Japan's bullet train: headed toward Florida?

Last year Florida Gov. Robert Graham sat at the controls of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train as it streaked across the landscape at 160 miles per hour. Now he wants a similar train to link three of Florida's major cities.

Mr. Graham announced the formation of a state High Speed Rail Committee last month, and by the end of May a team of Japanese engineers is expected to begin a six-month, $1 million study to see if a bullet train linking Tampa, Orlando, and Miami will be possible.

The bullet train system is attractive to the state government because it would be built entirely with private capital. The $1 million for the study is coming from a Japanese foundation.

The Japanese engineers have been invited to Florida by the American High Speed Rail Corporation, which was formed March 31 as an offshoot of Amtrak, the national passenger train service.

The corporation is planning to build America's first bullet train in California to link Los Angeles with San Diego. But Governor Graham is pushing to have a Florida train in the works, too.

''The study in Florida will look at all feasible routes,'' says Lawrence Gilson, president of American High Speed Rail. In order to not be influenced by Americans on where the routes should go, ''We told the Japanese not to speak English until the study is over,'' Mr. Gilson quips.

Much of the drive to bring bullet train service to Florida has been motivated by John Parke Wright IV, a Tampa businessman who spent eight years in the Far East and arranged for Graham to sit at the controls of the Japanese train. The Florida governor has appointed Mr. Wright chairman of the High Speed Rail Committee.

Wright told a congressional transportation subcommittee in early April that Florida's 43 percent growth in the past decade, coupled with more than 32 million tourists moving around the state each year, means that a ready market is waiting for a bullet train.

Wright listed these benefits of a high-speed rail system:

* Energy. High-speed rail is at least twice as energy efficient as competitive forms of transportation. Because it runs on electricity, which can be produced from a variety of fuels, the bullet train would not be hostage to oil shortages, the largest threat to Florida's tourist industry.

* Highways. With the state growing by a quarter of a million residents a year , the demand for transportation is growing rapidly. But the state does not want to pave valuable land for roads. A rail service can replace the need for an expanded highway system.

* Development. An efficient and rapid transportation system will encourage development in the interior of the state and take some of the pressure off the densely populated coastal cities.

Wright envisions bullet train tracks built down the corridors of interstate highways that now link Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. The state already owns the right-of-way, which would greatly reduce the cost of building the system.

A high priority would be a station at Walt Disney World near Orlando, which now attracts more than 10 million tourists a year and expects to double that number after it opens its new Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow next October.

A bullet train would be easier to build in Florida than in many other areas of the country, Wright says, because the state is relatively flat with few obstacles to bypass. With the state's mild weather, he adds, a rapid rail service would not have to worry about being disrupted by snow and sleet.

To be successful, Wright says, the bullet train should serve as the spine of a complete mass transportation system in Florida. The system would include monorails and bus routes that would connect smaller cities and tourist attractions to the rapid rail service.

Skeptics question whether enough private capital could be raised for the project. Such a system planned for California is estimated to cost $2 billion, and it will run for only 127 miles.

No cost estimate has been made for the Florida system, but if it were to run up the eastern part of the state from Miami to Orlando and then across to Tampa on the west coast it would cover nearly 300 miles.

American High Speed Rail's Mr. Gilson announced that the Bank of Tokyo has agreed to take the lead in Japan to raise $500 million for the California project. He added that banking interests in London are also showing interest.

Wright says he was confident that a Florida system would draw similar support , but he says in order to sell the system to financiers a sound marketing study must be made to show that a bullet train could make money.

''It's unrealistic to look for a majority of the money coming from Japan,'' he says. ''A majority has to come from the United States. We have to sell this as a good investment, not a charitable donation.''

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