High-Speed Rail Finally Coming to U.S. – Probably From European Train-Builders     Print

Obama, in Tampa, Will Cite Economic and Environmental Benefits

High-speed railways – an established feature of public transport in Europe – are finally on their way to existence in the U.S. in a long overdue move finally taken by the Obama administration.  

President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden will announce $8 million in stimulus funds to build the first real U.S. high-speed trains in several corridors, including one in Florida. Obama and Biden are traveling Thursday to Tampa, Florida, to make the announcement – an event that comes the day after the president’s annual State of the Union speech in which Obama is expected to stress plans for job-creating projects such as the new railway.

The three prime projects seem to be a line linking Orlando and Tampa, another in California covering the 800 miles between Sacramento to San Diego and a nine-state proposal in the Midwest.

For both the economy and the environment, American travelers need to get back on the rails of new trains of this type. Many prime partners in this prospective U.S. development are likely to be from Europe, where manufacturers and rail operators of bullet trains have a position of global leadership in high-speed train technology. So while the American jobs may flow from the planned infrastructure investment, the technology for building the system and running it will have to come largely from abroad. The U.S. must import this know-how because the demise of U.S. passenger train services has left the country bereft of engineering companies, manufacturers and railway managers with experience in high-speed rail.

Among the countries that could win lucrative export contracts for the U.S. projects are Japan and South Korea, which have high-speed systems, but the best-placed competitors seem to be European players like France, Spain and Germany – which offer services that have won international plaudits for efficiency and comfort.

Starting in France, Europe has swiftly adopted a new generation of trains with electric-powered locomotives that provide faster, cleaner service than alternatives such as traffic-jammed highways – and even beat air travel between destinations up to 1,000 miles apart. The first TGV (“train de grande vitesse”), France’s high-speed train, traveled from Paris to Lyon in 1981, and now most of that country and many of the capitals of Europe – Paris, London, The Hague and Brussels are linked by trains that devour the distances in an hour or two. Quickly the continent is being crisscrossed by an expanding network of these trains that travel at speeds of 200 miles per hour, with tilting cars that counterbalance the stress of turns for passenger comfort.

The U.S. offers a striking contrast in this sector. In fact, according to Steven Hill in his new book Europe’s Promise, comparing Europe’s trains with the United States’ is like “comparing a professional major league team with one in the minors.” Of course, most of Europe’s railways are subsidized: for example, even if the TGV breaks even in its operating budget, the initial state investments are amortized in another account to soften the image of public subsidies.

An initial and perhaps sustained subsidy will probably be part of the new U.S. package, which the Obama administration justifies as a way of breaking the logjam that has plagued high-speed railway projects in the U.S. for years.

Efforts to introduce new and better rail links have come and gone in the U.S., at least partly because of the powerful lobby groups representing highways, trucks and gasoline. The U.S. has no single state-owned nationwide railroad, such as France’s SNCF, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and Spain’s Renfe. This lack of centralized control in the U.S. has been a major factor of weakness for rail companies in competing with other forms of mass transport.

Spain has been catching up fast since it first produced a dark-horse challenger in its Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) high-speed rail service 17 years ago running from Madrid to Seville. Since then, the country has built 1,200 miles of high-speed rail tracks, and the service between Madrid and the nation‘s second city Barcelona on its northeast Mediterranean coast is among the most used and successful in Europe.

Potential gains from high speed rail are huge, especially on the environmental and transportation fronts. Fast electric-powered trains can transport eight times as many people as cars and buses, using the same amount of energy but only emitting only 25 per cent as much carbon dioxide, according to an International Union of Railways report cited by the New York Times on May 29, 2009.

By Sarah Geraghty