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It's true that most of Obama's initial rail investments don't match his grandiose high-speed-rail rhetoric. Most will provide only incremental improvements to an embarrassingly outdated system. A more honest description would be "higher-speed rail." But none of the high-speed networks operating in nations like Japan and Germany or under construction everywhere from Brazil to Turkey rely exclusively on top-of-the-line bullet trains. And for all the hype about the new new thing, this is really about improving all kinds of intercity train service not only Amtrak but also the venerable freight railroads that share its tracks and haul 43% of our intercity cargo.
Anyway, overall trip times and reliability matter more than top speeds. It's more cost-effective, Obama aides say, to slice 90 minutes off trips between Chicago and St. Louis, Mo., by removing choke points and boosting speeds to 110 m.p.h. than to build a new superfast line. Yes, most Amtrak routes need subsidies, but so do most roads and airports. Yes, the dense Northeast corridor looks like train heaven in Acela's first decade, rail has displaced air as the dominant mode between New York City and Washington but even there, massive investments in infrastructure would be needed to produce even modest reductions in trip times. Yes, the broad distribution of grants had obvious political overtones, but high-speed rail needs broad political support to survive. "We're giving birth," says Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo, "and that can be messy and painful."
Not even the first bullet route, a Tampa-Orlando link opening in 2015, will be the kind of state-of-the-art wow machine that Obama and Biden have promoted. It's a relatively short, 84-mile stretch with a fast but not blinding top speed of 168 m.p.h. But it's the starter project that will help define what high speed means in America. That's why I rode Amtrak's Silver Star to Orlando, where the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) was holding a conference and the scent of money was in the air.
The Florida Experiment
The year-old USHSR is one of those Washington lobbying groups that pop up whenever multibillion-dollar initiatives are born. Veteran rail advocates dismiss it as a latecomer to the high-speed bandwagon, carrying water for the foreign trainmakers who pay its steep membership fees and attend its pricey events, undermining Amtrak to push its pipe dream of a gigantic new supertrain network nearly half the length of the interstates. But more than 300 business types showed up at its shindig at the Orlando Hilton, where they saw cool models of German, Spanish, South Korean and Japanese bullet trains and cool video of a French train traveling a record 357 m.p.h. When I asked a lobbyist I recognized what he was doing there, he grinned and rubbed his thumb against two fingers.
It was no accident that the conference was held across the street from the future location of one of Orlando's high-speed stations or that its headliners were two key Florida Representatives: John Mica, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, and Corrine Brown, Democratic chair of the rail subcommittee. The Tampa-Orlando line will go out to bid soon, and vendors are desperate to snag a piece of that action. Thirty foreign firms have pledged to manufacture in the U.S. if they land contracts, and investor Carl Icahn has launched an American start-up to compete. At one point, an executive was telling me about her company's expansion plans when she spied the director of Florida's program across the room, broke off our chat in mid-sentence and raced off to introduce herself.
Florida is in many ways an ideal high-speed launching pad. It's flat, which means low construction costs and no tunnels. It's densely populated, with short distances between major cities. It's a tourist mecca, attracting millions of foreigners who ride trains at home. And it's a swing state, especially around its bellwether I-4 corridor; the Tampa-Orlando trains will actually travel up the I-4 median. But the main reason Florida is getting $1.25 billion to start connecting downtown Tampa to the Orlando airport is that this is the nation's most shovel-ready bullet-train project; the state has nearly all the necessary land and permits. So when Obama wanted a quick success, Tampa-Orlando looked perfect.