President Obama's stimulus plan includes billions of dollars to help jump-start a new network of high-speed trains. But the future of rail is already a reality in other parts of the world, including Japan, China? and? as Kathleen Schalch reports, the European Union.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Many people's idea of a lower-carbon US economy includes trains ? more trains and better trains. Outside of the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington relatively fast and comfortable inter-city rail service is merely a memory. Such trains largely disappeared from the American landscape generations ago replaced by interstate highways and jets. But congestion, high fuel consumption, and environmental problems have many Americans reconsidering the value of train travel. The effort picked up speed earlier this year when congress approved $8 billion in stimulus money to help jumpstart a new network of high-speed trains. But the future that plan envisions is already in place in many other parts of the world in places like Japan, China, and as Kathleen Schalch reports Europe.
[SOUND CLIP OF FROTHING MILK]
KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Chantal Zabus is frothing up a cup of cappuccino.
CHANTAL ZABUS: It's always good in the morning. You know to start the day with a nice coffee.
SCHALCH: Especially when you've got a long commute ahead of you ? to another country and a city more than 160 miles away.
ZABUS: I'm now commuting between Brussels and Paris. So I live in Brussels but I teach in Paris. Kevin is doing something similar.
SCHALCH: Zabus's husband, Kevin Dwyer, is also a university professor. He commutes from Brussels to the French city of Lille. They like living in this big, four-story house in Brussels.
KEVIN DWYER: We were considering like living in Paris but in Paris you can never live in a house. You have to live in a small, small, small apartment.
ZABUS: This is becoming I mean a wider practice now ? commuting between European countries. We are like a new species. It's called the Euro Proff.
SCHALCH: This works for one simple reason. High-speed rail has cut commute times between major European cities in half. It used to take three hours to get from Brussels to Paris. Now it's just an hour and 20 minutes ? on this train: The Talis.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen welcome on board this Talis train to Amsterdam Central Station.
SCHALCH: It's maroon and grey and sleek with a pointy nose that keeps low to the ground. Soon we're gliding along at 190 miles per hour. The trees next to the train track are a blur. The only time I've ever had the sensation of going this fast is on an airplane taking off or landing. This train stops at Gare du Nord in Paris where Clement Michele is sitting in the mezzanine. Michele used to run another Paris train station ? Gare de Lyon. We watch as high-speed rail passengers arrive from Amsterdam, Brussels, and London ? many of them heading out into the dense, urban neighborhood around the station. Michele says that's one of the things that makes high-speed rail work here.
CLEMENT MICHELE: When you build a station in Europe if you walk five minutes around the station you may have like 5000 people. Whereas in the US you may not be able to walk around the station because in some places you don't even have sidewalks.
SCHALCH: The trains also feed passengers into Europe's extensive local mass transit systems like the Paris Metro. Many US cities don't have such networks. And Michele points out another key difference ? the public's willingness to pay for the system. Bullet trains like the ones in Europe and Japan are pricey. They require smooth tracks, special switches, security systems, and under or over passes at crossings to keep cars off the tracks. European's have been willing to tax themselves to make these investments on the order of tens of billions of dollars a year.
CLEMENT MICHELE: It's kind of known throughout Europe that an entire train system cannot rely only on private money. You have to get subsidies at least for building the tracks, maintaining the tracks, and then the train-operating companies can sometimes be profitable.
SCHALCH: The last element you need is patience. Mirelle Faugere is chief executive officer of the French railway system the SNCF. She says adding new lines for fast trains can be slow.
MIRELLE FAUGERE: You have to discuss a lot before a decision. And the time can be 18, 20 years.
SCHALCH: But Faugere says all this careful planning can help ensure that the huge investment pays off as it has here.
FAUGERE: Profitability depends on the load factor and the load factor ? .
SCHALCH: So the trains are full?
FAUGERE: Yes the train is quite full and the average load factor in France is about 75%.
SCHALCH: That's on 800 high-speed trains a day. And that's just in France. The US isn't planning anything on this scale. The bulk of the $8 billion in stimulus money will help upgrade a few existence routes and roughly double top speeds to up to 110 miles per hour. That would be a big improvement but still far slower than European-style bullet trains. Only California's plans call for a true high-speed system between Los Angeles and San Francisco and its share of the stimulus money wouldn't begin to cover its costs. There's no telling if the US will ultimately muster the resources needed to follow Europe's example. And of course there are many who argue that it shouldn't ? that the US is just too different for high-speed rail to succeed. Meanwhile though other countries continue to streak ahead. Spain plans to spend $140 billion over the next 10 years to create Europe's biggest high-speed network. China plans to spend more than twice that much. French rail CEO Mirelle Faugere says Europeans clearly prefer high-speed rail to the alternatives ? more congestion on the roads and in the skies and more pollution. For all but the longest trips she says, riding trains is more efficient and better for the climate.
FAUGERE: The comparison between the train, the plane, and the car, for example for one kilometer we spend 8 gram of carbon for the train and we spend 20 per kilometer for the car and 22 for the plane. And the difference is huge.
SCHALCH: And there are plans for faster trains that use even less energy. France's biggest manufacturer of high-speed trains, Alstom Transport, is testing a new model ? the AGV.
LAUREN GERBERT: The AGV consumes eight times less then a car and 15 times less than a plane.
SCHALCH: That's company spokesman Lauren Gerbert.
GERBERT: It generates its own energy when you break and you can understand that when you run at 270 miles per hour when you break you generate a lot of energy.
SCHALCH: You heard him right ? 270 miles per hour. Gerbert says that Italy has placed an order and that lots of other countries have expressed interest.
GERBERT: Morocco is interested. Argentina, Russia, and maybe the United States.
SCHALCH: For The World I'm Kathleen Schalch, Paris.
WERMAN: You can see a map of proposed high-speed rail routes in the US on our website. That's The World dot org. And while you're there be sure to check out the summer photos that fans of The World have sent in and we've put together a slideshow of some of our favorites. It's not too late to send us your snaps as we'll be adding to the slideshow over the next few weeks. Again just go to The World dot org and look for Your Summer Photos and that's where you'll find all the details on how to get your pictures to us.