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Will U.S. Rail Service Ever Get Better?

“I just returned from a trip to Europe, and I really enjoyed riding the high-speed Eurostar and TGV. Why can’t we have something like that here in the U.S.?” So asked a reader, and the fundamental answer is simple: The United States, as a nation, does not and will not enjoy a robust passenger rail system because, as a nation, it doesn’t have the will to develop and operate one.

Other places do have the will. Between 2003 and 2013, China built more than 6,000 miles of new true high-speed rail lines. Japan and Spain now have almost 1,600 high-speed miles, with more being built or planned. In two years, Switzerland will open a 35-mile tunnel through the heart of the Alps, and the British are digging a new line across all of London. Other countries in Africa and Asia are building or adding to their systems.

Meanwhile, what is the United States doing? Right now, we’re dithering, with only limited regional and local projects. We can’t even agree to dig new tunnels under the Hudson River that the Northeast desperately needs to serve intercity and commuter needs. Amtrak’s intercity trains poke along at around 50 miles per hour on most routes and often arrive late, anyhow. And we don’t fund Amtrak enough to get really better.

True High Speed: The International Union of Railways defines high-speed rail as running at least 250 kilometers per hour, or 156 miles per hour, and 300 kph (188 mph) or better is standard on many worldwide systems. Although some maps show the entire U.S. Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington as a high-speed corridor, track conditions permit Amtrak to go up to 150 mph on only a few short segments, with few, if any, improvements slated anytime soon.

The country’s only semi-active high-speed project right now is in California, where engineering on some of the route has already started. Although opening of the entire route between Los Angeles and San Francisco is targeted for 2022, available funding will cover only the easy 130-mile valley segment from Merced to Bakersfield, and additional funding is problematic. California could well wind up with a short high-speed segment in the middle of the state, connecting with very slow links to the big cities on either end. The proposed high-speed Los Angeles–Las Vegas project seems to be moribund.

Sort-of-High Speed: For now, the most likely progress will be in regional development of relatively short routes. The mantra here seems to be that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” which translates into “forget 188 miles an hour; let’s go with 110.” Two areas are active:

  • Several Midwestern states are working on improving tracks, crossings, and other infrastructure on existing Amtrak routes radiating from Chicago to allow conventional trains to cruise at 110 miles per hour, maybe even stretching to 125 mph in a few more years. Conventional trains can reach these speeds, as they sometimes did in the 1930s and 1940s. Stretches are already open on links connecting Chicago with Detroit and St. Louis, with work on these and other lines continuing incrementally.
  • In Florida, All Aboard Florida is planning an all-private rail venture linking Orlando and Miami with semi-high-speed trains. This private venture, requiring no taxpayer money, is backed by Florida East Coast Industries, which already owns an excellent right-of-way between Cocoa and Miami; the only new tracks will be built from Orlando to Cocoa along highway 528. Although now a single track, the formerly double-track FEC main line once carried some of the top Florida streamliners, and it has space to renew the double tracking. Proposed hourly trains will link Orlando with Miami in three hours, with stops at West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale; that’s about half the time the once-a-day Amtrak Silver Service now takes to connect those cities. Service is planned to start in 2016.

The Outlook: All in all, the conclusion seems clear. A country not dedicated to good rail service will not get good rail service. And the United States is not dedicated to good rail service.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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