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U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is urging Americans to dream big and believe that we, too, can build a high speed rail system just like those we admire in Europe and Asia. LaHood wrote a piece, originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, in which he touts the benefits of high speed rail – less congestion on roads, reduced carbon emissions and reliance on oil – while also warning that building the infrastructure will take a lot of effort and time. He wrote:

When we look to America's past, it can be easy to forget that America was never predestined to have the world's best highways. Progress only became possible because generations before us dreamed big and built big - because they imagined, invested and sacrificed for the infrastructure on which we rely to this day.

Like our parents and grandparents, we, too, must exercise the foresight and courage to invest in the most important infrastructure projects of our time. If we work together, a national high-speed-rail network can and will be our generation's legacy.

You can read LaHood's full article here.

An added benefit will be the economic stimulation such a massive project will bring. The Obama administration has nicely included a "100 percent Buy America requirement" in its legislation covering high speed rail contracts. In fact, LaHood says, the foreign and domestic manufacturers bidding for contracts have also committed to employing American workers. If a high speed rail system creates jobs, positively impacts the environment, and offers us a reliable transportation option, what's not to like?

[Source: BizTimes via Treehugger | Image: Bruce Tuten – C.C. License 2.0]


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  • 69 Comments
      • 3 Months Ago
      Living in NYC, I take commuter rail to work every day, along with more than 7 Million people every day on MTA. NY would break down without it and it is far faster than trying to drive through city traffic. On a per person basis, it costs far less in tax dollars than the roads that connect rural America.

      However Acela is weak. We really need to upgrade to something better as the tracks don't let the trains travel much faster than highway traffic. If we could get 120-160 mph trains, it would a big improvement.

      BUT, to make mass transit work you need population density. You need enough people near the train stations and train stations in urban centers. Generally, those urban centers should be clogged with traffic to make city center to city center travel attractive. And they should be active city centers where people actually live and work, rather than a dead core surrounded by suburban sprawl found in many places in the US. High-speed rail makes sense for places like the Northeast corridor from DC to Boston and maybe some places on the west coast or Florida. But there are not enough people to make it practical in the flyover states. Running half-empty trains is not cost effective or energy efficient.
      • 4 Years Ago
      This is so cutting edge! - for 1980 or so. This is a catch up operation, not assuming the lead, as the politicos would spin it.
      High speed is moving on, through the use of maglev, and partially vacuum evacuated tubes:
      http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/08/china-working-towards-600-mph-maglev.html

      '
      Southwest Jiaotong University in China is developing a low pressure underground tubes and maglev train which will travel at 1,000 kilometers per hour (600 mph).

      This is double the speed of current maglev trains.

      According to Shen Zhiyun, academic member of CAS and CAE, China should target the development of high-speed ground transportation with 600 to 1,000 kilometers per hour which should be in operation between 2020 and 2030.'

      • 3 Months Ago
      I live in Japan where trains are everywhere. That means if I really want to go somewhere... anywhere by train, I can and quite easily. I can walk to a local station near my house, head to Osaka and change to the bullet train to Tokyo. But let me tell you - like anything here - it's not cheap. Kansai airport is near me as well as so I can fly to Tokyo for about the same price and it's quicker. In that case, I can still take the train to the airport. The point is - trains are an embedded part of the culture/lifestyle here. Almost everyone uses them to some degree, they are everywhere (convenient) and logistics have been thought out. In the case of the US - almost no one rides a train on a regular basis, getting to and from a station is a hassle and the trains will probably be late arriving and departing. I think it would be very difficult to get people to pay to ride a high speed train in the US unless it somehow offers a cost/time/convenience savings over flying. Can it be done? I'm very skeptical. It's just too easy and "cheap" to fly instead with airports and flights to everywhere.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Long term Infrastructure spending is a good use of federal money for job creation and to put money back into the economy to kick start it out of depression/recession.

      Of course it comes at a cost and adds to the budget deficit but it is better from an economic point of view is better bang for buck economy kick than simply giving everyone a tax break which is just saved or wasted anyway - and when the debt is paid off the infrastructure is still there!

