Commentary: Building a high-speed future: 220 mph, and no pat-downs

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 22, 2010 

This might be the holiday travel season that gets U.S. high-speed rail projects moving.

Faced with invasive airport screenings and traffic-choked highways, Americans may say "enough!" and demand a transportation alternative that's already embraced by America's biggest competitors.

While we're still waiting for construction to begin on the first mile of true high-speed rail in the U.S., other countries aren't sitting still.

China, which recently passed Japan as the world's No. 2 economy, now has the world's fastest trains. By the time it's complete in a decade, China will have invested $300 billion in a 16,000-mile system that operates at speeds up to 220 mph. Despite starting later, China will have a bigger and faster network than France, which ran its first high-speed trains in 1981, and Japan, which has had them since 1964.

Great Britain, the country that invented the railroad, has been slower than its European neighbors to embrace high-speed rail. Now it's planning a 250 mph Y-shaped network that would connect London with Birmingham and eventually northern England and Scotland.

When President Barack Obama sowed the seeds for a U.S. high-speed rail network nearly a year ago, advocates cheered. By this fall, however, the initiative got swept up in midterm election politics.

Despite the tens of thousands of New Jersey commuters who depend on a crowded, century-old rail tunnel to reach New York's Penn Station, New Jersey's Republican governor stopped a long-planned new Hudson River rail tunnel dead in its tracks. Anti-spending conservatives lauded the move, perhaps not realizing that when the tunnel is finally built years later for a region that needs it now, it will cost a great deal more.

Then, Republican candidates who oppose high-speed rail were elected governor in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida — three of the states slated to receive federal funding for projects and whose battered economies stood to benefit from the jobs generated by their construction. North Carolina, long a leader in funding its own passenger trains, should send a thank you note to Wisconsin and Ohio when it receives the funds they rejected.

In California, which aims to build a network of 220-mph lines to connect San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Francisco and Sacramento, opposition has mushroomed in unexpected places — even some technology savvy Bay Area enclaves don't want high-speed trains in their backyards. But if Palo Alto or Mountain View don't need the travel convenience or rising property values high-speed trains bring, there will be other takers.

Meanwhile, Amtrak's fastest trains in the U.S. rarely reach their top speed of 150 mph on the slow, twisting 400-mile corridor between Washington and Boston. Elsewhere, most of Amtrak's long-distance trains can't go faster than 79 mph and must compete for track space with lumbering freight trains, contributing to delays.

In spite of these limitations, Amtrak ridership is strong and growing. In the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 28.7 million riders boarded its trains, up 5.7 percent from the year before. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor commands more than half of the air-rail market from Boston to New York, and about two-thirds of it from New York to Washington.

Even though the Northeast Corridor is the closest thing the U.S. has to true high-speed rail, it doesn't come close enough. Much of it was built in the Great Depression, and includes ancient bridges and tunnels that must be replaced. Amtrak in September unveiled an ambitious plan to build an entirely new route, with new stations, from Washington to Boston that would cut travel times between those points in half. However, it's hard to imagine that such a project will find much support in the incoming Congress. The Obama administration committed $10.4 billion to fund high-speed rail projects from coast to coast. Let's be clear: These funds will get new lines started and make improvements to existing ones, but it won't be nearly enough to finish the job.

It took decades to build the original U.S. rail network, and decades again to complete the Interstate Highway System — two key transportation developments that pushed America ahead. It may take a long time — and not to mention funding, vision and political will — to build a high-speed rail network in the U.S.

But next time you experience the full-body airport scan — or the alternative pat-down — think for a moment about a fast, comfortable ride on a high-speed train you boarded without having to compromise your privacy and dignity.

The time for high-speed trains has arrived. All aboard.


Curtis Tate is an editor in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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