Obama signals US rail revolution

States queue up for share of federal funds to build high-speed networks

Chicago wants them before 2016 when it hopes to host the Olympics Games. California is ready to start work straight away, even if most of its citizens can't imagine travelling to Chicago, or anywhere else, if it is not by car or plane. New York, Boston and Washington are convinced they already have them, but they don't.

This is the frenzy that has been set off by President Barack Obama telling the country it is time to catch up with Europe and Asia, and get serious about high-speed trains.

He is offering an initial pot of $13bn over five years towards what he called "the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s".

In truth, it is not that much money, which is why transport officials from Oregon to Pennsylvania and many states in between will now scramble to come up with proposals that will win favour in Washington.

Decisions on allocating Mr Obama's money, some of it from the January stimulus programme and the rest from the federal budget, will be made at the end of the summer.

The last five decades since President Eisenhower put the focus on America's roads have been endlessly discouraging for advocates of trains.

Never mind if it was the steam locomotive that built the country in the first place, pushing its frontier from east to west. The automobile was the undisputed king.

Amtrak, which runs a scrappy national network, still has to share most of its tracks with the freight companies, while making do with rolling stock from the 1970s. And while the pride of its fleet are the zippy-looking Acela trains connecting Washington to Boston, congestion and wiggly tracks mean they never meet their high speed promise, and average a non-zippy 80 mph.

"We are decades behind Europe and Asia in developing high-speed infrastructure," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "Having a president who understands how critical this is to our future is a real game-changer." Travel on some Amtrak routes, including those served by the Acela, has jumped recently, in part because of fluctuating fuel costs.

Impatience with road congestion and growing awareness of global warming means Mr Obama's vision of up to 10 regional high speed rail networks is likely to be politically popular. Encouraging him behind the scenes is Vice President Joe Biden, a self-confessed railway lover.

Nor did it go unnoticed when Californians on election day last November approved a $10bn bond issue for a high speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be at the front of the queue for the new federal money to give the project a boost with the goal of having the first trains in 10 years.

But the project has its critics. "When Eisenhower built the highways, people already had cars and were buying cars at a high rate. It was an expansion of a system with huge pent-up demand," said Adrian Moore, a transport policy expert with the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. "There is no huge pent-up demand for rail service; it's more like build and hope." Critics also note that while high speed trains are part of everyday life in Europe and Asia, they rely on government subsidies and it is unclear if successive administrations would be ready to make the same commitment. Finally, there is concern the $13bn will be spread too thinly. Construction of the California line alone is expected to cost as much as $45bn.

But if Mr Obama really is launching a revolution in rail transport, no state will want to be left out. "We will be dusting off studies and seeing which have the greatest merit and how good a case we can make," said Allen Biehler, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Transport, who has his eye on connecting Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

The plans in California call for trains with top speeds of 220mph, cutting the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to two and a half hours – short enough to compete with air travel. In Chicago, they foresee a network for all the Midwest.

"Imagine boarding a train in the centre of a city," Mr Obama challenged. "Imagine whisking through towns at over 100 miles an hour, walking a few steps to public transport, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America." In Europe, yes we can. For most Americans that will be a surprisingly large leap.