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I have always loved trains – they have always occupied a sweet spot in travel for me between the intimate contact with the land that car travel offers and the fast, but depersonalized and remote sense you get from air travel.  I had resigned myself to the fact that passenger trains might one day disappear altogether.  But a confluence of political, environmental and economic factors has the potential to return the train to a prominent spot on the nation’s transportation agenda.

Recently President Obama announced $8 billion in grants for high speed rail.  The program is aimed at creating high speed intercity rail in a number of regions across the country.  In particular, the grants will give a boost to projects already underway in Florida, Illinois and California. At the same, the President hopes to provide some job stimulus.  Some of the potential high speed rail lines are shown in the map below.

Joe Biden summarized the vision of a true high speed rail network:

What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.

However, the plan has its critics.  For example, Representative John L. Mica from Florida doubted whether the planned line from Orlando to Tampa, which received $1.25 billion in government funds, was a worthwhile investment since it would only save travelers about 30 minutes on a trip that normally takes 90 minutes by car. Other criticisms have focused on cost to benefit considerations and the poor track record of passenger rail service.

High Speed Rail in the US

But sometimes the ROI for infrastructure investments is difficult to assess.  No doubt there were critics of our investment in the national highway system, but its benefits have been immense.  A well conceived high speed rail system could yield similar benefits over time.  We just need the wisdom, tenacity and courage to get started and see it through.