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Obama's high-speed rail plans will go nowhere fast

THE United States has never built a high-speed "bullet" train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 320 kilometers per hour for decades.

Since the 1980s every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.

Yet President Barack Obama, intent on harnessing new technology to rebuild the devastated economy, made a last-minute allocation of US$8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan.

But experts say that isn't enough to build a single system or to dramatically increase existing train speeds.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The US$42 billion plan is far from shovel ready - it's still seeking local approvals - but it's farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama's high-speed pie.

There are rail advocates who say anything is better than nothing when it comes to modernizing American train transportation, which needs all the help it can get. Others say the stimulus injection is like adding a teaspoon of water to the ocean and calling it high tide.

About six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of getting some of the US$8 billion award, according to US Transportation Department officials. The spurs include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

Officials in those areas have said they'd be happy to take part of the president's offer, even though they don't have high-speed systems to pump money into. Obama said he'd love to see such trains in his former state of Illinois linking Chicago to Wisconsin, Missouri and Michigan.

The economic benefit is enormous, the president said. "Railroads were always the pride of America and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame."

What is "high-speed?" It depends on the location. The US Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 144 kilometers per hour. The European Union standard is above 200 kilometers per hour.

Many overseas bullet trains - most powered by overhead electricity lines - run faster than that. In France, for example, the TGV ("Train ? Grande Vitesse") covers the 400 kilometers between Paris and Lyon in one hour, 55 minutes at an average speed of about 213 kilometers per hour. A 25,000-horsepower French train reached 571.5 kilometers per hour in 2007, setting a world record for conventional train systems.

Japanese Shinkansen trains run at an average of about 288 kilometers per hour. Japan's magnetically levitated train holds the overall world speed record at 577.6 kilometers per hour.

Super-fast trains also run in Germany, Spain and China, at speeds up to 224 kilometers per hour, according to a 2007 survey in the trade publication Railway Gazette.

The only rail service that qualifies under America's lower high-speed standard is Amtrak's nine-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington DC.

The trains are built to reach speeds up to 240 kilometers per hour, but only average about 128 kilometers per hour because of curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. On the densely traveled line from New York City to the nation's capital, the Acela arrives just about 20 minutes earlier than standard service, at more than twice the cost during peak travel times.

For instance, a one-way Acela fare leaving New York at 11am is US$155. The same departure on a regular train costs US$72.

"In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards," says Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association.

He's unimpressed with the federal stimulus money. "Here's what's going to happen: the (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs - to this project and that project - and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time."

The current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.

Plans to make American trains run faster will always go off the rails, Vranich says, as long as planners keep trying to recreate overseas systems.

"We're not Europe. We're not Japan. We're looking at shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher."


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