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EDITORIAL: Not so high-speed rail

President’s signature project is an Amtrak bait-and-switch

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Trainmakers interested in getting a big slice of taxpayer cash have until May 11 to notify federal officials that they want to build America's next-generation high-speed rail cars. Over $550 million is being made available for these next-generation purchases through a program meant to fulfill the White House vision of "trains zipping along at up to 220 miles per hour in our most densely populated corridors." Like most government endeavors, this idea was already a disappointment before it left the drawing board.

Forget about ever seeing the lofty velocities touted by the Obama administration. According to documents filed on Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program will dole out half-a-billion on equipment with lower design speeds than Amtrak's current Acela trains. A team of federal and state highway officials are collaborating on standards for the first 130-passenger rail cars. California will take 42 of them and the remaining 88 will head to the Midwest - but not quickly. "The cars shall be designed and tested for revenue operation at all speeds up to 125 mph," according to the technical specifications.

That's 25 mph slower than the latest Northeast-corridor trains are capable of reaching and almost 100 mph slower than the high-speed pledge. In a classic case of bait and switch, Amtrak will receive these shiny new train cars with all the latest gizmos, but the only "high speed" feature will be wireless Internet access. This Obama administration marvel doesn't even have any impressive green credentials. It will have LED lighting fixtures - the most expensive type - and additional space for recycle bins, but that's all. The train won't run on solar power, algae or wind energy. It will be powered by 1,800 gallons of ordinary diesel fuel.

Amtrak, the failed government enterprise, would have a hard time asking for these funds straight-up. So President Obama's call to give 80 percent of Americans access to "high-speed rail" within the next 25 years was a visionary goal that disguised a massive cash transfer toward inner-city pork projects. We're borrowing billions from overseas (for example, China) to prop up the same old business model that has never worked.

Even if the Obama administration gets around to setting up actual 200 mph tracks, that doesn't mean travelers will reach their destinations any faster. Amtrak's way of doing things involves dozens of stops along each route, which would negate much of the benefit of any theoretical maximum speed.

Airplanes, by contrast, can travel point-to-point at 500 mph. Automobile speeds are comparatively modest, but the ability of cars to deliver people door-to-door makes them the time-saving champion on short and medium-distance trips. These are the true high-speed alternatives. Turning back the clock to the 19th century's rail-centered model wastes our national treasure for no real benefit. It's time to pull the subsidy on this presidential train ride to bankruptcy.

The Washington Times

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