For decades, many American advocates of high-speed train travel have looked longingly at nations such as Japan, France and Germany, dreaming of a day when travelers in the USA would zip from city to city faster than they could drive and nearly as fast as they could fly. Those dreams were always dashed by financial realities and political impediments.
That was before $4-a-gallon gasoline, ever-worsening highway traffic jams and financially strapped airlines cutting the number of flights. Advocates of high-speed rail say the nation is primed like never before to accept a kind of transportation that has never quite caught on in the land of the automobile.
"That's one of the things that is a prime motivation right now in getting support in Congress," says Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., whose proposal for a privately financed high-speed rail line from Washington, D.C., to New York City passed the House in June with bipartisan support. "High gas prices are adding to my success."
Surging gas prices, congested highways and airports, and soaring air fares all are contributing to an increasing demand for passenger rail, says Mark Yachmetz of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Ridership on Amtrak is up 17% this year over last year, he says.
Mica expects his proposal, part of the House's Amtrak funding bill, to be debated by the Senate next month.
Advocates also are watching an ambitious high-speed rail project in California. Voters there will decide in November on a $10 billion bond issue that would help finance the first segment of a statewide high-speed rail system. If California moves ahead, the rest of the country could follow, Yachmetz says. "If a state like California says, 'This is real, we're willing to put our money against it,' it will help focus attention on this."
"It would be a wake-up call," agrees Peter LeCody of Texas Rail Advocates, an organization that supports high-speed rail.
"It's probably not going to catch on in most places … because of the cost and because the benefits just aren't worth the cost," says Robert Poole, Reason Foundation's director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation.
William Garrison, a retired civil engineering professor at the University of California-Berkeley, says there is little national demand for high-speed rail. He says the push for high-speed rail is merely a new way of doing something old. "While the high-speed trains look nice, they're just polished-up, old, sterile technology," he says. "They're like I am. I am an old man with a new haircut."
The California plans call for an 800-mile system that would connect San Francisco, Sacramento and the Central Valley with Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.
Trains would travel at speeds up to 220 mph. If voters approve it, construction could begin as early as 2010, says Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The nation has flirted with high-speed rail before. Congress in the 1990s began authorizing high-speed rail corridors around the USA, eventually naming 11 through 28 states. But development of high-speed routes in most of those corridors has slowed or stopped.
The FRA defines three kinds of high-speed rail:
•Incremental, which upgrades existing tracks to allow speeds of 90-150 mph. Amtrak's Acela train line between Washington, New York and Boston is an example.
•New high-speed rail, which uses mostly new track and permits speeds of 175-200 mph.
•Magnetic levitation, in which train cars are held aloft above a track and propelled by magnetic fields to speeds of 300 mph and up.
Some proposed projects:
•Pittsburgh. The 54-mile system would link the Pittsburgh airport, downtown and the eastern suburban centers of Monroeville and Greensburg.
•Nevada-California. The 269-mile system eventually would link Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. An environmental study is being conducted for the first segment.
•Maryland. A 39.1-mile-long project would link Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium and Amtrak's Union Station in Washington, D.C., and include a stop at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. About $17 million has been spent, mostly on an environmental impact statement.
•Georgia. An $8 million environmental study of an Atlanta-Chattanooga, Tenn., line began in 2007 and will take about 15 months, says David Spear of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
•Washington-New York. Under Mica's plan, the U.S. Department of Transportation would solicit proposals for financing and development of the rail line.
•Chicago-St. Louis. Illinois has completed less than 50% of track improvements that will eventually cut 90 minutes off the 5½-hour train ride, says Mike Claffey of the Illinois Department of Transportation.
•Colorado: This month, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority announced a $1.5 million feasibility study of high-speed rail along Interstates 25 and 70.