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U.S. to signal strategy for rail funds

(The following story by Christopher Conkey and Alex Roth appeared on the Wall Street Journal website on April 15, 2009.)

DWIGHT, Ill. — The Obama administration on Thursday will outline how it plans to spend $8 billion in stimulus funds on high-speed passenger-rail service, a new federal commitment that has rail advocates and states jockeying for a piece of the pie.

Administration officials won't name winners or losers on Thursday, but they will provide the first look at their strategy and give states a better sense of how they can qualify for funding.

Midwestern states want funding for a plan that would place Chicago at the center of a network of high-speed rail service that extends to St. Louis, Detroit and Madison, Wis. Advocates in the Northeast want money to upgrade Amtrak's Acela service between Washington and Boston, the route that currently comes the closest to the high-speed service common in Europe. Florida officials want up to $1.5 billion to build a passenger line between Tampa and Orlando. And California voters passed a ballot measure in the fall that will steer nearly $10 billion to a long-term plan to build trains capable of traveling 220 miles per hour between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Persistent highway congestion and the desire to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and imports of foreign oil have prompted a shift in federal policy, and renewed interest at the state and local levels in developing speedy trains and dedicated rail corridors.

The administration will likely set aside some of the $8 billion in total funding for projects that would produce high-speed rail service akin to the bullet trains zipping through Western Europe and East Asia. But it will also likely distribute some small grants to improve existing intercity routes.

Lawmakers representing California have been pressing the Transportation Department for money to fund its plan for a bullet train. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others urged him to keep in mind "the potential for 'true' high-speed rail with dedicated corridor segments for trains traveling at speeds of 150 mph or more, no grade crossings, and no mixed traffic." The state also is seeking about $690 million in stimulus funding for a project to upgrade rail service between Sacramento and the Bay area.

Even with stimulus funding, it will likely be a decade or more before the California bullet-train service is running. Rail advocates in other states say money spent on existing passenger-rail routes could show benefits sooner.

For example, Amtrak trains take about five hours and 30 minutes to go between St. Louis and Chicago, longer than it takes to drive between them. But Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group of individuals, businesses and towns hoping to improve rail service in the area, said service along the route could be reduced to four hours -- faster than it can be driven in a car -- with $400 million in stimulus funding. Mr. Harnish said the money could fund new tracks, signals and flyovers that let passenger tracks pass over freight tracks, and that some of these projects could get under way in a matter of months.

Among the route's current limitations are that passenger trains going in opposite directions must share a single track and deal with outdated signaling technology that repeatedly slows their progress. On Wednesday, Amtrak's northbound train 302 had to detour onto a short waiting track near Dwight to allow a southbound train to pass, causing a 15-minute delay.

Later, the train's engineer, John Lotspeich, scoffed at a signaling error that forced him to halt the train even though the track ahead was clear for miles. "This close to being on time," he said. "This is terrible." The train ended up taking six hours and 20 minutes to complete the route.

Mr. Harnish also hopes that a separate line between the cities will win funding to launch service with trains traveling faster than 200 mph. "This line could become the test for what high-speed rail looks like in this country," Mr. Harnish said this week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

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