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White House Plans $8 Billion For High Speed Trains

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is pitching his $8 billion high-speed rail program to Americans as a jobs generator that will revitalize the domestic rail industry. But the full picture is more complicated.

Building ultra-fast trains won't create the kind of high-tech, high-paying jobs Americans covet any time soon. Indeed, many of the projects receiving high-speed dollars through Obama's program aren't what most of the rest of the world calls "high speed." And those projects that are truly high speed will have to rely on overseas companies with the experience building, supplying and operating the sleek, modern trains of Europe and Asia – an expertise that the U.S. lacks, say rail experts.

That wasn't the picture Obama painted in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, when he touted $8 billion in new railroad grants funded by the federal economic stimulus law. He said they would "create jobs and help our nation move goods, services, and information," and in the next breath lambasted companies who "ship our jobs overseas" and called for slashing their tax breaks.

White House spokesman Bill Burton underscored the jobs message Thursday. "The program creates tens of thousands of jobs and is the largest investment in infrastructure since the interstate highway system was created," he said.

There are good economic reasons to build high-speed rail, or even mid-speed rail, say transportation experts. The trains can move people between cities roughly 100 to 500 miles apart more swiftly and efficiently and with less environmental damage than either cars or airplanes – an important consideration as it becomes increasingly difficult to expand congested highways and airports. Trains that operate on electrified tracks – true of most high-speed trains – also don't rely on imported oil.

But the jobs to design and make the rail cars and engines, signaling and track for the fastest trains will mainly go abroad to the European and Asian companies because it will take time for the U.S. to develop its own domestic high-speed rail industry, rail experts said. There will be U.S. manufacturing and engineering jobs for slower trains often described as "higher speed" or "midspeed." Much of the domestic high-speed work, however, will be the kind of construction and earth-moving work typical of highway projects, they said.

European and Asian high-speed trains average over 110 mph and some reach top speeds of around 220 mph. There is nothing equivalent in the United States. Indeed, most of the grants announced by the White House Thursday will go to rail projects that aren't in the same league as the fast trains being built elsewhere.

For the U.S. to decide to build high-speed train systems using primarily U.S. companies, "would be like Bangladesh deciding they want to have a space program and only use technology they have developed and manufactured themselves," said Anthony Perl, chairman of the National Research Council's intercity rail panel.

The technology gap between true high-speed trains and the slower trains in use in the United States is equivalent to the gap between the planes flown by World War I flying aces and today's jets, said Perl, an American who teaches transportation policy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Some of the equipment purchased for high-speed rail like train cars might be manufactured abroad and the parts bolted together in assembly facilities in the U.S., he said.

"There will be some jobs that come out of it, but unless people are prepared to double the cost and take at least twice as much time to ramp up the capacity to supply this high-speed technology in the U.S., it's not there," Perl said.

The only U.S. project planned for a train speed around 200 mph is California's 800-mile-corridor tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego, which received a $2.3 billion grant. Florida's Tampa-to-Orlando trains, the next fastest project to win a grant, will reach a top speed of 150 mph, but average just 86 mph. Eventually the system could reach speeds around 180 mph when the line is extended to Miami, but only if decisions are made now to spend more money on designs and equipment compatible with faster technology.

By comparison, France's Lorraine-Champagne line averages 169 mph and Japan's Hioshima-Kokura line averages 159 mph, according to a report by the Progressive Policy Institute.

The only high-speed rail line in the United States is Amtrak's Acela, which reaches 150 mph, but only briefly. It averages 67 mph between Boston and New York and 77 mph between New York and Washington. Most other intercity passenger trains in the U.S. share tracks with diesel or hybrid diesel-electric freight trains, which travel at speeds of 79 mph or less.

University of Denver professor Andrew Goetz agreed that high-speed rail isn't a panacea for immediate and large-scale U.S. job creation.

"If you are concerned about dropping the unemployment rate from 10 percent to 5 percent, then this isn't going to do it. It will help, but it's not going to solve the problem," said Goetz, an expert on transportation policy and economic geography.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and members of Congress have acknowledged that foreign companies will play an important role in the high-speed rail program, but they hope they will partner with U.S. companies.

At a conference he hosted last month for rail manufacturers, LaHood said more than 30 foreign and domestic companies have promised to establish or expand operations in the United States if they are chosen to build high-speed lines. Last week, House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., appealed to a conference in Washington for Japanese rail companies to show Americans how to duplicate their success.

"This isn't a competition," he told them, "it's a partnership."