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High-speed trains? U.S. plays second fiddle to S. America
High-speed rail systems slow to come

Date published: 12/7/2008

"THE ADJACENT track may have a high-speed train approaching." Virginia Railway Express riders hear this announcement each time they arrive in Quantico.

Dick Beadles laughed when he saw a similarly worded sign outside the Quantico station. Beadles used to be president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad (now part of CSX), and in his retirement founded Virginians for High Speed Rail. He knows that trains passing through Quantico can do 55 to 70 mph and that in the rest of the world, "high-speed rail" generally means 125 mph or faster.

We do have some high-speed rail in the United States. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, there are about 18 miles of railroad line on which Amtrak's Acela Express can travel at 150 mph, and for much of the remaining trip between Washington and Boston it can travel at 125 or 135 mph. And that's it for world-class high-speed rail in the USA.

On Nov. 4, Californians voted to build the first bullet-train line in America. (Although the Acela Express would qualify as a bullet train, the railroad it uses--upgraded from lines built in the 1800s--would not.)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (cahighspeedrail .ca.gov) plans a new "800-mile network of trains operating up to 220 miles an hour and linking California's major cities between San Diego in the south and San Francisco and Sacramento in the north."

The first line would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, about 400 miles apart. The state expects to secure matching federal, local and private funding to complement the bond issue approved by voters.

Once the system is built, it is forecast to operate at a profit. It also is expected to produce economic benefits 50 percent greater than its cost, in the form of 450,000 jobs plus new development, as well as significant reductions in pollution as travelers switch to the new electric transportation.

California also expects that by building the high-speed rail system it will avoid spending an equivalent amount on additional highways. This is not all speculation: Californians see what has been achieved in Europe and Asia (China, too, is building high-speed rail).


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