President Obama to Lay Out Plans for High-Speed Train Travel

President Obama hopes to invest in high-speed trains. But there are critics.

April 10, 2009, 11:06 AM

April 12, 2009— -- Victoria Cassano rides the rails twice a week between her job in Washington and her home in New York. She does so on America's fastest train, Amtrak's Acela service. But she'd like to see true high-speed rail in this country, like much of Europe and Asia enjoy.

"I think we should be funding these types of systems," Cassano said. "This is a great way to travel."

If your dream job is in bustling Boston and your dream home is on a Virginia farm -- or if you're imagining a house in the San Francisco hills, a job in Anaheim, and a commute that gets you home in time for dinner -- take heart: If President Obama has his way, a speedy commute on a high-speed train could become a reality.

This week, Obama will unveil his vision for high-speed rail in the United States after unexpectedly adding $8 billion to the economic stimulus package for high-speed train travel -- the biggest commitment of its kind ever made by the federal government.

America is miles behind. In Japan, the bullet train can wisk passengers from one city to the next at nearly 200 miles an hour. It's the same on France's TGV train, where passengers can get from Paris to Lyon in a little less than two hours. A dozen countries around the world enjoy high-speed rail, but America is not one of them.

On his recent trip to Europe, Obama himself seemed envious.

"I am always jealous about European trains," Obama said April 3 in Strasbourg, France. "And I said to myself, 'why can't we have high-speed rail?' And so, we're investing in that as well."

Ready to climb aboard? Not so fast. Since 1980, every state effort in the United States to build high-speed rail has failed. Budget-battered California has proposed a 220 miles per hour bullet train that would link San Francisco to Los Angeles in just two-and-a-half hours -- with a price tag of $45 billion.

Critics now argue that investing federal dollars in high-speed rail is a waste of money, especially given how much it would take to upgrade or even build new train tracks between cities they argue are separated by distances that are not conducive to this type of travel.

It's a huge investment that Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the libertarian think tank, the CATO Institute, called "just ludicrous," especially given the tanking economy.

"If California voters want to throw money down a rat hole for high-speed rail, then let them," Mitchell said. "At least that is not going to cost the tax payers of Minnesota and South Carolina any money."

"You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles," Mitchell added. "That's probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail."

Acela Train Gives Travelers Along Northeast Corridor Another Option

Meantime, the closest thing the U.S. has to high-speed rail is Amtrak's Acela service between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

The Acela can zip along at up to 150 miles an hour in one short stretch, but never reaches its full potential. At one point, the train slows to just 30 miles an hour near a Baltimore tunnel; Overall, the Acela averages just 80 miles an hour.

Jack Barton, a train engineer who's been at the helm of Amtrak's high-speed Acela train for a decade, said the speed he's able to reach on the Acela depends on "the geometry of the track, the curvature."

Still, supporters and frequent travelers, like Cassano, point out that in the Northeast, more passengers ride the rails between Washington and New York than fly.

The government says there are 10 other areas of the country where faster trains could compete, time-wise, with cars and planes. Those include routes such as Chicago to St. Louis and Milwaukee; Miami to Orlando, Fla.; Eugene, Ore., to Seattle; and Ft. Worth, Texas to Little Rock, Ark.

"The sweet spot for high-speed rail is where you have major urban areas that are 100 to 500 to 600 miles apart," said Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for railroad development for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Yachmetz said that's where trains will be able to compete time-wise with cars and planes.

Amtrak hopes some of the stimulus money from the federal government can go toward improvements to the tracks it runs its trains on, most of which are owned by freight railroads.

"The track that's out there today ... for most of it we can't go over 79 miles per hour," Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told ABC News.

Boardman said Amtrak would like to raise the speed, on lines that serve major cities, to 110 miles an hour.

"This 110 mile per hour service," he said, "is what we ought to be looking at from an incremental basis."

"[Obama's] not talking about high-speed rail -- those are those bullet trains in Japan and France -- he's talking about medium-speed rail," Mitchell said. "In other words, instead of going 75 mph, maybe go 100 miles an hour. Is that worth $8 billion of tax payer money? No, it's not."

Boardman, not surprisingly, said, "You bet it is" worth the investment to update the tracks, though he does agree it will take much more money than the government has allocated already to truly bring about high-speed rail.

"We are not going to see 200 miles per hour trains with an $8 billion investment," Boardman said.

Joe Sussman, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also thinks the Obama administration is moving in the right direction, despite the high price tag.

'A Potential Game Changer'

The pros, he said, are that high-speed rail could help relieve airport congestion and could also help the environment by curbing emissions from airplanes and automobiles. Sussman added we should be thinking about regional systems, such as a high-speed train from Tampa, Fla., to Orlando, Fla., and Miami as well as in the Northeast corridor.

"This is not chump change, but it is a potential game changer, I think," Sussman told ABC News.

The high-speed rail priorities laid out by the Obama administration this next week will guide states as they apply for the rail stimulus money. The Department of Transportation expects to start getting grant applications from states this summer.

"As a developed country, for us to have the low-quality rail systems that we have is extraordinary," Sussman said.

"There has never been this degree of commitment to railroad investment and, in particular, high-speed rail investment," added Yachmetz.

"I think we will see it sooner than a lot of people expect," Yachmetz said.

ABC News' Matt Hosford contributed to this report.

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