High hopes for high speed

A $13 billion proposal could lay high-speed tracks in the midwest, California, and Florida.

Alfredo Sosa /Staff /File
The Amtrak Acela train is a high-speed train that goes between Boston and New York City.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Would the high-speed rail network proposed by President Obama boost the nation’s economy, cool the climate, and bring US transportation into the 21st century? Or is it a boondoggle waiting to happen?

Kyle Spolski has few doubts.

Preparing to board the gleaming steel Acela, the nation’s only high-speed train service, the business executive calculates his Boston-to-New York travel costs. Time: about 3-1/2 hours. Cost: $124. Taxi fare: $0. Airport hassle: none.

“I used to fly, but the Acela is faster getting downtown – and I can work in comfort and plug in my computer and cellphone,” he says. “It’s also about the same cost when you factor in an airport cab ride.”

Mr. Spolski’s bottom line: “We need more high-speed trains.”

And the US may get them. On April 16, Mr. Obama unveiled his vision for a high-speed rail system that would be the most radical shift in US travel infrastructure since President Dwight Eisenhower set the Interstate Highway System in motion.

The rail plan could cost tens of billions of dollars before it’s done. But to jump-start the process, the Obama administration proposes using $13 billion ($8 billion from the stimulus fund last fall and $1 billion a year for five years) to fund up to 10 high-speed-rail corridors.

The idea is not to lay tracks coast to coast, but to zero in on densely populated regions such as the Midwest, California, and Florida, where short distances between cities would let fast trains compete with planes and cars.

Two types of projects would get funding. One could create new dedicated corridors for high-speed trains like those in Europe and Japan that exceed 200 m.p.h. Another type would improve existing lines to make them “incrementally faster,” up to 110 m.p.h. Now, regional rail authorities are dusting off long-ignored plans or revving up already moving efforts. Federal funds could start flowing by this summer.

California, which is planning a 220-m.p.h. bullet-style service from Los Angeles to San Francisco, could receive billions, observers say.

“Obviously we’re elated with the president’s plan to bring the nation’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st century,” says Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority. The US passenger rail system is “behind [that of] Turkey and even Iran. We need to move forward as fast as we can. If we don’t, we’re going to suffer economically.”

But most regional plans have different goals. Unlike California’s dedicated track, most plans involve upgrading crossings, signals, and elevated “flyovers” to cruise over roads and choke points.

Such “moderate speed” rails, like one planned for the Midwest, would top out at 110 m.p.h. with average speeds of 60 to 80 m.p.h. These speeds would lessen the load on highways and airports – even if they don’t match the speeds of Europe’s and Japan’s trains, proponents say.

“One thing’s clear, we’re not going to see bullet trains running all over the country,” says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “But this effort would lay the foundation so that those kinds of projects become more plausible.”

The critical thing from a rider’s point of view, he contends, is the amount of time it takes to travel. The Acela train from Boston to New York may hit 150 m.p.h., but only for perhaps 15 miles. The route averages less than 70 m.p.h., Mr. Capon says.

Even so, Acela’s operator, Amtrak, claims the next Northeast leg – New York to Washington – now draws 60 percent of potential air-rail passengers. That number rose markedly over the past few years, Capon says.

But there’s some doubt whether the Obama administration is providing enough funding to do the job. Unlike Europe and Japan with their dense populations and relatively short distances between population centers, America’s wide-open geography is ill-suited for high-speed trains.

Randal O’Toole, a transportation fellow at the Cato Institute, calculates that the entire US system – if built for a “moderate speed” of 110 m.p.h. would cost about $50 billion – and 10 times that amount if it was to be truly high-speed at 200 m.p.h.

“Obama thinks of himself as the next Dwight Eisenhower,” he says. “But the difference is that the highway system paid for itself through user fees [gas taxes].”

In the “ideal market” between New York and Washington, Mr. O’Toole says he thinks Amtrak’s estimated market share is inflated and probably closer to 25 percent if Baltimore commuters are not included. “They still can’t compete with the airlines,” O’Toole says.

Beside creating new choices for travel, high-speed rails would cut US dependence on oil and stop 3 million tons of carbon emissions annually, according to the president’s plan.

Scott Bernstein, director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, has crunched the numbers for himself. Comparing a trip from Chicago to St. Louis, high-speed rails would be more than twice as energy-efficient as a small regional jet on an energy-used-per-passenger basis.

“A regional jet holds no more people than a bus,” he says. “You could say it is just an expensive flying bus.”

Others say that there are already signs that when rail is upgraded, even modestly, it becomes a real choice
for travelers. On the East Coast, train ridership is up and air-shuttle flights have flattened out, says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest environmental group. Given a third travel option that is fast, comfortable, and convenient, people will often choose
trains, he says.

Rail speeds are up modestly, and more frequent trains between St. Louis and Chicago have prompted a doubling of rail passengers in the past two years, Mr. Learner says. But if trains traveled at 110 m.p.h., they could compete with airplanes.

For Dan Schechter, a Boston-based filmmaker traveling on the Acela to get back from a New York film festival, high-speed rail is the ticket.

“Building more high-speed rail is a great idea,” he says. “Sure, it will cost a lot, but it would be worth it if they do it as well as the Europeans and Japanese have done it. Whatever happens, it needs to run on time.”

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