Last year on the campaign trail, Barack Obama touted bullet trains as the next big thing in US transportation. "I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," he said. "I want to see it built right here."
It's an exciting prospect, the idea of saving US travelers time and carbon, and sparing them frustration over crowded highways and airports. But it's a long, long way from Amtrak's average speed of 40 m.p.h. to the magnetic levitation train in Shanghai, which runs at 259 m.p.h., or to bullet trains in Europe and Japan.
Just narrowing this gap will require long-term commitment by Washington. The White House is off to a strong start by asking for – and getting – $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic recovery package. The administration proposes an additional $5 billion over five years. For comparison, Amtrak's annual budget is $3.2 billion.
The public may think the US already has a bullet train in Amtrak's Acela, which stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C. But that service, which is capable of 150 m.p.h., rarely reaches this speed due to curvy tracks and other constraints.
On April 16, the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to unveil a strategic plan for the $8 billion, to be followed by competitive bids from around the country. If it's not spread too thinly over America's rail system, the funds can make a real difference in improved track, safety, and capacity – and thus notably improve speed. Much of the delay in passenger rail comes from passenger trains sharing track with freight. Just laying rail in key corridors to separate freight from passenger traffic could go a long way to speedier passenger service.
But Americans should realize that these billions are not enough to pay for even one full-fledged bullet line.
Californians have an idea of how expensive it might be to build a network of super-fast trains. Voters last year approved a $10 billion bond to start financing a north-south service expected to top 200 m.p.h. – and cost at least $45 billion.
But elsewhere in the continental US, bullet trains would cross state lines to serve major cities. This argues for a federal role.
Washington needs a strategy not just for the $8 billion, but for a national high-speed rail network. It has a good idea of what such a network would look like (see www.fra.dot.gov for a map showing 11 regional corridors).
The strategy will have to include creative financing, because the feds can't do it all. The private sector probably has to play a role, and rail operators should consider how to cash in on tax revenue from development that springs up along fast-train corridors.
This isn't like landing a man on the moon, but vision, planning, and dedication are needed to move people between major cities at even 150 m.p.h. American competitiveness depends on it.