Now that high-speed rail is considered “sexy” and politically supported in the U.S., engineers and suppliers are eager to seize upon potential project opportunities. But they must choose carefully from a variety of technologies, methods and financial models found in the rest of the world.
“We are in the fourth generation of high-speed trains globally,” said Anthony Perl, professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, at a high-speed rail conference held Oct. 22-23 in Washington, D.C. “The biggest obstacle in the U.S. is where to put high-speed rail and where to build it. We have to figure it out ourselves, using a ‘made in the U.S.A.’ solution.”
Advocates await word of how much money Congress will include in this year’s appropriations bill—the House proposed $4 billion, the Senate $2.1 billion—in addition to the $8 billion from the stimulus bill. Looming questions include how to integrate high-speed rail routes into the existing infrastructure, how to fund it in the long term and what specific needs it should address in any given scenario.
“You have to determine what type of station area you are trying to create,” said William Schroeer, state policy director for a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy coalition called Smart Growth America. “Is it business-oriented, pleasure-oriented or both?” He is concerned about how high-speed rail projects will fare under the traditional federal highway-building process. “It’s not obvious that federal [stimulus] requirements are integrated with local plans,” he says.
In Japan, the first nation to build high-speed rail, “privatization made it profitable,” says Richard Lawless, former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs and now a venture capital adviser. He notes that two of six privatized rail companies joint-ventured to develop fifth-generation technology and “now want to offer their trains to the global market.” Martin Bay, chairman of the board of directors for Deutsche Bahn International GmbH, added that Germany has found “high-speed rail only makes sense if the feeder systems are also efficient.”