High-Speed Rail in the United States: Back on Track after 50 Years of Neglect

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The Guardian/UK

High-Speed Rail in the United States: Back on Track after 50 Years of Neglect

by
Suzanne Goldenberg

France's V150 TGV fast train on the high-speed line between Paris and the eastern city of Strasbourg. Although the full flowering of the US rail renaissance is unlikely to get under way while Obama is still in the White House,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. (Photograph: Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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