      Our iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge was an example of this good use of fiscal policy infrastructure spend to lubricate the economy during the Great Depression back in the 1930s.

      Our government used it again this policy to help our country through the GFC by adding new building improvements to EVERY school in Australia.

      There is finally some talk of high speed rail here as well which I am all for - we of course have much less to link up.


      Given your countries near 10% unemployment they should fast track this project.

      They could of course pay the rail back through ticket fares.
        • 3 Months Ago
        2WM, you might be surprised to find out that Bush's TARP program was set up to recover most of the money they invested, and so far it looks like 95% of the $700B will be paid back. $30B is a huge chunk of money to lose, but in retrospect, it was probably worth it. I remember standing in line getting $1000 out of my Wachovia account because it looked like they might go under, and my colleague was behind me in line ranting about how she was withdrawing everything and how the FDIC was going to fail.
        But our debt is definitely out of hand and a lack of adult leadership from both sides of the aisle means it will probably get much worse.
        • 3 Months Ago
        @2 Wheeled Menace

        "It's so deep here, you have no idea."

        My understanding is of course limited to various news articles I have read and economic updates I have attended.

        While I am not on the ground living and breathing your countries problems - I do have a reasonably sound understanding of the big picture macro economic problems but of course there are micro economic problems effecting communities and households which I am not familiar with.

        (I also studied economics both in school then again later in University - not that I am here to big note myself).


        "The problem stems down to our overuse of credit, the housing boom, wall street scandals, the rising prices of goods and gasoline, all at once. We're in a huge hangover period that is going to take a while to get out of."

        You summed it up well there.

        I think the over consumption and cheap and easy credit was the root of all problems.

        Folks using their home as an ATM on the presumption of ever increasing house prices while in market of over-supply of housing.

        There was bound to be a market correction and what a correction it was - housing prices tanked.

        Leading to assets adjustments to the overpriced assets - banks and fund managers etc and finally ripple effect down to ordinary citizens.

        The reason Australia faired well is the highly regulated Aussie banks and no easy credit.

        We also have an under-supply of housing (and under investment in infrastructure to boot) and alot of our banks funding was domestic - hence limited exposure to these impaired assets.

        It is only logical that folks should only borrow what they can afford to repay.

        I think we have a different view and use of credit and I this is also why our monetary policy works when a 0.25% increase or so increase in official interest rates slows consumption and in turn leads to slowing of CPI (or inflation) and in turns slows the economy.

        Given monetary policy is so effective the government in my country, it doesn't have to rely on stimulus (and hence generation of debt) almost solely as your country has to given the near zero interest rates.

        Hence why I believe that further stimulus is going to be the only way out for your country.

        Also regulatory changes to credit need to take place to make it harder to obtain (ie. you need to be able afford it) and consumption needs to be brought into line to a more sustainable level - the later is likely naturally happening due to the effects of the recession.

        Unfortunately there is no single magic bullet or pill to solve the problem(s).
        • 3 Months Ago
        Maybe we should hire your government to figure things out. Your minds seem to be better at managing money than most nations. Your debt is 10% of GDP, whereas ours is more like 50%+.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Public_debt_percent_gdp_world_map.PNG

        I am all for investing in light rail but i think the mentality in America will prevent it from happening. Now is a bad time to bring up the idea of spending more $ in this country right now.

        As usual, we will wait for a crisis until we make a real change :p
        • 3 Months Ago
        It's so deep here, you have no idea.

        We've been doing stimulus programs since 2007.
        Before Bush got out of office, he bailed out banks and handed everyone a few hundred bucks.

        Obama's done a ton of things, handing out money left and right.

        The effect is difficult to see, and the real unemployment number is higher than 10% since many have fallen off of unemployment. And many are 'underemployed'.. ie working part time rather than full.

        The problem stems down to our overuse of credit, the housing boom, wall street scandals, the rising prices of goods and gasoline, all at once. We're in a huge hangover period that is going to take a while to get out of.

        But hope runs low as reforms haven't really done much to prevent this from happening again.

