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Opinion: Other countries leave U.S. in the dust on high-speed rail

(The following column by Michael Dresser appeared on the Baltimore Sun website on October 26, 2009.)

BALTIMORE, Md. — Riding the MARC Camden Line to a conference on high-speed rail is a bit like taking a horse and buggy to an auto show.

But that's exactly what I did last Thursday. And by the end of the day's presentations, riding the pokey old train back from Union Station to Dorsey, the sense of being behind the times was overwhelming.

It came as no surprise that the United States is far behind Japan or Germany or France in high-speed rail. We've known for years that visitors from these highly developed industrial nations have been laughing behind our backs at our woefully antiquated rail system.

But it came as a shock to be confronted with the reality of how far behind we are in high-speed intercity rail compared with such countries as China, Turkey, South Korea and Brazil. Even Iran is planning a line from Tehran to Qom that will reach 200 mph - a speed that will make Amtrak's Acela (maximum 135 mph) look as if it were being pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine. At least we still have bigger bombs.

Perhaps no country in the world puts the American rail network to shame as much as Spain. Here is a former empire that the U.S.A. whipped in a war back in 1898, in which mosquitoes put up more resistance than the opposing army. Now the Spaniards have 988 miles of existing high-speed rail track and 1,386 under construction.

The service is so reliable that the operator will refund a passenger's full fare if the train is more than five minutes late. Riders also get their money back if the air conditioning or toilet malfunctions.

I'm not making this up, MARC riders. This is all information gleaned at the inaugural conference of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association in Washington last week.

Now this association has a definite point of view. It's advocating construction of a 17,000-mile high-speed rail network in the United States and parts of Canada - carrying trains at speeds up to 220 mph - by 2030. The conference drew participants from around the world, and it didn't take a detective to determine their motives. All over the globe, companies are slavering at the prospect of selling us equipment we don't make and expertise we don't have.

If you want an illustration of how the American obsession with roads at the expense of rails has cost this country, look to China. That country is building an extensive high-speed rail system to connect its cities. And who is supplying its billions of dollars' worth of locomotives and railcars? Siemens (Germany), Shinkansen (Japan), Bombardier (Canada) and Alstom (France).

This is a part of the equation that the folks at libertarian think tanks don't take into account when they pooh-pooh the idea of a national high-speed rail network. They dwell on the admittedly enormous cost of building - proponents estimated it at $600 billion over the next 20 years - but not at the costs of failing to get on board. Already, our reluctance to play in the high-speed rail market, which has been around since Japan took the lead in the 1960s, has cost the United States the opportunity to be a player in one of the world's leading heavy industries. Do we surrender that to other countries in perpetuity?

Much of the opposition to high-speed rail in this country stems from an ideological opposition to a government role in just about anything but fighting wars. But history shows that there has never been a significant advance in U.S. transportation without federal involvement on some level.

Many of the same arguments made against high-speed rail could be made about the Erie Canal, transcontinental rail and the interstate highway system.

Obviously, there is the small detail of how one would pay for such a national endeavor.

Norman Anderson, chief executive of CG/LA Infrastructure LLC, suggested a way to fund such big projects. He supports the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank - a concept President Barack Obama has embraced and for which he proposed $5 billion in the budget.

Anderson said that such a bank could be financed through the sale of federally backed bonds to private citizens, pension funds and other investors. The bank would finance the construction of rail lines - and other capital projects - that would be leased to operating companies. Without the burden of maintaining obsolete infrastructure like Amtrak's, he said, the operating companies could make a decent profit.

"No way would we go for new taxes at any level for anything," he said.

Would this work? I'm not sure. A robust debate is needed. But it's clear that the rest of the world is jumping on high-speed trains and getting around much faster than we can. Can the United States afford to be left at the platform?

Monday, October 26, 2009

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