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US politicians push for private finance to fund high speed rail plans

American politicians last week said private finance must be used to deliver high speed rail lines between Boston, New York and Washington.

The Congress Transportation Committee’s proposal would transfer development of the nation’s most congested rail corridor from state owned Amtrak to the private sector.

Committee chairman John Mica and rail subcommittee chairman Bill Shuster said the plan was to upgrade the 700km long route over 10 years instead of the planned 30 at a much reduced cost.

The route is not currently designated as a high speed rail corridor under President Barack Obama’s plans. This is because it was already upgraded in the 1980s and early 1990s with $4bn (£2.4bn) direct federal funding. Amtrack has plans to upgrade the route, but these are currently unfunded.

“We plan introduce legislation to separate the NEC from Amtrak, transfer it to a separate entity, and begin a competitive bidding process that would allow for a PPP to design, build, operate, maintain, and finance high-speed service,” said Mica.

“Our plan would do so in a dramatically shorter time, in closer to 10 rather than 30 years, and at a fraction of the $117bn (£71bn) cost proposed by Amtrak,” he said.

Passenger numbers on the route have fallen since 1977, down from 10.6M per year to 10.5M last year.

Mica said private investors would make a better job of turning this decline around.

“This is a dismal record and a pitiful statement of Amtrak’s lack of achievement in this incredibly valuable transportation corridor,” he said. “We can attract private sector resources and expertise and do it in less than half the time.

Mica used Britain’s Virgin-operated West Coast Main Line as an example of profitable private sector rail operations.

Shuster agreed it was time to inject some private investment.

“Amtrak’s ‘Vision Plan’ for high speed rail in the NEC lacks one important ingredient: vision,” Shuster said. “We’ve tried it Amtrak’s way without success for nearly 40 years and it’s time to go down a new path and inject private sector competition.

“It is time to deregulate America’s passenger rail system and the Northeast Corridor presents the best place to start with private investment and market-based ideas.”

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