Full Speed Ahead

U.S. rail is poised to become the fast, affordable, green transportation of tomorrow—even as obstacles threaten to throw it off track

The week before his inauguration, then-President-elect Barack Obama made a whistle-stop tour on a vintage 1939 Pullman rail car from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The historic trip mirrored the route his idol, Abraham Lincoln, took 150 years earlier before his own swearing-in.

High speed train

Creation of a high-speed rail system similar to those in Europe and Asia has emerged as a major topic of discussion. Photo: Getty Images

The choice of transportation was an homage to the past, but it also was a nod to the future.

Obama had spoken of a renewed commitment to rail transportation during his campaign. His vice president, Joe Biden, had for 36 years taken Amtrak daily to Washington from his Wilmington, Del., home. These advocates for a seemingly old-fashioned form of travel were charged with finding answers to very modern transportation concerns: rising fuel costs, growing dependence on foreign oil and escalating environmental worries.

What was old suddenly had the opportunity to become new again.

"I think it is highly likely we will see big changes and improvements in rail travel in the United States under the new administration," says Alexander Kummant, a 1982 graduate of Case Western Reserve University’s Case School of Engineering and former president and chief executive officer of Amtrak. "In the next five years, we will see capital flow and service get better. The challenge is to make it nationally coherent."

Modern rail travel in the United States, in many ways, begins with Amtrak. The nation’s only provider of intercity rail travel has been known as a large and sometimes troubled organization. Created by the federal government in 1971—in response to a long decline in private passenger rail services—the national railroad today provides service to 500 locations via 21,000 miles of track.

Amtrak ridership is up—and growing. Although ridership was largely stagnant from the early 1980s to about 2000, for the year that ended in September 2008, it jumped 11 percent to 28.7 million riders. It was the sixth straight year of increases, according to Amtrak.

That’s good news, but the company continues to struggle with a reputation tarnished by deadly crashes and a history of delayed service and funding crises.

In recent decades there has been a big push to wean the company off government payrolls. In the early 1990s Congress mandated that Amtrak work toward financial self-sufficiency—a goal that was never met. Then in October 2008, Amtrak scored a big coup when the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2007 was passed overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate (after facing threats of veto by President Bush), allotting $2.5 billion a year in federal funding through 2013. By comparison, the organization received just $1.6 billion in 2006.

Amtrak has had many friends in Washington over the years—Biden has been noted as one of Amtrak’s biggest advocates in the capital, and his son Hunter Biden is a lobbyist and vice chairman of the company’s board of directors—but the energy crisis of this century has been, perhaps, passenger rail’s best friend. Rising gasoline prices have turned many to public transit, as have increasingly congested freeways and environmental concerns.

According to the Department of Energy, Amtrak is mile-for-mile 18 percent more energy efficient than commercial airlines; and per mile traveled, high-speed trains require one-third the energy of an airplane and one-fifth that of an automobile. A 2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimated the U.S. could save 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year if it built high-speed rail corridors across the country. The savings would come as people traded cars and airplanes for travel of about three hours or less.

"Sooner or later high-speed rail will become economically feasible," says David Zeng, Ph.D., department chair of civil engineering at Case Western Reserve. "Sooner or later this country will be forced to face the cost of unaffordable gasoline, as well as pollution generated by cars. For both factors, high-speed rail is a better solution than building highways or improved vehicle efficiency."

The creation of a high-speed rail system similar to those in Europe and Asia has emerged as a major topic of discussion among Amtrak advocates. Optimists envision a national network of long-distance rail competing with air and automobile travel, but most industry experts say that is too ambitious to be realistic.

"The real future of rail travel is in the 150- to 400-mile range," Kummant says. "Then you’re competing with cars, as well as air traffic. We’re flying far too many short hops, which is not productive for passengers, the country or airlines."

Zeng notes that the country’s vast size and low population density away from the coasts may make little sense for a national system. But the highly populated zones are ripe for regional high-speed systems that would compete with the federally subsidized highway and aviation systems.

Corridors along the East Coast, in Florida and in Texas, as well as between Midwestern cities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio are, in fact, feasible, and are being considered now, says Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and chairman of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition—a group of 31 states that advocates for federal funding for interstate passenger rail.

"Intercity passenger rail systems are not going to take off unless the federal government takes it upon itself to say our transit system is not just about airlines and highways, but that the United States will be multimodal," Busalacchi says. "The federal government needs to fund rail like it funds highways–80 percent paid by the feds and 20 percent paid by the state. If we can get that, we can absolutely have a high-speed rail system in this country."

Most passenger rail systems around the world are government subsidized, with one unique exception. Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp., on which passengers can travel the entire 208-mile track from Taipei City to Kaohsiung City in 90 minutes, was funded entirely by a consortium of five private companies. Each day, trains traveling at top speeds of about 186 mph run 134 trips in both directions. The route can support 176 trips made by 30 trains daily. The trip by conventional rail would take 4.5 hours.

Each month more than 2.8 million people ride the railroad, which cost $15 billion to create. The company broke even financially one year after starting service in 2007, and executives say it will be profitable in 2009.

Chief Executive Officer Chin-der Ou, Ph.D., a 1972 Case Western Reserve civil engineering alumnus, said that while private-public partnerships are critical for such large projects, he believes it is possible for private funds to solely underwrite a high-speed rail line in the United States.

"More and more projects in Europe and Asia are under this kind of scheme," Ou says. "In our case, private funding made the process so much faster–you can have more flexibility and access the latest technology. If we can do that here in Taiwan, you can certainly do that in the United States."

The United States is not a total stranger to high-speed rail. Amtrak’s Acela Express was built upon an existing track and has been traveling the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., route for a decade. The train’s top speed is 150 mph, but the average over the roughly 450-mile route is a less thrilling 88 mph due to certain infrastructure limitations and state speed regulations.

The latest and biggest example of high-speed technology is the 800-mile California project, which aims to link Los Angeles with San Francisco in less than 2.5 hours, as well as serve other cities including San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno. The $45 billion project was approved by California voters in a November 2008 referendum, a measure that allowed a $10 billion state bond to be met with up to $12 billion in federal funding. The project is scheduled to begin construction in 2011 and be partially completed in eight to 11 years. The project’s authorities say the train not only will be financially independent, but it also will create a $1 billion annual surplus. Critics, including various state lawmakers and taxpayer watchdog groups, argue that the initial costs will be much higher than these estimates, construction much longer, and the surplus smaller or nonexistent.

Zeng agrees that high-speed rail projects require much more than federal support–they need state, local and private partnerships. Cities, for example, need to extend their local bus, subway and street systems to accommodate large numbers of people embarking and disembarking from rail lines.

"In order to sell high-speed rail to the public, you need to consider how to feed passengers to the train station. Once people reach the train station, how will they reach their final destination?" Zeng says. New York; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Chicago are already equipped with extensive subway and bus systems. If cities do not already have these networks, a high-speed train proposition becomes much less feasible, says Zeng. Kummant, however, says the new administration appears poised to support rail and all its complications, despite state budgets that are increasingly strapped.

"There is momentum for this," he says. "We did get budget legislation passed, and Congress is more together on rail than ever before."

Kummant pauses and adds a caveat: "But we’re talking tens of billions of dollars, and even if it does get pushed through, this would be a very long process."