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Opinion: America is way behind on high-speed rail, and that's good

(The following story by Keith Dierkx appeared at Forbes.com on July 8, 2009.)

NEW YORK Is it really so terrible that the U.S. is one of the last developed nations to build an elaborate high-speed passenger rail network? Looking at recent headlines, you would think so. But in fact, it just might play to our advantage. Building these highly instrumented systems requires enormous amounts of time, money and resources. Naturally, mistakes must be made along the way until the right formula is developed and tested over time.

We're reaching a point where countries around the world, including China, Japan, France and Spain, have very efficient high-speed rail networks covering hundreds of thousands of miles. They are providing access between cities both big and small, spurring economic growth and making the world a smaller place.

Now the U.S. is in a great position to take advantage of being late to the game by eliminating common challenges faced by those who preceded us, such as the improper maintenance of sensors on tracks or not being able to respond to major sporting or weather events when scheduling trains through the largest cities. Just observing what has and hasn't worked in other places can save the U.S. billions of dollars as we build our high-speed passenger rail systems. This savings can be critical, considering the tight budgets the states will be working with.

With the Obama administration's current plan, we are heading down the right track. By July 10, the 10 projects around the country vying for $8 billion in stimulus funds need to provide additional information, such as financial and environmental plans, to the federal government. This follows the administration's announcement last month of the criteria it will use to jump-start rail projects around the country. The recipients of the stimulus funds will be announced in September. Because high-speed rail construction has been deemed a national priority, Congress will allocate an additional $1 billion annually for five years to pay for rail projects.

We can start by taking a page from countries like China that are improving high-speed rail systems with passenger-only lines and the right technologies.

China is revolutionizing its rail system, introducing high-speed trains and expanding its network of rails at an unprecedented pace. The world's most populated country plans to spend the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars and add 25,000 miles of track between now and 2020. The idea is to move people and goods in a transportation system that can fuel economic development without adding any more cars or trucks on the country's roads. Five years from now China will have more high-speed passenger rail than all the rest of the world put together.

Russian Railways, one of the largest rail operators in the world, is tapping into new technologies to improve its freight and passenger management systems. In Taiwan, the High-Speed Rail Corporation has built a high-speed coastal rail network that cuts travel time between the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung City from more than four hours to 90 minutes.

The Netherlands Railway uses software to calculate exactly how many trains are needed to carry the system's 1 million passengers along 1,700 miles of track. The line has improved its operating efficiency by 6%, for $28 million in annual savings.

High-speed passenger rail systems in the U.S. will have trains traveling at 200 miles per hour, just like existing systems in Europe and Asia. But modernization is not just about speed. Safety, efficiency and customer service improve exponentially when a train system is upgraded to modern, intelligent and flexible. Wireless sensors on a train's bearings and axles can indicate when maintenance is needed. Digital technology can ensure there's a clear track ahead and automatically let a train respond to danger such as an automobile stuck on a track.

In this mobile era, passengers expect to be able to use their cellphones to book train travel. Advanced data analytic systems can perform scheduling so that seats are effectively assigned as passengers get on and off at stations along a line. All of these advantages are available today, thanks in part to the experience of other nations, and federal stimulus funds will help pay for them.

Governments and businesses realize that railroads must play a critical role in supporting economic growth. Rail companies, universities, government leaders and other experts are coming together for first time to figure out what it will take to create the best rail systems here. Everyone should benefit, with better, faster on-time performance, more efficient scheduling, maximum use of equipment and fewer vehicles congesting cities. A renewed focus on rail is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote economic progress.

Americans' dependence on automobiles and highway travel during the last century has put us way behind other nations, as we struggle with overcrowded highways, rising fuel prices and pollution. We need to build smarter rail systems that are faster, safer and less expensive to operate and more environmentally friendly than existing ones.

As it stands, we're playing a game of catch-up with other countries' high-speed rail systems, and there's a lot at stake. In the past when the U.S. has launched major transportation projects--including the first coast-to-coast railroad in the 1860s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s--economic prosperity has blossomed.

So while naysayers are down on the fact that the U.S. is the last to leave the station, we're actually in a great position to build some of the most modern, efficient and safe high-speed rail networks on earth.

(Keith Dierkx is the director of the IBM Global Rail Innovation Center in Beijing.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

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