U.S. high-speed rail's ship finally comes in

The Thalys bullet train, which makes short work of the Paris-to-Brussels run, tops out at 186 mph.
The Thalys bullet train, which makes short work of the Paris-to-Brussels run, tops out at 186 mph. (Peerpoint/Alamy)
By John Rosenthal
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Like the gleam on the tracks from an oncoming locomotive, high-speed rail transportation in the United States may be finally coming into sight. Before the end of the decade, rail backers promise, Americans will be traveling on bullet trains, the way Europeans and Asians have been doing for half a century. At speeds of up to 220 mph, high-speed rail will make it possible to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours, or half the time it takes to drive. Tampa to Orlando will take less than an hour, or 35 percent faster than by car. You'll be able to get from Chicago to St. Louis in less time than it takes to fly -- after you factor in the hours spent getting to and from distant airports and the hassle of getting through security 90 minutes before your flight.

The myriad benefits of high-speed rail have long been apparent to anyone who has ridden Japan's Shinkansen trains or France's TGV. These so-called bullet trains are faster than driving, more comfortable and convenient for short distances than flying and, because they run on electricity, don't rely on foreign oil imports. Trains arrive in downtown city centers and are usually linked to public transit.

"High-speed trains consume less fuel, produce less carbon dioxide, and promote urban redevelopment, which has broader environmental benefits," said Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, which has worked to build civic support throughout the Midwest for investment in rail transportation. "We see high-speed rail as a way to improve mobility while improving the environment."

Perhaps the chief obstacle standing in high-speed rail's way has been a lack of support from the White House. That changed when President Obama took office in 2009 and promised to make high-speed rail a legacy of his administration, much as the Interstate Highway System was for Dwight D. Eisenhower's. And the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus) provided the perfect opportunity for the administration's plan to garner bipartisan support.

Rail infrastructure improvements are exactly the kind of "shovel-ready" projects the stimulus was designed to underwrite in hundreds of congressional districts across the country, creating or saving tens of thousands of high-paying skilled jobs in construction, manufacturing and engineering that can't be exported overseas. The administration says that more than 30 rail manufacturers have agreed to establish or expand operations in the United States if they are hired to build the next generation of railroads.

"There are tons of projects the railroads have had in their filing cabinets for years, but they just haven't had the money to implement," said James P. RePass, president and chief executive of the National Corridors Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for increased rail infrastructure.

The administration requested $8 billion in stimulus funds for rail projects, and in January it announced its first awards. The biggest grants went to Florida ($1.25 billion), which plans to use 168 mph trains to link Orlando to Tampa by 2014 and to Miami by 2017, and to California ($2.34 billion), which has the nation's most ambitious and most developed plan to link its major cities by bullet train.

While those awards capture the imagination with their promise of shiny new bullet trains rocketing across the two states, most of the money will be spent more mundanely, on projects to speed up conventional rail. Trains traveling at 200 mph are still a long way down the track in such places as Detroit, Seattle and Charlotte. But funding for incremental improvements to tracks, signals and rolling stock will raise average speeds on existing conventional rail lines. "If you can upgrade the places where trains can only travel 10 mph, you can knock an hour off the trip between Chicago and St. Louis," said RePass.

"The key to going fast is not going slow," added Brubaker.

Even the fastest trains will never approach the efficiency of an airplane for a cross-country trip, of course. That's why the administration's plan focuses only on corridors between cities 100 to 600 miles apart. In clusters of cities such as Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati; Portland, Ore., and Seattle; or Charlotte, Richmond and Washington, rail links are expected to reduce congestion both on the highways and in the skies. The corridors will be separate from Amtrak, the nation's existing conventional rail passenger system, though Amtrak may bid competitively to build some of the networks.

The airlines have not taken a position on rail investment, but Joseph Szabo, head of the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration, said that they have nothing to fear. "If we do this properly, people will be able to flow from auto to rail to air like they do in Europe or Asia, using the most efficient mode for each part of the journey," he said. "That will help airlines prosper because it will free up capacity to use their infrastructure in ways that are more profitable."

RePass cautioned that transforming the nation's transportation system into something like the European model will resemble a local more than an express. "We've spent half a century disinvesting in rail; we're not going to overcome that overnight."

But Szabo said that the renewed commitment to rail is already picking up steam. "This is a 40-year build-out, just like the Interstate Highway System was in the 1950s," he said. "Looking back at the history of the highway program, it took more than three years to get federal money out the door. We anticipate money out the door in less than three months."

Although there's an almost surprising lack of organized opposition to high-speed rail, that doesn't mean that there aren't still hurdles to clear. In April, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that mass transit executives in Southern California objected to the state's plan to run high-speed rail on exclusive new tracks. They claimed that doing so would require condemning hundreds of homes and businesses and add $2 billion to the price tag.

Meanwhile, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the Republican leader of the House Transportation Committee and a supporter of high-speed rail, questioned why so many awards were going to conventional rail projects rather than to raising speeds on Acela trains -- the closest thing the United States has to true high-speed rail -- between Washington and Boston.

"I'm pissed because they didn't do the Northeast corridor," he said. The Northeast received $1.2 billion in stimulus money, of which less than half a billion was for high-speed rail projects. "We're doing everything we can to push this country into the 1960s of passenger rail service," said Mica.

Overall, however, enthusiasm remains high for rail investment at any speed. "There's such a level of excitement" in Congress, the Senate and in state departments of transportation, said Szabo. "There's no turning back."

His boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, put it even more bluntly, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. "Don't be against high-speed rail; it's coming to America," he told a group of airline executives in March. "This is the president's vision, this is the vice president's vision, this is America's vision."

"People are still going to fly," he added, "but we need alternatives. So get with the program."

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