Friday, March 20, 2009

High-Speed Rail (Could Be) Coming Fast!

Those of us who have been advocating more and better and faster passenger trains have spent the past decade or two shouting into the wind. The last eight years have been particularly frustrating since the late-and-unlameted Bush Administration was overtly anti-rail in general and anti-Amtrak in particular.

During the recent presidential campaign, however, Barack Obama frequently spoke about the need to improve passenger rail in the U.S. and it sure looks as though he really meant it. His economic stimulus package includes $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail and getting the money spent and the work started is clearly a priority. The Department of Transportation has been told to generate a strategic plan by April and, by June, to publish guidelines for the various states to apply for a share of the money.

There has been a lot of interest already, with much of it coming from the mid-west. Chicago is the country’s busiest rail hub, of course, and rail proponents foresee high-speed links between Chicago and many surrounding cities -- Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit, among others.

Imagine! High-speed rail could connect Chicago with each of those cities with travel times ranging from 40 minutes to just under two hours. And there is no way you can make those same trips by air -- from downtown-to-downtown -- in less time than that. The train would be faster, more comfortable, comparably priced, and infinitely better for the environment. Furthermore, air traffic congestion in and out of Chicago's O'Hare could be reduced by as much as 40 percent ... so, interestingly, there's an air safety component to high-speed rail as well.

Of course, California is also after a chunk of that $8 billion for the high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those folks already have a leg up: much of the environmental work has already been done and last November, California voters approved a $10 billion bond issue to get the project started. When completed, trains running on that system will cover the 400 miles between those two cities in just over 2 ½ hours. Again, try doing that by plane!

Finally, let us not forget that all of these projects will mean jobs … lots of jobs … in the planning, design, construction and continuing operation on these various systems.

High-speed rail, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

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