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Rail advocates laud $8 billion for high-speed trains

(The following story by Ken Valenti appeared on The Journal News website on February 1, 2010.)

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Rail supporters were thrilled by President Barack Obama's announcement last week of $8 billion to improve passenger rail across the country in the first round of funding under the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

Most of the projects are for trains that won't come close to matching the fastest trains in other countries, which top 200 mph. Still, they see a shift taking place, a serious commitment to get the country's trains running faster and carrying more people.

"I think it's inevitable, but I think this gives it an advantage in terms of a big moment boost," said Patrick Phillips, chief executive of the Urban Land Institute.

Petra Todorovich, director of the planning organization America 2050 and an expert at the Regional Plan Association in Manhattan, said improvements could lure more people out of cars.

"If we can take existing routes and make them more reliable, offer more frequent service and trip times that are competitive with a car trip, we'll see more passengers coming to rail," she said.

If people take to the idea, Phillips said, it could shift patterns in the country, with major employers, hospitals and university campuses locating along high-speed lines.

The big winners in Obama's announcement were California, Florida and Illinois, but the projects hit 31 states, including New York, and Washington, D.C.

But not everyone thinks the approach will be effective. Rep. John Mica of Florida told USA Today that the Midwest projects were chosen "more for political reasons than for high-speed service."

The ranking Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Mica told the paper: "The last thing the American people need is another bailout program with low-speed trains to nowhere."

Only one train is planned to exceed 200 mph. The California train would hit speeds of 220 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston — the only route in the country running high-speed rail — missed out on the majority of the funding because it did not have an up-to-date environmental impact statement, Todorovich said. (Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole could not confirm that late Friday afternoon.) Amtrak said the route will get $500 million in funding through the states from the federal program. That will be added to $700 million already being spent on upgrading the system, Amtrak said. (The Federal Railroad Administration's release says $112 million will go to the Northeast Corridor from the program.)

The Acela Express, which runs through the corridor, reaches speeds of up to 150 mph, but only around Rhode Island, Cole said. For the entire route, the average speed is about 80 mph, he said. The trains can't hit top speeds on curving tracks, and must obey speed limits of other railroads when Amtrak uses their tracks. (From New Rochelle into Connecticut, Amtrak uses rail owned by Metro-North Railroad, which sets speed limits no higher than 90 mph.)

"It's not as easy as just saying 'Here's some money and now the trains can go faster,' " Cole said. But he added of the announcement: "We think it's terrific news."

Other funding in New York will include $151 million for projects among New York City, Albany, Buffalo and Montreal. The FRA says the work on the Empire Corridor, linking New York, Albany and Buffalo , will allow for speeds of 110 mph. But Cole said the trains already hit that speed between Stuyvesant and Schenectady, and reach 100 mph elsewhere. The work, which could include straightening track, will allow trains to run at those speeds for greater distances, he said.

Todorovich said the success of higher speed rail could bring an ongoing commitment to it. That would be needed, because the $8 billion announced would not be enough to compete with countries like Japan, France or China.

"No one should raise their expectations that 8 billion alone will complete a high speed rail system," she said.

The FRA, on its Web site, called the money a "down payment on the president's vision of a passenger rail network that will help address the nation's 21st century transportation challenges."

Monday, February 1, 2010

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