Monday, February 14, 2011

Once upon a time, there was a race to see who could build the fastest train

You will recall, if you are old enough, the space race wherein President Kennedy stated, boldly, that we would put a man on the moon in 10 years. That was 1961, during the height of the Soviet Cold War.  Well, we did.  But, the man isn't there any longer.

Now President Obama wants his "man on the moon" moment.  He even called it the Sputnik Moment in his State of the Union speech.  Only this time it's high-speed rail.  He, and lots of others in the rail and rail-related industries, want us to enter that race.  

Americans love races.  Americans love it that there are winners and losers, and, of course, we must always be the winners; number one, the best, the most, the fastest. That's who we are.  What's the worst thing you can call a person?  Loser!

Here we go again. The just released Obama budget, unfortunately for this new space-race dream -- or call it speed-race dream -- is not large enough to get into this race.  All it will do is buy the starter's gun.  

Kennedy offered unlimited funding.  Getting to the moon was as costly as you can imagine it would have to be.  But now, what the Obama Administration is prepared to sink into HSR, is dribs and drabs.  Their HSR budget proposes $8 billion annually for six years.  What's that supposed to buy?  We're talking two trillion dollars to HSR-connect all those Americans together by 2045 as Obama promised.

What we are contemplating is a mega-expenditure project that the Administration is eager to initiate, but on the cheap, with too few dollars and not a clue about how to pay for the whole thing.  That's a race to the bottom, not the top. 

Here's the deal.  The Democrats want the federal government to put out as much money as possible, even if it isn't near enough, to get this thing started in all the FRA-identified HSR corridors. Even if it doesn't work out, and the trains never get to operate, at least all those dollars will have been poured into the state economies and created all those jobs (but only in two or five or ten years). 

The Republicans are against this kind of open ended funding.  They don't want the government to do this at all.  They say, get private investment to sustain this high-speed rail vision into reality.  You and I know that's not going to happen.  

But, the HSR race is on. China has a 1,000 mph train on the drawing boards.  If they do it well, they could even launch their train straight to the moon, and thereby participate in both the old space race and this new HSR race.  Because this is nothing more than posturing, prestige grubbing, economic alpha dog piddling. 

Obama has also talked a lot about creativity, innovation and competition.  What's so creative, innovative and competitive with buying HSR hardware off the shelf from other countries? 

With the US, Japan, China, Korea and the European countries racing to have the fastest trains (and seeing who can spend the most on them), this story begins to look like a children's cautionary tale. 

This one won't have a happy ending.
Japan Plans To Build Newest World's Fastest Train

First Posted: 02/14/11 05:38 PM Updated: 02/14/11 05:56 PM
President Obama has been talking about building a high-speed rail system in this country practically since he took office, an ambitious plan that would potentially connect Chicago to St. Louis, Orlando to Miami and Portland to Seattle, among other big urban areas in the country.

Last week, the administration called for Congress to authorize a huge system that would cost $53 billion over a six-year span.

It seems, though, that we've been beaten to the punch: The New York Times reports that the Central Japan Railway Company will proceed with plans to build the fastest train the world, linking Tokyo and Nagoya. China has already laid claim to the fastest train the world, with top speeds of 220 miles per hour.

The line, which will cost roughly $64 billion, will run at speeds at around 310 miles per hour (which will reduce travel time from 95 to 40 minutes), making it the new fastest train on earth. 

The train will use magnets to reduce friction and increase speed.

The one major catch: Japan aims to complete the line by 2045--at which point it will likely no longer hold the title of 'world's fastest.'