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Opinion: High-speed trains save time and fuel

(The following column by Patrick Simmons appeared on the News Observer website on September 21, 2010.) He is director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Rail Division.

RALEIGH, N.C. ó There has been a great deal of misinformation regarding high-speed rail lately. I'd like to set the record straight.

A key point deals with train travel time. It's been suggested that rail travel would be no faster than interstate highway time by auto. That's not true. Today, trains take a little more than three hours to make the trip from Raleigh to Charlotte. Once the first round of improvements is made, that trip will be less than three hours. After all improvements are made and the trains run up to 90 mph, that trip will take about two hours. In addition, we are adding more trains - offering more options.

And while some say "no one will ride the train," the facts tell a different story. Each year since 1990, ridership has increased an average of 6.5 percent. Last year over 700,000 people took the train and we expect this year's total to be nearly 800,000.

But we all need to remember that the benefits of modernizing our rail system go beyond more trains between Charlotte and Raleigh that take less time.

First and foremost is safety. As North Carolina grows, there are increased opportunities for cars, trucks and trains to have accidents. Whenever possible, we need to do whatever is humanly possible to reduce the potential for collisions. Even if trains never gain any speed, closing or changing rail crossings will save lives. This is a goal everyone can and should agree upon.

Increased reliability and flexibility for commercial rail (moving goods to and from market) is also a critical benefit. Almost every item we purchase in our stores has spent some time on a train. Improving our rail system helps businesses more efficiently move their goods. This saves businesses and consumers money, which is good for North Carolina's economic future.

And as we see the number of people and cars increase across the state, we need to consider the impact this has on our air quality. There are federal regulations that impact our ability to add more highways that are based on our air quality. Every time a person travels by train, he or she uses one-third less fuel and produces two-thirds fewer emissions. This also makes trains an increasingly important part of our transportation future.

To accomplish these goals, we need to update and modernize our rail system. We need to straighten the curves; decrease the number of places where cars, trucks and trains could have accidents; add more tracks so more trains can routinely pass each other; and update our stations. These are critical to safety, economic development and quality of life.

Special-interest groups are lining up to tell citizens what they should or should not think. Our hope is that the people of North Carolina will take a serious look at every improvement we are suggesting and help us to make it better.

Trains are part of what built this nation and a major part of what keeps our economy going. We must find ways to work together to update a system that in some cases hasn't seen major improvements in over 100 years.

In Raleigh and elsewhere, our communities are faced with changes as we begin improving the rail system. Our design experts offered suggested plans, and the communities have had the opportunity to review them and make suggestions. Now we will review these and wherever possible incorporate the ideas that can work. That's what the public process is all about. But we will not be swayed by misinformation from special-interest groups.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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