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High-speed rail: Obama says his proposal is key to rebuilding economy and will change travel in U.S.

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on April 17, 2009.)

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama made it clear Thursday that he won't be satisfied with trains putzing around at a mere 110 m.p.h.

He is aiming much higher as his administration continues to focus on transportation as a key component of rebuilding the troubled economy.

The president called for building world-class, high-speed corridors serving trains operating well in excess of 200 m.p.h.

"My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America," he said at a ceremony where he announced an $8 billion push for high-speed rail as a down payment on the future.

California has the most ambitious high-speed rail program, aimed at operating trains at up to 220 m.p.h. on grade-separated tracks running about 700 miles from the San Francisco Bay area to Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. California approved a $10 billion bond measure last fall.

Amtrak's Acela trains serving the East Coast routinely get up to 135 m.p.h. on stretches between Boston, New York and Washington.

But in Japan, where the world's first high-speed trains debuted in 1964 at a top speed of 130 m.p.h., today's Shinkansen trains average 180 m.p.h.

It's a lofty goal for the U.S. to strive for, but some experts think Americans will consider slower speeds acceptable as long as the time it takes to go door to door is less on trains that it would be to drive or fly.

"Let's not let perfection get in the way of the good," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which has advocated for improved passenger rail service for about 15 years.

Friday, April 17, 2009

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