August 1, 2007 By Chad Vander Veen
She's the fastest train on the line
- Johnny Cash, Orange Blossom Special
Paris and Lyon, Tokyo and Osaka, Madrid and Seville, Seoul and Busan - these cities have something in common. They're connected by what many believe is the future of transportation - high-speed rail.
High-speed rail systems whisk passengers hundreds of miles in mere hours by traveling at speeds as high as 357 mph. That record, recently established by the French TGV (train grande vitesse or high-speed train), means the trains can move almost as fast as an airliner. And while most high-speed trains run slightly slower - around 200 mph - over the past several decades, they have proven their value, reliability and safety almost everywhere.
Almost everywhere but here, that is.
In Germany, the InterCityExpress - known as ICE - rockets passengers across the country to major cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. The Eurostar Italia ferries riders between cities like Rome, Florence, Naples and Turin at 186 mph. Plus, Italians are in the midst of constructing nearly 400 additional miles of high-speed railway.
In Japan, high-speed trains known as Shinkansen have operated since 1964. The now expansive network of trains, tracks and stations crisscross the country and has served more than 6 billion passengers without any major safety issues.
In the United States, high-speed rail systems have yet to leave the station. In fact, they have yet to leave the realm of wishful thinking. Despite high-speed rail's proven global track record, for some reason government - be it federal, state or local - is either unable or unwilling to get onboard.
Many high-speed rail proposals exist, especially in large states with far-flung population centers, such as California, Texas and Florida, each of which announced plans for high-speed rail. The trouble is that these plans were created years ago, and not a single a mile of track has been laid.
In other regions of closely grouped cities, similar plans now gather dust. There are designs for high-speed trains to service Midwestern cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Likewise, a train connecting Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston has long been in the works.
So far, the best the United States has been able to come up with is the woeful Amtrak system.
Slow, expensive and chronically late, the heavily subsidized railway has consistently failed to meet expectations. Amtrak's problems, however, are hardly its own doing. The idea of Amtrak is a noble one - a nationwide passenger railway. Unfortunately Amtrak has been plagued by poor management, budget shortfalls and frequently late arrivals because most of the tracks it runs on are privately owned, which means freight takes priority over people.
There are some bright spots within Amtrak - such as the Capitol Corridor that runs between Sacramento, and San Jose, Calif. There is also Acela, Amtrak's quasi high-speed rail line in the Northeast, running from D.C. to Boston. The train is capable of speeds approaching 150 mph, but due to outdated infrastructure and arcane regional speed restrictions, the train averages around 75 mph.
Both lines boast far more ridership than other Amtrak routes, but neither can offer any service approaching true high-speed rail.
Florida seems like the perfect location to build a high-speed rail system. Long and narrow with many large and distant cities, common sense would seem to dictate that Floridians would like an