Whither the U.S. Rails?

NEAL R. PEIRCE

November 25, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Frankfurt. -- A sleek, white bullet-nosed train swishes into this city's ancient, domed railway station. The doors rise up quickly, with a hissing sound. German businessmen in finely tailored suits step from futuristic hi-tech rail into the grimy scene of past commutes.

The Deutsche Bundesbahn's Intercity Express trains, 20 years and $12 billion in the making, started runs this June on an initial Hamburg-Frankfurt-Munich line.

For Americans, Intercity Express trains represent true systems shock. Speeds range up to 160 miles an hour -- on utterly smooth roadbeds. Roomy, mauve adjustable lounge chairs come equipped with audio and video consoles. Computers in each car provide hotel and connecting train information. Private conference rooms, faxes, phones are all available.

France, Denmark, Italy, Spain -- name virtually any European country and you'll find high-speed trains replacing the aging standard equipment of yesteryear. Within a decade they'll link most European population centers, out-competing most short air links, getting people off the roads, reducing energy consumption and air pollution.

The comparison to America is acutely embarrassing. Our rail system is reminiscent of the rickety baggage carts lumbering up and down Germany's endlessly long rail platforms. Amtrak's big goal for the '90s is electrification and track improvement from Hartford to Boston, completing its mid-tech East Coast system. Europe, by contrast, is 90 percent electrified -- continent-wide.

While Europeans, and the Japanese, have spent a generation pouring billions of dollars into passenger rail systems for the 21st century, the United States has been asleep at the wheel. The big question is whether we regain consciousness and climb out of our morass of stinginess and indecision.

The good news is an outpouring of interest and proposals for high-speed rail lines in select high-population corridors across the United States.

Auto- and air-dominated Texas seems positioned to move first. A consortium using equipment to be built by a spinoff of France's immensely successful TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) has a green light from the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority. It wants to build a 200-mph, $5.7 billion, 620-mile system to link Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.

TGV's technology is arguably the best in the world. Texas' network of urban centers could be North America's best proving ground for high-speed rail.

But there's a fly in the Lone Star ointment -- and it's symptomatic of our entire problem. The TGV system partners, who claimed they could raise all the billions they need privately, have just announced they need $4 billion in government-backed bonds.

And that's where the rub comes, for one high-speed rail project after another, across the country. Money problems killed off a proposed Los Angeles-San Diego link in the '80s; now financing is keeping a proposed Anaheim-Las Vegas line stalled in the station. The California line would use futuristic ''magnetic levitation'' technology, supposed to deliver speeds up to 400 mph.

Florida's well-advanced plan for a $3.5 billion, 180-mph Miami-Tampa-Orlando system appears to have been snuffed out because backers had to admit they needed public money. The state treasury's cupboard was too bare for Gov. Lawton Chiles to entertain the idea.

And so it may go with proposals for a high-speed rail linking the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago. Or the Ohio Speed Railway Authority's effort to link Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Or a variety of plans on the East Coast.

Somehow we have to shake our idea that public subsidy for high-speed rail is sinful, wrongheaded, dangerous. The 12-nation European Community seems poised to invest $205 billion in a 20,000-mile high-speed Western European rail network over the next 20 years.

Even if we're too spread out geographically for that kind of investment, we should be ready to put national resources behind a series of $5-billion to $10-billion high-speed projects, funded jointly by the federal and state governments and private investors.

The point isn't just to get business people from one place to another more rapidly. This country faces immense perils of highway traffic paralysis, clogged airways, unbreathable air, dependence on foreign energy sources. High-speed rail, serving a good share of our most heavily traveled inter-urban routes, could alleviate those problems, boost our national economy and bolster national security.

After the billions get spent, can there be tangible results? Well, take the 10-year-old, 150-mph TGV Paris-Lyon line. It carries 5.6 million passengers a year, up from 1.4 million in '81. Indeed, the TGV is so successful it's pulled the perennially deficit-ridden French national railway system out of the red.

But it cost the French billions to get there. And we better be honest with ourselves: It will cost us billions in public investment too.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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