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Could the US crack high-speed rail?

  • 14 October 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Bullet train, Japan
Bullet trains in Japan are state-of-the-art

A conference in New York is looking at plans to spend $600bn (£380bn) on a national network of high-speed railways, to rival continental Europe's. But how likely is it to happen?

The fastest train in the US pulls slowly out of platform 10 at New York's Penn Station, heading west.

Keeping a leisurely pace on the other side of the Hudson River, the Empire State Building sticks stubbornly to the horizon before eventually receding into the distance. Thirteen minutes later, the Acela Express makes its first stop, in Newark.

This is high-speed rail, American-style.

For many of the passengers packed on board the Acela Express to Washington DC, it is no voyage of discovery but a regular trip.

Train travel beats flying, says hotel executive Michael Shepard. "Getting a plane has become so unattractive, especially for short distances. The train is quicker and takes you right into the city."

But the 29-year-old New Yorker says the premium you pay for the Express does not represent value for money, with no more legroom than a normal train and not even a complimentary coffee or tea. And he questions whether it's fast enough (2hr 46mins between New York and Washington) to persuade drivers to ditch their cars.

"It's called 'high speed' but is it really? That's the question."

Other passengers say it's a reliable and comfortable service but those with experience of European trains say the American ones are a pale reflection - in terms of frequency, speed and relative luxury.

The Acela is the flagship line of Amtrak, the government-owned company that runs the US railways, a vast network which is reporting a post-war record for numbers of passengers.

Making enough money to cover its operating costs, but little more, it runs along the densely-populated, north-east corridor between Boston and Washington, using trains that briefly reach speeds of 241km/h (150mph) but average about 127km/h (79mph).

That's not fast enough to meet some international definitions of high-speed rail - though a forthcoming upgrade of a 24-mile section of track in New Jersey means the trains will reach speeds of 257km/h (160mph) by 2017.

"This is the first step of a larger programme for Amtrak's vision to get to 220mph (354km/h)," says spokesman Steve Kulm, adding that private firms have shown strong interest in helping to pay for it.

Despite the relatively high standard of the service in the north-east corridor, the architectural grandeur of some stations and some scenic journeys, train travel in the land of the motor vehicle is not a mass pursuit.

In a country that owes its economic strength to railways - the first transcontinental railroad linked east and west in the 1860s - most investment in recent decades has been on roads and aviation.

Rail industry experts meeting in New York next month are pushing for a reversal of that trend.

The US High Speed Rail Association (USHSR), which is hosting the event, has set out a highly ambitious, $600bn (£383bn) plan to build a high-speed rail network in four phases by 2030, which it illustrates on its website with an animated map.

A network of high-speed lines across the US by 2030 is the USHSR vision

"This really is the transport system for the 21st Century and there's no reason why we shouldn't build it," says Andy Kunz, president and chief executive officer of USHSR. "In fact we will have to build it. There are no other options.

"The oil supply and price is not sustainable and we will not be able to continue to run America with oil at $200 a barrel. If we are going to maintain our prosperity and mobility we have to build this rail system."

Using public and private funds, Mr Kunz argues the network could pay for itself within five or 10 years, because dependency on foreign oil currently costs the US hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and these railways would use cleaner energy sources. They would also generate hundreds of thousands of jobs.

When asked whether it's feasible to implement such a huge project any time soon, he points to two great American feats of engineering - President Lincoln's transcontinental railroad and President Eisenhower's interstate highways built over a period of 35 years a century later.

But there are considerable political and financial hurdles to overcome.

In 2009, President Barack Obama allocated $8bn in his stimulus package towards high-speed rail in 10 areas, but state governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin said "no thanks" and the funds intended for their states were allocated elsewhere.

Some of the US railway stations are magnificent

In February, when vice-president Joe Biden proposed a $53bn bill for what he described as the biggest investment in rail since Lincoln, he was derided by one influential Republican as "insane".

For some critics, the problem is not high-speed rail in principle but picking the right projects to invest in, especially when the country is facing a financial crisis and huge spending cuts.

A spokesman for a public policy think-tank, the Reason Foundation, questions the projected passenger figures that enthusiasts put their faith in, and says that beyond the north-east, there are very few places in the US where it could pay its way.

In Europe, where higher fuel prices and denser populations help make high-speed rail more attractive, there has been a frenzy of construction and planning. France and Spain aim to double their networks of bullet trains in the coming decades.

China, which already boasts half the world's high-speed lines, is making similar strides, although an accident that killed 40 people earlier this year sparked a debate about whether the government was moving too fast.

The country also operates a magnetic levitation train, which reaches staggering speeds of 430km/h (268mph).

In the US, California could be the first state to get a dedicated high-speed passenger rail system, with work due to begin next year on the first section of a line running the length of the huge state, which would carry 322km/h (200mph) trains.

Congressman Jim Costa believes building the railway will generate nearly 300,000 jobs and then another 450,000 permanent posts after it's built.

But Christian Wolmar, a transport expert based in the UK, has serious doubts.

"In California, the notion that they can build in one fell swoop a high-speed network that runs from Sacramento to San Diego is just too ambitious.

"Why not start with a high-speed line that stretches from one end of the Bay Area to another? Then extend it to LA? Instead they plan this massive high-speed line that goes from one end of the state to another."

Arnold Schwarzenegger looked at Japan's bullet trains when California governor

While the US freight rail system is fantastically successful, the existing passenger service is decades behind Europe, he says, due to low investment and hostility from freight companies, which own most of the track.

"America has not been able to retain anything but a vestige of a passenger railway. Amtrak carries about 30 million [passengers] a year, which in Britain, a much smaller country, is about 10 days' worth of journeys," says Mr Wolmar, who recently returned from the US and wrote about the American railways in his blog.

"They haven't managed to achieve speeds, frequency or fares that would rival cars."

The fact that so many Americans have never boarded a train presents a significant cultural barrier, he adds.

But Mr Kunz disagrees. "People say Americans were born with car keys in their hands and driving is in our DNA - but if you look back to 1922 then 99% of Americans lived in cities and moved around on trains."

From that point on, the oil and motor industries pushed for road projects and American cities were developed with that in mind. But he believes the expansion of light rail and metro systems can help turn urban America into more "walkable communities".

Back on the Acela, the train pulls into its final destination, Union Station, bang on time.

"This is Washington DC. Final stop," says the announcement.

For the American dream of high-speed rail, it could be just the start.

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