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High-Speed Rail on Slow Track

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Amtrak has announced it's purchasing the next generation in energy efficient passenger trains that use approximately 2,134 BTUs per mile (which compares to 3,578 per mile for a passenger car and 3,942 per mile for domestic airplane flights). The 70 new locomotives will come on line between 2013 and 2019 and replace 64 locomotives, some dating back to 1980. These new trains will mostly be manufactured domestically in Sacramento by Siemens AG. And the manufacturing facility will have 2 megawatts of solar cells on its roof. These new trains will feature regenerative braking--much like that in hybrid automobiles--which will also generate electricity. Their top speed will be 125 miles per hour.

All in all, a pretty good step in terms of energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gases.
However, there is a larger issue at hand: consider where we are in comparison of the rest of the world. China has just introduced the world's fastest train, averaging speeds of 217 miles per hour. Last year, China announced its massive rail development program that is set to expand the high-speed rail service to 42 additional lines by 2012. This is quite a contrast to Amtrak's current plans that use these new trains on its Northeast Corridor lines between Washington, DC and Boston and on the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

More importantly and more impotently, Amtrak released a report for next generation high-speed rail for the Northeast corridor. The new concept for rail travel suggests trains running at 220 miles per hour between Washington, DC and Boston as well a few other northeast cities. However, this project isn't expected to be completed until 2040! That's 30 years from now. Can you imagine where China and other developing nations are going to be by that time?

Rail service began in this country more than 150 years ago and was one of the most important forces in our economic development. And now it's roaring back as an important step in low-carbon transportation and an economic necessity. Just ask Warren Buffet about Berkshire Hathaway's $39 billion acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. earlier this year.

In order to grow we need to build and build faster. A plan that indicates a completed high-speed rail service three decades from now while other nations are building them now and at a much faster pace truly shows that we are on the wrong track.

Jonathan A. Schein is CEO/ScheinMedia and publisher of MetroGreenBusiness.com

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