U.S. Makes Play to Catch Up on High-Speed Rail

A government cash infusion could help the U.S. catch up.

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High-speed rail has long struck transportation buffs as a natural fit for the United States, with its dispersed population, vast open spaces, and national obsession with technological progress. Yet the nation lags far behind much of Europe and Asia in terms of high-speed trains. Indeed, the only locomotives in the United States capable of traveling at 140 mph (the low end of what rail experts consider high speed) are the Acela trains that run from Boston to Washington, and even there, old tracks keep the trains from running anywhere near their top speed.

But the country took another step closer to its first high-speed-rail project last week, when President Obama announced in a visit to Florida plans to distribute some $8 billion in stimulus funding for rail projects. More than 250 applications were submitted for the money, and 13 corridors in 31 states were selected. Major projects include lines from Tampa to Orlando, St. Louis to Chicago, and San Diego to Sacramento, Calif. The president told a Florida audience that the proposed trains are "fast; they are smooth; you don't have to take off your shoes."

The nation's rail networks are both antiquated and saturated with freight and passenger traffic, which has all but smothered past efforts to accelerate the trains. Spending money to speed up existing train lines isn't considered cost effective because the fast lines require new and expensive tracks, according to Robert Poole, a transportation expert at the libertarian Reason Foundation. The Acela averages only 70 mph because the tracks on which it runs are too old and too winding for faster travel.

High-speed trains have long been politically contentious, and experts note that granting the first high-speed project to pivotal swing states like Florida and Missouri is not a coincidence. Though the country has no domestic firms that build components for high-speed rail, foreign companies from Europe and Japan are expected to relocate parts of their facilities here to take advantage of the increased government investment. The Florida project alone could create tens of thousands of jobs in the state, according to the White House.

The United States lags far behind many countries after decades of focus on highway infrastructure. France, England, Spain, Germany, and Japan all boast extensive high-speed networks supported by heavy government investment over the past 30 years. China recently opened a new line that, if located here, could make the trip from New York to Chicago in a paltry 3½ hours at an average speed of 217 mph. The planned high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando will probably peak at around 150 mph. "There is no reason other countries can start building high-speed-rail lines and we can't," Obama said.

Poole says one reason the country can't is funding. "It succeeds in Europe and Japan because they've made a political decision to spend the money over the long term, which is a decision that the U.S. has yet to make." But with $8 billion committed, the next stop could be high-speed rail across the country.