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The Green Life: High Speed Rail Gets a Vote of Confidence

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November 17, 2008

High Speed Rail Gets a Vote of Confidence

Rail infrastructure needs modernization Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant resigned Friday, capping off a couple of news-packed months for the nation’s rail systems. In early October, Amtrak reported a record-breaking year for ridership from 2007 to 2008. Roughly 3 million more people got on the trains last year, and each of Amtrak’s lines posted gains. Officials point to skyrocketing petroleum prices as the main cause of the increase, though it could be an indication that the nation is warming up to the idea of driving less.

California’s Proposition 1A was amongst several rail initiatives passed on November 4th. The approved ballot measure provides funding for the long sought after high-speed rail line which will serve every major city between San Francisco and San Diego. This is good news for the environment according to our friends at Inhabitat, who dug up some facts from the California High Speed Rail Authority:

“California is the 12th largest source of greenhouse gas emission on earth, 41% of which come from transportation. Traveling at 220 miles per hour, the trains will reduce greenhouse gases by up to 12.7 billion pounds annually, the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from the road each year.

"Set to begin construction as early as 2011, California’s high speed rail will create 450,000 new jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil by 12 million barrels a year. If population trends continue, by 2030 the state could have up to 100 million people, more than doubling its current number of about 40 million. California’s new FLY trains will use on average 1/3 the amount of energy required for air travel and 1/5 that of car travel.”

Those are big numbers, so it’s easy to see why California voters are excited about the prospects of high-speed rail. On the other hand, this would only be the nation’s second truly high-speed train. Since 2000 Amtrak’s Acela Express has run on the system’s busiest tracks between Washington DC and Boston, but it has yet to prove an unqualified success. Last year’s 6.5% ridership increase was amongst the smallest of Amtrak’s gains. So far the mantra “If you build it, they will come” doesn't seem to apply.

So while the rails may be getting more attention as a way to create jobs and reduce the nation’s energy consumption, a large-scale transformation has yet to occur. NBC News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the many people calling for infrastructural modernization: High tech Acela trains are forced to run at 20 mph in a 1930’s tunnel outside Baltimore. Congress has recently moved in this direction, passing legislation that would allot $13 billion to Amtrak. This week, Vice-President Elect Joe Biden, whose son serves on Amtrak’s board, vowed to revamp the system.

CleanTech points out that while Acela trains are actually convenient and can run at up to 150 Miles an hour, the nearly three hour trip from New York to Washington DC clocks the train at a modest 80 miles per hour. This makes the United States’ most sophisticated train more or less equivalent to an average European passenger train. It also happens to travel about the speed of your average New Jersey Turnpike driver.

--Mario Aguilar

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