St. Louis, Missouri by next year. It’s not exactly
the blinding speeds seen in Europe and China,
but it would mark a huge improvement.
The massive investment required for high-speed rail projects has long been one of the
biggest hurdles in winning over stakeholders.
The Northeast Corridor project, for example,
will cost an estimated $117 billion. That’s not
the easiest pitch to make to cash-strapped taxpayers and government leaders eager to show
Some politicians also question the wisdom
of government involvement, blasting Amtrak as
incapable of developing train travel to its true
high-speed potential. Amtrak’s Acela Express,
for example, is capable of clipping along at 150
miles (241 kilometers) per hour, but track conditions and other rail traffic along the Northeast
Corridor mean the train is often traveling at a
far slower rate.
The complex and large-scale corridor project
can only be addressed with the help of private-sector expertise and funding, said U.S. Representative John Mica, chairman of the House
Transportation and Infrastructure committee, at
a public hearing in January. Amtrak, for example, estimated that the line wouldn’t be complete
until 2040. “It is my hope that this timetable
can be dramatically improved,” he said.
Instead of the government continuing to
pump in funding, the private sector should be
encouraged to bid on rail projects, Mr. Mica
said. Eight multinational consortia—led by
companies such as Siemens, General Electric, Bombardier and Bechtel—have already
Amtrak president Joe Boardman maintains
that it is “critical” for the Northeast Corridor to
remain a public asset.
“Amtrak was created by Congress precisely
because the privately owned railroads could no
longer sustain the vital public service of intercity passenger rail,” he said in a January news
release. “No other operator or company is prepared to mobilize to take over the operation of
the Northeast Corridor, nor are they funded to
cover the long-term capital and operating costs.”
Done right, high-speed rail projects could cut congestion and lessen U.S. dependence on fossil fuels,
but there remains a lack of understanding about
the benefits. “Our number-one obstacle is that
people don’t understand the value of high-speed
rail,” Mr. Shelhorse says.
The opposition often translates to difficulty
in securing right of way for tracks. There’s also
pushback from environmental groups opposed
to construction if it means cutting down trees
and disrupting habitats. “It’s going to take a lot
of advocacy and education to get the public on
board,” he says.
Completing the first high-speed rail project will
be a boon to the entire
U.S. railway project portfolio. Not only will it act as
a model for other projects,
but it will also showcase
the benefits of high-speed
rail and may even get people to give up their cars.
“Getting the first
project off the ground is
always the most difficult,”
Mr. Shelhorse says. “Once
we figure the first one out,
the rest should be easier
When it comes to high-speed rail, while the
United States sits at a crossroads, other countries
are surging ahead.
“Europe [has] been at work for decades on
an impressive high-speed rail network. Japan is
working on a new high-speed train that will carry
passengers at up to 310 miles [498.8 kilometers]
per hour between Osaka and Tokyo, augmenting
their existing bullet trains, and China is spending
nearly $300 billion to develop 8,000 miles [ 12,872
kilometers] of new high-speed track by 2020,” U.S.
Rep. Bill Shuster said at a January meeting of the
U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and
The United States has to start supporting high-speed rail—financially and emotionally, Mr. Shelhorse argues. “If the United States doesn’t get behind
these projects soon, we are going to get bypassed by
the rest of the world.” —Sarah Fister Gale
has proposed on
projects over the
next six years