In the 1960s, the Japanese Shinkansen captured the world’s imagination as the first “bullet train,” followed in the early 1980s by the French TGV. Soon after, similar high-speed trains now traveling more than 200 miles per hour appeared in Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, China, Korea, Taiwan and many other of the world’s more advanced countries. Not only is that new technology amazingly fast, less polluting and more fuel efficient, but it’s also impressively safe. The Japanese and French high-speed trains have carried many billions of riders and have experienced not one fatality. Meanwhile in the United States, 43,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were maimed on the nation’s freeways last year alone. That is equivalent to a major epidemic. It’s a truly sobering statistic.
The United States, assumed to be the world’s technological leader, has been left far behind while it has focused almost exclusively on the interstate system and the family cars. Now the nation is trying to catch up with the rest of the world’s more advanced transportation programs. But that effort has been agonizingly slow. Though Congress designated 10 high-speed rail (HSR) corridors in the early 1990s, only one modestly higher speed line has been developed — Amtrak’s Boston to New York and Washington Acela Line, which averages only 83 miles per hour. But there is hope. Under President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, HSR is gaining speed toward implementation in America’s most congested areas. It’s about time.
Both President Obama and California’s Governor Schwarzenegger emphatically support high-speed rail networks and have placed their reputations squarely behind that effort. Recent meetings hosted by the president in the White House and the governor in his Sacramento office emphasized their determined commitment to this once-in-a-century reinvention of the American transportation system.
The president’s stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), supports the 10 federally designated corridors for use in creating higher and HSR capacity. In a remarkably short time and with a massive effort, on June 17 the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released the criteria and procedure for the approval of the ARRA high-speed rail competitive grants. While the local funding will vary for each of the corridors, the federal funding for the nationwide HSR program will include the following:
- $8 billion in the stimulus bill designated for higher and HSR implementation
- $5 billion in the form of $1 billion per year added by President Obama to each of his next five annual budgets
- Possibly $50 billion, specifically designated for HSR, spread over the next six years in Chair James Oberstar’s House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s version of the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA)
The first two funding sources are fairly firm, while the third is under legislative negotiations. Each of the rail corridors will include a mix of funding sources depending on local jurisdiction. Typically, the funding for each corridor will come from three sources:
- Local and state funding
- Federal funding (the three sources mentioned above and possibly others)
- Public-private partnership funding
Types of HSR corridors
Two general kinds of HSR programs are to be funded under ARRA. The first is the so-called “true” HSR, which will operate on exclusive, grade-separated and protected rights-of-way at speeds in excess of 200 mph using European or Asian-style electrically powered rolling stock. The second is referred to as “incremental upgrade” technology and would use improved freight rail tracks using either electric- or diesel-powered rolling stock and reaching speeds up to 120 mph.