        It's a big mess. Like a rube goldberg machine with all the parts in random order :/
        • 3 Months Ago
        @2 Wheeled Menace

        True it is easier for me to say that from my arm chair rather than yours.

        Our small deficit is expected in the foward estimates to be paid back (ie. back in surplus) by as soon as 2013 which is nothing.

        Nonetheless I do think your country may have to dig a bigger hole before you get out of it - with fiscal stimulus.

        With your countries monetary policy interest rates being useless for further stimulus being at close to zero (at 0.25) it leaves only fiscal policy to do the deed.

        With unemployment at 10% I just can't see how the US could "save" its way out of the recession.

        A stimulus is need to get the American companies working / investing / growing and employing people so they have money to spend (hopefully not spent on new SUVs but more efficient vehicles) and so the cycle continues and repeats.

        A good fiscal budget makes cuts in spending in places and redirects those funds to get most bang for buck in kick starting economy.

        It is not an easy solution IMO - and the risk is sovereign debt issues with too much debt to GDP such as those experienced by the PIG countries (Portugal, Ireland & Greece) at the moment.
      • 4 Years Ago
      There's nothing not to like. That doesn't mean Faux News and the right won't spread propaganda about how rail is unAmerican and socialist (with the same stupids falling right for it and cheering on Big Oil).
        • 3 Months Ago
        "This project would cost a fortune, a fortune that we don't have."


        Umm, maybe the reason we can't afford it is because we are spending massive loads of money every day on foreign oil. That huge drain on our economy will only get worse in the future if we stay on our present course.

        Saying we can't afford change is like telling a sick person they can't have medicine because they are sick.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Murc, you speak loudly and you call names. While you are fully entitled to your opinion, l but you obviously know nothing of the facts. While that works well for the likes of Sarah and Rush, it doesn't work so well in educated company. I would suggest that you read some of the facts about infrastructure development and economics - be it rail or road, the effects of subsidies and grants on innovation (and future economic development), and economics in general (the 30 years of proof that trickle-down does not trickle down), and then get back to us.
        • 3 Months Ago
        @ Nick

        Yes, I'm perfectly OK with extended the tax cuts, they are the ones who give other people jobs. Have you ever been hired by a poor person.
        A cost of hundreds of billions...I don't get that line, Its not costing US tax payers anything...you simply taking less money from rich people. The idea of being rich should be a good thing, you work hard enough, for long enough, and you can acheive great wealth. NOT work long and hard and then once you start to real in the big dough the government swoops in to rape you.

        As for Oil, no, it should not be subsidized. NOTHING should be, not oil, ethanol, electric cars, nothing, I know a LOT of things are subsidized, but that needs to end.

        Now your next point, road repair. Yes, roads should be kept in good condition, because they are our primary means of movement. I don't know the cost differences between road and rail. But I'm skeptical rail is 10 times cheaper. especially these new high speed tracks, and dont even get started on the practicality of maglev. (maybe one day, but way to expensive today.)

        typical democrat.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Shut up Alex.

        Who knows if this will make the news, but their is some things to look at.

        This project would cost a fortune, a fortune that we don't have. But at least we cant print more (yay inflation!). The government runs Amtrak, and its always over budget....so you can only imagine how smoothly they will run a huge nationwide rail network.

        Now, all that said, I'm not completely against it, but Its gonna be a tough fight to get this funded, because its hard to beat the price & convenience of jumping in your car, and going anywhere at anytime for a smaller price then a train.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Murc

        So you're one of those so-called 'conservatives' eh?
        So you think it's better to extend tax cuts to the richest 2% of the population, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars?

        So you think it's better to keep subsidizing oil? How many hundreds of billions were already spent to 'keep it affordable' ?

        So you think its better to keep spending many more billions on road repair and maintenance, while a rail line is 10x cheaper to maintain?

        Typical Republican.
      • 4 Years Ago
      High-speed rail is not so great right now . . . but it sure will be needed as oil prices make air travel much more expensive.

