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Trains That Fly : The French Do It, The Japanese Do It, The Swedes To It -- Is It Finally Time For Americans To Try High-speed?

May 02, 1993|LEWIS BEALE | Lewis Beale is a staff writer for the New York Daily News. His last story for the magazine was on Japanese pop musician Ryuichi Sakamoto

Taking a more moderate view are the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the American Automobile Assn. Both believe there is some need for high-speed technology, but question how it will be funded. The auto group opposed a recent attempt to raise more money for Amtrak by raising the gas tax a penny. Both organizations also oppose financing rail through the Highway Trust Fund. "If there is a market for high-speed rail," says AAA spokesman Richard F. Hebert, "then the users of that service should pay for it."

In this highly competitive arena, high-speed rail advocates are looking to Congress and local governments for some form of help. Here, too, the messages are mixed. A 1992 attempt to put tax-exempt high-speed bonds under the same status as large infrastructure projects like airports and highways was passed by the Senate but failed in the House. Rail proponents say that unless this financial cap is lifted, they cannot raise the billions of dollars needed for their projects.

On the state level, any number of routes could be upgraded for X2000-type trains within two to five years. But while states like Ohio and Pennsylvania have done studies that point to a large ridership for high-speed service, they lack the funding to institute it. Two hours and forty minutes after it left New York, the X2000 pulls into Washington's Union Station. These pioneers are chipper. They have experienced the future, and can report back that it works.

"People appreciate this hassle-free traveling," says Wade Parks, a ruddy-faced New Yorker traveling with his wife, Elizabeth. "You're treated like a human."

Vranich overhears comments like these, and it is as if he has just attended his own testimonial dinner. The trains work. The passengers like them.

As Vranich strides through Union Station, one can imagine a vision passing through his mind; it is a dream he has seen many times before, of a futuristic map published by the High Speed Rail Assn. of potential rail corridors. A thick black line links several Colorado cities. In California, multiple lines crisscross the state, from Sacramento to Tijuana. The East and Midwest are thick with possible routes. There are lines connecting New Orleans to Houston and Dallas, more in Florida.

Most of these routes are barely in the planning stage. They may never become a reality. But today, in the post-X2000 glow, anything seems possible. For Joseph Vranich and his co-passengers, the future of American rail seems to be coming at them in a blur of high speed.

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