Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has spent the last week in Europe, where he’s been meeting with French, German, and Spanish officials on a high-speed fact-finding tour. His conclusions — that the U.S. has a model to emulate in European very fast trains — indicates the administration’s seriousness in approaching the development of such transportation technologies in the United States. Washington, it appears, is not going to let the dream for true high-speed rail slip away.
In meetings with French and Spanish officials, Mr. LaHood could hardly restrain his excitement about his trip to Europe, telling AFP that “In America we’re just beginning what you’ve done here in Europe for such a long period of time in such a successful way. This is very impressive.” He is likely to visit Japan, the Asian model for fast trains, later in the year. The United Kingdom’s Transport Minister, Lord Andrew Adonis, made a similar trip two weeks ago.
According to the AP, Mr. LaHood was especially impressed by Spain’s relatively lower-cost system compared to more expensive alternatives in Germany and Japan. I’m not sure whether those differences are a result of the lower-wage Spanish work force or some other factor; the article doesn’t specify. What is clear is that the distinctively Spanish obsession with using tunnel boring machines (TBM) seems to be a model for the Transportation Secretary; these semi-automated devices save on both time and cost in building underground rail corridors. For example, the 3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build. That’s far cheaper per mile than any similar U.S. tunneling project, and part of the explanation is the efficient use of those TBMs.
By 2020, Spain’s plan is to have 10,000 km of high-speed rail in operation, giving it the second largest network in the world after China. Ninety percent of the country’s citizens will be within 50 km of a high-speed station. Can the U.S. commit itself to an equivalent goal?
I have been a strong proponent of truly fast high-speed rail, and Mr. LaHood’s close inspection of European trains traveling at above 186 mph indicates that he feels the same. California needs a large federal commitment to get moving on its project — the first American example of modern rail investment and a case that is strikingly similar to Spain. Will Washington climb on board?
Image above: Secretary Ray LaHood meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, from AFP