The Obama administration has begun to develop a long-term strategy for high-speed rail service in the U.S., and while it’s not yet clear where this service will emerge, Amtrak and its passengers are almost certain to be short-term beneficiaries as the process begins to unfold.

The term "high-speed rail" is getting all the attention, and most of that attention is focused on California, which is further along than other states in planning for the construction of a dedicated high-speed rail line.

Much attention has also focused on the potential for a network of fast trains radiating from Chicago to points such as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

As a practical matter, however, the first fruits of Obama’s $8 billion in stimulus funds for rail service will likely be seen in the form of relatively mundane improvements on existing Amtrak routes, such as signaling and traffic control upgrades, the elimination of grade crossings and other incremental enhancements.

Amtrak’s chief of corporate communications, Cliff Black, cited the Chicago-St. Louis market as an example, noting that Amtrak serves the 284-mile route with four trains a day, plus a long-haul service to Texas. Rail planners have long identified it as a potential market for high-speed service.

Between Chicago and St. Louis, Amtrak’s current five-and-a-half-hour elapsed time is not competitive with auto travel. But with track and signal improvements and the elimination of grade crossings, Black said, Amtrak should be able to boost the top speed on the route from 79 mph to 110 and shave an hour off the trip.

Ownership issues

One of the complicating factors in completing such projects, however, is that the existing tracks are owned and maintained by the nation’s freight railroads. That means several entities have to be in agreement: the Federal Railroad Administration, which is spending the money; the states, which develop the plan; the railroad, which owns the infrastructure; and Amtrak, which operates the service.

In upstate New York, where Amtrak provides a vital link from Manhattan to Albany and then west to Syracuse and Buffalo, heavy freight traffic has given rise to talk of adding a third track west of Albany to help speed up the passenger trains.

Even assuming such a project comes about, there remains the question of determining whether any of the three tracks would be strictly for passenger service or whether freight and passenger trains would use all three interchangeably. That’s just one example of the hidden complexities of improving passenger rail service, Black said.

While it’s not yet clear whether the New York or St. Louis projects will be candidates for part of the $8 billion that’s now up for grabs, it’s clear that incremental projects such as these will be competing for the stimulus funds.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, noted that President Obama made it clear when he outlined his strategy for rail travel that he expects to receive not only proposals for new dedicated high-speed rail lines, but upgrades to existing services that are "ready to go."

From a rail advocate’s perspective, Capon said, the beauty of the plan is that California could soak up as much as $3 billion of the stimulus funds "and still leave an unprecedented amount left over" for significant improvements elsewhere around the country.

The administration’s strategic plan, rolled out by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at an April 16 event in Washington, rests on the assertion that the existing highway and aviation infrastructure is "insufficient" to handle future growth, requiring a new approach that includes a long-term commitment to high-speed trains.

The administration regards the $8 billion in stimulus funds as merely the "down payment" to begin that process with a "near-term investment strategy" that would pursue three goals:

Developing high-speed express services in corridors of 200-600 miles, operating above 150 mph, primarily on dedicated track.

Developing emerging and regional corridor services operating between 90 mph and 150 mph, on shared and dedicated track.

Upgrading reliability and service on conventional services, operating up to 79 mph-90 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration expects to begin issuing grants to states by late summer. It also expects to have at its disposal $1 billion a year for the next five years, under Obama’s budget plan.

Future funds

For the long term, the strategy statement said the administration intends to work with Congress to develop "a sustainable financing path."

The strategy also calls for the eventual development of a national rail plan to "promote an integrated, cohesive, efficient and optimized national rail system for the movement of goods and people."

In a marked departure from the past, the administration’s strategy statement specifically lists rail travel as more advantageous, in terms of meeting "strategic goals," than air travel in short-haul markets (between 100 and 600 miles) of light- to moderate population density, even though the government’s Essential Air Service program still subsidizes regional turboprop service in many such markets.

Overall, the plan has won praise not only from the National Association of Railroad Passengers but from the U.S. Travel Association and the National Business Travel Association and the Association of American Railroads, which said the Obama strategy marks "a new era in America’s transportation history."

"America has the best freight railroad system in the world," said the Association of American Railroads. "There is no reason why we can’t have the best passenger rail system, as well."

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