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High-speed rail service derailed

(The following article by Dennis Cauchon was posted on the USA Today website on November 3.)

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Denny Spicher, a risk management consultant, wants to love the new high-speed electric train that started this week between here and Philadelphia.

After his first ride Wednesday, however, he reluctantly reports that the train rode a lot like the rickety old diesel trains he's ridden for years on the 102-mile route.

"Don't get me wrong. I welcome the new service. But I couldn't see a major difference. It's not quite there yet," says Spicher, 52, a Dauphin, Pa., resident.

When it comes to high-speed rail, "are we there yet?" is a question worth asking. Other than the new service here and the Acela train line between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, high-speed passenger rail service isn't scheduled to arrive anywhere else in the country for a very long time.

Amtrak introduced the new high-speed rail line this week, amid little fanfare. The Keystone Service will increase maximum speeds between Harrisburg and Philadelphia from 90 mph to 110 mph and cut 15 to 30 minutes off a two-hour trip. The service costs as little as $20 each way.

The train will connect to the heavily traveled high-speed line between Washington, New York and Boston. The Acela train, introduced in December 2000, reaches speeds as high as 150 mph in parts of New England and 135 mph elsewhere on the route.

The Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg route became a high-speed route for practical reasons. It's the only rail line other than the Acela that is wired for electric trains, which reach high speeds more efficiently than diesel engines.

Kiran Mudambi, 20, of Mountain View, Calif., took the train Thursday to interview for the medical student program at Pennsylvania State University. By flying into Philadelphia, instead of Harrisburg, and taking the train to his final destination, he saved $250.

"Quite a bit for a college student," he says.

'Balanced transportation'

Amtrak, which receives about $1.3 billion a year in federal money, spent $145 million upgrading the track and rail switches. The federal government paid $58 million of the cost, Pennsylvania borrowed $14.5 million for its share, and Amtrak paid the rest.

Pennsylvania also pays $6.8 million a year to subsidize the cost of operating the Keystone route, in service since 1834.

"It's part of Gov. (Ed) Rendell's vision of a balanced transportation system," says Rich Kirkpatrick, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "Pennsylvania has stepped up to the plate to make this high-speed service viable."

High-speed rail got attention in the 1990s when the federal government started designating high-speed rail corridors around the country. Today, there are 11 designated high-speed rail corridors through 28 states.

Actual development of high-speed routes has slowed to a crawl or gone completely dormant. For example, Florida voters approved a high-speed rail project in 2000, then repealed it in 2004.

In other key proposals:

•The California High-Speed Rail Authority, established in 1996, wants to bring European-style high-speed trains — with speeds exceeding 200 mph — from San Diego to Sacramento. In 2004 and 2006, the state decided against asking voters for funding. A proposal to borrow $10 billion could be on the 2008 ballot.

•The Southeast corridor, created in 1992, is supposed to bring high-speed passenger rail to Atlanta, Jacksonville, Raleigh, N.C., Washington and other cities.

"The problem is there's no federal money, other than some planning dollars," North Carolina transportation planner David Foster says. It will cost $5.5 million per mile — or $2.5 billion — just to upgrade the 450-mile Charlotte-to-Washington line, he says.

•The Midwest corridor, centered in Chicago, has been getting more trains, but none that travel at high speeds. Last Monday, Amtrak doubled the number of trains running downstate out of Chicago, using $24 million in state money to add service. But the trains don't go faster than 79 mph.

"All we do is talk, talk, talk," says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a private group.

Harnish says Illinois could start high-speed rail service quickly by purchasing available rail-switching technology. "It would cost peanuts — so cheap it's embarrassing," he says.

Matt Vanover of the Illinois Department of Transportation says the state is waiting for a report on a train-control system under development. He also says details need to be worked out with Amtrak, Union Pacific, the federal government and Chicago.

Will the public get on board?

High-speed rail service in the USA is going nowhere because it doesn't make economic sense, says William Garrison, co-author of the book Tomorrow's Transportation and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

"What passenger rail lacks isn't money. It's riders," he says. "These high-speed rail proposals are big boondoggles. We're reluctant to subsidize high-speed rail for good reason: There's not a market for it."

John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor at Penn State, says the problem is lack of political will. "People didn't bat an eyelash when we decided to build the interstate system in 1956."

He says high-speed passenger rail has technical, as well as financial problems. Railroad tracks in the USA are almost all privately owned by freight companies that run slower, heavier trains. "They aren't too keen on operating a 125-mph passenger train when they're running heavy freight trains at 30 to 70 mph," Spychalski says.

Friday, November 3, 2006

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