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Opinion: High speed rail: If not now, when?

(The following report by Alan Kandel appeared on the California Progress Report website on March 6. Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.)

Since the inaugural 13-mile run of the vertical-boilered “Tom Thumb” loco and train from Mt. Clare Yard to Ellicott’s Mills, (now Ellicott City) Maryland in 1830, railroading in this country has little changed. Steel wheel on steel rail still predominates. Locomotive-power-wise the development is self-evident, going and growing literally from one or several “horse” and steam power initially, evolving into today’s electric and diesel-electric behemoths. Catchwords like “Gen-Set” and “hybrid” are quite in vogue. And the development in the locomotive hydrogen fuel cell realm is showing promise even.

It was when electric propulsion entered the scene -- along with marked track structure improvements -- that a breakthrough in speed occurred. Passenger train velocities of 125 mph on Amtrak’s electrified Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and the nation’s Capitol aren’t uncommon, with speeds reaching 150 mph on short NEC stretches north of New York; i.e., via the Amtrak Acela trains; so far, the fastest land-based commercial passenger conveyance in the U.S.

While it can be argued 150 mph is exactly 50 percent faster than those record-setting 100 mph velocities reached on certain steam-powered passenger runs circa the late 19th/early 20th Century, it’s still comparatively slower than the speeds typically reached on Japan’s and Europe’s hsr systems. Seemingly adding insult to injury, a specially prepared Train a Grande Vitesse train in France made a record-setting 357.2 mph run, thereby breaking all previous TGV speed records. Imagine land travel where a distance of one mile is covered in 10 seconds! It’s almost incomprehensible! Meanwhile, the AGV (Automotrice Grande Vitesse) also on a test run in France, hit 224 mph -- and didn’t even break a sweat. Production models will be going to Italy beginning in 2010 (see: Alstom Transport).

Now I don’t know about you, but being aware of this and understanding the implications, why in America are we not following suit? In that other countries have left and continue to leave us at the “hsr train station,” that, too, is almost incomprehensible!

What would very high-speed rail do for us domestically? For openers, this would mean fewer flights occupying our skies and fewer vehicles traveling our roadways, and therefore, there theoretically would be fewer collisions and/or close calls, not to mention reduced dependence on oil -- foreign or otherwise. Reduced oil dependence translates into less motor vehicle-produced greenhouse gas emissions, and wouldn’t that be a plus?! Now add to this the prospect of the addition of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of new jobs that would be created domestically. I’d say a win-win-win. Wouldn’t you?

What ever are we waiting for?

If nothing else, at least build a high-speed train pilot or demonstration project so as to test its efficacy. We already or should know it’s a proven success in Asia and Europe. Department of Transportation, Transportation Technology Center personnel could conduct all manner of rigorous and scrutinizing evaluative testing prior to the conveyances being certified public ready.

Furthermore, encourage public, private and foreign investment even.

In California, just such a pilot or demonstration project could be built between San Diego and Los Angeles, or for mountain-type operation, mountains being imposing obstacles, Bakersfield/Los Angeles immediately comes to mind. The Bakersfield/L.A. scenario would enable the evaluator to obtain data on just how well a system of this nature would fare in a mountain-based setting as opposed to one just running on level or near-level ground. Besides, as it stands, the L.A./Bakersfield link is totally devoid of passenger rail service anyway.

If built and deemed successful, then the demonstration project could be built on to and expanded for an even greater reach.

These are all valid reasons to get home-based, high-speed rail, ground transportation going. And the sooner, the better.

That America is by and large a leading contender in the area of rail transportation engineering and technological development and implementation, one would think we should, hands down, be light-years ahead in the high-speed rail arena. Yet, we’re not and why we’re not, is perplexing indeed.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

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