Will High Speed Rail Come to the U.S.?0

Katherine Tweed | Wed Mar 2 2011 |

The White House has unfurled a plan, and coupled it with billions of dollars, to connect 80 percent of Americans to high-speed rail in the coming decades. True high-speed trains, coasting at more than 125 mph, cost more to build than regular trains (you need a dedicated, separate track for the fastest trains, like the one proposed in California), but rail owners can charge more per ticket. Along the way, rail displaces airport congestion, curbs fuel and saves taxpayer dollars.

France, China, Japan and even Spain have found modern rail systems can pay for themselves and revitalize local economies if they are planned correctly. Not every fast train brings in money, and the U.S. can gain from lessons learned abroad. And beyond passenger travel, there are also opportunities to upgrade freight trains with technologies like sodium batteries that can save energy and move products more efficiently.

“In a global economy, we can’t forget that infrastructure also functions as the veins and the arteries of commerce,” Vice President Joe Biden has said.

But the prospect of high-speed trains for passengers or freight is not without problems here in the U.S. There is an argument that people simply love their cars, and will not give them up.

The reality is that Amtrak service was up nationwide in 2007, while the economy was chugging along and the price of gas crept up. Amtrak’s Acela turns a profit, despite the fact that it does not save a lot of time compared to driving. In short-haul air corridors, like New York to Washington D.C. or San Francisco to Los Angeles, high-speed rail is most likely to succeed by replacing the need to fly. Many of the new train lines are being planned as public-private partnerships, which will allow companies to foot some of the bill and operate an efficient service that can eventually turn a profit.

First however, you must build it. There are already fights over where to put the rail line in California. The same will be true in the Northeast, where commuter rail is firmly established. Meanwhile, some states have already rejected the money.

Building new lines and refurbishing American rail can also be seen as a smart business plan–with dozens of companies waiting in the wings to invest in factories in the U.S. to build train sets and parts. And don’t mistake today’s trains with the mechanical behemoths of decades ago; today’s trains are high-tech wonders that utilize the latest in on-board systems to deliver efficiency and safety.

Although there are challenges, now more than ever there is a call from both sides of the aisle for rail. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, disagrees with Biden about which trains should receive priority and funding, but he fundamentally agrees that the need for new investment in rail needs to come sooner than later for the most congested areas in the nation.

Are we ready for a new era of rail? Will it create jobs or just cost a lot? What do you think?