Obama's Rail Plan: A Drop in the Bucket

On Thursday, President Obama and Vice President Biden announced the recipients of almost $8 billion in stimulus grants that are designed to begin development of high-speed rail (HSR) networks. The money will go to 13 "travel corridors," and will include lines in Oregon-Washington-Canada, California, Wisconsin-to-Chicago, Iowa, Detroit-to-Chicago, St. Louis-to-Kansas City, St. Louis-to-Chicago, Cleveland-to-Cincinnati, Texas, Tampa-to-Orlando, Charlotte-to-Washington, and the Northeast Corridor.The $8 billion is just a drop in the bucket, and this initial funding is only a fraction of the full cost of these projects. The biggest single grantee, California, received just over $2.3 billion, but will ultimately need more than $43 billion to complete its planned line.

Admittedly, the $8 billion isn't the sum total of the government's planned HSR expenditure: it has committed to spend $1 billion per year for the next five years, and various other line-item expenditures add a few more billion to the tally. But if high-speed rail in the US is to become a reality, the country will need to make a funding effort that approaches China's. The Asian economic powerhouse, long a front-runner in the HSR race, recently announced plans to spend $300 billion updating and expanding its rail network.

How Fast Is Fast?

Aside from funding, there are questions about how the Obama plan defines HSR. High speed rail is a relative term: China's Wuhan-to-Guangzhou train line can go up to 245 miles per hour, and consistently runs at an average speed of just over 217 miles per hour. And eleven HSR trains throughout Europe and Asia routinely travel at speeds of 186 miles per hour (300 kph) or faster.

Vice President Biden suggested that the HSR initiative that he and Obama announced will "begin to develop new corridors for high-speed trains that will go from 169 to 230 miles an hour." In truth, however, much of America's HSR will be pretty pokey, especially when compared to its European and Asian competitors. While California's Sacramento-to-San Diego rail system will top out at over 200 mph, most lines will run at a measly 110 mph. The slowest routes are in Ohio, where the White House has allotted $400 million to work toward a 79 mph rail system that will link Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. While Ohio's new trains will certainly improve access to the area and are bound to benefit the state's economy, it doesn't seem likely that they will really offer the "spark of innovation" that President Obama proclaimed.

Some Lead, Some Follow

In his introduction on Thursday, Vice President Biden stated that "We're determined to restore America to its rightful place at the leading edge of innovation, with bold ideas that will create jobs immediately and serve as the foundation, a new platform to build this economy . . . ideas like wind power, solar energy, a smart grid, broadband and high-speed rail." The trouble is, the new HSR plan hardly seems innovative. The Twin City Zephyr line, which began service in 1936, had regularly scheduled runs of more than 100 mph between Chicago and Minneapolis. And, for that matter, the first American train to break the 100 mph barrier did so in 1896.

So if America's high speed rail doesn't challenge China's speed record or even America's own best efforts, it's worth wondering how, exactly, it will propel the country's return to technological supremacy. Admittedly, things could be worse: one proposal on the table, offered by Japan Central Railway, would have the Nagoya-based company taking complete charge of America's HSR system and delivering a fully-finished, turn-key system. While this would shortcut many of the engineering problems facing domestic HSR development, it would also subcontract many jobs and almost all technological innovation to the Japanese. America would have the proverbial meal for a day, but still wouldn't know how to fish.

The stakes on the table are extremely high: an HSR system could, potentially, revolutionize America as much as the Eisenhower interstate once did. In a recent interview, James P. Repass, president and CEO of the National Corridors Initiative suggested that, "If we do this right, we can not only rescue, but reinvent the American economy." But lofty goals and major initiatives don't come cheap; if the US wants to sprint to the head of the pack, it's going to take a lot of will and a lot of money.
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