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High-speed rail is all the rage, but what is it?

(The following story by Raju Chebium appeared on the Cherry Hill Courier-Post website on March 25, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It's a happy time for train fans.

Thrilled with the $8 billion that President Barack Obama and Congress have set aside this year for high-speed rail, advocates say the U.S. can finally begin catching up to Europe and Asia, where blasting-quick train travel has been a reality for decades.

"We're talking real money here. This is the breakthrough rail advocates have been looking for for years," said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation scholar at DePaul University. "This has re-energized the whole movement."

But once the euphoria wears off, some key questions arise: What exactly is high-speed rail? Could U.S. passengers expect snub-nosed trains whizzing along at 200 mph in a few years? Or would they have to settle for marginal improvements to the current system and never truly catch up to the French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese?

Those are all unanswerable questions - at least for now.

Though some advocates want the federal government to answer those questions, the Obama administration wants Amtrak, the nation's taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service, to help chart the course of high-speed rail along with state and local governments and private companies.

A 2008 federal law defines high-speed rail as 110 mph or more, but that's not etched in stone, said Mark Yachmetz, an associate administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"We want to see whether what's out there will let us go faster. We know that some states are looking at faster trains," Yachmetz said in a recent interview. "The key thing people need to realize is that this is not going to be a bunch of bureaucrats ... deciding that."

Amtrak trains currently average about 79 mph nationwide.

Snub-nosed Acela trains - the fastest in the U.S. - never reach their top speed of 180 mph. They reach 150 mph in the Washington-to-Boston Northeast Corridor for a short distance, but average between 68 mph and 82 mph, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.

In contrast, trains routinely travel at 150 or even 200 mph and run on publicly owned track in Europe and Asia.

Most of the U.S. may never see trains reaching those speeds because freight railroads own most of the tracks - 140,000 miles of it nationwide - except in the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak is the owner.

Peter Gertler, a rail expert with HNTB Corp., a consulting firm, said a solid system of "incremental" high-speed rail - service of 110-125 mph - could flourish in the U.S. under the existing framework.

For a truly high-speed network in which trains go 150 mph or faster, the U.S. would have to follow the European and Asian models and buy or build track and make it off-limits to freight trains or slower-speed passenger service, Gertler said.

That would cost tens of billions of dollars - or more.

The only serious plan currently in the works for such speedy service is in California. The cost of the 800-mile system, where trains would zoom by at 220 mph between Sacramento and San Diego, is $45 billion.

The fastest system of all, magnetic levitation, isn't likely to take root in the U.S. despite the political outcry over a proposal for such a system between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That's because it's proven too expensive even for the biggest rail-supporting nations in the world, Gertler said.

The federal government has designated 10 routes as high-speed-rail corridors nationwide in addition to the Northeast Corridor. These routes may each end up having different systems depending on regional needs.

California could develop the country's fastest trains because officials there believe that rail is cheaper than building highways, expanding airports or building new ones to accommodate the growing population.

But in the Midwest, increasing speed to 110 mph makes more sense to connect Chicago, the hub, with large cities like Detroit, Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky., which lie within a few hundred miles.

Lawmakers should focus on trip time as opposed to rail speed and focus on improving service on destinations that lie within three hours of each other, said Don Itzkoff, a Washington lawyer who was deputy railroad administrator under President Bill Clinton.

Freight railroad operators say they're willing to work with Amtrak and any other entity to help implement the nation's high-speed rail vision.

But they don't want to be forced to defer excessively to passenger rail because that would hurt business and force suppliers to use more trucks and clog up already congested highways, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

One thing is for certain: Freights, which gave up passenger rail service decades ago, don't want to return to the fray. Though advocates say private companies can turn a profit by operating trains, White said his industry remains convinced there's no money in it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

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