Think about passenger trains, and the images might well be the sleek “bullet trains” of Europe and the Acela trains used on Amtrak’s few high-speed routes in the northeastern United States.
The reality is much more modest: While America needs a high-speed rail network, most passenger trains for the foreseeable future will look much like they did 50 years ago.
That’s because passenger rail in this country has to catch up compared with Europe and China. There, high-speed rail is a reality that is changing the way people live and improving the economies of those regions.
At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, a Union-Pacific railroad executive noted that passenger rail is now a subject of much discussion in the United States, but that implies considerable use of tracks now used for freight — also vital to the economy of this country.
“We want to make sure our customers are protected,” Robert W. Turner of the railroad said. “At the same time, if there are opportunities where we can work with passenger rail, we will.”
For genuine high-speed rail, as that envisioned now in California, dedicated tracks will be required for the passenger trains that run at much higher speeds and have other requirements, Turner noted. “You have to have complete separation (because of speed differentials),” he said.
In Louisiana, revival of passenger service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a goal of business and political leaders in both cities. FutureBR, our city’s new master plan, envisions a $450 million project to launch service on existing tracks.
In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said it would not pursue $300 million in federal funds to help launch the passenger rail service, saying it would be too costly to build and maintain.
Given the furor over Jindal’s opposition to the idea, it’s worth nothing Turner’s comments. While the difficulties can be overcome, as they have in other states with passenger rail on regular tracks, the process of making passenger rail a reality requires careful planning.
It’s more than simply buying a locomotive, then starting to sell the cocktails to warm the passengers bound for the French Quarter in New Orleans.