Recent Events to Stir Optimism or Concern for High-Speed Rail

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High-speed rail has been in the news a lot recently, in the US, in Europe, and in China. Some great news, and some not-so-great news. Here are 8 big stories from the past couple months.

1. The U.S. government awarded $2.4 billion to 54 rail projects in 23 states a couple weeks ago. This is in addition to the $8 billion awarded by the Obama administration at the beginning of the year. Projects in Florida, California, Michigan, and Iowa received the funds this time. While both U.S. and foreign companies are eligible to get high-speed rail contracts paid for with this funds, all companies “hired to build America’s next generation high-speed rail lines” have to “establish or expand their base of operations in the United States.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs are expected to come from these projects.

2. China continuously sets high-speed rail records. It recently opened a 220-km high-speed rail line between Shanghai and Hangzhou, extending the largest high-speed rail network in the world to 7431 kilometers (4617 miles). Running on this line is (by some standards) the fastest train in the world. While the “absolute world record holder” is a Japanese maglev train that went 581 km/h (361 mph) in 2003 and a French train set the record in 2007 for a train running on conventional rails at 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph), a train running on this new line in China went 416.6 km/h (258.9 mph), setting the world record for “unmodified commercial trainset,” in October. Watch the video below.

3. Florida looks like it is likely to have the first high-speed rail line in the U.S. The Siemens Velaro trains it is looking to get travel up to 403 km/h (250 miles per hour), comparable to almost any high-speed train in the world. These trains already run in Germany, Spain, China, Russia, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria, but they have not touched American rails yet.

4. While Florida is looking to have the first high-speed trains in the country, California is moving ahead steadily as well. The California High-Speed Rail Authority recently released a video on the details of its proposed project and visualizations of its trains. A few key points mentioned in the video are that high-speed trains will take people from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 2.5 hours, these trains will go up to 354 km/h (220 mph), this will be the largest public works project in California in 50 years, and 600 construction jobs plus an additional 450 thousand permanent jobs will be created from the project (which is likely to keep moving ahead steadily with Democrat Jerry Brown recently elected there). Watch the video below for more details.

5. While there’s a lot of positive high-speed rail news these days, there’s also a lot of concerning news now as well. For one, Scott Walker, the incoming governor of Wisconsin, is committed to returning $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail in his state. While this project would bring in thousands of jobs and the federal funds would cover almost all of the capital costs of the project, he ran on a plan to stop the project and looks like he is sticking to this campaign promise.

Walker says he’d rather see the money spent on roads, but this money is specifically for rail and Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said there was no way the funding would go towards building new roads. More likely, it will be sent to another state that will be happy to receive it. Meanwhile, Wisconsin, which spends over $1 billion a year on highway projects, won’t have to dish out $7 million for operating an important high-speed rail line in its state. The strange thing is, if Walker is concerned about wasting money, pumping government funds into infrastructure for relatively large, inefficient automobiles instead of high-speed rail doesn’t make much sense.

6. Ohio’s new Republican governor, John Kasich, has said basically the same thing as Walker concerning a federally-funded rail project in Ohio. He is determined to send $400 million back to the federal government. In his first news conference after being elected, Kasich said: “Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future…. That train is dead.” He also doesn’t understand the way federal transportation spending works or just intends to ignore it, as he also thinks the money should be spent on roads. Unfortunately, it has been this inability to see the value of high-speed, efficient transportation that requires much less infrastructure and foreign oil than roads and automobiles that has put the U.S. so far behind Europe and Asia in this field. Ohio will also be missing out on 16,000 jobs if Kasich goes through with this.

7. Of course, while a handful of Republicans would rather oppose Obama’s high-speed rail initiative than help their states, several states are itching for a little more federal money for their own high-speed rail projects and are more likely to get it now. So, while parts of the U.S. lose out, other parts will be gaining from these political changes.

8. While the U.S. fights over federal funding for high-speed rail, France contended with Germany and leading international train company, Eurostar, because for the first time in history Eurostar chose a German company, Siemens, to supply it with a new set of trains to run through the channel tunnel (reportedly the greenest trains in the world) instead of French company Alstom. French transport minister Dominique Bussereau said, “We have told the management of Eurotunnel and Eurostar that material other than Alstom material cannot be used,” claiming that the Siemens trains don’t meet certain safety requirements after the decision was made, but Eurostar disagreed and plans to proceed with its decision to use the new Siemens trains. Siemens didn’t even bother responding.

Article by Zachary Shahan, appearing courtesy Earth & Industry.

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