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U.S. High-Speed Rail Practicum: Experts Share Views at International Forum
BY SHARON SAMBER, Special to Passenger Transport

What is the future of high-speed rail?

The theme shared May 3 at the International Practicum on High-Speed Rail in Baltimore, sponsored by APTA and the International Union of Railways (UIC), was the need to be realistic and focus on an incremental approach to bringing high-speed rail to all regions of the U.S.

Ignacio Barron de Angoiti, director of the UIC Passenger, High Speed, and Stations Department, developed the curriculum and brought together the international experts for the practicum.

From small projects in Maine and Vermont to large projects in California, connecting multiple states and supporting better networks in regions are what is needed, said Karen J. Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. “We have to be focused on how to design regional networks that build on a national program,” she added.

Addressing the growing travel needs in the country is going to be difficult, according to Rae, but the need to invest is great and a lot will have to be done with a little money. She cited estimates showing that the U.S. population will grow by 100 million by 2050, with most of the increase in metropolitan areas, and said: “We need to find ways to move them.”

The Obama administration has taken the first steps in the push forward of high-speed rail. In January, President Obama declared that he wanted 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail within 25 years. The contentious discussions over the federal budget during the past several months led to the elimination of Fiscal Year 2011 dollars for high-speed rail, but the industry remains optimistic about its ultimate future.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said she was “disappointed” about the funding cuts but told the audience that “high-speed rail is one of the greatest opportunities we've had in a very, very long time.”

As 32 states and the District of Columbia prepare to go ahead with high-speed rail plans, what high-speed rail might actually mean comes into play, explained Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman. “Sometimes high-speed rail is moving from 20 to 60 miles per hour,” he said, emphasizing the importance of taking slow steps.

Amtrak would be happy to move more quickly if there were sufficient funding, Boardman said later, but since not enough money has been budgeted Amtrak will instead build on an incremental basis and show its success.

The infrastructure condition and capacity constraints are serious challenges but demand continues to grow, Boardman noted.

Acknowledging that challenges lie ahead, APTA President William Millar highlighted the excitement of high-speed rail’s future, likening it to the building of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. High-speed rail will bring economic growth and create new jobs and its benefits far outweigh the costs, Millar told the approximately 140 attendees.

“We have to make this attractive for the private sector to invest,” Millar said.

The meeting brought together people with technical expertise from all over the world, but Millar pointed out one of the struggles is to ensure that their models fit in the context of the U.S.

Takao Nishiyama of Eastern Japan Railway Company said he was “very encouraged” by the speakers’ remarks and hoped there would be more information disseminated. “We have to wait to see a clear image of high-speed rail projects so that we can help and join,” he said.

The incremental approach “makes sense” to Steven H. Santoro of New Jersey Transit Corporation, who said he believes the federal government needs to play a big part and keep the momentum going. Peter Cannito of Booz Allen Hamilton added that industry experts have to do a better job of educating the policy makers.

The focus on regional networks was met with enthusiasm as well. W. Robert Moore of Quandel Consultants LLC—a project manager of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a 15-year study of intercity passenger rail—said he believes the Midwest is tailor-made for an integrated system.

People look at one or two states but they need to look at multi-state projects, agreed John G. Haussmann of HDR Engineering Inc. of Walnut Creek, CA. National and state government leaders will now look at systems and the federal government can take charge.

“The stage is set now,” he said.


event photos by toddparolaphotography

Ignacio Barron de Angoiti, left, director of the UIC Passenger, High Speed, and Stations Department, speaks with APTA President William Millar at the practicum, which UIC co-sponsored with APTA.

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