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Will stimulus funds put rail on the fast track?

Some observers say cost is just one factor working against high-speed trains

By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / February 25, 2009
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The US economic stimulus package is fueling the country's beleaguered efforts to create a railroad system that would rival Japan's bullet train and France's TGV high-speed rail.

But some transportation researchers say a network of trains that can travel faster than 200 miles an hour is not feasible in the United States. They say the high price tag for building and operating a super-fast system will be the biggest deterrent. Protecting the trains from security threats will be another hurdle. And much like Amtrak's eight-year-old Acela Express, the only US high-speed rail, the trains would have to compete in a culture that prefers cars and planes.

"We have tremendous distances compared with Japan or Europe," said Carlos Schwantes, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "We're just much bigger, and in so much of the country it's so low a population density that we'd have to ask the question: Is it worth spending our dollars for the infrastructure in those areas?"

Still, the federal stimulus package containing Senator John Kerry's $8 billion earmark for rail projects - with priority given to high-speed service - is the most significant surge toward building more high-speed rails. Federal funding for rail has rapidly declined over the past two decades.

The stimulus funding likely won't move high-speed rail planners far enough along to begin construction, but Kerry called the provision "a down payment" on a rail system that eventually could extend throughout the country. The Massachusetts Democrat said parts of the system could be completed within the decade if Congress continues to fund it.

"Spread out over the country, $8 billion will be an important amount of money to advance the engineering and design," said Peter Gertler, national public transit services director with HNTB, an engineering and architectural firm that has been involved in the Midwest high-speed rail project. But going forward, he said, high-speed rail authorities "will need more local funding at the private and state levels."

High-speed rail systems, which have been slow to catch on here, took off abroad with the help of huge government subsidies and gas prices that were more than double what American drivers were paying when prices here peaked last year, transportation researchers say.

Those conditions created a means and a motivation to support rail service that can travel at speeds upwards of 180 miles an hour in countries like France and Japan.

"France, in particular, 30 to 40 years ago decided that they were not going to be dependent on foreign oil, so they taxed oil very heavily," said Tim Gillespie, a partner in BGL Associates, a legislative consulting company that represents a manufacturer of the TGV and Acela trains on rail issues. "The government - to help people get around without spending their whole paycheck on gasoline - developed this high-speed rail system."

Creating an efficient high-speed US system would be more difficult. First, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, said Gillespie, who conceived of and oversaw the development of the Acela while he was Amtrak's vice president of government affairs.

He said rail funding requests get bogged down in the US congressional process, which requires that money be allocated to highway, transit, and aviation programs first.

"I think you'll find among policy makers in Washington, if you poll them all, they'll say, 'Yes, we need to have high-speed trains,' " Gillespie said. "The problem is whenever they have to find the money, there's nothing left."

Security could be another concern. James Moore, a University of Southern California transportation engineering professor who has examined California and Florida's high-speed rail plans, calls the country's high-speed rail ambition "a boondoggle" steeped in safety and financial concerns. "There is a very substantial security challenge that is unaddressed in most high-speed rail plans," he said. "To secure rail travel, you have to secure the entire length of the guideway."

Moore also said high-speed rail will require huge, ongoing federal subsidies to make the cost of tickets low enough to lure passengers out of automobiles, planes, and regional trains. Indeed, Stan Makovsky, a home fashions sales representative from Chelmsford who goes to New York more than 30 times a year, said he thinks the Acela is "very reliable"; but sometimes he takes the regional train instead because it's cheaper. "It takes maybe 40 minutes longer at most," he said. "And sometimes the price is less than half."

US railroad tracks also are laid out in a way that keeps high-speed trains from traveling at top speeds. The Acela trains, which run along the Northeastern corridor from Boston to New York and Washington, D.C., are designed to travel 150 miles per hour.

But they rarely do because the area's path is winding and its infrastructure is aging. In addition, passenger trains must yield to freight trains traveling the same tracks and slow down at multiple crossings and stations. As a result, Acela's average speed between Boston and New York is 62 miles per hour and 82 miles an hour between New York and Washington, D.C.

It's too early to tell what effect the stimulus provision will have on the Northeast corridor since the rail funding will be doled out through a competitive process by which Amtrak and other high-speed rail authorities must submit proposals. It's likely the nation's other 10 federally designated high-speed corridors will vie for funds as well, including the California High-Speed Rail Authority. In November, California voters approved $9 billion in bond funding to help construct an 800-mile network for trains running up to 220 miles per hour connecting Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

But Kerry hopes some of the money will go toward improving the existing Acela route with new rights of way to straighten curves, avoid populated areas, and get the train traveling 150 miles per hour.

However, Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole said it's too early in the process to have a proposal in place. "That's far from being anything we can talk about right now."

Globe staff writer Robert Weisman contributed to this report. Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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