High Speed Trains Get Green Light
The USA took a first step toward building a national high-speed-rail network when the Obama administration announced the winners of $8 billion in grants for rail-building projects Thursday.
"We want to start looking deep into the 21st century," President Obama said at a town-hall-style meeting in Tampa. "There's no reason why other countries can build high-speed-rail lines and we can't."
Thirteen existing rail corridors in 31 states will receive funds. The big winners: California, Florida and Illinois.
High-speed-rail advocates -who have seen the USA fall far behind Japan, France and China in developing fast passenger trains - were elated. They acknowledge, however, that intercity high-speed rail is still a long way away.
"We're in the very beginning stage of seeing that happen," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "It's a small first step, but it's an exciting first step."
He cautioned that the U.S. has taken a similar first step before but did not follow through. Harnish said the world's first train built to cruise at 150 mph was developed in Chicago in 1967.
John Robert Smith, co-chairman of Transportation for America, a coalition of highway-safety, conservation and other groups advocating less use of cars, said a high-speed-rail network could be completed in two decades. "China is spending $500 billion over 20 years to do it, Smith said. "If this country has the vision to follow through on the president's vision, we will have the high-speed-rail network, and we can have it in 20 years."
He said much of the grant money will be used to upgrade existing track and signaling systems, improve crossings and do other work to prepare for high-speed rail, and that the important second step will be congressional approval of funds to move the projects forward.
"I don't believe it's a pipe dream," said Anne Canby, spokeswoman for OneRail, a coalition of Amtrak, freight and passenger rail associations, unions and others. "They're clearly seeding some future projects."
State and local government agencies engaged in an intense competition for the grants. Vice President Biden said in Tampa that the Department of Transportation got $55 billion in requests for the $8 billion. He said DOT officials selected communities that were furthest along in planning and picked proposals in existing corridors "where we can increase the mileage (speed) enough that it makes a difference in congestion."
Responding to Republican accusations of politics in the selection process, Biden noted that two of the largest grants - $2.9 billion to California and $1.8 billion to Florida - went to states with Republican governors.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the projects are unlikely to yield true high-speed rail.
"The Midwest routes chosen will only achieve a top speed of 110 miles per hour and were selected more for political reasons than for high-speed service," he said. "The last thing the American people need is another bailout program with low-speed trains to nowhere."
The Obama administration is promoting the grants as a jobs powerhouse, promising they will create or save tens of thousands of jobs.
Andrew Goetz, a professor at the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver, said development of high-speed rail would have long-term economic benefits but wouldn't be "a panacea" for short-term job creation.
"It is unrealistic to expect that beginning a high-speed-rail program will solve the unemployment problem," he said.
Although the administration is promoting the proposed projects as high-speed, most of the money is going toward projects whose trains won't approach the speeds of trains in Europe and Asia, which run 200 mph or more. In California, however, an express train between San Francisco and Los Angeles would reach top speeds of 220 mph.
Some grant recipients are working on systems whose trains would reach top speeds of 110 mph, others with speeds no faster than 79 mph.
Goetz said the USA is not yet ready to manufacture high-speed-rail components. "Right now, most of that technology is found in Europe and Asia," he said.
He suggests that American manufacturers might form partnerships with foreign companies the way U.S. automakers did with Japanese car companies to make gas-saving automobiles in the 1980s.
Robert Furniss of Bombardier Transportation, which built trains for Amtrak's Acela Express and very high-speed trains for systems in Europe and China, said the capacity does exist here. "The problem with the passenger-rail business has been lack of demand," he said.