To Americans, high-speed trains evoke the gee-whiz factor of a trip to Tomorrowland: Ride futuristic cars that zoom you to a destination in a fraction of the drive time — without having to fight your way through an airport. Read a book, do paperwork, take a nap while you whoosh ahead in high-speed comfort.
To governments, they evoke benefits to the common good — reduced freeway traffic, lower carbon pollution and more jobs.
But this country has never built a high-speed “bullet” train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.
Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.
Yet President Barack Obama, intent on harnessing new technology to rebuild the devastated economy, made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan.
Better than nothing
It sounds good, but that amount isn’t enough to build a single system, or to dramatically increase existing train speeds, transportation experts say.
California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready — it’s still seeking local approvals — but it’s farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama’s high-speed pie.
There are rail advocates who say anything is better than nothing when it comes to modernizing U.S. train transportation, which needs all the help it can get. Others say the stimulus injection is like adding a teaspoon of water to the ocean and calling it high tide.
Roughly six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of getting some of the $8 billion award, according to U.S. Transportation Department officials. The spurs include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.
Officials in those areas have said they’d be happy to take part of the president’s offer, even though they don’t have high-speed systems to pump money into. Talking with reporters recently, Obama said he’d love to see such trains in his former state of Illinois linking Chicago to Wisconsin, Missouri and Michigan.
The economic benefit is enormous, the president said. “Railroads were always the pride of America, and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame.”
The need for speed
New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman also from Illinois, said developing high-speed rail is the country’s No. 1 transportation priority.
“Anybody who has ever traveled in Europe or Japan knows that high-speed rail works and that it’s very effective,” LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press.
What exactly is “high-speed”? It depends on the location. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 90 mph. The European Union standard is above 125 mph.
And many overseas bullet trains — most powered by overhead electricity lines — run faster than that. In France, for example, the TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”) covers the 250 miles between Paris and Lyon in one hour, 55 minutes at an average speed of about 133 mph. A 25,000-horsepower French train reached 357.2 mph in 2007, setting a world record for conventional train systems.
In Japan, which opened the first high-speed rail in the 1960s and carries more passengers than any other country, Shinkansen trains hurtle the countryside at an average of about 180 mph. Japan’s magnetically levitated train — different from conventional wheels-on-rails technology — holds the overall world speed record at 361 mph.
Super-fast trains also run in Germany, Spain and China, at speeds up to 140 mph, according to a 2007 survey in the trade publication Railway Gazette.
The only rail service that qualifies under America’s lower high-speed standard is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.
The trains are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only average about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. On the densely traveled line from New York City to the nation’s capital, the Acela arrives just about 20 minutes earlier than standard service, at more than twice the cost during peak travel times.
For instance, a one-way Acela fare leaving New York at 11 a.m. is $155. The same departure on a regular train costs $72.
“In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards,” says author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association. In 2004 he wrote a highly critical book titled, “End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America’s Passenger Trains.”
He’s equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.
“Here’s what’s going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs — to this project and that project — and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time.”
Current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.