High Speed Rail Speeding Ahead at Snail's Pace

10/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the months ahead the Department of Transportation will be begin awarding the $8 billion set aside under the federal stimulus program to those states presenting the most attractive plans for building high speed trains. Another $5 billion will be sought by the administration over the next five years. Not exactly chump change but for those counting, it's equivalent to the amount showered practically overnight to a single financial entity, the $12.9 billion paid out to Goldman Sachs through AIG's counterparty redemption of near worthless derivatives made possible by the government's infusion of cash into AIG.

Where once upon a time $8 billion plus the prospect of an additional $5 billion would have seemed like a munificent sum, given our recent conditioning of hundreds of billions being bandied about it seems insufficient to the task at hand and lacking in vision. And this for a program that would have an extraordinarily beneficial impact on our lives, on our economy, and on the environment. Quoting California's Governor Schwarzenegger, commenting on the proposed high speed link from the Bay Area to Southern California:

"On top of stimulating the California economy, Federal investment in California's rail systems will help lay a sustainable foundation for economic growth, help us meet our environmental goals and improve quality of life here in California."

Please recall that the $8 billion for high speed rail was barely mentioned in the first draft of the federal stimulus program (please see "The Stimulus Package: Why Is Intercity Rail Service at the End Of he Line") and added almost as an afterthought when enthusiasm for the concept received a much warmer following in Congress than had been anticipated and with the strong sponsorship of President Obama. Since then, support and enthusiasm for the program has broadened nationwide, extending to the 13 regions that will be submitting proposals to the Department in the next days. They range from submissions coming from California, from the Capitol Corridor including Virginia and North Carolina, from Chicago to points south to St.Louis, as well as east and west, from Arizona and Florida and beyond.

Most glaring is the paucity of national commitment to what could be a major and positive overhaul to how we travel, weaning us away from decades of addiction to endless highway and road building, and the endless subsidies toward air and highway funding.

Given the success and public enthusiasm for high speed rail in Japan and China coupled with a deep sense of national pride, our efforts are long overdue in what is rapidly becoming the preferred mode of transport of the 21st century and beyond. This is especially so when both England and France are undertaking major expansions of their already highly successful high speed rail infrastructure.

To the enormously successful high speed rail service linking London to Paris, the British government is proposing expanding service from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow serving both Manchester and Birmingham as well. Current plans call for the link to become operative by 2030 with an expenditure of $55 billion dollars. (BBC "New High Speed Plan Unveiled" 08.26.09). Travel time between Glasgow and London will be reduced from 4 hours and 10 minutes to 2 hrs and 16 minutes.

France, with perhaps the most effective national high speed rail network in the world is looking to double its reach within France and extend service links to Italy and Spain and ameliorate service links to Germany. More than 2000 additional kilometers of track will be put down by 2020 at a cost of 98 billion dollars (Le Monde: "Lignes a Grande Vitesse: la France de Demain" 08.11.09). On a proportional basis relative to size and population that would be the equivalent of the United States committing at least $490 billion toward an analogous project.

It needs be added, in terms of what forward thinking governance can achieve, that the French rail system is powered almost exclusively by an electric grid that is generated in excess of 80 percent by nuclear power, with the French government gearing to reach 100 percent within the next few years.

On the issue of high speed rail service we are riding the caboose of history attached to a hundred car freight train. "Lignes a Grande Vitesse: la France de Demain," freely translated is "High Speed Rail Network: the France of the Future". What about our future? And when are we going to have a government that once again takes the future in hand with vision and meaningful purpose and action?