‘Higher-speed' trains to precede true high-speed rail in U.S.

An attendant serving on a Spanish train. Foreign builders are touting an incremental approach to high-speed rail here. PAUL NUSSBAUM / Staff
An attendant serving on a Spanish train. Foreign builders are touting an incremental approach to high-speed rail here. PAUL NUSSBAUM / Staff
Posted: July 14, 2012

Can you have a European- or Japanese-style high-speed rail experience, even if the train is creeping along at less than 150 miles an hour?

Yes, say international manufacturers who are touting the prospects of smooth, quiet, luxurious rides for American passengers, even though it will be many years, even decades, before 220-m.p.h. bullet trains show up in the United States.

"Higher-speed" trains with many of the same aerodynamic features and interior amenities of France's TGV or Japan's Shinkansen may be the American stepping-stone to true high-speed rail, as the United States looks for affordable improvements to its old-fashioned, slow passenger rail network.

Foreign-based high-speed train-builders, such as Alstom (France), Siemens (Germany), and Talgo (Spain), have opened American factories to make modern trains that can run on conventional tracks in the United States, with hopes of eventually winning high-speed contracts, as well.

Many of the manufacturers are in Philadelphia this week, showing their wares at the eighth World Congress on High-Speed Rail.

"We are bringing technology from Europe to the U.S. and engineering it here," said Stephen Robillard, vice president of high-speed rail for Siemens. Siemens hopes to sell its "RailJet," capable of running at 160 m.p.h., for use on existing American routes.

"It's a whole different comfort level than anything in the U.S. now," said Robillard, citing first-class, business-class, and coach-class sections; smoother rides; and lighter-weight construction, as well as plush interiors. "It's such a step up from what you have today that it really is a game-changer."

Siemens' main American factory is in Sacramento, Calif., where the company now builds light-rail vehicles for U.S. transit agencies, as well as 70 new 125-m.p.h. electric locomotives for Amtrak to use on the Northeast Corridor, starting next year. The company has purchased 28 acres adjacent to the factory to accommodate possible high-speed construction.

Alstom has a train factory in Hornell, N.Y., that makes and refurbishes railcars, including an ongoing project to rebuild PATCO's 120-car commuter rail fleet. It could also be the home of future high-speed train construction.

"We're taking the incremental approach," said Alstom spokesman Timothy Brown. "You have to get out of the all-or-nothing mode."

Brown said the "aesthetic experience" of traveling on lighter, quieter, sleeker trains, even at a mere 110 to 125 m.p.h., could build support in the United States for true high-speed trains, those traveling up to 220 m.p.h.

"If you bring that service to the U.S., you let the idea show itself," he said.

But changes in the political winds can imperil even the incremental approach, as the Spanish train-maker Talgo learned in Wisconsin.

Talgo has begun laying off workers at its new Milwaukee factory, after Republican leaders in the legislature, with the support of Gov. Scott Walker, decided to mothball two new, 14-car Talgo trains rather than pay for a new maintenance base for the trains, which were to travel between Milwaukee and Chicago.

"We definitely feel we were scapegoats for politics in Wisconsin," said Talgo America vice president Nora Friend. "But we're still committed to the United States, despite what happened in Wisconsin."

Foreign manufacturers will have to build trains in this country, with American labor and materials, to meet "Buy American" requirements, but many of the international companies complain that the United States lacks the supply chain for parts and materials because there has been no high-speed industry in this country.

Incremental improvements may allow the U.S. suppliers to catch up, as well as build support among passengers and politicians, the foreign manufacturers say.

"We think this is the way the United States is going," said Antonio Perez, president of Talgo America. "It goes incrementally, or nothing happens."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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