`BULLET'' trains, long used in Europe and Japan, are slowly moving from pipe dream to possibility in the United States. Faced with growing congestion on freeways and in the nation's skies, public and private officials are showing increased interest in high-speed rail.
While no trains will be whisking people down tracks at 150 m.p.h.-plus until at least the mid-1990s, if then, a number of projects that have been under way are moving forward:
A California-Nevada commission working to link Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area with a futuristic train voted earlier this month to move ahead with planning on the project. The agency is now soliciting proposals to build the $4 billion system, which would be privately financed and, most likely, use still-experimental magnetic levitation technology capable of speeds up to 250 m.p.h.
A Florida-based consortium was recently given the go-ahead to draft detailed plans for a long-discussed bullet train connecting Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. The company would use more conventional Swedish train technology to spirit passengers between the cities at 150 m.p.h. Though plenty of obstacles remain, boosters claim the chances are now ``100 percent'' that a high-speed train will be operating in the state within six years.
A group recently stepped forward in Texas as the first entrant in the competition to build a high-speed rail network between Dallas and Houston. Using a French-made train, the consortium proposes making the trip between the cities in about 90 minutes, at 185 m.p.h. Other interests are putting together a proposal as well.
``High-speed rail is starting to move - and starting to move in earnest,'' says Joseph Vranich, Washington, D.C., director of the High-Speed Rail Association, a trade group. ``People are looking at the gridlock and saying, `there has to be a better way.'''
Others looked at their transportation choices and said that a long time ago. The Japanese have been operating bullet trains since the mid-1960s. Several countries in Western Europe operate trains that zip along at well over 120 m.p.h. as well. In the US, only the Amtrak Metroliner between New York and Washington approaches this speed.
Both the Asians and Europeans are aggressively developing new train technology and upgrading existing systems to hurtle people down tracks quicker. Earlier this month, the French set a new world rail speed record (300 m.p.h.) with their TGV train on a test run on new tracks. The West Germans and Japanese lead in developing the magnetic-levitation technology, in which the train floats above the tracks on a magnetic cushion.
Limits of plane, auto seen
The US has not snubbed trains as much as put its money elsewhere. In the postwar era, the country built an Interstate highway system second to none. More recently planes have brought travel within the reach of millions of Americans.
Now, however, some transportation planners think jammed roads and crowded skies could make the bullet train a competitive alternative in a few heavily populated areas.
``People are beginning to realize we can't continue to solve all our transportation problems'' with the automobile and plane, says Charles Smith, head of the Florida High-Speed Rail Commission.
Problems await those trying to lay bullet-train tracks, though. With government subsidies as rare as the steam locomotive, the onus for paying for these multibillion-dollar projects falls on private interests. Garnering approvals for right-of-ways can raise political and environmental questions.
``Can these projects be truly financed without participation by federal and state governments?'' asks Kenneth Orski, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation consultant. ``I remain highly skeptical.''
The Las Vegas to Los Angeles spur is one of the most ambitious - critics would say quixotic - of the proposed new ventures. The impetus for the line has come largely from Las Vegas officials, who envision linking populous southern California with Nevada's gaming tables.
Lately, however, there has been growing enthusiasm on the California side. When the California-Nevada Super Speed Ground Transportation Commission (a panel created by the states' legislatures to explore development of the project) had to decide on a southern California terminus for the line, nine communities lobbied for it.
Anaheim, south of Los Angeles and home to Disneyland, was selected. A consultant has estimated the line would haul 6.5 million passengers round-trip annually between the two tourist meccas and create as many as 25,000 new jobs in southern California.
``A year ago it was viewed as a gambler's project trying to be sold to California against its interest,'' says Paul Taylor, executive director of the commission. ``I think now communities have determined it could be an economic boon and be part of the transportation system in the area.''
If the project ever materializes, it would likely be a ``maglev'' train. Transrapid, a West German developer of the technology, is the only company to indicate so far that it would be willing to privately build and operate the system, though a French company using a more conventional train may still bid for the project.
No full-scale maglev system has ever been built. Short test systems exist overseas and a 17-mile demonstration line is planned for Orlando, Fla. Still, promoters believe it is technically and financially feasible to build the train, which would make the 230-mile trip between Las Vegas and here in 70 minutes. (It takes five hours by car.)
One hitch - finding financing
Even so, the winning bidder will have to come up with billions of dollars and dicker with authorities over the necessary land before construction could begin on the project scheduled to open around 1997. Officials in some towns near where the train would run have expressed concern about traffic snarls near stations. Concerns also exist in the California Legislature over, among other things, whether it is a good idea to transport so many people to slot machines.
Planning on the steel-wheeled bullet train for Florida is further along has the best chance of coming about, some analysts contend. The final contract for the system is expected to be awarded in about 18 months and operations to begin around 1995.
First, however, the Florida High Speed Rail Corporation, the consortium likely to win the franchise, will have to figure out how to finance the $2.2 billion system, which some skeptics think will be exceedingly difficult.
In Texas, where the bullet train is still firmly in the idea shop, a newly created state commission to oversee planning of high-speed rail is expected to begin meeting in January.
Gazelle-quick trains remain a few years off there, too, but somewhere, sometime in the 1990s, transportation specialists believe the US will have one - if not several.
Vranich is ``convinced there is a super train in our future.''