The expansion of modern trains would allow Americans to get to their destinations in a fraction of the time it takes to drive. Moreover, high speed electric-powered trains and existing diesel-electric trains could reduce highway traffic and congestion and could help to lower greenhouse gas emissions, particularly if wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy sources were used to provide power to the system.

The Obama Administration is planning to invest in alternative and renewable energy, attempt to end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the “economic stimulus plan”. The limited success of modern passenger trains, like many other forms of alternative transportation, has been the lack of infrastructure and funding to support their development. President Obama is planning on utilizing modern railroad technology to help rebuild the economy, and therefore has allocated $8 billion for modern railroad infrastructure in the economic stimulus plan. The economic stimulus plan serves as a good starting point for developing high-speed rail and enhancing existing diesel-electric locomotive technology.

Six proposed routes with federal approval for high-speed rail stand a good chance of receiving some of the $8 billion award, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The routes include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago commuter region, and the southeast through North Carolina and Louisiana. “Railroads were always the pride of America, and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, [and] all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame” notes President Obama. New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says that developing high-speed rail is the country’s top transportation priority.

The United States has never built a high-speed “bullet” train rivaling the railway systems of Europe and Asia. Trains in those regions of the world have reached top speeds of over 200 mph for decades. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration defines high-speed as a train traveling more than 90 mph. On the other hand, the European Union standard is above 125 mph.

In France, the TGV (“Train a Grande Vitesse”) covers 250 miles between Paris and Lyon in one hour, 55 minutes at an average speed of 133 mph. A 25,000-horsepower French train reached 357.2 mph in 2007, setting a world record. Japan has had high-speed trains running since the 1960s and train speeds reach an average of 180 mph. Japan’s magnetically levitated train holds the overall world speed record at 361 mph. Super-fast trains also run in Germany, Spain and China at speeds up to 140 mph.


German designed 3rd generation InterCityExpress on the Cologne-Frankfurt line. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The only rail service that qualifies under America’s lower high-speed standard is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express electric train connecting Boston to Washington, D.C. on the Northeast Corridor route. The electric trains on the corridor are built to reach speeds up to 150 mph, but only average 80 mph due to curving tracks and slower-moving freight and passenger trains that share the route. If significant improvements in infrastructure and train scheduling were made to the corridor, the system would become more efficient.

Aside from high speed projects, improvements will be made to existing passenger routes to improve track, rolling stock, and locomotives. Amtrak’s newest Genesis diesel-electric locomotive built by General Electric Transportation systems in Erie, PA, has a top speed of 110 mph. However, Amtrak’s current speed limit is set to 79 mph on long distance intercity routes. The locomotives could be used to their full potential if tracks were improved. With a push to develop additional infrastructure, along with the needed funding, passenger trains could again become a huge alternative transportation option for Americans.

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