Time for America to Get on Fast Track?

High Speed Rail
SUNMO, high speed rail plans in California

At the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, the glory days of American train travel are remembered and celebrated.

They were days of big machines - and big dreams. The biggest of all was the construction of tracks that would tie the country together from east to west: the transcontinental railroad.

It was a massive contruction project using cutting edge technology. Starting in the middle of the Civil War, the transcontinental railway took just six years to complete, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

It was an accomplishment against the odds, according to former California treasurer and longtime rail travel enthusiast Phil Angelides.

"Look, in the middle of the Civil War, when 600,000 Americans were dying of disease and on the battlefield, that's when Abraham Lincoln pushed through the transcontinental railroad that ended right here on this spot," he said.

Its western terminus was in Sacramento, but the transcontinental railroad had an impact across the country. Trains became engines for American prosperity - opening millions of acres of land to farming and moving passengers, mail and freight between growing cities. By 1890, 164,000 miles of rail were laid and trains dominated transportation.

But then came the 20th century, with automobiles and airplanes. By 1957, planes were carrying more passengers and a growing interstate highway system provided an attractive alternative to riding the rails.

"In the 1950s, this country made an immense investment in roadways. Like no other country in the world. So, we really did build an economy around automobiles. And we built an economy around cheap gasoline," Angelides said.

But some other countries chose to invest in railroads - high speed trains that travel more than 150 miles per hour. For decades, superfast trains have been a reality in Europe and Asia. And for decades, American travelers have been envious.

In 1964, Walter Cronkite took a ride on Japan's "Bullet Train."

"Behind me is the new Takaido super-express - capable of bulleting down these tracks at 160 mph," Cronkite said then.

In 1990, when the TGV in France was setting speed records, "Sunday Morning's" very own Charles Osgood took a close look.

"It is really very pleasant sitting here watching the countryside going by at 200 mph. There was a time when we used to do things in the new world and here in Europe they would look at us and say 'Too bad we can't do it here.' Now it seems to be the old world where new things are happening - new things like this and it makes us wonder why can't we do it too," Osgood reported.

Today, the fastest train in the United States is the Acela in the Northeast. While the Acela is capable of 150 mph, the tracks are so bad it limps along at an average of 80 mph.

But true high speed rail could be coming to the Northeast and nine other busy corridors, including Florida, Texas, Illinois, California and the Pacific Northwest.

"The federal government under President Obama has made it clear it's going to be a partner in building high-speed rail," Angelides said.

The president's stimulus plan committed $8 billion for high speed rail development.

"Building an new system of high speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways and adding to an already overburdened aviation system," Mr. Obama .

California already has an ambitious plan for high-speed rail. Computer animation imagines trains zipping past clogged freeways at up to 220 mph.

So far, it's all still on the drawing board, but getting closer to reality.

"We call this a war room, so these maps get shifted and changed," Tony Daniels showed Blackstone

Daniels leads an engineering team planning some 800 miles of new track from San Francisco and Sacramento to Los Angeles and San Diego.

"It's got challenges, but challenges that can managed," Daniels said. "There's nothing that would give us any doubt whatsoever that this can be built. Not one."

It can be built, but will it? Daniels left his job with British Rail 30 years ago hoping to build high-speed railways in America.

"And there was an opportunity. In [1979] somebody said, 'Well, we're gonna do it in the United States,'" he explained. "And I said, 'Right. I want to go and try it.'"

And since 1979, Daniels said he hasn't gotten discouraged about the prospects of high-speed rail in the U.S.

"Absolutely not," he said. "And you'll get people saying, 'Yeah, he's too optimistic.' But we made it. This time, it's gonna go."

California voters approved a $9.9 billion bond issue last November to get work started. Even a recession won't get in the way, says Quentin Kopp of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

"We're California. We're the state, during the middle of the Depression, which built the Golden Gate Bridge. We're the state, during the middle of the Depression, which built the Bay Bridge. And a depression, economically - much less a recession - has never stopped the spirit of California," Kopp said.

Kopp is an enthusiastic salesman for high speed trains in California. He says it's the only way to keep the state's growing population moving.

"Let's just take that hypothetical of accommodating travel requirements of 50 million Californians in the year [2030]. We would have to spend money somehow, adding 3,000 lane miles of freeway, adding five runways at major airports, which can't be expanded today because of environmental reasons mostly," Kopp said.

Today the train from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes more than 12 hours. In a high speed train, the trip would be cut to just two hours and 38 minutes - 10 hours less.

And, according to Angelides, city center to city center will be faster than flying.

"You know, I traveled up today from Los Angeles. It's quote, unquote, "An hour and 15 minute flight." You know, but there's the trip to the airport. There's the hour you got to be there before the flight. You know, all probably end-to-end, a four hour trek," he said.

To run 220 miles an hour, the trains will have to go over or under all roads. That means building 600 new bridges or tunnels in a state where big projects often run into environmental concerns. But Angelides, whose Apollo Alliance promotes green industry, said the electric-powered trains are definitely green and worth the $40 billion price tag.

"Look there are a lot of environmental benefits. We can take a million cars off the road," he said.

But critics worry the benefits of high speed rail are overestimated and the costs have been underestimated.

"My concern is we've had a sales pitch," said Julie Quinlan, a mother of two and neighborhood activist who fears such a huge project is bound to go far over budget.

"At the same time, you're having teachers that are getting pink slips in California. And the public school system really needs to be taken care of. So, we need to balance this, and not waste a dime," she said.

Like the rest of Amtrak, California's passenger trains are heavily subsidized. Supporters of high speed rail, however, say the fast trains will operate at a profit.

"Everywhere that you put a high speed train in - once it's in, it makes money. Everywhere, without exception," said Daniels.

Opponents say the U.S. doesn't have a train culture - we'll never ride the way Europeans and Asians do. But those who have been pushing high speed rail for years believe America is finally getting on the right track.

"Once you've been on high speed rail, whether it's France or Japan or Spain or Germany - you never forget it," Kopp said. "And you realize that this is a technology whose time has come. As a matter of fact, it came in the last century. But it sure is 21st century for the United States of America."

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.