      Avoiding the TSA ball fondling would be nice too.
        • 3 Months Ago
        LTAW: No, I think it's only air transport that is under risk of intense security. Airplanes can be detoured from their intended route, they can drop out of the sky and crash into a building - but trains can only go along a fixed route on the tracks, so a terrorist cannot do nearly as much damage on a train. So I think that's why they're not such a security concern.
        • 3 Months Ago
        "Airplanes can be detoured from their intended route, they can drop out of the sky and crash into a building - but trains can only go along a fixed route on the tracks..."

        Fair points, yes. However, there certainly are very strategic points along railways - bridges and tunnels specifically - where great damage may indeed be done. Passenger trains often use the same corridors as cargo, and if our coal trains were disrupted, our electrical grid could be severely crimped.

        Likewise, the most convenient aspect of trains - urban center stations - make them ideal for causing massive human loss.

        I am a big supporter of high speed rail, and I really would prefer it to almost any other form of transport, but I think it's reasonable to assume that a massive new government agency will always be looking for opportunities to expand its scope.

        As for 2 wheeled menace's thoughts that the authorities would be waiting for you at the next stop, well, that naively presumes that the attack doesn't keep the train from reaching it. It's kind of like saying nobody would ever hijack a plane because the plane *has* to land an an airport...
        • 3 Months Ago
        The TSA groping could all be avoided if the TSA used the same type of scanning technique that they use in Europe. The screen has a stick figure that represents the person with items of interest like cell phones, water bottles or C4 in high detail. We chose not to use that system but it is still out there for us to purchase if we choose to. Stickfigures mean no opt outs, means no groping.
        Finally, I check a weapon from time to time when I fly because I hike where there are a fair amount of grizzly bears, so I have been subjected to the enhanced search. It wasn't pleasant, but it was quick and professional. I guess the fact that since I was doing something, i.e. checking a weapon, that made me an elevated risk convinced me that it was partially my responsibility and therefore it didn't irritate as much. But to have it done to me because I didn't want to be scanned nude by some bozo would irritate.
        • 3 Months Ago
        LTAW, you're right, i was kinda thinking that too. I can see it happening too.
        Then again you don't have nad-fondlers at the subways in NYC.

        A line of crotch-grabbers on the way to the door would certainly neuter what's so great about light rail.

        However, our local police have an interesting way of dealing with people who stir things up on the light rail. I've seen police wait at every entrance to the train, enter, and apprehend the wrongdoer inside within seconds. Pretty amazing.

        So could you kill a lot of people in a train.. yeah. And that happens in Japan all the time. But can you get away from the 12 cops that are waiting for you at the next stop? ahaha... good luck with that one.
        • 3 Months Ago
        The thing about fly-over country is that you can also put a high speed rail line through it, with land costs lower than in more densely populated areas.
        The Chinese, for instance, already have a 710 mile high speed line through to none-too-densely populated Tibet, and had the added challenge of high altitude. They are building a second to the Tibetan plateau.
        Chicago to Denver, for instance, is only around 1,000 miles, whilst St Louis is only around 300.
        In fact the population in the US is fairly conveniently dispersed for rail - that is after all part of the reason the cities are where they are!
        • 3 Months Ago
        Honestly, if you wanna do some serious damage, blowing up a cargo train with hazmats onboard as it passes through a populated area would do a lot more damage than you could do on a passenger train.

        Of course, that doesnt mean that the TSA jobs program wouldn't get involved in passenger trains anyway.

        Personally, I don't believe that the USA is densely populated enough to warrant the expense of a national high speed rail network. There may be parts of the country where it makes sense, but not the entire country. Not yet, anyway.
        • 3 Months Ago
        I am a big supporter of high speed rail.

        However, I'm not so sure that the TSA's genital grabbers won't be just as bad when trains become major carriers. I think the volume of people, and the strategic locations of tracks and stations, will make a rail system the TSA's next step in their expansion of "concern".

        • 3 Months Ago
        ^--- no joke.. city center to city center would be freaking sweet!! I for one would forget flying, driving, or any other form if transport and just take the light rail for sure.

