Dreaming of the Fastest Trains

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Ray LaHood visiting Japan's high-speed rail

(Collin Campbell, Transportation Nation) - Ever since President Obama announced billions in funding for high-speed rail projects in the U.S. early this year, the excitement over a transformation of transportation has built.  But the projects being funded by that money have also abused the definition of "high-speed" a bit.  Most of the money is going to improving on-time performance in places like Chicago and Seattle, as well as speeding up trains across the country, and not to rates that will blow your socks off.

And even the marquee high-speed rail projects in California and Florida aren't likely to deliver what Secretary Ray LaHood called "the thrill of a lifetime" today.  That's him above riding a MAGLEV train in Japan (above), with Central Japan Railway Chairman Yoshiaki Kasai.  It's a train that actually floats above its rails, and can hit over 350 mph.  Japan only has a short route running now -- it's incredibly expensive to build -- by they plan to have a web, speedily connecting major cities by mid-century.  The technology has been universally ruled too expensive to build in the U.S., at least with stimulus funds.

It's technology and photo-ops like this that Central Japan Railway, the company making MAGLEV and other high-speed trains for export to the U.S., hopes will get it the multi-million dollar contracts to set up the California and Florida's rail systems.  They've also hired people like Richard Lawless, a seasoned veteran of the CIA and State Department, to navigate the corridors of Washington and get federal backing to beat off competing proposals from Spain's Talgo or Germany's Siemens.  The world is still waiting to hear who will build America's (semi) high-speed future.