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Rapid rail may link more of our cities

Well off the radar screen of the national media, a move for rapid 21st century rail service for the nation’s top regional intercity corridors — the Northeast, Midwest, California, the Pacific Northwest and half a dozen others — is picking up steam across the country.
Amtrak is even giving a new name — “Acela Express” — to denote the high speed and quality it claims will characterize the fast new Northeast Corridor trains due to start rolling between Washington and Boston before the end of this year.

Boston-New York train time will be cut to three hours from today’s 4 hours, 30 minutes. Express trains will service the New York-Washington segment in as little as 2 hours, 30 minutes. Electrical outlets and audio entertainment will be available at each seat, plus 30 tables per train to spread out paperwork or hold impromptu meetings.

Amtrak’s goal is to compete effectively with air shuttles and Interstate 95 for time-sensitive business travelers.

And Acela will just be the start, claims Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Amtrak’s board chair, “of many high-speed corridors Amtrak has staked out nationwide.”

It’s important to note: All this talk is not about transcontinental or other long-distance trains. Nor is it about bullet trains — the world’s fastest — or other new-fangled superfast technology. Up to now, North America has no version of those advances.

The latest blow to the very fast trains came when Jeb Bush, taking office as governor of Florida in January, denied funding for — and thus killed — a private consortium’s project for trains connecting Miami, Orlando and Tampa at up to 200 miles per hour. Bush said he wasn’t convinced the bullet trains would draw sufficient passengers to make the $6 billion-$8 billion project viable.

But what is feasible, it appears, is a strategy of gradually improving regional roadbeds and purchasing — through Amtrak, federal transportation and state funds — trains capable of up to 100 miles to 150 miles per hour, attractive enough to lure choosy travelers.

The press for rapid regional rail, says James RePass, head of a National Corridors Initiative plan for a major conference in Washington this July, “is not about nostalgia. It’s not about choo-choos. It’s about the future of our country, and our ability to work and breathe without asphyxiating ourselves while sitting in some 5-mile-long parking lot.”

The fast trains and improved railbeds, in regions nationwide, would clearly cost a lot. But they should yield immense, mutually reinforcing dividends. There’d be awave of fresh investment in downtowns suddenly made easier to reach, thus recycling existing infrastructure, discouraging sprawl and steering jobs toward minorities concentrated in cities.

Traffic and air pollution on the interstates would be reduced. And by providing alternatives to short-distance commuter air travel — “Air Cattle Car,” in RePass’ words — the new trains could provide America’s smartest alternative to multibillion-dollar outlays for airport expansions or brand new airports.

A prime example: moves to get faster, modernized trains connecting Chcago with Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland, St. Louis and intermediate cities. Such service wouldn’t just undergird center cities of the American heartland. It would also give travelers across the Midwest easy rail access to both the Loop and O’Hare, easing their long-distance and international travel connections while cutting demand for short commuter flights and obviating the need for an additional Chicago-region airport.

Amtrak’s explicit strategy is to push corridor networks. But the really smart regions will be those that plot the connections for themselves.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, backers of improved “Cascadia” service — trains linking Vancouver to Seattle, Portland and Eugene — have set a national example by pressing successfully for sleek, big-windowed “Talgo” trains. Spanish-designed but manufactured locally, they are able to move faster by tilting into turns.

Annual Cascadia train ridership topped 550,000 last year, 137 percent more tha 1993. Legislatures of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia are starting to collaborate on funding. The environment is being spared hundreds of tons of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides pumped into the atmosphere each year.

Listen to Bruce Agnew, head of the Cascadia Project at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and you hear a full set of “gateway and trade corridor” strategies to avert mounting traffic gridlock.

Example: A joint U.S.-Canadaian Corridor Corporation, with a variety of infrastructure banks to tap and combine U.S. and Canadian federal, state, provincial and other funds for rebuilt, and in some areas relocated, rail and highway lines.

Agnew suggests direct baggage-checking facilities — onto international flights from Vancouver, Seattle or Portland — at train stations. Collaboration between the airports and with rail, sharply reducing the hundreds of commuter flights along the corridor. New train tracks to move containerized frieght off the highways.

The result would be a cleaner, more efficient, more competitive, customer-friendly region.

Stop, look and listen: This is bound to be the 21st century standard for successful global regions.