US to develop high-speed rail

US President Barack Obama has outlined plans to create ten high-speed rail corridors on the country's busiest routes and reduce dependence on cars and planes.

Obama's economic recovery plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), provides $8bn for rail investment, while a further $1bn a year for five years is requested in the federal budget "to jump-start a potential world-class passenger rail system".

The US has relatively poor railway services, compared with major European and Asian countries. Public investment has focused on highways and air travel.

The strategy document sets out the benefits of high-speed rail as promoting economic expansion (including new manufacturing jobs), new choices for travellers, reduced national dependence on oil, reduced carbon emissions and fostering urban and rural community development.

States and local communities are being urged to put together plans for a network of rail corridors 100 to 600 miles long (160-960km), which will compete for the federal dollars.

The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to start awarding the first grants by late summer.

The plans encompass three types of route. Express services would run on dedicated track at speeds above 150mph between major population centres with few intermediate stops. Regional high-speed rail would provide "relatively frequent" services between major and moderate population centres with some intermediate stops, with some dedicated and some shared track. Conventional inter-city services could also be improved to develop the market for possible high-speed upgrades in the future.

Eligible projects may be either new lines or upgrades of existing routes, but the first round of funding will concentrate on projects that can deliver benefits quickly. Later rounds will focus on more comprehensive programmes.

However, the strategy document highlights some significant challenges. The authors say: "After decades of relatively modest investment in passenger rail, the United States has a dwindling pool of expertise in the field and a lack of manufacturing capacity," before going on to point out that states may struggle to fund major projects even with Federal assistance. Other issues include the need to secure and manage agreements involving private railroad owners and possibly several different states, and the need to consider who would pay for any operating losses. The government funding only covers capital costs.

US railway standards would also need updating to meet the needs of a very different operating environment from the one they were designed for.

Ten high-speed rail corridors are listed in the report as potential recipients of federal funding. Those lines are: California, Pacific Northwest, South Central, Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Keystone, Empire and Northern New England. There are also opportunities to upgrade the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston, the US's only existing high-speed rail service.

President Obama said the proposals would generate thousands of construction and railway jobs and as well as increased economic activity in the areas served by the lines.

"High-speed rail is long-overdue," he declared, "and this plan lets American travellers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways."

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