Ditching Cars for Bullet Trains: Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?

President Barack Obama wants to upgrade America’s transport system using high-speed trains, bringing a taste of what is a part of everyday life in Europe and Asia to the United States. But the car-obsessed nation is divided over the plans. Is the mammoth project doomed to failure?

US Vice-President Joseph Biden is America’s most famous commuter. It has earned him the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” Several times a week, Biden takes an Amtrak train from Wilmington, Delaware to the historic Union Station in Washington, DC. It has been claimed the Democrat now knows the first name of every ticket inspector on the line.

Biden must have been pleased when he unveiled the government’s new high-speed rail plans at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last month. The administration plans to spend $53 billion (€38 billion) on passenger trains and rail networks over the next six years. The lion’s share of this has been earmarked for new high-speed connections. The aim is that 80 percent of Americans will have access to “bullet trains” by 2035.

Such gleaming high-tech marvels could race between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour). The planners hope to cut the journey times between Washington and Boston to less than four hours. A T-shaped line in Texas would connect Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan foresees raising hundreds of kilometers of this so-called “Texas T-Bone” off the ground so that longhorn cattle can pass underneath the rails.

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“It’s a smart investment in the quality of life for all Americans,” says Rick Harnish of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Industry insiders like Ansgar Brockmeyer, of the passenger rail division of Germany’s Siemens Mobility, are thrilled about this locomotive renaissance. “There’s reason for optimism,” he says.

However, the country’s conservative forces are determined to derail US President Barack Obama’s technological vision. No fewer than three newly elected governors (from the states of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio) have completely rejected Washington’s planned cash injection for the country’s railways.

America’s Legendary Railroads

In fact it’s difficult to say whether America’s long-neglected trains can ever make a comeback. Large parts of the network are in a desperate state, and most Americans have long-since switched to traveling by car or plane instead.

And yet the railroad enabled their forefathers to open up the Wild West. Train services were profitable in the US right up until the 1950s. Many lines were legendary, such as the Santa Fe Super Chief, which brought its passengers from Chicago to Los Angeles in luxury. Film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart slumbered in the elegant sleeper cars, and dined in five-star style.

The California Zephyr is another classic service, with its route stretching for almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the Midwest to San Francisco. In better times, “Vista dome” cars gave passengers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. An elite team of hostesses, dubbed the “Zephyrettes,” served drinks and even offered to act as babysitters.

The Zephyr still runs to this day — but the 51-hour journey makes this more of a treat for diehard railway fans. One such fan is James McCommons from Northern Michigan University. The academic spent a year crisscrossing the US by train before chronicling his experiences in a book. “It’s embarrassing,” he says. “We were the greatest railroad nation in the world, and now we don’t even build a railroad car in this country ourselves.”

American author James Kunstler complains that “Amtrak has become the laughing stock of the world.” He jokes that the company was clearly “created on a Soviet-management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy’s Law to ensure maximum entropy of service.” Indeed, Amtrak trains currently take more than 11 hours to cover the 600 kilometers (375 miles) from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It hardly helps either that the train is called the “Coast Starlight.”

A Wake-Up Call

The high-speed rail plans have therefore come as something of a wake-up call in these circumspect times. Many Americans are amazed to discover that President Obama appears to be serious about investing heavily in the railways. “I don’t know what this fascination with trains is about,” says Michael Sanera of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank. He has only one explanation: “I think there is a lot of frustration primarily by men who maybe didn’t get that train set when they were kids, and now they want to play around with trains.”

Taking a closer look, it’s easy to see how serious the situation has become. America is facing gridlock. According to a study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, the US will need nine new airports the size of the gigantic Denver International Airport and will have to double the number of miles of interstate highways if demand for transportation continues to grow at the current level in the coming decades. In 2009, commuters in the US spent 5 billion hours stuck in traffic jams. That’s seven times as long as in 1982.

“Four decades from now, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people,” warns US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood. “If we settle for roads, bridges and airports that already are overburdened and insufficient … our next generation will find America’s arteries of commerce impassable.” He considers high-speed trains essential.

Germany’s Siemens Hopes for New Business

Rail experts in the US have identified about 10 corridors along which high-speed trains could theoretically run profitably. The most promising of these routes lies in the northeastern part of the country; namely between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Because the distances are relatively short and there is high demand, bullet trains could capitalize on their advantages in the region.

There is also a relatively urgent need for rail connections in the Midwest, for example between Chicago and St. Louis. Although flights between the two cities take just over an hour, Harnish says that delays like check-in and security can easily turn that trip into three hours. By contrast, a high-speed rail line could cover this distance in less than two. Planners believe the route could serve as many as a million passengers a year.

“In Europe we have seen that high-speed rail connections of under four hours can be competitive,” says Ansgar Brockmeyer from Siemens. The high-speed line between Barcelona and Madrid, which began operating at the start of 2008, has reportedly already captured half of the market share previously held by air travel. As early as 2006, Siemens-made Velaro trains were hurtling down the line at speeds in excess of 400 kilometers per hour (250 miles per hour).

Siemens now hopes to be able to market the same model of trains in the US. Californians are renowned for being environmentally conscious and tech-savvy — even Arnold Schwarzenegger promoted high-speed trains in California when he was the state’s governor. All this has created favorable conditions for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA), which wants to lay 1,300 kilometers of high-speed track, connecting more than 25 cities in the process. Work is due to get underway on a 100-kilometer stretch of the new line in 2012.

“Our travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco is going to be two hours and 40 minutes, with stops,” says Rachel Wall of the CaHSRA. “Anyone who has traveled that route knows that driving or flying takes longer.”

Too Expensive and Too Risky

Until recently, the industry also had high hopes in Florida. The railway industry expected a call for tenders before the end of the year for the construction of a line between Tampa and Orlando. This could potentially have created thousands of jobs. However, Governor Rick Scott killed the project. Too expensive and too risky is how the Republican governor summarized it, although he has since promised to reconsider his decision.

A lot is at stake for President Obama. The bullet trains were part of his 2008 election campaign. More recently, he promoted rail projects in his latest State of the Union speech. The president fears the country could fall behind its rivals. China, for instance, plans to lay a jaw-dropping 13,000 kilometers of high-speed rail track by 2020. It’s investing the equivalent of more than $300 billion in this Herculean task.

Beijing recently sacked Rail Minister Liu Zhijun after what were rumored to be allegations of corruption. The concrete beds of the tracks were apparently laid sloppily.

But this has done little to dampen enthusiasm for the program. From 2012 onward, trains should be able to catapult passengers from Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours. Amtrak trains currently cover a similar distance between New York and Atlanta in a decidedly pedestrian 18 hours.

Rail fan McCommons blames American attitudes for the perilous state of his country’s railway systems. “We have been sold this bizarre idea that only automobiles and air can take care of all our needs,” he says. That’s hardly surprising since two generations of Americans have grown up almost entirely without passenger trains. “It’s not in their imagination to take a train,” he explains.

Vice President Biden can therefore still consider himself a pioneer if he travels to work by train. He often takes the Acela Express to Washington, the only rail line in the US that’s trumpeted as being high-speed.

Biden’s ride covers the almost 180-kilometer route from Wilmington to Washington in 75 minutes. The average speed: About 140 kilometers per hour.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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