Supertrains, the transportation of the future

The Obama administration announces plans to spend $13 billion kick-starting a nationwide network of high-speed train lines.

Published April 16, 2009 3:49PM (EDT)

If you thought the days of the administration doing whatever the vice president wanted were over on Jan. 20, think again.

The Obama administration announced plans today for a new network of high-speed trains -- connecting cities in 10 regions with improved service that would have the trains traveling faster than 100 miles per hour. A trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for instance, would take two and a half hours, President Obama said.

"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city," Obama said this morning at an announcement at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just before he jetted off to Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago for meetings with Western hemisphere leaders. "No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. 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. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America."

That dream, of course, hits particularly close to Vice President Biden's heart. Biden, who used to commute from Washington to Wilmington, Del., almost every day by Amtrak as a senator, said he had logged nearly 8,000 trips up and down the East Coast by rail. "I have, like many in this room, devoted most of my career to doing what I can to support America's rail systems," Biden said.

The administration would use $8 billion in the stimulus package, as well as another $1 billion a year for five years requested in Obama's budget, to build the rail system. Officials said the government would start awarding the earliest grants in the project by the end of the summer. Getting the system up to speed, as it were, will cost more than $13 billion, but Obama said the money will get things started.

The regions the administration is targeting for the supertrains are:

  • California Corridor (Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego)
  • Pacific Northwest Corridor (Eugene, Ore.; Portland; Tacoma, Wash.; Seattle; Vancouver, B.C.)
  • South Central Corridor (Tulsa, Okla.; Oklahoma City; Dallas/Fort Worth; Austin; San Antonio; Little Rock)
  • Gulf Coast Corridor (Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Ala.; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta)
  • Chicago Hub Network (Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Ohio; Cleveland; Columbus; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Louisville)
  • Florida Corridor (Orlando; Tampa; Miami)
  • Southeast Corridor (Washington; Richmond; Raleigh, N.C.; Charlotte; Atlanta; Macon, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Jacksonville, Fla.)
  • Keystone Corridor (Philadelphia; Harrisburg; Pittsburgh)
  • Empire Corridor (New York City; Albany; Buffalo)
  • Northern New England Corridor (Boston; Montreal; Portland, Maine; Springfield, Mass.; New Haven, Conn.; Albany)

The Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak already runs Acela trains at about 100 mph (theoretically, though they frequently hit delays due to track problems or slower, older trains sharing the route), would also be eligible for some funding to improve service there.

Urban planners and environmentalists are likely to be thrilled by the announcement. Trains are far more energy-efficient than cars; the Transportation Department says the plan could result in a reduction of 6 billion pounds of carbon emissions a year. With stations located in the core of cities, unlike most airports, high-speed rail is easy to link up with public transit and new urban developments. (As Amtrak has tried to tell customers for years, though not always with much success, "there's something about a train that's magic." No word, though, on whether monorail will eventually be part of the plan.)

The only mystery is why officials didn't wait until May 9 -- which is, after all, National Train Day -- to announce the plan. Look for Biden to have some sort of event on his schedule at Washington's Union Station then to promote the plan. After all, you can take the vice president out of the trains, but you can't take the trains out of the vice president.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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