Throttle is Barely Open for High-Speed Rail in U.S.
High-speed rail in the form of bullet trains and maglev could someday enter the U.S.
CREDIT: US Department of Transportation
Passengers inside Washington, D.C.'s Union Station lined up near a sign that stated "Trains Move Our Economy" as they waited to board the only high-speed rail service in the United States. The sign's sentiment seemed at odds with the day, in which power outages were throwing train schedules into chaos an unintentional echo of the rough-and-tumble reality that could stall American dreams of high-speed trains whisking travelers along at hundreds of miles per hour.
That dream has already blossomed across Asia and Europe, starting with Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains in 1964, and recently including China's expansion of its record-breaking high-speed rail services. Federal funding can kick-start new high-speed rail services on the U.S., too, but only if American citizens and politicians can be convinced the projects represent an economic boon rather than a boondoggle.
Around the world, high-speed rail relies heavily upon governments to pay for construction, maintenance and some operating costs. A 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office observed that countries do not build high-speed rail with the expectation of covering all those costs through ticket sales; they regard the expense as an investment in boosting the overall economy. High-speed rail would connect the business, technology and innovation hubs among different cities, taking on the same role as other forms of government-supported transportation.
"We build these transportation modes to grease the wheels of the economy and to allow people to get to their jobs, hold meetings, collaborate and innovate," says the director of the America 2050 urban planning initiative, Petra Todorovich. "We don't build roads and subways to make a profit."
The White House has proposed a $53 billion investment in U.S. rail over the next six years. That would continue construction on a national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network with an eye toward President Obama's goal of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.
[See graphic: Full Speed Ahead for High Speed Rail ]
Such funding is a "very good start" because a steady flow of money could reassure regional planners, investors and manufacturers to have a stake in high-speed rail, Todorovich said. But she cautioned that achieving the president's vision would require possibly hundreds of billions of dollars and many more years. "It could take decades," she said.
Laying the tracks
An America 2050 Initiative report suggested high-speed rail would work best in corridors of about 100 to 600 miles (161-966 km) not only connecting major cities like New York and Philadelphia, but linking major cities to moderate ones. Such connections would have a greater impact than linking a medium city with one of the same size.
Todorovich cited Chicago as an example.
"Chicago is a radial network with all the corridors convening at the Chicago hub, and there's half a million jobs within two miles of Union Station," Todorovich told InnovationNewsDaily. "Any corridor that connects to Chicago does better automatically in our study."
The most ideal U.S. location for high-speed rail is the Northeast "megaregion," according to the report. The Northeast Corridor, stretching from Boston to Washington, represents the country's most heavily traveled route. It already has Amtrak's Acela Express, the only high-speed rail service currently operating in the country. Acela can run at 150 mph (241 kph), but it averages 80 mph (129 kph) across its entire journey because of limits on the old track segments and the overhead wire that supplies electricity.
Riding the money train
To push high-speed rail to the next level, Amtrak has proposed building a new two-track corridor in the Northeast just for trains able to operate at 220 mph (354 kph). But the first dedicated high-speed rail tracks in the U.S. are set for construction elsewhere.
California has aggressively pursued high-speed rail on both state and federal levels, and its $43 billion proposal to connect Northern and Southern California has received the most federal funding. Those areas share the largest regional air market, as well as heavy highway congestion.
California voters approved $9 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, before the state went after federal funding. The state plans to eventually open up the project to private investors.
"We anticipate that the high-speed rail line should be able to cover operating costs, maintenance, and a portion of the overall project," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Florida, a former recipient of federal funding, was also planning a new, dedicated high-speed rail system separate from existing commuter or freight tracks. But the state's governor decided to reject the funding for high-speed rail on Feb. 16, 2011.
The need for less speed
Many other states that received federal funds won't actually build high-speed rail lines, but instead plan to make upgrades to current rail service that can boost train speed and reliability. Their projects fall under the Federal Railroad Administration's 90 mph (145 kph) definition for "emerging" high-speed rail, rather than the 150 mph (241 kph) definition for express high-speed rail.
That's the case for a line between Portland, Ore., and Seattle. Its planners had originally envisioned a 150 mph train service, but they faced complications from the large number of curves in the existing rail corridor, the prospective environmental impact on coastal wetlands, and the looming price tag.
In theory, "we can do anything," said Scott Witt, state rail and marine director at the Washington State Department of Transportation, "but it's just the amount of money it would take to do it."
Hiring the big guns
Besides funding problems, states must grapple with a lack of U.S. expertise in building and operating high-speed rail. Many have turned to companies from China, France, Germany and Japan to help build and operate future U.S. lines.
One partnership involves General Electric and China's CSR Corp. The two companies agreed in December 2010 on a joint $50 million investment in the high-speed rail projects of Florida and California, and they signed additional rail-related deals the following month.
Such collaborations bring foreign companies' expertise to bear while accommodating a 100 percent "Buy American" provision attached to the initial $8 billion in federal funding. The provision specifies that manufacture, assembly and hiring must be done locally something General Electric can ensure with its manufacturing footprint in the United States, GE Transportation spokesman Stephan Koller said in a phone interview.
Delegations from Japan, China, Spain and other countries have begun pitching California and other states about their high-speed rail projects, said Wall from the California High-Speed Rail Authority. She added that California's work force eventually will operate high-speed rail systems, but outside help will be required in the beginning.
"We don't have anybody in this country who knows how to operate a high-speed rail system, or even to build one," Wall pointed out. "We have to leverage international experience."