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High-speed rail in East? Not so fast.

To passengers looking forward to riding high-speed trains in New England, planners have a message: Not so fast.

Washington is spending $8 billion in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed rail corridors nationwide. But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 mph are out of the question.

Amtrak last month unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year vision for a high-speed rail line on the East Coast. It would reduce travel times along the congested corridor using trains traveling as fast as 220 mph.

Amtrak's Acela trains already run as fast as 150 mph, but south of New York, Acela runs at 135 mph because of curves, tunnels and additional station stops, spokesman Steve Kulm said.

"High speed is kind of a loose definition," said Robert Kulat, a spokesman at the Federal Railroad Administration. "What we're looking at is reduced travel times."

Kulat said federal legislation in 2008 defined 110 mph as high speed. Federal transportation officials look to states to reduce travel time rather than reach the 110-mph threshold, he said.

"In the future we do want them to get to that goal," he said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition."

Rail at 110 mph is planned for Charlotte to the District; Chicago to Detroit and Chicago to Milwaukee; St. Louis to Kansas City, Mo.; New York to Buffalo, N.Y.; and Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa. to Pittsburgh.

In rural New England, cattle crossings halt high-speed trains, said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains moving at between 65 mph and 80 mph. That's slower than high-speed trains and even further short of the 220-mph bullet trains planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Still, trains moving at one-third that speed should accomplish their main goal: drawing motorists from gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting cars in stop-and-go highway traffic, planners say.

Intercity rail connecting cities to promote economic development is an important, though less sexy and overlooked requirement of the federal rail program that instead draws attention for its high-speed initiative.

In August Virginia submitted new applications requesting federal funding for high-seed rail, including more than $50 million for the corridor between Richmond and the District.

In June Maryland and 10 other states asked federal railroad officials to develop a plan to upgrade high-speed passenger rail service along the Northeast Corridor over the next four decades.

The states proposed that the Federal Railroad Administration launch a three-year, $18.8 million study of possible expansions and improvements to Amtrak and commuter rail service along the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont have received $160 million in federal economic stimulus money for track improvements to link higher speed trains from New York City to New Haven, Conn., and north to Hartford, Conn., Springfield, Mass., Vermont and Montreal.

Connecticut is expected to receive an additional $220 million in federal money, matched by $260 million in state funding, to upgrade train service the width of the state, from New Haven on Long Island Sound north to Springfield, Mass.

A 150-mph route is planned for Portland, Ore., to Seattle, eventually extending to Eugene, Ore.

-- Associated Press and staff reports

By Michael Bolden  | October 18, 2010; 8:58 AM ET
Categories:  Amtrak, Passenger Rail, Transportation Politics  
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