Ditching Cars for Bullet Trains Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?

President Barack Obama wants to upgrade America's transport system using high-speed trains, bringing a taste of what is a part of everyday life in Europe and Asia to the United States. But the car-obsessed nation is divided over the plans. Is the mammoth project doomed to failure?

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US Vice-President Joseph Biden is America's most famous commuter. It has earned him the nickname "Amtrak Joe." Several times a week, Biden takes an Amtrak train from Wilmington, Delaware to the historic Union Station in Washington, DC. It has been claimed the Democrat now knows the first name of every ticket inspector on the line.

Biden must have been pleased when he unveiled the government's new high-speed rail plans at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last month. The administration plans to spend $53 billion (€38 billion) on passenger trains and rail networks over the next six years. The lion's share of this has been earmarked for new high-speed connections. The aim is that 80 percent of Americans will have access to "bullet trains" by 2035.

Such gleaming high-tech marvels could race between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour). The planners hope to cut the journey times between Washington and Boston to less than four hours. A T-shaped line in Texas would connect Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan foresees raising hundreds of kilometers of this so-called "Texas T-Bone" off the ground so that longhorn cattle can pass underneath the rails.

"It's a smart investment in the quality of life for all Americans," says Rick Harnish of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Industry insiders like Ansgar Brockmeyer, of the passenger rail division of Germany's Siemens Mobility, are thrilled about this locomotive renaissance. "There's reason for optimism," he says.

America's Legendary Railroads

However, the country's conservative forces are determined to derail US President Barack Obama's technological vision. No fewer than three newly elected governors (from the states of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio) have completely rejected Washington's planned cash injection for the country's railways.

In fact it's difficult to say whether America's long-neglected trains can ever make a comeback. Large parts of the network are in a desperate state, and most Americans have long-since switched to traveling by car or plane instead.

And yet the railroad enabled their forefathers to open up the Wild West. Train services were profitable in the US right up until the 1950s. Many lines were legendary, such as the Santa Fe Super Chief, which brought its passengers from Chicago to Los Angeles in luxury. Film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart slumbered in the elegant sleeper cars, and dined in five-star style.

The California Zephyr is another classic service, with its route stretching for almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the Midwest to San Francisco. In better times, "Vista dome" cars gave passengers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. An elite team of hostesses, dubbed the "Zephyrettes," served drinks and even offered to act as babysitters.

The Zephyr still runs to this day -- but the 51-hour journey makes this more of a treat for diehard railway fans. One such fan is James McCommons from Northern Michigan University. The academic spent a year crisscrossing the US by train before chronicling his experiences in a book. "It's embarrassing," he says. "We were the greatest railroad nation in the world, and now we don't even build a railroad car in this country ourselves."

American author James Kunstler complains that "Amtrak has become the laughing stock of the world." He jokes that the company was clearly "created on a Soviet-management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy's Law to ensure maximum entropy of service." Indeed, Amtrak trains currently take more than 11 hours to cover the 600 kilometers (375 miles) from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It hardly helps either that the train is called the "Coast Starlight."

A Wake-Up Call

The high-speed rail plans have therefore come as something of a wake-up call in these circumspect times. Many Americans are amazed to discover that President Obama appears to be serious about investing heavily in the railways. "I don't know what this fascination with trains is about," says Michael Sanera of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank. He has only one explanation: "I think there is a lot of frustration primarily by men who maybe didn't get that train set when they were kids, and now they want to play around with trains."

Taking a closer look, it's easy to see how serious the situation has become. America is facing gridlock. According to a study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, the US will need nine new airports the size of the gigantic Denver International Airport and will have to double the number of miles of interstate highways if demand for transportation continues to grow at the current level in the coming decades. In 2009, commuters in the US spent 5 billion hours stuck in traffic jams. That's seven times as long as in 1982.

"Four decades from now, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people," warns US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood. "If we settle for roads, bridges and airports that already are overburdened and insufficient … our next generation will find America's arteries of commerce impassable." He considers high-speed trains essential.

