If U.S. gets bullet train, it might run here

Central Japan Railway Co.'s N700A Shinkansen bullet train. A manager of the line spoke here.
Central Japan Railway Co.'s N700A Shinkansen bullet train. A manager of the line spoke here. (TOMOHIRO OHSUMI / Bloomberg News)
Posted: June 06, 2013

Philadelphia is in a sweet spot for high-speed rail travel if the United States ever decides to follow European and Asian nations in developing bullet trains.

Rail experts from France, Japan, England, and the United States on Tuesday outlined the success formula for high-speed trains: large populations, big job markets, frequent trains, and affordable fares.

Among 7,870 American rail routes evaluated as candidates for high-speed rail, the Philadelphia-New York route ranked third, according to the Manhattan-based urban research organization the Regional Plan Association (RPA). The New York-Washington route got the highest score, and New York-Boston was second.

Relatively short corridors such as Philadelphia-New York, Los Angeles-San Diego, and Chicago-Milwaukee "can anchor investments in longer, multicity corridors and be priced to attract both high-speed commuting and intercity trips," the RPA study said.

France now has 230 cities served by high-speed trains, while Germany has 47, Japan 17, Spain 16, and Italy 15. But high-speed trains that travel more than 155 m.p.h. are nonexistent here.

"It's embarrassing for Americans," Robert Yaro, president of the RPA and a city planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday at a meeting of high-speed rail experts convened in Center City by the American Public Transportation Association. "Twenty-one countries have built or are planning high-speed lines. We're now behind Laos, Thailand, Turkey, and Morocco."

A high-speed train trip between Philadelphia and New York would take less than 40 minutes.

Taku Kawaguchi, manager of the Washington office for Central Japan Railway Co., said Japan's bullet trains can successfully compete with airliners between cities as far apart as Tokyo and Hiroshima - 513 miles.

Kawaguchi said key factors to success are competitive fares and frequency of trains. The Tokyo-Osaka line carries 15 trains an hour and 143 million passengers a year at speeds up to 200 m.p.h.

Central Japan Railway is working on a magnetic-levitation train it hopes to operate by 2027 that will cruise at 315 m.p.h. and make the 179-mile trip from Tokyo to Nagoya in 40 minutes.

The lead planner of England's effort to build a high-speed rail network, Andrew McNaughton, also stressed the need for frequent trains "at a price people are prepared to pay." McNaughton, technical director of High Speed Two Ltd., in London, said the British are planning for up to 18 trains an hour between key cities.

"What's the point of a high-speed train if there's just one train an hour?" he said. "Time spent on the platform is the same as time spent on the train."

McNaughton said the British expect to spend at least $100 million per mile to build their system.

In the United States, Yaro said, the best candidates for high-speed rail are cities 100 to 600 miles apart. The Northeast Corridor, with large cities close together, crowded airspace, and congested highways, is the best prospect, he said.

Funding, as always, remains the major obstacle. The Obama administration put $10 million in stimulus funds toward "higher-speed" rail projects in 2010, but Congress has blocked further high-speed rail spending, arguing the costs are too high.

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

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