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U.S. unveils $53 billion plan for national high-speed rail

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U.S. vice president Joe Biden announced a $53 billion, six-year plan for a national high-speed rail network that will place HSR "on equal footing" with other surface transportation programs.

U.S. vice president Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a $53 billion, six-year plan for a national high-speed rail network that will place HSR "on equal footing" with other surface transportation programs.

The plan, which dovetails president Barack Obama's goal to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, is intended to support continued construction of the intercity passenger rail network.

"Amtrak Joe" made the announcement with transportation secretary Ray LaHood from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (which, incidentally, is a main node for Amtrak along its Northeast Corridor -- and high-speed Acela -- lines.)

“There are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation -- one of which is infrastructure,” Biden said. “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."

The plan, which begins with $8 billion set aside in the national budget for fiscal year 2011, will focus on three areas:

  • Core Express. "The backbone of the national high-speed rail system." Electrified trains on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125 to 250 m.p.h. or higher.
  • Regional. Corridors with train speeds of 90 to 125 m.p.h. Short-term benefit: increases in trips and reductions in travel times. Long-term: the foundation for future high-speed service.
  • Emerging. Corridors with trains traveling at up to 90 m.p.h. where there may not have been sufficient (or any) service before. Offers basic access to the greater rail network.

Simply, the plan is to build out the high-speed network and raise the speeds of the rest. The plan will be implemented with partnerships among state governments, freight rail and private companies, Biden said.

Biden offered a local example to support his claims: track improvements raised speeds on Amtrak's Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia to 110 mph in 2006. The result: ridership in the corridor increased by 57 percent.

But the announcement is perhaps most important not for the funds but the federal reorganization it users in. The proposal also streamlines the Dept. of Transportation’s rail programs, which should make it simpler for states, cities and private companies to apply for grants and loans.

High speed and intercity passenger rail programs will be consolidated into two new accounts:

  • A $4 billion account for network development, focused on building new infrastructure, stations, and equipment.
  • A $4 billion account for system preservation and renewal, including bringing stations into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

That news, along with the federal government's emphasis on bringing private investment into the project, is key.

Here's a video of the announcement:

Photo: David Lienemann/White House

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure