Ditching Cars for Bullet Trains: Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?
Part 2: Germany's Siemens Hopes for New Business
Rail experts in the US have identified about 10 corridors along which high-speed trains could theoretically run profitably. The most promising of these routes lies in the northeastern part of the country; namely between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Because the distances are relatively short and there is high demand, bullet trains could capitalize on their advantages in the region.
There is also a relatively urgent need for rail connections in the Midwest, for example between Chicago and St. Louis. Although flights between the two cities take just over an hour, Harnish says that delays like check-in and security can easily turn that trip into three hours. By contrast, a high-speed rail line could cover this distance in less than two. Planners believe the route could serve as many as a million passengers a year.
"In Europe we have seen that high-speed rail connections of under four hours can be competitive," says Ansgar Brockmeyer from Siemens. The high-speed line between Barcelona and Madrid, which began operating at the start of 2008, has reportedly already captured half of the market share previously held by air travel. As early as 2006, Siemens-made Velaro trains were hurtling down the line at speeds in excess of 400 kilometers per hour (250 miles per hour).
Siemens now hopes to be able to market the same model of trains in the US. Californians are renowned for being environmentally conscious and tech-savvy -- even Arnold Schwarzenegger promoted high-speed trains in California when he was the state's governor. All this has created favorable conditions for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA), which wants to lay 1,300 kilometers of high-speed track, connecting more than 25 cities in the process. Work is due to get underway on a 100-kilometer stretch of the new line in 2012.
"Our travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco is going to be two hours and 40 minutes, with stops," says Rachel Wall of the CaHSRA. "Anyone who has traveled that route knows that driving or flying takes longer."
Too Expensive and Too Risky
Until recently, the industry also had high hopes in Florida. The railway industry expected a call for tenders before the end of the year for the construction of a line between Tampa and Orlando. This could potentially have created thousands of jobs. However, Governor Rick Scott killed the project. Too expensive and too risky is how the Republican governor summarized it, although he has since promised to reconsider his decision.
A lot is at stake for President Obama. The bullet trains were part of his 2008 election campaign. More recently, he promoted rail projects in his latest State of the Union speech. The president fears the country could fall behind its rivals. China, for instance, plans to lay a jaw-dropping 13,000 kilometers of high-speed rail track by 2020. It's investing the equivalent of more than $300 billion in this Herculean task.
Beijing recently sacked Rail Minister Liu Zhijun after what were rumored to be allegations of corruption. The concrete beds of the tracks were apparently laid sloppily.
But this has done little to dampen enthusiasm for the program. From 2012 onward, trains should be able to catapult passengers from Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours. Amtrak trains currently cover a similar distance between New York and Atlanta in a decidedly pedestrian 18 hours.
Rail fan McCommons blames American attitudes for the perilous state of his country's railway systems. "We have been sold this bizarre idea that only automobiles and air can take care of all our needs," he says. That's hardly surprising since two generations of Americans have grown up almost entirely without passenger trains. "It's not in their imagination to take a train," he explains.
Vice President Biden can therefore still consider himself a pioneer if he travels to work by train. He often takes the Acela Express to Washington, the only rail line in the US that's trumpeted as being high-speed.
Biden's ride covers the almost 180-kilometer route from Wilmington to Washington in 75 minutes. The average speed: About 140 kilometers per hour.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
- Part 1: Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?
- Part 2: Germany's Siemens Hopes for New Business
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