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10 corridors targeted for high-speed rail

(The following story by Paul Nussbaum appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on August 9, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — The federal government, since 1991, has designated 10 corridors for high-speed rail development, including the Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh "Keystone Corridor."

Those "designated corridors" don't include the most heavily traveled one, the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

Most of the corridor plans involve incremental steps to speed up existing service, rather than installation of true high-speed service with trains traveling at more than 155 m.p.h.

That's much cheaper, allowing passenger trains to share tracks with freight and commuter trains. But it does not allow for the full advantages European or Japanese-style high-speed rail offer, such as dramatic travel-time savings that can make trains competitive with airplanes.

Eventually, the "higher-speed" corridors could be upgraded to true high-speed service, with separate tracks and signal systems.

The designated corridors:

Florida. Now aiming to be a true high-speed corridor, with 168-m.p.h. trains operating between Tampa and Orlando, with an extension planned to Miami. Estimated cost: $3.2 billion for the first leg; $11.5 billion for the entire project.

Status: Florida received $1.25 billion for the project from the Obama administration's $8 billion grant of stimulus funds.

The state already owns the land for tracks in the middle of I-4. The project may go to bid by the end of 2010, and construction of the first leg could be completed by 2014. Critics note the line would go to downtown Tampa but not to Tampa's airport, and to Orlando's airport but not to downtown Orlando, limiting its usefulness.

California. Planning to be a true high-speed corridor, with 220-m.p.h. service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Estimated cost: $45 billion.

Planned extensions would include San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, and Las Vegas.

Status: California received $2.5 billion of the $8 billion in stimulus funds. That grant requires the state to begin construction on the project by late 2012 and to have at least one segment running by 2017.

California voters in 2008 approved $9.9 billion for the project. Initial environmental studies have been completed.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority in May selected Roelof van Ark as its new chief executive. Van Ark was president of Alstom Transportation, the North American subsidiary of the French company that makes the TGV and AGV high-speed trains and hopes to build them for the United States.

The California state auditor recently released a report criticizing the authority for not having enough money for the project. The report also said the agency suffers from insufficient planning, poor contract management, and lax oversight.

Environmental groups and local communities have sued to stop the project or change its alignment.

Keystone. Current plans call for upgrading Amtrak service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and studying increased service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

The Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg line, which currently operates trains up to 110 m.p.h., is the highest-speed corridor in the nation except for the line that runs between Washington and Boston.

Status: In the Obama administration's January funding, the Keystone Corridor got $25.6 million - or 0.3 percent of the total.

The money did not include funding that SEPTA and Amtrak had hoped for - for track, signal, and power improvements and the addition of a third express track between Atglen and Paoli in Chester County - that would allow trains in the Keystone Corridor to reach 125 m.p.h., up from 110.

Amtrak, with state subsidies, operates 14 daily round-trips between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

The new money also included $750,000 to study expansion of passenger service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, where one diesel Amtrak train operates daily in each direction on freight-owned tracks.

Chicago Hub Network. Current plans call for upgrading existing service from Chicago to Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati.

Status: Environmental-impact studies have been done for Chicago–St. Louis, and parts of other routes. The French national railway, SNCF, proposed last September to build a true high-speed rail network, with 220 m.p.h. trains, for $68.5 billion.

Projects in the corridor received $2.6 billion in January.

Pacific Northwest. Plans call for incremental improvements to existing Amtrak service on the 466-mile corridor that links Seattle with Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Ore.

Status: Between 1994 and 2007, Washington and Oregon spent $700 million to upgrade track and signal systems, renovate stations, and purchase trains. They hope to eventually boost train speeds to 110 m.p.h.

To advance that goal, the corridor received $598 million from the $8 billion in stimulus funds.

Southcentral. The network is designated with a hub in Dallas-Fort Worth and spokes to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.; Texarkana, Ark.-Texas, and Little Rock; and Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

Status: Texas has had a checkered history with high-speed rail, and it got virtually no money from the Obama administration's $8 billion pot this year because the state failed to present a unified vision of what it planned. An ambitious "Texas TGV" high-speed plan collapsed in the early 1990s because of funding woes, and since then high-speed rail has floundered in the state.

A "Texas T-bone" proposal, offered by a group of local counties and cities, calls for a line from Dallas to San Antonio and a connecting line from Austin to Houston, at a cost of as much as $20 billion. Meanwhile, Texas' new Rail Division has just embarked on a series of statewide "visioning workshops" to essentially start over on high-speed rail plans.

Gulf Coast. Designed to use New Orleans as a hub, with spokes reaching Houston, Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta.

Status: The Southern High-Speed Rail Commission, which represents Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, has received money to study high-speed rail, but little progress has been made. The corridor received no money from the high-speed grants.

Southeast. The corridor is designated as Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, with eventual connections to Atlanta and beyond.

The January funding provided $620 million for the Washington-to-Richmond and Raleigh-to-Charlotte legs. Amtrak hopes to create 110-m.p.h. service between Washington and Charlotte, N.C., and Virginia and North Carolina have formed an authority to prepare for it.

Status: Initial environmental studies have been completed, and a route from Washington to Charlotte has been selected.

Empire. The designated corridor runs 462 miles from New York City to Albany, N.Y., and west to Buffalo.

Status: A state High-Speed Rail Task Force has evaluated the improvements needed to increase speeds to 125 m.p.h. on the 141-mile segment from New York to Albany.

The corridor received $148 million from the $8 billion pot, to improve tracks, signals, and stations.

Northern New England. The corridor is designed as a Boston hub, with spokes to Portland, Maine, Montreal, and Albany, via Springfield, Mass., with an extension from Springfield to New Haven, Conn.

Status: The corridor got $195 million in high-speed rail grants to extend passenger service from Portland to Brunswick, Maine, and to improve the Amtrak "Vermonter" service between Springfield, Mass., and St. Albans, Vt.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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