A Brief History of High-Speed Rail

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East Japan Railway/Getty

A prototype of the bullet train Fastech 360S is seen at the East Japan Railway Commpany's rolling stock laboratory center in Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.

Like soccer and fresh bread, Americans have long viewed train travel as something that other countries simply do better. But thanks to President Barack Obama's stimulus package, efforts to get faster trains on track may finally be gaining speed.

Earlier this month Obama announced $8 billion in stimulus funds — and a request for $5 billion more over five years — toward high-speed rail projects. The government has identified 10 corridors across the country that could potentially receive funding, from a Los Angeles-San Francisco line to a route linking New York City to Buffalo. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination," the President mused while unveiling the plan April 16. It's a beguiling image that's compelled and thwarted travelers in this country for decades, especially as highways clog, oil prices climb and airport delays mount.

Japan opened the world's first high-speed rail line, between Tokyo and Osaka, in time for the 1964 Olympics. Shinkansen, or bullet trains, now travel at speeds up to 185 miles per hour over some 1,500 miles of rail lines across the country. Italy is credited with Europe's first high-speed line, opening between between Rome and Florence in 1978; today trains also race through Spain, Germany, Belgium, Britain and France at speeds up to 150 miles per hour or more — making most Amtrak lines resemble a Disneyland monorail in comparison. Taiwan has also climbed on board, and fast-growing China has plunged into high-speed rail in a big way. Trains hit 217 miles per hour along a new, 75-mile route between Beijing and Tianjin built for the 2008 Olympics, and maglev (magnetic levitation) trains blast by at 268 between Shanghai and its airport. Concerns over cost have slowed the addition of more maglev lines, but conventional high-speed lines are being built in China at a frenetic pace.

By those standards, the fastest trains in the U.S. barely register; in fact, Washington defines "high-speed" as just 90 miles per hour, positively poky next to, say, France's TGV, which rockets travelers from Paris to Avignon at 158 miles per hour. Amtrak's nine-year-old Acela train between Washington, D.C. and Boston briefly hits 150 miles per hour in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but averages only about 85 over the full route due to limitations of the tracks and overhead electric lines.

European and Asian governments have actively supported high-speed rail for a variety of reasons. Higher gas prices and denser populations make rail travel generally more attractive overseas. After World War II, many countries focused on building modern rail networks after their existing lines were destroyed. In the sprawling U.S., meanwhile, with many cities hundreds or thousands of miles apart, resources flowed toward improving air links and roads — with Eisenhower's interstate highway system the crown jewel. Several states have pursued high-speed rail on their own, including California, where voters approved $10 billion last fall for a massive project initially linking Los Angeles and San Francisco that's expected to cost tens of billions. Many high-speed train initiatives have been derailed due to their exorbitant cost — recent rail construction in Spain averaged some $22 million per mile.

The sobering expense of high-speed train travel has tempered the expectations of even the strongest rail advocates. "It sounds like a lot of money to Americans, but it's really just a start," James P. RePass of the National Corridors Initiative told the Washington Post. Some critics also predict a massive price tag to operate new rail lines, pointing to Amtrak's perennial shortfalls, and a proposed link between Anaheim and Las Vegas (in the home state of Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid) sparked outrage and derision among many Republicans.

Still, many are heartened by the President's interest in train improvement and by Vice President Biden's well-known affection for Amtrak, nurtured over years of commuting between Delaware and Washington, D.C. Even without brand-new trains, supporters welcome any new spending on the country's aging rail system. "We're not going to wake up in a year and see a bullet train," RePass said. "But we are going to see much faster service for relatively little money."

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