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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Is it 110 mph or 200 mph? Magnetic levitation technology or suped-up electric trains? Upgraded infrastructure or entirely new tracks? A partnership with private entities or paid for with public funds?
There are many differing opinions about high-speed rail — what it is, where and how it should operate, how it should be funded. But one thing’s for sure: There’s less debate over whether the United States should begin developing — or, depending on how you look at it, expanding — high-speed rail service. As local, state and federal transportation planners seek to address infrastructure issues and provide transportation alternatives in light of record-high gas prices and highway congestion, high-speed rail is quickly garnering more attention.
“In California, we’ve started looking at high-speed rail as the only solution left for maintaining mobility in the future,” says California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) Executive Director Mehdi Morshed.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has designated 11 high-speed rail corridors throughout the country, but it would cost tens of billions of dollars to build them. And while various pieces of what seemed like promising legislation have been introduced over the years, most have gotten lost in the congressional shuffle.
However, Morshed is optimistic that the federal government will begin taking high-speed rail seriously — and soon. CHSRA, which is proposing an 800-mile, statewide high-speed system, is placing a $10 billion bond measure on the November ballot to help fund the $33 billion system. If it’s approved by voters — and Morshed says the general population strongly supports it — the federal government will be pressured to create a matching program for high-speed rail, he believes.
And if CHSRA can get its project off the ground, high-speed proponents believe it will cause a domino effect.
“If we can just build the first true high-speed rail project with trains running at 186 to 200 mph, then we are off and running,” says Paul Mangelsdorf, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, which promotes a proposed South Central high-speed rail system that would serve Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Little Rock, Ark.; and Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.
Of course, some would argue that there already is high-speed rail service in the United States — Amtrak’s Acela Express, which serves Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and the railroad’s Regional service, which also runs along the Northeast Corridor.
“The definition of high-speed rail at the FRA is 90 mph and in the European Union, it’s 124 mph,” says Amtrak Chairman Donna McLean. “Our
Regionals are up to 125 mph, and the Acela runs from 135 to 150 mph.”
It would be difficult to provide a high-speed service in the U.S. that compares with, say, France’s Paris-to-Lyon service, where trains run at 200 mph, but rarely stop, says McLean.
“If you want to go faster, you can’t stop,” she says. “Can we buy right of way between two communities and tell them to help pay for the high-speed rail service and then tell them we’re not stopping there? I’m not so sure.”
Some members of Congress believe the best way to implement higher-speed rail service in the United States is by improving on the existing New York-to-Washington, D.C. service.
In May, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (H.R. 6003), which proposes to reauthorize Amtrak and seek private-sector proposals to engineer, finance and develop a high-speed system that would run between Washington, D.C., and New York City in less than two hours. The Acela currently makes the trip in about two hours, 45 minutes.
“There have been proposals for some time that designate corridors, but nothing to really invite this kind of competition, so this is a pretty dramatic change and it does involve the private sector,” says Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who co-authored the bill (see page 21). “Hopefully this approach would stimulate interest and other projects.”
In many cases, the interest is already there.
“In Europe and Japan, trains are running at 186 mph every day just as a normal part of life,” says Mangelsdorf. “High-speed rail has proven itself all over the world. Why can’t we expect it here in the U.S.?”
We can, says CHRSA’s Morshed, who believes the stars are now in alignment.
“This is the year that high-speed rail is going to be put on the U.S. map,” he says.