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Feb 082010
 

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

Photo: fra.dot.gov

Photo: fra.dot.gov

In his Jan. 27 State of the Union Address, President Obama included high-speed rail, stating, “From the first railroads to the Interstate Highway System, our nation has always been built to compete. There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains or the new factories that manufacture clean-energy products.”

He followed that up with a visit to Tampa the next day, where he stated that $8 billion in grants would be going to a Tampa-Orlando-Miami route in Florida, followed by similar rail projects in California and Illinois.

This is music to the ears of longtime train advocate Anthony Perl, a fellow with the Post Carbon Institute (PCI). The San Francisco-area institute is an apolitical think tank that envisions a world of communities and economies that thrive within ecological bounds. The president’s address spurred PCI to send Obama an open letter applauding the speech but imploring him to lead the transition to a post-carbon economy by, in part, preparing for the future with cost-effective energy, such as trains. In addition to his position with PCI, Perl is the director of the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The Obama administration’s launch of a high-speed rail program is the most important transportation initiative that the U.S. has seen in my 47-year lifetime,” says Perl. “The program opens the door to a post-carbon mobility future in ways that tinkering with fuel efficiency, auto emissions and ‘intelligent’ vehicle and high designs can never accomplish.”

In an e-mail chat this week, Perl talked about why the President’s rail plan is so crucial.

“Rail offers the only proven surface transportation technology that can be run on renewable energy right now,” Perl says. “All other systems – hybrids, battery cars, hydrogen fuel cells etc. – are in the prototype (or earlier stages) and will not be ready in time for our society to survive oil depletion.”

Has the United States missed the window of opportunity for getting started with a major rail plan?

Anthony Perl (Photo: Post Carbon Institute)

Anthony Perl (Photo: Post Carbon Institute)

“It is not too late for rail to take up an increasing share of travel up to 1,000 miles as we reduce our use of planes and internal combustion-engine vehicles. Electric high–speed trains and electric freight trains are proven technology.”

Will Americans change their mindset about train travel?

“Of course they will. People love trains – when they are run well.”

How would a high-speed train system be financed?

“Just like air and road transport, government will pay for the infrastructure up front (airports and highways are built and owned by government) and operations will be paid for by the users – just as we pay air and bus fares, and for the cost of operating our cars. Whether those fares will be paid to a government-owned railroad, a privately owned railroad, or some joint venture, remains to be seen. Each model could work.”

How do you think oil and car companies will react to the competition?

“They will have bigger problems to worry about. [Problems] like inventing new business models that can cope with the energy and climate challenges ahead.”

What about the price of riding the rail? A recent trip on Amtrak’s Northeast corridor was pleasant and on time, but a bit pricey.

“Travel costs are a direct result of government policy. If the new trains pay low rent for the new tracks, they will charge lower ticket prices. If they pay higher prices to rent the track from public, private or mixed partnership owners, then ticket prices will be higher. U.S. train tickets are a bargain compared to those in the United Kingdom, where train-operating companies make good profits.”

Texas was supposed to get a high-speed rail system, but the plan seems to have “de-railed,” so to speak. Any updates?

“Texas tried to go for a fully private passenger train franchise (Texas TGV) in the 1990s. It collapsed and this has left a policy vacuum that other states like California and North Carolina were more advanced in filling.”

Perl suggests that the U.S. should partner with Europe and Asia on high-speed rail projects.

“Now is the time to recognize that the United States has a lot to learn from others when it comes to building modern passenger trains,” he says. “We face a steep learning curve in building modern electric railroad infrastructure and equipment after decades of neglect and disinvestment.

“We should partner with Asia and Europe to share their know-how, rather than reinventing the wheel at greater expense and with more mistakes… if we opt to ‘go it alone.’ If we can overcome the hubris of having only a ‘made-in-the-USA’ high-speed train, we will get where we need to be a lot faster, and generate more jobs and economic development as a result.”

Perl also believes that rail travel should be linked to the developing electric smart grid.

“All of these fast trains will be powered by electricity, an open-ended energy carrier that can blend renewable energy sources with a decreasing carbon content.

“Most of the major corridors in the U.S. will need to be electrified in the next 25 years. Meaning now would be the ideal time to connect the high-speed rail plan with the emerging ‘smart grid.’ New transmission lines could be run atop the tracks, with a periodic step-down of their current to power freight and passenger trains without using a drop of oil.”

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