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High-Speed Rail in the United States: Back on Track after 50 Years of Neglect
Long before he became president, Barack Obama had a hankering for the TGV and other fast trains. "I am always jealous about European trains," he told an audience during a visit to Strasbourg last spring. "And I said to myself: why can't we have high-speed rail?"
Well, maybe America can, although the full flowering of the rail renaissance is unlikely to get under way while Obama is still in the White House. With an initial infusion of $8bn, set aside under the spring's economic stimulus plan, the Obama administration is embarking on the most ambitious expansion of passenger rail in 50 years, with the construction or upgrade of up to 10 routes from California through the midwest to Florida.
Apart from California, none of the other routes envisaged would meet international standards for high-speed trains. But rail advocates say Obama has still taken an important first step towards the transformation of US rail.
"It is not going to be probably as good in the short term as what is currently in China, Japan and Europe, but it doesn't have to be," said Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic congressman from Oregon and deputy chairman of the House of Representatives committee on global warming. "What is revolutionary is that the US is starting to invest in higher-speed intercity networks. This reverses 50 years of passenger rail neglect."
Passenger rail reached its low point under George Bush, who sought to eliminate all public funds for the Amtrak network. But the security queues at US airports after the 9/11 attacks, and last summer's high petrol prices, have spurred official and popular interest in reviving rail travel. Last month, 40 states put forward 278 proposals for spending the $8bn in stimulus funds.
Obama views transport as crucial in meeting the US commitment to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions. He has budgeted an additional $1bn a year for rail over the next five years. The House of Representatives added an additional $1.4bn. The next step is a transportation bill now before Congress in which Democrats are seeking $50bn for passenger rail over the next six years.
But the initial $8bn will cover only a fraction of the costs of building a new network. The proposals submitted last month together amount to $108bn.
"We can't build a high-speed rail network in the United States for $8bn. What we can do is show the public that the $8bn has been invested wisely and created tangible benefits," said Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law and Policy Centre, an advocacy group.