- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

Little engines that can are no longer just the domain of 1930s children’s literature. Close to 10 million passengers board Amtrak’s Northeast corridor trains — including the Washington-New York route — every year, showing their preference for trains that can over planes that can.

“We’re really seeing [passenger train] growth and renaissance,” says David Johnson, assistant executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a nonprofit passenger advocacy group. “And it’s not just in the Northeast.”

But ever wonder why our high-speed train wouldn’t stand a chance in a race with its Japanese and European counterparts? (The Acela does up to 135 mph in many areas, while the TGV, the French high-speed train, regularly travels up to 200 mph.)

The short answer: Tracks.

“You have to have dedicated tracks for true high-speed,” Mr. Johnson says. “You would also have to have less grade and curve.”

In other words, a super-speedy train can’t handle the type of elevation changes, tight curves and shared tracks — Amtrak shares with freight trains and commuter trains — that are currently in place across the United States.

This is about as far as Amtrak proponents and opponents agree. They also agree that the issue is not technological, but mostly political. So, in terms of how improvements can be made, many and varied solutions exist on either side.

Joe Vranich, author of “End of the Line,” and a former Amtrak spokesman, says no improvements can be made to train speed or anything else as long as Amtrak’s many underused lines are still in operation.

“We’re spending billions of dollars on lightly used trains,” says Mr. Vranich, adding that the days of long-distance trains are over. “They’ve been over since 1958.”

Mr. Vranich says one solution — which could result in speedier trains and other improvements — is to adopt a system of regionally run private agencies in Amtrak’s place, focusing on heavily used routes.

“Anything beyond that is pure dreaming,” Mr. Vranich says.

Anthony Perl, author of “New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century,” says he thinks rising energy costs will force changes in passenger train policies and priorities, which could result in such things as more potent high-speed trains.

“We’re going to pay a very high price environmentally and otherwise if we continue relying on cars and planes for everything,” Mr. Perl says. “Trains are the most flexible mode of transportation on land,” he says, adding that trains can be refitted to run on everything from diesel to electricity.

Electricity is what the Acela runs on from Washington to Boston, where tracks are owned by Amtrak and don’t have to be shared with freight trains.

“Which is why I-95 is so unpleasant there,” Mr. Perl says, referring to the many trucks that frequent the expressway because of the limited capacity for freight trains.

The shared tracks issue is a big hurdle for any increases in speed. Even the Acela — which, again, would be the slug in a race with France’s TGV — tops 200 miles per hour at Amtrak’s testing facility in Pueblo, Colo., says Karina Romero, Amtrak spokeswoman. It gets nowhere close to that on its commercial routes.

“Top speed is around 150 miles per hour just east of New Haven,” Mr. Johnson says.

South of Washington, Acela, or any other high-speed train couldn’t work because CSX — the freight carrier — owns the tracks.

“We have the best freight railroad system in the world,” Mr. Vranich says. “And it’s very difficult to have both a successful freight railroad system and passenger railroad system.”

These two are just not compatible, at least not if they share tracks, he says. Freight trains go about 60 mph and passenger trains go at least 100 mph.

“They will slow each other down,” he says.

Mr. Perl calls the relationship between freight trains and passenger trains “the longest running broken home saga.”

So, where’s the good news?

“What we’re looking at now are improvements onboard,” Ms. Romero says. These include improved Internet and food-cart service.

In terms of a speedier Washington-New York commute, some long-term plans include track work on bridges and tunnels, where trains are forced to reduce speed to about 20 mph, Mr. Johnson says.

Elsewhere in the country, though, real high-speed train efforts are under way. California, for example, is working on a high-speed train with a start date for sometime in the 2020s that will run about 220 mph.

But we East Coasters most likely won’t see a little engine that can go 220 mph anytime soon — or even not-so-soon.

“No, we’re maintaining what we’ve already launched,” Ms. Romero says.

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