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US sets out plans for £33bn investment in high speed rail

US vice president Joe Biden yesterday announced that $53bn (£33bn) in federal funds would be set aside over the next six year to further construction of a national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network.

But the plan was immediately slammed by Congress’ transportation committee as lacking focus and wasting cash on trains that are not truly high speed.

Biden’s plan will immediately see £5bn allocated from President Obama’s budget for the coming financial year. This cash will be focused on core express corridors, regional routes and what has been described as “emerging” routes.

Critics of the plan have pointed out that only trains on the core express corridors will travel above 200km/hr. These corridors will form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks.

Much of the cash, however, will be spent on regional routes - with train speeds of between 140km/hr and 200km/kr - and “emerging routes” with trains travelling up to 144km/hr.

Biden said that this system will allow the Department of Transportation – in partnership with states, freight rail, and private companies – to identify corridors for the construction of world-class high-speed rail, while raising speeds on existing rail lines and providing “crucial planning and resources” to communities who want to join the national high-speed rail network. President Obama has set a target of giving 80% of Americans access to high speed rail services within 25 years.

“As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation – one of which is infrastructure,” said Biden.  “As a long time Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced. This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high speed rail for more Americans.”

The six year commitment builds on a £6.5bn down payment the Obama administration has already devoted to a national high-speed rail system – including £5.2bn of Recovery Act funds and £2bn from the 2010 budget.

However, much of this cash remains unspent, with many states unwilling to commit to an investment that could leave them liable to paying subsidies to train operators in the future.

Last month US transportation secretary Ray LaHood was forced to reallocate £700M of high speed rail cash after the states of Ohio and Wisconsin pulled out of the programme.The two states elected Republican governors in November’s elections and have both decided to prioritise spending cuts over infrastructure investment.

Overall, £2.8bn of the £5.2bn recovery act pot has been allocated to date.

Congress transportation committee chairman John Mica and railroads subcommittee chairman Bill Shuster - both Republicans - expressed extreme reservationsover the plan.

“With the first £6.5bn in rail grants, we found that the Federal Railroad Administration is not a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects” said Mica.

“What the Administration touted as high speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere. These projects were then hijacked by [national rail operator] Amtrack, most of them costly and some already rejected by state agencies,” Mica added. “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service.”

“Rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the Administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” Mica concluded.

Shuster added that the plan will not attract private investment, and routes will not be profitable.

“The committee plans to investigate how previous funding decisions were made. If the Obama Administration is serious about high speed rail, they should stop throwing money at projects in the same failed manner. Rail projects that are not economically sound will not ‘win the future.’ It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidising a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even.

“Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will,” Shuster said.

Biden’s proposal also streamlines the Department of Transportation’s rail programmes, making it simpler for states, cities, and private companies to apply for grants and loans. For the first time, all high speed and intercity passenger rail programs will be consolidated into two new accounts: a £2.5bn account for network development, focused on building new infrastructure, stations, and equipment; and a £2.5bn account for maintainenace and renewal.

 

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