Obama Unveils Plan to Fund High-Speed Passenger Rail
By CHRISTOPHER CONKEY and ALEX ROTH
President Barack Obama on Thursday set U.S. transportation policy on a new course, announcing at least $13 billion to enhance passenger rail service as an alternative to clogged highways and overcrowded airports.
"Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system, and everybody stands to benefit," Mr. Obama said, speaking at an event in Washington before leaving for Mexico.
Mr. Obama was flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, a long-time Amtrak rider who looked visibly moved, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who submitted a strategic plan to Congress on how the administration plans to carry out its vision. The plan, which includes an $8 billion grant program in the economic-stimulus bill and an additional $5 billion that Mr. Obama wants to allocate over the next five years, is particularly good news for states struggling to maintain existing rail corridors. It also holds out hope that states like California, which has a $30 billion plan with trains capable of traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours, will receive grants to accelerate their programs. Manufacturers of rail cars and locomotives also stand to benefit from bolstered passenger rail service.
Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express service, shown here arriving in Boston, got a big boost in ridership following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but transportation officials say the train service and air shuttles are now competing neck-and-neck.
Many other regions are hoping to draw on the funds to set up fast rail corridors. Midwestern states want funding for a plan that would place Chicago at the center of a network of high-speed rail service that extends to St. Louis, Detroit and Madison, Wis. Advocates in the Northeast want money to upgrade Amtrak's Acela service between Washington and Boston, the route that currently comes the closest to the high-speed service common in Europe. Florida officials want up to $1.5 billion to build a passenger line between Tampa and Orlando.
Persistent highway congestion and the desire to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and imports of foreign oil have prompted a shift in federal policy, and renewed interest at the state and local levels in developing speedy trains and dedicated rail corridors.
Lawmakers representing California have been pressing the Transportation Department for money to fund its plan for a bullet train. In a letter to Mr. LaHood last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others urged him to keep in mind "the potential for 'true' high-speed rail with dedicated corridor segments for trains traveling at speeds of 150 mph or more, no grade crossings, and no mixed traffic." The state also is seeking about $690 million in stimulus funding for a project to upgrade rail service between Sacramento and the Bay area.
Environment: Green Pitch for High-Speed TrainsList of proposed high-speed corridors100 Days: News and analysis from WSJ's blogsEven with stimulus funding, it will likely be a decade or more before the California bullet-train service is running. Rail advocates in other states say money spent on existing passenger-rail routes could show benefits sooner.
For example, Amtrak trains take about five hours and 30 minutes to go between St. Louis and Chicago, longer than it takes to drive between them. But Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group of individuals, businesses and towns hoping to improve rail service in the area, said service along the route could be reduced to four hours -- faster than it can be driven in a car -- with $400 million in stimulus funding. Mr. Harnish said the money could fund new tracks, signals and flyovers that let passenger tracks pass over freight tracks, and that some of these projects could get under way in a matter of months.
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The Chicago-St. Louis rail line is one candidate for stimulus money promised by the Obama administration. The Journal's Christopher Conkey reports.
Among the route's current limitations are that passenger trains going in opposite directions must share a single track and deal with outdated signaling technology that repeatedly slows their progress.
Those obstacles were evident in the experience of Chicago-bound Amtrak train 302 on Wednesday. The train had to detour onto a short waiting track to allow a southbound train to pass, causing a 15-minute delay. Later, the train's engineer, John Lotspeich, scoffed at a signaling error that forced him to halt the train even though the track ahead was clear for miles. "This close to being on time," he said. "This is terrible." The train ended up taking six hours and 20 minutes to complete the route.
Mr. Harnish also hopes that a separate line between the cities will win funding to launch service with trains traveling faster than 200 mph. "This line could become the test for what high-speed rail looks like in this country," Mr. Harnish said this week.