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Details of Obama’s High-Speed Rail Plan Revealed

Existing rail lines will be improved, and Chicago could be the hub of a proposed Midwestern Regional Rail System.
April 17, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled a strategic plan for developing high-speed rail in the United States. The trains, which would travel at least 90 miles per hour and as fast as 250 miles per hour, would be designed to replace cars and airplanes for trips between cities 100 to 600 miles apart. The plan includes a map of 10 potential routes, including a few in the Northeast and a system in the Midwest centered on Chicago. Which of these routes will get funding hasn’t been decided yet. The economic stimulus plan included $8 billion for high-speed rail, and Obama’s budget proposes an additional $1 billion in grants per year for five years.

Some of the money will be directed to projects that already have initial engineering and environmental work completed–projects improving existing rail to increase speeds from 70 miles per hour to over 100. But much of it won’t be spent for years.

High-speed rail can reduce congestion, and it’s more efficient than travel by car or plane. According to the White House, “Today’s intercity passenger rail service consumes one-third less energy per passenger-mile than cars.” New high-speed rail, which could be somewhat more efficient than today’s trains, could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by six billion pounds of CO2 a year. High-speed rail has been successful in France, Spain, and Japan, and it’s growing rapidly in China. But passenger rail has limped along in the United States, especially outside of the Northeast. As Obama noted in a rousing speech in support of his plan, “Americans love their cars.” Who knows if things will change if train speeds increase?

The high-speed rail projects won’t necessarily use much new technology. One thing mentioned in the plan is something called Positive Train Control, a system for monitoring and controlling trains better. It would include advanced GPS tracking, using the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS), and remote controls that can be used to stop the train if the driver has passed out. Not a bad idea for a train approaching an intersection at 220 miles per hour–the speed for a proposed rail system in California.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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