Rail Advocates Urge Closer Look At Train Travel

Rail advocates push for more high speed train travel to U.S. cities.

ByABC News
August 27, 2008, 2:46 PM

Aug. 29, 2008— -- 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.

Skeptics abound.

"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.