Today the Acela Express -- America's first train approaching the stunning speed and service standards set a generation ago overseas -- starts regular service between Washington, New York and Boston.
It follows the Japanese Shinkansen, France's TGVs and Germany's ICE trains as a high-speed mass transit option.
Acela may be a year or more late. Embarrassing mechanical glitches had to be fixed. At a top speed of 150 miles on the Boston-New York stretch, or 135 mph between New York and Washington, our faulty railbeds will hold Acela to trains 30 mph to 50 mph under the fastest speeds already achieved overseas.
Still, as an American, I'll hold my head a little higher. Finally, we're recovering, after a 20th century in which we neglected rail while lavishly subsidizing roads, waterways and airways. Our passenger rail speed and service, by global standards, is pathetic.
Yet we're entering a century in which gridlock and winglock are destined to get not just worse, but severe. High-speed rail corridors and service between our major metro centers will, predictably, cost billions of dollars to construct. But they are the only way to keep our arteries of commerce flowing, to assure the personal mobility that's the lifeblood of an advanced society.
And the Acela Express is a beauty. Super-big picture windows. Electric outlets and headphones at each seat. European pub-style cafes with video monitors. Automatically opening doors between cars. And tilting mechanisms to allow trains to round curves at record North American speeds.
Even if service starts with just one Washington-Boston round-trip a day, more Acela Express train sets (to a total of 20) are to be added monthly.
But how about the rest of America?
A bill still alive in Congress would let Amtrak raise $10 billion over 10 years, in partnership with states, to finance high-speed lines around the U.S.
Several candidate regions are waiting.
Example: The Midwest, with 110 mph trains from Chicago to Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
In California there's a proposal for service reaching 200 mph, linking Los Angeles and San Francisco on exclusive right-of-way.
Seattle-Portland and Dallas-Austin-San Antonio are other corridors under active consideration.
North Carolina has spent $200 million in state and federal funds to prepare the Charlotte-Raleigh run for faster trains. Virginians are pressing for a high-speed Washington-Richmond run.
However, the proposed U.S. High Speed Rail Investment Act was incorporated before the election into an omnibus tax act and now faces very uncertain prospects in the lame-duck congressional session.
Meanwhile, Amtrak is having a terrible time erasing operating deficits before the 2003 target that Congress set.
Two of Congress' staunchest advocates of a quality American rail future -- Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. -- are retiring. And Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., another strong supporter, lost his re-election bid.
That darkens chances for a bipartisan coalition for rail, notes Jim RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative. Yet, notes RePass, national grass-roots support for high-speed rail is stronger than ever.
Florida -- of all places -- proves the point. When Jeb Bush became governor in 1999, he killed off a years-long (and prospectively very expensive) effort to create a rapid-rail network connecting Florida's major metro areas.
But this year Charles ``Doc'' Dockery, a Lakeland businessman and former chair of the commission that had been planning the Florida rail network, mounted a petition drive to force Bush and the Legislature to create a high-speed rail system.
Little attention was paid while Dockery invested over $2 million of his own money to qualify and publicize his initiative. But Florida's voters, it turned out, liked the idea. To the amazement and consternation of Florida's political establishment and highway lobby, the measure carried with 53 percent of the vote.
A Florida rail alternative could, say some, cost $6 billion to $22 billion -- so there'll be lots of efforts to stop it. On the other hand, multibillions are flowing right now into an ever-more congested Florida highway system. In areas like south Florida, transportation officials admit congestion will only worsen and there's no way they could ever build enough roads to meet rising demand.
What the sleek silver bullets of the Acela Express whisper to America is that there is an alternative for inter-city traffic on America's heavily traveled routes.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press