Companies vie to put bullet train in Florida

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Companies from five countries on three continents are scrambling to get aboard Florida's ''bullet train'' that has been proposed to link Tampa, Miami, and Orlando with high-speed rail service.

Both foreign and American investors appeared to be cautiously interested in helping to finance the project - but only if they can be convinced a high-speed train will draw enough passengers to pay for itself.

At a recent meeting of the Florida High Speed Rail Committee, representatives from British, French, German, and Canadian companies tried to cut into the lead the Japanese have in providing bullet train technology for Florida.

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The Japanese are aligned with the newly formed American High Speed Rail Company that has already completed studies for a bullet train to link Los Angeles with San Diego and has a study under way for a Florida line.

The Japanese are touting their 18-year record with their bullet train, Japan National Railways' Shinkansen, which has operated at a profit to carry nearly 2 billion passengers at speeds of up to 210 kilometers per hour (130 miles per hour) without a fatal accident.

British, French, and Canadian firms countered that their technology is as good or better than the Japanese and may be more suitable for Florida.

While the Florida committee is looking for proven reliability in the system it will recommend to the governor, a representative for the West German Budd Company said the state could be wedding itself to a technology that may be reaching the end of its development unless it looks at new ideas in train propulsion.

He was referring to magnetic levitation that his company is about to begin testing on a 30-mile track in West Germany. He claimed that the technology, which uses magnets and A/C electrical power to float a train along a guideway, would move passengers nearly 100 m.p.h. faster than the bullet trains proposed by other companies.

Where a bullet train would take an hour and a half to get from Tampa to Miami at 160 m.p.h., he said, a ''maglev'' would take 54 minutes at better than 250 m.p.h.

''It's a shame to have the committee emphasis on just high-speed rail,'' said Budd Company representative William Dickhart. ''The Japanese system is 20 years old. We should be included in any study so that Florida does not get involved in a technology that has little room for improvement.''

While companies are eager to provide technology, the fate of high-speed rail service in Florida will hinge on bankers who will decide if the project can draw enough revenue to be profitable.

The Los Angeles-to-San-Diego bullet train has drawn interest in international financial circles since the First Boston Corporation was appointed its financial adviser. A consortium of Japanese banks, led by the Bank of Tokyo, has said it is interested in raising 25 percent of the capital needed for the project.

California has created an authority to sell $1.25 billion in revenue bonds to finance part of the project, and those bonds would be repaid from the bullet train's profits.

Several Japanese bankers appeared before the Florida committee to say they were interested in helping to finance a bullet train here, especially if Japanese technology is used.

American investors were also in the audience, but some were cautious about supporting the project. They privately questioned whether high-speed rail in America could be profitable enough to run without government financial support.

''First it has to show economic feasibility,'' said Patrick O'Sullivan of the Bank of America. ''If an independent feasibility study proves that a large percentage of people can be persuaded to get out of their cars and onto a bullet train, we would be interested in it.''

''Right now the travel patterns in the United States are completely different from those in Europe and Japan,'' he said. ''Someone would have to do a lot of convincing. I did not see anything that would interest me from a banking point of view - that there is enough interest in a bullet train to cover the costs.''

Taizo Nakamura, director of the New York branch of Japan's Mitsui Bank, also expressed caution when he said, ''Bankers are never fooled by rosy descriptions of a proposal. What we are interested in are the feasibility of the undertaking, profitability, growth, and soundness of investment.''

But most of the Japanese bankers agreed with Nakamura that Florida was a prime spot for a bullet train.

''Florida is one of the states showing a rapid increase in population, with numerous tourist spots which are attracting increasing numbers of visitors,'' he said. ''The superb technology of the Japan National Railway and Florida's rich market combined would be a strong guarantee for the success of this project.''

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