U.S. on the slow track
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Seven hours after boarding a train in Kansas City, Douglas Lewandowski finally arrived at Chicago’s Union Station — rested after the 500-mile trip but anxious to get home to Elkhart, Ind.
“How long it takes on these trains is so frustrating,” said Lewandowski, 55. “I’d be more likely to take more trains if they were faster, but I’m afraid I’ll be six feet under before that ever happens.”
While sleek new passenger trains streak through Europe, Japan and other corners of the world at speeds nearing 200 mph, most U.S. passenger trains chug along at little more than highway speeds — slowed by a half-century of federal preference for spending on roads and airports.
But advocates say millions of Americans may be ready to embrace high-speed rail for everything from business travel to vacations because of soaring gas prices, airport delays and congested freeways that slow travel and contribute to air pollution.
“We have to change these things really fast. The era of cheap oil is over,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the nonprofit Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “People want choices in how they travel, and it’s time for the states and feds to start providing those.”
Still, getting trains moving fast enough, and in enough places, to entice travelers is a funding and logistical challenge.
Track and safety improvements for already-proposed projects could cost billions of dollars — and require reprioritization of federal transportation funds.
Congress is considering a six-year Amtrak funding bill co-sponsored by 40 senators that would provide the first matching federal grants for rail projects. The measure proposes $100 million in first-year grants, paltry considering that California alone needs $40 billion for a mammoth bullet train project that would link San Francisco and Sacramento with Los Angeles and San Diego.
Some argue federal money would be better spent to research electric-powered cars and other cutting-edge travel alternatives, rather than the ribbons of steel that triggered America’s westward expansion in the 1800s.
“Solutions to our current problems have to be found, not imposed from previous centuries. High-speed rail is just a polished version of 19th century technology,” said William Garrison, co-author of “Tomorrow’s Transportation” and a retired civil engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
But supporters contend high-speed trains could be an important alternative, rivaling even air travel once home-to-airport travel times and delays cause by airport security measures are taken into account.
A new European rail line that hits speeds up to 199 mph has cut the 292-mile ride between Paris and Frankfurt from 6 hours and 15 minutes to 3 1/2 hours. At those speeds, the 260-mile ride between Chicago and St. Louis would drop from 5 1/2 hours to just over 3 hours.
“They’d have to go awful fast. When I go somewhere I like to get there in a hurry, not take all day,” John Wilson, 79, said while waiting for his son’s plane at an airport in Bloomington, Ill.
Few envision U.S. high-speed rail would stretch coast to coast or match the dizzying speeds of other countries in the next few decades, even if Congress approves the matching funds for intercity rail projects.
Instead, supporters see most trains running at about 110 mph between major cities 200 to 300 miles apart, similar to Amtrak’s Acela line that trimmed about a half-hour from the usual 4-hour trip from Boston to New York and about 15 minutes from the three-hour ride from New York to Washington.
The six-year-old Acela Express is the only U.S. rail line that tops the 125 mph considered “high speed” by international standards. And even supporters concede it barely qualifies, hitting its maximum 150 mph for less than 20 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C., and averaging just 86 mph over the full 456-mile run.
Even so, Acela’s ridership rose 20 percent in May as gasoline prices topped $3 a gallon nationwide, said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole.
0Nationally, Amtrak is poised for its fifth straight year of ridership gains this year, said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for the railroad.
Ridership was up nearly 18 percent through May on a Pennsylvania line that bumped speeds from 90 mph to 110 mph last October, cutting 15 to 30 minutes off the two-hour ride from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.
States across the country have gambled on increased interest in rail travel, investing millions of their own dollars in studies and construction for high-speed projects that helped launch about a half-dozen routes that now run above 90 mph.
Illinois has sunk about $80 million into track and crossing improvements over a decade, but has finished less than half of a planned high-speed route from Chicago to St. Louis that would shave 90 minutes off the current 5 1/2-hour train ride.
Completing the estimated $400 million project will take years, but is projected to boost ridership from 300,000 last year to 1.2 million, said George Weber, chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s passenger rail division.
Weber said trains could begin running at 110 mph by 2009 on 120 miles of the 280-mile route after the state recently settled on safety technology that will ensure faster trains can coexist with cars and slow-moving freight traffic that shares the line.
California has proposed the nation’s most ambitious plan: a 700-mile electric-powered train that would run at up to 220 mph from San Francisco to San Diego, cutting the roughly 9-hour drive to about 3 1/2 hours.