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Observing 03/10/2011
1. The Ling Emergency
James Howard Kunstler author of the book "The Long Emergency," described over and over again that the US will have to face a very dark future if they do not upgrade public transportation. He meant to repair the old trains too, keeping things simple as we have reached "peak Oil," and a time in which oil is harder to get and the paradigm of "limited growth" will just die, like any other dogma actually. Check out his blog here: http://www.kunstler.com/index.php This video is a bit older but still so valid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ZeXnmDZMQ he was just in the paper yesterday: James Howard Kunstler: The old American dream is a nightmare http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ZeXnmDZMQ The reason I mention these sources is that we need to simplify. The US needs public transportation and as people will suffer for their car dependency. The rail way however, must be kept as simple as possible at this point in time. .... Quote by James McCommon, "if we want passenger rail to thrive in America, we as a society will have to pay for it. Passenger rail will never be profitable in the narrow sense that businesses are. But it will be vastly profitable to society by other measures: energy efficiency; national cohesion; private development associated with transit; and the comfort, aesthetic pleasure, and sociability that trains offer over other types of transport." http://www.energybulletin.net/53800 They don't get it in the US... they will regret that they privatized everything so much that one day they all will starve and walk on foot getting nothing done any longer. this lack of understanding about the importance of public transportation, an affordable one will one day crash their economy all together. Suburbia so sucks in the US. It only works because of the car. Now the oil prices rise as the youth of the Arab countries revolt, they soon will find out that the planet suffers from overshoot and that they won't have a future like kids in the West, and perhaps have to return to gardening at the NILE river. There will be so many revolutions as a result of this crisis, get ready! Ah, there is a humorous movie about all of this coming out, called "How to Boil a Frog" http://howtoboilafrog.com/ Anyway, the US just does not want to get it... a expensive railway system will not be able to be maintained during the coming severe crisis... Anyway, I sure wish everybody the best. And, I sure don't want to be right these days - about anything energy wise and economically.
BTraven 03/10/2011
2.
Zitat von ObservingJames Howard Kunstler author of the book "The Long Emergency," described over and over again that the US will have to face a very dark future if they do not upgrade public transportation. He meant to repair the old trains too, keeping things simple as we have reached "peak Oil," and a time in which oil is harder to get and the paradigm of "limited growth" will just die, like any other dogma actually. Check out his blog here: http://www.kunstler.com/index.php This video is a bit older but still so valid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ZeXnmDZMQ he was just in the paper yesterday: James Howard Kunstler: The old American dream is a nightmare http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ZeXnmDZMQ The reason I mention these sources is that we need to simplify. The US needs public transportation and as people will suffer for their car dependency. The rail way however, must be kept as simple as possible at this point in time. .... Quote by James McCommon, "if we want passenger rail to thrive in America, we as a society will have to pay for it. Passenger rail will never be profitable in the narrow sense that businesses are. But it will be vastly profitable to society by other measures: energy efficiency; national cohesion; private development associated with transit; and the comfort, aesthetic pleasure, and sociability that trains offer over other types of transport." http://www.energybulletin.net/53800 They don't get it in the US... they will regret that they privatized everything so much that one day they all will starve and walk on foot getting nothing done any longer. this lack of understanding about the importance of public transportation, an affordable one will one day crash their economy all together. Suburbia so sucks in the US. It only works because of the car. Now the oil prices rise as the youth of the Arab countries revolt, they soon will find out that the planet suffers from overshoot and that they won't have a future like kids in the West, and perhaps have to return to gardening at the NILE river. There will be so many revolutions as a result of this crisis, get ready! Ah, there is a humorous movie about all of this coming out, called "How to Boil a Frog" http://howtoboilafrog.com/ Anyway, the US just does not want to get it... a expensive railway system will not be able to be maintained during the coming severe crisis... Anyway, I sure wish everybody the best. And, I sure don't want to be right these days - about anything energy wise and economically.
The plans Obama wants to implement would not change people’s attitude to prefer travelling by car and plane to using public transport very much since only big urban centres will benefit from it while people who live in rural areas will rely on their pickups. But for a businessmen who travels regularly between N.Y. and Boston such a grand vitesse means much more comfort. It is the right step, and I hope, the plans will be implemented. Much more money is necessary to make the country more independent. I doubt whether it would ever make sense to build an high-speed line between Chicago and Los Angeles. You will take the plane, of course, but I could imagine that bio-kerosene is used as fuel very soon.
sadiesunn 03/10/2011
3. Rail just won't happen
A public transportation system is more than a new fast train. When you reach the rail station you often need to rent a car. It is cheaper and quicker to just rent the car and skip the train. My rail station gets one train daily, north and south. The train arrives and departs at 3 am. Passengers must wait until 6am for a bus, sitting outside, possibly in the rain. In urban areas it is expensive to buy homes and apartments to build rail. Europe already had rail lines, but most old rail lines in the US have been sold and developed. Rail makes sense, some day, but no one cares about it now. I will not be riding a fast train in our dense winter fog while crossing thousands of busy roads.
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