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USHSR Summit: Day One Overview


U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) leaders couldn’t have planned it any better if they tried. The first day of their three-day conference that opened yesterday in Washington, D.C., coincided with Vice President Joseph Biden’s announcement that the Obama Administration proposes to invest $53 billion in HSR during the next six years (for more on that proposal, click here).

The 100-plus attendees at "High Speed Rail Summit: Politics, Planning, Procurement" were informed of the announcement just before the lunch break. As Michael Kehs, head of U.S. public affairs for communications firm Hill & Knowlton — the media relations agency for USHSR — put it: “I thought it might help you all digest your lunch a little better.”

It’s no secret that HSR has lost some steam since President Barack Obama and Biden visited Florida in January 2010 to announce $8 billion in high-speed rail funds were being distributed for dozens of high- and higher-speed rail projects. Excitement over the first major influx of funding for HSR in U.S. history has been tempered in recent months. Critics are becoming more vocal about their opposition to HSR as projects inch closer to construction. The November elections didn’t help, as Republicans vowing to drastically cut government spending took control of the House and newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio put the brakes on HSR projects in their states.

But yesterday’s announcement seemed to infuse new energy into the crowd of HSR stakeholders — elected officials, industry leaders and private-sector executives from the United States and abroad — giving a much-needed sign that the Administration not only still supports its vision for a national HSR network, but is prepared to put some substantial funding behind it (see comments from Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Rae later in this piece).

“We got some good news today,” said Alstom Vice President Industry and Government Relations Chuck Wochele during his presentation. “Today looks a lot brighter.”

That said, yesterday’s summit presentations didn’t ignore the tough environment HSR advocates need to navigate.

“The lines of demarcation are becoming more and more clear,” said USHSR Vice President Government Affairs and General Counsel Thomas Hart.

The first post-lunch session focused on “high-speed rail and the new political dynamic,” with presenters discussing the importance of getting the pro-HSR message out despite — or, maybe, because of — various political and public-opinion obstacles.

Session moderator Kehs began with a current example: Within minutes of Biden’s HSR announcement, critics began weighing in. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee John Mica (R-Fla.) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) issued a press release indicating their “pessimism” about the initiative, saying they were concerned about how the money would be distributed and criticizing the Administration’s failure to attract private capital for HSR.

Among the general HSR-related communication challenges, according to Kehs:

• a conservative Congress that doesn’t like cost overruns;
• the general public doesn’t understand rail;
• illustrating job creation and real benefits to regions;
• tracking and correcting misinformation;
• documenting this new industry; and
• positioning international expertise in this new U.S. industry.

And even if HSR advocates get past those challenges, they’ll need to deal with NIMBY (not in my backyard) and BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) mind-sets, said Kehs.

“We will have to explain the environmental and economic and social benefits that will come with high-speed rail,” he said. “In this room, there is ample understanding of the benefits of high-sped rail. But step outside of this room, and there are lots of different opinions.”

Key to addressing those not-so-favorable opinions will be highlighting HSR’s ability to create jobs, expand the economy, implement clean technology, and provide a comfortable, safe and cost-effective transportation option, Kehs said.

TND Planning Group Principal Stuart Sirota also talked about shaping public perception of HSR.

“We need to have a more effective voice of how we educate the American public and help them understand high-speed rail and how it will benefit them and how they could use it,” he said. “They need to feel it’s worthy of our government spending many billions of dollars on.”

The call to action wasn’t limited to the “sending the HSR message” session. Presenters throughout the afternoon discussed the need for industry and business leaders to educate state officials, congressmen and the general public about HSR’s benefits and importance.

“[Today's] announcement was fantastic. Will it happen? We hope so, but it won’t happen with us sitting in a room talking about the need for high-speed rail,” said Wochele. “As business people, we need to be advocates for this. We need to get the story out.”

Rae hopes USHSR attendees will begin the story-telling on Thursday, when conference goers will trek over to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and discuss HSR. During her brief presentation — which she rewrote on her way back to D.C. after spending the morning in Philadelphia for Biden’s HSR announcement — Rae gave the audience “some facts to consider taking up,” as she put it.

“This idea of 80 percent of Americans being reached by high-speed rail within 25 years is immensely aggressive, but with our mega-regions clearly defined and our populations in those regions, there are reasons we absolutely need to do this,” she said.

And, reasons why it will work. The metropolitan area served by the Northeast Corridor is nearly as populous as France and Spain combined, and other proposed HSR corridors in areas such as the Midwest and California would serve populations equal to or exceeding that of other European countries that currently have HSR systems, Rae said.

“The U.S. is more like the European Union than it is like one country in Europe,” she said. “People say high-speed rail won’t work in the United States, but let’s look at facts, not rhetoric.”

For those who say the FRA didn’t spend the $10.5 billion available in HSR funds during the past year wisely, spreading it out among too many states rather than allocating larger sums of money for just a few projects?

“Many of those states got planning grants; we are giving $8 billion to states to begin significant improvements for high- and higher-speed rail improvements,” said Rae. “That was the beginning of a down payment. Now, we’re talking about a real program.”

Rae also addressed criticism that the FRA has been moving too slowly in distributing high-speed funds.

“We’re moving down the path, but we have to have good agreements and we have to plan well,” she said. “We have one shot to do this right. We have over half the funds out, and we’ll have the money out and obligated over a year before the law called on us to do that.”

It was a “whirlwind” day, said Rae, whose revamped presentation included comments on Biden’s announcement. The Administration’s proposal calls for funding core express services that would operate on dedicated track at speeds between 125 mph and 250 mph, regional corridors with trains operating between 90 mph and 125 mph, and emerging corridors that would accommodate trains up to 90 mph.

“Not every part of any of the systems in Europe, Japan or China are just high-speed rail — it’s about creating a network that reaches the large populations,” she said.

The FRA will continue to push for suppliers to meet "Buy America" standards and domestic manufacturing, said Rae. If Congress approves the Administration’s new proposal, it will enable rail industry suppliers to better position themselves to meet those standards.

“We heard from many manufacturers and many in the industry that until we think about high-speed rail on an annual basis, we won’t be able to reach the critical mass needed to get this program going,” Rae said.

More information on the Administration’s six-year HSR proposal will be announced on Feb. 14, Rae said, although she declined to discuss specifics.

“We will have more details next week and in the next couple of months, but there is a plan,” she said.

— Angela Cotey    

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/9/2011