By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When the giant stimulus bill, expected to be approved by Congress, finally lumbers forth it will pour billions into projects that have been neglected, like highway renovations, and items that have recently bleeped onto the public radar screen, like clean energy incentives.

In some cases, money has been included (so far) for programs that have been debated and tabled for years. High speed rail, which is slated to get $8 billion, falls into that category.

You might ask yourself, what is high speed rail? And you’d be right to ask that question, because right now, in America, there is no high-speed rail. There’s a grand plan for a high-speed train that would run the length of California, where voters last fall approved the first bond money for the Sacramento to San Diego line. Once, years ago, people proposed high-speed rail as a way to better connect Dallas, Austin and Houston, a plan that met an early death in a state well-served by airlines and enamored of highways.

Today, in Chicago, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) survives, clinging tenaciously to the concept that super-fast trains can be an environmental and social game-changer in the United States and that Chicago, a giant intersection of freight and passenger rail lines, would be an excellent nexus for a high speed rail system.

America is “beyond ready for this,” says Rick Harnish, executive director of the MHSRA. “Everywhere that decent train service has been built in the last 15 years has been tremendously successful.”

Even where rail has been badly designed – Harnish named a certain line in a large metropolitan area that placed stations at noisy freeway interchanges and chose a route that didn’t make complete sense – the trains are packed, he says.

Same for Amtrak, he added, which since gasoline prices began their jittery ways, has seen its ridership climb.

Considered to be underfunded by advocates, Amtrak has won passengers despite operating on a patchwork of rail that includes sharing lines with freight routes, which contributes to delays and constrains scheduling. It achieved record ridership in 2008, carrying 28.7 million passengers.

A good high-speed rail system, says Harnish, would lift rail out of its second-class existence as an alternative to planes and automobiles and make it competitive. Suddenly it would be affordable and convenient to take the train.

At speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour, high-speed rail could deliver passengers from Chicago to Minneapolis, or from Chicago to St. Louis, or from Pittsburgh to New York City in under three hours, or even less than two hours.

Business and social trips that were onerous by car or required expensive airfare would be suddenly doable.