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Booming elsewhere, high-speed rail sees delays in U.S.

(AFP circulated the following on May 3.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In November the Eurostar bullet-train blew the doors off commuter rail travel, sprinting the 213 miles (343 kilometers) from London to Paris in two hours 15 minutes -- and leaving tortoise-slow US trains in the dust.

Over a similar distance -- Washington to New York -- America's lone high-speed train, the Acela Express, takes a full 45 minutes longer.

Top speed for nearly every other passenger train in the United States? A pedestrian 79 miles per hour (127 kilometers per hour), with average US speeds far slower.

"Oh, I think it's awful. It's really slow," groaned retired speech pathologist Eleanor Herman, preparing to depart from Washington's Union Station aboard the Northeast Regional, which like the Acela is run by national rail corporation Amtrak.

"I've been on high-speed trains in Italy, and it's another world."

Europe and Asia's impressive advances in train travel -- commercial bullet-trains there routinely hit 200 mph (320 kph) -- have begun to shine a glaring spotlight on the world's wealthiest nation.

For decades US passenger trains have played poor cousin to planes and automobiles -- the twin towers of American transport.

But as Americans gasp at record gasoline prices, see mounting trouble for airline companies and the hassles associated with air travel, and become more environmentally conscious, the need for improved and speedier US rail service may finally hit the national radar.

"We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high-speed rail," Democratic US presidential candidate Barack Obama has said.

"The irony is, with gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking about for a while is high-speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities."

Railroads fueled America's 19th century westward expansion, but today they are rickety relics compared to bullet-trains in countries such as Japan, France, Germany, and China, where 3,750 miles (6,000 kilometers) of track support high-speed trains.

Last year in France an experimental train gave travelers an eye-popping glimpse of the future when it set a speed record of 357 mph (571 kph).

Another dozen countries have projects planned including Iran, which is considering buying Germany's magnetic levitation train that can top 280 mph (448 kph).

On the Northeast Corridor linking Washington with New York and Boston, the Acela Express tops out briefly at 150 mph (240 kph), but averages just 86 mph (138 kph).

"Too many curves" in the century-old route to keep the speed up, and "straightening" it would be a monumental task, says Amtrak communications chief Cliff Black.

Nevertheless, US Congressman John Mica is pushing to convert Washington-New York to bonafide high-speed status.

In March he introduced a Congress bill to study and develop a system that would cover the distance in under two hours.

The plan would cost at least 20 billion dollars, and Mica described it as feasible particularly if there were federal matching funds.

"We have not had a solid proposal that involves federal, state, local and private sector partners," Mica told AFP.

Amtrak says lack of political will -- as well as Americans' fierce devotion to privately held land -- could doom such projects.

"Private property is sacred in the United States and it's very difficult to impose eminent domain to acquire property to build highways and high-speed rail," Black told AFP.

"And if you don't have the political will, it's a moot point."

The US government committed 1.3 billion dollars in funding in 2007 to Amtrak, which lost 475 million dollars last year despite record passenger numbers in the past five years. Ridership for 2008 is already up 12 percent.

Amtrak has no plans for high-speed rail, Black said. "We don't have the resources. It's really up to the states."

This year the US Department of Transportation set aside 30 million dollars in matching federal funds for state or local rail projects. By comparison the government budgeted 39.4 billion dollars in federal aid for the highway system.

Most populous state California could soon be taking the first step towards a fully-dedicated high-speed route, planning a system from Sacramento in the north to San Diego in the south via San Francisco and Los Angeles, covering 683 miles (1,100 kilometers).

The plan, which could break ground in 2009, carries a 40-billion-dollar price tag, and a bond measure to raise nine billion goes before voters in November.

"It's critical that Californians vote for that project," said Rick Harnish, head of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

"We need a much more aggressive railroad development program. We need to start building a lot more track."

Monday, May 5, 2008

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