Can High-Speed Rail Get on Track?

Obama is spending billions on a new network of faster trains. Is a car-crazed nation ready to add rails to the mix?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Some routes, like this one between Tampa and Orlando, will get billions to test the notion that the U.S. is ready to take the train

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Transportation Secretaries don't usually talk like that, especially when they used to send highway pork to their Illinois constituents. But there's a New Urbanist tilt to this Administration, and LaHood has embraced it with the fervor of a convert. Obama came of age in Chicago. One aide said he probably rode more trains in an average week than Amtrak basher George W. Bush rode in his life. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is another rail-friendly Chicago guy. And Szabo, the man in charge of the grants, is a former conductor on Chicago's commuter rail. To understand the Administration's vision beyond bullet trains, it helps to visit the Windy City.

Higher-Speed Rail
The way to go fast, railroaders say, is to stop going slow.

My train to Orlando took so long because of that half hour beside the oak, plus several stretches where I could have jogged at higher speeds. Almost all of Amtrak's tracks are owned by freight lines, and they're riddled with time-sucking choke points: grade crossings, sharp curves, congestion hot spots and outdated bridges that require slow speeds for safety; long single-track stretches that force trains to wait for oncoming traffic; even old-fashioned track intersections known as diamonds. I visited one of the nation's worst blockages, a diamond in Chicago's Englewood section that jams 78 commuter trains against 60 Amtrak and freight trains every day. The result is gridlock, like an intersection in the middle of an interstate. Right now, a cross-country train out of California can take as long to get through Chicago as it takes to get to Chicago, and as the economy picks up and 400,000 freight cars come out of storage, the congestion will only intensify. I arrived well after rush hour but still saw a logjam; one Norfolk Southern freight train hauling grain, corn syrup, lumber and steel across the country was delayed at least 40 minutes.

That's why the high-speed-rail grants include $133 million for an overpass that will replace the diamond. The "Englewood Flyover" should save suburbanites more than 20 minutes a day on their commutes, ease chronic Amtrak delays and start untangling the spaghetti bowl of convoluted tracks that carry one-third of the nation's freight through Greater Chicago. Throughout the Midwest, the focus is on similar workaday projects to add capacity and subtract choke points: overhauling tracks and signals in Illinois, expanding bridges in Missouri, replacing hand-thrown switches with automated crossovers in Iowa and adding sidings that will help faster trains pass laggards all over the region. In short, if you speed up freight, passenger trains move faster too. "It's not sexy," says Szabo, "but if you take out enough pinch points, you're going to make trains more attractive and take cars and trucks off the road."

By aligning the interests of Amtrak and freights, the high-speed program has already improved a rocky relationship that began in 1971, when the government-owned corporation was created to take over the railroads' money-losing passenger routes — and was assured top priority on their tracks. Unlike Europe and Asia, where passenger rail rocks but sketchy freight rail leaves highways clogged with trucks, the U.S. is geared for hauling cargo, not people. Warren Buffett didn't pay $34 billion for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe on a whim. Long-distance rail is cheaper, safer and much more fuel-efficient than long-haul trucking, and while trucks help pay for roads through gas taxes, freights pay the entire cost of their tracks — and local property taxes to boot. The industry made some regrettable decisions to scrap tracks in the past, but it now invests one-fifth of its annual revenues — more than the entire high-speed program — to upgrade its tracks and equipment. Still, most Americans think of freight trains not as efficient and self-sufficient engines of our economy and conveyors of our stuff but as horn-blasting irritants that make us wait at crossings. And boxcars don't vote.

By contrast, Amtrak has been ridiculed for spotty service and dreadful reliability, starved of funding for basic maintenance and neglected by Presidents of both parties. But it has steadily gained ridership — it's on pace for an all-time high in 2010 — and it has a loyal following. One reason it loses money is that members of Congress refuse to let it drop unprofitable routes through their districts for fear of a backlash. So while there are potential pitfalls for freights in high-speed rail — including the threat of stiff fines if on-time targets aren't met — there is mostly opportunity. "We're just happy to see attention paid to the benefits of rail," Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, told me. He was wearing a "4.5" lapel pin, because each rail job supposedly creates 4.5 other jobs. Last year, when fuel prices were the big issue, he wore a "436" pin, because trains can move a ton 436 miles per gallon. "I think the last time a President talked about rail in the State of the Union was Lincoln!" he said. "But look, Obama wants to save energy, cut emissions, mitigate congestion, increase our competitiveness, double our exports. That's what railroads do."

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