To Americans, high-speed trains evoke the gee-whiz factor of a trip to Tomorrowland: Ride futuristic cars that zoom you to a destination in a fraction of the drive time – without having to fight your way through an airport. Read a book, do paperwork, take a nap while you whoosh ahead in high-speed comfort.

To governments, they evoke benefits to the common good – reduced freeway traffic, lower carbon pollution and more jobs.

But this country has never built a high-speed “bullet” train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.

Yet President Barack Obama, intent on harnessing new technology to rebuild the devastated economy, made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan.

Expensive proposition

It sounds good, but that amount isn’t enough to build a single system, or to dramatically increase existing train speeds, transportation experts say.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready – it’s still seeking local approvals – but it’s farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama’s high-speed pie.

There are rail advocates who say anything is better than nothing when it comes to modernizing U.S. train transportation, which needs all the help it can get. Others say the stimulus injection is like adding a teaspoon of water to the ocean and calling it high tide.

Roughly six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of getting some of the $8 billion award, according to U.S. Transportation Department officials. The spurs include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

Economic benefits

Officials in those areas have said they’d be happy to take part of the president’s offer, even though they don’t have high-speed systems to pump money into. Talking with reporters recently, Obama said he’d love to see such trains in his former state of Illinois linking Chicago to Wisconsin, Missouri and Michigan.

The economic benefit is enormous, the president said. “Railroads were always the pride of America, and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame.”

What exactly is “high-speed”? It depends on the location. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 90 mph. The European Union standard is above 125 mph.

The only rail service that qualifies under America’s lower high-speed standard is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.

The trains are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only average about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. On the densely traveled line from New York City to the nation’s capital, the Acela arrives just about 20 minutes earlier than standard service, at more than twice the cost during peak travel times.

Dependent on gasoline

Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group for rail travel, believes anything is better than nothing when it comes to improving train service.

He’s also blunt in describing America’s inability to make speedy tracks. “The reason why high-speed rail has never taken off is because this country is determined to live on cheap gasoline and airplane travel,” he said.

And to his way of thinking, that means Obama’s infusion will probably go toward fixing what the country already has.

“It’s very likely that all of the money will go to significant improvements of existing tracks. It’s not going to build bullet trains,” Capon said.


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