The Supertrain Cometh

Overlooked in much of the post-State-of-the-Union discussion was President Obama’s renewed insistence on bringing America’s rail system up to speed for the first time in decades. Amid the countless issues discussed, the proposed supertrain is gaining momentum in some parts of the country. While it hasn’t inspired any really heated discussion, the supertrain could be an intriguing solution for a country that is hurting.

Considering it’s the name of one of the most-embarrassing TV series in history, the supertrain already had a strike against it out of the gate. Perhaps as much as an asset for travelers, the supertrain is also an interesting symbol of how other parts of the world have leapfrogged the United States in a number of areas, a prominent theme of the president’s State of the Union address. Just last month, China unveiled the world’s fastest supertrain, a high-speed line that can reach up to 245 miles per hour. This just a year after the unveiling of Japan’s supertrain, a lightweight and aerodynamic model featuring a regenerative braking system. Throw in the new trains unveiled in countries like France, Spain, and Russia and American transit is languishing in the rest of the world’s dust.

By all appearances, the supertrain does matter. The UK supertrain contract looks to have created thousands of jobs while the poor state of U.S. transit has been well documented. Almost immediately after his address, President Obama was on his way to Florida to announce an $8-billion high-speed rail project that will run from coast to coast.

The plan has been outlined by the White House for some time now and was included in last year’s Recovery Act. California is looking to build their own high-speed line running from San Diego to San Francisco, aided in large part by some major federal funding. Michigan, another state that had a fiscal 2009 it would rather forget, has been looking at proposals for its own high-speed train while the Florida rail line, planned for late 2014, is expected to create 23,000 jobs.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has looked into the likelihood of recouping this massive investment and results are somewhat mixed. According to a report by Mark Reutter, “In a 2009 survey of high-speed lines in Japan and Spain, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that Japan’s core Shinkansen routes fully repaid the initial investment and debt related to their construction. In Spain, the original high-speed line between Madrid and Seville has been profitable on an operating basis, but has not yet repaid its original construction costs.”

Either way, we prefer anything to taking the bus.

Update: The Progressive Policy Institute sends us a brand new high-speed rail report from Reutter, in which he makes some of the following assertions:

-Benefits of a high-speed rail system include creating thousands of jobs, spurring rural growth, energy independence, heavy-traffic accommodation, and safety.

-On China's train: "The government said the new Wuhan-Guangzhou railway, which has cut the travel time between central China and the south coast from 10 hours to three, will pro­mote economic growth, reduce oil imports and ease labor shortages"

-On finishing the job in America: "The Obama administration and Congress should establish a national infrastructure bank that would evaluate and finance the nation’s largest civil works, including HSR. A national infrastructure bank is an idea that PPI has called for in the past and continues to advocate to­day."

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