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High-speed trains slow to develop in America

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Deborah Hastings on March 27, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To Americans, high-speed trains evoke the gee-whiz factor of a trip to Tomorrowland: Ride futuristic cars that zoom you to a destination in a fraction of the drive time.

To governments, they evoke benefits to the common good —- reduced freeway traffic, lower carbon pollution and more jobs.

But this country has never built a high-speed “bullet” train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where for decades passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph.

Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. Yet President Barack Obama, intent on harnessing new technology to rebuild the devastated economy, made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan.

It sounds good, but that amount isn’t enough to build a single system, or to dramatically increase existing train speeds, transportation experts say.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready, but it’s farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama’s high-speed pie.

Roughly six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of getting some of the $8 billion award, according to U.S. Transportation Department officials. They are in Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

Officials in those areas have said they’d be happy to take part of the president’s offer, even though they don’t have high-speed systems to pump money into.

New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says developing high-speed rail is the country’s No. 1 transportation priority.

“Anybody who has ever traveled in Europe or Japan knows that high-speed rail works and that it’s very effective,” LaHood said in an interview.

The only American rail service that comes close is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C. The trains are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph but only average about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route.

“In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards,” said author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association.

He’s equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.

“Here’s what’s going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs —- to this project and that project —- and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time.”

Trying to make American trains run faster will always go off the rails, Vranich says, as long as planners keep trying to recreate overseas systems. “We’re not Europe. We’re not Japan. We’re looking at shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher.”

That’s part of the reason previous efforts failed in Florida, Texas and Southern California.

California has one of the country’s most tortured relationships with bullet trains. In 1982, a hastily written $2 billion bullet train bill sailed through the legislative session.

The measure specifically exempted the project from the state’s strict environmental review process and allowed California to underwrite tax-exempt revenue bonds to help fund the 125-mile route between San Diego and Los Angeles.

The system was never built. The project was ultimately abandoned for several reasons, including a barrage of protests from residents near proposed stations.

Fourteen years later, the state legislature formed the California High Speed Rail Authority, and after two failed attempts to make the ballot, a $9.95 billion bond measure was approved by voters in November to help fund the first leg of service between San Francisco and Anaheim, home to Disneyland.

The newest plan also faces criticism. Opponents doubt the wisdom of building a gargantuan project that won’t move a train for at least 10 years, while California proposes cutting services and raising taxes during a national economic meltdown.

Some rail activists look at the stimulus money and see no bullet trains at all. Among them is Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. He’s blunt in describing America’s inability to make speedy track: “The reason why high-speed rail has never taken off is because this country is determined to live on cheap gasoline and airplane travel.”

And to his way of thinking, that means Obama’s infusion will probably go toward fixing what the country already has.

“It’s very likely that all of the money will go to significant improvements of existing tracks. It’s not going to build bullet trains,” Capon said.

Monday, March 30, 2009

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