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For U.S. travelers, high-speed rail still elusive

(Reuters distributed the following article by Michael Conlon on September 1.)

CHICAGO -- U.S. airport security tangles, a fact of life in the nearly two years since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijack attacks, have not kick-started the development of high-speed U.S. rail networks to replace many short city-to-city flights.

Money is a big reason, but cultural and structural issues are also major barriers, experts say.

The benefits that some East Coast business travelers enjoy with upgraded service in that rail corridor -- the recent problems with Amtrak's high-speed Acela notwithstanding -- could be replicated in several regions of the country, studies have long promised.

On the surface, it sounds good: Downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in 2-1/2 hours; Chicago to Detroit or St. Louis in four hours or less; miles of Florida or Texas countryside flying by while the business traveler taps away on a laptop.

Many air trips distended by security checks and bad weather could actually be completed faster on the ground. It's nothing that a few billion dollars can't accomplish.

"The problem is we can't seem to figure out how to make money operating passenger trains in America, even in the high-density Northeast Corridor," said Robert Gallamore, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center.

"The problem is long-term and structural," he added.

Basically the White House has told the states they or private industry will have to fund the bulk of the cost for high-speed rail development.

In cash-strapped California's case, that means a nearly $10 billion bond issue on the ballot in November 2004 to fund a Los Angeles-San Francisco ground route beneath the heavily trafficked commercial air corridor. Service could begin by 2012, even if the bond issue flops and alternate financing has to be found, a spokesman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said.

Gallamore says the West Coast, East Coast and Midwest corridors offer the best hope for airline-competitive city hops by rail, though no one knows how soon. He is less optimistic about Texas and Florida.

"It may be quite some time," he says. "The states are having budget difficulties perhaps more than the federal government."

CAR CULTURE

It is encouraging that technology and engine design developments will make a safe quick ride possible, Gallamore said. But programs have to do battle with a culture hooked on automobile travel by gasoline prices that are still artificially low, he says, and by the lack of easy airport-to-rail network connections such as those in Europe.

Ron Kuhlmann, a vice president at Unisys R2A, a strategic aviation consulting unit of Unisys Corp., says the "hassle factor is real and extraordinarily unpredictable" when it comes to flying. Using train service as it exists in the Northeast "doesn't require you to take your shoes off and you can take your Swiss Army knife with you -- and get some work done."

Despite that, he sees a clouded future for high speed rail because of a likely poor return on investment, exacerbated by the number of train trips that would be needed to make it a viable alternative to flight.

Kuhlmann suggests that high-speed rail may develop not along the European model, where passengers can hop easily from airport to train, but as a separate system not linked to airports and serving people who want quick transportation from city center to city center.

A 2000 study on high-speed rail linking Chicago to other major nearby cities projected a capital investment of more than $4 billion (in 1998 dollars), plus more than half a billion for rolling stock.

Dennis Minichello, president of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition, says the level of interest among proponents and potential users remains high, though he admits there is "not a lot to report" in terms of forward movement.

"Who is going to pay is always the problem," he said. "If that could be worked out, we'd be racing down the track toward high-speed rail."

Lalia Rach, Dean of New York University's Tisch Center, which studies tourism and other issues, adds:

"We're not a country that's committed to rail travel. In increasingly troubled economic times it moves farther down the list as other social issues take precedence ... we are a culture that has a love affair with the automobile ... you're fighting cultural issues, economic issues."

Indeed, the shift to rail that occurred after 9/11 on the East Coast may have peaked. A recent report found that airlines there have regained key business lost to the rails after the hijack attacks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

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