        • 3 Months Ago
        Traveling from city center to city center is a nice plus as well, compared with landing at an airport far away from the actual city you're flying too!
      • 3 Months Ago
      We agree with the author. HS Rail should be a new priority for the USA. Part of our new manufacturing mandate is to build stuff the rest of the world can use. Since we are far behind in HS Rail - it makes sense to invest in a transportation industry that grows domestic jobs and creates exportable products. With ingenuity and foresight, public and private investment can create a strong new transportation industry and infrastructure serving the domestic labor force.

      The ideas should only BEGIN with HS Rail. How about revitalizing regional products and services (eg farmer's markets) built around train depots? If cities worked to build new regional-based enterprise zones around HS Rail destinations - we would again see differentiation of cities and regional strengths. e.g. Agra-based businesses in midwest enterprise zones, tourist business in Florida, seafood in Boston and entertainment in SoCal.

      Why should every American city look like a mall clone?? What are cities' regional strengths that make them unique and original? THAT's what makes a great nation or continent. DIVERSITY.
        • 3 Months Ago
        It will be interesting to see what the end of dirt cheap energy will mean. If transport costs rise it will be much more expensive to ship bulk items like TV's, cars and food. Will this help the revival of Zenith TV's, GM and local produce? It may be too late for Zenith, but energy costs related to shipping may be a hidden protective tariff. And it will protect us from China, but it will also protect Guatamalen farmers from our cheap corn exports.
        • 3 Months Ago
        'Why should every American city look like a mall clone?? What are cities' regional strengths that make them unique and original?'

        Applause!
        Walkable neighbourhoods, people friendly architecture involving minimal energy use, local produce cooked well, those are the things that make for fine living - and are better financially, as they attract visitors.
      • 4 Years Ago
      the cost might be unlikeable..
      if it's gov paid for to hide the actual cost then it's stupid.

      I think that if examined, the energy consumption and cost is in favor of aircraft..

      I believe aircraft aerodynamics can be lower than a train and compounded greatly by the thinner air at altitude.
      and no rails to maintain, expensive land to steal..

      high speed rail might have limited merit in some medium range highly travelled routes, maybe NY to DC but I wouldn't even assume that without doing the math.

      germany has some 200+km/h trains. they are probably borderline viable but much higher speed gets costly I think. beyond reason.
      although I defer to the math. no assumptions

      and if USA stopped destroying random countries around the world I'm sure you could get rid of the TSA as well and speed up the process.

      if this world was rational (which it is most certainly not) and people like me made the decisions, I'd expect a solution mostly based on personal aircraft not much bigger than the person so there is no oversized body going through the air. from how glider aircraft can fly without any power and how effortlessly birds fly great distances you can know that flight can be done very energy efficiently. light and cheap. a small fiberglass body and small engine is simply not that expensive. with computer flight so it doesn't require great pilot training. and you can fly that into a skyscraper but unless that building also has demolition charges already installed it will just go splat on the surface, so F the TSA.

      imagine if everyone could easily afford their own aircraft and could travel great distances at will, fueled by clean burning synthetic fuel made from air, water and green electricity. this is not scifi. easily done. all existing technology. indeed we could have done it 50 years ago..
        • 3 Months Ago
        first of all BTU is an appalling unit.
        and is the amtrak value based on 500km/h speed? or 1000 for that matter.
        • 3 Months Ago
        The relative efficiency is for Amtrak at 79 mph and domestic air at 485-510 mph, obviously. Amtrak uses half the energy to move you, it may take half again as long to get where you are going, but it is much more efficient. When you look at the total trip times for short or medium length trips of 150-500 miles, the Amtrak times for city center to city center actually beats the airline shuttles from DC to NY or Boston or Atlanta. Does it work everywhere? No. But it does work for a huge portion of the US population, and it would work for more if we sped the trains up a bit. But more importantly, trains are already more efficient, and as usage goes up, so does their efficiency. There is room for a huge increase in train capacity, but the airports are already overcrowded with delays growing increasingly common while Amtrak is getting more reliable. Finally, on routes that are primarily electric, we will be using domestically produced electricity rather than foreign sourced jet fuel.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Dan I don't think we are comparing apples to apples. The fed and local governments support air travel in a myriad of ways, so focusing on support for Amtrak, which is a relatively slight $2.6B per year (considering it supports an entire type of transportation), is not really fair.
        And the BTU per passenger mile is a whopping 2930 BTU's for domestic air travel vs. 1745 for Amtrak so as energy prices inevitably rise, rail will get better and better.

        http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_20.html
      • 4 Years Ago
      @evnow.

