The futurist: Putting the choo-choo back in Chattanooga
Amtrak's Empire Builder departs from Chicago's Union Station. New funding could bring a magnetic levitation line to the Chicago area. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
The ripple effects from Florida governor Rick Scott turning down $2 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando are finally starting to gather into small waves.
Transportation secretary Ray LaHood has instead been handing out the cash to other states, like California, and gave $450 million to Amtrak. The money will be used to upgrade tracks in the northeast so Acela trains can run up to 160 miles per hour on some New Jersey and Pennsylvania tracks (it now rarely exceeds 70 miles per hour), and build a new spur through Queens, so Boston-bound trains can travel on separate tracks from New York commuter trains. But more ambitiously, Amtrak recently hired consulting firm KPMG to develop a plan for high-speed rail service from Washington, DC to Boston by 2020. The trains will run at 220 mph and the first leg would be from New York to Philadelphia (a trip taking about half an hour, compared to an hour and a half now) by 2023.
Meanwhile, a slew of other states are starting to stitch together their own plans for high-speed rail. Last week it was announced that the money is finally in place for proceeding with an Atlanta-to-Chattanooga magnetic levitation line. The eventual plan is to link the two cities and then head north, terminating at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. North Carolina received money to start improving existing track and an agreement was signed with rail freight company Norfolk Southern Railways to start exploring a major high-speed rail corridor between Charlotte and Raleigh. California received $179 million of the Florida money, even as costs are spiralling ever higher for first stretch of the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco link that is being built in the Central Valley. Construction is slated to being in September 2012, making it more of a reality than any others. Illinois received a chunk to help fund a Chicago to St Louis line.
While all of these improvements are greatly needed, funding high-speed rail piecemeal and state-by-state instead of as a federal project means that train and track technology may differ. Imagine travelling from Miami, Florida to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and changing in Atlanta from a steel-wheeled fast train to a magnetic levitation one. But perhaps getting any kind of choo-choo back in Chattanooga, which has no passenger rail station anymore, is a victory.