Gravy Train: Obama Doles Out Funds for New Rail Infrastructure

Last Updated Jan 29, 2010 7:06 AM EST

It's finally Christmas time, following a very long winter, for rail travel advocates who have spent decades watching trains get passed over in favor of cars and highways. President Obama spent some time yesterday detailing how the Federal government will split up $8 billion in rail grants to various states.

The big winners are California, Florida and Illinois. (Is it any accident that these are all important states in the elections, too?) Here's a list of the largest grants, ranked by amount:

  • California: $2.25 billion toward a planned Sacramento to Los Angeles line
  • Florida: $1.25 billion for a line between Tampa and Orlando, with plans for later extension to Miami
  • Northeastern seaboard: $1.19 billion for several corridors, including a line from Washington, D.C. all the way to Maine
  • Illinois region: $1.13 billion for lines between Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago, plus $244 million for a line extending to Detroit
  • Virginia and North Carolina: $620 million for the line running from Charlotte through Richmond and on to Washington, D.C.
  • Pacific Northwest: $598 million for a line from Eugene, Oregon through Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Ohio: $400 million for a line from Cincinnati to Cleveland
Most of the above are track upgrades and additions, but there is also plenty of virgin track to be built, particularly in California and Florida. There are also small amounts going to states like Vermont and Texas for maintenance and small upgrades, making up the remainder of the $8 billion total. For more specifics on what each state is getting, I'd recommend the Transport Politic, which has a rather useful chart to go with their article.

The funding is being widely billed as money for "high-speed rail", but that's not particularly accurate. High-speed rail lines are costly, and for rail, $8 billion ain't much. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, only the lines in California and Florida will be able to top 150 miles per hour. By comparison, HSR in Europe and Asia can sometimes break 200 mph; China's newest train just set a speed record for regularly scheduled trains at 217 mph.

Another nit to pick is the idea that rail funding is a fix for the recession. In his own blog post about the funding, transportation secretary Ray LaHood lists jobs as one of the top benefits of new rail. But the recession will probably be long over by the time rail work is gearing up. A new rail line (or even upgrade of an old one) requires a long process of planning and permitting, and despite the apparent enthusiasm for rail there will inevitably be those who sue or stall to keep trains out of their communities.

This might sound like griping; I've used this space in the past to point out that Federal funding might become a trainwreck, at least based on past history. But excitement seems to be running high in both political parties for new rail, and the jobs and transportation benefits could certainly be helpful, even if they take a few years.

Some specific companies also stand to benefit, like Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens, all of whom make trains and track components.

What's interesting from here is speculating on how far American rail could go. All the good arguments Obama makes for rail apply: They take cars off the road, provide jobs and link communities. But there are also plenty of difficulties, some particular to America: Low population densities and long distances, high labor costs, permitting difficulties in populated areas, and an entrenched car culture.

We'll probably never have a strong rail infrastructure everywhere, for some of the above reasons. Yet HSR is being planned all over the country -- despite the absence so far of a single line. Wired's most recent issue has a feature on bullet train plans; click through the picture below to see more.