STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The winners in the president's economic plan included backers of high-speed trains. The measure included $8 billion for fast trains in the U.S., which is the most ever allocated for rail at one time. But just because the trains are fast doesn't mean you'll be able to board them anytime soon. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says high-speed rail could be a signature issue for President Obama.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): I do think this is the transformational issue for this administration when it comes to transportation. I think this administration, President Obama, would like to be known as the high-speed rail president, and I think he can be.

NAYLOR: LaHood has sent the president a memo outlining a half-dozen rail corridors across the country that could be in line for some of the high-speed rail money. California is probably the farthest along in its planning for high-speed rail. Voters in the state approved a $9 billion bond issue last fall for high-speed trains. Retired Judge Quentin Kopp is the director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. He expects a lot of the federal money to wind up in the California system linking the state's biggest cities.

Mr. QUENTIN KOPP (California High-Speed Rail Authority): A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is about 410, 420 miles, will take two hours and 38 minutes with a one-way fare of $55, about half to a third of what an airfare would cost for a comparable trip.

NAYLOR: Money is also likely to go to Illinois, the home state of both the president and his Transportation secretary. Chicago is already a major rail hub for the region and the nation. Rick Harnish, director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, an advocacy group, says his region could use the federal dollars to improve and speed existing service.

Mr. RICK HARNISH (Midwest High-Speed Rail Association): What we're hoping the stimulus money gets used for is upgrading the existing route between Chicago and St. Louis, to get the trip down to three-and-a-half or four hours, and on that line start the engineering work for a true high-speed rail line that would bring that service down to two hours.

NAYLOR: High-speed rail advocates would also like to see service between Chicago and Minneapolis. And planners in Texas, Florida and Ohio say high-speed rail service would work to connect their population centers.

(Soundbite of train station announcement)

NAYLOR: The only thing approximating high-speed rail in the U.S. now is Amtrak's Acela service, running from here, at Union Station in Washington, D.C., to New York and north to Boston. The trip to New York is supposed to take two hours and 46 minutes, averaging 86 miles per hour. That's about half the speed of France's TGV trains.

Joe Vranich, an author who has written about high-speed rail, says the most effective use of the stimulus money would be in building what he calls a real high-speed line between D.C. and New York.

Mr. JOE VRANICH (Author): That's the place where we clearly need such trains the most. I would beef that up to the levels that we see in France or Japan, and then once we've demonstrated what a real high-speed rail system could do, hopefully we can diminish these foolish calls for feeble high-speed rail in other parts of the country, and do this job the right way.

NAYLOR: But political realities will most likely mean that the $8 billion will be divided among several train corridors, diluting the impact somewhat. But there may be more good news for fast-train backers in the days ahead. The president is expected to seek an additional $1 billion for high-speed rail in his 2010 budget outline later this week.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: If you go to our Web site, you'll find a high-speed rail story on the front page; you click on that, you end up at a map called High-Speed Rail Corridor Designations, a map of the United States that shows all the places that they would like to have high-speed rail connections. You'll find it at npr.org.

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