Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When will the USA join the high-speed rail club?

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AS high-speed specialists from around the world prepare to gather in Philadelphia from July 10-13 for the International Union of Railways' (UIC) eighth congress on high-speed rail, many may wonder why the event is being staged in a nation which has yet to gain entry to the growing club of countries with dedicated high-speed railways.

On the one hand, the UIC hoped that greater progress might have been made by the time the congress opened, while on the other it was keen to expose Americans to the benefits of investing in high-speed rail and demonstrate the remarkable progress being made around the world. While there will be plenty of Americans at the congress who back high-speed rail, the question is whether supporters of the vociferous and influential anti-high-speed rail lobby will turn up, because it is these people who need to be won over.

The opposition comprises a broad mixture of politicians, lobbyists and pundits who oppose high-speed rail for a range of reasons. Some simply do not like the idea of public investment in infrastructure or railways, some have a vested interest in another mode of transport, while for others anything favoured by the Obama administration is anathema.

These opponents have been highly successful at rebuffing President Obama's bold initiative to kick-start investment, with several states - most notably Florida - cancelling projects and returning federal funds to Washington. It is only on the west coast where the high-speed flame continues to flicker even though it is frequently buffeted by the chill winds of opposition. As we report this month, California's ambitious plan to connect its main population centres with a 300km/h network may have been pared down to its so-called Initial Operating Section in the centre of the state as a starting point, but its pragmatic approach which will see commuter lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles upgraded for high-speed trains might be its saviour. Indeed, many successful high-speed projects around the world do not even attempt to build new lines in the major cities they serve because of the high cost and potential opposition from trying to do so. After all, the major journey time gain with high-speed rail is achieved between the main cities and not on the final approach to them.

The funds rejected by states opposed to high-speed rail have been diverted to schemes designed to upgrade existing mixed traffic lines operated by Amtrak. For example the 457km Chicago - St Louis corridor is being upgraded by Illinois and Union Pacific to increase the maximum speed on the line from 127km/h to 177km/h. When the work is complete in 2014 one hour will be saved, cutting the trip time to 4h 20min, which will start to make the service competitive with air and road, which together currently account for 99% of the 35 million annual trips along the corridor.

Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor linking Boston, New York and Washington DC is having yet another makeover to lift the maximum speed to 250km/h by replacing the line's ancient catenary and improving the track and signalling.

The idea of running trains at 250km/h on a conventional mixed-traffic railway is ambitious to say the least, when most railways would consider a new line necessary to achieve such speeds. But in the current political climate it is unthinkable to try to build a new line in this densely-populated corridor. If California does succeed in building its first line, and the project is deemed a success, the tide might turn in favour of high-speed rail.

With the government predicting that the US population will grow by around 100 million by 2050, already-congested airports and highways will soon be overwhelmed unless there is massive investment in infrastructure. Many countries now recognise that building more roads and airports alone is not a solution both from a transport planning and an environmental perspective, which is why the number of countries investing in high-speed rail is steadily increasing. Why should Americans living in the richest country on earth be denied the benefits of high-speed rail, while people in less-developed countries like Turkey are embracing it with gusto?

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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