Americans started falling out of love with trains 50 years ago, when thrilling silver airliners left locomotives far behind.
Now, President Obama and leaders in more than 30 states say it's time to embrace trains again — but newer, faster ones that can transport passengers past gridlocked airports and highways on electrified railroads at up to 200 mph.
They're betting billions of federal and state dollars that high-speed railroads can someday move travelers between major U.S. cities within two or three hours just as they do in Western Europe and Japan. And along the way, they argue, such systems can ease travel congestion, reduce the nation's dependence on oil, cut pollution and create jobs.
"For so long, Americans have viewed the automobile and the airplane as our transportation vehicles," says Anne Canby, a former transportation secretary for Delaware and train advocate. "Until now, rail hasn't been a major player in the discussion."
Driving the new-found interest in trains is $8 billion that was tucked into the president's economic stimulus legislation signed last month.
The Department of Transportation is to distribute the money to embryonic high-speed rail projects around the country and to Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, to develop high-speed technology.
The government isn't wasting time. By next month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is required to issue a strategic plan detailing how DOT will use the $8 billion. By June, his department is required to tell states how to apply for grants.
Eleven proposed high-speed rail corridors on the West Coast, Texas, the Great Lakes states, the Southeast, Florida and the Northeast will be vying for a piece of the stimulus money.
Competition "is going to be pretty severe," Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle says.
Doyle just returned from Spain, where he rode that country's high-speed Talgo system linking its capital, Madrid, to other major Spanish cities.
Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio are pitching a high-speed rail network linking Chicago to big cities in those states, including Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit — trips that could be made within a couple of hours.
"People in this country don't appreciate what modern rail travel is," says Doyle, referring to the 180 mph Talgo system. "It is as smooth as riding in an airplane without any turbulence."
He says the Midwestern states don't envision a true high-speed system immediately. The first priority is making upgrades that would allow trains between Chicago and Milwaukee, for example, to travel at least 80 mph.
Designing, engineering, construction, operation and maintenance of new rail systems could create many U.S. jobs, rail advocates say.
"This would create a completely new industry here," says Rod Diridon, a member of California's High-Speed Rail Authority.
Diridon says his system is a leading candidate for funding because it would be a true high-speed train, and the state already has won environmental approvals. California voters approved issuing $10 billion in bonds to help pay for the system.
California's proposed express from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take about 2½ hours at 220 mph. "It would be faster downtown to downtown than flying," Diridon says.
As large as it sounds, $8 billion wouldn't begin to design and construct a true high-speed system in which rails are dedicated to high-speed trains. The California system alone would cost about $50 billion to complete.
"I see this as us making a down payment," says Mark Yachmetz, a top official at the Federal Railroad Administration. "It's the beginning of the renaissance of rail in this country."
Ultimately, so-called trip time — the travel time door-to-door vs. an auto or plane — will be the standard by which rail proposals will be judged.
Amtrak's recent track record gives hope to high-speed rail enthusiasts. The railroad carried a record 10.9 million passengers along the densely populated Northeast corridor last year. It has become a serious competitor of airlines there because the major cities — including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington — are relatively close together.
Last year, Amtrak data show it accounted for 63% of the combined air and rail passenger traffic between Washington, D.C., and New York City compared with 50% four years earlier. Between New York and Boston, Amtrak's share of the traffic was 49% last year vs. 39% in 2004.
Many riders in the Northeast chose Amtrak's electrified Acela — the closest thing to a high-speed train in the USA. It makes few stops and runs at speeds up to about 135 mph.
Acela has shown, "We can do high-speed rail and reduce the trip time enough to make rail competitive with air," Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman says.