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Could a shortage of engineering know-how derail US high-speed trains?

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Interest in high-speed rail in the United States is at an all-time high. But do we have the resources to pull it off?

The Federal Railroad Administration announced earlier this month that it would award $8 billion in federal stimulus money to develop high-speed-passenger-rail service to various state applicants this winter, probably by January 2010.

There's no question that interest in high-speed rail in the United States is at an all-time high. As Larry Greenemeier reports in Scientific American, the federal stimulus money is providing seed money and interest in such projects, and states such as California, Florida and Texas are seriously weighing high-speed rail options.

California is currently working on high-speed rail plans that would connect San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco with a 190-mile-per-hour bullet train. Price tag: $10 billion, and California is hoping that most funding would come from the federal level.

However, there are a couple of rubs to these grandiose plans: there may not be enough engineering talent to fulfill the most ambitious plans, and there will be enormous infrastructure adaptations required. As Larry Greenemeier put it, the program will be plagued by "a shrinking pool of in-country rail sector experts (which the Obama administration acknowledges is the result of the relatively small investment in passenger rail in recent decades), a lack of money available at the state level for such projects, and the need for safety standards specific to high-speed trains."

For example, if Amtrak sought to shorten the high-speed Acela's trip from Washington, DC to Boston by 15 minutes, it would require about $5 billion in re-engineering world along the tracks and supporting infrastructure. Acela currently reaches top speeds of about 140 miles per hour, but for the most part, only averages 60 miles per hour. By contrast, high-speed trains in Europe and Asia travel their entire routes at about 200 miles per hour.

There are economic questions to be settled as well. Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser ran the numbers for high-speed rail versus air travel and auto travel between cities, and found the economic benefits to be mixed at best.

So a lot of the impetus for high-speed rail comes down to political will.  The engineering and infrastructure obstacle can be overcome if there is political will to support such an effort -- just as the Apollo Moon landing program came up with a lot of imaginative solutions to formerly unsolvable problems in a very short time span.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure