There was some good news for electric travel last week. No, I’m not talking about the impending wave (trickle?) of electric vehicles, but rather high-speed rail. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Friday that more than 50 high-speed rail projects across 23 states will receive a total of $2.4 billion.

More than $2 billion sounds great, certainly a step up from the paltry funding Amtrak has seen in much of the last decade. The majority of that money will go to California, Florida, Iowa and Michigan for rail projects. But to think that this funding is sowing the seeds of TGV or Shinkansen-style travel is misguided, at best.

In most regions of the world, HSR is defined as sustained travel at more than 100 mph. The latest models operating in Spain, China and other countries operate at 220 mph and beyond. However, the Detroit-to-Chicago project, which received $161 million, will top out at around 100 mph. Wow, 100 sounds a lot better than 60 mph on a highway. But so does 140 mph, which is what the Northeast Corridor’s Acela is capable of cruising along at if…

If there wasn’t so much curvature in the track.

If the train wasn’t weighted heavily in the front to meet Federal Railroad Administration demands for safety because it operates on tracks that interact with freight trains.

If there wasn’t so much train traffic.

The reality is there are only two places on the stretch from Boston to Washington, D.C. where the Acela can reach 140 mph, and even so, it rarely does.

As for the Northeast, Siemens was recently awarded a $466 million contract to build 70 new locomotives for Amtrak to rejuvenate its train stock, something that is desperately needed across the U.S.

When you talk to HSR organizations across the country, they have careful plans in place to rebuild infrastructure that can rely on electricity, which someday could come from renewables, but their overall goals are modest.

The proposal for the Florida train, which just received $800 million and would stretch from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami, is slated to run at 168 mph on a dedicated high-speed track, but a closer look at the proposal says that it will make the approximately 84-mile journey in just under an hour. Doing the math, that doesn’t come out to be 168 mph, or even close.

That’s the problem with rail in America. We need it, badly. But when you get on the phone with HSR organizations from the Pacific Northwest to Florida, folks are talking about sustaining 60 mph to 90 mph train rides in a world where China is reaching for 300 mph.

In California, where the talk about a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco is being seriously considered, they raised a $10 billion bond (back in 2008, before the state went completely bankrupt) to build a grade-separated, true high-speed train that would take around two hours to travel from LA to San Francisco. The estimated price tag is $40 billion; the timeline is 20 years. Because California is much further along in the environmental assessments and planning for its project, it received $901 million from the DOT last week. It also received a large portion of the $8 billion that was handed out in the Recovery Act for HSR.

The billions of dollars going to help update the rail system is exciting, don’t get me wrong. I am an avid train traveler throughout the Northeast Corridor, every day within New York City, and whenever possible abroad. However, to call every upgrade a win for high-speed rail is misleading the public into the belief that we are hurtling into the future of transportation, when in fact the U.S. is simply limping to keep up.

Tags: high speed rail, railroad, train, transportation