Give Priority to High-Speed Rail

By Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Putting millions of Americans to work and rebuilding our frayed infrastructure are Barack Obama's most pressing priorities when he takes office. He should start by creating a high-speed rail link between Boston and Washington.

More than 20 years ago, in 1988, I traveled as mayor of Providence, R.I., with then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis on a new high-speed Amtrak train from Providence to Boston. Our trip took less than half an hour. Unfortunately, the early hopes we all had for high-speed rail in the Northeast have yet to be realized.

Instead of patching yet another rail line, we should take a step back and consider the best way to contribute to our economy and meet our long-term transportation needs. It is past time to give the Northeast a 21st-century transportation system. High-speed rail could cut in half the travel time along the corridor -- the best high-speed systems in Europe and Asia travel at twice the effective speed of Amtrak's fastest Acela train -- and invigorate the metro economies of Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Consider the economic and environmental benefits: During the construction phase, a project of this magnitude would put tens of thousands to work. The faster trains would draw travelers from automobiles and airlines, as they do in Europe and Asia. The London-to-Paris run, via a tunnel under the English Channel, has captured 70 percent of the public-transit market between those cities. Similar demand in the Northeast would significantly reduce gasoline consumption, as well as highway and airport congestion, and it would improve air quality.

Right now, Amtrak's Acela train is high-speed in name only. The Acela travels between Boston and New York (including its stops in Providence and a few other locations), on average, at only 61 miles per hour. For travel between New York and Washington, the average is 79 miles per hour.

By contrast, the fastest Eurostar train between London and Paris averages 136 miles per hour, including stops. It takes only two hours and 15 minutes to go the 307 miles from London to Paris, compared with 3 1/2 hours for the 215-mile trip between Boston and New York.

Investments in high-speed rail are accelerating outside the United States. In Europe, Travel & Leisure magazine reports, 16,000 miles of new high-speed service is in the works. Passengers should be able to hop from Madrid to Lisbon in two hours. In Asia, China plans a high-speed link between Beijing and Hong Kong that will cut the travel time by half.

In the Northeast, the Acela rarely gets to test its top speed, 150 mph, between Boston and New York. Because of limitations on the right of way, the Acela is only 20 to 25 minutes faster on that route than the quickest conventional trains. The full potential of high-speed train travel will never be realized on a 19th-century rail infrastructure that has been only modestly improved over the years.

To accommodate high-speed rail, many areas of tracks in the Northeast Corridor would have to be widened, straightened or even relocated. If trains are to go faster than 100 mph, there would have to be much greater separation between the trains and any nearby pedestrians or motor vehicles. Bullet trains and slow-moving freight trains may not be able to share the same tracks. New tunnels, trenches or bridges could be needed.

Constructing a system for high-speed rail will be expensive, but these are not normal circumstances. Obama takes office next week amid the worst economic crisis since the Depression. Large public investments and innovation are key to reviving the economy and putting people back to work. High-speed train service on the Northeast corridor would be an excellent place to start moving our citizens, and our economy, into the 21st century.

Joseph R. Paolino Jr., a former mayor of Providence, was director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. He owns and develops commercial real estate in Rhode Island.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company