By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

High Speed Rail presents so much promise: It’s the greenest way to travel on anything powered by an engine. It bolsters economic development and connects cities.  Its build-out creates thousands of jobs. And riding on it comes with WiFi and doesn’t require a body search. At least not yet.

So why aren’t we moving faster in the U.S. toward this 21st Century vision?

Money. Money. And money. High speed rail is a capital-intensive proposition. It takes lots of cash to obtain land, rights-of-way and bore a path into cities rife with potential obstacles, from competing modes of travel to layers of governmental bodies that may or may not embrace 220 mph rail lines. Station sites must be found, and built. Public hearings set. And so forth. Setting the stage for high speed rail can be grindingly slow, and the build-out figures frighteningly high. It’s tailor-made for paralysis.

The numbers tossed around are all in the billions, from $20 billion to link a couple cities (if all goes really well) to $150 billion for a true high speed rail network in the Northeast U.S. to say half of a trillion (how many zeroes is that?) for a national high speed rail network. (That last figure comes from the Association for Public Transportation, which admits it’s probably low.)

High speed rail plans in the U.S. call for a line through the Central Valley in California. The existing Washington to NYC route is considered "higher speed" rail. Other lines shown here are part of potential high speed regional networks. (Source: International Union of Railways.)

High speed rail is costly in the best of times, and these, of course, are not the best of times. Around the world, high-speed electric train travel is coming into its own — connecting dozens of cities in China and bursting onto the scene in India, Saudi Arabia and Africa.

In the U.S.? Not so much. The zenith of passenger rail remains in our rear view mirror and high speed rail is stuck on the drawing board, with a couple notable exceptions.

Most high speed rail lines, such as the famous, groundbreaking Shinkansen line built in 1964 in Japan, were built with public money (and in some cases private firms joined as rail operators). But public money is in short supply in the U.S., among other places. It’s committed to payments on deficit spending, entitlements and military costs.

At the 5th Annual Global High -Speed Rail Forum in Irving, Texas, yesterday, at least two speakers blurted out what must have been on many minds: “I hate to think of us (the U.S.) as being last.”

Last is not where the U.S. likes to be. But when it comes to high speed rail, the fact that we’re still debating the merits while other countries are connecting cities, doesn’t suggest we’ll be winning the ground race like we did the space race. (In fact, the maps below make it clear we’re already well behind Europe and Asia.)

Several of the speakers at the Irving conference outlined plans for how the U.S. could kick-start high speed rail. Some suggested a patchwork approach, allowing the most motivated cities and states to connect to each other, building a messy, intricate, but ultimately functioning system that would be paid for incrementally. Others said the way to go is to divide the nation into three mega-routes; one running the length of the East Coast, another cutting from Minneapolis to Dallas and Houston, and a third down the West Coast. Public-private partnerships would work together to realize these mega routes, with the government taking on the land issues and the private investors promised a rate of return and operations licenses.

Sounds good. Maybe.We’re hoping. It could benefit harried travelers, frustrated real estate developers, companies that could ship goods this way, billionaires in need of a plan, people who don’t like to fly and the big beneficiary who shall not be named — the climate. High speed rail is the greenest mass transit around, even if it runs on electricity generated by coal-fired plants, and could greatly reduce carbon emissions by getting people into trains and off planes and cars for regional travel.  Being electric, it also could be powered by renewable, clean energy as power plants transition that direction.

Will the U.S. find the money, the innovative funding and the political will to create a national high speed rail network? Will the airlines fight plans that keep bubbling up in places like Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, or join in and see opportunities as Sir Richard Branson has done in the United Kingdom with his Virgin rail cars?

Will the Tea Party continue to sour the deal in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, where Tea-ish governors returned federal money to develop high speed rail plans? Or will California, which recently approved public financing to begin building its HSR lines, set a model for the rest of the country? Will Texas fund a rail line from Houston to D/FW entirely with private money collected in 10-gallon hats?

Who knows? We’re on the edge of our seats, which aren’t moving at 220 mph. Not yet. (I made up the part about the hats.)

Meantime, here’s where the rest of the world is going with HSR, according to a 2012 report by the International Union of Railways. based in Paris:

China has connected Beijing with Shanghai and Ningbo with Xiamen and is moving inland with HSR destined for several cities. (Source: International Union of Railways.)

Europe's economic slowdown will affect rail development, but the head start it forged beginning in the 1990s gives it a rich framework it can build upon. (Source: International Union of Railways.)

India's high speed rail plans would span outward from major population centers like Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. (Source: International Union of Railways.)

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