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High-speed rail not on Toledo’s fast track

(The following story by David Patch appeared on the Toledo Blade website on March 28.)

TOLEDO, Ohio — High-speed passenger-rail is an almost certain part of the Great Lakes region's transportation future, but a modern system's construction somewhere else in the country - possibly California - is a likely prerequisite, an official with a major high-speed train manufacturer told a group of local officials and rail advocates yesterday.

"The first step is getting that first 125-mph line," Charles Wochele, vice president of marketing and new business development for train-builder Alstom, told a luncheon audience of about 50 at the Toledo Club.

"That beginning step, that's what we're talking about now. We're kind of a third-world country when it comes to high-speed rail."

But developing a 125-mph service will require dedicated tracks, not the current Ohio set-up in which traditional Amtrak passenger trains share rails owned by freight railroads. That, Mr. Wochele said, is because dispatching 125-mph passenger trains around much slower freights is a logistical nightmare.

Mr. Wochele opened his presentation with video from a speed test last year in France during which a new-generation TGV set a world record of 574.8 kilometers per hour - slightly over 357 mph.

"That was really just to prove some technologies, and to prove we could do it," Mr. Wochele said, estimating the top sustainable speed with current trains at about 220 mph. The energy required to run faster than that doesn't justify the marginal time saving, he said.

In Europe, he official said, fast trains have replaced many short-hop airline flights because rail consumes one-quarter the fuel that jets do and airliners' greatest fuel consumption occurs during takeoffs and landings.

There is similar airline interest in a proposed high-speed rail network in Texas linking Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, he said.

The only 125-mph or faster trains in North America today are on the Northeast Corridor line between Washington and Boston, where speeds reach 150 mph on a few short sections of track in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Most United States passenger trains poke along at 79 mph or less, making them slower than private automobiles once station stops and other speed-reducing factors are considered.

California is the most likely candidate to develop new high-speed rail in the United States, Mr. Wochele said, because it has a $10 billion bond issue for that purpose on its November ballot.

The 800-mile network proposed in that state is expected to cost $40 billion, he said.

"This is one of the best presentations I've ever seen on this issue," U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said afterward, having voiced special interest in developing fast-train service between Pittsburgh and Chicago via northern Ohio during brief remarks before Mr. Wochele stepped to the lectern.

But Miss Kaptur said high-speed rail will only gain traction in Washington if federal leaders perceive strong, organized public support for it and states unite to use their financial authority to develop regional systems.

"I don't know how prepared Ohio is, but I certainly agree that we need to get on board," state Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Sylvania) said. "When you look at the price of gasoline and how much it's going to cost to upgrade our highways, this is something we really need to do. It'd make my trip to Columbus a whole lot nicer too."

"It's really the people who need to get involved," said Dennis Hodges, president of the Indiana High-Speed Rail Association, an advocacy group that along with the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments arranged Mr. Wochele's presentation.

Friday, March 28, 2008

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