      "The right time to invest in infrastructure is when the economy is down and the unemployment high. Without higher employment the budget deficit will not go away."

      100% agree with you there.

      ..you must have typed that as I was typing my blurb below :)
        • 3 Months Ago
        darn meant to "reply" - actually above.
      • 4 Years Ago
      As 2 Wheeled Menace said, mass transit here in Portland is great. I've had 2 cars and a motorcycle just sitting around for months, waiting for a road trip. Still, I doubt we will ever develop a MT system that will eliminate the need for personal transport. As we discuss high-speed rail, we're also seeing the next great phase of personal transportation take place: the transition to electric passenger vehicles. I think we would be wise to consider what the two things have in common, and explore hybrid "mass personal transit" systems, where compatible passenger vehicles could be docked into the transit system for long distance/high-speed travel, then undocked for local destinations. The article "The Train That Never Stops" in the NY Times this week highlighted an interesting concept that may be applicable.

      One last thought: the cost is often the first thing that comes up, but what's the cost of millions of people spending millions of unproductive man-hours per day on the road? What is the cost in lives and medical care for traffic accidents (not to mention pollution)? How much do we spend on maintaining vehicles and roads that could see lighter use and last longer? We need to explore the cost, yes, but only in conjunction with the benefits.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Everything I read has much different opinions on Portland's light rail, including a well known Cato Institute study. There are certainly different opinions on the meaning of the word 'success'. For instance, since MAX went into service, overall mass transit usage in Portland has declined from 9.8% before, to 7.6% of commuters now, even as city planners inhibit car traffic around train routes under the guise of "arterial calming" to promote train use.
        One thing notably absent from Portlands light rail discussion is financial success.
        • 3 Months Ago
        So the capitalists have you believing that profit is synonymous with cash? Freeways don't "turn a profit" either, and yet, it seems, they do profit us.
        • 3 Months Ago
        "One thing notably absent from Portlands light rail discussion is financial success."

        Public transport almost never makes money. There's always a financial drain.

        I'll include the airlines and the Interstate Highway System as financial burdens as well.
      • 4 Years Ago
      America you need to play catch up. Apparently taxes are higher for land and property with electrified lines. I commuted by train everyday and found it relaxing and pleasant most of the time, unlike modern driving
      • 4 Years Ago
      I would much rather them put that money towards our normal rail infrastructure. It would go a lot longer and it would do much more for us.
        • 3 Months Ago
        Plus 1 for that. When Positive Train Control is the law of the land by 2015 'regular' trains will be allowed to go from the present 79 mph speed limit up to 95 mph and eventually to 110 mph. While 110 is just half the top speed of the Chinese HSR, it is closer to the 125mph top speed of the InterCity in Europe, which is very popular. But while top speed is critical, if the line doesn't have double tracking to allow for more efficient routes, the top speed becomes a lot less important. And finally, after the Rail Safety Act of 2008, not only is PTC coming, but the freight trains are finally being forced to yield to the Amtrak passenger trains and Amtraks on-time reliability has gone up from 74% to 85% which is important to acceptance.
        More money to be spent on double-tracking lines that are popular but don't have double-tracking may do more to gain public acceptance of Amtrak than a high speed rail line few people use between Miami and Orlando or, possibly, from San Fransisco to LA. Once we have good, frequently used, relatively inexpensive intermediate speed (110-125 mph) rail service that more people use, it will be a lot easier to convince people that true high speed rail would be a good idea. And again, as energy prices go up, this will be even easier to sell.
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