Faster than a speeding train

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The year is 1967, the time is 8:40 a.m., and without perceptible jerk the Osaka-Tokyo "bullet train" glides into motion. It averages 100 miles an hour. It stops twice on its dash, one minute at Kyoto and one minute at Nagoya, and now snow-sided Mount Fuji floats past like a moon in the sky (we are lucky to see it without cloud cover) and Tokyo comes next. There is no vibration; I know because I order a soft drink called Nijisseikkashi Nectar, and I notice there is no jiggle in my glass as we race along.

Why can't the United States have bullet trains? In September France starts one over the 242-mile Paris-Lyon route. By contrast the average US passenger train speed is around 40 miles or less.

America had the choice when Henry Ford invented the Model T to have superhighways or superrailroads. It chose the first. Now there is the oil shortage and growing pressure to think the matter over. Rep. Henry Reuss (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation, the Rail Passenger Systems Act of 1981, to create a fast passenger network in America. It seems inevitable. Roads will ultimately be electrified, the central power stations will burn not oil but coal, of which the US has plenty. Passengers will relax in trains that whisk them right into the heart of the cities.

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America's interstate highway system is the wonder of the world. You can drive half way across the continent without a stop light. General John J. Pershing sent out a crew on July 7, 1919, to explore the route: a convoy of 80 motor vehicles under a bright young officer, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It left Washington with 258 men and 39 officers and straggled into San Francisco 62 days later. They had tales to tell of canyons and unpaved road. It was a dream in Pershing's eye, according to the Department of Transportation. Now, some $ 130 billion later, the 42,500-mile interstate system is 94.7 percent complete. It was supposed to cost $27 billion and to be done by the 1976 bicentennial, but we missed connections. Maybe it will be ready for the 1988 anniversary of the Constitution. Or maybe by then we will have gone to rails.

I have made the transcontinental roundtrip twice in my life and really there is no fun like it anywhere -- rivers, lakes, and mountains, and prairie stretches where you see the next grain elevator 10 miles ahead -- or is it 20? -- and make guesses with Mary as to how far it is and where the radio is coming from that quotes you the price of winter wheat. But now gasoline costs a dollar and a half a gallon, and who knows what in five years? Maybe that era is slipping away.

The Department of Transportation and Amtrak have identified 20 corridors in America where "bullet" trains seem desirable. One of them is the Boston-New York-Washington corridor. Others radiate from Chicago or are indicated in the Sunbelt or West Coast. What holds them back? Three things in particular.

Passenger trains must poke along behind freight trains averaging 20 miles an hour and the freights are so long now, with 100-150 cars, that sidings don't allow them to pull out of the way when faster passenger trains overtake them.

Secondly, the freights use heavy 100-ton capacity cars that grind down tracks if they speed up. The high-grade metal of the rail melts, or flakes off at the top. Then along comes the passenger train over the rough rails and it sways or rattles or even derails if it doesn't slow down.

Finally, there are 26,000 grade crossings on tracks used by Amtrak. Japanese and French high-speed passenger service eliminates all grade crossings just as in the US Interstate Highway System. The Japanese bullet train completely free of grade crossings has carried over 1.6 billion passengers without a casualty since it started in 1964.

Modernizing American railroads will cost a lot of money. The Highway Interstate did, too. It will take a lot of time. So did Interstate. But it will also put tens of thousands of people to work and help revitalize the country. America had efficient passenger rail service in the past, says Congressman Reuss -- "Let us begin right now to make it a part of America's future."

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