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Talking high-speed railways with Invensys Rail's Kevin Riddett

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Smart Planet speaks with Kevin Riddett, president and CEO of Invensys Rail, on prospects for high-speed rail systems in the U.S.

Invensys, which makes systems that manage oil refineries, power stations and railways, is in the middle of a global infrastructure build-out. But the most interesting of its sectors may be the potential for high-speed railways in the United States.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated a big chunk of cash to upgrading rail infrastructure. That funding has folks thinking about high-speed rail systems. Invensys' rail unit, Invensys Rail, is likely to benefit from these upgrades. After all, Invensys systems operate behind the scenes of railways around the world.

Also: US government kick-starts $8 billion in high-speed rail projects

High-speed trains, which travel about 186 mph to 220 mph, are a no-show in the U.S., but are popular in Europe as well as Asia. Can the U.S. make the leap to high-speed railways?

I recently spoke with Kevin Riddett, president and CEO of Invensys Rail. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

On the prospects for high-speed rail systems in the U.S., Riddett said he was hopeful that funding has been allocated by President Obama's stimulus plans for rail infrastructure. "There are some interesting technology and specification decisions to be made," said Riddett.

What states will be test beds for high-speed rail lines? Riddett said Florida and California look like the states that have the most potential for high-speed rail systems. For instance, Florida has some infrastructure already laid for high-speed rails. California has the will, but there's a lot of work to be done. The Florida system has $1.25 billion in funding from the Federal government and plans for an Orlando to Tampa route. The project has proceeded in fits and starts since 2004.

Here's Florida's big plan:

Riddett, who has spoken in Florida at high-speed rail conferences, said the Sunshine State is farthest along, but the project is still in the development phase. "The amount of funding isn't adequate to build whole systems," he said.

Will I ever get high-speed rail systems in the Northeast Corridor? In a word: No. Riddett explained that shared track systems---where passenger travel, freight and different operators all use the same infrastructure---aren't conducive to high-speed rail systems. Stimulus money is flowing into this rail infrastructure, but high-speed rail systems are highly unlikely.

On what high-speed rail systems need, Riddett said a green field development area is most necessary. For instance, high-speed systems need separate grading and tracks. You also can't have crossings, a big problem in an area like the Northeast, explained Riddett. "You really need a green field. No crossings and a completely different technology architecture than exists today," said Riddett.

Regarding that technology, Riddett noted that there's a bit of a sea change underway in rail systems of all sorts. On the high-speed side of the equation, Invensys systems have to be redundant and focused on safety. If sensors, pick up discrepancies on high-speed trains, the first move is to stop the train. On regular rail systems, the information technology revolves around asset utilization, command and control, collision avoidance, crew protection and more throughput. Invensys has partnered with Cognizant Technology to develop and test these systems. For instance, Riddett noted that algorithms in the latest signaling systems can project how close trains can be so companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern can get more freight through.

On IT department roles, Riddett said that technology managers are having more of a say in these new train and rail systems, which are based on processors and communications instead of mechanical switches. "We're starting to see a lot more decision making with the specs by IT groups," said Riddett. As a result, technology companies such as IBM and Lockheed Martin are interested in the rail space.

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure