and instead lays the foundation for a network that will revolutionize train service much like the interstate highway system transformed automobile travel 50 years ago.
Mark Reutter is the former editor of Railroad History and a former Baltimore Sun reporter. His report for the Progressive Policy Institute, "Fast Track to the future: A High-Speed Rail Agenda for America, can be found at ProgressinvFix.com
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